Belgium - Australia on an BMW R1100 GS motorcycle, solo.
Report #5 - June 17th to 22nd, 1998...
From the Adriatic coast I crossed Italy to reach Rome. That route took me through Umbria, initially via a road the width of which was somewhere between a two-lane and a four-lane road without shoulders. This road is used as a three-lane road. Other countries use a lane in the middle which people can use to overtake, and the use is governed by the markings. That's a hassle Italians can do without. They don't have an official middle lane, but when the opposite traffic keeps right as far as possible, you virtually have this third lane. There is a white line in the middle, sometimes solid, sometimes broken. But nobody cares. Same goes for the speed signs: that's just a colourful decoration. After a day of participating I've learned the one traffic rule in Italy: "when you think it will end well, you may overtake".
So you must pay attention when overtaking, but the same goes when you mind your own business riding and looking around. There always is the possibility of a car coming at you thinking you have seen him and assuming you will make way to avoid a head-on collision!
After a while I thought it was time to add some variety, and so I left this road to search for a mountain pass. Going up using the northern slope, going down on the southern slope. The road on the northern slope had the quality I know from the Ardennes: cracked because of frost, cracks filled, and next winter cracked again. A nice change. The pass wasn't very high, and because of a near-by semi-highway very quiet. It is one of the most curved ones though. The surroundings are covered with dense foliage. I can hardly imagine winters are snowy and very cold. All that green looks lovely, like it only rained yesterday. The mountain road strings together small villages in a beautiful hills-filled landscape with now and again some gorgeous views.
Finally I reached Rome rather quickly. The first time I came here was last year, did all the culturally responsible stuff (Colosseum, l'Imperiale, Spanish Steps (you know in whose company ?), countless fountains, the Vatican and the Sixtanian Chapel). Now it was time for something all together more fun: the grand tour, method-Kuus.
Menno Kuus and I have visited Barcelona on our way to the motor races at the Cataluna speedway in 1995. Our goal: ride a bit, eat a bit and back to our beds. In Barcelona traffic is less regulated than up north. There are lots of mopeds and motor bikes, and the people in traffic are used to that. No hassle when you squeeze yourself through a row of cars, nobody complains when you overtake on their right side. And lots of fun when Menno and I were the first to go when the traffic lights went green. This way of travelling speedily through a city (misbehaving is a synonym) is called the method-Kuus.
In Rome and Naples they don't need an introduction - everyone drives according to the method-Kuus. The main traffic rule her must be: "when it fits, it can be done, and when it can be done, it is allowed". And that goes for everything: overtaking on the left, overtaking on the right, truck-bike-truck sandwich, cutting off others and just being in their way, passing the stop line in an attempt to be the first in line, overtaking left of traffic islands, using bus lanes, filter left and then taking a right turn, whatever. A Dutch policeman would use up a complete ticket book a day (provided he could catch all offenders).
Here everything goes - even the police gives me a friendly wave if I pull another stunt while failing to notice the officer in time. So a friendly wave back... And they are brave here! They overtake me when I'm enjoying the scenery for a bit while still doing 40 mph. And they don't ride a motor bike, but they use a moped. No helmet, in shorts (or skirts, the ladies bravely put in their share). And it is incredible what they transport here! I've seen a moped with the passenger holding a TV. Another one stacking the weekly groceries on the foot rests. In Naples a trusting kid of three just reaching the handle bars (but couldn't see a thing) standing on the foot rests.
After 2 hours of riding/crossing Rome, and the same in Naples, you would expect to see at least one accident. Nope. All that racing seems to end right each time. But it often almost goes wrong. I turned into an alley once, and thought, "darn, this is a one-way street", because using the full width of the road (from left to right) a truck, a car and 2 mopeds approached me. But this turned out to be an attempt at overtaking, and they broke off that manoeuvre when they got me in their sights. Apparently the road was not heavily used in this direction - I ran into the very same action further on. And it really was a two-way street, white line and all. I couldn't resist myself: later on I tried this myself. Lucky I'm in no hurry...
From Rome I went to the coast to get myself somewhere to sleep, and possibly a day's rest. I found a camp site in the middle of nowhere, filled with Romans (you can tell by their license plates on their cars). I just finished a whole day riding and I wanted to drink a beer at the restaurant. That place was full of people, all centered around a huge TV screen. The game Italy - (I forgot who) was on. So I watched for a while. The people, not the match, I don't like the game. One of the tables served calamari - I surrendered to this fried feast, although I had already eaten. I looked around a bit more, and suddenly the pitch of the commentary voice rose. When they scored, I found myself in a soccer stadium! Everybody was cheering! Like they scored themselves! It sure seems great fun to be able to participate in such an event on TV.
The next day I decided that riding my bike is more fun than lying in the sun - on my way again, southbound along the coast. I stopped to eat at the base of the Vesuvius in a restaurant. Had a great meal, and then up the Vesuvius. I talked a while with a man who operated the cable railway for 39 years, until lightning struck and destroyed the facility. Now he sells booklets about the Vesuvius. He claims to be a witness to the last eruption of the vulcano. The Vesuvius disappointed me - a big mountain with a crater near Naples. Previous eruptions have covered a Greek city at its base, and they have excavated it. Now one can get a tour, but I didn't feel like falling in this tourist trap.
The next place of interest is Paestum, the excavation of a Roman village. I put up my tent nearby and went sleeping with the intention of visiting this site. The next morning it was lightly clouded, but I got up late (didn't get up until 8, after the news on my radio). "Actually, it is great motor weather" I thought, "and playing the tourist and lying in the sun only gives me the jimjams". The decision was quickly made - pack up and go. Too quick. The nice lady of the now empty camp grounds was disappointed of me leaving her (and didn't pay for another night).
This road was a two-lane one used as a three-lane. Just when I thought I needed a change the road narrowed, and narrowed a lot. Again I had run into a mountain pass; the villages were numerous, the road signs cryptic. In one of the villages I bought some gasoline - in itself nothing special, but this time something happened, and I would only realize that later. I didn't remove my ear plugs, therefor I couldn't understand the assistant. But then again, I hadn't anything to tell him, and what could an assistant tell me, certainly if he only speaks fluently Italian ?
In the souther part, the Italians, are very different from people in the north. The more I travel southwards, the less they speak English, German or French. "Solo Italiano." The men get dirtier. The women stay the same, mostly well dressed and pleasantly smelling on their mopeds. The people, both men and women, do get more xenophobic; a stranger from a country far away doesn't receive a curious reception, it gets rather hostile. The men look at you like you are going to steal their wife tonight, or you're going to beat them at soccer (or maybe something else that will hurt them in their masculinity). There are exceptions: some of them are professionally curtious - the proprietors of the restaurants and other establishments. I don't notice anything in relation to the stereotype stories about robbery. I hardly see any tourists from other parts of Europe, I do see some Italians from other parts of this country (especially Turin is well represented).
Riding along the coast went great - again I couldn't stop myself. I went all the way to Reggio Calabria (the tip of the booth which makes up Italy on the map). About half way I took a break to have lunch (very nice (pasta with mussels), but the service was rude). There I noticed that the zipper from the lower compartiment of my tank bag was undone. The cable connecting my computer and my cell phone was missing. I thought I left it in my tent and it subsequently was stowed away (did that already with my glasses). So I continued my trip to the outermost part of Italy, and took the ferry to Sicily.
When I put up the tent the cable did not appear. I unpacked absolutely everything, but apparently the connection between me and the Internet was gone. And then I started to recap the trip of that day mentally. I concluded it must have felt out of the bag while I was filling up, and on top of that I didn't hear it fall.
Oh well, I was on Sicily to view the Etna. Now that's a vulcano! Over 9,000 feet high with a wreath of smoke, like any self-respecting vulcano should have. Aside from the smoke, the Etna also has some permanent snow, and so there are the inevitable ski lifts. I went in early - at 6,000 feet altitude before 9 AM. For the first time in days I felt cold! The Etna has 2 passes, one on the north flank, one south. Just to be sure I tested both - the north one is more quiet, because it is more difficult to access. The road leading to the south pass is newer, easier to use for large coach buses. This new road is there on purpose - one time I ride through a forest, the next moment the road changes from new to brand new, and the forest is gone. What's left is a large amount of big, black lumps of lava, the lucious green is washed over with hardened rock.
South of the Etna is a city, one of the largest on Sicily. I went off to find a computer shop. I found a computer super store the size of which would fit Belgian standards. A Psion GSM Gold Card ? That's a question for our guru. They conjured up a speckled, slightly overweighted little man, a genuine techie, and he knew this product. "great", I thought, "that's fixed." Cheered too early, he only saw the announcement. Of course it was not in stock, he thought the distributor would receive the first shipment any day now. Could I come back in about 2 weeks ? When I asked him about the price, he had to pass on that answer as well.
I wanted to ride along the Mediterrenean coast (the sole of the boot) back to the heel, to Brindisi. Brindisi is the southern-most place which sports a connection to Greece. It is a long road, but hey, what's long when you just finished a 450 mile stretch of coastal road in Croatia ? The first target would be a village below the heel (that's easy, a land shaped like a boot) called Taranto. The distance should be about 250 miles. After riding about 60 miles, the signs showed ... 230 miles! And I was still bothered with the loss of that stupid cable. So I left the coastal road near Catanzaro, and took the highway in an attempt to reach a very specific gas station. Near Sapri (top of the instep, off the ankle) I put up my tent - there was not enough time until sunset to "fill up".
The next morning (a Sunday) I got ready leisurely, left behind my tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat, and took the mountain pass with 17 pounds less luggage. On a side note, after adjusting the tension on the front spring of the back wheel there actually wasn't a difference. The gas station was quickly found, and it was opened as well! "A good sign", I thought, and explained to the assistant what happened. He wasn't interested in my puny little problems, and he certainly wasn't willing to call his colleague at home. After pressing some more we searched through the space behind the counter and through some private quarters. Cable was gone... That afternoon I did some useful chores, washing all my belongings, and caught some sleep. I also called JC and Sandra and (amongst other things) asked them to send a message on my behalf. I've called Menno to try and find out the Greek distributor (hopefully in Athens) - he thought he could do that, he would call me back Monday.
That Monday I went to Brindisi, straight through the inlands of South Italy. No high speeds, no sea wind. And hot! As the sun climbed the sky, I went deeper into the inlands - at 10 AM the drive wind was about 30 degrees Celsius. The landscape rises steeply from the Mediterrenean to about 1,800 feet. Apparently, in the last couple of hours the green foilage is sprinkled - what an enormous change a little change of height can make. Then it slowly downwards again, the scenery flattens out. But it also gets rougher - no human interference, apart from a several miles long pipe originating from a lake. This is where the temperature rise is the steepest, until I reach a cultivated piece of land, where the fields are irrigated. The temperature drops noticeably - checking my thermometer reveals a drop of 2 degrees Celsius! Now I know why the nature preservers are so concerned about evaporation caused by irrigating fields.
I arrived in Brindisi early, before noon. Looking for the ferry to Athens posed a problem: there was no ferry to Athens. There is one going to Patra, about 100 miles from Athens. But: that one is bnooked full... A search along the present offices turned up another boat, but that one was much slower, and more expensive. So I bought tickets for the Pullmann chairs and of course for my bike. The ship was scheduled to depart at 8 PM, boarding would start at 6. Almost a full afternoon to spend. I started off looking for a place to eat, using the proven method. No tourist in the joint, just locals. And preferably a place that doesn't show off with a large sign, but does have a lot of customers. "Trattoria di Mario" was the choice. A great last meal for my last day in Italy. I started off with raw octopussies (whole, only the intestines and eyes removed), shrimps, crab, salmon salad and bread (this is called antipasta), followed by a variety to the primi piatti (that's usually pasta): a rice dish with mussels, oysters and the like (this cook should probably stick to the cooking of pasta, the rice was way too soggy and overdone). For secondi piatti (the main dish) I selected a fish from a huge stack different fishes on top of a mountain of ice. After coffee I went for a short ride and found myself a cell phone pole, because there the reception is the clearest.
Menno had it all covered: Psion is not sold in Greece, because there is no distributor. But the cable was found, and a courier was ready. I asked to have it dropped off at American Express in Athens. Because of the efforts of Menno (and Acotec?) my problem was quickly solved. Hoorah for Menno!
The bike had a surprise for me too this morning: the new top-case support has managed to break at the same place without the help of the top-case! This is probably caused by me stringing up the sleeping bag and my isolation suit (the lightest things go at the back) so tight the support gave way again. This of course couldn't have been caused by my style of riding... So off to some construction site. But where? I started going around the industry terrain, and the very first attempt I struck gold. The workers at that factory employed heavy machinery, and my arrival on that delicate piece of machinery stopped all the work in progress. Even the boss left his office to check out the commotion, and he sent everybody back to work (damn bosses!). One of the men from the administration office knew some French, and I explained what my intentions were. He instructed a metal worker, while I disassembled the top-case support with my own tools. He drilled a couple of holes through the support and fastened it with some bolts that were adjusted to size. "Payment?" "Give us all a beer." I thought a case of beer might cost me 15,000 lires, but they didn't accept more than 10,000 lires (about US$ 6,--). Great going!
In the afternoon I chatted a while with some other passengers while drinking away 1.5 litres of water (it's so hot on the quay): mainly North-Europeans from Greek or Turkish origin in large cars stuffed to the top (roof rack, that is). Nice people you don't ordinarily meet. Typical foreign labourers: the whole family (in one case 3 generations, granny joined them as well) in a filled-up car with melancholy music from Dad's country. In those cases I really lie through my teeth about my position, the social gap is enormous and I almost feel guilty about the amount of luck I encountered. And I'm off to realize the dream of many.
At 6 PM sharp boarding began - me first (I can wriggle my way past anything with my bike). I selected a nice spot at the exit, and started securing the bike. The newsletter from Global Travel Information once reported bikes on ferries, damaged from tumbling over, and this ferry too didn't have material aboard to secure small vehicles (they did have stuff for big trucks). But I took that tip at heart, and packed my own ropes. One of the ferry officers also came on a bike: a brand new Yamaha Tenere. And he too secured his bike with ropes, although the crossing was calm and uneventful.
On deck I asked the purser for a cabin, or a bed in a larger room. I thought this would be easy, I only saw countless trucks (with sleeping accomodations installed), and only a handful of people with ordinary cars. I was the only one on a bike. The purser told me to come back when we left the harbour. So I returned to the aft deck to enjoy the sight of business behind the ship. Men in stark white uniforms using a whistle and lots of shouting directing trucks inside one by one. And then it happened. A coach bus arrived. A full one. With American whales and accompanying boys, on an educational tour. And then another one, and another one. And the sleeping quarters in which I imagined myself sleeping, breathing to the rythm of that enormous ship engine, was taken away by a bunch of children.
Initially I hung around in the bar, but it was packed with those 18-year-olds, with whom you cannot have a decent conversation. In the section with the Pullmann chairs there were a couple of Mexicans (on a world tour with a backpack). I chatted for a while with them, but they wanted to get some sleep. So did I. It was very cool in the section we were in, due to an over-enthusiastic air conditioner. Initially I was a bit reluctant, but the solution from 10 years back still worked. I went to my bike, took off my sleeping bag and went to sleep on the floor. Constantly I was interrupted, but the next morning at breakfast one of the Mexicans said he regretted not having a sleeping bag at hand. He was cold all night and hadn't closed an eye.
After arriving in Patra... (more next time)
Yasou! (That's "see you", but sometimes "hello" as well in Greek)