Dave's Europe - European touring
The Road Issue 10 - May - June 2007
Dave French, who remains obstinately Irish, provides a thumbnail sketch of European touring from a biker's perspective.
The land of autobahns, high speeds, great drivers, no tolls, a known route and a great way to get the miles down at the start of a holiday. Beer quality protected by ancient purity laws, and why aren't we harmonising to that standard ???
Be aware that Mercs and BMWs have right of way fitted as standard and just because you're over the ton on the autobahn doesn't mean there isn't some annoyed car nudging your brake light and overtaking at half as much again.
Motorways require a toll sticker and have speed limits. Otherwise you are more or less dealing with Germans. Great mountain views. Going east of Lake Konstanz, the main road takes in a bit of Austria so technically you are
supposed to have a sticker, but the two months sticker
for a fiver despite only being in the country for quarter of an hour?
The San Barnardino mountain pass, a trifle cold even in June and with the pass at 1400m we were above the snow line. A 20 quid sticker works for the whole year. Awesome scenery everywhere, slightly pricey accommodation and a reputation for being rather precise when it comes to road rules. They even stop their idling engines at long traffic lights.
Pricey tolls on the motorway that erode your cash reserves. Given the A road congestion and confusion it's the only way to get anywhere though.
Italian drivers come in two sorts Hairdressers or Grand Prix driver. Neither are much fun on the open road. Avoid the cities until you've adjusted. Avoid them after you've adjusted too. Fine food, fine wine, everything much cheaper in the south which is almost a separate country.
Part of France but with an independent ambience not unlike parts of N. Ireland. The beachfront real estate east side is fine for hammering south to the postcard picturesque port of Bonifacio but the real deal is the west coast and endless inland mountain roads. Expect to get lost without caring. It's an island so you can't go far wrong, right ?
Sardinia (Italy again)
Fairly empty up north, with plenty of space. Many empty beaches. Italians with a different twist. Cagliari, the capital, is utterly manageable and has affordable basic hotels on the seafront by the port. Bike was totally undisturbed despite on street parking. Fine seafood, great wine, stylish natives.
Worst road accident figures in EU. Iffy roads and bad drivers. This is the place to watch your step. Keep the speed down, watch the scenery without becoming part of it. Eventually you will attune to the way they drive and you will adapt. This is the time to start getting worried. Try not to bring your new found approach home after the holidays. The worst time of year is when the olive trees start weeping oil onto the already slippery roads.
A relaxed version of Greece. Less traffic, calmer people and a pervasive fragrance from the roadside blossoms in early summer. Off road heaven. On this island there is a point in going off road because there are towns that are otherwise inaccessible by land. The interior is un-touristy and has miles of dirt roads through scenic areas. Good prices, endless sun, ruins, gorges, fine diving and snorkelling on deserted beaches. Mythos, the local beer is excellent but the wine is an acquired taste. If you're one for the distance and are the sort of person whose psyche demands rides to have destinations, Paleochora has a nightclub which is worth the whole trip.
British tourist hell but the driving is improving, probably due to the tourist invasion. Watch out for two-up bikini-clad helmetless barefoot scooterists. Go south with the windsurfers to avoid the crowds and check out the Mycanean ruins on the east coast. There is a nightclub on the west coast called "the G-spot" but few men I asked knew exactly where it was. By the way: Do not go here en-route to Turkey. The ferry goes once a week and is a total rip off. Enter Turkey overland instead.
A revelation for motorcycle touring. Great people, diverse scenery. Four hundred meter drops from roadside direct to the sea on south coast. As in all places you need your bike papers but here there is extra paperwork needed to check that you don't sell your bike within the country. This costs a few dollars but shouldn't take more than an hour. It helps a lot if you can point to the frame and engine numbers on your bike without a long search. Watch for sheep on the roads. Do drink the water except in cities, eat the food, talk to the people, enjoy life and appreciate a welcome and a genuine hospitality unmatched throughout Europe.
Odd roads and tales of criminal activity multiply at every telling. Reality is more tame but watch your step in Sofia in particular.
Worst roads of the trip but still manageable. Plenty overturned artic trucks for some reason. Numerous horse and cart combinations and many prehistoric motorcycles transporting entire families. Bucharest is not the ideal place to park your bike outside overnight.
Police, military and other shades of gun-toting dudes in-between are teeming throughout this area and many justify their existence by watching traffic. The upside is safety for
tourists who were never a target anyhow.
Outside Belgrade roads are in very good condition. Friendly people but a collapsing currency. Use Deutschemarks (or Euros) and try not to end up with a handful of their Dinari.
Bomb craters, particularly in Pristina. Biggest risk is being hit by the lorryloads of bricks streaming in to rebuild a shattered country. Hope hasn't been shattered though and the enthusiasm to create a new country from the ruins is contagious. English spoken well in many parts and a surprising level of recovery.
Driving customs are a bit on the over-enthusiastic side but nothing daft. If you've ridden this far it won't shock you. If you flew in like most of the KFOR troops even your armoured personnel carrier won't offer sufficient security.
Don't remind these people that they're part of Yugoslavia. Gorgeous coastline and a return to European standards of everything. Top road: The canyon section from Pec out to coastal Bar.
Bosnia - Hercegovina
UN troops abound as do wrecked houses. Do not under any circumstances go offroading in this whole area. Not all bombs, mines and booby traps are gone yet and your help in finding a mine isn't wanted. Sarajevo is worth a visit, although war damage is still evident both culturally and architecturally. The road from Sarajevo to the coast via Mostar and the Neretva valley will imprint itself on your mind if it hasn't already (many Westerns were shot here).
Before the Yugoslavian troubles, Croatia hosted millions of mass tourism types every year. It does again, although the south hasn't totally recovered yet. September and October are the best months to visit as prices and also crowds (mostly Austrian and German) have dropped to normal levels.
Coastal scenery unmatched in the Mediterranean. Numerous seaside camping sites in all varieties from naturist to monster-size autocamps catering for the caravanners. No freelance camping permitted due to fire risks. Speed checks are frequent so keep it under control. (Advisable in any case given the roads and tourist traffic.) Heading south, Dubrovnik has been rebuilt after the bombing and is every bit as impressive as it was before. UNESCO ensured every brick was replaced. Loads of bikes and getting more every year.
Nestling into the Alps with Austrian, Italian, Hungarian and Croatian borders this is the most EU-like ex-Eastern European country. It was the most developed of the old Yugoslavian republics and the first to break free of Belgrade's tightening grip. There is very little that won't soon fit into the European Union mould. Great riding throughout and a fine campsite near the scenic lake Bled. Postojna and Skocjama (sp?) caves are alone worth the trip if you have an ounce of wonder in you.
Insurance: A German green card 40 quid extension for the Asian part of Turkey was enough except for Serbia where an awkward border guard was selling Serbian insurance.
Theft: Cities are the main risk areas for bike theft. Naples, Bucharest, Sofia in particular. Take a bike cover, ABUS chain, disc lock, alarm and enlist the person where you're getting accommodation into protecting the bike. Most hotels will happily lock the bike into a garage, disused room or directly outside the 24-hour reception. Do what you can (a quick prayer might help too) and then stop worrying.
Petrol: Unleaded was everywhere and petrol station were rarely more than 200km apart. Off-motorway prices were generally similar everywhere.
Preparation: This trip was on a bog standard just-serviced TDM850 with 40,000 km up, new tyres and pads. Bikes met included an XR400 on the way to Cambodia, a new Varadero from Italy and a fifteen year old high mileage XJ600 from the UK bought for 600 quid without MOT. All were proceeding without problems.
Parts: Parts distribution isn't great in many developing countries but your bike dealer can give you a list of authorised dealers all over the place to console you. Basic spares and hard to get items might be worth bringing along but local mechanics are used to doing without. Turkey in particular has excellent mechanics and you could do a lot worse than hand an old bike in for a full reconditioning at an unbeatable price.
Work: Most employers will give a couple of months off on unpaid leave with sufficient notice and if they don't then maybe it's time to find a new one.
Finance: Accommodation and travel are the main costs over and above normal life. The first is defrayed by travelling through cheaper countries and minimising ferries also helps. A basic tent is well worth it for the flexibility in accommodation. Count on an extra grand or so for a month depending on your style of travelling, mileage, choice of poison, etc. Bank machines work most everywhere but bring a stash of Deutschemarks, dollars or euros along for safety and try to have a couple of different cards. Visa hasn't great coverage, Mastercard seems more useful.
Lids: Although technically required by law helmet use is more or less up to yourself in many countries in this area so do what you want.
Hint: Bring some suncream for the forehead and a decent pair of wraparound shades that won't fly off when you do a life-saver over-shoulder check at speed.