The relief of getting ourselves out of Egypt was matched by our excitement about seeing Turkey and eventually crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. I remained nervous that we had left our precious KTMs in the hands of Egyptian officials in a scruffy and dusty customs warehouse in Alexandria and wondered whether we’d ever see them again. Also, I was still smarting from the unexpected and exorbitant shipping costs and being messed about by Egyptian red tape and having to endure their downright nonsense. But hey… we had managed to cross to a new continent and the European leg of our big bike trip was about to start.
As we left a storm was still raging in Alexandria and our 01.00 am taxi ride to the airport in the middle of seemingly nowhere was uneventful but strangely exciting. We were booked on the 03.00 am flight to Istanbul, and boarded at 04.30 am just to ensure that I could consistently whine about Egyptian tardiness and inefficiency without any contradiction.
We had never been on Turkish Airlines before, but it was clearly a good airline and enjoying the success of a huge marketing campaign that included advertisements featuring the Manchester United football team. In fact the safety announcement featured football players from both FC Barcelona and Manchester United along with some rather stunning looking Turkish flight attendants reminding us not to smoke in the bogs and to smile calmly as you fit the oxygen mask and assume the brace position before you plummet into the ground. It seemed strange being on a aeroplane again, but perhaps not as strange as eating kebabs at 5 am in the morning when you are stone cold sober.
Sitting in seats 15A and B we covered a distance of 1500 kilometres in little over two hours… and so we arrived in Istanbul just as dawn was breaking. Whilst taxiing on the runway I peered out of the window and everything was frosted white and covered with snow. I love motorcycling for sure, but we both hate being cold and it looked exceptionally so and I was quite pleased we were not on the bikes …at that time of year anyway.
When we got off the cold shuttle bus into the arrivals hall we found it to be modern, efficient, clean and strangely welcoming. I had to get a Turkish visa and so I handed over 5 Lira at a counter and immediately got a three month stay stamped into my EU passport. No drama. No hassle. No nonsense.
Fanny, having a Chinese passport, had already applied for her Turkish visa in advance in Shanghai as she more often than not had to do, but it was valid for only 15 days at a time and this caused both of us concern that it would not be be enough to travel to Mersin from Istanbul; wait for the bikes to arrive (we had been told 10 days voyage); wait for immigration, customs and shipping agents to do their thing; fix my rear suspension; ride along the south coast of Turkey and actually see something; and then get a ferry to Greece? We would see.
The arrivals hall was full of the usual array of coffee shops and so we bought huge cups of Seattle style coffee and even bigger muffins, just to wash down the early morning kebabs. We asked at the information counter how to get into town and were informed by a polite and fluent English speaking assistant that we could take a shuttle bus from right outside the arrivals hall and straight to Taksin in the centre of the city, and that is what we did.
As I looked out of the luxury coach windows at the snowy landscape of Istanbul I could see impressive mosques and churches, shopping malls, car showrooms, pretty women and smart men going to work, end to end petrol stations selling 100+ octane fuel, law abiding and careful driving, and bill boards in Turkish advertising the same products and services that can be found in New York, Hong Kong or London. Very different from its neighbouring countries, but the realization that the deserts and bush of Africa were behind us hit me hard and I actually felt a bit sad.
We got off the bus with our light luggage (the rest of our possessions were still strapped to the bikes in the Alexandria customs warehouse- or so we hoped), and then we wondered what to do next. Fanny had researched some budget hotels to stay at and we set off on foot in the direction we thought they were. The walk took us through a very beautiful part of Istanbul and along a tramway which ran through the middle of a precinct of shops, restaurants, bars and nice hotels.
The hotel Fanny had in mind was recommended by a Turkish friend from Shanghai and was down a back alley near the Swedish consulate. After a very well rehearsed sweep operation of the back streets we found it and Fanny went up to check it out and tao jia huan jia (negotiate price) with the owner. At the same time I checked out a couple of other hotels and realized, I supposed given the economic climate, that there were some pretty good deals to be had if you negotiated robustly. In the end we settled on a very comfortable and warm, if not rather small room right in the middle of Taksin.
Although it remained very cold in Istanbul, we decided to brave the weather and do some touristy things. First we went to Touratech Istanbul and bought some new hand guards. I would swap mine onto Fanny’s bike as they were still like new and I would have a black and white Touratech ones to match my livery. Did they change my life..? No, but they were pretty.. We then went to the Turkish Motorcycle show and were lucky to meet some motorcycle dealers on the train who gave us some free tickets. Here we saw many of the latest machines and chatted with the KTM people, including finding out how to repair my damaged rear WP shock absorber. It seemed it could be rebuilt fairly easily if you had the correct tools. Sorted.
Later we visited the Blue Mosque, walked around the Bazaar, took some boat rides, went to the cinema and had a night out in an Irish pub where we enjoyed a very good local band playing Irish folk songs. We had most of our meals in a local restaurant right opposite our hotel. Not only was the food authentic and very cheap, but the owners took a fondness to Fanny and she would often help him in the kitchen much to the astonishment of the local clientèle who probably thought they were employing an illegal Chinese worker.
We would have dearly liked to have stayed in Istanbul longer, its a truly great city with lovely people, but Fanny’s visa time was ticking away and we heard that the MV Napoli, the ship carrying our bikes was due to dock in a few days and so we took an overnight bus to Mersin on the south coast. I had been tracking the movement of this cargo ship using a GPS program on the internet and it was now definitely pointing in the direction of Turkey. The website for tracking shipping is below:
The ride through the snow covered interior of Turkey was as comfortable as a 12 hour coach ride can be and we arrived in Mersin as the sun was rising and started looking for somewhere to stay.
We found a good hotel not far from the bus station and Fanny managed to negotiate a very decent room at a very reasonable price at the Baranlar Hotel. Again like in Istanbul everyone was friendly and helpful and we even had a safe garage to park our bikes in. The hotel staff and all the people in the shops in the immediate vicinity seemed absolutely fascinated by Fanny and she was greeted enthusiastically where ever she went.
We got straight to work preparing for the arrival of our bikes with the local China Shipping office and we also got to know the people at KTM in Mersin very well. Like everyone we met in Turkey they were incredibly hospitable and they went out of their way to get my WP rear shock absorber repaired as quickly and cheaply as possible. The owner of KTM, Metin and his wife, Sylvia, also took us out to a famous local restaurant where we ate delicious traditional local food amongst the citrus groves and Metin and I got slowly “smashed” on the local grog, Raki.
While we were waiting we were joined by another RTW motorcycle expedition from South Africa who were riding to Singapore on Kawasaki KLR 650s and also had shock absorber problems just as they arrived in Europe. The expedition consisted of the Taylor family– father (Mal) with his son (Julian) and daughter (Shannon) — and their friend John. Fortunately, Metin and his team were also Kawasaki dealers and worked with a great mechanic who managed to fix their bikes in Mersin. Due to being behind schedule they had to load their bikes onto a truck to deliver them at the Iranian border before their visas expired. The KLR is a great bike and we very nearly chose them for our trip and the last time I checked the Taylor family made it all the way to Singapore. Congratulations. 加油加油。
Their expedition is at www.4bikes4singapore.wordpress.com
My shock absorber was removed and sent off to KTM in Istanbul where it was overhauled by changing all the gaskets and adding back the oil and nitrogen that had escaped. This is one of the advantage of the White Power (WP) shock absorbers that are fitted to KTMs but its a procedure that can only be done with the correct equipment and know-how. The shocks that were fitted to the Kawasaki KLRs belonging to the Taylors could also be repaired simply by pumping them up with air, but this is not a permanent repair, but quite a useful quick fix if they fail in remote locations.
After the bikes were fixed we bade yet another farewell to all the new friends we had made and pointed our bikes in a westerly direction and set off along the stunningly beautiful south coast of Turkey towards Adana, Antalya, Oludeniz and finally Marmaris.
We camped most of the time right next to the sea and more often than not were the only people. Despite the weather seeming pretty much perfect to us, the official tourist season had not yet begun and a lot of the hotels, restaurants and campsites had yet to open. I have no idea why April in Turkey is so quiet when the weather and scenery is so beautiful, but that’s the way it was. We pretty much had it all to ourselves.
When we got to Marmaris we took a ferry to Rhodes and the immigration officials either did not notice or did not care that Fanny had overstayed her visa by a few days. We did our best to comply with the conditions of her visa but 15 days was not enough to do all the things we had to do and ride along the south coast to catch a ferry to Greece. The reality is that Chinese are subjected to much stricter visa conditions than other nationalities, but then China imposes strict conditions on all foreign visitors and there is no escaping the fact that Chinese make up the greatest number of illegal immigrants in the world. quid pro quo I suppose.
While in Rhodes we explored the Old Town which is a walled city and appeared very well defended and must have been impenetrable in the day when it was the most easterly Christian defence against marauding Muslims, although it fell to the Ottoman Empire for more than four centuries later on.
It took some time to actually find a pension (guest house) or place to stay, not least because everything seemed to be closed. Shops, restaurants and hotels remained closed until a cruise ship sailed into town and moored up and then they all suddenly opened. But as soon as the last passenger was back on board the cruise ship every commercial operation in Rhodes was closed again. Annoying. I think its safe to say that whilst Greece was to epicenter of civilization in the day, today they have a much more relaxed approach and their work/life balance is tilted right over to life. Good for the soul…. bad for the economy.
We settled on a rather run down place for a night but the next day found a super hotel which was not fully open but allowed us to stay and gave us a good discount. Next door to this hotel was a fantastic bar called “The Walk Inn” and when we were not mooching around the back streets (i.e getting lost) we were propped up in the bar next door listening to live bands and tucking into enormous Greek meals.
From Rhodes we took a much larger ferry to Athens on the mainland of Greece which took all night. We couldn’t afford a cabin but we took out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags and lounged out between the seats in the lounge. Just like camping.
There were a few things that I immediately noticed in Athens. The first was that it was full of motorcycles, especially Transalps and Vstroms which seemed to be everywhere. The second was that it looked run down and the economic gloom affecting Greece was very apparent. We booked into a decent enough hotel in the centre of the city and whilst unpacking our bikes in the street Fanny was approached by a curb crawler who asked her quite blatantly if she was “working”. Not sure if she was flattered or insulted. The third thing was that Athens appeared quite run down, dirty and sleazy and most of the shops were closed. Not what we expected from one of the cradles of civilization.
We only stayed in Athens for a day and then continued our journey west riding through several ancient and famous cities such as Delphi as we rode to the port of Patras where we did some maintenance work on our bikes at the local KTM garage. We had not been able to find air-filters in Africa and so these were replaced, along with the chains and sprockets which were still in pretty good condition after 25,000+ kilometers, but probably prudent to change them while we can. While we were there we stayed with another KTM rider called John and in the morning took yet another ferry to Bari on the south east of Italy.
From Bari we rode across the south of the country towards Napoli and some how or another we took a short cut and rode cross country onto a toll highway. After only a kilometer or so we arrived at a toll booth and caused a traffic jam as we had no tickets. The toll booth official should have just allowed us to ride through the barrier, but he persisted and failed in trying to input a fine of 86 Euros into his computer.
As I suspected the system could not process non EU registration numbers and so in the end he decided to write our details in biro on the ticket. Apparently having no tickets results in the maximum possible toll fee. He took fifteen minutes with this pointless exercise and caused a massive tail-back. After he finally handed over the tickets I noticed that the registration numbers were incorrect anyway and so in full view of Signore Tollbooth both tickets were skilfully launched into his waste basket. And a celebratory wheelie as we accelerated away? Why not.
Anyway we pushed on to Sorrento where we got stuck in terrible traffic jams and we experienced these jams pretty much everywhere we went in Italy. Essentially there are just too many cars in Italy and the roads and city streets are just too narrow. We must have ridden over 600 kilometers that day due to the long evening light and managed to find a super camp site in a place I always wanted to see… Pompei.
We loved Pompei, to my mind the most interesting bit of Italy because the eruption from the volcano, Mount Vesuvius threw out ash, poisonous gas, and lava that preserved the ancient Roman city like a snap shot in time and now you can wander around and see the city almost as it was 2000 odd years ago. Highly recommended.
We had a very nice week in Rome with Nick and Paola and spent Easter day itself with Paola’s family at their lovely home in Ferentino, a picturesque and ancient hill town about an hours drive from Rome and enjoyed traditional Italian home cooking. We fitted new Pirelli tyres in Rome, right next to the Vatican and rode around the city taking in the sights surrounded by seemingly millions of tourists.
Afterwards we explored Pisa, Sienna, Firenze, Lucca and other small towns around the beautiful region of Tuscany. Although it was extremely wet the whole time our tent kept out the rain and we swapped our bikes for buses and joined the great unwashed on public transport. Beautiful cities with fascinating histories, but I feel the real beauty and interest lies in the smaller towns and villages off the beaten track.
We then rode the famous Ducati Multistrada route from Lucca to Bologna where a month later it was rocked by an earthquake. We missed the earthquake fortunately, but did manage to see the Ducati factory…from a distance. We did see a lot of Ducati motorcycles, especially the glorious Multistrada which is definitely on my wish list of bikes to own one day. We continued north east to the famous island city of venice where we wandered around the back streets and piazzas. It was far too touristy for my liking although we are both pleased we saw it and had a chance to take in the architecture and art work which is very special.
From Venice we could see the snow capped mountains of the Alps and Dolomites to the north and so we wrapped up in our new Rev’It motorcycle kit and base layers and rode towards north Italy and Austria. This was one of the most exciting rides of our whole trip. A very different landscape and and a motorcycling heaven. Although we rode through snow and in sub zero conditions we were very comfortable in our kit and our KTM 990 Adventures were as comfortable is snowy conditions, as they were in sand, water, or mud indeed on tarmac. They are the ultimate round the world motorcycles and we were later to see far more BMWs than KTMs as we rode through Europe, my bike had not fallen once while moving. The 990 Adventure is balanced, exciting and mechanically superior. Of that I have no doubt.
We rode through stunning valleys and across breath taking mountain passes to Salzburg in Austria where we stayed with another “round the world” motorcyclist called Christian and his kind family. We visited the KTM factory in Mattighofen just north of Salzburg and even saw one of the new adventure bikes for 2013 being test ridden from their R&D factory. We then rode to Bavaria and stayed with our very good friend Winfried whom we had met earlier in Botswana, and now met his lovely wife, Friedl. We were very kindly looked after, taken to the local tourist sites, a jazz festival and even to Bodensee to join in a family celebration.
We rode through the Austrian, Italian and Swiss Alps where Fanny experienced a bit of drama by colliding with a BMW motorcycle in a dark one way tunnel near the ski resort of Samnaun and both she and the other rider were detained by the police who took an age to process what was essentially a minor damage only accident (to the BMW bike only).
The German rider was apoplectic with rage and was cursing Fanny very loudly, but calmed down somewhat when she threatened to thump him which rather blind sided the young policemen who suggested it wasn’t a good idea as the paperwork would take days.
Eventually the police asked both Herr Motorrad and Fanny for 700 Euros each for bail which resulted in a me giving them a full and frank appraisal of their criminal justice system and so they settled on 100 US dollars which I paid from my African bribe fund that was, until this encounter with the Swiss, still untouched. Quite a ridiculously minor incident involving speeds no more than 5 kilometres an hour and I would venture that fault really lies with the Swiss authorities for dangerous road conditions. I didn’t think much of the Swiss when I investigated one of their banks in Zurich as part of the Volcker Commission 15 years ago and I still don’t think much of them.
After this drama we continued our journey through the rain, snow, sunshine, and clouds of the Alps — continually going in and out of south Switzerland and north Italy, through the beautiful lakeside towns of Lugano and Locarno towards my old paragliding haunts of Verbier and Chamonix where we camped just under the glacier, Mer de Glace.
Twenty years ago I flew my paraglider from the slopes of Mont Blanc on the lofty perch of Aguile de Midi at night during a full moon down to Chamonix over the Mer de Glace. A highlight of the many places I have been lucky to fly in. Chamonix is a very pretty ski resort and a tandem paragliding flight is highly recommended if you get a chance. I used to spend a lot of time here and did some epic cross country flights around the various valleys at very high altitudes among the peaks and cliffs.
We then rode through beautiful French mountains and valleys to the Alpine resort of Briancon and then through the stormy lavender fields of the Haute Provence to my aunt and uncle’s stunning home in Cotignac where we had an absolutely super and relaxing time. Provence was a perfect place to start getting fit again and so my running and training campaign kicked off and my consumption of European lard and booze finished… as much as one can.
We then rode through a very windy southern France to Barcelona in Spain where we explored the back streets, gazed at the amazing architecture and camped on a beach just outside the city. Neither Fanny nor I had been to mainland Spain before and we were amazed at the stunning countryside, especially as we cruised through the foothills of the Pyrenees and teamed up with one of the biggest motorcycle clubs in Europe who were having one of their annual gatherings.
Our target location was San Sebastian in the Basque Country where we stayed with Fanny’s former Gaelic football team members, Nuria and Jokin, who have now returned home from China and started a family. While we were there it started raining and continued to do so for days and it took some resolve to leave their warm and cozy home and venture outside and ride northwards back into France.
So began a very unexpected ride through France… unexpected because after so many years of French bashing (as we English are programmed to do), I found I really liked France and the French people. A fabulous country and for a farm boy like me who loves the countryside a real joy.
We rode through the wine lands of Bordeaux and the Loire and to the enchanting woods, rustic buildings and picturesque harbours of Brittany in the north west of France. We then explored the battlefields, memorials, museums and cemeteries which mark the terror, sadness and glories of battles which raged throughout Normandy during the twentieth century.
We continued riding to Calais and then took the ferry over to my motherland, England in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the London Olympics.
It has been an amazing and life changing expedition so far and Fanny and I will never forget our “Big Bike Trip”.