Alps Adriatic and Alcohol is the story of my first ride to Croatia on my XJR1300 in 2004. I wrote it from my Travel Journals when I returned home. I haven’t read the tale in it’s entirety since and I’m sure some of it will make me blush. Odd bits have been used by popular motorcycle publications but most of it is as fresh to me as it was seven – nay – twelve years ago – as are the memories.
The opening photograph was taken by a fellow traveller at the entrance to the KrKra National Park. He was a braver man than I was Gunga Din. He was on his way home to Germany from a holiday in Bosnia with his wife and two very young children in a venerable old split screen Volkswagen camper van.
I was nervous of going to Bosnia as I had no insurance cover for that country. His reply was ‘I don’t know what you are bothered about as nobody down there has insurance anyway’. I like his style!
Alps, Adriatic & Alcohol – 2004
I have had my Yamaha XJR1300SP since it was new in 2000 and over the past four years I have carried out a few modifications with the aim of improving the handling, power and comfort of the machine. A naked bike without protection from wind and weather isn’t generally regarded as a long distance tool, particularly when planning some mile-munching in short order but the big-finned, air-cooled, four cylinder motor in the XJR certainly rocks my boat and together we can usually hold our own when the going get’s tough.
Big Red in her Weekend Warrior clothes
Purchased for the trip were a set of Oxford Sports throw-over pannier bags and a Baglux tank cover fitted with a bag big enough to hold my camera, binoculars, spare maps and a few other bits I thought be useful.
These together with my well-travelled Camel holdall strapped on the pillion would have enough capacity to swallow spare gloves, clothes and footwear plus cans of sealant, chain lube and WD40 or ‘instant maintenance’ as it was known by the African mechanics in my civil engineering days in Africa.
H-mmm — still room in the expanding pannier bags! In went a handful of cable ties, tying wire and pliers plus the heavy duty ‘just in case’ ratchet and sockets. We’ve all been caught out at the side of the road with a flat tyre. The wheel nuts have been done-up some months previous by an eighteen stone gorilla tyre-fitter with his windy-gun set on maximum. The manufacturer’s chocolate wheel brace is in our hand bent into a ‘U’ shape and the wheel is still on the vehicle! Well it wasn’t going to happen to me – not in the places I was headed for!
I couldn’t have been carrying more gear had I been setting off with Charley, Ewen and Claudio on their Long Way Round World Tour!
My first thoughts of making a European tour in my summer holidays kicked off in January. Bjoern, a member of a biker website I used had posted a thread about a meeting of the German XJR Owner’s Club to take place in the Eifel Mountains. The meet, known as the Rhineland Treffen would be held at Bad Neuenahr airflield between Cologne and Koblenz in late August. Minor problems like language difficulties and how to send the entry fee without the banks adding their margins were overcome when the thirty five euros went off in a plain brown envelope.
The Rhineland Treffen was to be just for starters and I had spent months planning a ride to the Nordkapp in the Artic Circle to tie in with my German jaunt. A wet summer in the UK leading to a few soakings changed my plans and I had another look at my map of Europe. All the way down in the bottom left hand corner I spotted Dubrovnik and thought, ‘that will do’- ‘it should be dry down there.’
My plan was to finish work on Thursday afternoon, load the bike that evening ready for an early start Friday and reach the airfield for the Treffen by Saturday lunchtime. It’s amazing how plans change when you get the bit between your teeth and what was to be a leisurely ride becomes an imaginary race against time!
Big Red in ‘eye on the horizon’ travel mode —
Packing and overnight parking in the kitchen went to plan and I was on the road by six o’clock next morning. There would be no motorways if I could help it and the rising sun was a red ball of fire in my eyes as I crested the ridge at Wenlock Edge heading south-east to Oxford and the Folkstone rail tunnel terminal.
I grabbed a hearty breakfast from the well stocked buffet at the Travel-Inn on the Evesham by-pass just a few miles from the gentile Cotswold town of Broadway where I arrange our annual meet for XJR Owners every September. I had put on a pair of long johns under my bike gear to ward off the early morning chill and as I couldn’t find a waste basket in the Travel Inn I squeezed them behind the radiator in the gents toilet and sneaked on my way.
Back on the road and raring to go it was a pleasure to givitsum up the winding Fish Hill that sucks you in with it’s two fastish left and right sweepers before it hits you in the guts with a tightening left-hander! Thought I could have done it even quicker and I was still chewing it over when I ran a couple of gatsos around Chipping Norton shortly before picking up the motorway network at Oxford.
Hoping to save time on the journey I had decided to use the chunnel crossing instead of my usual method of catching the first available P&O ferry from Dover. By pre-booking I had secured a good deal at just over sixty quid return. Allowing for the fact it would be the first day of my holidays I had left plenty in hand when I arranged to travel on the three-fifteen afternoon train.
I was quite surprised to arrive at the terminal for my crossing shortly after eleven o’clock in the morning, only to be told at the kiosk that as I was so early I could either go away and come back in two hours, or pay thirty quid extra and go on the next train which would be leaving in ten minutes!
Well, what would you do? Yup! I flashed the plastic, rode onto the train, packed my remaining sterling into the back of my wallet, shoved my wad of euros in the front, re-set my watch to European time and was riding out of Callais within an hour of boarding.
My plans to steer clear of motorways didn’t help with route-finding. I had hoped to do a loop south of Dinant and arrive at the meet via Luxemburg and the Nurburgring but that habit the Belgians have of changing place names between one signpost and the next in Femish/Walloon speaking areas threw me again. I got totally lost near Lille, it was coming down in buckets and as I stood there dripping all over his posh carpet a helpful head waiter in a smart restaurant by a roundabout directed me on my way. I was confused when he sent me towards Paris, the exact opposite direction to where I was trying to go but I soon picked up signs for Brussels and followed the auto-routes east to by-pass Liege.
I could have taken the easy option at this point by staying on the auti-route to Cologne then south on the autobahn to reach my destination towards dusk. But – names like the Eiffel Mountains, Nurburgring, Bad Munstereffeiffel were calling to me from my right and I turned onto a narrow washboard surfaced concrete road signposted for Eupen and the Ring.
I had a ‘square go’ with two sports cars both wearing the Ring logo on their bootlids. An Audi and a two seater Merc. Both were fitted with full roll cages and obviously knew where they were going. After a few kilometres I let discretion get the better of valor and let them go. There was no point tempting fate and getting in trouble with the law for speeding this early in my tour.
I rode on through some lovely places as I staggered this way and that across the mountains in the gathering gloom and eventually found the well hidden airfield site for the Treffen just as it got dark. Signing in completed I dropped by the club bar for a word with my German friend Chromi before heading back down the hillside to find the hotel he had booked for me in nearby Bad Neuenahr.
With the best part of fifteen hours in the saddle up to that point less fuel, minimal food and chunnel breaks I was relieved to feel my way off the hilltop and park in the carport behind the hotel and unload my gear. For twenty three euros per night I had a comfortable double room with en-suite services and breakfast in a small main street hotel boasting a public bar and restaurant.
After a quick wash it was down to the bar where any plans to get a taxi back up to the site for what was left of the evening were quickly dropped when the barmaid and her lovely pals, knockouts all of them, sang the Cologne FC song to the tune of ‘By Yon Bonnie Banks’! My first day on the road and I thought I’d arrived close to heaven! This feeling was reinforced when I saw the white sequinned Elvis suit hanging from a peg beside my table for the night then it dawned on me that he had done his National Service nearby. Heartbreak Hotel – no sir!
Saturday morning after a topping breakfast, fresh and up for it I rode back to the Treffen site hoping to look round some of the bikes, meet some of the riders and maybe take part in one of the rideouts. Despite or perhaps because of their tightly regulated life-style German bikers are really into the streetfighter cult and the retro looks of the XJR give would-be customisers a head start. With over two hundred bikes at the meet there was every configuration you could imagine. chopped – stretched – polished – tuned and turbo’d, my head spun just looking at them!
A rare mod in the UK is to fit upside down front forks from a sports bike to improve on the conventional spindly items fitted as standard. Over there every other machine had the conversion from a whole variety of donor bikes despite the strict TUV laws which presumably have something to say on the matter.
Rideout groups were running at fifteen bikes max with a choice of fast – medium or slow pace. When Chromi asked which group I wanted to ride with I picked the ‘fast’ out of habit. Little Gunter the lead rider took one look at my white locks and said his ride was full or something along those lines. Chromi was made of sterner stuff and told me just to go and join them. At this stage Big Gunter came over and asked if my riding was ‘dynamic’. I muttered something like, ‘yeh, I should be ok. If I can’t keep up I’ll drop off and find my own way back’. ‘Ok then, take number two spot behind little Gunter and I’ll follow’.
The ‘fast’ group stop for a chat or a fag —
Couldn’t have been better for that’s my favourite position. The lead rider sets the pace and I have a clear view of the road ahead from my off-set line a few lengths behind. Formalities over and pleased to be free of my touring luggage I was quickly on the pace and fit for anything that came up during the ride. Including the tuned ex-Ring Taxi Fazer Thou that Big Gunter was riding. There was no more mention of ‘Dynamic’ riding that day. They were pussycats really.
We ambled down the banks of the Rhine for a few kilometres then caught a ferry to the other side. A really nice way to start a ride. As we waited for the boat I counted our lot, nine in total, so little Gunter had been taking the proverbial when he said his group was full. No worries, I know what it’s like when you want to make progress and you have someone along with other ideas or abilities, frustration all round!
After covering about one hundred and fifty kilometeres on some interesting undulating twisties we found a little restaurant and had a slap-up lunch accompanied by the usual banter on such occasions. During the meal the heavens opened and after an extended lunch break with no sign of the rain letting up we decided to head for the nearby autobahn where Little Gunter and I gavitsum down the flooded carriageway back to the airfield. The rain had moved on by the time we got there and I noticed the 137bhp Ring Taxi Fazer went straight on the dyno, no doubt to find out why it couldn’t out-drag my supposedly less powerful XJR.
Big Gunter with his 137bhp Fazer Thou ex-Ring Taxi — yes for a fee you can hop on the back and be taken on a fast lap of the Nurburgring —
The meeting was a typically well organised German affair. A mobile dyno was on-site throughout and always had someone’s bike strapped down to it being revved to near oblivion! The tyre fitting bay also came in useful for the guys who couldn’t resist the burnout pad. One in particular was doing ‘Wheels on Fire’ donuts after dark. Very spectacular but I did notice his mate kept the fire extinguisher at hand just in case!
Another feature was the use of the airfield runway later in the day after the local flying club had put their planes to bed for the night. Timed runs one against one were much better than the dyno for settling who was the fastest. A visiting Kawasaki sports bike was taking on and beating all the XJRs until Marc Muller on his very tidy Cologne Motorcycles sponsored XJR comlete with upside downies, special big bore underseat exhaust and tuned oversize 1400cc motor burbled down the strip and blew the Kawasaki away. That bike was no slouch and neither was Marc who told me later he races regularly in the Macau Grand Prix.
It was dark by then, time to retire to the spare hanger where the stage was set for the Streetfighter Band. But first some sort of wordy ceremony. I wasn’t sure what was being announced but everyone was looking at poor me! Next thing I knew I was being pushed up on the stage and receiving the Iron Butt – Farthest Travelled award for covering nine hundred and sixty eight kilometres in one day on my way to the meet. Had I known I would have been tempted to do a second lap of Liege to complete the thousand!
Picture quality is bad as it’s a copy of a copy of a newspaper report – I’m far right with the other prize winners.
As I didn’t really understand the lingo, the award ceremony seemed to go on for ever and I would have died of thirst up there on the stage if Uwe from Bremen hadn’t kept me supplied with beer. Very decent of him for I believe he was the next farthest travelled and I had nicked his prize!
Speeches and photo sesions over it was time to turn up the wick on the Streetfighters Heavy Metal Band who were let loose next on the stage. They were something special! Boy did they rattle the rafters in that old hanger and were still givinitsum long after I’d called it a night and got a taxi back to my hotel!
My initial plans made way back in the spring were to take a long weekend off work and just do the Rhineland but somewhere along the way I thought as I’m over there anyway why not make a proper adventure of it. I worked out all the ferry times and costs for a circular route round the North Sea riding from the Treffen to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland Isles and Aberdeen. I would like to see the Norwegian ffiords and the Icelandic ferry from Bergen dropping me off on the Shetland Isles sounded interesting.
From there I could make my way home via Orkney and Scrabster or take a direct ferry to Aberdeen. I was all set to do it that way when the soaking of all soakings while on a camping weekend with some biker mates in the Lake district made me think again. August and September can be pretty late to be touring as far north as Scandinavia if you want to stay warm and dry.
Next favourite was to follow the mighty River Danube all the way across Europe to Romania and try to reach the Black Sea. A tall order to make it there and back in my two weeks holiday but achievable. I got real excited about visiting Transylvania the home of Dracula and riding the highest trunkroad in mainland Europe. The Trans-Fargasian Highway, open only in summer but I allowed some bad press about the country to put me off.
I was running out of places to go when I saw Dubrovnik on the bottom corner of my map of Europe. Last time I came across that name it was on the telly having lumps shot out of it during the wars between Bosnian Serbs, Christians, Moslems and anyone else around with an axe to grind.
Should be warm enough down there I thought. Slovenia and Croatia were in the proccess of joining the European Union and the clincher came when my insurers told me that I was covered for those countries at no extra cost. All my enquiries regarding travel to Croatia by road appeared to point me in the direction of Italy where I would catch a ferry across the Adriatic to my final destination in the Balkans. Couldn’t work that one out as there were plenty of roads showing on my maps so I decided to head on down to Croatia via Austria and Slovenia to find out why.
Sunday morning – my landlady was good enough to take a picture of me with my unexpected ‘Numb Bum’ award before I hit the road once more. The trophy was placed on a shelf behind the bar for safe-keeping until my return some day to collect it. It looked to be a tad fragile to survive a motorbike trip to the Balkans.
I was off and running. South on the autobahn to Pforzheim where I would switch to lesser roads through the Black Forest. I had ridden in an International trial in this area back in my trials riding days in the eighties and hoped to look up some old friends I’d stayed with on that occasion.
Somewhere in that spider’s web of junctions around Mannheim I took the wrong route and had turned east for Nurnberg without realising it. B*gg*r! Only thing for it was to take the next road south for Ulm and Austria missing out the Black Forest completely. I probably wouldn’t have found my old trials riding buddies anyway or the little village of Sulz after twenty years away.
I had pulled into a lay-by just south of Ulm later in the day to stretch my muscles and had the maps out getting my bearings when a dusky young motorist approached me. It turned out he worked in Bournemouth. He insisted I must visit the Boden-See, take the next exit and on no account was I to miss it! I did as instructed and followed the signs for Lindau and the Boden-See – along with half the German nation!
The last weekend in August must be a universal bank holiday! A boiling hot day with an air cooled motor in nose to tail traffic I was forced to filter to keep some cooling air flowing round that redhot motor! She kept going but I’ve known her run smoother! I filled her up with a better grade of fuel when I reached Lindau which seemed to help matters. A Mercedes saloon I had seen earlier towing a twin-axle trailer loaded with four or five road bikes had dropped a sumpfull of oil on a busy junction. There were bits of engine all over the road and that Merc certainly wasn’t going any further under it’s own steam that day.
I had looked at the road alongside the Boden-See but it was too busy. With the cool Austrian Alps inviting me to the south-east I was desperate to get into them. I just couldn’t find the road I wanted! Everything was gridlocked! I pulled onto a filling station forecourt for some respite and asked a ‘white van man’ where I could find my elusive gateway to the mountains. ‘Follow me’, says he and we were off across the main road, along some back streets like there was no tomorrow and out into the open countryside.
‘Turn left at the first lights’ was his next command and sure enough it was up-up and more up all the way into the Alps.
Cool, clear air, bend after bend, not much traffic but truly magic riding after my struggle to get out of Germany!
I spotted a Honda CBR600 sports bike parked by a filling station with nicely frazzled tyres and a Scotspeed of Dumfries logo on the numberplate so had a natter with the owner. It turned out it was owned by Neil, a young Glasgow lad working in the area and he encouraged me to buy a pass for the toll roads in Austria as it would mean a heavy fine if I was caught without one. I had no plans to ride the toll roads but after my problems route finding since arriving in Europe I bought one just in case. My German friends had advised me that a first-aid kit was mandatory in Austria too so I was well sorted. Sod’s law says – ‘if you’ve got it, you sure as hell won’t need it’! Better safe than sorry.
I was well into the mountains and had passed a few gasthauses with ‘Bikers Welcome’ signs hung out when, with over four hundred miles clocked up for the day I found a neat looking place in a riverside setting and quickly booked in. My bike had a garage all to herself and I was shown to a comfortable double room. I was too tired to ask ‘How Much’ and it was only in the morning that I found I was to pay for a double!
Day Four! Up early, fully refreshed after a good sleep and another good breakfast I’m up for it! Makes me wonder why we ridicule continental type brekkies. I was soon loaded up and on the road. At least I didn’t feel so bad about being charged for a double room when I found my landlady hadn’t hit me with the bill for phoning home.
Uphill bends, roads on stilts, corner after corner, absolute magic! The air was so clear all the way over the Hochtannbergpass to the small tourist town of Warth at a miniscule 4500ft but the first one feels high. Next in line was the Flexenpass at 5400ft to Abergpass then down by Landeck and Imst swinging right for Oetz and the challenging Passo d’Rombo Timmelshoch at over 8000ft!
The route up the by the snow-filled glaciers on the Austrian side is a dream, good tarnac and scenery to die for!
This is the Austria I’ve imagined since I was captivated by the views in the Sound of Music back in the sixties.
I was never much bothered with Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family but the opening scenes when she came skipping across the upland meadows, knee-deep in flowers has stayed with me ever since. I bought a new BSA Lightening in January 66 intending to ride to Austria that summer but life got in the way and I’m in the midst of it now almost forty years later! Magic!
Was til later that I learned that the opening scenes in ‘The Sound of Music’ were filmed in Norway.
I had been riding with a Dutch guy on an Aprillia Tauno on the way up that morning. He was heading for the Italian Dolomites, a popular biking region so we exchanged cameras and photographed one another at the top of the pass. I paid my eight euros at the kiosk, received a proof of passage sticker and crossed the border into Italy.
Italy! Boy what a shock! Austria had been bend-swinging, givinitsum all the way to the top and looking at the scenery, especially the glaciers. That’s when you realise why the rivers are grey with melted snow even in late summer.
Italy is so different! The road just drops off the mountain! Short straight followed by tight hairpin followed by another short straight into another hairpin and so on all the way down the mountain! That’s when you’re pleased you picked the little tankbag because you are on full lock getting round!
That descent was a real challenge, particularly with full luggage. I was overtaken which is itself quite unusual. First to come past was a German rider on a Triumph Triple. He was the leader of his pack and had obviously been there before but the real top-dog in my estimation was the young Italian on an oldish looking Guzzi. Wearing combat jacket and jeans he was going for it like there was no tomorrow! Gunning it down the short straights, dragging her round the hairpins, Burberry check scarf flying in the breeze! Only an Italian could ride like that!
After the snow-line you are down into forests, feeling about in the gloom in your fashionable tinted visor. That’s when you realise that some gippo has nicked the tarmac and you are sliding around on the damp dirt! I was tucking into a lunch of taglatelli and frites at a fresh looking, pine clad open air cafe when my Triumph riding friend went past. He had waited for his mates at a hostelry further up the hill. Of my young Italian hero on the guzzi riding with all the skill and panache of his fellow countryman Valentino Rossi there was no sign. He was probably halfway to Milano by this time!
I watched the Transalps, Beemers and Africa Twins heading up or coming off the mountain and could imagine the rider’s heart beats going just a little faster than normal. The deep, melodious sound of the cowbells as their wearers shook off the flies in the shelter of the trees behind the cafe helped slow my own to sensible levels before I got back on the road.
All too soon I was back on the bike and off down the mountain to cross the main Innsbruck/Verona route at Sperzing. On the way I picked up another young Italian riding a Ducati Monster with his girlfriend on the back. I had a great blat with him on the old road running alongside the new auto-route. No respecter of speed limits, it made for an interesting ride. When I pulled alongside him at a temporary set of traffic lights at some roadworks I used my two words of Italian, pointing at him,’Valentino Rossi,’ the beautiful Madonna riding pillion just smiled and we were off again! I was so engrossed watching her tidy rear that I missed my turning for Brunico and had to back track!
It was certainly Bank Holiday Monday again in northern Italy as the next stretch of road had very heavy traffic with a fair smattering of trucks from eastern Europe. Obli-Tablach was the dot on the map I was heading for and it turned out to be a busy holiday centre with quite a mix of Austrian, Italian and German visitors. I was running out of steam by this time and so was my wallet with the XJR averaging 38-40mpg over the fifteen hundred miles covered up to that point.
I found a hole in the wall to replenish my funds and a proper Italian ice-cream from the cafe across the road revived me enough to carry me over the border and into the Austrian Dolomites. I soon picked up a fantastic biking road that took me to the promising looking village of Maria Lugga.
This tiny village set in a beautiful valley is dominated by it’s massive church and I was very fortunate to find lodgings with Herr Imtal – Gastronome – Retired!
First impressions of his roadside guesthaus were misleading. When I parked and was led downstairs from the main entrance by this little old man I had visions of sleeping in some dark, dungeon type cellar. Imagine my surprise when he opened the door to a pleasant double complete with en-suite facilities and it’s own south-facing terrace looking out over hayricks in a peaceful valley with the majestic Italian Dolomites rising in the distance. I wanted to stay – and did for two nights.
The icing on the cake was to find that my terrace connected with a bar-cum-restaurant nex door and another plus was that Herr Imtal had me park my bike safely locked in his sun lounge on the side of the house.
I was soon showered, changed and over to the bar for a tall glass of Austria’s finest to enjoy as the sun set over the mountains to the south-west. It was even more magical when the moon rose between the two main peaks.
M-mmmm—– I must have had two glasses – but I do put in long days in the saddle. My face does get burned through that visor. Where’s the aftersun cream?
The following morning I sat down faced with a breakfast that would have fed a battalion and plowed through it as much as I dared. I didn’t really want to go up two sizes in my trouser fitting! Without my luggage for a day I was off down the valley and over to the Italian Dolomites to play. The roads were brilliant! Over, round and through the picturesque mountains. There were a few bikes about but the previous day must have been the end of the busy summer holiday period and judging by the massive logpiles by the back doors of all the houses, winter would be a long drawn out prospect.
My route took me over the Plockenpass on the road to Tolmezzo. Not too high at 4500ft but the weather had changed and the top few hundred feet were shrouded in low cloud. Wet and miserable just like a bad day at home.
I was back in Maria Luggau in time to take a walk in the late sunshine by the river on the valley floor. The villagers were taking their last cut of grass from the communal fields round the village and the thought taking a few days into the mountains with my boots and rucksack was an appealing proposition.
I had a look round the churchyard when I was out as old graveyards facinate me. I notice that members of the Imtal family had been interred in that little burial ground since 1410 and probably before that! Considering our different backgrounds, aspirations and languages my host and I hit it off really well. As far as I could gather he had lived in the village all his life while I on the other hand had spent much of my life travelling. There was little doubt that we were both somewhat envious of the other’s lifestyle.
Road hazards Maria Luggau style – the children bring the cows home to be milked. The second cyclist doesn’t look too sure but I think she picked the wrong side because that cow is turning right and she has right of way!
The cow won! But the owner was fined for not fitting her with a bell.
Mine Host – Herr Imtal – Gastronome – Retired.
My second breakfast in Maria Luggau was even more imposing than the first! Splendid! Frau Imtal had set it up before going to clean the church at seven o’clock leaving the Gastronome himself in charge. No wonder I wanted to live there!
Time to go! Settling up was no hardship at twenty three euros per night and I was on the road again heading east right after the photo session with Herr Imtal. Maria Luggau had marked the end of that fast biking road and the first thirty kilometres were on a single track clinging to the side of the mountain. There were many sharp blind bends, crumbling road edges, narrow bridges and the odd hamlet where there was sufficient suitable land to grow fodder for the cattle. Grassland didn’t have to be flat. On slopes too steep to be worked by the tough, Austrian built four wheel drive Stehyr tractors, scythes were used. The cut grass would be raked off by hand held rakes, back-breaking work, just like farming at home in Scotland in my youth.
All too soon I was out of the valleys and on to the modern road system that connects Austria with it’s neighbours down the eastern flank. A massive new tunnel has been built through the mountains all the way into Slovenia and unlike some of the Italian tunnels I was to encounter later, the Karawanken is a modern, state-of-art job with splendid lighting and many safe refuges in case of breakdowns. You emerge from the mountain on the southern side virtually on the border with Slovenia at Jesenice. The town itself is a bit of an old communist style culture shock after the splendour of Austria but is soon passed by as you head south.
Funny how it is when you stop for a break and get the map out, some well meaning soul will come over and ask if you are lost. Before you can say ‘not really’ they will give you advice on where to go next. Usually somwhere you have no interest in! This time it was a well-tanned German lady dripping in gold jewelry who accosted me at a wooded service area in Slovenia.
When I told her I was heading for Dubrovnik by road she thought I was mad! ‘On no account take the coast road – far too dangerous!’ ‘Go to Rijeka and catch a ferry for Dubrovnik stopping at the islands on the way!’ That would have been fine if I had the money and plenty of time to do it in. I explained that I had worked in Africa and the coast road couldn’t possibly be more dangerous than that. ‘Oh yes it is, absolutely no-go on the coast road! Ok, if you must be stubborn take a ferry to the nearest islands, go to Rab, ask for Anna, tell her I sent you and she will give you a room!
Give me moe than a room I bet! What did this bossy shiela know about anything? Poncing about with all that jewellry she was asking to be mugged! She didn’t have to go to Croatia for that! Once things calmed down it transpired that she was on her way to the Adriatic to spend a few days with her husband on her yacht. She didn’t even offer me a bite of her prawn sannies from the coldbox although my mouth was watering just looking at them!
My brush with the fraulein made me more determined than ever to do my own thing and I took the direction for Ljubljana, aiming to run down the backroads of Croatia rather than the ill-starred coast road or touristy island route.
Lunch was taken in the company of farmers, builders and truckers at a roadside restaurant in a forested area south-east of Ljubljana then I headed for the border with Croatia on the 108 hill road. I thought I was doing ok till I ran out of asphalt and had to ride for many kilometres on marbled gravel wishing I had fitted the engine protection bars I’d considered prior to my trip. That Akroprovic titanium exhaust hadn’t come cheap! I’m sure the armed border guard at that remote crossing thought it was Bin Laden himself on that red-hot motorcycle coming down the track that afternoon. It wasn’t exactly the main road into Croatia.
A quick scan of my passport, on went the appropriate stamp and I was in.
There are still some areas near the border between Slovenia and Croatia under dispute which would account for the unsurfaced road on the Slovenian side. Most of the signs in the north were directing me to the new motorway down the central spine of the country and I was determined not to use it. I got ever-so-slightly lost soon after crossing the border and stopped to ask a young lady in a small town where I would find a particular road. I usually find that young folk are more likely to speak English than the older ones.
A bolshy school-teacher type rode up on his scooter and interrupted my young lady guide who was doing her best to give me directions. ‘No don’t go that way on all those interesting back-roads, follow me!’ – and he guided me to all those signs that I had just passed for the new motorway!
B*ll*x! For one thing I didn’t want to ride down his bl**dy motorway and for another it ain’t even finished yet! The bits that are, run for miles through dry thornbrush covered, uninhabited countryside with few completed service stations. Quite worrying in the event of a puncture or breakdown.
Sorry about that outburst – it’s been a long day! I gave my scooter riding guide a smiling thankyou – headed for his motorway and turned off it for the backroads first chance I got.
I was heading for KrKra National Park, a series of lakes and waterfalls, crystal clear water holding shoals of darting fish and many species of birds and butterflies.
At least that’s what it said in the brochure I had come across before leaving home. The park lay about halfway down the country and was twenty kilometres or so inland from the coastal city of Sibernik.
Many ot the towns in the hinterland are still uninhabited, bullet, grenade and shell scarred roofless buildings then nothing but roadside brush for miles. It was getting late and I was riding into the setting sun after a long haul from Austria when I reached Kistanje, a two-street town. It looked big enough to have a hotel or lodgings of some kind but I guess they weren’t expecting visitors. The men dressed all in black sat silently in various groups on the sidewalk, not a woman or child to be seen. I kept the engine running and pretended to check my maps as I looked around for a guesthouse. Nothing moved! Not even a dog so I selected first and rode quietly out of town!
It’s obvious these people have been to hell and back in the last ten years or so and have little time for anything so frivolous as a touring motorcyclist.
Another thirty kilometeres in the gathering gloom took me to Skradin, gateway to the National Park. Dark by this time I passed the floodlit football stadium on the edge of town where a match was in progress and stopped to get my bearings. I hadn’t time to raise my visor when this girl was by my side. In her tight pants and forward manner I thought I’m too tired for that nonsense but when I explained I was just looking for a room she was good enough to sort me out with a bedsit behind the bungalow just across the road.
I’d fallen on my feet again. My converted garage came complete with cooker, kettle, washing machine and en-suite facilities plus safe parking and I negotiated with her a reasonable rate at twenty euros per night. The bungalow was owned by a war-wounded veteran of the recent troubles. He lived there with his wife complete with shrapnel scars in the walls and in the morning I found my young lady English speaking saviour was none other than the car-park attendant from across the road working late to cater for the football crowd.
Beautiful Skradin – I could live there —
And the good lord said – ‘ on the seventh day thou shalt rest,’ – or words to that effect. I know it was only Thursday but with around two thousand miles of mixed going under my wheels in the past six days I thought I would take his advice. having found a safe haven amongst the Croats, I parked my bike and became a tourist for the day.
First impressions were not so good – the table and bullet pocked walls of the ruin were only two doors from my bedsit and my landlord had lost a leg in the fighting —
Someone had obviously had their last supper at that table but I didn’t ask who.
I wandered round Skradin for a while and looked over the yachts in the natural harbour. There were some big ones. Although the Adriatic is over twenty kilometres away, a deep gorge runs out to the sea making this one of the safest harbours on this oft-times windswept coast.
I sampled a couple of pavement cafes and just chilled out. Then I had a flutter round the market stalls, found the local grocer and arrived back at my digs laden with carrier bags. Thought I had better eat some of it while the bread was fresh. Lunch of local produce consisting of hard boiled eggs, cheese, ham, grapes and tomato went well, perhaps the ‘olive oil’ I purchased on the market stall had something to do with it. I had seen the locals dip their bread in olive oil instead of spreading it with butter. ‘When in Rome’ – so I dipped – pooffff!
Just as well I wasn’t smoking! My olive oil turned out to be local fire water! I should have known when I saw the twig of berries floating in it. Hence the ‘Alcohol’ in my title!
Fortunately I had no plans to ride that afternoon. Instead I ambled down to the jetty and joined the rest of the tourist herd on one of the five boats taking visitors to the waterfalls.
The sail upriver under the bridge seen in the photo on my title page and walking amongst the falls and greenery was totally unexpected. Shoals of fish darting this way and that and a myriad of butterflies. So much better than I could have imagined it would be. Most of the day-trippers were Croats and had come equipped with picnics and swimming gear.
Silly me! I’d had my picnic for lunch back at the digs so after wandering around, snapping a few shots and admiring the birds, butterflies and fishes I caught a boat back down river to town in time to chill out over a few beers at a waterfront bar near where the tour boats were moored.
The sight and smell of the crew cooking a big seafood risotto on the afterdeck once the last tourist had been brought down for the evening made my mouth water. Nothing else for it but to head home and do my chores before having my own seafood risotto and a drop of red on a softly lit hotel veranda.
Lovely, lovely KrKra National Park had woven it’s spell on me – I was at peace with the whole world —
I had taken my bedsit for four nights all told and decided to ride over the back roads to the port of Zadar on Friday to book my ferry to Italy in preparation for my Sunday night crossing. Yes I thought I might follow the advice I had been given by all and sundry and go home that way.
After booking my ferry I had a look at the coast road to see what all the fuss was about. Absolutely no problems. Granted it was a bit stop-go as with any tourist trail, only worse because apartment owners, mostly German, had every layby staked out as they tried to attract passing motorists to stay in their newly built houses.
Next I parked in the shade of some pine trees and went for my first dip in the clear waters of the Adriatic. Two beautiful girls wearing only miniscule thongs from a family group bathing next to me made me realise how much I was missing the comforts of home! When I couldn’t take any more I got back on the bike and rode down to Sibernik. It has a beautiful promenade, gorgeous girls, waterfront bars and cafes. I found I couldn’t chill out so I struggled out of town through the grid-locked traffic and headed for the hills again!
I approached the lakes from the west this time. Down past some dusty lime-stone quarries by the hill-top town of Drnis where I spotted barbed wire fences and watch-towers surrounding a group of nissen huts in the dense scrub. It could have been a prison camp, a munitions dump or even a mine field but with all the scull and crossbones signs on both sides of the road I wasn’t tempted to investigate further. Mindfull of the fate of the British plane-spotters in Greece I didn’t take pictures either.
The upper lakes were fantastic! There was quite a variety of birds including heron, cormorant and duck plus many colourful smaller birds. Every kind of butterfly you could imagine fluttered about the lush trees and undergrowth near the water which was full of shoals of small fish darting this way and that in unison and possibly even big uns too for all I know. Best of all I had most of it to myself. I even found my own waterhole and went for a dip in the cool, clear fresh water.Magic!
I think it was about then I realised I had missed lunch so it didn’t take much to persuade me to stop at a quiet restaurant terrace in the middle of nowhere with views down to the lakes. Their grilled trout tasted just like the rod-caught or ‘tickled’ brownies I remembered from my youth in the Scottish Borders. The only thing missing was the oatmeal dressing.
I washed my meal down with a cool beer and scrambled out of there up an old dirt road that was rough enough to have me worrying again about my precious titanium exhaust but thankfully my exhaust and I emerged unscathed.
My favourite photos? It’s hard to choose my absolute favourite but this first one taken from the Sibernik road to the south comes close —
The bridge beyond the yachts is part of the new north/south motorway system which was being built while I was there in 2004.
the bridge in this next photo is at the entrance to KrKra National Park and the official tourist boats sail under it.
big and small – it has them all —
Another day ended with a few beers at a waterfront bar in Skradin and a sneaky night-cap from my ‘olive oil’ bottle before bed. I told you it can be thirsty work being a motorcycle tourist.
Saturday was my last chance to see Dubronik as I would be starting my homeward journey on Sunday.
The coast road runs through Bosnia at one stage and I had no insurance for that country so to be on the safe side I made a detour by ferry from Ploce to Pelejesac Peninsula and carried on south.
After riding all that way I didn’t actually enter the city but saw it from across the bay. Struggling with a large capacity air-cooled bike in grid-locked cities isn’t really my thing. Far better to fly there for a few days at some time in the future and ‘do’ the city of Dubronik properly.
I had no problem with riding back to Skradin to spend my last night in Croatia in the beautiful old town. Yes it had obviously taken a few hard blows during the Balkan wars but it felt right for me. In fact I was quite sad to be leaving as I could easily have spent a few days more down there.
No worries – time to pack and get on the road again. Heading for home this time.
Lazy Sunday. I rode over to the ferry port of Zadar in the morning stopping for a snack with the locals at a village cafe on the way. The laden XJR was parked under a shady tree while I had my coffee and pastry —
Then it was over the last range of hills and into Zadar where I checked out the dock gates and the times of loading as much as I could before going for a tour of the old walled city built on a peninsuls jutting out to sea. There are eleven churches, all busy on a Sunday, an internet cafe, numerous bars, restaurants and market stalls within the walls with yachts of every description on the water around the city.
As it was a beautiful hot sunny day I chilled out in one of the many shady parks by the promenade and watched the girls go by. Excitement would come later in the afternoon when Croatia won a gold medal at the Olympics. Probably gold in the netball competition. Everyone was on the streets celebrating, convoys of cars and scooters with horns blaring and flags waving were soon speeding round the city! The celebrations didn’t last long before everyone returned to the more serious work in the bars and I made my way to the port to catch my ferry to Italy.
15/11/2016 – Quick Edit.
I seem to have mislaid my journey home across the Adriatic to Italy then north through Switzerland – Germany – Belgium and France.
No worries – you readers don’t get off that easy – I remember it as if it was yesterday and should be able to put it together again.