Rocky beaches and seafood
Day 61 – Saturday 24th of August – Omis (0km)
We got up very late, happy not to have to wake up to sound of the alarm clock at 7 am for another day of riding, and spent the day doing what I had come to Croatia to do – nothing.
We took the sleeping mats and our books and headed down to the beach. We were in an area just two kilometers from Omis, with a lot of apartments, and we were a bit afraid that the beach might be too crowded, as beaches are somewhat hard to find in Croatia, most of the coast are just jagged rocks where it is very hard to take a swim, but it was a very nice surprise to find that there was a lot less people than we had feared and the atmosphere was very quiet and relaxed. We laid down our mats and spent the whole day sunbathing, reading and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea.
In the evening we rode to the center to find a place to have a seafood dinner. I had spent one of the best holidays of my life in Croatia years back, and one of the things I remembered most fondly was having such a meal in Omis.
We found a nice restaurant in a narrow street in the old town, and enjoyed a huge platter of fresh seafood and fish. After that we bought a couple of ice creams and then walked up a steep narrow path cut into the rock to the town’s fortress, where a concert was just finishing. It was already dark and there was a beautiful view of the city from the top.
Riding back to the apartment, I remembered how, when I was preparing the trip and seeing that I had no budget left for a pair of extra spotlights for the motorbike, I had told myself that I would not ride at night, and here I was, not only riding at night, but riding in shorts, flip-flops, a short-sleeved shirt and a passenger. After so many days of stifling heat and freezing cold in the bulky riding suit, feeling the warm sea breeze on my arms and legs was a wonderful sensation.
Day 62 – Sunday 25th of August – Omis to Split to Omis (50km)
Expectations are usually a bad thing, especially when travelling. When we are told again and again how beautiful a place is, our expectations are set quite high, and more often than not once we actually lay eyes in the actual place, we feel if not disappointed, at least a bit underwhelmed. ‘It looks like Bellvitge’* Nat remarked as we were riding into Split in the early afternoon after having spent another morning relaxing on the beach. And right she was. Years earlier that had been my exact same impression when we were driving through the outskirts of the city, even though in our case we had zero expectations as nobody had ever told us anything about it.
It has to be said then, that when a place is so truly beautiful that it still manages to impress the visitor despite all the hype, it must be something special, and Split is undoubtedly one of those places. The fact that you have to drive through such grey and dull suburbs to get to the center only adds to the surprise. The old town was built on the ruins of the Diocletian palace which itself was a huge complex, and it is a unique and impressive sight. It is still quite touristy, mind you, but not as much as Dubrovnik, there are less cruises calling there and it is mostly local tourism. We enjoyed a long walk in the center and went down to the ferry terminal to enquire about the prices and schedule of the ships going to Brac and Hvar, the two islands in front of the city, which were one of the things I had missed on my previous trip and which I really wanted to see. Prices turned out to be quite reasonable, so we decided to go back the following morning and visit them.
Run for the ferry!
Day 63 – Monday 26th of August – Omis to Hvar to Omis (199km – 150 by ferry)
We did not get up exactly early, I will give you that. By the time we got to the ferry terminal in Split it was almost 11 am and we were not very confident about being able to catch the ferry leaving at that time. I stopped the motorbike on the taxi rank in front of the ticket offices, right under the nose of four traffic wardens ushering cars onto the ferry boarding area and making sure nobody stopped there, but they did not seem to mind me. Nat went to get the tickets and she came back running, saying they had told her we still could make it onto the 11 am ferry if we hurried. I rode onto the boarding yard and up to the man checking the tickets. There was a queue of cars boarding, but when I asked him if we were on time, he asked whether we had tickets and when we said we did he just pointed at the ferry’s ramp and said ‘bye-bye’. I rode straight onto the car deck, jumping ahead of all the cars that had not boarded yet, but nobody seemed to care, that is another of the nice things of riding a bike. We parked it on one side, the crew strapped it down for the crossing, and we walked up to the top deck as the ferry started slowly moving away from the city. It was a gorgeous day and the city looked amazing from the sea.
There were several ships connecting the islands to the mainland, but the ferry only went to either Brac or Hvar, so we had had to choose. We had been told that the nicest one was Hvar, and also the one with the best beaches but once there it was hard work finding one, as the coast was mostly rocks. The landscape was beautiful, though, very small towns with stone houses, a very narrow road that went up and down hills and valleys and the island had very little population and even less tourists. We stopped at a small town with a quiet pebble beach and sunbathed for a while and went for a swim. The water was quite different there, it was open sea and you could tell that there was no longer the protection of the islands in front of the coast. The waves were higher and the color was no longer crystal clear, but a darker shade, due to the seaweed that was stirred from the bottom.
We stayed in the same town after the swim and had fish for lunch at a restaurant with a lovely terrace by the beach before heading to the town of Hvar, where we visited the fortress on top of the hill and enjoyed the views from there. After that we rode to the highest peak in the island, where there was an observatory, I imagine that out in the sea and with so little population, the night view of the sky must be amazing from that point.
It was getting dark, so we started heading for the other two main towns in the island, but after seeing that there was not much to see after dark in the first of them, we decided to head back to Stari Grad, where the ferry terminal was, and try to catch the 8:30 ferry, as there was not another one (the last one, in fact) until almost midnight.
By the time we made it to the docks it was a few minutes past departure time, but the ferry was still there with the doors open and two of the crew members were standing there. A couple of cars were still boarding, so I rode directly to them and asked whether we could get tickets on board. They shook their heads and pointed toward the terminal building, indicating that we should buy them there. I rode across the yard and Nat ran to the offices while I waited outside on the bike. There was one last vehicle that still had not boarded, about twenty meters from where I had stopped on the opposite end of the yard from the ship. It was a knackered old blue van with a couple of men that looked like a mix of old hippies and gypsies, and by the looks of it, it was them the ferry was waiting for when we had arrived. An old woman on crutches approached them, she had gone to the building to get the tickets, but when they tried to start the van, the engine would not fire up. They tried again and again, but it was not working. While they were trying to get the van started, the old woman stared to slowly make her way across the yard with the tickets in her hand; Nat was not back with our tickets yet and the two men decided to push the van into the ferry and at that moment a weird race started that looked like something out of a Cohen brothers film. The woman was limping two thirds of the way across the yard, the men had already pushed the van about a third of the way and out of the corner of my eye I saw Nat come out of the offices with our tickets in her hand and start to run towards the bike. She gave the tickets, which I put directly in my mouth while I fired up the engine and she jumped on the back. I revved the engine up and shot across the yard just as the old woman was handing the tickets to the crew and the two men were approaching the ramp with the van. I stopped right in front of them, handed the crew our tickets – bite marks included – and rode onboard a half-empty ferry which started closing the doors right behind us as the gypsies finished rolling the van onto the deck.
By that time it was pitch black out at sea, and as I had imagined earlier that evening on the observatory on the hill, the night sky was spectacular, thousands of stars twinkling above our heads as we made it back to the mainland.
Day 64 – Tuesday 27th of August – Omis to Ljubljana (577km)
Some days seem to have less than 24 hours, some others much more than that. I guess it depends on where you are, what you are doing and who you are sharing the day with. Today was one of those days that seem to have 36 or more hours, not because it felt long, but because by the end of it, chilling out with a cup of wine in my hand, it was hard to believe that we had time to fit so many things in only one day.
To start with, this was one of the long days on the motorbike. I had long forgotten my self-imposed 300km a day limit and was used to riding longer than that, but Nat, who was on her first motorbike trip ever, had insisted on not exceeding that distance. However, much as we wanted to ride easy and have time to visit things, real life was waiting for us back home, and we had a schedule to keep. That meant that if we still wanted to have some time to enjoy the Alps, we had to leave Croatia today and make it to Ljubljana in one day.
I wanted to follow a straight line, both to do less kilometers and to enjoy better landscape, but the GPS said it would take all day and having seen the roads in the Istria Peninsula a few years ago, I did not have any reason to doubt it. Taking main roads and motorways cut the journey down to seven hours, but added over 100km to it, as we had to go all the way to Zagreb. It was a long detour, and I was afraid so many kilometers on motorways would be boring, but in the end we decided to go for it.
We set off relatively early, feeling a bit sorry to leave the comfort of the apartment and the lazy days on the beach behind, but looking forward to being in the mountains again. The motorway had been extended since the last time I was here, and we did not have to spend too long on the coast road to get to it. It was a beautiful day, but there were some thick gray clouds lurking behind the mountains, right where we were headed. Seeing that, I left with the rain gear on, but had to remove it at the first fuel stop, as it was baking hot. As I was sitting by the bike in my underwear, another couple pulled up on a Yamaha – they were from Slovenia, and were also heading back home after a two-week trip around the Balkans. We chatted about Serbia and Bosnia I Herzegovina and they recommended visiting Albania and Macedonia as well. More countries on the ‘to visit’ list!
We spent the rest of the journey to Zagreb playing the game of trying to stay ahead of the rain, trying to read the weather and putting on and taking off the rain gear when we stopped for fuel or a rest, not wanting to make extra stops. We were relatively lucky and escaped the worst of it, although there was a moment in which heavy rain caught us unprepared and I just went for it, seeing that the sky was clear ahead. Fortunately, it did not last for long and we dried up fast.
We stopped for the last cup of coffee on the border with Slovenia, having ridden around Zagreb on the ring road. I had already seen the city, but it is a shame we did not have time to spend a night there so Nat could see it as well. We bought the only vignette I had paid for in the whole trip so that we could use the motorway all the way to the capital, and a couple of hours later, in heavy rain and rush hour, we arrived in Ljubljana.
The hostel looked like a 90s teenage sitcom set (think Parker Lewis Can’t Lose) and was a bit far from the center, but it was nice enough and there was space to park the bike on the driveway. As we were only going to be there for a night, we had gone for the cheapest option and booked a shared room. It was still early, the rain had stopped and we had a couple of hours until dark, so we dropped our bags and then took a long walk to the city center.
Nat loved the city, and to me it felt somewhat special to be back here for the second time. I had arrived in Ljubljana on my third day on the road only, all my gear new and shiny, and here I was again, after thousands of miles. We wandered around, enjoying the lively streets, and when it got dark we sat in one of the bars lining the river and had some wine.
The rain came back while we were there, but it stopped for long enough to allow us to get back to the hostel on foot. We went to bed late, looking forward to getting to the Alps the following morning.
A Spritz in Cortina
Day 65 – Wednesday 28th of August – Ljubljana to Cortina d’Ampezzo (296km)
I was very excited to be riding back to Alps and the prospect of spending a bit longer there riding some of the best roads in Europe, since my first taste on the way east had been all too short, but I felt a pang of regret as we rode out of Ljubljana. Slovenia is a beautiful country and there are lots of things we were leaving behind undiscovered – Predjama castle and its cave, the Triglav mountains, Ljubljana itself, where I could easily have spent a couple more days… It is definitely a place where I could spend my entire holidays. My biggest regret, however, was not having had the chance to meet Metka and Franci again, my hosts on my first visit to the city. Our improvised travel schedule meant that we were not sure when we would be in the there, and it had been very difficult to find and internet connection on the days leading up to our arrival in the city, so I could not get in touch in time to confirm whether they would be there or on holidays, and on top of that we only spent a night before moving on.
On the way to the border we stopped to visit Bled castle, built on a cliff overlooking the lake that bears the same name. It was a wonderful place, it is a shame that we lost too much time trying to get in and out of the town because of the traffic jams caused by the huge trucks trying to make their way through the old center.
My first language is Catalan, and as Nat and I had been following a route that took us away from Europe’s main tourist centers, we had grown used to being able to have conversations about pretty much anything without having to worry about the people around us understanding what we were talking about, since there was very little chance of bumping into fellow countrymen. However, walking down the path that lead from the castle door back to the car park, we were having a lively chat over a, let’s call it “interesting topic”, when we came across a group of tourists on their way up. Right in the climax of the conversation, one of them said ‘bon dia!’ in a jokingly tone and we both stopped talking abruptly before bursting into laughter. Well, it goes to show that we are everywhere indeed.
We rejoined the motorway for a while before turning left into a smaller road following the Belca river in order to avoid paying again to use Austrian roads. It would take a little longer to get to the Italian border, but it was worth it – we rode around the north face of the Triglav mountains and the scenery was breathtaking. Unfortunately the rain caught up with us right on the border, so we had to make an emergency stop to put on the waterproof gear.
Once in Italy though, the rain stopped quickly, so we decided to take the chance to stop for a lunch and a rest just in case the weather turned nasty again later.
Fortunately, it did not, and we enjoyed the ride along the river Fella; there was a motorway, but we had time to spare and decided to take the SS13, which was much nicer. As we got closer to Tolmezzo things turned rather boring, we went through an industrial area and then took a stretch of rather dull road, but soon enough we got to the Dolomiti area and took much nicer roads leading to Cortina.
The scenery in this area was simply breathtaking. I could have spent weeks just riding this roads again and again, not to mention climbing on the numerous via ferrata there are everywhere here or just hiking. It is a wonderful place and I am a hundred per cent sure that sometime in the future I will be back here.
We got to Cortina and started looking for a place to sleep. Since hotels were horribly expensive and there were no hostels, we decided to look for a campsite. However, I was rather tired – the last bit on the mountain roads had been fun but exhausting- the whole trying to find a place to sleep was getting frustrating and on top of that I suddenly had a bad case of hay fever that left me sneezing like crazy and unable to think clearly.
We found a couple of campsites, but they were not exactly cheap, I needed a good rest and a hot shower and Nat was feeling quite cold after crossing the mountains. In the end, given the small difference in price between getting a plot to set up the tent and renting the small room in the reception building and enjoying a proper bed and a shower, we decided to go for the second option. Once we had already paid for it and were waiting to get the keys, the guy told us that his sister had already rented the room and had not updated that into the system, so he made a couple of phone calls and pointed us in the direction of a nice little house halfway up a grassy hill where an old lady rented a room, and told us he had arranged for us to stay there for the same price.
Once we had settled down at Ms. Maria’s place, I had a quick shower and we went out to finish the day with a Spritz in a nice bar in the center of Cortina.
Day 66 – Thursday 29th of August – Cortina d’Ampezzo to Sta. Maria (237km)
Those of you who are Top Gear fans will remember that Clarkson and company declared the Stelvio pass the best road ‘in the wooooorld’ until they discovered the Transfagarasan road on their visit to Romania. I had the privilege of riding that road almost two months ago and I completely agree with them – it is an amazing ride and a must for any bikers riding Europe. Today, however, our route back home was going to take us across the Stelvio and I was eager to see how it compared with the Transfagarasan and whether it deserved that second place.
I was very excited at the prospect of riding another legendary road, what I did not know was that the two days it would take us to get to Interlaken were going to be a feast of absolutely marvelous mountain passes that would make it very difficult to come to a conclusion and chose the best one.
I had bought a good old paper map of the Alps in Slovenia which had a lovely level of detail, and we were going to use that to navigate for the next few days, using the GPS only as extra help to get from one waypoint to the other and programming it on the way, as I did not want to depend on whatever route it might decide from A to B and miss on some great roads.
We rode out of Cortina under a glorious blue sky, my allergy all but gone, and were soon climbing a pass called Di Sella. The tarmac was in excellent condition, there was not much traffic aside from other bikes and the road wound its way up the pass through lush fields of green, a combination of fast corners at the bottom and hairpins at the top. It was here that I saw for the first time that Italians number the corners on their mountain passes, so can count how many you have to go.
We stopped at the top of the pass, where there were hundreds of cars parked. It was clear that it was the starting point of many hiking and climbing routes, and the place was crowded. Luckily, we were able to just park the bike next to a couple of GSs right by the road and decided to take a short walk up the mountain to enjoy the views. Nat was feeling a bit cold after the ride in the morning air, but a brisk hike up a mountain trail dressed in bike gear soon warmed us up.
After taking a few pictures we got back on the bike and rode down the other side, which turned out to be even better.
Rides like this put all other roads in perspective, and once we were down from the mountain pass and going to Bolzano, what might have been a decent road felt like the dullest thing in the world. We went past the city, took a short stretch of free motorway to Merano and then got back on a B-road again, heading for the Stelvio. There were about 50km to the point where the road leading up the pass started, and the traffic was quite heavy. To make matters worse, there were not many overtaking opportunities, at least not legal overtaking, so I was starting to worry. We passed several trucks easily, but what I did not like was the fact that there were quite a lot of motorhomes on the road. I assumed that trucks had no reason to take the Stelvio, but I was afraid that the tourists crawling along on their motorhomes might want to visit it, thus completely ruining the experience for all the enthusiasts riding bikes or driving sports cars that might end up stuck behind them, chugging up the road at 20km/h.
Overtaking as many as I could on those last 50km before the Stelvio, I could not help but to agree with Mr. Clarkson. A truck might be slow, but at least it is performing a service to society, a caravan is just a moving obstacle on the road driven by someone who is too good to sleep on a tent but too mean to pay for a hotel. And not even that, those things, especially motorhomes are expensive, why not just buy a decent car, enjoy a good drive and spend the difference in a hotel!?
Anyway, by the time we got to the junction, we had left all of them behind, and we had a clear road ahead of us. After passing a couple of towns I was very pleased to see signs limiting the length and weight of the vehicles allowed up the pass, which meant that there would be no caravans, motorhomes or tourist coaches blocking our way. Great! I dropped a couple of gears and leaped for the first serious corner.
What a ride! This was a very different place from the Transfagarasan – one hairpin after the other, I had to take them in first gear, using the whole width of the road to carry enough inertia to keep the bike from falling over or stalling. Remember, this was no sports bike, but a fully loaded adventure tourer with two people on it. In spite of that, it performed admirably, roaring its way up the road and, surprisingly, keeping up with much more powerful machinery.
Nat did a beautiful co-piloting job, looking up the road as we approached each corner and letting me know if the way was clear for me to use all the available tarmac, and the odd slow car was quickly overtaken between hairpins. Oh, and talking about slow cars, I felt really, really sorry for a convoy of gorgeous Lotus Elises that spent the last part of the way up helplessly stuck behind a RAV4 driven at 10km/h by a family of tourists who looked absolutely terrified at the corners.
There were hundreds of bikers at the top of the pass, and while the GS seemed to be the machine of choice (there are thousands of these things everywhere!) people had ridden up here in all kinds of things, including an old woman on a classic Vespa.
I bought a Stelvio pass sticker to put on the bike and then sat down to have a rest and ponder whether this was better than the Transfagarasan or not.
The landscape was no doubt amazing, high rocky mountains covered in snow, deep valleys, lush pine forests at the bottom… but the corners were too tight for my taste, at least on the eastern side, which meant that the riding was less enjoyable than in the Romanian road, which had faster corners. This was all first and second gear. Of course the Stelvio is a well-known name for riders in Europe, and there is something magic to it, but that fame has a price, which brings me to the second reason why I prefer the Transfagarasan. Unlike the Transfagarasan, the Stelvio attracts a lot of people, which is OK as far as bikes and sports cars go, but there are also a lot of people driving very slowly on it, which spoils the experience if you are stuck behind one of them for a while. Finally it also suffers from the same problem that affects all great driving roads in Western Europe – cyclists. Hundreds of them, fantasizing they are wearing the maglia azzurra in the Giro. There is virtually no traffic on the Transfagarasan other than a few enthusiasts, and that is reason enough for me to agree with the boys from Top Gear and rate it above the Stelvio.
Which does not mean I think it is the greatest road ever…
To be completely fair, I have to confess that we did not ride down the other side of the Stelvio, so my impressions might be incomplete. We were heading for the Davos area, so once at the top, we took a smaller road that went down the northern side. It was great – no traffic, faster corners, beautiful scenery, and it even had a bit of adventure riding factor, as halfway down the tarmac disappeared and it became a dirt track for the rest of the ride. It was quite funny to see the faces of some guys on sports bikes and a couple on a Porsche trying to make their way up the pass!
Once in the valley we started looking for a campsite, but there was only one in the area and it did not look very nice. Add to that that the night was going to be quite cold up there and we decided to ride to the next town and try to find a room to rent or some kind of B&B.
The town was called Santa Maria, and it did have a hotel and a youth hostel, but to our dismay the hostel was booked full and the hotel was way too expensive. We were standing by the bike in the center of the town, tired and cold, not very happy at the prospect of having to spend all evening trying to find accommodation when a huge truck came along and started to very slowly negotiate the narrow space between two old buildings. Its flanks were literally only a couple of inches from the walls on each side, and as we were watching the show I hear a voice say ‘cool, uh?’ We turned around and saw a woman contemplating the scene next to us. We got chatting about it and she told us that it was a daily thing, there were big truck passing through the old town quite often. She then saw the bike and asked ‘are you looking for a room?’
It turned out she lived in a big old house round the corner and she had done up a room in the ground floor to rent to tourists. She made us a very good deal, so we parked the bike in her garden and spent the night there. It was much, much better than we could have hoped for. The room was big and cosy, the bathroom was almost as big as the room and best of all… the floor was heated. It was better than many hotels I have stayed in.
Day 67 – Friday 30th of August – Sta. Maria to Interlaken (305km)
I said in my last post that I agreed with Top Gear’s conclusion saying the Transfagarasan road was better than the Stelvio pass, but that did not mean that it was the road I enjoyed most in my trip. That honor will have to go to the journey we did today on our way from Sta. Maria to Interlaken, which took us across no less than five passes.
We started climbing the first one right after leaving Sta. Maria, it was the Ofenpass, and at that time in the morning there was no other traffic on the road. It might not have been as visually spectacular as the Stelvio, but as a road to enjoy on a motorbike it was perfect. Fast corners, nice landscape, Swiss-quality tarmac… roads do not much better than this.
We made it to the other side with the tank almost empty, so we stopped at a petrol station in the first town we found. There were quite a lot of bikes queuing there, and it seemed that there was nobody in charge of the pumps or in the register, we had to use a credit card or bank notes to pay for the petrol. Several bikers, including ourselves, tried putting different cards into the machine, which rejected them all, and it would not take anybody’s bank notes either. Frustrated and practically running on fumes, we went on, hoping to find another petrol station before turning right for the next pass, which was quite near. I programmed the GPS to look for one – this is one of the most useful you can do with it – and it led us to one a few meters from the start of the road up the pass.
With the tank full, we started climbing the next pass, the Albulapass, which took us to the Chur area. From there on the road was a tad more monotonous, nice and widing, through beautiful landscape, but without the excitement or views of the passes and with a lot more traffic, as it was a main road. The longuish ride to the next three passes before Interlaken was made a bit more entertaining by a long caravan of classic cars we met, closed by a black Ferrari 575 which provided an excellent soundtrack to go with the views.
We stopped before starting to climb the following pass, the Oberalpass, and I had a can of energy drink to keep me going, as it was turning out to be quite a long day. It was sunny and warm, the roads were excellent and we were not going to cover a lot of kilometres to Interlaken, but riding on such fun roads was exhausting and we had three more passes to go.
Shortly after the Oberalpass we started climbing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass, which were one right after the other. On the way up the first one we saw some thick black smoke coming up from the bottom of the deep valley. We stopped to take some pictures a few corners further up the road and saw it was an old steam train painfully making its way up the valley. It was progressing very slowly, belching out a thick column of smoke. We stopped for lunch at the top of the pass and saw it again nearing the entrance of the tunnel that would take it to the other side of the mountain, far below us. I had been thinking that it had to be a great experience to ride those mountain railways in an old tourist steam train, but seeing how much smoke the engine was making as it entered the tunnel I thought it would not be so much fun for the passengers to breathe soot for the length of the tunnel.
We had lunch on a grassy knoll overlooking the road, admiring all the exotic metal driving past on both directions – you name it, we saw it. From the usual selection of Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis to Lotuses, Caterhams, TVRs, and some kit cars I was not able to identify. As for the motorbikes, there were hundreds of GSs, you would think they are cheap to buy, seeing how many populate the roads all over Europe!
The road took us down a deep valley where we saw an old train station where the line coming from the valley ended and passengers switched to the old steam trains for the reminder of the way up. The road down from the top of the Furkapass kept crossing the train line, and once at the bottom it almost immediately started climbing again for the Grimselpass, the last one before Interlaken. From the beginning of the last section of the Furkapass we got a privileged view encompassing the railway going down to the bottom of the valley, the station, the road up the next pass and even a glimpse of the lake at the top of it, all in glorious late afternoon light. We went past another lake on the way down from the Furkapass, on a road that offered yet more gorgeous views for what was the last bit of our ride in the heart of the Alps.
After all these marvellous rides, I can come to my own personal conclusion and choose the road traversing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass as the best road I have ever ridden.
I am aware that I missed other great names, such as the St. Gothardo pass or the St. Bernardino pass, but we just did not have the time to properly explore the area. Well, that will be the excuse to come back here in the future.
We stopped in a town called Innertkirchen to do some shopping for dinner and then rode the last few kilometres to Interlaken, where it did not take us long to find a great campsite right by the canal connecting both lakes, within walking distance from the city center.
It would have been easier to walk up to the Jungfrau
Day 68 – Saturday 31st of August – Interlaken (0km)
The number one tourist attraction in Interlaken is the Jungfrau. The tallest peak in the region, it stands 4,158m above sea level, and about 600m below that there is an observation center that offers visitors a unique view of the surrounding peaks and that glacier that extends at its feet. What makes this place special, aside from the fact that it is the highest building in Europe, is that tourists do not need to climb up the mountain to get to it, there is a railway that reaches as far up as 3,454m, travelling inside the mountain to Jungfraujoch station, an underground complex that would not look out of place in a Bond movie. From there, a short elevator ride takes people to the observation center.
It is an astonishing place and one definitely worth visiting, but there are a couple of things to take into account before deciding to go there. First, it is not cheap. A return ticket will set you back just over 160€. Second, the weather is very changeable at that height, which means that you may end up paying a small fortune just for a fancy train ride and get zero visibility once you are at the top.
I had already been there years ago (it cost about 60€ then, which was still expensive for a student on an Interrail trip), so we decided to do something different with our last day before heading home. The campsite rented kayaks, something I had never tried before, and we thought it would be a great idea to explore the lake.
We were given a couple of life vests, a water-proof barrel to keep our stuff dry and were told to keep close to the left shore as the various ships and boats we would be sharing the waters with were not very considerate towards tourists drifting onto their paths. We dragged the kayak to the cannal, launched it into the water, strapped the barrel onto it and then managed to sit in the thing without tipping over, which I considered a great success already.
We pushed ourselves away from the shore and started paddling up the canal leading into the big lake. We had decided to go for a tandem kayak, as we thought it would be funnier than getting individual ones, but it soon became clear it had been a mistake. With zero experience, the damn thing was impossible to keep straight. We tried to coordinate the paddling, but it was hopeless, we were just wandering from left to right, from right to left, all the time trying to keep away from passing boats.
Every time we got the thing going straight for a few metres, either Nat or I would paddle to fast once or twice, or even just give a small push with the paddle on the wrong side, and the kayak would start turning fast to the wrong direction. After some exhausting experimentation, we discovered that if only one of us paddled it was quite easy to go on a straight line, and I also discovered that Nat paddled harder on her left side, meaning that left to paddle alone, she would go round in big clockwise circles. We also discovered that we had both been trying to paddle and steer the boat, while the right thing to do is have the person sitting at the front just paddle and the one at the back paddle and steer.
Having learnt the lesson and having had to stand a few condescending smiles from other more experienced kayakers sailing past and from people watching from the shore and enjoying the show, we managed to make some progress and started to enjoy the scenery. The shores of the lake were lined with quaint wooden houses half-hidden in the trees, and most of them had a jetty and a boat. It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people sunbathing by the shore or diving into the lake from their back gardens. After a couple of hours we made it to a public swimming area with a floating platform and decided it was a good place to go for a swim before heading back. The water was quite cold, but it was a pleasure to swim in such crystalline waters.
On our way back we kept the kayak heading straight and true, like real pros, and we made good progress, which was all the more surprising when after about an hour we realized how far we still had to go. We had the feeling that we had not gone very far from the campsite to the swimming platform – true, we had taken a couple of hours to get there, but we had been going on a very erratic line, struggling to go straight – and now we were becoming aware how how much distance we had covered, which made us feel kind of proud.
We took a few pictures before handing the kayak back and then went for a walk in Interlaken for the rest of the afternoon. In the center we saw a convoy of old Nissan Skylines that were taking part on a rally going from Kuwait to Morocco via Europe – it looked as if they were having great fun!
We bought some food and a couple of beers for dinner and headed back to the campsite to sort out all the gear and decide which things would stay on the bike and which things Nat would take on the plane.
As we were packing I realized that was it – the journey was coming to an end. Nat had originally planned to join me only for the Swiss leg of the trip because I thought I would be back in Europe much later than I was and not wanting to do so many kilometers on her first trip on a motorbike, she had decided to fly back to Barcelona, so I was going to take her to Geneva the following morning. In the end though, my change of plans meant that she had joined me in Helsinki and we had travelled for about 4,400km on the bike together. Not bad, taking into account that she did not have proper riding gear and had to wear several layers of clothes and a waterproof jacket underneath a summer riding jacket I had lent her, as well as a pair of hiking boots that were not exactly waterproof. She was very, very brave.
The beginning of the end
Day 69 – Sunday 1st of September – Interlaken to Geneve to St. Thomé (559km)
Today the long way home started. We packed up and tried to get an early start, as I wanted to cover as much distance as possible after dropping Nat at Geneva airport in order to avoid a long ride the following day, as I did not want to take the motorway on my last day on the road.
We decided to avoid the motorway going to Bern and cut across the mountains on road 11, which took us to Aigle, and from there we rode along Lake Lehman’s southern bank to Geneva. It was a beautiful morning and the traffic was quite light, allowing us to enjoy our last few hours together on this trip.
We made it to Geneva airport in good time, and kissed goodbye in front of the terminal. I looked down at my GPS and instead of entering the coordinates for my next destination as I had been doing for more than two months, I pressed “home”. Set to avoid motorways and toll roads, it showed I had a long way to go, but I had two days ahead of me. I waved goodbye and rode off. Having Nat with me for so long had been a very pleasant surprise, and I felt a bit lonely as I hit the road out of Geneva.
I was running low on fuel, but I thought that I would stop to fill up once I was out of the city. It turned out to be a mistake. I rode for a long while without seeing a petrol station, and I was getting a bit nervous – the tank was practically empty, and I did not have any fuel in the jerrycan, I had put what was in it into the tank once I was back in Europe, thinking I would have no problems here. I set the GPS to find a petrol station even if it meant leaving the road I was travelling on, and it sent me into a sleepy French town where I found a deserted supermarket petrol station after some backstreet riding. Luckily enough, the pump accepted my credit card and I was able to fill up. However, when I got back on the bike I saw that the GPS was now giving me a much longer route back home than before. I tried to reprogram it, but then it said that the route was too long and it was not able to calculate it. I rode out of the town in the general direction I knew I had to go, hoping I would be able to program it further along. It was hopeless, it refused to give me a way back that was not on the motorway. I did not have a paper map, and navigating French back roads can be a nightmare if you do not know where you are going. By early evening I was too tired to travel like that and decided to take the motorway, go as far as I could that day and then find a campsite.
I made it past Montélimar, where I stopped once again for petrol. I checked the GPS and voilà! There was a campsite just 12 km from where I was. I was not expecting anything great, just somewhere to spend the night, but the area around the campsite was quite beautiful, and once more, I regretted not having enough time to see a bit more. It was almost dark by the time I had finished setting up the tent, so I ordered a beer at the bar, had some dinner and went to bed.
Day 70 – Monday 2nd of September – St. Thomé to Barcelona (611km)
I could have left the campsite without paying. I got up early, but I did not think it was so early that both the reception and the bar would still be closed. I imagined it was because we were already starting the low season, at least judging by the atmosphere in the place. There was an air of post-summer melancholy to it, there were only a few caravans left, scattered amongst the trees here and there in the vast camping ground, no kids playing around, no cars full of holidaymakers coming and going. Even the air felt colder than on the first mornings of my trip, but maybe that was just because it was early morning and my mind was playing tricks. Be as it may, my feelings were overcome by the looks of the place and I felt melancholy creep into my soul. I knew every little gesture that would follow that day would be the last one – packing the bike, rolling out onto the road, smelling the fresh morning air riding country roads, looking for a place to have breakfast, stopping later in the morning to take off a layer of clothes as the day would grow hotter, finding a petrol station, looking for a place for lunch, stopping to check the GPS for more scenic routes if I was making good progress…
The door to the reception/bar area was open, but there was only a young girl there cleaning and getting things ready to open the place later. When I told her I was leaving and I wanted to pay she told me that reception was not open yet, nor was the bar, which meant that if I was to wait, I had to do so with an empty stomach, which I did not want to do. I gave her the money for the night, told her I had spent the night in plot 83 and asked her to give the money to whoever was in charge.
Motorbikes have a discount on French motorways, and as I had decided that I did not want to enter my country through the motorway along the coast, but through the Pyrenees, I took the motorway for the first part of my way back home. Shortly after I got back onto the autoroute, I stopped for breakfast at one of those great French service stations and was soon reunited with my old friend, the wind.
I had sat out on the terrace of the restaurant to enjoy my breakfast in the sun, but once I had finished my sandwich and juice, I was only able to enjoy a few sips of coffee before the wind blew away the plastic cup. Well, at least it did not blow it onto me…
I had not had such strong winds since the start of the trip except for the beginning of that sand storm in Kazakhstan which blew away my leather gloves. A few hours of fighting the wind on the motorway later, I found myself thinking that after all the weather conditions I had ridden through, I was surprised that this was the one I was hating the most. The strong winds were made even worse by the turbulence created by trucks and vans, and I got so sick of it that in the end I turned off the motorway much earlier than I had planned to and went back to country roads, as I would me more sheltered from the wind there and travelling slower would mean less turbulence from other traffic.
It was not much better… France is a great country with many things to see but unfortunately, most of those things are not in central France. I rode through miles and miles of small sleepy towns, fields, some industrial areas, more fields and more sleepy towns, still accompanied by the wind and having to endure hundreds of old people trundling along those country roads on their Citroën Berlingos at 20km/h. If you go to France as a tourist, there are wonderful things to see. In my case, I was going on a very long tour starting in Barcelona, which meant that France was a country I had to ride through before I got to the interesting bits. If I ever do something like this again, I think I will just take a ferry to Italy and then to the Balkans and just bypass it.
I finally made it to Perpignan, where I wanted to turn west and head for the Pyrenees. It was already lunchtime, so by the time I had left the big town and the industrial parks that surrounded it behind I started looking for a place to eat. I wanted to find a nice small town restaurant and enjoy one last meal on the road, but it was not to be. I wonder if it was a national holiday or the French simply do not like to work on Mondays, but I did not manage to find a single thing open in the towns and villages I rode through. I also needed to fill up again, so I was heading to a supermarket petrol station I had found on the GPS, and since I had not seen an open restaurant or bar, I thought I would buy something there and just find a nice spot by the road now that I was closer to the mountains. That option was quickly discarded as I rode onto the supermarket car park. Not a soul in sight, all shutters down and only a couple of credit card-operated petrol pumps in the scorching sun to greet me. I filled up, and as I was still wearing the inner lining in the jacket and pants –it was cold in the morning- I started to take them off without even pushing the bike away from the pump. Sure enough, as I was in the middle of my striptease, not one, but three cars, a motorbike and a guy on foot carrying a jerrycan turned up to use the damn pump. Where did they come from!? I had ridden across the whole town and it was completely deserted! I moved the bike away and finished changing clothes while a middle-aged mademoiselle tested the other four people’s patience by taking her own sweet time to figure out how to use her card to pay for the petrol.
I rode on trying to find somewhere to eat, and in the end had to give up and stop at the only place I found open. A McDonald’s restaurant. Yes. A McDonald’s burger. In France. On my last day. I could not believe it either.
At least the day got better once I rode past Prades and up the N116 heading for the border. I had been on that road countless times coming from my side of the border, as I normally go skiing in that area, and it is an amazing road, but I had never been any further than Mont-Louis. On clear days you can look down the valley from there and see the sea in the distance, and I had always wanted to do that last part of the road leading down to Perpignan. What a road and what a way to get back to my country! I rode up the winding road all the way to the part I already knew, enjoying the beautiful afternoon and the stunning landscape that these old familiar mountains offer. Down in La Cerdanya, I crossed one last border and finally entered my dear home land.
As I said, I usually come up to this area to go skiing in winter or hiking in summer. Coming from Barcelona, there is a tunnel that gets you here faster, but you have to pay a toll to use it and it is not cheap. However, most people, myself included, prefer to take that route than the mountain pass above, as it takes too long and is tiresome to drive it. It had been quite a while since the last time I took the pass, and I had forgotten what a great road it is. Since it was a Monday, there was nobody on the road and I had it all to myself. I had a blast riding up to La Collada, taking the engine to the red line with every gear change, leaning into corners enjoying the perfect tarmac, the flowing road and the breathtaking scenery.
I stopped at the top of the pass and as I took in the views I thought that there was no better way back home.
It is funny how travelling such long distances puts things in perspective. When I come here, the journey home at the end of the day usually feels long, you are near the border, in the mountains, a long way from Barcelona. When I got back on the motorbike I saw that the GPS indicated I had 140km to my flat. All throughout the trip, when I saw that I had 150-100km to get to my destination on the GPS I had the feeling that I had already made it and that I only had to ride the last few km into town and find the place where I was going to spend the night. I laughed and took the first corner down that familiar road.
I made it to Barcelona very quickly and run into the late afternoon rush hour. My motorbike and my riding suit were covered in dirt, dust and insects from the last 14 countries, my face was unshaven and sunburned and I had a stupidly big grin on my face. People looked at me in traffic lights as if I had got lost on my way to Dakar. I took the Gran Via to get to the center, and there is a big elevated roundabout where it meets the Diagonal. The sun was already low when I rode up onto it, bathing the city in a warm orange glow. I stood on the footpegs, looked at the sun going down beyond the Sagrada Familia, closed my eyes for a second and thought ‘I’m home’.