Europe

 

This is a summary of my month long solo motorcycle ride through Europe in the summer of 2010.

ROUTE: Ljubljana -> Vienna -> Prague -> Berlin -> Hamburg -> Cologne -> Luxembourg -> Strasbourg -> Freiburg -> Basel -> Interlaken -> Bellinzona -> Padua -> Cortina D’Ampezzo -> Bled -> Ljubljana

COUNTRIES VISITED: Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Italy (Rode through 8 countries, visited 11 total)
TOTAL DISTANCE COVERED: ~5000 kms = 3100 miles
TOTAL TIME TAKEN: 1 month (August 2010) although this wasn’t a purely motorcycling vacation. I spent quite a bit of time visiting friends, taking the train or ferry to places, or just laying around and relaxing. Europe had pretty bad rain in August this year too, so that I couldn’t ride nearly as much as I wanted to.
MOTORCYCLE: A 2005 BMW F650CS, which I rented from a rider in Slovenia.
Route

HIGHLIGHTS:

1. The roads – The Swiss and Italian Alps are every motorcyclist’s dream come true. I’ve never ridden on *anything* like those roads. My only regret was that I was on a bike that simply wasn’t as much fun as a sportbike.
2. Lane splitting – I didn’t know what I was missing until I actually experienced it! I was able to ride between lanes every time I encountered a gridlock. I could go right up to the front of the line every time I hit a red light. It’s not only allowed, it’s expected of you.
3. No left lane campers – Europeans observe the rule of “Stay right except to pass” at all times. I’ve never seen traffic flowing so smoothly on freeways as I did on the autobahns and autostrades there. And it’s not like you go slow either. Most all traffic drove at 130kmph.
4. Passing – A car could be going well above the speed limit and you could still pass them without them getting all upset and bent out of shape. For some reason, Europeans don’t get road rage when they get passed by faster vehicles. It’s almost expected, and some of them even move over for you.

5. No cops – I never had any trouble with getting pulled over by cops even though I broke well past the speed limit in several countries. They make the United States look like a police state by contrast, going by the sheer number of cop cars we’re used to seeing monitoring speed on our roads. I’ve always rolled my eyes a little at my fellow riders who complain about cops, but I finally empathize with them to a great extent.
6. The sights – This was of course the Old World, where everything was steeped in history, to the extent that you have to prioritize how much history you were able to take in on any given day. :P
7. The people – As usual, it’s the people you encounter on the road who are the best part of your journey. I consider myself to be really fortunate and privileged to have been able to meet so many good, kind people on the way – the Slovenians who hooked me up with a bike and a place to stay at both ends of my journey, the Austrian guy from ADVRider who rode with me from Ljubljana to Vienna on the first leg of my journey, put me up and took me out with his friends, the random Polish guy I met at a gas station in the Czech Republic who took me to a biker rally, the motorcyclist in Hamburg who put me up and gave me a scenic view of the city, the ADVRider from Luxembourg who took an evening off to show me his city, the lady from a gas station in Italy who gave me a postcard of the Madonna delle Grazie to keep me safe on my travels when she heard that I was riding solo to the Dolomites, my good friends in Stockholm and Cologne who took such good care of me, the students and travellers I met in youth hostels, and all the good people in practically every country with whom I shared laughter and conversations in broken English. :)

LOWLIGHTS:

1. Rain– It rained for two days after I landed in Slovenia. It rained when I was going through the Czech Republic, enough that I was stranded. It rained for four days straight in Germany, once again enough to strand me for that long. It rained when I was crossing the Swiss Alps. It rained when I returned to Slovenia. It pretty much rained all the f***ing time and I spent most of my time re-routing and dodging rain and missed out on seeing a lot of places that I would have loved to have ridden through.
2. Weather – When it wasn’t raining, it was hot and humid. But I get that I cannot complain about rain and cold *and* the heat, so I’ll let it go.
3. Language barrier – I guess it’s only respectful to learn a bit of a language of a country if you are planning to visit, but there was no way I could have learned Slovenian, Czech, Slovak, German, Danish, Swedish and Italian before my ride. As a result, I had a difficult time of it when it came to communicating with more than sign language in many countries. It also got to be really isolating as the days went by. (Yes, young people spoke good English, but only in the western countries and only in the bigger cities.)
4. Tourists – Yes, I realize I was one of them. No, I still hated them nonetheless. The bigger cities like Prague and Vienna were infested with them and you just have to deal with them if you hope to go see any of these great cities.
5. No wide open spaces – There really aren’t any in Europe like in the United States. Not surprisingly, most of the land is developed and you don’t go very far on the road before you encounter the next town or village. After a while, it was easy to feel a little cramped. There’s a reason why there aren’t very many cruisers out there.
6. Cell phones – I obviously didn’t have a cell phone under contract out there, and acquiring a phone that would work seamlessly in every country was harder than I had imagined. Most prepaid plans were optimized to the country in question while some countries didn’t sell SIMs to non-citizens. Roaming charges were unbelievably high. I ended up spending a lot of money just to be able to have a phone for emergencies. And maybe it’s a sign of how much we depend on our phones, but not being able to just pick up the phone and call friends whenever I wanted was a little difficult to deal with.

PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS

SLOVENIA
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AUSTRIA
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AUSTRIA – MUSEUM DISTRICT
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SLOVAKIA – BRATISLAVA
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CZECH REPUBLIC
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CZECH REPUBLIC – KUTNA HORA TO THE CHURCH OF BONES
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CZECH REPUBLIC – ZEROTIN
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GERMANY – BERLIN
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GERMANY – HAMBURG
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GERMANY – MOSEL-SAAR-RUWER
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DENMARK
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SWEDEN
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GERMANY – COLOGNE
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LUXEMBOURG
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GERMANY – BLACK FOREST
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SWITZERLAND
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VENICE
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ITALY – DOLOMITES
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SLOVENIA
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Click here for a link to all the photos

 

BLOG POSTS

Epilogue/Thoughts (Coming soon)
I eventually intend to add the following entries for folks who might want to attempt a ride of this sort:
– How to acquire a motorcycle in Europe
– Checklist of things to take care of before heading to Europe
– Differences in riding in Europe vs. the United States

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Home sweet home?

I’m back home in Seattle after a series of trans-continental flights. Trying to get adjusted to Pacific Standard Time and heading out now to do what I’ve wanted to do throughout last month – go get a big American breakfast. :P

bigbreakfast

Back to Slovenia…

I woke up in San Vito di Cadore at a respectably late hour, gathered my motorcycle from the garage and rode it out to the front to load up. Checkout was quick, and after a last wave to my hosts, got onto the road. In spite of the gorgeous surroundings, I felt a little unwell and my heart was not really in the riding. Maybe the euphoria of the previous day had been a bit much to handle. If that were true, I pondered what an entire week in the Dolomities might do to my system. It didn’t bear thinking about.

I decided to ride to Tolmudin before setting on a route for the rest of the way back to Slovenia. The road was every bit as fantastic as could be, with the added benefit of zero traffic on the road at that early hour. What few stragglers I did encounter, I could easily overtake. It still intrigues me that Europeans didn’t mind getting passed by motorcycles at all. Some of the stunts I pulled would have gotten me shot in the United States (land of the free).

Anyway even despite my groggy state, I enjoyed the few passes and switchbacks I rode through. By noon however, I was ready to stop and get something to eat. After getting lost a little in Tolmudin thanks to  the GPS continually routing me onto a road dug up by construction, I spied a bright, gleaming cafe called Cafe Leopoldi, went around the block and came back again and pulled onto the sidewalk across the street. A few drops of rain fell as I walked into the cafe.

I ordered my usual panini (ham and cheese sandwich) and water (still water from tap, no gas) and sat at a windowside table. After finishing half the sandwich and poring over my maps of Italy and Slovenia, I laid my head down again, still not feeling very good. I had originally planned on routing through the middle of Italy to enter Slovenia at Socka to ride up north through the Soca Valley and Verzic pass to Bled and finally to Ljubljana. It seemed more than I could do though. I could have split the ride into two days, but they predicted heavy rains in Slovenia the next day which was now becoming increasingly tiresome, and I made the same decision I made in North America the previous year when I was faced with the prospect of riding the Skyline Ridge through a rage of thunderstorms. I decided I’d rather skip that ride than ride through it in miserable weather and not see very much anyway.

I routed instead through the northernmost tip of Italy over straight roads to reach Slovenia at Kranjska Gora. From there it would be about 40 miles to Bled to see the famous lake, and then a short stint to Ljubljana.

Straight roads necessarily meant a great deal of dullness and passing of cars and trucks although I was lucky in that there weren’t very many of either out on the roads. It was a dull, lacklustre day although the mountains and crisscrossing bridges still provided a certain thrill.

Before I knew it, Italian road signs changed to Slovenian and I was on the west end of the Slovenian Alps. The roads gradually narrowed, the surface appeared more and more eroded, and traffic increased as I passed from one little town to another, gingerly testing the waters to see if the good Slovenian people had the same indulgence to eager lane splitting motorcyclists as the Germans and Italians did. They appeared to, so I continued.

Traffic ground to a complete standstill and stop-go pattern as I neared Bled. Far ahead in the distance, the reason was apparent. A tall construction truck with blinking lights crawled along at approximately 5mph and speeding cars in the oncoming lane negated all attempts at passing. I ground my teeth with frustration as I crawled with the traffic, before I finally gave up and pulled in to a gas station to refuel. I texted Tadej to see if he was back home from his travels and received a response that he was still at the airport and wouldn’t be home until late that evening. I called his brother who said I could come over to his place and spend the night, an offer which I gratefully accepted.

I got back on the road where traffic was now flowing normally and rode to the lake in less than 5 minutes. Even in the dull, lacklastre light, it gleamed green and clear. Ducks floated on its surface and little boats plied across the waters towards the island at its center. A castle stood in the distance in a matter of fact manner, as they do in Europe. I walked by the bank and took a few pictures before leaving.

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70 more kms to Ljubljana. On the freeway, I could do it in less than an hour, but the freeways in Slovenia require one to have a vignette (paid for a week, month or a year), which I didn’t have and had no intention of procuring for an hour’s ride. I set the GPS to turn off “Toll Roads” and headed southeast.

To say that I flew through the rolling hills and backroads would be an understatement, but my ride possessed a certain fluidity and although I’m not a gamer, it had that feeling of playing a video game where you didn’t really care how many lives you got because you knew that just the one would be enough and no matter how dangerous a casual onlooker would deem your rate of acceleration, you knew you could do not wrong. For here I was in my element, in my favorite type of roads – low, rolling hills, corners aplenty, rural farmlands and green trees and gray cracked tarmac for as far as the eyes could see.

I was on the outskirts of Ljubljana before I knew it, a few lumbering trucks ahead of me signaling that the dream ride was over. I slowed down and rode the last few kilometres to Pegamova, pulled up outside Matej’s apartments and called him.

End of the ride and a meeting with a familiar face! :D There’s no better feeling than this. I parked and we carried my stuff upstairs, laughing and joking all the way. Deep down, I was a little sad at the thought of the epic journey coming to an end. I knew that I would still ride in Slovenia for a couple more days with Tadej, but those would be day rides. The major part of it was over.

———————-

The next day the skies open and it poured down all day long. Riding was out of the question. Even walking was a bit much, so I mostly stayed indoors and unpacked my luggage, blogged and slept. Matej and I got lunch at the city center, which was the only time I emerged outdoors until late that night when Tadej came over to pick me up to stay at his place the last two nights.

———————-

The forecast for the next day was glorious sunshine all day long with temperatures of 20C, a little on the cold side, but perfect for motorcycling. We planned to ride southwest down to the Skocjan caves, where I would stop to look at the caves, while the others went on to Osp to climb Apparently every Slovenian – man, woman and child is a mountain climber. It’s in their blood, bewildering as it was to me. I declined their offer to be taught how to climb, preferring rock solid terra firm myself. We planned on either riding to Piran on the seaside later, or turning back towards Ljubljana if time didn’t permit.

Since we had a super late start because of a myriad of trip logistics and we were on road a little after 11:30PM. There were five of us on three bikes, me on the BMW, Tadej and Darja on his Yamaha, and Lejla and Borut on his Honda.

Want a truly good ride? Go talk to the locals. And the locals didn’t fail to deliver as we wound through small tight unknown backroads that I would never have discovered on my own. All this without the help of any GPS even. I rode in the middle, content to follow and enjoy the ride. It was slow going because of the nature of the roads. We reached Pradmaja grad by 2:00PM where we proceeded to get a lunch that went on for far longer than we had expected. By the time we got out and headed to the caves, it was already 4:30PM. We parted ways here. I got my ticket and waited for the tour to take me through the caves.

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The caverns reminded me of the ones I had seen in Missouri many years ago at least in the first two “silent” caves. Then I reached the huge cavernous ones, gulped at how far below the river waters were, admired some rock formations that looked like an organ and others that formed a cascade of little pools. It was a good experience although I wish someone would have warned me that walking for two hours up and down 900 steps would be part of the experience. I might at least have brought a change of shoes along. I was completely exhausted when I emerged at 7:00PM.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tadej and Darja were still climbing, so I decided to head back to Ljubljana. I knew that I should probably stop and rest because I was bone tired and hungry, but I wanted to make it back before the light started failing. The backroads would be no fun when it got cold and dark.

I navigated to a gas station to find that it was closed. I was momentarily chilled and wondered if all gas stations here closed early like they reportedly did in Italy. The next one I tried was open though, to my relief. I filled up and bought some nuts and chocolate, said hello to another motorcyclist who was stopped at the door and chatting with someone, and sat at a picnic table to eat. It wasn’t much, but it would keep me going until Ljubljana.

When I was ready to walk back to the bike, an older guy at the station gesticulated at me excitedly. Apparently he had heard from the young guys that I was from the US and was excitedly telling this to another guy who was fueling up his car. I walked back smiling, but a bit puzzled. He all but grabbed me by my arm and dragged me into the station, brought the gas station attendant with us to a back room and asked him to pull up Google Maps on the computer. They typed in “Seattle, Washington” and laughed with amusement as it came up. I helped zoom in a bit further and showed them where I lived. More uproar and laughter. He spoke a bit of English and told me that his father was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but he had never been able to visit there. I told them who I was and why I was there. It was all rather sweet and amusing. I asked them if I could take a picture of them, to which they consented, and they asked me how they could find me on Facebook. Ah, modern times! I wished they spoke better English (or I spoke better Slovenian). I bet I’d have had a grand time with that good bunch.

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This incident perked up my spirits considerably and I set off for the last part of my ride feeling refreshed and cheerful. This ride again was not unlike the one from two days before, with the flying and the video game effect. It was good going until it grew dark, as I had predicted. I love riding at night, but only in the cities. I was a little paranoid of the forest rats (deer) emerging onto the roads, and I was a little annoyed at the headlamps of oncoming cars glinting onto my visor and blinding me (I wonder if the Pin Lock I had installed had anything to do with it?). It got some annoying that I finally decided to bite the bullet, risk a 300 euro fine, and got on the  motorway for the last 25kms back. Fortunately, I made it without getting caught, and made it to Gameljne unscathed.

It was freezing cold now. My GPS couldn’t find Tadej’s place, so I waited at a neighboring pub, Medo Bar for him. Unfortunately they had stopped serving food, as had probably every place in the region on a Sunday night. I ate the remnants of my nuts and drank water until he finally arrived. We went back to his place, made a rude meal of a tuna sandwich and a tisane and chatted with his mum until the small hours of the  night before finally calling it a night.

The next day was more rain and wind and freezing cold. It made me think that I had ended my tour had the perfect time. Any more of this weather would have been unthinkable. I spent my last day doing my final packing, buying some small gifts, walking around Mitelkova and the city center, and hanging out with Tadej. We met Matej for dinner later that night for (some very odd) pizza and Union beer.

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And then it was over. This morning I caught a plane out of Ljubljana to head back to Seattle. Back home again. Just when I was getting used to Europe too.

I cannot wait to come back here again.

Pictures…

I updated the links to my Facebook albums so that non-members can view them. Let me know if anything still 404s!

Ljubljana, Slovenia: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=186501&id=549764425&l=a602c6aab9
Czech Republic: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=187694&id=549764425&l=d86a92ceff
Bratislava, Slovakia: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=187688&id=549764425&l=eaab60f634
Austria: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=187685&id=549764425&l=8f2012243b
Kutna Hora, Czech Republic: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=188560&id=549764425&l=4dafb98808
Prague, Czech Repulic: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=188561&id=549764425&l=dccf879b21
Zerotin, Czech Republic: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=227985&id=549764425&l=5a52ea20a5
Berlin, Germany: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=188783&id=549764425&l=22d67818a2
Denmark: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=189664&id=549764425&l=be63a703e1
Sweden: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=189682&id=549764425&l=e5db32e2ae
Cologne, Germany: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=190251&id=549764425&l=9cf36ed3ec
Koblenz, Germany: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=191028&id=549764425&l=8b2ba8e57a
Luxembourg: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=191030&id=549764425&l=514d818d9c
Germany Mosel Wine Country: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=191031&id=549764425&l=b15c587494
Freibourg, Germany: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=191589&id=549764425&l=4a850531f9
Germany’s Black Forest: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=191766&id=549764425&l=27aa53b02d
Switzerland: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=193187&id=549764425&l=e5aa196e7b
Padova, Italy: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=193214&id=549764425&l=d0642dd434
Venice, Italy: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=193215&id=549764425&l=4ea1a3083c
Dolomites, Italy: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=193213&id=549764425&l=96aae811ed

From San Vito de Cadore…

Today was a day of happiness – sheer, unadulterated happiness over some of the finest roads I have ridden and the most magnificent mountains I had the good forture to see. As I write and sip my martini, I am surrounded by them – gigantic, massive, craggy peaks encircling the little town of San Vito di Cadore, where I am stopped for the night. The Dolomites are truly a thing of beauty. To think that I came so close to never seeing them at all. That I might have left Europe without ever knowing them!

And yet, I agonized all evening, most of the night and this morning when I woke up in Padova, as to what my route was going to be. The easy, short route would have been to go east towards Trieste and Piran, by the water. It would have been a quick ride, and then another short ride the next day to Ljubljana, where I could stop riding, and rest and sleep and call this journey to a close. I was so tired that it was beyond tempting. The other reason at the back of my mind of course was that this was the *Dolomites*, some of the tallest mountains in Europe, and me with my severe vertigo would be a very bad combination. I kept recollecting the moments of blind terror on the Swiss Alps a couple of days ago, and the one moment on Furka Pass when I was quite sure that I was going to die.

In spite of the terrifying few minutes though, I had to force myself to remember that the rest of the ride had been fantastic and the sights I had seen will forever remain in my memory. I also recalled the heart-thumping thrill at the end of the ride, when I rode the last few kilometers to my lodging, with the thought that yes, this had truly been an adventure. It had been challenging to my mind and body, it had kicked me out of my comfort zone, it had forced me to develop riding skills that I’ve needed for the roads I had ridden before, it had been difficult, but I had made it. Out of all the days of the past month that I rode, this was the one day that had felt like a real riding adventure. I could have that again if I could only swallow my fears and head north to the Dolomites. “But I’m scared”, said a tiny voice at the back of my head. Would I rather be scared and take the easy path, or push through the pain and do what I really wanted to do? I chose to do the thing that spelt doom. After hours upon hours of agonizing, the relief that came with a decision made was tremendous.

As it turned out, all my fears were a little laughable. The roads through the Dolomites were fantastic and not in the least bit scary. A big part of this was because even though they climbed as high as the Swiss Alps, they had more tree coverage and there were no unprotected cliff views of how far you could fall if you slipped and went down. (Thinking about that one narrow road on Furka Pass with a drop of 2000+ metres makes me want to throw up.) I was also now a lot more used to riding the switchbacks. I wasn’t fast by any means, and I ran wide way more often than I wanted, but I did fine. The downhill parts were sheer pleasure and I wonder whether the riders that passed me could see the big grin splitting my face in two.

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The route that I did today was roughly north from Padova to Bassano del Grappa, which was sheer riding hell going slow through small towns in hot, muggy weather. Thank heavens for lane splitting! Oh and whoever complains about how bad the driving in Italy is, I really wonder where they’ve been riding. Agreed that their roads are arranged in a somewhat crazy manner and I had many WTF moments, but the drivers themselves aren’t at all bad, either on the Autostrade or the little towns. At no point did I feel afraid or unsafe.

I felt my spirits reviving only after I started seeing mountains in the distance. Finally I was upon them. The road surface was not as nice as the ones in Switzerland, but it was every bit as twisty as I had hoped for. Traffic had sped up and I kept passing cars unabashedly even on the solid lines now, taking point from the Italian motorcyclists on the road. On a tangent, I love that European motorcyclists are almost always in full leathers, no matter what the weather. I contrast that with the squids on American roads and I wish we could be more like them.

Further north no towards Feltre and Fiera de Primiero. I stopped somewhere near Mezzano to get lunch (I’d had an awful breakfast the past couple of days) and stepped into a restaurant which had a little boy at the reception. There was not another soul in the place. He took my order of panini with proschiutto and cheese, which turned out to be a hamburger bun with some meat and cheese. *sigh* I asked him if he would at least heat it up, which he did. Communication in Italy has been the most difficult in West Europe so far. Most other countries, folks spoke rudimentary English, especially the younger people, but here it’s been rather non-existent. My fault for not knowing any Italian at all, of course.

After that extremely bizarre lunch, which seemed more of a waste of time, I got on the road again. I went over Passo di Rolle, my first pass of the day. :) Then north to Canazei and the big pass – Passo di Giau. What a fantastic, panoramic view!! The place was crawling with motorcycles and mountains for as far as the eye could see.

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From here, it was a short ride to Cortina D’Ampezzo, my final destination of the day. I wanted to find a place to stay at night, but I learned from the locals that it would very expensive and I should ride down 10km to San Vito di Cadore, which turned out to be good advice. I did get some tasty treats from a bakery in Cortino though. Mmmm… wish they made those in Seattle.

At San Vito, I stopped at Hotel Colli, the first one I saw, which looked the most appealing after I had ridden down the street to the end of town and back. The people who owned it were super-nice, the room was a mere 53 euros, they offered to let me park my bike in their garage, and I think they might have given me their best room, right at the top with a great view of the mountains. After days and days of living in hostels, the last few of which had been really crummy, I was delighted to have my own, private, luxurious room. Oh the small pleasures of life on the road. :)

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After I had unpacked and cleaned up, I walked down to the tourist center, where they gave me a login and password for the town’s free wifi. (Pretty soon we will have internet considered to be a basic utility, I’m sure.) I had dinner which was a tasty ravioli called “casunciei”, considered to be a specialty of the Marmolada and Arabba regions.

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After dinner, I went for a walk around town, aiming for the river behind the hotel which I reached via a narrow, crumbling, slippery path. It smelt so good and clean. I really needed the mountain air after the past couple of days in mainland Italy. The views of the mountains once again made my jaw drop. I know I keep talking about them, but you really have to see them to know what I mean. I could spend all day looking at them, watching the colors change and the shadows deepen. The last mountain town that I was in that can even begin to compare was Seward up in Alaska.

This is my idea of an ideal day – great riding in fantastic weather during the day and an interesting place to spend the evening with a warm, comfortable bed waiting for you at the end of the night. I like this town. I see old people gathering in the cafes and families walking by shops and calling out to the owners. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else by name. The neighborhood bakery and supermarket have cheeful and inviting. They have community here, and they have the mountains. What more could one want?

Tomorrow I start heading back towards Slovenia. I purposefully want to delay it, stay here for longer, roam the mountains some more, but I know that I have to go. Very soon the dream will be over and life will be back to normal. I feel happy though, for the first time this month, or this year. Happy and content and joyous. I think I finally found myself again.

A little sidetrip from Padua to Venice…

Venice was… full of more tourists than you could shake your fists at. I wish I could wax eloquent about how beautiful I thought it was, but to me it had the same feeling as Prague – stuffed to the gills with tourists and shops and restaurants sporting tourist menus and tourist prices, the latter being the more aggravating. Even though I cannot abide obnoxious tourists, I tolerate even less local establishments inflating their prices to almost stupid-high levels to take advantage of them. In most other cities, I had been able to dodge this by seeking refuge in the quieter streets, but here it seemed unavoidable. Everywhere I went there were shops selling stuff and people thronging the crowded, narrow streets, leading to a kind of claustrophobia worsened by the thought of being on an island surrounded by water, with no possible escape. I had at least one unpleasant experience involving paying 30 odd euros for a meal, where I felt completely ripped off and left feeling very disillusioned. One judges a city based on how the locals treat you, after all.

I suppose that on another day at another time, I might think of it as a beautiful city. It was certainly very unique seeing as it was entirely situated on a series of islands and connected by a complex network of canals and bridges, and the only way to get around were boats. It appealed to both my engineering and artistic sensibilities. I also know that quite a few people love this city and keep returning to it, so maybe I will have to give it another chance someday. For now, I’ll just post some photos and remember the best parts.

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P1060656    Everything had moss growing on or under it.

Venetian masks are a thing of beauty. Until you encounter about the one hundredth shop selling them. (I did get two beautiful ones though, which are now on my living room walls.)

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Padova, Italy

After Cologne, I had been hoping to say goodbye to my mindless motorway riding days. But the weather had other plans for me. There was a storm coming from the west which I needed to escape. And there weren’t very many cool small roads to ride through in the part of Italy surrounding the Milano area. So motorway it was. My destination for the day was Padova. It was far enough from Milan, close enough to to Venice to take a train there, and south of the Dolomites, should I decide to ride north through them to Slovenia.

I steeled myself against the long, boring journey and hoped that the horror stories I had heard about the Italian autostrade were just hearsay.

Once again I (illegally) took the motorway in Switzerland out of Bellinzona until I crossed the border into Italy. The motorways in Italy do not require a vignettes, rather they are a series of toll roads owned by different companies. I had vivid memories of the toll booths in Boston and New Jersey from last year, and how much I had loathed the stop-go traffic for miles to go through them. There was nothing to be done though and I had to suffer through it. The first couple of booths I encountered were confusing. I hadn’t gone through anything where I could get a ticket to show where I had started from, so I wasn’t sure how they would know how much to charge. Turns out it was a flat rate for that section of road, although I realized that only in hindsight. The toll collectors didn’t speak a word of English, so any attempt at communication was futile. The tickets were usually inexpensive, in the neighborhood of 1.80 euros each for motorcycles. The last couple of hundred kilometres did require me to pick up a ticket, which they ran through a machine at a later point to find the total amount I needed to pay. I think I overall spent less than 15 euros for the entire distance.

While I was aimed for Padova, I couldn’t resist getting off the road when I saw signs for Verona. Shakespeare-land! Memories of reading the Bard’s famous plays when I was little swept through my head and with a vicarious thrill, I pointed the bike towards the center of Verona. I didn’t stay for very long because I kept missing turns and got warmer and warmer. It was the kind of city best explored on foot anyway, not in full gear on a hot day. At first glance, it looked very old and dusty, with crumbling buildings lining crowded streets. I found a gas station to fuel up and took off.

Riding on the Autostrade was fine. Better than fine actually. Once again I admired how traffic flowed smoothly on the German and Italian freeways. People strictly adhered to the rule of “keep right except to pass”, unlike in the United States where people just camp in the left lane. In Europe, I also didn’t encounter any of the passive aggressiveness that I’m so used to at home. If you turn on your indicators to pass someone, they yield. Overall I felt really safe on the freeways here even at speeds as high as 140 kmph. That’s the highest that I think I went because that’s the most both my bike and I were able to handle. It was about on par with most of the other vehicles on the road, although occassionally you got people going 200 on the German autobahns.

The only downside to riding in this part of Italy was the air quality. I don’t know if this area is more industrial, but it felt extremely polluted, to the point where the humidity and pollution made me feel like I was back in Bombay again. Towards the end of the ride, I could feel my eyes stinging.

Padova came up around 2:00 in the afternoon. I rode through a series of cobblestone streets – these were different from the ones I had ridden over in other countries. I bet they got really slippery after it rained. I was unfortunate enough to be stuck behind a car going extremely slow. it was a lot easier to ride over this surface at a spirited pace, rather than 10 kmph.

I found the hostel easily enough. My heart sank when I saw that the checkin time was 4:00PM, but luckily they let me in and allowed me to put my stuff away in the storage room. I took off my gear, changed into walking shoes and packed my small backpack to head into town.

Walking through the streets of Padova felt like I was in an episode of Doctor Who. I had the strange feeling of having been transported into another time and era. The streets were deserted as I walked past a small river and crossed a bridge along more cobblestone paths. The buildings were like the ones in verona had been – old and crumbling, almost ancient.

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There was not a soul on the road – I realized later that it was siesta time. Everything shut down in the afternoons. Most shops were closed – completely unheard of back home! I was starving by now, so the charm of this phenomenon wasn’t completely endearing right at that moment. I went to a couple of cafes and managed to find some small sandwiches to eat. I realized more and more that communication was going to be a real problem, because unlike in Germany and Switzerland, nobody here spoke English. I was left with communicating purely in sign language. It was a little more isolating than I had thought it would be.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and trying to keep cool. The head and humidity tired me out rapidly and I finally staggered back to the hostel to take a long nap. When I woke up, it was 9:00PM. I realized with a shock that once again I had to go hunt for food and be back soon. For some arcane reason, this hostel closed its gates at 11:30PM, but didn’t give me a key, so I had to be back by then. Fortunately, I found a good restaurant close by, where I got some pasta and a mojito. The cold drink was perfect for the weather and I felt considerably more refreshed afterwards.
When I returned to the hostel, I made plans for the next day. I would ride the train to venice. By the very nature of the city, no vehicles can go into the city, so it didn’t make sense to ride the motorcycle there. I would spend the day there and ride the train back in the evening. It seemed like a good plan.

Riding through Switzerland…

This was supposed to be a short riding day from Basel to Interlaken. It would be my first day of riding through Switzerland. As always, the prospect of riding through a new country was exciting. It was sprinkling down in Basel when I walked out of the HI hostel in the morning to go get the bike. Rain again! Is there ever any escape? And to think that I thought I had picked the wrong month for visiting Europe, imagining it would be unbearably hot. Turns out, I had indeed picked the wrong month, but for an entirely different reason. I zipped in the liners to my jacket and pants. Even if it was just sprinkling, I didn’t want to take the chance that it would turn into a downpour.

I needed to fuel up before I left – I never appear to get into the habit of fueling up at the end of the day so that I could just get out and ride the next day – but the Zumo routed me to locations where no gas stations existed – twice! It was beyond maddening because Basel was an incredibly difficult city to ride through and I kept making wrong turns and needing to backtrack. All this while moving really slow and gettijng more and more warm in my gear, while the rain kept misting up my visor. I finally found a gas station and after puzzling over the options – none of them were in English – picked one that looked least likely to be diesel and fueled up. This was the first station I had encountered that accepted only credit cards. Almost every other gas station required you to fuel up first, leave the bike parked, and to go inside and pay the attendant (unlike in the US where you insert a card, fuel up, and the machine automatically deducts the correct amount). The machine asked me to enter a pin number, even though I had used a credit card. Not wanting it to do a cash advance, I used my debit card instead.

Since I was routing through non-toll roads, the GPS routed me through various small roads and cities to Interlaken. There was a lot of construction on the way and traffic moved slowly. I found a few really nice roads that went through forests and fields. Most of the route was over small hills, nothing overly dramatic, since I’m guessing I was still in the lower foothills of the Swiss Alps.

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The road got dramatically better as I neared the last 50kms to Interlaken. It went right past the lake, which was a vision. Co-incidentally, the music playing in my helmet switched to “Welcome to Dreamland”, which I thought was fantastic timing. The lake and sky and mountains blended in a vision of deep, sparkling blue. The sun wasn’t out yet, but it had stopped raining and it really felt like I was riding through a dream. The road surface was impeccable, and it twisted and turned past the blue waters. Far off in the distance, I could see the mighty mountains… finally!! I reached the hostel in Interlaken all too soon.

Throughout the ride, I had been thinking about the weather forecast. It was sprinkling today, but they predicted heavy thunderstorms through the area I would be going through the next day (Interlaken to Bellinzona via the Grimsell and Furka passes). I was already a little spooked by the thought of riding through my first high mountain passes, and I was less than thrilled about having to do it in spectacularly bad weather. By the time I was pulled over at the hostel in Interlaken, I decided that I would try to cancel my reservation there, and keep going towards Bellinzona. It was only 2:00PM, and if all went well, I would reach Bellinzona before dark. I wasn’t too tired, although I knew that I would be before long, but it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

The hostel refused to refund the booking fee, in spite of me having bought the cancellation insurance, which was irksome, but they did help me call the Bellinzona hostel to move my reservation from the next night to that night, and advised me on my route. They said to skip the Gotthard tunnel, which was a 48km long tunnel – not much fun for motorcyclists – and go on the outside roads instead. I took heed of their suggestions and left.

It’s a shame I couldn’t stay in Interlaken. It looked like a gorgeous place, and a haven for outdoors-y people with tons of climbing and kayaking.

I ventured on towards Grimsell Pass. It was raining steadily now and as I climbed, it got colder. The road was very challenging to me as I wasn’t used to riding switchbacks like these. The weather meant that there was hardly anyone out, and I didn’t see very many motorcylists on the road. I kept climbing higher and higher, getting ever so nervous as I did. The views were spectacular and panoramic, and I eyed them with fascination mixed with trepidation. At one point, I turned a corner to see an almost otherworldly vision of an immense landscape of green strewn with grey boulders of every shape and size. The mountains were huge and towering. If only I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get out of the bad weather, I might have just stopped and gazed and gazed. I had never seen anything like it before.

I managed to take these two photos when I stopped briefly to check that I was on the right track. It doesn’t quite convey the enormity of the mountains and how dwarfed I felt by comparison.

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I reached the top of Grimsell Pass and pulled over to take pictures. They weren’t very good because of the fog and the rain. A few other motorcyclists were stopped too. We left at about the same time, and I trailed them for a little while until they lost me.

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Onward now to Furka Pass. I was a little cocky now after having gotten through my first mountain pass unscathed. This was nothing to be afraid of, I thought. It was actually getting to be very good fun! If only I had had enough sleep and rest and slightly better weather, I might have had the time of my life on those roads. As it was, I had a big grin on my face as I descended the first mountain and ascended towards the next pass.

The grin was completely wiped off and replaced with a deer-in-the-headlights type terror as I climbed to the top of Furka Pass. It was high up there and no guard rails to speak off. The cars ahead of me slowed to a crawl, as did I. I had one near death moment when a tour bus lumbered towards me from around a corner, but I didn’t dare to swerve right to get out of its way. I also happened to be in the wrong gear, so I couldn’t even accelerate out of trouble if I had wanted to. Fortunately, the bus went past with a few inches to spare, but I really thought I was a goner then.

The descent was equally scary for at least the next ten minutes, with steep hairpin turns that plummeted far below into an abyss, should you miss a turn. It also got colder and colder. This was the least fun part of the ride. Once I had more or less descended, I was okay, but still a little shaken and wondering what Gotthard Pass had in store for me. I soon found out – almost zero visibility rain and fog. I had to ride with my visor up so I could see anything at all. I stopped at one spot and turned into a restaurant I spied to ask them how long the weather would continue as it didn’t really seem safe to keep going when I could barely see. There were a couple of motorcyclists there who had stopped for the night. They said that it would be terrible weather until I got down to the motorway, but I should keep going and go slow. From there it was only about 40 miles to Bellinzona. I was so close now that there was no way I could stop, even though I was tempted to stay there for the night.

This was on top of Gotthard Pass. The only dry spot here appears to be directly under my bike.

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Go slow I did. The rain kept up throughout until I reached the point where I could get on the motorway. I didn’t have a vignette to drive on it, but I was beyond caring. I had gone so slow all day, that I just wanted to get to my hostel in the fastest way possible and stop for the night. I made good speed on the motorway and surprisingly enough found that I had that high you get after you’ve been through a long, hard day. It had been a day well lived, in spite of the scary moments. In many ways, it had been the first real motorcycling adventure day. I’m sure that in ideal conditions, this would have just been a fun little ride, but on this particular day it had really tested my mental and physical endurance, and I was thrilled on the high of having made it.

Bellinzona was cool and yet another city that I wished I could have spent more time in. The hostel was clean and affordable, the town square was walking distance from it, and I was able to get some good ravioli and red wine to celebrate the end of a very full day and feel like I deserved it.

Here is a picture of Bellinzona that I took the morning after. It looks positively tropical in comparison to the Switzerland I had seen thus far.

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My next decision would be whether I should go north back into the mountains (and more rain) or south towards warmer climes. It was an easy decision.

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[See more photos of Grimsel Pass here, Furka Pass here, and St. Gotthard Pass here. And more about the Alpine Passes here. And this guy here has a fantastic set of photos that document the ride I did.]

Here are a few that show the roads that I rode. I’m slightly frustrated that I couldn’t have done them on a better day, but I feel privileged that I was able to ride them at all! And I know they will still be there when I return. In fact, I have a feeling that this is going to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

The below pictures are courtesy of www.pictures-switzerland.com. The first two are of Grimsell Pass and the last two are Furka and Gotthard Passes respectively.

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The Black Forest…

Today was fantastic, plain and simple. The riding was the best I’ve done on this trip, this year, in fact, for pretty much all the time I’ve been riding. Today had everything – warm, sunny weather, twisties, panoramic views, a big blue sky with big white puffy clouds, lush green landscape, and roads that made me weep with their perfection. Even getting stuck behind a few cars didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Everyone needs to ride the roads in the Black Forest once in their lifetime.

I left Freibourg around 9AM this morning and headed north toward Waldkirch. From hereon started the twisties. The road was a narrow, single lane one, which climbed up steadily. There were a few uphill decreasing radius turns that caught me off-guard. Before I knew it, I was above the tree line. I wondered if my fear of heights was going to kick in, but out of nowhere, the road suddenly widened to signal my first via point – the village of Sankt Peter. A few minutes before there had been nothing but a tight winding road through the forest, now there was a big hotel with tens of motorcycles parked outside it. I stopped and took all the pictures I possibly could.

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After a brief stop at the hotel, I took off again, this time towards the village of Sankt Margen. More brilliant roads, more unbelievable views – lush green meadows, cows grazing, elevation changes, gloriousness.

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Southward bound now towards Odenback and Birklehof and then the B31 to TItisee-Neustadt. There were way too many tourists there for my liking, so I did a quick circle around the town square and fled. The B317 took me toward Barental and then the B500 to Schluchsee. The lake was gorgeous. I rode past it for a little bit before turning around. Once again, there were too many tourists at this resort town. I did stop for a quick meal before heading on the road though.

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There were hundreds of motorcyclists out on the roads today, fully clad in leathers. The Europeans take their safety gear very seriously. I followed their example and started passing cars and lane splitting. Why oh why do cars drive so slow?! Most of them were good enough to move over for me although I did encounter a few a**holes who did their best to not let me pass.

On this ride too, there was that feeling of riding through town after ghost town. Big empty houses flanking the streets with not a soul in sight. The only times I saw people were at the bigger resort towns near the lakes.

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Southward again on L146 towards Todtmoos and a little detour towards Utzenfeld. East again towards Sankt Blasein, a picturesque little village. I wished I could stay, but I didn’t. The road was a-calling! And what a road! South all the way on L154 to the Rhine. Hundreds of little twisties! The road was narrow and flanked with a cliff to the left and rock barriers to the right. Everyone needs to ride this road once before they die! I truly did shed tears at the end of it. I was this close to turning around and doing it all over again. The only thing that made me continue was the thought of wanting to get to Basel early enough during the day that I’d be able to see a bit of the town.

I had picked the last part of the route to run parallel to the Rhine and ride into the city of Basel in Switzerland. It looked like it would be pretty on the map, very like riding past the Mosel a couple of days ago. In hindsight though, this was a mistake. Even though I rode past the Rhine, the road was lined with steel mills and foundries. I guess they build the industrial towns right next to the great river.

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The road also went through numerous towns with low speed limits and slow drivers. It was really hot and humid now. It was only 36km more, although it seemed longer. I rode a total of 233km (approoximately 140 miles). Did I mention that it was the most glorious riding I have done, even though I didn’t come across any trolls or gnomes in the Black Forest? :)

I finally reached Basel a little past four and checked in to the HI hostel that I had booked the previous day. The hostel was very nice although I got a bit of a sticker shock at the cost of everything, even though I had been forewarned. Wifi was 1 franc for 10 minutes or 6 francs for an hour or 15 francs for 24 hours. Laundry was 15 francs with a 24 hour turnaround, so that was out of the question. Dinner was 17 francs. I escaped into the main town in a little bit and got a doner kebab type wrap for a whopping 9.5 francs, and it wasn’t even that good. A latte at Starbucks was 5.80 francs. Given that a swiss franc is equivalent to a US dollar, this was all stupid expensive.

I wonder if it is possible to not eat or drink at all for my remaining 3 days in Switzerland.

I roamed the town of Basel for a little while until finally turning around to the find the hostel again. I was rewarded with probably one of the most spectacular visions of this journey – the Rhine at night, calm and clear, glittering with a thousand lights.

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Update from Freibourg…

I left Luxembourg a little later than I had planned. Woke up late and wasted a little time at a motorcycle shop at the edge of town.

I took the freeway to Volkingen, and then a brief stop at Strasbourg, my little sojourn into France. (On the way, just before I entered France, I was amused to see a sign that said “dernier sortie a Allemagne”. Why wasn’t the sign in German?)

I felt tempted to stay in Strasbourg for the night because it was so nice to finally be in a country where I can more or less understand and speak the language. I had to keep going though. Strasbourg did surprise me in that it was a little… dirty. I got lunch at a small roadside shop – a sort of kebab roll. The bread was amazingly French – fresh and crisp, but the lamb tasted tough and overcooked, so that was a bummer. It was starting to get really, really hot too and I was feeling like I was getting slow cooked in my gear. I took the liner out of my jacket.

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After this backroads all the way to Freibourg. It felt a little like the universe had finally aligned to put together my favorite riding conditions – warm, sunny weather, winding roads, emerald green trees and hedges, and next to no traffic on the streets. I had a fantastic time! :) Wish I could say more, but the fact that I have no pictures is proof that it was a brilliant ride that I didn’t want to stop.

I got to Freibourg around 5PM and checked into the hostel. It was on a river bank and surrrounded by beautiful green meadows. I lounged about doing this and that until it was time to get dinner. There was a German restaurant down the street, so I walked past the river, crossed a little bridge and found it. I ordered some Hefeweizen beer (tasty!) and some bratwurst with onions and bread (tastier!). While I waited for my order, I saw a couple of guys at the table next to me playing a game of chess. I looked at them longingly (possibly weirding them out a bit) before finally plucking up the courage to walk up to them and ask if I could play the next game. They were very welcoming, so I brought my drink over and sat with them. They introduced themselves as Ralf and Dominic (and one more super nice guy whose name I cannot recall now). As usual, their English was better than my German, so we conversed in some broken English. I understood that they were part of a chess club that met there every Friday. Great, that meant I’d be playing some high rated players. I didn’t care, even if I lost badly, it would be good to just play after a month long break.

We were joined by two more players – Isaac and Andy. They were both hilarious. Isaac creamed me at one game and he especially made me giggle because he corrected practically every move I made, telling me what the repercussions would be four moves down. At some point, it felt like he was playing against himself. ;) It was educational though and he meant well, so I didn’t mind at all. After this, they started playing blitz chess with a timer, something that never fails to fascinate me. I think I’d get a stroke halfway through a game if I ever tried, but it was still pretty cool to watch. Hmm… maybe I *will* try my hand at it sometime.

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It was a little gratifying how they asked me questions and tried to include me in their conversation even though English was not their native language. I wished I had more pictures of home and my life on my phone or something so that I could show them. I had a really pleasant time nonetheless and after winning my only game, I decided to call it a night and left the good natives of Freibourg to their matches.

On the way back to the hostel, I briefly talked to Tobi, a CSer from Lausanne. We were both disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to meet like we had talked about because of conflicting plans. It’s too bad, now I get to enter Switzerland without knowing anyone there. This will be the last leg of my journey as I get ready to cross the Alps. My plan is to cross the Grimsell Pass and sort of make my way to the Dolomites and Venice before turning back to Ljubljana.

I feel a little tired today though, so maybe I will end up staying in Freibourg an additional night.

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I felt completely exhausted to the point of feeling sick all of the next day, so I spent another day in Freibourg, most of it just laxing aruond the river and enjoying the sunshine. It was just what I needed.

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Later in the evening, I took a tram to the Old Town and took some pictures.

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In Luxembourg!

I left Koblenz and headed west to the Nurburgring. On arrival, I found that the ticket office was closed, although I could see cars on the track. I don’t know if it was a car-only trackday or how it worked, but I wasn’t very keen on getting on an unknown track with a low powered bike and a bunch of high powered cars vrooming past me. :| A motorcycle only trackday would have been fine, but I’m not sure how frequently they did those. Oh well, I was really disappointed but still glad that I got to see the iconic track.

Here on, I took the scenic route past the Mosel river, which was beautiful, green, winding roads through vineyard country. The sun was shining and it was a bit windy, but other than that, the conditions were perfect and I had a pleasant afternoon of riding.

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By later afternoon, I reached Trier. I realized that Luxembourg was a mere 36km away. Rather than go south towards Saarbrucken like I had planned, I was tempted to go visit yet another country. And so I did. :)

I’m glad I did too. I got a bed in a really nice hostel, which was walking distance from downtown. I managed to get in touch with Wojtek, an ADVRider acquaintance, who was wonderful enough to give me a walking tour. We saw the Duke’s Palace and the cathedral and various scenic viewpoints. I simply loved how the city seemed to be build in different layers. We walked on the “rock” or the embankments of a fortress, and  we could see houses and roads and water spread out down below us. In the distance, there were bridges with trains and cars going cross them. There were lots of elevation changes in a very small area. It also looked very, very clean, like Ljubljana.

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I wish I could have had a couple of days to spend there, but time was now a luxury. I had to leave the next morning to be able to carry out my plan of getting to Freiburg the next day.

Update from Koblenz…

I was holed up in Cologne for a good three days due to really bad weather. Fortunately, it was with Silke, who was a great host, so it all worked out rather well. She introduced me to a lot of German food like blood pudding and currywurst and her favorite beer Fruh. She also took me a to a pub to get absinthe, which tasted a lot like aniseed water and made me very sleepy. :P

I also took the opportunity to take the bike to BMW Cologne where they replaced the gas tank cover. It cost an arm and a leg and I had to say goodbye to my desire to go to the spa and get a sauna and massage. Ah well.

By Wednesday, Silke was ready to kick me out though. :P We made a last minute impulsive plan to go to Koblenz, a city about 60km southwest of Cologne. We decided that I’d ride there after visiting the Nurburgring, and she would take the train, and we would meet up at a hotel we booked over the phone.

It was a good plan in theory except that the “light rain” they predicted for the afternoon was anything but. About 10km on the autobahn, it started pouring down. I changed my mind about going to the Ring pretty quickly and decided to focus on just getting to Koblenz in one piece. Heavy rain, wind and noisy helmet combined to make this the least fun ride I’ve had in a while.

I was relieved to make it to Koblenz. The hotel turned out to be a bit of a disaster. It was way more expensive than the crappy room we got warranted. The bathrooms were disgusting. The customer service was non-existing. We found out later that it was a 2-star hotel, although it cost about the same as a Motel 6 room.

Koblenz itself was interesting. The architecture was old and I especially liked the roofs and how it looked like it had waves going through it. Apparently most of Cologne had to be rebuilt after being bombed in WW2, but cities like Koblenz survived the bombings and still retained the old buildings.

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After Silke arrived, we found a bus to take us to the city center, from where we walked to Deutsche Eck – the spot where the north-south flowing Rhine met with the east-west flowing Mosel river. It had a very cool statue and columns for every German province pre-WW1. The weather was now pleasant and it was lovely to walk by the river.

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P1060478   The Stars and Stripes! :)

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We had a late dinner and took a taxi back to the hotel. The next morning we said goodbye. I don’t know when we’ll be able to meet again, but I hope it’s within the next ten years. :) It’s the curse of our times that although the internet has enabled us to connect with like-minded people in a way that was impossible a mere 20 years ago, they are so far away that meeting as frequently as you want to is not very realistic.

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In other news, I also appear to have really fucked up my left knee and I spent most of my time in Cologne hobbling around. We went to an apotheke (pharmacy) where I got a neoprene brace and some painkillers and ointment. I don’t think they’ve made the least difference though. I’m mostly okay walking short distances on level ground, but walking downhill, especially on cobblestone streets is really difficult. I guess it will have to wait until I get home though. Even though my insurance covers me at 80% cost for out of network providers, I can’t afford to waste time waiting for an appointment or to pay 20% of the bill to go to an ER. :|

Arrival in Cologne…

You know what’s really nice? What’s really nice is curling up with your girlfriend in jammies with cups of tea and talking and laughing and giggling without a care in the world. :) I’ve been craving female company for so long that spending a couple of days with Eva in Stockholm and now Silke in Cologne have been exactly what I needed.

Yesterday was another “mindless riding” day on the A7, A2 and A1 autobahns to get from Hamburg to Cologne. The riding itself was fine, and a lot easier now that I’m used to it. There were a few construction zones where the four lane highway narrowed to two lanes and the speed limit went from 130 to 60. It sprinkled a little in the beginning, but nothing too alarming. And then I did something completely stupid. I stopped to refuel at the 200km mark and as I lifted my saddlebag to put the hose in, the gas tank cap *broke off*. WTF!!! After I got over my initial shock, I refueled, moved the bike over to a side and tried to lock the cover back in place. No luck with that though. I had to take the seat off and wrap tape around the cap and the body of the bike to keep it in place. I was worried that it wouldn’t be watertight, but the saddlebags went over it and would cover  the cap until I got to the next city. I got Silke to look up the address for BMW Motorrad in Cologne so I could stop there on the way. They were closed on Sunday though, so that would have to wait until Monday. I wondered gloomily if I was doomed to visit a BMW shop in every city I went to. It seemed like a bit of a cosmic joke.

100 km later, I turned onto the A1 and the skies opened up. All of a sudden I was in a deluge. Visibility reduced to two car lengths in front of me. There was standing water on the freeway and I started getting sprayed with water from cars going past me. I had neglected to put the liners into my pants and I paid for it by getting completely soaked in minutes. There was nothing to do but keep going though. I was so close to Cologne that there was no sense in stopping.

After a very long, wet hour, I rolled into Cologne Zentrum. It was a relief to be on city streets going much slower, although I did completely blow one right turn, felt the bike slipping on some rail road tracks and had to slow down and stop. Luckily there was no traffic behind me so I was able to gingerly ease my way back to the street. I made it to Silke’s street, called her and parked on the sidewalk in front of her building.

We carried my gear up  to her fifth floor flat where I proceeded to get out of my wet things. Ick! I thought fondly of having done laundry the day before and all the clean, bone dry clothes I had packed away.

She took me to a local pub – Unkelbach – where she got me some blood pudding – a Cologne specialty. It was some sort of meat with mashed potatoes mixed with apples and some cabbage on top. It was tasty! We spent a good long time eating and catching up. :) Then we took a train to the city center to go see the Rhine. I was going to see the Rhine! Honest to goodness with my own eyes! :D

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It was still pouring down and the Rhine looked gray, but it was still thrilling. :) We walked away from it and towards the Cologne Cathedral. I had been of the mind of “see one church, seen ’em all” but I caught my breath at the beauty of this gothic church. I don’t know if it was the effect of the gray skies, fog and rain, but it was quite simply the most marvelous building I have seen. I couldn’t stop gazing up at it and wanting to take in every single square inch. Water spouted out of the mouths of the gargoyles high up above, adding to the dramatic effect even further.

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After stopping for coffee at a cafe, we went inside the cathedral. We had to wait for the service to get over before we could wander around. The organ music was lovely and made me want to come back to hear a proper concert within those walls. It was nearing the end of the day and the crypt and the sarcophagi (containing the bodies of the Three Kings, reportedly the magi who visited Jesus after his birth) were cordoned off. I’d just have to come to see it again.

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We got an early night with dinner and watching Season Five of Doctor Who. For some reason, my left knee was very sore and appeared to be bruised and inflamed. I cannot imagine why but I hope it subsides. Some ice and Tylenol will hopefully do the trick.

This morning I called BMW Cologne and talked to Andreas, the service manager, who was fantastic. He said he would special order the part and get it installed for me. I got off the phone feeling relieved and thinking of how much I loved strong, confident men who just Knew What To Do. :P

Today we will wander the city some more, possibly stopping at the Modern Art Museum. They predict more rain until Wednesday, which is depressing. I was hoping to leave tomorrow morning, but that might not happen. It impedes my progress a bit, but there’s just no sense in riding in such miserable weather. For now, I will enjoy this beautiful city with one of my best friends. :)

I loved Stockholm!

Stockholm was one of my favorite cities in Europe, quite possibly because I had such a good host to show me around so that I didn’t really have to use my brain at all, just relax and follow her lead.

Eva picked me up from the train station yesterday evening. It was wonderful to see her smiling face and I felt all the stress and tiredness of the past couple of days fall away when I saw her on the platform. It’s not very often that I get to meet one of my best friends twice a year and I’m glad we could make this happen. I really wished I had longer than a mere day to spend with her. I had originally thought it wouuld be two to three days, but I hadn’t counted on the train ride taking almost an entire day on my return to Hamburg.

We exchanged news and she gave me a train pass that I was valid for three days, so I wouldn’t have to worry about transportation. How thoughtful! We took a couple of trains to her place and walked up four flights of stairs to her apartment (there’s no escaping this in Europe… grrr!). Her place was delightful and most exactly like how I had pictured it from her descriptions and photos. The first thing my eyes set on were her New Rocks, which I coveted immediately, and her stuffed dragon Pjukkan, which also I coveted. Lol…

I unpacked a bit, cleaned up, and then we went hunting for food. We stumbled across an Indian restaurant which was closing in 30 minutes and ordered a ton of very delicious food. Indian food in Sweden… seemed odd, but it was good. More talking and more catching up as old friends do. :)
I was too tired to go out and do any more that night, so we came back where she made up a very comfy bed for me with her pullout couch. I slept really well that night!

The next day the weather was still warm and sunny. She planned on taking me to the Old Town (Gamla Stan) where we would just wander the streets and walk and talk and rest when we were tired and really have no set agenda. It sounded wonderful to not have to visit any of the must-see tourist places and just spend alone time with her. It struck me that she was a lot more animated and cheerful than the times when she had visited Seattle, quite possibly because she wasn’t jet lagged and on her own home ground. I wonder if I must have been more quiet and subdued than when she saw me in Seattle.

We went to a vegan buffet for lunch, which was okay. The restaurant had a fantastic view of the harbor and the Old Town beyond. As usual, my camera couldn’t do justice to the panoramic view.

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Afterward we walked by the water around the harbor to the city. I liked the unusual architecture of the old buildings and enjoyed walking past them and gazing up at the roofs. The old town was a labyrinth of little cobblestone streets with cool houses and stores lurking around various corners. I thought it was neat that people still lived there, just like in the olden days.

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We went to a few gothy stores, but I didn’t end up buying anything more than socks (nice and portable!). After a couple of hours of walking, we went to a cool underground cafe that reminded me of an opium den. I wondered if it had been one back in the day.

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Later in the evening, we returned to her place and I made plans to meet Hank, an American motorcyclist who lived in the city, whom I had connected with online. He had just come back with a big tour, co-incidentally with a Slovenian guy who was friends with the guy I rented my bike from. The motorcycling world is truly a small one, even in Europe. Hank met us near the train station and we talked for a little while and he gave me route ideas.

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In the evening, Eva took me too a restaurant for dinner where I got some very tasty lamb. Nummy! On the way home, we picked up Ballerina cookies, my favorite thing to come out of Sweden, and went home and had tea and cookies and watched Buffy (the Dracula episode) and giggled a lot. Then for some blogging, shower and bed.

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The next morning she dropped me off at the train station where she stood waving until the train started moving and I was out of sight. Awww… :D Whenever people are so good to me, I wonder what I did to deserve it. :)

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Towards Stockholm…

Rocks, sand, water, and swathes of green streak past my window. The water is the Baltic Sea. It looks peaceful out in the distance. It looks like the right setting for a cold, wintry day, although of course, it’s the middle of August.

W’re on a bridge now, one that stretches on for a long time. Pretty soon the sea is lost from sight and we pass a settlement of warehouses sprayed with graffiti, construction sites with gleaming new forklifts, and train stations with foreign names. This is a new journey and I don’t know what sights to expect.  I expect today’s ride betwween Copenhgen and Stockholm to be very different from yesterday’s in Northern Germany. I’m impatient to get to my destination, but I know that I should try to relax and enjoy this moment.

This morning I was in Roskilde, a town about 40km west of Bagsvaerd, home to Roskilde Cathedral, built in 1170 and the final resting place of many of Denmark’s kings and queens, including the famous Harald Blatand (Bluetooth) and Queen Margrete I. There were numerous sarcophagi and tombs throughout the interior of the church, and some magnificent, intricate woodwork and iron carvings. I was pleased to have been able to see a slightly non-touristy, important part of Denmark’s history, far from the crowd of Copenhagen’s noisy, bustling city center. I did miss seeing the famous mermaid as she is on loan to another exhibition.

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My visit to Copenhagen with Skjalm was short. I will have slightly longer in Stockholm though.

Denmark…

Today I entered Denmark. The high speed train carved it’s way from Hamburg’s train station through Schleswig-Holstein, on board the ferry across the Black Sea and in a couple of hours, I will be in Copenhagen. I could have ridden to Copenhagen, but I decided against it to avoid more mindless hours on the motorway. My initial relief at getting to freeway speeds has evaporated since the ride from Berlin to Hamburg yesterday. Three hours of riding at 130kph, with nothing to break the monotony but endless passing of mammoth, lumbering semis took its toll on me. The thought of riding in the train instead, and relaxing by a window seat as I watched the country rush by seemed a lot more appealing. It cost a little more than I would have spent on gas, but it’s just money, and keeping my stress level low seemed a lot more important. My bike is parked in Alex’s garage in Hamburg and I’m bringing just a few belongings with me as I enter Scandinavia to meet two old friends.The train ride has been uneventful, even dull. The last train ride I remember was taking the Amtrak between Seattle and Portland, which makes its winding way past rivers and lakes through endless evergreens. This one went through miles of endless empty plains. I finished reading my latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, feeling more relieved than satisfied at the end.

The train arrived at the exact scheduled time at Copenhagen’s main train station. I had a few hours to kill before catching another train north to Klampenborg station to meet my friend. I got out of the train station and went to the tourist information center across the street to get a map of the city. I thought about taking a quick walk through the historic center, but my duffel bag was too heavy, so I decided against it. I did walk a few streets down to find a small cafe to eat at (Cafe Katz). I ordered a capucchino and a tuna sandwich. It was the biggest, sloppiest tuna sandwich I’ve ever eaten. So much for eating healthy. I found out that Denmark does not use euros, which was quite a revelation as I had assumed that all the EU countries used the currency (apparently the Scandinavian countries don’t). The cafe accepted payment in euros though, and gave me back change in Danish kronors.

By this time, it was almost 5PM, so I headed back to the central train station. I passed the Tivoli gardens amusement park and saw the tall merry-go-round spinning up in the sky, looking like a many tentacled insect spinning round and round.

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I bought a ticket at the train station which allowed me to use public transportation for the evening and was shocked at the price of 10 euros. It finally dawned on me now why everyone had warned me that Scandinavia was expensive.

It took about 20 minutes to get to Bakken where I met up with Skjalm. We went to another amusement park to get dinner. It was a pleasant walk through a forested area with huge oak trees. I even spied some deer standing under some of the trees in the distance. It was a rainy, grey day, and this place looked like it would be gorgeous on a nice, sunny one.

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We ate dinner and caught a couple of buses back to his place in Bagsvaerd, where I got to meet his two adorable cats. I was pretty tired and looking forward to the next day.

Blogging from Hamburg…

I woke up at 6AM, got myself ready and the bike loaded up, and was out of Berlin at 7AM. I wanted to get through the freeway slog early in the day and arrive in Hamburg early enough that I still had most of the day to enjoy the city.

I made a brief stop at another section of the Berlin Wall at the east end of the city. This section was not cordoned off like the one from the day before had been. It was painted with all kinds of street art and graffiti which I slowed down to look at. I pulled over at one section and took a picture of the bike with the Wall in the background.

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This done, I got onto the freeway to head out of Berlin. It was about 270km to Hamburg. The ride was pretty uneventful. I kept a good 125kph clip, the monotony broken only by the recurring need to pass semis. I stopped for one quick gas stop at the 210km mark.

10 km outside of Hamburg, I saw a motorcyclist pushing his bike on the side of the road and slowed down and pulled over. He was riding a beautiful, old vintage BMW, which had stopped running for some reason. It turned out that one of the cylinders wasn’t firing and the spark plug kept getting fouled for some reason. He was going to need a tow. He looked relieved and happy that I had stopped, although I wasn’t sure that I could really do much to help him. I certainly couldn’t help him fix it, but I know that at times like this, it helps to just have someone with you and not feel like you’re alone. He spoke a little bit of English and expressed his gratitude at my having stopped. I told him that we should try to get off at the next exit where we could decide what to do. He said okay and I told him to get started so that I could follow him. He could ride the bike on one cylinder for a short while and at least go that distance.

He rode in the shoulder while I got back on the freeway. He was going really slow though and I didn’t think it was safe for me to go at that speed, so I picked up the pace and turned off at the next exit (which incidentally was my exit after all). I found a safe place to pull over on the side of the road and I waited. I took my gloves off and drank some water as I waited for him to catch up. About five minutes later, he blew past me waving his arm. Huh… well, I guess he was fine after all. Glad that he didn’t need my help, I too took off on my way. (A few miles down the road, I saw him pulled over again, but it was too late for me to stop. I felt bad, but I wasn’t familiar enough with the area to find my way back around, and I figured he was close enough to help that he would be okay.) That was a really nice bike though. I wish I had taken a picture. I mused to myself that that’s the kind of vintage bike I’d love to race someday.

I rode to BMW Hamburg on Onnakamp, missing the small entrance the first time. BMW occuped the entire set of blocks on that street, but only a small section was for motorycles. Almost the entire store was dedicated to their cars. I went around the block and turned in at the right entrance this time. The service guys pulled my bike over into the garage area and had the lowbeam bulb swapped out in the minutes (like James had said, the rubb covers at the back of the headlamp came off and there was some kind of elaborate clip mechanism that released the bulb). In all honesty, I could probably have figured this out on my own with instructions. but at nowhere the speed at which they did it. The also didn’t charge me, so it was probably a good thing I decided to let them do it.

From here, I called Alex and asked him to meet me downstairs, since my mobile phone minutes were over by now. I found his place without any trouble, pulled in to his garage and parked next to his Honda Shadow. We walked up four flights of stairs to his flat to put away my gear and luggage. Next we went to the train station where I bought tickets to Copenhagen and Stockholm. We had a very tasty lunch at a Turkish restaurant, before heading back to his flat. I was feeling a bit dizzy and needed to lie down for a little bit.

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Later on in the evening, we decided to go out for dinner and a small tour of Hamburg. I was still feeling dizzy and a bit out of it, so I rode on the back of his bike. Chalk that up to be the second time this month that I’ve ridden on the back of a guy’s bike. ;) The control freak in me appears to be taking a bit of a backseat. I have to admit that it is a little nice to not have to worry about riding and just enjoying the ride instead, as long as it’s just a short 30 minute ride.

I soon found out the immense advantage of seeing the city through the eyes of a local. Earlier in the afternoon, Alex took me to a kaffehaus where I got some excellent cappuchino. Now we went to a pizza place where I got some delicious thin crust pizza and a local beer.

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After concluding a delicious meal, we went for a ride through the city where he called out the most significant sights that might or might not be on a typical tourist’s map. The most impressive one was the city’s inner harbor and the historical warehouse area.

I was beat by the end of the day and it was all I could do to climb into bed and read a bit of my book before falling asleep. The next day, I’d leave my bike behind and take the train to Copenhagen.

Blogging from Berlin…

I spent only one entire day in Berlin, but it was enough for me to say that this is one fantastic city and I need to come back for a much longer trip someday.

To recap a little, I arrived here yesterday afternoon, a little after 4PM and checked in at the Circus Hotel, that my friend Marc had recommended from a previous stay. I booked a bed in the hostel this time instead of a private room. At 19 euros a night, it was a pretty good deal. They put me in room 410 and I got a bed in the lower bunk by the window. My room has a fantastic view! There is something to be said for this high rise living after all… At first sight, this neighborhood reminded me an awful lot of Portland with the little cafes fringing both sides of the street and the trams going across it.

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I intended to get something to eat and then go stomp around in the city, but things didn’t quite go as I had planned. I had underestimated how tired I was from the day before. I had ridden about 250km, practically all on the autobahn. Speaking of the autobahn, most motorcyclists would say that this is the worst, most soul-crushing riding you can do, but to tell the truth I was relieved to be on it and just making good speed. The past few days in the Czech Republic had been good riding, but slow going and I constantly had to have my wits about me. Out on the freeway, I could finally turn my brain off and just ride, and it was delightful to be reaching my destinations at pretty much the pace at which I expected.

The only exciting thing that happened on the freeway was getting pulled over by a cop. I was passed him and then he passed me and he turned on a sign that flashed and said “Bitte” and “Folgen” alternatively. I had no idea what it meant, but my superior deductive skills reasoned that whatever it meant, I was probably meant to follow him and stop when he stopped, which I did. We pulled over at the next exit at a gas station. He was pretty nice and informed me that my light was off. I groaned when I realized that the lowbeam bulb was not working. Thankfully I had brought a spare from Seattle. I told him that I was riding to Berlin and I would replace it there, and he said okay, although he didn’t think it was safe. I was planning to ride in daylight hours only anyway, so I’m not too concerned about the safety aspect. Riding with the high beam on is *not* looked upon kindly here, like in the US where motorcyclists are advised to leave their highbeams on at all times to make themselves more visible.

I was going to fix the light in Berlin, but when I looked at the service manual, I realized that replacing the bulb wasn’t a simple matter of pulling the headlamp off and swapping bulbs. It meant taking off the rails of the storage area, the side panels, the instrument panel, the headlamp housing, and *then* getting to the bulb. I was *not* crazy on doing that on a sidewalk in Berlin with a maybe-incomplete toolkit. Meh… I called BMW in Hamburg and gave them the spiel – international traveller passing throug the city – can you please squeeze me in? They asked me to come by the shop tomorrow when I got into the city.

(I made a pleasant stop at Dresden on the way, which is a pretty little city. I ate lunch at a really cool place where I ate liver and mashed potatoes. Mmm…)

As I neared Berlin, my GPS promptly turned itself off (ARRRRRGHHHH… die!die!kill!kill!). I turned it back on and luckily it stayed on and I got to my destinaton. No idea why it decided to do that, of course.

Switching back to Berlin, I ate a very early dinner at Fabisch, the circus Hotel’s restaurant, which served organic food. I got some schnitzel with a green salad and gherkin. It was pretty tasty for a deep fried piece of meat. I went back to my dorm to rest for a bit, and ended up spending the rest of the evening in bed, reading and then falling asleep on my book. Time was a-wasting and Berlin was a-waiting, but did my body care? Noooooo…..

I woke up bright and early the next morning, got a chocolate croissant and capucchino at a bakery across the street and walked south towards Potsdam Platz. I saw the remnants of the Berlin Wall and remembered when I read about the fall of the Wall many many years ago when I was a little girl, and not quite understanding what was going on. Little did I know then that I would be so close to the real thing when I grew up…

I saw some more tourist sites before I realized that I’d had enough and retreated into the Dali museum. It turned out to have only some lithographs of his, not the famous paintings, which was a bit of a bummer.

Next up I walked to Alexander Platz and got myself a SIM card for Germany. Then I wasted 6 euros on getting a day ticket for the subway and used it only once to get back to the hotel. I had intended to head out again to a couple of museums, but I ended up just lounging around and reading (damn those addictive Sookie Stackhouse books!).

If I had to tell the truth, Berlin is so huge and there is so much I want to see here that it would be impossible to see it all in one day. Rather than run myself ragged trying to catch everything, I just saw what I most wanted to see and allowed myself to rest up for the rest. For once I remembered that I am after all on vacation.

Tomorrow I wake up early and ride up north to Hamburg, where I meet Alex, a fellow couchsurfer.

A curious thing happened on the way to Berlin…

I got an early start in Prague. I think I must have been out of the city around 8AM. I was going to ride to Prague Castle and take a picture of the bike in front of it, but the GPS directions got muddled and confusing, so I decided to just get the heck out of town and head towards Berlin.

As I got out of town, I realized that I had made a big mistake with not checking the weather forecast. I had mostly had hot sunny weather so far, so even though it had rained in Prague the previous day, I had assumed the good weather would continue. Wrong.

About 10 km out of the city, it started pouring down buckets. I stopped at a gas station, fueled up, put my liners into my jacket and overpants, put the storm covers on the side bags and started out. 10 km later I realized that this wasn’t going to cut it, so I stopped at another gas station, parked the bike under a bit of shelter and went inside. They had a couple of tables and chairs, so I resigned myself to taking my gear off, getting a cappuccino from a vending machine and reading my Sookie Stackhouse book.

In another time, I would have been beyond pissed off at the weather and chomping at the bit to get to my destination, but maybe I’m just older and wiser now. There was no point fighting the weather. I’d have kept going if I had to go about 20-30 miles to a safe place, but there was no way I would ride through 250 km of this weather. These things always blow themselves out, and it made sense to just wait it out. I sat there for about an hour and the rain did abate, at which point I reluctantly placed the book aside, geared up again and got back out.

This time I made it another 20 km before the rain came back with a vengeance. The wind was blowing full blast now, it was getting cold, there was standing water on the highway and water was seeping into my boots (I guess they’re not that waterproof anymore). I was completely out of my comfort zone. So I – you guessed it – stopped at the next gas station to wait it out once more. This time I was not so lucky with a comfortable table and chairs. I was wet and miserable and must have looked quite a sight to the woman at the gas station. I called Skjalm and asked him to look up the weather patterns for me (I so hate not having a phone with a data plan to look up radar maps on the road!), He confirmed that I was in the eye of the most awful weather and it wasn’t going to stop all day. The weather for the next day looked better. There was nothing to it but to wait until it calmed down a little bit and ride to the closest town Louny about 10km away to look for a place to stay.

I bought a sandwich and some chocolate and ate it while watching the storm blow outside. An adventure is never fun while you’re in the middle of it – I reminded myself. I wasn’t looking forward to stopping at a no-name town at one of the pensions my GPS listed and explaining to non-English speaking folks that I was looking for a place to spend the night.

I had sunk to the floor by now, reading my book and eating, when the gas station owner very kindly brought me a chair to sit on, bless her!

About an hour of this passed when I heard the rumble of an engine outside and a saw another motorcyclist stop. He was waterproofed from head to boots (his boots had waterproof covers!) and he seemed quite oblivious to the godawful weather. He walked inside, exchanged a few words with another patron, bought something and left.

I hesitated a bit, then ran outside after him and asked him – rather stupidly – whether he spoke English. I had to say something and that was the first thing that came to my mind. “A little”, he said. Of course! That’s what they all said. It usually meant, “No, but feel free to make funny sounds at me and I’ll see if I can decipher any of it.”
For some reason, my English goes bad when I’m speaking with someone who doesn’t speak it, so I continued with more idiotic talk in the nature of – “Bad rain! For how long?”

*shrug* *smile* “Don’t know!”

“Going to Berlin. Cannot make it.”

More smiles. “No!”

Feeling a little hopeless, I thanked him and turned to go when he indicated a sticker on his bike that said “Zerotin”.

“Biker party. Only 5 minutes away.”

“What?” I blinked stupidly as rain poured into my eyes.

“Biker party. Lots of bikes. Camping.” He smiled some more.

“Camping?” I repeated, a little slow on the uptake. The wind was howling, the flag on the flagpost outside the gas station fluttering wildly, my hair getting rapidly soaked as I contemplated the thought of setting up camp in the rain. Also, the thought that five minutes away, in what I thought was the middle of nowhere, there were other motorcyclists and what he called a party.

He made a sign with his hands to indicate a house and for emphasis repeated hopefully, “Small house. Camp?”

“I know what camping means.” I said hastily, “But camp in this weather?”

He smiled some more, “Yes.”

“How many other bikers?”

He thought a little and said “One thousand.”

One thousand bikers? This wasn’t a party. This sounded like a full fledged rally. Except… camping in this? No way! What I wanted was a warm, dry room and a cozy bed to snuggle in with my book. A safe shelter to wait out the weather before getting on the road the next day. No *way* was I going to follow some strange biker into the middle of nowhere to set up camp and continue to be wet and miserable for the rest of the day if I could help it. No way!

Instead, I found myself saying – “Wait for me! I’ll get my things.” I ran into the gas station (benzina station?), collected my things, pulled on my helmet and soaked gloves and followed him. He double back a little the way I had come, then turned off into a village. All this time, my mind was buzzing and I couldn’t stop giggling. This couldn’t possibly be happening! Here I had resigned myself to an uneventful day waiting out the crap weather and now I was going to be smackdab in the middle of a Czech biker rally.

Before I knew it, we had pulled up outside a makeshift gate complete with a registration booth. My friend – his name was Pyotr and he was Polish – explained to the other bikers who I was. I don’t understand Czech, but I could hear the words “U.S.A”, “American”, “Slovenia” etc. thrown around. They all gathered around me and asked me the same things – “Where are you from?”, “Why are you here?” and finally “Welcome!”. They were all tickled by the idea that here was a biker “all the way from USA!” Pyotr was beaming at them, delighted to be the one who had produced this novelty. They filled me in on what I could expect. Live music, food etc. The entrance was 300 koruna, which I paid up. They said that there were a couple of cottages empty, if I decided I wanted to go that way instead of setting up camp.

Now I had been craving the outdoors and wanting to camp ever since Vienna, but I’m ashamed to say that I completely chickened out here and coughed up 30 euros for a cottage. I was assigned cottage #21 which had four beds and not much else. No water or electricity of anything. Pyotr was camped in the neighboring field with some friends.

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While I took off my gear and set out my things, he returned with a couple of beers. What a nice man! I thanked him and we tried to communicate in broken English. I produced my map and filled him in on my journey so far and what lay ahead. He showed me the part of Poland he was from. So on and so forth. He produced a bottle of Bekherovka – Czech vodka from his jacket, and I drank a shot (tasty!), I in turn shared my hip flask of Glemmorangie scotch. (I spent most of this day a little drunk). He told me that he was a train driver (machiniste) back home, and I told him about my day job.

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We walked down to the village to the pub and met up with his other Polish friends (Artur, David, Bartolej), all of whom were really amused at my appearance. Bartolej was the only one who spoke good English and he became the unofficial translator. I learned later that between the three of them, they had put away 25 tall beers. They had a lot of questions for me.

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We walked back to the rally after a while. In my five years of riding, I’ve never actually been to a biker rally. Indeed, I’ve avoided them like the plague. So it’s just a little bit amusing that my first rally was in the Middle of Nowhere, Czech Republic.

It was mostly a cruiser crowd, with a few sportbikes and dualsports thrown in. There was merchandise and food booths and beer gardens. People were trudging around ankle deep in mud in full leathers with umbrellas or just getting  soaked in the rain. A heavy metal band was playing. There was something  just a little surreal about hearing popular American heavy metal songs being sung in Czech.

I was having the time of my life.

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The one band that was FANTASTIC was a three-woman (girl?) band called Sweetzone who did some unbelievably good covers of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Nirvana and a bunch of other bands. They did “Run To the Hills”! The guitarist did the Steve Harris machine gun thing! There is nothing more powerful than watching a group of kickass teenage girls… ummmm kicking ass on stage! They looked so very young that I wondered if they were even old enough to drink. It made me feel a little like I do when I watch MotoGP – old and over the hill and wishing I had practiced playing the guitar more when I was younger. :P

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There was more music and more drinking the rest of the evening. I finally hit the sack at 10:30 PM. The festivities were far from over, but I was knackered. (Apparently I missed a live on-stage sex show. Hoo boy, we’re really not in Kansas anymore, are we?).

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I read a bit, mighty pleased to finally use my Coleman LED lamp, before falling asleep. It was still raining when I went to bed.

The next morning I woke up, filthy and bedraggled, smelling evil. The floor was covered with dried muddy water from my boots. I opened the door of my cottage to take a peek outside and it was bright and sunny. A few bikers were staggering across the field, beers in hand, at 8AM. I packed up my few belongings and got the hell out of there. On to Berlin now, for real!

Still, it had been quite an adventure.

The Church of Bones (and Prague!)

I woke up in Kunta Hora feeling refreshed and ready for the day. It helped that I had a relatively short riding day to one of the most famous cities in Eastern Europe, and before I got on the road, I would make a stop at the Church of Bones – the main reason I had elected to stay in this little town that night. I felt enthusiastic and eager to start my day.

Lugging luggage across parking lots is never fun, but a necessary evil. In the United States, I always try to park my bike as close to my hotel room as possible, sometimes close enough that I can see it outside my room. Out in East Europe, it’s not uncommon for the parking lot to be a block away from your hotel. I had made the mistake of not loading/unloading close to the hotel entrance, so I was stuck with carrying my stuff out to the hotel parking lot. It wasn’t far and I pack fairly light, but it was hot out and I was sweating profusely by the time I had it all hitched up and was ready to go. I cooled off pretty quickly once I started moving though.

The GPS directed me to the church, which was a few kilometres away. I was afraid that parking might be an issue, so I parked a couple of blocks away outside another church. It was too hot to walk around in my gear, so I took my jacket and pants off, draped them on the bike and ran my steel cable lock through them and my helmet. This done, I crossed the street and walked a few metres to the Sedlec Ossuary.

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I had first heard mention of this church in “Long Way Round” – the motorcycling documentary most adventure riders cite as their inspiration. Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman made a stop at this church on their way out of Europe towards Russia. The history of the church details that for myriad reasons, the church was considered sacred enough that a lot of people wanted to be buried in its grounds. They were soon being buried on top of each other after they ran out of space. In time, they started running out of space and one of the monks was charged with doing something with the bones. The end result was the church as it stands today. The tiny chapel is decorated with an elaborate chandelier and decorations all made from human bones. Macabre perhaps, but also a thing of beauty. It had looked spooky enough in the movie that I had made up my mind that someday I too would go visit this church. For some reason, I had imagined that it was in Romania, so imagine my surprise and delight from Christoph had mentioned that it was actually just an hour east of Prague! What a fantastic beginning to my journey!

The minute I walked through the doors of the chapel, I realized that reality was far removed from what I had imagined. Ewan and Charlie must have merited special treatment and the church must have been closed off to visitors while they filmed. Right now it was crammed full with tourists busily taking pictures. I cursed myself for not having stopped there the previous evening when there might have been fewer people.

I had to force myself to ignore the people buzzing all around me, The hushed spookiness and effect of the skulls and bones was entirely gone, but I could still appreciate the workmanship that had created this work of beauty. The chandelier was magnificent, as were the chains made of human bones that stretchec all the way across the ceiling and down the walls. The four corners of the chapel had gated off rooms piled from floor to ceiling with human skulls. I wondered at these humans that had lived and died hundreds of years ago, whose final resting place was this pocket of the world. What might they have thought at being the object of admiration of other humans from such a completely different era?

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After I’d had my fill, I left and walked down the street back towards my bike. I stopped at a couple of stores that sold crystal and picked up a set of beautiful hand-made crystal glasses, which I would later ship to Ljubljana from Prague. It would be a lovely momento of my time in the Czech Republic, and I dearly hoped they made the journey unscathed.
To Prague! 60 short km to this big city that I’ve wanted to see for so long. I entered the city in a deluge of traffic in too narrow roads. I found my hotel – St. Christopher’s Inn at the Mosaic House without too much difficulty. They got me checked in and I had to park my bike a few blocks away in an underground parking lot. I’d rather have just left it parked on the sidewalk, but so many people had warned me about theft in this part of the world that I reluctantly opted on the side of caution.

The Inn itself was probably one of the swankiest places I’ve ever stayed at, not unlike some of the new boutique hotels in the US catered towards younger people. The receptionists were hot, young guys who were Czech but spoke in American accents. The ground floor had a bar area with a gigantic projector screen that was showing the British Superbike race with electronic music playing in the background. Welcome to Prague! I felt like I was in a movie.

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I took the elevator to the fifth floor to my room. The corridors were dark with wood panneling and pleasantly perfumed. My room had a single bed with huge, soft, square pillows (I made a mental note to find pillows like these for my apartment back home.) :P The sight of that comfortable bed made me want to spend the entire afternoon indoors, curled up with a book. I was on vacation after all!

I went back downstairs to the restaurant, ordered some goulash and potatoes, which were excellent, and ate while watching the end of Superbike race. We had to come up with something like this for Seattle, I told myself. Our MotoGP nights held at our apartments on our LCD TVs were great, but what I really wanted was to ride to a big pub and watch the races on a movies theatre like screen while drinking good beer.

I fulfilled my resolve to spend the afternoon in bed with a book. I think I liked being on vacation.

Towards the end of the day, I decided to drag myself outside and walk to the main city centre to have a looksee and maybe a bite to eat. It was about a 15 minute walk to there, with numerous cool little shops lining the streets. They were closed now, but it was fun to check out the window displays and thinking about which ones I’d go to the next day.

As I neared the city center, I had the same reaction as I did in Vienna. I froze at the sight of a billion tourists thronging the streets. They didn’t have the smoking ban here either and it felt like everyone smoked. I wandered miserably for about an hour before  giving up and retreating to my hotel. I decided that I would wake up early the next morning and walk back again to the see the city before everyone woke up.

This is precisely what I did end up doing. On day 2, I saw a few of the sights like the astronomical clock, and did a little bit of shopping. I also caught a musical performance at the Municipal House in the evening where a few members of the Prague Symphony performed selected pieces by Mozart and Dvorak. It was delightful to hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik being performed live in such a beautiful place. That made two musical performances in two gorgeous cities so far! I felt pretty lucky and privileged to have experienced them.

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The next morning I intended to head out early, see the Prague castle, take some pictures and then head north to Berlin.

In hindsight, I think Prague is a city that I would like to come back to with a group of good friends someday. I’d probably want to keep avoiding the more touristy parts of the city and experience more of the nightlife instead.