Having been invited to join a friend's European tour, something I have never done, and after a far amount of introspection and encouragement from my better half and others, I agreed.
R and his wife J (who he affectionately refers to as the Old Trout, or OT for short) have made many motorcycling trips onto the Continent, and wanted to go to Greece as that was one of the few countries they haven't been to before. While this might not have been my first choice, it could well be the only chance I ever get.
The general plan is we meet up in Plymouth (I live in Derby in the middle of England, R and J live in the Channel Island of Guernsey). We will catch a ferry to Santander in Spain, travel across Spain to Barcelona, ferry to Civitavecchia in Italy, cross Italy to Ancona, ferry to Igoumenitsa in Greece, couple of days in Greece, ferry from Igoumenitsa to Ancona, then ride up Italy, through France, ferry from St Malo to Guernsey, I overnight there with R and J, then ferry to Weymouth in England, and ride back to Derby. Of course, in general we won't be riding direct routes and we will stay at nice hotels (I hope).
I expect to do a little over 3000 miles in about 2 weeks; no large mileage on any one day, and a couple of rest days (at least, staying in two of the hotels for two nights each).
R has done all the planning of routes, ferries and hotels, something he is very good at (or so he tells me) and obviously enjoys. Just as well; my planning abilities are mediocre at best. We've discussed the route, where we want to visit, alternatives that might be expedient (e.g. if there is snow on the Alpine passes). Miles/hours per day, petrol stops on days when there may not be many garages open.
There is a goodly amount of paperwork to take, including passport, medical insurance, travel insurance, checking on bike recovery, ensuring credit cards will not be frozen because of "unusual activity", I have to take the bike's registration documents, insurance certificate, my driving license, and, because mine is an old-fashioned non-photo one, I need an International Driving Permit.
Then I have to check to see what I have to take from the list of first aid kit, red triangle, hi-viz jacket, set of spare bulbs, and maybe some others.
I also have to get a Euro-legal number plate. I find that my dealer is not allowed to do one for me; I can get a "show" one off the internet, but eventually get a fully legal one from Halfords. Totally stupid that I can't get one from the dealer.
For my own peace of mind I want to take my satnav, puncture repair kit, Puncture Safe tyre sealant, pump, heated jacket, clothes for a fortnight, plenty of Euros in cash. I will change the tyres for new, even though I've only done about 2000 on the present one; I don't want to run out of tyre in the middle of nowhere. In France. On a French bank holiday. With a ferry to catch. As I write this, both wheels are off the bike to take to a shop to get new ones.
I've stored each day's destination in my Tomtom, so whatever happens we should find our way to the evening's hotel or ferry port.
Apart from that, it's making sure I've got phone, camera, razor, toothbrush, chargers, clothes, etc. That's the easy part, I'm well used to week-long trips to Scotland and have that all sussed.
1st April 2011 - New tyres on, BT023s. I've had bad experiences with BT021s on my first FJR. When new, they were fine, wet or dry gave good grip and handling. While the rear remained fine, the front during the last half of its life felt nasty when cornering, requiring a lot of counter-steering effort, and generally not very reassuring. The BT023s seem to have better reports, so I'm giving them a go.
I've put adhesive tape on the tank to protect the paint from the tank bag, and some on the passenger hand grips because I'll have luggage strapped across which will probably rub at the paint.
2nd April 2011 - Quick local trip. The first couple of corners the rear seemed a bit slippery (as expected), but after a few miles it felt much better. Only been in the dry, but they now feel good.
All I've got left to do is set my alarm clock for 5:30 on the Sunday morning to do the 250-odd miles to Plymouth to meet R and J at the ferry terminal.
Run down to Plymouth uneventful. Almost entirely motorway. Started cold (6C), stopped after 10 miles to put on another layer. Warmed up a little en route (got to practise my French for later).
Stopped for petrol at Plymouth Sainsbury's. Cheated a little, jumped the queue of cars, sneaked to a pump where another m/c was filling, when he stopped I took over. Probably saved a ½ hour queue wait. For the record, from my fill the day before, 261 miles, 22.01 litres, that's 53.9 mpg, quite acceptable considering it was on 70mph roads virtually all the way. Journey time about 258 miles in 4 hours, so average about 64 mph including "dress" stop and a comfort stop.
Got to the ferry terminal, met up with R and J. Getting hot while we waited to board. We were put right up the front, will have to turn round twice to get out, deck is slippery.
Sailed at about 15:30. Ferry is the MV Pont-Aven, run by Brittany ferries. Quite plush. Whilst I had a basic cabin (small, clean, basic facilities, no window), R & J had a very nice cabin, much larger, a seating area, tea/coffee facilities, and a balcony. They also had access to the waiter service dining room, I was able to join them. Food French, and very good. The meal was slightly spoilt by an English couple who were at an adjoining table. They were the worst kind of English, and were generally boring and obnoxious.
We're due to dock in Santander at 11:00 UK time, 12:00 Spanish time, so it looks like a leisurely breakfast, but not too leisurely. R says we'll be chucked out of the cabins an hour or two before we dock.
Day 1: 263 miles (mileages are approximate).
Breakfast in R & J's cabin, croissants, orange juice, tea.
Ferry docked on time, but it was about an hour before our car deck were allowed down, then it took twenty minutes or so to get the bikes out.
After showing our passports we stopped to make sure we were properly dressed, then set off. Traffic in Santander was busy, but laid back enough so it was no problem. R was having trouble making his satnav work, so in the end he went by instinct, and got us out on the right road.
One aspect I had always been concerned with was driving on the "wrong" side of the road. After following R round one roundabout the "wrong" way, it all seemed very natural, I had no problem.
We ascended to about 1100 meters/3600 feet, it got cold and damp. At the top we entered the cloud layer, visibility was less than 100 feet at times, but as we descended the other side, we dropped out of the cloud layer, it remained cold but OK, and the rain that had been threatening stopped.
The roads R had chosen were great for biking, some straights, many curves, and some nice hairpins to keep you awake. A pity the weather was so dull, otherwise we'd get the fantastic view that R assured me was there.
Arrived at Santo Domingo de la Calzada where we found our hotel. Actually not the one that was booked; there are two Parador hotels in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and a slight mix-up had us in the wrong one, but they readily swapped us to the one we wanted.
Parked the bikes, a quick freshen up, then a walk round the town, a visit to the cathedral and back to the hotel, and a relaxing meal. Very friendly service and good food.
Day 2: 130 miles.
Rode up into the mountains. Some fast motorway roads, but then miles and miles of twists and turns through the mountains. Went over a couple of passes. Weather bright sunshine, and even when we were high up the temperature got up to 24C at times. Had to remove a layer or two.
Saw dozens of (probably) buzzards, and what I took to be a large eagle; it was descending to land and I have this memory of its legs coming down, big thighs, huge talons as it flared and dropped out of sight behind vegetation.
I missed a lot of the views because the road required so much concentration. Traffic was very light, we went for miles without seeing another vehicle. When we did come up behind one, it wasn't easy to pass because of the road disappearing round the next corner, invariably hidden by a near vertical rock face.
In contrast, we did quite a few miles on motorways, also on country roads with long sweeping bends as the road scythed its way through the landscape.
An extremely enjoyable day's motorcycling, marred slightly by R's Garmin satnav that caused him a lot of agro. My Tomtom, in contrast, behaved well and gave useful directions.
Stayed overnight in a Parador hotel in Seu D'Urgell.
Day 3: 332 miles.
We spent most of the morning and the first half of the afternoon on sweepers and twisties. My bike was an absolute dream to ride, it just ate up the miles regardless of the type of road. R said he found his a bit heavy, but he had his pillion. He also had BT021 tyres. We'll find out later if that was part of his issue. I also had my first ever peg scrape (first whilst in control, that is).
Lunch was at a roadside cafe where they were serving locals. Erm, that's serving food to locals, not serving locals as food.
A simple but tasty meal, with water, a glass of wine (for J, she wasn't driving) and coffee, all for 10 Euros each. Excellent value.
The late afternoon was spoilt by heavy traffic going into Barcelona, followed by a long wait for the (late) ferry. It looks like we were the only two bikes on the boat. I say boat, it was a large ferry that took dozens of heavy lorries, amongst which we were put.
Skipped anything to eat, a shower and bed (well, bunk) were the order of the day (or night). But there were hundreds of school kids running up and down the corridors, sleep wasn't easy to come by.
Day 4: 238 miles.
Spent all day aboard the ferry from Barcelona to Civitechia. Sea very calm.
It's a large ferry, takes 2300 passengers. A large floating hotel. Arrival time is announced to be a little late at 19:45. Then it's a 500 metre ride to the hotel.
We had a reasonable lunch on board the ferry; we chose the sit-down restaurant because we'd seen horrendous queues at the self-service cafe.
The voyage was totally let down towards the end. We were evicted from our cabins about three or four hours before docking time. So we went to a lounge bar, which was fairly crowded, but OK. Until they started some loud "music", which, although it may have suited some of the younger people on board, for us it was just an unpleasant and intrusive noise. Then we found it was being broadcast in other seating areas, so no way to avoid it. And they closed the cafe. And they locked most of the toilets, the one that I found open was in a disgusting state. It was a real relief to get off the boat.
Arriving in Civitavechia, it was raining. Luckily the hotel was only half a mile from the ferry terminal, and as soon as we went in, we were greeted by the staff, who couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. A real pleasure after the trauma of the ferry.
We ate a good meal in their restaurant before retiring.
Day 5: ½ mile.
After breakfast we rode right across Italy. It rained for a lot of the time, some of the roads were twisting and winding up and down, heavily trafficked with lorries, making progress less pleasurable than it might have been. The local driving was occasionally interesting, patience wasn't very evident, with some strange overtaking manoeuvres that kept me alert.
Reaching Ancona, J went off to get the boarding passes, and joined a queue that didn't seem to move. Some in the queue wanted to change their booking, and each time the clerk couldn't deal with it herself, she had to phone someone else. J must have been in the queue for half an hour or so. Her transaction took moments. Very frustrating.
We had a quick bite to eat and a cup of tea/coffee, then rode round to the ferry. We were held for a while as other vehicles boarded, then we did. On the previous, identical ferry we'd been put amongst the lorries at the dock level deck, but this time we were put with cars two decks up, long ramps taking us up.
For the record, these ferries are 55000 tonnes displacement, carry 2300 passengers, have 479 cabins. Restaurants, bars, lounges, casino.
Day 6: 194 miles.
Land at Igoumenitsa. It's raining. It isn't supposed to rain in Greece. So we set off to do the 300-odd kilometres to Thessalonika. Not only is it raining, it's cold as well.
After 50 miles or so, R turns off the motorway. I presumed he'd got bored with the motorway, or he's avoiding a toll. It later turns out his Garmin insisted. Bad move. After a few miles up this winding mountain-hugging road, we came round a blind corner to find this section where most of our side of the road had dropped down nine inches or so. (J later tells me it's one of the few times R has said "Oh, shit" whilst riding.) For 50 yards or so the whole road has subsided, all lumps, bumps, loose stones. R stops, we decide it is still navigable to where we can see a more normal road surface, so we proceed with care.
Eventually we find our way back onto the motorway, and apart from having to search out [even more expensive than in the UK] petrol, and a cafe for a coffee and bite to eat, we stay on it until our destination, Thessalonika. We see snow (temperature down to 3C/37F, am I glad of my heated vest!). And signs warning of bears (see later). Yes, apparently they have bears in Greece. And speed cameras. Luckily, Tomtom seems to know where they are (speed cameras that is, not bears), and gives me good warning. R is less interested in speed cameras, it's unlikely they'd trace his number plate, but when he sees them he does make sure I know where they are.
We get to the town, and look for the hotel. Every street around is completely full of parked cars and scooters. We find the hotel, then navigate round it, eventually stopping on the road outside its entrance. A porter comes out, and shows us round to the back, the wrong way along a one-way street. Casually watched by a number of police who happen to be there, but no-one bats an eyelid. We ride into a vehicle lift that takes us beneath the hotel to park.
Booking in, we find the staff very friendly and helpful. So they should be at the price of this hotel...
A good meal in the hotel, served by more cheerful and friendly staff.
Tomorrow is a free day, but forecast for rain again. Might decide not to ride, we'll see.
Day 7: Not recorded, probably 200 miles
I've picked up a virus somewhere along the line, I'm coughing and wheezing, sometimes my voice disappears (I suspect this brings some relief to R and J). Anyway, they go off to find a bus that does a tour of the sites, I spend the day walking and snuffling. Oh, yes, the weather. It starts off overcast and quite cold, but no rain. The locals are dressed as if it's freezing. I do put on a jumper. Later on the sun comes out for an hour or so, it gets quite hot. I put on sun cream and my hat (well, I have had skin cancer).
I sauntered around the town, looking at some of the sites.
Hope I feel better tomorrow when we start the return trip, it won't be much fun if I'm feeling rough.
Day 8: 0 miles.
Not really a good day. My cold was no better. First thing in the morning, I ask at reception for a pharmacy, they tell me how to get to one. I walk round to it. Although they didn't speak English very well, and I speak Greek not at all, I manage to buy some paracetamol and some cream for my now very sore nose.
I returned to the hotel to find R and J at breakfast, but R has pulled his back. Not good when you're riding a heavy motorcycle.
The weather was overcast, turned to drizzle and rain. We all thought Greece was supposed to be sunny.
Because of R's back, my cold and the weather, we decided to take the motorway back to Igoumenitsa, boring, but after our experience with the road we found going the other way, and our states of health, we took the easy option. As it was, I nearly fell asleep on the road, not good when you are doing 130kph on a motorway.
One moment of light relief was to find the road signs saying
We arrived in Igoumenitsa very early. I hung around, R and J went off to see if they could find a pharmacy that might have something to ease R's back, but everywhere was closed until 6 in the evening, by which time it would be too late for us to catch the ferry.
The port area was very run down, with strange individuals wandering around. I believe they have a large number of illegal immigrants/emigrants in the area, and in spite of frequent police patrols, there was no way we would leave the bikes unattended.
This was the only time in the whole trip when I had any feelings of insecurity.
R went to undo one of his panniers, to find the lock pulled right out. The two screws that hold it together had undone completely, but luckily were still there. Because they need a special tool to do up (a tamper proof star driver), we made do by tightening them with a pair of pliers. We went to get petrol and tried at the garage to see if they had one; the man there had a set, but not small enough. They'll need checking periodically.
Back to the port, and after what seemed a very long wait, we eventually boarded. A quick drink and bite to eat, and I'm for my bed.
Day 9: 225 miles (425 minus day 7's 200 miles).
We arrive in Ancona after another very smooth crossing. Just as well, the bikes had only been tied with a piece of rope, mine to R's to the side of the boat. Very poor had there been any movement.
We rode out of Ancona. R wanted to go a scenic route to Florence, but his Garmin didn't want to, and we ended up on a toll road. A very poor toll road. R later said "Only the Italians would pay money to travel on a road like this."
After a while we stopped, and he forced a route that took us onto a much more interesting road, stopped at a nice little roadside cafe. Really friendly people.
We discussed our route, realising we didn't really want to spend too long on the road (my cold and his back) and had to revert to motorways.
Arrived in Florence. R & J have been here before, and gave me a mini-tour. We didn't spend too long, we found a small restaurant and had an adequate rather than stunning meal.
It's a non-riding day tomorrow, hopefully R's back and my cold will have improved sufficiently so that we can do the tourist thing properly.
Day 10: 173 miles.
R's back was giving him real trouble still. Eventually he got an appointment with a chiropractor for early afternoon, having been to a pharmacy then a yoga expert who phoned the chiropractor.
Meanwhile, J gave me a guided tour of Florence. It's a fairly compact city (at least as far as the touristy bit is concerned).
We met up with R again, and J went with R to his appointment.
I went on my own meander, and ended up at the Giuardino di Boboli gardens.
A fairly large area, with trees, hedges, paths, odd bits of sculpture, very few plants (I suppose it's semi-tropical). A steep climb went up to a good view over the city.
I saw a phenomenon that I'd heard about (from David Attenborough) but never seen before. Across the path was a line that from a distance I took to be a long twig. As I got nearer, I could see one end was moving. Closer still, it was a line of some thirty-three caterpillars, nose to tail. At the front was one that was path-finding (it would appear at random), all the rest were dutifully following.
It's suggested that as a line, they look more like a snake than lots of tasty caterpillars, so it's a good survival strategy.
I hope they make it to wherever they want to go.
Doing a little research, I have identified these caterpillars as the "pine processionary caterpillar (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)". It's lucky I didn't touch them, their hairs apparently produce a severe allergic reaction!
We were planning to eat away from the hotel tonight so I was keeping an eye open for a restaurant, but all I can see are cafes and bars. I hope the others have found something.
I did see what calls itself The Biker's Cafe. Outside it were three Harleys (or clones) and a chopper. Around a couple of tables were fifteen or twenty leather clad Bikers. I found it a cross between sad and funny, but I didn't laugh out loud as I passed, they might have acted as mean as they were trying to look ...
Eventually I find a restaurant by the river, which we used in the evening - very good sea food (albeit not my favourite).
We met up again later. The chiropractor seems to have done some good, even though his explanations were a little strange. Whatever, R is now sore, but significantly more mobile.
Day 11: 0 miles on the bike, about 100 miles on foot (or so it seemed).
We went from Italy into France. If we were to avoid toll roads, it would take too long, something over ten hours instead of nearer four hours, that was never the plan. So we did some of the way over mountainous roads, the usual twists turns and hairpins.
Then we joined the motorway for the long run, the road was quite good, traffic moderate to heavy but rarely enough to slow us.
Some of the views from this road are stunning. The road runs through tunnels, then over high viaducts, when you can see whole villages in the valleys below and perched on mountainsides.
R's back was giving him a lot of trouble, as was his Garmin. At one point he threw it off the bike in disgust.
From then on he used his map and road signs.
Eventually, as we approached our destination, we split so that I could visit Monaco, just to say I'd been there. I found it not the easiest place to manoeuvre, busy traffic and with very tight junctions on very steep hills. R would have gone, but he just wanted to be off the bike for the day. He also told me to tank up with petrol before arriving at the hotel because tomorrow is a French bank holiday and there wouldn't be many places open. It took me a while to find one (with some significant but not entirely accurate help from Tomtom), after which the road up to the hotel was another mountainous one. I could get used to some of these. In the end, R hadn't found petrol, we may have to visit a motorway tomorrow just to get fuel for him.
Day 12: 322 miles.
Set off on perfect biking weather, a sunny 16C. We went over the Col de Turini (1607 meters/5272 feet). Hairpin after hairpin, the Tomtom display often showing a fat road that was in fact three side by side on the display, but at very different levels as it folded back on itself, climbing and descending on the mountain's edge.
There were a couple of parts where rock falls had gone across part of the road, but, unlike the Greeks, the French had at least blocked off the unusable side, and put in temporary traffic lights where the blind corners made two-way traffic impossibly dangerous.
Views were all you could wish for in mountainous country, except there was only a little snow near the tops; but, had there been a lot of snow, we couldn't have done the route. Descending, the road ran from side to side of a gorge, crossing and re-crossing the river and a railway line that ran through.
J suffers from vertigo, she later said a lot of the time she had her eyes shut. I also suffer from vertigo. As shutting my eyes wasn't really a viable option, I tended to keep my eyes firmly on R's back tyre.
We stopped for coffee at a small roadside cafe in a village, and to check routes to our hotel because we really wanted to avoid the motorways.
We did go through a couple of towns, including Avignon, where traffic was very heavy, so progress was difficult; apart from that it was a very enjoyable day's riding.
Day 13: 270 miles.
Set off on some more fairly "interesting" roads. Unfortunately it started to drizzle, then rain, but even so, views were good. Eventually we had to choose how to set off across half of France. Because we hadn't filled with petrol yesterday before reaching the hotel, we went to where Tomtom said the nearest petrol station was. It turned out to be ideal for viewing the Millau Bridge.
After tanking up within sight of the bridge, we stopped for my obligatory photo opportunity. I was frankly amazed at its size and elegance.
We then turned back on ourselves a bit to join the motorway that goes over the bridge.
Approaching, it's as if a very large but narrow upright sheet ran along between the two carriageways. As we rode onto the bridge, this separated out into the supports and wires. The "wires" turned out to be something like seven or eight inches in diameter, and seemed to stretch up into the sky to the points of the support towers.
The view to our right was as if from an aircraft, seeing the ground seemingly hundreds of feet below. To the left, the ground was hidden by the roadway, all we could see were the mountains behind and in front, and clouds to the side. The bridge seemed to go on for miles as well.
I was impressed.
We continued on the motorway for mile after mile, the only views were of farmland and the odd village. We stopped a couple of times for fuel and comfort, once removing layers because it had warmed so much, then a few miles from our exit it decided to pour with rain on and off, but we just continued until turning off for the last few miles to our hotel.
Day 14: 396 miles.
Last day of the tour proper.
All we did today was cross more of France to get from our hotel to the port of Saint Malo to catch our ferry to Jersey, then Guernsey (timings were such that the only suitable ferry trip required a change of ferries in Jersey).
We kept off motorways as much as possible, and by chance passed one or two chateaux. One, Chambord, I had to have a picture of - it could have been something from Disney World. Only much larger.
Weather today was just about perfect for motorcycling, starting off fairly cold at 16C, but gradually rising through the day to a high of about 23C. We passed a couple of places where it had been raining and the roads were wet, but we were never in rain.
R had warned me about the French police having a penchant for fining Les Rostbifs on their way to catch a ferry for quite minor breaches of the speed limit, so the last miles were at a relatively sedate pace.
I had half hoped we would be able to visit the Normandy beaches, the cemeteries and museums, but there was never going to be enough time. Maybe another visit.
Ferries were on time, crossings were on calm seas.
It was a real pleasure to have my first decent cup of tea after we arrived at R & J's on Guernsey.
We'll see what my ferry to mainland UK is like tomorrow, I already know it will be a bit late, probably because of very low tides.
Day 15: 246 miles (plus probably 1 on the Island).
Ferry wasn't until the afternoon. J suggested a walk along a cliff top, where there was a bluebell wood, German forts, and views of the smaller islands, so I made myself scarce, with the promise of lunch at 1:00.
After a pleasant morning's light exercise, I returned to find their daughter, who had done much of the booking for us (she is a travel agent). She had a new television that wasn't working, R asked me to see if I could find what was wrong; I was able to show the aerial that had been installed wasn't delivering a signal but that the set itself was ok.
Lunch was a good meal of roast beef. Just what the doctor ordered.
After a cup of tea, R escorted me first to a petrol station so I could tank up with fuel that was significantly lower taxed than in mainland UK, then to the ferry terminal.
Booked in for a boring, four hour, very smooth crossing, arriving about 7:30 in the evening. It was about 8:00 before I was on land, then a very good ride home with little traffic. I stopped just once, to clean my visor and put on another layer as the evening chill came down. I arrived home at just before midnight, a quick soak in a hot bath, and bed (my better half was already asleep, but snuggled up when I got in).
Day 16: 239 miles.
Organisation was first class. Everything went like clockwork (apart from the one very minor and easily corrected hotel mix-up). R judged times and distances very well.
The bike behaved impeccably, whether motorway overtaking, country roads or poor surfaces. Obviously not the ideal vehicle for some of the tighter hairpins, I nevertheless had no problems, except in Monaco where I could have been in real trouble at a couple of junctions had the traffic been worse.
The tyres: having put on Bridgestone BT023s, I was very happy with them throughout, particularly after bad results from the BT021. After the trip, the front still had a round section, the back had hardly squared at all, and there was still plenty of tread. There were only a very few occasions when the front slipped, twice on wet metalwork on a bridge, once on a white line just after it started to rain, and once entering a dark tunnel where I found a pile of sand in the middle of my lane. On all occasions, slipping finished before I had any time to react, just twitching the bars and immediately recovering.
Fuel consumption: Overall average for the trip: 51.66mpg (UK). I thought this was quite good, much of the time we were pushing the speed limits (often set at 130kph), or low gear work in some of the passes. R used a bit more than me, but he is heavier than I am and he had J on the back!
Satnav: Tomtom behaved pretty well throughout. R chose routes that were generally interesting rather than quick, and where I hadn't pre-programmed Tomtom fully, it often disagreed (as expected), but always picked up the new route. R's Garmin seemed to do nothing but annoy him. It would come to a junction, the screen would blank apart from the motorcycle icon, and not indicate which way to go. At one stage, he'd stopped to try to make sense of it, and threw it to the ground in frustration.
Total mileage: 3228.2.
I have many people to thank, in particular:
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