”An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea's taken hold in the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it- but it stays there.”
Dominick Cobb, Inception 2010
That’s how all my road trips start, with an idea. At some point I’ll be looking at a map or a globe and I’ll think “that could be an interesting trip”. For the next few weeks it’ll develop in my mind and next thing I know I’m packing a passport into my tank bag and setting off on an adventure.
I knew very little about the Balkans. To be honest I just knew it at as a place where a war took place from it being repeatedly on the news as a child. This total lack of ignorance is the perfect reason to saddle up a motorcycle and go find out more.
My steed would be my trusty 1982 BMW R100RS, modified with a bikini fairing after the original crumbled away. Actually I don’t know why I’m calling the BMW trusty, up until this trip it had repeatedly caused me problems, failing on numerous occasions and emptying my wallet quicker than all my ex-girlfriends added together. But with the other options in my garage being a T595 Daytona which is a bit too heavy on the wrists & a friends 251 MZ which is A: Isn't mine and B: Is an MZ, it really was the only choice.
Aside from its past reliability issues, the BMW is actually a wonderful bike to tour on. The seat is comfy, it can carry large panniers & is stable on most types of road. The boxer engine delivers plenty of lazy torque and produces a exhaust note which is hugely satisfying, yet somehow inoffensive & gentle through the stainless Keihan silencers. Just what you need when it, along with wind noise and the sound of the pushrods on the tappets, is your only soundtrack for 12 hours a day.
DAY 1 – Pembroke to Plymouth, Plymouth to Santander via Ferry
With storm force winds & precipitation I can only describe as “violently damp”, I set off on my adventure to Plymouth. Having previously cancelled a trip due to similar conditions I decided this time round I wouldn't be put off, so I donned my luminous rainproof onesie and battled on. Heading west with the wind on my back wasn't too bad, but when I turned South after passing the Bristol channel it really was a struggle to stay in lane! My excitement for the trip meant the 5 hour battle against the elements flew by.
Meeting a late 70’s airhead (Moto Guzzi 850 T4) at the services helped keep spirits high. Back in the day these two machines would’ve been fierce rivals for sales, but 35 years on they seemed more like friends reminiscing of simpler times.
DAY 2 – Santander to Pamplona
After about 18 hours of seasickness induced sleep I awoke to find the ferry was not far from Santander. During breakfast I was lucky to meet a group of bikers who for the first day would be heading in the same direction as me. That afternoon we travelled from Santander to Pamplona on some excellent roads. These lads weren't hanging about, but despite its extra weight and 35 year old suspension, the BMW handled well enough to be hustled along with the newer machines. Where it lacks in horsepower & refinement, it makes up for with low down grunt & stability.
DAY 3 – Pamplona to Belcaire
After a fairly leisurely first day riding with a great group of guys I knew if I was to make the Balkans in good time I’d have to start picking up the pace. I said my goodbyes early that morning and followed the legendary N260 along the Pyrennes.
I crossed the snow capped Pyrennes via Andorra, entered the beautiful Languedoc province by the evening and stayed overnight at Belcaire.
DAY 4 – Belcaire to Gorge Du Verdon,
Despite good progress the day before, I still felt that if I wanted to have time to explore the Balkans I’d have to make more miles in a day. After a morning winding through beautiful countryside & quaint villages in Southwest France I logged onto the motorway, got my head behind the bubble and munched some serious miles. By mid afternoon I was satisfied that I’d achieved enough distance to allow for my planned detour to the Gorge Du Verdon.
The roads just got better and better the closer I got, but the gorge was hidden as I winded up the hill, making the impact of the view as I finally reached the crest even more mind blowing. The scale & depth of it took my breath away, and were on par with what I’d have expected from the Grand Canyon. I’ve since learned the Grand Canyon is nearly 3 times deeper, so if I ever visit that it is likely I will need sectioning.
The road around the top of the Gorge is dizzying, and the foot high wooden barrier protecting you from certain death is certainly adequate stop a rogue beach ball, but not much else. Riding it was brilliant and challenging, although I couldn’t help thinking my efforts were infinitely miniscule in relation to those incredible folk who built it in the first place. What made the experience of driving around the road even more special was the fact that it was virtually deserted out of season in early April. This would however also be the cause of problems down the line.
I generally hate camping. I can just about stomach it if there’s a fire & barbeque (being tended to by someone else), I have a deluxe heated tent (built by someone else) and the temperature is hovering around 20 degrees all night. This will give you an idea how far I was from the nearest open B&B when I realised my best option was to set up the survival tent and spend the night out in the elements. Turns out this region was pretty much on shut down in April, the skiers had left and the summer tourists were yet to arrive. I went through three towns before realising the inevitable truth…I was going to have to camp!
I spent the night wearing every layer of bike gear, freezing and hungry as I hadn';t managed to find food. I woke regularly in the night to jog around the nearby field in the hope of regaining body temperature. The outside of the tent had frozen and wasn’t quite big enough to fit me and my bike gear in, so I was always touching the outer layer with some body part. Needless to say the experience has strengthened my resolve against camping!
I woke up tired and fed up, but relieved to find I hadn’t succumbed to the elements. In a few minutes I’d be back on board my BMW on a hunt for food in the nearest town…or not! Turns out plugging my phone into the battery overnight had caused it to go almost completely flat. A few attempts at bump starting the big twin on the dewy grass were obviously fruitless, so that left me with no choice but to push the bike uphill across the field and onto the nearby road. Further pushing, bumping and swearing couldn’t coax the bike back into life. Thankfully two friendly Frenchmen passed by and offered to give me a push. The extra manpower gave the necessary boost, the engine fired into life and progress was once again resumed.
DAY 5, 6, 7 Monaco, Cinqe Terra, Florence
Being a big F1 fan during my younger days (its gone a bit stale recently so I’ve lost a bit of interest) I had to visit Monaco on my way past. Time wasn’t on my side so this consisted of high temperature filtering through traffic that included Bugatti’s, Ferraris & Bentleys, all for a brief ride on the hallowed ground of the Grand Prix circuit. Obviously for 360 days of the year its just a normal road, so all I could manage was a cruise following traffic around, but it was still a special moment for me.
My ride continued on into Italy with my next stop being the Cinqe Terra, an amazing section of coastline where the road twists like an umbilical cord along the tree lined cliffs, occasionally dipping down to sea level to meet a seaside town.
To reach my overnight stop in Florence I took a scenic route through the Parco Alpi Apuane, once again enjoying views of snow capped peaks.
It was dark by the time I reached Florence, but I wasn't ready to rest yet, I headed out the camera to take in this incredible city.
Aside from the amazing architecture, including the awe-inspiring scale of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, my overriding memory of Florence was the traffic light drag race that automatically seems to take place between scooters and bikes every time a light goes green!
From Florence onwards the weather took a turn for the worse. The thermals and wet weather gear I thought I’d packed away for good came out and I endured torrential downpours and thunderstorms all the way to Rome.
Taking refuge for coffee in this Tuscan social club gave a great glimpse into the life of the locals.
Day 8 & 9 - Rome, Vatican City & heading south to Pompeii
Rome would be my first day off riding. I enjoyed a day of sightseeing and touristing, but on Easter weekend I found the hustle & bustle of thousands of others all trying to occupy the same space hard work and I yearned again for the open road.
Aside from the amazing architecture, a highlight of the city was happening upon this fantastic little Ducati café. I enjoyed cake & coffee next to immaculate retro racers.
The morning after I hit the road early and travelled South with the aim of waking up visiting Pompeii first thing the next morning.
Day 10 Pompeii, The Amalfi Coast and the road to Bari
Getting up early meant I got a chance to see the amazing preserved town with the volcano in the distance towering menacingly over the town, along with the haunting statues of the eruption victims.
As the sun rose higher and more people arrived, huge crowds took the edge off the fun, and by this point my need for some true open road escapism had reached fever levels.
I set off earlier than planned and got a decent run around the Amalfi coast. Although busy on the Easter break it was definitely worth the trip. It really is an incredible stretch of coast line and the road that takes you round it is breathtaking.
By lunchtime I had cleared the coast and it was time to make my way across the width of Italy to catch the ferry from Bari that would be leaving in the evening. After spending the morning riding the coast in just my jeans, I was surprised to find myself ducking into a café to dig out my thermals once again as sleet & snow began to fall. The rest of my journey involved repeated soakings and frozen claw hands, but the excitement of crossing to the Balkans and enjoying the changing scenery kept spirits high until I reached the ferry.
Day 11 – Adriatic Crossing & The Albanian Adventure
The moment I stepped onto the ferry to Montenegro I knew everything was about to change. Greeted by Slav accents and a ferry interior that clearly hadn’t been updated for 30 years I got the sense I was leaving the familiarity of modern Western Europe. Everything leading up to this moment had just been the warm up act, and this was the adventure I’d come looking for.
The preloaded Sat Nav, which had been reliable so far, was devoid of any detail, so it was time to revert to more traditional forms of navigation. The map I picked up from the ships reception had a beautiful embossed Montenegro crest and a hardback cover, but I later found out that every almost every town name in it was completely wrong!
It had never been my intention to go to Albania, but my planned overnight stop in Montenegro could be only be reached by two routes and the most interesting looking route required crossing into the neighbouring country.
I was met with many questions at the Albania border, what was I doing on a 35 year old BMW so far from home?
I joined the road that would take me to my final destination. The first 30 miles couldn’t have been better. Hairpin bends and sweeping curves laid across the rocky mountainside on a surface the Swiss would’ve been proud of. As I reached the first peak I got my first glimpse of the vast mountains up ahead, and the potentially snow laden clouds hovering above them.
Abruptly the tarmac stopped. “Must be some roadworks” I thought, and tentatively I continued on. After many miles with no sign of any work taking place it hit me…this isn’t work to repair the road, the road is still being built!.
I was pleasantly surprised how well the airhead dealt with the loose surface so I decided to carry on. The surface grew gradually worse, and at the last hamlet visible on the map progress was impeded by diggers. I was greeted by the workers who were intrigued by the foreigner venturing into the hills. In broken English, they managed to communicate to me that –
A: in 5 minutes I would be able to pass
B: the mountain was passable, perhaps not for a car, but definitely for a motorcycle
I can’t say B exactly filled me with confidence, my RS was equipped with road tyres, narrow bars and weighs around 250 kilos fully laden, hardly a nibble off-roader. They made a gap for me to pass and I struggled through a bed of big rocks, my gangly legs saving every slip of the front wheel. From there on the road didn’t get much better.
I navigated up the mountainside with only 5ft of road to work with next to a sheer drop. The rear wheel struggled for traction on the loose surface and I winced every time the unprotected sump bashed on protruding rocks. It was hard going and slow, but I was making progress.
Just when I thought I had everything under control the snow began to fall. Occasionally the only clear section of surface came within inches of a deadly fall and the increasing snow coverage made it a treacherous surface. Within 100 metres of the summit the rocky road was almost completely covered.
At this point I knew I was no longer on a scenic jolly round Europe, I was in the thick of an adventure and my adrenaline was pumping. On a normal day I couldn’t have ridden that surface without falling over.
The moment I reached the crest to find clear skies on the other side was filled with euphoria. Without snow, what once seemed like a tricky surface was now just a routine as I trundled down the mountain.
When I eventually reached tarmac I was filled with an overwhelming sense of relief and happiness. A few documentation issues returning to Montenegro meant I didn’t reach Andrijevica until darkness. A 3 star hotel for only 25 euros and a hearty meal in a local restaurant provided luxurious sanctuary for me to reflect & recharge after an unforgettable day on the road.
Day 12 – Tour of Montenegro – Tuzi, Niksic, Sveti Stefan, Kotor & Herceg Novi
Montenegro is a small country, less than half the size of Wales, and I believed half of that to also be impassable due to snowy conditions the Eastern mountains. So I decided to get up early and attempt to explore a good chunk of the available land in a day.
First stop was the Ostrog Monastary, an incredible building cut into an almost vertical cliff face high up in the hills. The road up was a properly vertigo inducing, with only spaced rocks to stop me and the BMW plunging over the edge.
Inside was a gentleman I can only describe as old, haggered and riddled with religion. He was a proper artefact and I was hanging out to take his photograph, but when I gestured with my camera he shook his head. Out of respect I resisted my urge to take a cheeky shot from the hip.
By this point the temperature was well into the 20’s which for a man who grew up in the damp kingdom of Wales is uncomfortably hot (especially in riding gear). I headed to the coast, passing the beautiful Skadar lake on my way.
I took a break on the beach, stripped off my riding gear and spent an hour relaxing on a deserted beach, with the stunning Sveti Stefan island building for a view.
For the second half of the day I ventured back up into the mountains to find a road I’d read about on the Lonely Planet website. The road from Cetinje to Kotor winds over the Lovcen national park, and deliverers the most incredible views over the bay of Kotor.
I'd only had a day in Montenegro, but in that short time it'd won a place in my heart with its stunning landscapes, friendly locals and quaint little towns. Definitely a place to revisit in the future.
Day 13 – Herceg Novi to Dubrovnik
After some long & eventful days of riding I made the decision to take a day off in the town of Dubrovnik. I made the short journey into Croatia to Dubrovnik early in the morning, booked into a hotel and donned the shorts & flip flops to become a tourist for the day.
Dubrovnik is a truly stunning city, and I was lucky to enjoy it relatively quiet. I have heard stories of multiple cruise ships swamping the city with tourists making it unbearably crowded, but off season it was a pleasant place to be.
Day 14 – Dubrovnik to Plitvice Lakes
Feeling refreshed after a day off the bike I was ready to hit the road and make some miles. That day I rode along the coast as far as Zadar before heading inland to make further miles on the main motorway. My aim was to be well placed to visit Plitvic lakes in the morning, one of the many recommendations I'd received in the weeks prior to setting off.
The motorway was almost deserted, and during a moment onset by boredom and madness I opened up the old BMW to see if the old beast still had it – why did I ever doubt it? 135mph showing on the clock before I came to my senses, released the throttle and returned to my usual 75mph cruising speed. Not bad! (although with the original top speed only being a claimed 126mph without panniers all this really shows is the speedo is far from accurate). 30 miles before Plitvice I left the motorway and headed into the countryside. I found refuge in a pretty little hamlet where I stayed the fantastic House Izvor.
It felt more like I was staying at a friends house than in a B&B. When asked by Tom (the owner) what I’d like for breakfast I jokingly said “Full English Please” (I was getting a bit sick of continental breakfasts by this point), and woke up to find bacon, eggs & sausage all waiting for me, what a legend!
Day 15 – Plitvice Lakes to Ljubljana, and the 50p spring
I woke up on this day knowing time wasn’t on my side. I was having the trip of a lifetime but the reality was I needed to be in work in 6 days and still had over 1300 miles between me and home. I got to Plitvice lakes just after Sunrise and enjoyed a walk around the parks before the tour buses started to arrive.
By 10am I was on the road, with only one mission in mind – head North West and make some miles!
Nearing the Croatia/Slovenia border I was surprised to see an old fighter jet apparently floating in an open park next to the side of the road. On closer inspection I found it to be mounted on a huge metal pole and part of a haunting open memorial to the war. Old fighting beasts were just left out in the open surrounded by unrestored buildings showing the effects of heavy shelling & gunfire.
Particularly fascinating was the wreckage of a fighter jet which had been crashed during the conflict. I couldn’t help being in awe of these amazing machines, but it was an uneasy feeling knowing the death & horror they must have once been involved with. Despite the fact that the majority of the Balkans was gripped with a devastating war only 20 years ago, this was the only real evidence of a conflict I saw during my travels.
After that brief break I continued onto into Slovenia where disaster stuck (the second biggest disaster of the trip). While pushing on through some fantastic twisties with the local sportsbikers, the gear lever went limp.. I stopped for inspection to expecting to find it detached, but it was worse, the bike was stuck in third gear with no feedback from the lever. I limped to the nearest city, which happened to be the unpronounceable capital, Ljubljana. With it being Sunday I had no choice but to check into a hotel and wait till the morning before I could find a mechanic. A stroll around the nearby neighbourhood revealed that some interesting cuisine was on offer. You know the expression, "I was so hungry..."
Day 16 – Heading home…without my bike
The next morning I managed to find a BMW garage where the bike was assessed. The fault was most likely to be the “50p spring” inside the gearbox - ironically named due to the fact although it's a simple cheap part, is only replaceable by opening the gearbox. This requires either the engine to be dismounted or the rear end of the bike to be removed, so not a five minute job. Also hampering my progress was the fact that parts for such an old bike aren’t kept in stock and might take weeks to arrive. It was clear if I was to be back in work in time I wouldn’t be travelling home on that bike.
I booked a flight via my RAC European Breakdown cover, and that looked to be the end of the adventure.
2 months later...
I hated the idea of not completing the trip. The journey had been such an amazing life experience that just abandoning it like that felt like such a cop out. Sure the miles had been tough, and at moments where the distances on two wheels were particularly long I'd questioned why I don't just go on nice relaxing holidays!
RAC had offered me two options. The first was that my bike would be shipped home to me free of charge. Probably the easiest option, and the cheapest. The second was that expenses would be covered for me to return to Slovenia to recover the bike myself. This meant getting the garage in Slovenia to repair the bike then ride back home, and more importantly finish what I'd started.
I managed to find a 6 day window in my diary, not exactly ideal for such a long journey but during my busy spring season as a wedding photographer all I could realistically achieve. Rental car to the airport, flight and Sunday night accommodation were all covered by the RAC, and on a warm Monday morning I arrived at the BMW garage a few minutes before opening time.
Day 17 - The Grossglockner Pass, Austria
It was with great joy that I was reunited with my travel companion Jurgen. Not only had he been repaired and given a thorough clean, the mechanic had taken it upon himself to balance to carbs as well. I set off North towards home to find the bike running sweet as ever.
In order to get back within reasonable time I'd decided that on by the end of the first day I would like to reach the southern border of Germany, but not without riding the mighty Grossglockner pass on the way through. It's a toll road, but it's money well spent when you consider it rises to 2576m yet stays open from the beginning of May till the end of October. A lot of snow clearing has to take place for this to happen! It's a spectacular route across the Alps, and every bit exceeds my expectations as I enjoy incredible views as well as winding past 5 metre high walls of snow.
Throughout my journey across Europe I'd yet to meet another airhead owner, so it was great to see this absolutely immaculate fully faired RS in gold with some tasteful and useful looking modifications.
After a spectacular day in the mountains I dropped down into southern Germany before sunset, leaving time to enough time to enjoy some Pilsner and hearty dinner in a rural village.
Day 18, 19, 20 – Disaster strikes, again!
The next few days was all a bit of a blur. I had great fun winding through the Black Forest following the legendary B500 to Baden Baden. Another motorcycle highlight was seeing the HP2 Sport, one of my all-time favourite motorcycles. Now incredibly rare, the 1200cc beast is an example of what modern technology can do with the performance of a boxer engine. The evolution from my ancient air-cooled classic is clear, and it's interesting to compare how things have changed in the past 30 years.
From the Black Forest onwards it was mostly a motorway slog trying to get home in time. Long days on the motorway watching white lines rush by followed by unremarkable nights at the cheapest accommodation I could find. The regions I was passing through was all road travelled on previous trips. I have to admit the homing beacon was on I just wanted to get back.
By the third day I was relieved to be nearing the tunnel, but the Belgian motorway had other ideas. The traffic repeatedly ground to halt, slowing progress as I carefully filtered through the gaps. After a welcome break in the gridlock I was once again up to speed, only to find the traffic slowing rapidly once again.
This time round I felt I was forced to be a little heavier on the brakes, so I put my hand up in an attempt to signal there was slowing traffic. Without warning...BANG!!!...a huge thump from behind ripped my hands from the handlebars and I was an out of control passenger on a weaving bike.
I just about managed to get my hands back to the bars in an attempt to regain control but it was too late, I hit the central reservation and was sent crashing to the ground in the middle of the busy motorway. I slid for some time, all the while waiting to be hit by the next vehicle. The moment I came to a stop I hopped up and immediately hurdled into the safety of the central reservation. My pulse was through the roof and I was waiting for the pain of multiple injuries to kick in, but it didn't. Amazingly, I was completely unscathed aside from scratch on my hip where I rubbed it on the barrier.
By this point the traffic had stopped, concerned motorists had blocked the carriageway to protect the scene and check I was alright. The driver of the car that hit me was immediately apologetic, and I didn't feel angry towards him; mistakes happen and I'm sure it was a pretty shit moment to be him as it was. My first concern was getting Jurgen off the floor and collecting any parts I could from the road surface, knowing they'd be hard to replace in the future. With no side stand needing some attention all I could do was rest the sorry looking wreckage against the barrier.
(Bull-It Jeans did their job!)
Maybe it was the shock and a body overrun with adrenaline, but I was convinced this wouldn't be the end of the journey. The bike started ok with no oil leaks, and structurally it was fine. If I could just find a way to tape the panniers to the frame, and the number plate to the panniers I could continue on to the ferry. The rear tyre was flat so I borrowed a pump from the driver. It took quite a lot of pumping before I realised something was wrong...in my confused state I hadn't noticed the huge slash down the middle of the tyre. This bike wasn't going anywhere!
Once again RAC came to the rescue. The bike was collected and stored in the Netherlands, and I was given a rental car to make my way back to the UK. This time I elected for the bike to be returned to me and a few weeks later the wreckage was delivered to my door. It was in a sorry state and an insurance write off.
Despite it's misdemeanour in Slovenia, this bike had earned its place as my all time favourite bike to tour on. It was only right that I'd rebuild it, even better than before, pride of the garage and ready for more adventures in the future.