Friday, February 9, 2018

Reminiscing. That first trip to the Alps......

At this time of year I'm usually busy planning this years bike trips. After last years big trip to Russia I'm looking to do more of a holiday with HB. We're planning on heading to Austria and Italy to visit some new places and return to some favourites.
I love the Alps, I was totally blown away when I first visited them back in 2007 on my 1150GS. My parents were going over to do some mountain biking before doing their own wee trip. They got me my ferry ticket for my birthday so I planned a solo camping trip taking in the best bits I could find, researching my route on various forums online. This is all written from memory, so I may be a bit fuzzy with some of the story. Excuse the photo quality too.
As I've done so many times since, we got the ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, the only problem was the rough weather prevented us getting off the boat till around 5pm instead of 9am. I had it in my head that I would just batter down to the Alps overnight, but the auld yins managed to persuade me to stop off in a travel lodge over night. For security we parked the bikes in the foyer of the motel.

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I never had any GPS or anything back then, just a list of roads numbers and towns to navigate by. I got a bit lost a couple of times, but made it down to St Jean d'Aulps, just north of Morzine in about 12 hours including stops. I remember riding along thinking "where the fuck are the alps?" Not really appreciating the continual rise of the land I ride towards the hills. I popped out of one of the many tunnels i rode through and suddenly there were blue rivers and lakes beside suddenly twisty roads. 
I arrived at the chalet where my folks were staying. They had a wee pit bike which I took for a blast before dinner. 

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The following morning I set off south, doing my best to follow the Route Des Grande Alps, the popular tourist route that goes over the highest roads in the Alps. I've since ridden some of these roads a few more times. There's no other way to describe them, they're fucking stunning. Abso fucking lutely stunning. These days the roads and scenery are just as good, but I have definitely slowed down a bit. Last time I was riding there I remember wondering where I got the balls to batter along these roads the way I did. There's big huge drops at the side of the often poorly surfaced, narrow roads and I was decking the GS out on every bend, wringing the neck of the big bike all the way to Val d'Isere where I camped for the night.

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I carried on south the next day on what could be argued to be the best riding roads in France. It takes you from Val d'Isere to Barcelonnette, crossing the Col de l'Iseran, Col du Galibier and the Col d'Lzoard. I camped at Barcelonnette and regrettably missed Col de la Bonette. I've been back since then and ridden the Bonette, if you're doing the run, make sure and include this one, it's a cracker.

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Me and the GS. Check the white boots.
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Each time I've ridden it, I've found the southern bit of the Route Des Grande Alps a bit harder to navigate. It went totally Pete Tong when I tried to find my way from Barcelonnette to Menton. I somehow ended up in Nice, in a traffic jam, in about 35 degrees and it was about half twelve in the afternoon.
"Fuck this"
I decided there and then to skip Menton and head for my next destination, Lake Ledro at the north end of Garda. Needless to say my distance estimate was a bit off. Six hours later I was at the bottom of Garda, the road blocked by a traffic accident so I'm sheltering from the heat in the shade looking my map, which doesn't really show much, the whole of lake Garda was about 10cm long on the map, so it didn't exactly show the detail required.
A guy in shorts and t shirt on a big KTM 990 Dakar was shouting something at me in Italian.
"Uh, parlez vous English mate?"
I showed the guy the map, pointing at Lake Ledro.
"You follow. Lets go!"
With that the guy fucked off over the garden of the shop beside us.
I quickly got my shit together and followed, as soon as I caught up with the guy he was off, the twin Akras on his bike and my Remus giving a thunderous warning to any pedestrians/targets that were in the KTM guy's path. After ten minutes or so of this lunacy we popped out on the Garda coast road made famous in James Bond.
"You go! GO GO GO!!"
I didn't hang about to see if we were in trouble.
I finally got to the top of Garda at round 9.30pm. I remember thinking that it wouldn't be long to Ledro. I climbed the familiar alpine hairpin stairs then went to a tunnel that sloped so steeply downwards you couldn't see the bottom. By the time I was back out in fresh air it was getting dark and I was at the bottom of another stairway of hairpins. Fuck sake, I must be at Ledro soon?
I finally rolled into the campsite just before 11 and got the tent up. I hadn't really eaten since Barcelonnette, consequently I was a bit peckish. I wandered over to the Pizzeria beside the campsite but the guy was just closing up. I must have looked like I was going to start greetin, so the guy asked where I'd came from. I told him about the day's events.
"You sit, I'll get you something."
The guy brought me a pizza and a beer and sat and chatted with me for a bit. The pizza and beer were on the house. What a day.

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Lago di Ledro
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My hoose.
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I ended up spending three days chilling out at Ledro. There was an internet cafe/bar up the street from the campsite so I spent time in there dodging the occasional shower and drinking too much beer. On one occasion I was nipping up to the shops on the bike to get some supplies. I tried, and failed to pull a big wheelie while discovering that I'd forgotten to shut a pannier properly. The lid flew in the air, beautifully glinting in the sunshine before getting flattened by a truck.
Fuck indeed. Luckily the mechanic in the local garage managed to batter the lid back into place. He even pulled the rubber seal out and reshaped the channel before refitting the seal. The repair was so good the panniers were still waterproof, no joke!! He wouldn't even take any money from me. I literally had to force him to take twenty euros for his time. He got me out the shit, bigtime.
 I had really enjoyed Ledro, but I was getting a bit bored so it was time to hit the road. Next destination, Stelvio!
Back then Stelvio was still famous, but no where near as famous as it is now. I navigated my way to Bormio by keeping an eye on a compass in my tank bag and heading roughly in the direction I thought I should be going, following back roads that weren't even on my map. I stopped to check the map in the shade of some trees when a tiny wee laddie on a big dirt bike stopped and stared at me for a few minutes, saying nothing before waving and battering up the road.

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Bormio was a bustling town with a speedtrap in the middle. There were bikes everywhere. You climb out of the town and through some tunnels. It's between these tunnels where you get the first good view of the pass zigzagging up the side of the mountain. Stelvio might not be the best riding road, but it's pretty impressive visually.
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At the top I got the bratwurst, mustard and saurkraut sandwich from the famous sausage seller. I think he's retired now, but he was a bit of an urban myth. Allegedly he was a multi millionaire who was fluent in seven languages. I don't know about any of that, but he made a good sandwich.

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Sausages eaten, water drunk and stickers bought, I headed down the rougher east side of Stelvio to Prato Allo Stelvio where I camped and had a braw pizza in the town. Looking over the map, I decided to head to Cortina d'Impezzo the following day. 
My compass navigation system led me to try some dirt roads. Again, these weren't on the map, but I figured I'd see what direction they took. Unfortunately I lost faith in my navigational system so turned back after a few miles, shouting "Bonjour" each time I passed a couple who were trying to enjoy a romantic moment outside a fancy log cabin.
Luck took me over Passo Pennes and through the Dolomites to Cortina d'Impezzo. It's a fancy town. All the shops had stuff like Prada and Gucci written on them. The campsite is on the edge of the town. I pitched up then wandered back in for some food. Everywhere was really expensive apart from a guy selling hot dogs and chips under the stairs of a fancy wine bar, I had to shield my chips from stuff falling from the stairs! Still, it filled a hole, and the guy seemed to be enjoying himself.
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It was only a one night visit at Cortina d'Impezzo. I pushed on using my compass to keep me heading east to Slovenia. I crossed the border at Cave del Predil then over the impressive Vrsic Pass, a really nice road with cobbled hairpins to lake Bled. Bled is pretty touristy, but the campsite was great, I had loads of space. The closest folk to me were four German guys on bikes who were a good laugh. I wandered down to get some food. The campsite was on the opposite side of the lake to the town. I couldn't be bothered walking all the way round, opting for the on site bar restaurant instead. Folk were getting seated on a first come, first served basis. The smallest tables sat four, so I ended up getting pissed with an old local guy at the bar, letting other folk take my space. I then surprisingly won a few rounds of an arm wrestling competition, something I'm usually shite at, before finally getting a table and ordering a big steak, at least I think that's what  I got. I finished up my evening sitting with a bunch of Swedish folk and meeting up with the German bikers from the campsite. The Swedes invited me to go with them to Croatia. I didn't go as I thought I never had the time, something I regret now.
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My attempt at night photography in my pre DSLR days.

I only had a short ride the next day. I packed up in Bled and rode over to Bohinj, another of Slovenia's lakes. This was far more remote than Bled with only a small, rocky campsite on the bank of the lake. I'd ran out of clean clothes but the short ride over gave me plenty time to do some laundry. Clothes cleaned I wandered along to see what was around. There was a Pizzeria and a hotel over the road. I sat down in the patio area of the hotel to read my book and chill out with a beer.
I was deeply engrossed in Alex Garland's "The Beach" when i noticed the folk next to me were speaking in a distinctly un-Slovenian accent. The whole hotel had been booked out by a group of Irish folk who were in Slovenia to do some walking in the hills for the charity Debra. Scottish folk and Irish folk always seem to get along. I was welcomed into the fold. A couple of beers became many. I was going to get some food from the pizzeria but I got invited to the silver service dinner with the Irish folk. I met the first British woman to climb Everest (at least I think I did) and had an all round amazing night. A crazy storm came in while we were partying with some pretty intense lightning. The rain was so heavy that it would have been drier standing in a bathroom shower. The Irish folk offered me floors and couches to sleep on, but I opted to go back to the campsite at about 3am. There was a short break in storm and I wanted to make sure my bike and tent were OK. They were, but despite the gallons of beer I'd drank and earplugs, I still had a pretty crap sleep, continuously being woken up by thunder of big flashes of lightning. I remember waking up at one pint convinced a truck had came off the road and was crashing through the campsite towards my tent!
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Thankfully it was another short ride. I was fucking shattered from the party and trying to sleep through that mental storm. I'd arranged to meet my parents in Kranjska Gora, a small town in the far north of Slovenia. Back then they were just building what looked like a ski resort. I've not been back since to see what it's like. I met Faithir and Maw, telling them about my travels and in particularly the Vrsic Pass. They'd missed it, coming into Slovenia somewhere else. I showed the where it was on the map and off they went, while I kipped on the couch of the apartment they'd hired. 
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A few hours later they were back. They had enjoyed the run but it had been far from uneventful. Faithir had somehow forgotten to stop at the Italian/Slovenian border resulting in guns being pulled, lots of shouting and a bit of a delay. That evening Faithir and I went out for a beer. There was a guy playing the guitar and singing cover song in the bar were were at. We got speaking to him, his name was Renalto, he said he had a place in Ljubljana but while he was doing the music thing he lived out of his short wheelbase Transit van along with his four, yes four, Doberman Pinschers. In the van he also had all his music gear, his Honda Blackbird, his Harley, a surf board and a couple of skateboards. You're just going to have to take my word for all of this. My camera was charging in the apartment so there's no pics. Anyway, Renalto finished up his gig and suggested we headed along to the much cheaper and better pub along the road that the Slovenian people go to. This was an interesting pub. A square bar in the middle of the dimly lit room served the drink and a spiral staircase was in the corner leading down to the toilets beside a giant mural of a tree with a vagina and a pair of tits. At some point Renalto went and got his four dogs from his van and Faithir went home. Renalto later brought his guitar and saxophone into the bar and was playing away between chatting to me and a couple of other people. Then shit began to get weird.
This big looking guy in a tracksuit and a gold chain walked into the bar accompanied by a very attractive blond girl. They sat down together a few tables behind me behind. Due to the language barrier and being pretty pissed up I don't really know what was happening, but when Renalto played his music or spoke, tracksuit guy clearly took the piss out of him. Then when the girl walked past Renalto to go to the toiled, Renalto slapped her arse! The girl clearly didn't mind as she laughed and smiled but Tracksuit Guy was less impressed. He smashed his glass on the floor and stomped over snarling Slovenian at Renalto. Renalto didn't seem to give a fuck. I don't know if he was the Slovenian bare knuckle champion, connected to the Mafia, or just plain stupid. But he just laughed at the increasingly more angry and aggressive Tracksuit Guy, waving his finger at him and calmly speaking. Four guys from the Czech Republic who were at the table next to us came over, the bar staff were babbling somthing at me that I couldn't understand and the whole time the blond lass is screeching and Tracksuit Guy is roaring away, but not at Renalto or me.
"We need to go outside. The Police come" Renalto says to me.

"THE FUCKING POLICE?? What the fucks going on Renalto??"

"It's ok. I deal with it. You take this, and these, and this."
Renalto hands me his musical instruments, the leads to four big dogs and the keys to his van. While he's doing this the Police turn up and start speaking to everyone, me included. I just stand there with a black look on my intoxicated face with four dogs while holding a guitar and a saxophone. Renalto points to me and says something Slavic to the Police before shouting with a smile. "You're not involved, you go. I'll see you in the van for more beer!" Off I wander, dogs and all, looking for Renalto's Transit. I find it parked up and jump in, dog and all. I'm sitting the there thinking "Shit! What if Renalto gets lifted? I can't just leave his dogs on their own. What the fuck will I do??" I was still shuffling for ideas and drawing blanks when Renalto burst into the van.
"You OK? I'll get some beer. You have the keys?"
In full view of the Police a clearly inebriated Renalto fired up the van and drove round the corner and produced four cans of Pivo. 
"You not worried about the Police Renalto?"
"No! They're fine! Cheers!!"
Renalto wanted to carry on partying all night but I called it a night. He's said he would meet us at the same pub we just left in the morning and ride to the border with us.
"See you tomorrow!"
"Aye, catch ye later Renalto."

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I got two surprises the following day. 1, I wasn't hungover. It must be something to do with the fresh alpine air. And 2, Renalto was waiting with his Blackbird to ride to the border with us like he said.
"Good night, yes? HAHAHAHAHA!"
Renalto did indeed ride with us to the border but in a slightly unorthodox manner. He'd come screaming past then hide somewhere, only to come flying past again. He could fair chuck the Blackbird about. he's lucky he didn't rip his jeans or hole his trainers on the road. Renalto disappeared just before the border. I carried on into Austria. Faithir and Maw said they seen him just before they crossed into Austria and he said bye. 
My destination for Austria was the Grossglockner, another high pass. You pay a toll at the bottom, I think it was something like ten euro, and you get access to the Kaiser Franze Josef Hohe visitor centre and the view point for the Pasterze glacier. It's well worth seeing and a cracker of a road. faithir, Maw and I grabbed lunch at the visitor centre among all the other bikers visiting the area, soaking up the sun outside and looking over the glacier.
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I had nipped back into the visitor centre to buy a sausage and look at a few more things when I became aware that I was pretty much the only person around. I went outside. How the weather had changed! Up the glacier it looked like a blizzard was coming in. Folk were scurrying around all over the place getting their shit together to leave. I got the GS fired up and sped off.
You know those moments where your mind is completely clear and you get a really good run? Well that was me. I was on it. Man and machine as one. The fastest thing on the road, passing Porsches and Fireblades with ease. I even stopped for a photo. No way was that blizzard catching me!
Through the tunnel at the top and out the other side into the blizzard. Shite. The speeding bullet had hit a wall. I couldn't see fuck all as my visor was steamed up and covered in snow. If I opened my visor my glasses got covered in snow so I crawled down the hill out of the snow peering over my specs and under my visor.
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We stopped in Zell am See to see if there were any digs, but it was seriously expensive there. I remember seeing a bunch of folk who like oil tycoons with a very nice Mercedes outside a Hotel with great views. We carried on to the next town where Faithir and Maw got me a hotel room, giving me a great opportunity to air my tent out.

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From Austria we went to Germany through a seriously long tunnel. We stopped of the banks of Lake Constance in Wasserburg am Bodensee. I found a campsite where the angriest man in Germany worked. To this day I don't know what he was angry at, but I remember telling him to fuck off as he ranted and raved at me for some unknown misdemeanour. I met Faithir and Maw for a meal and watched a comedy Fire brigade practice their drills. They hit each other on the head with the ladders and everything.
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One angry motherfucker.
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I found my next camp on another German lake, lake Titisee. My route took me along some typical, nice, twisty Black forest roads, some which were quite busy. I was riding over a wee bridge in a town somewhere when who comes the other way? Faithir and Maw! 
"Where the fuck are you guys going?"
I showed them lake Titisee and they headed along the same way. I got pitched up while they found a bed and breakfast. The campsite had the best bar in town with great views over the lake and goats playing in the field beside the site. There was also a wee museum in the place.
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We decided to batter up to Belgium and have two nights in Bouillon before the ferry. I packed up my tent and headed off using my usual compass in the tank bag method to keep me heading north till I found signs for the towns or roads I needed to follow. I had a great run up to Freiburg then crossed into France for the long run up the Peage. 
It was seriously hot, so hot I'd taken my gloves off. I think it was Bastille Day or another French holiday because the roads were really quiet too. Everything was going really well until the sun started to go down on the wrong side.
It turned out that my compass was fucked, it wasn't pointing north at all! I'd ridden a hundred and fifty miles in the wrong fucking direction! Instead of being just outside Belgium I was in a place called Dole. I fuelled up and fucked off, eventually getting to Bouillon at 10.30. I had planned to camp but there was room in the Hotel my folks were at. Hotel it was.
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In Bouillon trying to figure out where I'd been. My hands are black from rubber on the grips.

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Beer and Maps. I'm good at one of these.

The last day was spent chilling out. We looked around the market, Faithir wanted to buy some ham but was worried about sniffer dogs on the ferry getting him into trouble for some reason. We had a nice meal and sampled some great Belgian beers, ending up sitting outside a pub beside some herbal enthusiasts who joined us for a singalong.
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From Bouillon it's an easy run up to Ijmuiden for the ferry. Well, easy for most. I got lost, ended up in Rotterdam docks where a big dutch dude who looked like Charlie Bronson (from jail) told me "For shoor. Yoor losht! You should have been near Aaamshderdam!" I made the ferry, just. I was the last bike on.
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