Accommodation Log

Date Location Name Price Type
18.04.13 Atlantic Ocean Brittany Ferries 39.00 GBP (45.27 EU) Ferry
19.04.13 Aucey-La-Plaine La Jouvenelle 54.00 EU B&B
20.04.13 Tours Hotel du Manoir 66.00 EU Hotel
21.04.13 Tours Hotel du Manoir 66.00 EU Hotel
22.04.13 La Rochelle Hotel de Paris 60.00 EU Hotel
23.04.13 La Rochelle Hotel de Paris 60.00 EU Hotel
24.04.13 Savignac de Duras The Old Pheasantry Free Gite
25.04.13 Savignac de Duras The Old Pheasantry Free Gite
26.04.13 Bordeaux Hotel de l’Opera 56.00 EU Hotel
27.04.13 San Sebastian Hotel Terminus 58.00 EU Hotel
28.04.13 San Sebastian Hotel Terminus 58.00 EU Hotel
29.04.13 Salamanca Concejo 43.00 EU Hostal
30.04.13 Peso Da Regua Hotel Regua Douro 75.00 EU Hotel
01.05.13 Avenida de Sao Bento Convento de Alpendurada 60.00 EU Hotel
02.05.13 Porto Easy Hotel 36.00 EU Hotel
03.05.13 Porto Easy Hotel 36.00 EU Hotel
04.05.13 Porto Easy Hotel 36.00 EU Hotel
05.05.13 Peniche Peniche Praia 9.73 EU Campsite
06.05.13 Peniche Peniche Praia 9.73 EU Campsite
07.05.13 Sintra Casa de Hospedes Dona Maria da Parreirinha 45.00EU Guest House
08.05.13 Lisbon Mana Guest House 30.00 EU Guest House
09.05.13 Lisbon Mana Guest House 30.00 EU Guest House
10.05.13 Lisbon Mana Guest House 30.00 EU Guest House
11.05.13 Evora Campsite Orbitur Parque de Campismo de Evora 14.30 EU Campsite
12.05.13 Evora Campsite Orbitur Parque de Campismo de Evora 14.30 EU Campsite
13.05.13 Aracena Hotel Sierra de Aracena 41.00 EU Hotel
14.05.13 Gibraltar Continental Hotel 40.00 GBP (46.44 EU) Hotel
15.05.13 Gibraltar Continental Hotel 40.00 GBP(46.44 EU) Hotel
16.05.13 Gibraltar Continental Hotel 40.00 GBP(46.44 EU) Hotel
17.05.13 Assilah Hotel Zelis 40.00 EU Hotel
18.05.13 Casablanca Hotel du Louvre 380 DH (34.07 EU) Hotel
19.05.13 Marrakech Hotel Akabar 500 DH (44.84 EU) Hotel
20.05.13 Marrakech Hotel Akabar 500 DH (44.84 EU) Hotel
21.05.13 Kelaat Mgouna Kasbah Irnan 550 DH (49.32 EU) Kasbah
22.05.13 Marzouga Hotel Jasmina 600 DH (53.8 EU) Hotel
23.05.13 Marzouga Sahara Desert 700 DH (62.77 EU) Desert Camp
24.05.13 Ifrane Relais Ras Elmaa Hotel 382 DH (34.25 EU) Hotel
25.05.13 Fes Hotel Splendid 400 DH (35.87 EU) Hotel
26.05.13 Chefchaouen Apartment 300 DH (26.9 EU) Apartment
27.05.13 Chefchaouen Apartment 300 DH (26.9 EU) Apartment
28.05.13 Chefchaouen Apartment 300 DH (26.9 EU) Apartment
29.05.13 Gibraltar Continental Hotel 40.00 GBP (46.44 EU) Hotel
30.05.13 Granada Universal Hotel 50.00 EU Hotel
31.05.13 Granada Universal Hotel 50.00 EU Hotel
01.06.13 Valencia Express Holiday Inn 44.00 EU Hotel
02.06.13 Valencia Express Holiday Inn 44.00 EU Hotel
03.06.13 Valencia Express Holiday Inn 44.00 EU Hotel
04.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
05.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
06.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
07.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
08.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
09.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
10.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
11.06.13 Barcelona Camping Masnou 25.00 EU Campsite
12.06.13 Arles Ibis Budget 57.00 EU Hotel
13.06.13 Digne-les-Bains Le Coin Fleuri 60.00 EU Hotel
14.06.13 St-Tropez Camping de la Plage 26.70 EU Campsite
15.06.13 Eze Auberge du col d’Eze 56.50 EU Auberge
16.06.13 Levanto Campsite Pian di Picche 26.00 EU Campsite
17.06.13 Levanto Campsite Pian di Picche 26.00 EU Campsite
18.06.13 Florence Camping Michelangelo 32.20 EU Campsite
19.06.13 Florence Camping Michelangelo 32.20 EU Campsite
20.06.13 Rome B&B Eleven Star 65.00 EU Guest House
21.06.13 Rome B&B Eleven Star 65.00 EU Guest House
22.06.13 Forli Hotel Lori 50.00 EU Hotel
23.06.13 Venice Camping Fusina 32.50 EU Campsite
24.06.13 Venice Camping Fusina 32.50 EU Campsite
25.06.13 Venice Camping Fusina 32.50 EU Campsite
26.06.13 Stara Fuzina Guest House 34.00 EU Guest House
27.06.13 Stara Fuzina Guest House 34.00 EU Guest House
28.06.13 Mörtschach Österreichische Post Aktiengesellschaft 56.00 EU Hotel
29.06.13 Ortisei Bed and Breakfast 60.00 EU B&B
30.06.13 Chur Camp Au Chur 28.00 SFr (22.70 EU) Campsite
01.07.13 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Camping Les Ecureuils 14.00 EU Campsite
02.07.13 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Camping Les Ecureuils 14.00 EU Campsite
03.07.13 Paris Comfort Hotel Champigny 53.00 EU Hotel
04.07.13 Paris Comfort Hotel Champigny 53.00 EU Hotel
05.07.13 Paris Comfort Hotel Champigny 53.00 EU Hotel
06.07.13 Paris Comfort Hotel Champigny 53.00 EU Hotel
07.07.13 Paris Comfort Hotel Champigny 53.00 EU Hotel
08.07.13 La Gacilly Europ Hotel 49.00 EU Hotel
09.07.13 Atlantic Ocean Brittany Ferries 39.00 GBP (45.27 EU) Ferry

Travel Log

Total Fuel – 1,025.87 EU, Total Hours – 228:48, Total Distance – 11,690.7 km

Date Origin Destination Distance Time Fuel
18.04.13 Salisbury Portsmouth 57.5 m 1:30 25.73 GBP(29.81 EU)
19.04.13 St Malo Aucey la Plaine 129.8 km 2:37 -
20.04.13 Aucey la Plaine Tours 302 km 4:10 -
22.04.13 Tours La Rochelle 243 km 3:40 23.01 EU
24.04.13 La Rochelle Duras 234 km 3:11 25.00 EU
26.04.13 Duras Bordeaux 127.5 km 3:38 -
27.04.13 Bordeaux San Sebastián 285 km 6:30 29.00 EU
29.04.13 San Sebastián Salamanca 473 km 5:54 53.00 EU
30.04.13 Salamanca Peso da Regua 360 km 7:10 38.79 EU
01.05.13 Peso da Regua Avenida de Sao Bento 99.4 km 2:26 -
02.05.13 Avenida de Sao Bento Porto 71.7 km 2:00 -
05.05.13 Porto Peniche 264.8 km 4:04 30.01EU
07.05.13 Peniche Sintra 114.1 km 1:37 30.50 EU
08.05.13 Sintra Lisbon 116 km 3:15 -
11.05.13 Lisbon Evora 150 km 2:10 32.00 EU
13.05.13 Evora Aracena 215 km 3:00 28.50 EU
14.05.13 Aracena Gibraltar 320 km 6:00 25.01 EU
17.05.13 Gibraltar Assilah 99 km 3:00 21.00 GBP(24.33 EU)
18.05.13 Assilah Casablanca 297.4 km 4:00 155.00 DH(13.94 EU)
19.05.13 Casablanca Marrakech 259 km 4:15 -
21.05.13 Marrakech Kelaat Mgouna 307.5 km 5:37 160.00 DH(14.39 EU)
22.05.13 Kelaat Mgouna Marzouga 300.5 km 5:18 336.10 DH(30.22 EU)
24.05.13 Marzouga Ifrane 438.4 km 6:53 277.00 DH(24.91 EU)
25.05.13 Ifrane Fes 71.2 km 1:40 -
26.05.13 Fes Chefchaouen 253 km 4:35 110.00 DH(9.89 EU)
29.05.13 Chefchaouen Gibraltar 165.7 km 3:10 100.00 DH(8.99 EU)
30.05.13 Gibraltar Granada 291.9 km 5:03 27.00 EU
01.06.13 Granada Valencia 682 km 9:53 84.00 EU
04.06.13 Valencia Barcelona 398.6 km 5:45 31.50 EU
12.06.13 Barcelona Arles 425 km 5:29 55.00 EU
13.06.13 Arles Digne-les-Bains 265.2 km 4:41 28.00 EU
14.06.13 Digne-les-Bains St-Tropez 182 km 3:57 28.00 EU
15.06.13 St-Tropez Eze 170 km 5:15 26.00 EU
16.06.13 Eze Levanto 310 km 6:03 20.00 EU
18.06.13 Levanto Florence 254.3 km 4:48 20.00EU
22.06.13 Florence Forli 112.2 km 2:43 -
23.06.13 Forli Venice 155 km 3:00 35.00 EU
26.06.13 Venice Stara Fuzina 218 km 5:13 26.00 EU
28.06.13 Stara Fuzina Mortschach 191.4 km 3:54 22.00 EU
29.06.13 Mortschach Ortisei 308.5 km 6:46 19.42 EU
30.06.13 Ortisei Chur 394.2 km 7:09 35.00 EU
01.07.13 Chur Chamonix-Mont-Blanc 311.2 km 5:39 24.72 SFr(20.00 EU)
03.07.13 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Paris 621 km 6:18 47.65 EU
08.07.13 Paris La Gacilly 404 km 4:56 30.00 EU
09.07.13 La Gacilly St Malo 152 km 2:15 -
10.07.13 Portsmouth Salisbury 89.7 km 1:29 -

Stats

Countries Visited
Country (in chronological order) Nights Spent (non-consecutive)
UK (including Gibraltar) 6
France 20
Spain 17
Portugal 13
Morocco 12
Monaco 0
Italy 11
Vatican (Holy See) 0
Slovenia 2
Austria 1
Switzerland 1
Total Countries – 11 Total Days – 84 (83 nights)
Stats
Total Days 84
  Travel Days 46
  Hours (incl. rest days) 228:48
Distance Excluding Rest Days 7,264.3 mi, 11,690.7 km
  Including Rest Days 7,831 mi, 12,603 km
Av. (travel days) Distance 254.15km
  Time approx. 5 hours
  Speed approx. 55 km/hr
Longest Days (dist.)
  1. 01.06.13, Granada to Valencia, 682km, 9:43hrs
  2. 03.07.13, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to Paris, 621km, 6:18hrs
  3. 29.04.12, San Sebastian to Salamanca, 473km, 5:54hrs
Longest Days (time)
  1. 01.06.13, Granada to Valencia, 9:43 hrs, 682km
  2. 30.04.13, Salamanca to Peso da Regua, 7:10hrs, 360km
  3. 30.06.13, Ortisei to Chur, 7:09hrs, 394.2km
Fuel Total Spent 1,025.87 EU
  Av. Price per km 0.08 EU
  Av. Price per travel day 22.30 EU
Accommodation Total Spent 3319.62 EU
  Total Nights 83
  Av. Price per Night 40.00 EU
  Nights in Hotels 39
  Total Spent Hotels 1,903.99
  Av. Price per Hotel 48.82 EU
  Nights in Campsites 23
  Total Spent Campsites 506.86
  Av. Price per Campsite 22.04 EU
  Nights in ‘Other’ 21
  Total Spent ‘Other’ 907.77
  Av. Price per ‘Other’ 43.27 EU
Altitude
Highest by bike 29 June, Grossglockner, Austria, 2571m
Highest by foot 2 July, Aiguille du Midi, France, 3842m
Highest border crossing Timmelsjoch (2,474 m), between Italy and Austria.

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Temperature
Hottest reached Florence, 18 June, 37.5°C
Coldest reached Grossglockner, 29 June, -5°C

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Transport (Chronologically)

Motorbike

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Ferry

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Camel

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Cable Car

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Train

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Bicycle

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Paris (Part 2) – The End.

If I said it was the most-visited paid monument in the world with over 7 million visits each year and it received its 250 millionth visitor in 2010… where would you be? A clue, it’s the tallest structure in Paris…

It was erected in 1889 and was the world’s tallest structure when completed as the entrance arch for that year’s World’s Fair. What is interesting is it only had a permit to stand for 20 years; it was to be dismantled in 1909, when its ownership would revert to the City of Paris.

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Well with those few facts in our pocket Nicola and I knew getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower would be a challenge, especially given the summer crowds were at their peak, but nothing had prepared us for the shear size of the queues. We took one look at the massive snake of people standing for hundreds of metres and thought the City of Paris wisely changed their mind about tearing it down. The queue was taking about 4 hours to get to the ticket office and then there were further waits to get up the tower. It’s the grand poobah of moneymakers and would undoubtedly still be there in the winter when we have decided to return.

I found an interesting little fact when reading about it, the shear amount of paint it needs to ward off the rust. Maintenance of the tower includes applying 50 to 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect it and if that doesn’t make you stop dead in your tracks with astonishment then wait till you learn the next one which will make your eyes water. The height of the Eiffel Tower varies by 15 cm (5.9 in) due to temperature change… I did warn you.

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Next stop, the largest cemetery in the city, reputed to be the world’s most visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually … the Père Lachaise Cemetery of Paris… Famed for the people who lie still within its walls, who contributed one thing or another over its two hundred year history.

To get there we pedalled on the “get on your bikes” incentive that the city has created, with hundreds of bicycles available for hire from bike stations dotted around the central areas. It’s a super idea and on some days difficult to actually find a bike available. They are free for the first 30 minutes and then cost small increments on your credit card until returned. I’m sure it had to be profitable within days of putting them out, because so many people go over the free time and then just keep pedalling their euros away, bit like a phone bill really.

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We found a couple of new looking bikes outside the train station in the centre of the city and 28 minutes later were at the gates of the cemetery, which is now an official bicycle record. I waited for a phone call from the Sky team on the Tour de France, who must have been impressed with the time we did. “Hey, fancy coming over to the team and talking about technique?”… But after a couple of days of waiting I guessed they must have not received my message, which I have to say was slightly disappointing given I had put so much effort into our sprint I could hardly walk for the rest of the day.

After arriving we collected a map including the names of hundreds of well known people, some you would only know if you went to school in Paris, but others we had heard of, so made a list of the gravestones we wanted to see.

The cemetery was opened on 21 May 1804 with the first person buried there, a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Pailliard de Villeneuve. Napoleon, who had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate three days earlier, had declared during the Consulate “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion.”

Since that generous proclamation, over one million people have been placed in the ground. It had to be expanded over the years but now it is what you see, unless the French government remove the odd office block, which I can’t see happening.

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As the guidebooks had suggested we were not the only ‘grave spotters’ there for a day’s outing in the dead centre of the city (sorry couldn’t help myself). It’s a labyrinth of tombstones, some big, some small and some simply weird, but that’s their choice and if they had the compulsion to be buried under a block of stone being held up by half a dozen angles with harps and skeletons with sickles, then who am I to argue. It’s fun watching couples wandering around with pieces of paper and a map getting frustrated with their inability to find the famed person they had circled. If you don’t have a good sense of direction you could spend the day scratching your head, that is until the sensible wife says… “For God’s sake Derick, can we just ask someone”?

“Just over here love… trust me”…

But the truth is for men, regardless of how lost we get, how long we pretend we are on track and how much time it takes, asking for help is not in our nature, we haven’t been wired that way… So men have over the years found a way of dealing with this hurdle… When we see another man beached and floundering in the midday sun, we feel compelled to help, it’s called… “Throwing a life ring to fellow man”…

An example is when you are in the vicinity of target, you know where it is, but you see a man flapping…
“Hey there buddy… you guys seen the ‘whatever’? It’s great and it is just over there”…
“Yeah, we were just heading in that exact direction.”

It’s usually the roll of their partner’s eyes that gives it away, that they were in fact completely lost and you have just saved them from an argument based solely on pride.

“I” found a few stops including the likes of Edith Piaf, Moliere, Sarah Bernhardt, Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and one that is the big draw card for the cemetery and one of the biggest in the world, Jim Morrison, front man for the Doors, who died in Paris on the 3rd of July 1971.

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No death is completely clear-cut when there are drugs involved, which is what killed the 27 year old. The official version of his death is he was in his apartment in Paris on that fateful night with his girlfriend/companion Pamela Courson, sucking up more powder than a vacuum cleaner.  Courson said he picked the wrong bag… he thought he was about to snort a line of cocaine but instead snorted Courson’s drug of choice, heroin. And like that horrible scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ he hemorrhaged internally and bled to death in his bathtub. But there are lots of versions including that he overdosed in a nearby club where he died of a heart attack and was carried home by very nervous bouncers, who didn’t want the negative press, and dumped in his apartment bathtub…. Nice…

Regardless, he died young and is now part of the ever increasing group of rock stars that have strangely died at that age in what is know as the “27 Club”… I’m sure there is a perfectly rational reason why so many do, I’ve read a few theories, but I don’t believe Morrison timed it…  there are dozens and depending what music rocks your boat you will know many of them, the latest that I know was Amy Winehouse, before her Kurt Cobain, Leslie Harvey, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Brian Jones, the list is long.

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What’s surprising is the amount of people who visit his grave, which has been defaced over the years by cemetery vandals. The originally grave had a bust of the singer sitting on the top, stolen in 1988. Seems a strange thing to steal, what the hell do you tell your friends that visit your house?
“Hey, what you got there buddy?”
“Oh this, it’s the bust from Morrison’s grave.”
“Oh shit, is that the time, sorry mate got to go, don’t call me I’ll call you…weirdo.”

But saying that he was pretty popular with the fans who liked or rather loved The Doors. Many seem to believe he was a demi-god who had a message from higher sources in his music and poetry.  At his gravesite you get to see some of the sentimental crap the more passionate fans leave, which is why the authorities have tried their best to rope it off. People leave bottles of vodka, packets of cigarettes, little mirrors that I guess are for drug taking. There are also notes… “Jim… you showed me the way and I will follow”. What the hell does that mean, he’s dead…
“Life is short for the beautiful”… No, life is short for people who snort heroin, you idiots…
I would love to meet the kind of person who leaves that drivel, they have issues, which I would feel obliged to point out…

But then he was pretty well known for living life on the edge and consequently attracting all sorts of fans… I will leave you to ponder one of his many quotes…

“I wouldn’t mind dying in a plane crash. It’d be a good way to go. I don’t want to die in my sleep, or of old age, or OD…I want to feel what it’s like. I want to taste it, hear it, smell it. Death is only going to happen to you once; I don’t want to miss it.”
OK thanks Jim, that’s deep… feeling much better about myself now.

After the cemetery we found something interesting that I would like to share with you… We had just arrived back at the riverbank of the Seine, the main artery of Paris and a place that seems to draw you back every time you venture too far. It’s a place you can wander along and feel you don’t have a care in the world as you watch the boats and people pass by.

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We saw a big black tent in the distance, which as we got closer was in fact three tents all joined with a little tunnel. Very new, very modern, very chic and with its location most likely very expensive… We were greeted by a long legged model standing at the door handing something out with the title  ‘The Glory of Water’ by Karl Lagerfeld… given he is fashion designer, it had to be a launch for a new perfume.

But as we entered we saw that it was a photography exhibition of the fountains in Rome, including the Trevi, which we had visited while there, so we decided to take a look.

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It was a bit odd to say the least; basically it was a book that he was launching in cahoots with Fendi fashion, which donated 2.1 million to the restoration of these fountains.

Karl had a lovely setting within these dark tents, his photos that made up the book were individually framed and sitting perfectly under a bright light with the sound of rushing water giving the feeling of standing next to a noisy fountain, which made us want to pee after a little while. Fifty of the photos appeared as platinotypes, a very rare and very expensive photochemical process involving platinum and palladium on Japanese paper, one I had heard of, but never met anyone rich enough to pay the bill. But considering he had the Trevi to himself for a morning in Rome, a truck full of camera equipment that would make any photographer green with envy and more assistants than Tom Cruise, his photos were very average… It appeared to be a classic case of more money than talent and a way to do something so you can invite your fancy friends for an opening…
“Marvelous darling, you’re a genius.”
“Oh Karl… wonderful, simply magnificent.”
“Brilliant… touched me like my fourth husband.”

I’m probably being a bit unfair as to do a whole book on water and marble is a tough ask… I know art is in the eye of the viewer and I’m sure there are people out there that love them, but I can’t help but think that just because you are a well-known designer, who oddly never takes his sunglasses off, doesn’t necessarily make you a great photographer…

As chance would have it Nicola’s brother Jeremy and his girlfriend Vanessa were in France, gallivanting about the country in a 4×4. Lucky things, how nice would it be to have the time and finances to do exactly what you want for a few months… We had by providence learnt they were going to be in the vicinity of St Malo at the same time as us, which was both the port we would be disembarking from as well as the finish line for the 10th leg of the Tour De France.

Nicola had stayed in touch via ‘FB’ and suggested we all meet somewhere in the area, the time could later be confirmed. So with the date set and ferry booked to depart, we had only a few hundred kilometers left of this journey before we arrived back in the UK.

We decided to spend one more night in France, staying in a small village or town somewhere on the route of the Tour De France, may as well watch the lads spin by and support the favorite rider, who happened to be British, before leaving.

We left Paris on a glorious day, sun out early, blue skies… Oh la la…

We rode to the start of that leg and followed the route for a while, until we found a very sweet little village called La Gacilly, a good place to stop for the night and watch the race pass the next morning.  The idea then was to watch the race pass, jump on the bike and get to St Malo to meet Nicola’s brother, have a drink and head to the ferry. What could possibly go wrong…

As it happens it was picture perfect village with idyllic little buildings lining a gentle slope up to the square, tight bend over a small brook with ducks paddling about and timing wise, perfectly situated to be the springboard to the ferry.  We had to get to the ferry with plenty of time, as apparently the city was going to be heaving with bike fans, estimated to be in the region of four hundred thousand. They were putting warnings out on the ferry link and I’m sure would not be waiting around for the odd biker that didn’t heed their advice.

As we rode into the village Nicola spotted a tourist advice bureau on the side of the road. She went in to ask about camping, given this was the most likely chance we had of a bed for the night; the place was packed with people for the perfect storm of holiday accommodation hell…. Mid summer… Northern France… Tour De France route… very pretty village… given that she immediately came back with a resounding “NO, packed to the gunnels”… “Bugger”, I thought…

So we went back into the office and asked the friendly lady if she could offer some advice, perhaps a nice field nearby… she had just hung up the phone and smiled saying we were in luck, a hotel in the center of town had just had a cancellation and had a vacant room; a double, on a quiet little side road, breakfast included, parking outside for the bike, two-minute walk to the duck pond and half a dozen delightful little restaurants, thirty seconds from the road the tour will pass. Do you want it? You will have to be quick.

I sat down just before she gave us the price… “This is going to sting”…. 50.00 euros… I perhaps shouted too loud the words “Take it… We’ll take it… Take it… Take it…” She looked at me with an expression that said… “Is there something wrong with him or does booking hotels just over-excite him?”

That slightly over enthusiastic reaction was overshadowed by Nicola bursting out the door with helmet in hand and running at full speed up the road towards the hotel shouting “I’ll get there faster by foot!” Sort of sealed the deal that a couple of “special” people had arrived…

When I arrived at the hotel a few minutes later the woman who owned it was handing Nicola the keys, we had managed against all the odds to find a delightful little hotel for our last night in France for no more money than they normally spend. Seemed odd that they had not taken advantage of the short supply and done what most others would have and hiked the price up, some things are meant to be.

We were told that the tour would pass through the village about 1pm, however the activity would kick off about 11am with what was called the ‘warm-up’, so we asked the lovely little restaurant where we had dinner that evening if we could book the table overlooking the road for lunch the next day for the race… done…

The Tour de France, as most people know, is a busy, spectator filled cycling event as famous for its controversies regarding doping as for the actual race itself. But I personally had no idea what to expect when we walked back to the restaurant the next day.

The buzz was electric, with hundreds of people already lining the road as early as 9am to get prime positions; police vans were dropping of dozens of their troops to stand guard on arterial roads for safety and direction. Then there was the army of security, volunteers and staff standing by like wind up dolls adorned with yellow safety jackets, springs tight with anticipation. It’s massive logistically when you consider this was just one of the dozens and dozens of towns and villages the tour would pass through this day on the 190km route.

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Official cars and police motorbikes start the event by clearing the roads with loud hailers just prior to one of the largest marketing campaigns I have ever witnessed, which drove past about an hour before the cyclists were due.

Hundreds of people on elaborately decorated floats, cars, trucks and motorbikes all dressed in stupid outfits came through like a Mardi Gras in fast forward. Because of the speed the cyclists are travelling there is no time to hang about so it’s quick, bright and extremely loud.

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It’s all about the advertising machine, companies giving away everything from free shampoo sachets to hats advertising a new better-faster-broadband. If you ever want to see a crowd in a frenzy of excitement, literally clambering over children and the aged so they can snatch the crap from mid air, then you know where to head.

We were standing in the restaurant eating a pizza and watching the spectacle on the road for about 30 minutes, when I saw a giant size Rolex watch on top of a truck come around the corner; I thought it was about ‘time’ (get it… wasted)…  time we got something other than useless rubber bands for your wrist or little sachets of anti-itch crotch cream “for the series cyclist” which was being relentlessly lobbed at us, but unfortunately they were just giving the time of 30 minutes before the bikes arrived, cheapskates… The floats disappeared around the corner and the load hailers stopped shouting things in French that nobody understood apart from the French… “Sorry where are we again”…

So with pockets full of useless crap that would go straight in the bin when they got home, the crowds were well and truly frothing at the mouth with excitement and were ready to scream their heads off when the bikes eventually came through. After 20 minutes a dozen very serious looking police and press bikes roared through indicating it was about to begin.  Then a car shot past shouting “deux minutes”… We could kind of guess the bikes were not far away when two filming helicopters came over the tops of the buildings, then more police and more photographers on motorbikes… There had been a small group of cyclists who had broken away from the main peloton and we now heading towards the corner we were on. The crowd as predicted were screaming their heads off when the bikes whipped past. A few minutes later the main peloton came past and then it was all over…

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Watching any sport live has it’s advantages and disadvantages, replay would have been nice, because you certainly don’t go to these events to see the riders individually, they are moving so fast it’s all over in seconds and a bit of a blur, but worth seeing to soak up the atmosphere and get a key ring from a company in France I have never heard of.

We were lucky that we had planned the day with a timetable that would have put the British rail network to shame (which these days is not all that difficult). We had already packed our bags and had a little time up our sleeve. Unfortunately we had not heard back from Nicola’s brother, who must not have received our email in time… So given that we decided to see another pass of the circus on the way to the finish line further up the road, we could take a side road and zoom ahead to get in front of them.

It worked a treat; we found a small town, pulled over literally five minutes before the blur of bikes sped past us again. The good news was the peloton had closed the gap allowing our lad from England to catch the leaders when it counted.

Twice was enough, so we headed to the St Malo to catch the ferry home, disappointed we would not get to see Nicola’s bro … but with an additional 400,000 people arriving in the big city, every hotel full to overflowing, it was unlikely we would have been able to catch up anyway, the shear nightmare the tour has on the road system would have stumped us. The road they pass along is blocked for hours before the race and unless you know your way around it would be harder to cross to the other side than the Berlin Wall.

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With about 40 minutes before the end of the race I spotted a bar on the side of the busy road on the way to the ferry. I saw that they had a TV, so suggested we stop to watch the end of the race given we had a couple of hours to kill.

There were a few old guys sipping beers, glued to the screen when we walked in and ordered a drink. What a lovely way to finish our trip, watching the end of an exciting race in a quaint bar in France, we could relax as there was no stress with plenty of time to get to the boat. I was just saying what a shame it was about Nicola’s brother and we wish we had Wifi when the door opened and in he and Vanessa walked.

I sat there with a confused look on my face and shock over Nicola’s when he simply said, “Hey guys, glad you could make it.”

It took us all a moment to work out that only a short time after we did one final check of our email making use of the hotel’s Wifi, Jeremy had replied suggesting we meet at this exact bar at precisely the time we arrived, which happened to also be where they were sleeping the night.

I don’t believe I have ever had anything in my life happen that can be accredited to serendipity as much as this moment. We were all delighted and amazed that some things in life just work out unexplained. We caught up for as long as we could before it was time to bid each other bon voyage and we head to the ferry.

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We made it to the ferry with plenty of time to spare, which was useful, as we still had to find that tiny cabin we had booked.

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The journey back to the UK was pleasant and uneventful. We had learned from our first ferry journey over that we could safely leave nearly everything on the bike, so we just took a small bag with us allowing a quick arrival at the bar, where we would have a celebratory drink before heading to bed to encounter some rock and roll… be slowly rocked to sleep with the gentle roll of the British channel.

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It was with mixed feelings that we arrived back at dawn to Portsmouth, which was under a blanket of a pink sky that glorious morning. Since the outbound trip all those months ago, we had travelled in one big loop around Europe encountering some of the most wonderful cultures this small planet has to offer. It’s true to me that the more I travel the more I see the same pattern of life existing everywhere regardless of how rich or poor you are. People are happy when they are fed, have some spare money to spend on others and have their health. There are subtle differences between us, including language, skin colour, religious beliefs, a nation’s standing in the world economically, and so on…but as individuals we are all pretty much the same, smile when happy and frown when not.

My mixed feelings were that our trip had come to an end finally and for you readers, my blog… “Thank the Lord” I hear you say…

I left on a journey with my best friend Nicola, who had spent no more that a couple of hours in the saddle before departing and had no idea what to expect. I came home with a fiancé, who I love even more than when we started… She is the most patient person I have ever met and if you have ever spent time on the back of the bike, let alone four months, one of the bravest…  She has worked tirelessly to make me look good in the blogs by reading them, correcting and attaching the photos and videos we have taken on this long ride.

For those friends and family who managed to find the time in their busy days to read my rants, thanks for the effort, it was lovely getting your messages along the way… now as for the rest of you who used the excuse that I suggested at the beginning of the blog that went like this…“you’re kidding, you did a blog… with photos and hours of travel waffle and we never got it… Damn”… I forgive you and won’t hold it against you… but please I insist that when you hear we are home, don’t call us we’ll call you…

So from us both… See you when we are looking at you…

The End.

 

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Paris (Part 1)

My plan worked… which was taking Nicola to the top of a very high mountain, where the air is thin, and deprive her of oxygen for a few hours before I pop the question. She said “yes”… not 100% sure she knew who I was or what I just asked her… but I definitely heard “yes”.

Thank you again to the gang team Pritchard and Page for supplying the champagne, which we drank on arriving back at our really romantic and highly expensive accommodation, “Chateau La Tent”…

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So that’s it… we’re getting married, and for anyone who is interested in when or where… we are working that out so will keep you posted.

Also, thank you for all of the messages of support and love from family and friends who read the announcement on our blog, sorry let me rephrase that, for those of you that read it on ‘Facebook’ because most it appears can’t read anything longer than an SMS… there are a few exceptions of course, those who have been following our blog religiously… you know who you are and again thank you for finding the time to read my rants.

We had planned to head to Paris the next morning and, as the cable car ticket person had predicted, it was a rather nasty day. We could hear the rain all night coming in waves down the valley as we slept in the small tent, warm and dry. Energy and will power are all that is required to leave that comfy bed, I kept saying to Nicola as I slowly began to pack up around her. “Come my love… step out into the cold rain… It’s not so bad.”

It’s horrible to be honest, as regardless of how careful you are to keep everything dry you get an overall feeling of damp. And just as you finalise the packing you have to then look forward to about seven hours riding in the rain… Oh the joy of motor biking.

It was a journey both of us would rather forget as we had rain the whole way to Paris. Hours and hours sitting on a busy AutoRoute, stopping regularly to empty our pockets at the tollbooths to continue the journey. As we rode I watched people’s faces with the expression “God, I’m so glad we are in this nice dry car, listening to the new cd I just bought, ‘Hits form the 80’s’.” We were soaked by the time we reached the outskirts of Paris, not entirely sure I hadn’t actually wet myself as it felt that way.

After Goggling into the iPad, ‘Paris Summer Hotel’ we received a message back that said ‘Are you joking… hope you have more than 400 euros a night’. Given we were on the end of the trip and we didn’t want to set a new precedent to what we had established as the norm, much cheaper… we wrote back, ‘thanks, but no thanks.”

The hotel we had booked was on the outskirts of the city center, which was the best value we could find. It was slightly depressing but as we were both tired and cold and had paid in advance we couldn’t be bothered looking for an alternative. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, a sea of crappy warehouses and abandoned truck trailers and to top it off the hotel looked like it was in the middle of being renovated with the smell of wet paint in every corridor. Now I know what the our Royal Highness the Queen of England experiences, apparently she thinks the world smells of wet paint, because every time she visits anywhere in the world, the buildings are usually newly painted for the occasion.

But it didn’t take long to work out that the train station was just around the corner and had direct trains into the city center in 15 minutes. There were also some fantastic restaurants that sold all things other than French, due to the eclectic mix of races in the suburb and once you got your head around the fact that the area looked like a ghetto, it was rather nice to be somewhere normal. We also appeared to have struck gold, as the day we arrived was the last day scheduled for refurbishments, so the noise of hammer drills stopped and the army of tradesmen packed up and left. We were the first of the guests as everything, towels, beds, sheets, TV’s, furnishings, were all brand new. Just as you think things could not get any better, they turned on the complimentary super-fast broadband and pointed us to the free coffee machine that saved us an additional 20 euros a day. “Sir there is also a secure car park around the back for your bike that requires your room key to enter”…
Value v’s first-impressions…

Nicola had wanted to come for a romantic week in Paris since the day we had met, before then I’m not too sure, because there was no romance in her life before I… obviously…

With the slightly cheesy name “the city of love” and “La Ville-Lumière” (“The City of Light”) it has attracted millions from all over the world to see ‘magnificent Paris’. It’s the sort of place you can’t leave easily without a sigh and a promise to return; it’s the epic history of the place… buildings designed and constructed to scream, “have I got your attention?” and deep love affair with art and great food. It incidentally boasts over 9000 restaurants, of which 70 are Michelin-starred, more than any other city in the world, which is definitely more restaurants than we have curry-houses in London and that’s saying something.

We walked and walked and walked until our feet were killing us and then after a small rest we walked some more… That was day one; where we simply wanted to absorb the atmosphere and hold hands, enjoying the sights and sounds of the place together. I’m engaged to be married now, so I’m allowed to write as much ‘bucket hugging’, sloppy-stuff as I like… besides which, we are in Paris the ‘city of love’ and Nicola is a sentimental fool… I’ve not really been too romantic in this blog, so I feel I should share a couple of Romeo moments… so you can quietly dry-reach.

We enjoyed the journey back on the train with the locals; the ethnic mix in Paris is quite remarkable… One always has to be extremely careful saying anything to do with race, colour or creed, as well as whether you are for, tolerant or against multicultural mixing within the cities of Europe, especially these days in a blog when everybody has his or her own opinion and whatever you say can be misconstrued. However, I’m a firm believer that just because it’s a sensitive subject doesn’t mean that you should nail the subject shut… and besides, I find it fascinating, it’s certainly controversial and as more and more take advantage of the no-boarder European policy and governments feel the need to get involved in theological matters, the more controversial it will become.

Speaking of controversial, we were walking past the main square next to where the Minister of Justice has her offices and bumped into a young woman who was part of a movement in Paris that is continuing the demonstration on gay marriage and the right to wear crucifixes in school. I’m not too worried about the crucifix issue; the church is massively powerful and has fought persecution and battles against governance since the day it was founded, plus with a change of Government, which is highly likely one day, things will likely revert to status quo once more and people will be able to wear what they like. However, in April this year France elected that it was in favour of allowing marriage of same sex couples. French Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira took on the fight on behalf of France’s gay and lesbian community, who witnessed such hatred from the religious right, the Catholic church and France’s opposition conservative party throughout the debate on the gay marriage bill.

This young protester we met was a right-wing Catholic who believed that being gay was something you could control and that God was wearing a t-shirt supporting their sentiment. She told us that part of the new laws that the Minister had passed means that you basically can’t have any group demonstrate against this bill, and people who do will be arrested… and the law also says that as long as you are one metre apart you are not technically considered a group. We saw about 200 people protesting in the square, all standing one metre apart like a life-size game of chess about to make its first move.

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One of their comrades had been arrested for throwing a bottle at a policeman during the riots where 150,000 anti-gay marriage protestors got over-excited. Apparently it has been a 24/7 protest with thousands of volunteers signed up to stand there, doing shifts of 4 hours each. It’s all Facebook and email based and until their friend is released the demonstration will continue.

Equal rights in France are extremely important and as a nation they seem tolerant… as the Minister of Justice said in one of her speeches when talking about tolerance, “That it is the strength of our society. It is even the basis of our society. It is the basis of our relationship to society.”

And then the Muslim community woke up on the 14 September 2010 to the news that the Senate of France had passed a new law – “Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public ” (Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space), resulting in a ban on the wearing of face-coverings including masks, headgear, helmets, balaclava, niqābs and other veils covering the face in public places. The ban also applies to the burqa, a full-body covering, if it covers the face.

But for the small group of Muslims who practice head covering, it was a bit of a shock to be told they could no longer continue. It’s to do with translation of the Qur’an. After all it’s a book… as far as I can tell over the centuries it has been interpreted to suit the person reading it. When something is written down in a book that people take as literal, it can get confusing, especially for people looking for reason. Take for instance the Bible, one must learn to “turn the other cheek” which I take as stand there and be slapped until you say “please can you stop” as opposed to an “eye for an eye” which I think Gandhi got right in believing if that was the case, the whole world would go blind.

Part of the translation of the Qur’an, regards to head covering, is below;
“And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their head coverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments.”

So it comes down to whether you think it was a woman that read the book and interpreted it in such a way as to walk into the living room and say, “Hey honey, I’ve broken it down it and I read it as, I can’t step out the house with an identity… but you can” or whether men have read it and used it as a form of modern day anti-suffrage.

Saying that, there are always people that like to take religion to the extreme. I would love to know how many of them were disappointed v’s relieved when the law was passed…I’d take a guess, but I don’t want to be judgmental.

There are a few sights that after arriving in Paris must be ticked off the sightseers bucket list and one of those has to be the world’s largest museum holding some remarkable doodles…

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Musée du Louvre is massive… it has changed and been added to since the 12th century and was last used as a home in 1682 for King Louis XIV who chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection, including, from 1692, a collection of antique sculpture.

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That’s pretty much how it stayed for a hundred years until the French woke up one morning in 1789 and decided that Louis XVI had to go in what is known as the French Revolution. “Off with his head” is probably the quickest way to describe the outcome for the King. In reality it is rumored in the journals of history that it wasn’t actually that quick, because the first attempt didn’t do the business and only cut half his head off. There was a rather nasty thump sound followed with some muttering by the executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, who pulled the handle to the guillotine and said something along the lines of “opps… might need to do that again, sorry about that.” He said the King, to his credit, appeared dignified and resigned to his fate, which is a damn sight calmer than I would have been especially after the first attempt.

For about a year after the poor king got the chop, during the period known as the “reign of terror” from June 1793 to July 1794, the nation had to contend with ‘The Revolutionary Tribunal’. This fun little group sentenced thousands to the guillotine, just about anybody that fitted the bill, including nobility, intellectuals (most of my friends would have been safe), politicians and prostitutes, all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds. Suspicion of “crimes against liberty” was enough to earn one a fun day out with a sudden ending.

Now here’s the kicker and not everyone knows this. Who is the least likely person, or more profession, that you would think of to come up with the design of a machine for chopping somebody’s head off? Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was a doctor… if that’s not irony… But saying that, Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty, so he said, and the reason he designed it was to hopefully provide a less painful method of killing someone. He believed that decapitation made executions more private and individualised and was the first step toward a total abolition of the death penalty… Not sure I would go along with that as a reason personally, given during the revolution the guillotine was used so much that it earned the name “Madame Guillotine” or “The National Razor”. Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000.

Imagine letting that little accomplishment slip at a cocktail party, “Nice to meet you, I hear you are a doctor. Sorry I didn’t get your name”… “Oh I see… (Awkward silence) OK… well… might go and find my wife.”

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Some love it and some hate the modern large glass pyramid in the middle of the main square, but regardless of what you think of it you have to enter the Louvre through it. 12.50 euros is possibly the best value for money we have spent on the trip so far to visit something that is so beautifully designed. It’s very easy to get about and even on a busy day it feels relatively un-crowded due to its vast size. If you haven’t been and want to visit, I suggest you buy your ticket the day before, giving you a whole day to start one end and see as much as you can before your feet fall off. To give you some idea of size of the place, if you were to only visit the toilets in the Louvre you would need two days… I made that up… but you can’t see it all in a day so pick your targets carefully.

One of our targets was obviously the most famous, most written about and most visited painting in the world. Leonardo da Vinci’s half-length portrait of a woman called Mona Lisa.

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She hangs in a room the size of a tennis court, covered in special glass to protect her from the flashes of the idiots that forgot or didn’t care to turn their flashes off. It’s interesting again to watch the people only there getting a photo, not of the painting, but one of themselves with the painting. The “look at me” culture that seems to have gained massive popularity since the creation of Facebook is most evident when visiting famous sights around Europe.

I guess its better than some photos people put on Facebook, inept photos like “this is what I ate for breakfast” or those stupid “look at me” shots, because I get the urge to hit the comment button… which is the reason Nicola has banned me from managing my own Facebook, she thinks I will lose us friends…

Ok… I was sliding into a rant there but just caught myself before I went on to say something about “twitter”… All I’ll say is I don’t care what ‘Shame Warne’ thinks…

Let’s get back on track and continue this fascinating look into the unfinished work of Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1503 and 1506, although it is estimated that Leonardo may have continued working on it as late as 1517. I’m not sure how big people think the picture is, but according to the guidebooks she is smaller than most people imagine. I have only ever heard of two things that everyone gasps in surprise at how small it is, the Mona Lisa and my mate Tim standing on the beach in a pair of budgie smugglers.

She has had a turbulent history; she was stolen twice, the first time occurred after it was acquired by King Francis I of France and passed down through the generations of his family until the republic killed the lot of them and stole it for the nation. The next time it was taken was on the 21 August 1911. Back then a very crafty chap, a former Louvre employee no less called Vincenzo Peruggiaby came up with an extraordinarily complicated plan to steel the painting. After months of planning to the nth-degree he set off on that night of August 20th and hid in a broom cupboard… Brilliant plan Vincenzo… knowing that the gallery would be closed the next day he stayed there all night and because he knew the layout and that work would continue by museum employees the next day, he popped a white smock on, which is what they wore, and just as he heard a couple pass the broom cupboard he slipped out. From there he could have switched off the laser sensors, deactivated the cameras and overrode the pressure switch… but in this case all he had to do was to stride up to the painting, lift it off the wall, walk in under the stairs, take it out of the frame and pop it under his smock. He would have said goodbye to the security guard on his way out, but the guard was fetching a pail of water. Why? Nobody knows…

He hid it in his apartment for two years and the painting was thought to have been lost forever; however, greed and stupidity (often these two things are not far apart) brought it out of hiding when he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of an art gallery in Florence, Italy, where he was finally caught. He did six months for his crime.

She was hung back on the wall with a new policy regarding fetching pails of water and there she was quite happy until in 1956, the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when a vandal threw acid at the painting. Then on 30 December of that same year, a young Bolivian named Ugo Ungaza Villegas damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a speck of pigment near the left elbow, which was later painted over.

Then they decided that if people could not be trusted to simply enjoy the art without the overwhelming feeling of throwing something at it, then they would have to shield her behind toughened glass. Which was not a bad call given in 1974 a woman, upset by the museum’s policy for disabled people, sprayed red paint at her while it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum. On 2 August 2009, a Russian woman, extremely miffed over being denied French citizenship, threw a cup, purchased at the museum, at the painting in the Louvre; the vessel shattered against the glass enclosure. In both cases, the painting was undamaged.

Things are slightly different these days, as they don’t want any more repeats she is now kept behind atomic-proof glass, with an alarm system that only matches the security for the crown jewels.

The Alps (Part 2)

The next morning we were filling up the bike before setting off on another day’s adventure when we met a couple of Swiss chaps on a weekend ride. Their English was about as good as my Chinese, but I managed to shake out of them that they were heading home to a place we were considering riding through on our way to Paris. Our route was ‘head west and set the GPS to stay off the toll roads and find the pretty passes’. Their route was planned like they were on an expedition to Mars, with a pannier full of maps, little pieces of paper with equations on them and guide books called ‘the best roads to ride when being followed by a couple on a Triumph, who thought it was a good idea to tag on to the locals with a great plan.’

Amazing that somebody actually wrote a book with that title, but it was all in Swiss-German and my translation may be a little out. After me begging them on my knees and Nicola lying on the road in front of their bikes, they smiled and said we would be most welcome to join them on their epic journey home across every pass and great motorbike road in the Alps.

However, you know that realisation that you may have made a slight miscalculation of all the factors of the great idea you just had? Well, as we took off up the road early that morning and we all got into line, us at the back for obvious reasons, it was then that it sunk in. They rode really-really-really slowly and don’t like to pass slow-moving traffic the way I do. Going into corners the speed of an old lady in a wheelchair was something I would have to quickly get used to or else pull over and say, “I have a stitch, go on without us.”

Nicola persuaded me that patience was a virtue apparently, and given they certainly had done their research on the best roads, which was a lot more than we had, we stuck to the plan… and that’s one of the reasons I love my girl; she’s got a good feeling when it comes to doing things slowly… as she’s had plenty of practice… (Ouch, that little jibe is going to hurt when she reads this.)

We had such a fantastic day’s ride it’s hard to describe with some keystrokes… I’m not Earnest Hemingway… but we honestly could not have done it without the help of the two lovely gentlemen we met.

We did three main passes through the Alps that day…
The ride through the Brenner Pass, the lowest pass in Europe, was an interesting start to the day, seeing the huge old fortifications the Germans built in the Second World War, which indicated the importance of this very busy gateway between Italy and Austria.

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Then it was a gentle rise from the valley, over a couple of hills, past the odd village and back into Italy for the Jaufenpass (Italian: Passo di Monte Giovo) (el. 2094 m), where we bumped into a couple at the very top driving a vintage Rolls Royce. They were part of a breakaway group of ‘Rollers’ (that’s not an official name, but I made it up and it sounds good so I’m keeping it), reenacting the route I told you about earlier, totally independent from the one involving the Royals back in Bled. When they saw our British number plates they asked if we would like to join them for a cup of hot cocoa. Coffee would have been my first choice but if one drinks cocoa then I’m not arguing. We went into the little café perched on the side of the road, as our new Swiss friends smoked cigars outside.

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The ‘Rollers’ told us that they were behind the others in their group due to a slight breakdown that morning, which I think is quite understandable given that their car was over 100 years old. Then he mentioned his ‘other cars’ … all vintage Rolls Royces, most in England but a couple in Australia and one Canada. He had 16 in all… Yep, that’s what I thought… He mentioned that his business did well for him, and given the price tag for just one of these cars… I’m sure it did.

They were a really lovely couple with a great sense of adventure though, and I wish them all the best on their journey over the Alps.

The lads had finally smoked their ‘we made it to the top’ cigar, which was incidentally smoked slower than they rode, and we were off again to continue our journey.

We were on-route to Timmelsjoch (elevation 2,474 m) which, in contrast to the Brenner some 25km to the east, is Austria’s highest border crossing point, sometimes called the “secret passage” due to being much higher and therefore hardly used.

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After the obligatory cigar and photo we were back on the road and crossing into Switzerland for our final pass of the day, the Flüela Pass (el. 2383 m), which takes you through Davos, the highest altitude city in Europe and one of the largest mountain holiday destinations for all things to with sport on snow. It’s a well-known place for speed skating and has had many world records set in this small city.

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I learnt something interesting that I will share, which has absolutely nothing to do with the place… when I did a little research on the city and it’s famed ‘speed skating’, I typed in ‘speed skiing’ accidentally and learnt something that I still don’t really understand… The current world record for speed skiing is 251.4 km/h (156 mph), held by Simone Origone, which is great and I accept he is bonkers and must have been an odd child, but the strange part is speed skiers regularly exceed 200 km/h (125 mph), which is faster than the terminal velocity of a free-falling skydiver; about 190 km/h (120 mph). Can somebody please explain this to me, as I can’t get my head around it, how this is possible?

By this stage we were all feeling the shoulders tightening and the wrists beginning to ache as we finished the day in Switzerland and the hometown of our new friends. Regardless of the language barrier and moving at the pace of a lame pack-horse, we all had a lot of laughs and Nicola was right in making the call for us to stick it out, they had chosen the perfect day’s ride for us to see some lovely scenery that we would have missed if we had relied on the GPS.

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When we stopped for fuel we realised that of course Switzerland has nothing to do with the EU, so hence has their own currency, the Swiss Franc; a currency that is way out of sync with its neighbours, due to the fact that they can control their own market and not be dragged down by the PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy,
Greece and 
Spain, who have struggled economically for years.

It’s probably cheaper to go on holiday to the moon business class, as we discovered when searching for a hotel. Filling the bike cost about as much as it would to fill a Sherman tank in Australia, and to get a coffee under the price of a three course meal left us thinking that we would make this a fleeting visit, camping for one night and then heading to France which was just over a couple more passes.

The campground was pretty rubbish due to its location miles from the town of Chur, and also that it was right next to a very noisy river that sounded like you were sleeping next to a jet idling its engines all night. Then there was the fact that, after a huge day in the saddle, we were in the mood of “can’t be bothered driving out for food, I’m knackered”, which left us little alternative but to eat in the campground café and spend the equivalent of 70 euros for two small beers and a dried out piece of meat covered in cold chips. It sounded much better than it looked and to top it off we were serenaded by the dulcet tone of two bikers from the north of England who spent the whole evening complaining about how expensive it was. No wonder the Australians say they know when a plane full of British arrive… after the engines stop they can still hear the whining.

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However, we slept well, packed our gear and were out of the country as fast as we arrived. Switzerland, lovely place to see some mountains, eat some chocolate and buy a watch… but as for staying there on a holiday, it will have to wait until we have so much money we don’t mind paying three times more than its neighbors.

As we took off and set our sights for France, praying we would make it on one tank of fuel, as the cost to buy another could shorten the trip by a week, we realised that today when we hit France we would have travelled five countries in five days: Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France, and we had just travelled the day before three countries in one day: Italy, Austria and Switzerland; but before we could celebrate that little achievement we would need to cross Oberalppass (el. 2044 m) which has a quirky fact of being the place where there is the world’s highest lighthouse. It doesn’t actually do anything apart from flash the color of neutral; it was built so people would talk about it, no other reason… Imagine the excitement when someone suggested that one to the bosses in tourist office.
“Oh Yannick, I have such a good idea to bring in the tourists…”
“What’s that then? Building a cheese museum? A chocolate museum?”
“No Sir much better than that, why don’t we build a lighthouse two kilometers up the mountain, then we can say we have the world’s highest lighthouse”
“This guy is a genius, what a visionary”…

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Then after the excitement of seeing that little piece of history it was up the Furka Pass (el. 2436 m). It was a bit of a Furka too as the road to the top was busy with bicycles on some sort ridicules effort to win a T-shirt that says… “I’m Furka knackered – Summit Ride 2013” We were hitting heavy traffic trying to get by them all, but as I have mentioned several times before, having a big motorbike and small girlfriend makes getting past an easy affair, which was in contrast to one poor sod that we passed who had a small motorbike and big girlfriend, he was struggling to smile.

We also passed another odd couple on bikes as we headed up the Furka, the man was on an extremely small moped riding lead to his presumable wife on a quad-bike. The quad was custom built with storage compartments and a matching red color scheme. I’m sure he would have spent weeks building them in his shed for the holiday of a lifetime back home in Germany. If the expression ‘like you were chewing a wasp’ was to be closely looked at, then I would take a guess the word ‘fun’ was missing from the trip at the stage we met them on the road.
“Hey my little pumpernickel, what would you like to do this year for summer holidays?”
“Oh, Fredrick, I have dreamed of Thailand and relaxing on the beach”…
“Do you want to come to my shed and see what papa has been building… it’s red… your favorite color…”

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Finally we got to the top and again the vistas were stunning… they were, as a side note, used as a location in the James Bond film Goldfinger… bet you didn’t know that?

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With the relatively short Col de la Forclaz pass (el. 1,527 m), the last one of the day before dropping into France, we felt a certain sense of cessation, a pinch of relief, mixed into a huge pot of achievement as we were now on the home stretch of our trip.

We decided to stop in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, where we wanted to get to the top of the mountain, Aiguille du Midi with an elevation of 3842m.

We found a super little camp ground one kilometer outside of the main town, which was quiet and friendly with a magnificent view of the glaciers tumbling down the sides of the mountains.

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We unloaded the gear, built our tent and changed out of our motorbike kit. On our way into the relatively small town to find dinner, we had both picked up the scent of something that is so delightful we stopped and said “yes” at exactly the same time… the smell that gets your mouth watering after weeks of depravation…like honey to a bear… the good old fashioned Indian curry was what we wanted and regardless of the price we were eating in Mr. Patel’s restaurant ‘the Gandhi’ with its highly original name…
“Sweetheart, thirty six Euros for a small plate of Tikka Masala is a bargain… think of the work involved, and besides the spices came on donkey from India last week so they must be fresh”…

Funny how you can justify just about anything when you want it, I’m only exaggerating on the price, it wasn’t quite that much… we forgot already. It was damn good though.

Next morning the sun was out, Nicola took off to do some investigatory work on the lift situation to get us to the top. She was quickly warned that there was going to be a change in the weather, so practically ran back to tell me we were off and we should get going as soon as possible.

With the name that literally translates as “Needle of the Noon” or “Needle of the Mid-day” the mountain of Aiguille du Midi is a pretty good place for mountaineers and climbers to start their adventures into the mountains… Some head up to the two main ridges for an attempt to the summit of Mont Blanc and some simply find one of the thousands of other routes in the near vicinity to free climb, ice climb, trudge or, as most do, become sight seekers with a camera and a ham sandwich.

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The cable car to the summit is called the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi and was built by some pretty hardcore chaps in 1955 before workplace health and safety would have come in and said, “you want to do what?” It held the title of the world’s highest cable car for about two decades, which was taken by the Venaswa Mérida’s cable car. It still holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, from 1,035 m to 3842 m.

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As an equation of metres travelled v’s euros spent, I would guess that the massive cable cars that take you to the top are one of the most expensive forms of transport this side of Jupiter, but if you then throw in the equation human energy saved v’s euros spent, it is probably the cheapest.

There are three stages on this trip to the top, one cable car takes you about half way, before you have a choice to either get off to see the view or take the second one that takes you to the main observation area, where there is the stepping out point for the adventurers or a restaurant for those that didn’t bring a sandwich. The last stage is a ten-person lift that takes you to the top. When the doors open you at roughly at the summit.

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There is also a museum that explains a little about the building of the cable cars and a ‘show and tell’ explaining what crampons and ice axes are.

If you misjudge the weather, you can end up at the top observation deck with nothing to see but the disappointed faces of tourists, in what could have been a scene from ‘Gorillas in the mist’. We guessed that if we waited for a while the clouds would move over and we could see what we had come for, a view of Mont Blanc. And indeed ten minutes later, with the last bite of our ham sandwich they did and the sight was spectacular. Down below there were the shapes of little climbers, not dissimilar to ants on a white sheet of paper getting ready to tackle the various routes off the plateau below the lookout. Some were coming to the end of their long hard battle of ‘mind over knackered’ as they come down from the slopes of Mount Blanc after a successful ascent or disappointing retreat that morning.

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We looked out for a while at the mountains appearing and disappearing through the ever-shifting clouds rolling over the Alps before we called it time to get back inside, warm up and head down to the bottom.

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On our way down in the tightly packed cable car that holds up to 80 people, I suggested we stop and get out at the half way point for a coffee at the little cafe. At 2317m it was warmer than the summit and we were really lucky as there was hardly anybody making use of this respite. We took off and walked up the mountain about 200 meters finding the most perfect little spot to sit down and enjoy the vista overlooking the valley below.

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So with a perfect view, on the slopes of a stunning mountain steeped in history and reverence… I asked Nicola to marry me…

The Alps (Part 1)

The next morning we took off to Austria and headed in the direction of the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in the country and one of the tallest in Europe at 12,460 feet (3,798 m). Here there is a pass high up in the mountains that is possibly more popular to visit by motor bikers than Mecca is to Muslims.

We decided that given we were so close we should have a go at getting to the top, by all accounts we had heard from many bikers it was well worth the effort.

The day before it had been closed due to some late spring snow, but we had lovely sunshine the day we rode towards it so were hoping it would be open by the time we got there. However, as we arrived in the valley that funnels you to the mountain, some late-afternoon clouds had rolled in, so we thought our best option would be to stop for the night and hope for the best the next morning. There was a small hotel about 12km for the base of the mountain pass, which was clean and quiet. They had food and drink so we spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out amongst the abnormally large collection of stuffed animal heads nailed to the walls. It appeared the owner was a keen hunter and was delighted to share his passion of all things shot with his hotel guests.

After a good night’s sleep and an early breakfast it was off to do the High Alpine Road right into the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park, the Grossglockner and its glacier, the Pasterze. Say all that after a beer and it sounds very different.

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We rode to the base of the mountain having a passed through Heiligenblut, a picturesque little village complete with picture-perfect Gothic pilgrimage church. The weather was ideal, sun shining, blue skies, no wind… Today was going to be good… Then it starts, a 48 km long road, with more bends than a decompression chamber and vistas down the valley that made Nicola want to sing the whole soundtrack to ‘The Sound of Music’… Which she did, starting with “the hills are alive, with the sound of Nicola”… “High on the Hills was a lonely biker”…

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It was a fantastic morning of riding on the road that seemed to be specifically designed for bikes, we practically had the mountain to ourselves on the way up as I don’t think anyone else got the memo that it was going to be near perfect conditions. It’s a private road that costs 24 euros, but worth every penny. At the top the snow is thick on the ground and freezing cold at about -5 degrees. We ordered two coffees and I watched my wallet have a cardiac arrest on the counter as I pulled 16 euros out to pay for them. After the coffee shop Bumbles, around the corner from where we live, I think this sets a new record for ridiculously over-priced coffee. But as we sat there enjoying our hot coffee, I thought, imagine waking up every morning to go to work, driving an altitude ascent to 2,504 meters, navigating 36 bends and sitting at -5 degrees (and that’s in the summer) and making coffee for the tourists who greet you shivering. I decided they are well justified, but what was my local coffee shop’s excuse?

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If you choose to continue your drive over the mountain pass to Salzburg, which we didn’t, you would find yourself following ancient trails that now make up the bitumen road. Finds like pre-Celtic bronze knives, Celtic gold jewelry, a Roman Hercules statue (what the hell was that doing up there we will never know) , and medieval pack-animal bridles are proof that this road was already well travelled 200 years B.C.

Just as we were about to head off we noticed in the distance that the main car park of the lookout was packed with red trucks, old fire trucks that were privately owned to be more accurate. I guess if you own a big red fire truck and somebody shouts “anyone fancy a drive to the top of Europe’s highest pass for a get-together” then how could you refuse the call? There must have been over 150 of them in all shapes and sizes divided in the two parking areas. There appeared to be a few die-hard enthusiasts that thought it was worth the effort and had come from far afield, Germany, Italy and just about every nation within 200 km. We watched for a while at the commotion of them trying to park, which was more amusing than the outfits they were wearing. Guess when you have a 1940’s fire truck one must pull out the uniform of the day, and if that was a pair of lederhosen with a red shirt, funny little hat and silver axe on your belt, then who was going to say you looked ridicules? Certainly not us as, (not many people know this) Nicola and I own a fire truck… I say no more on the subject…

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We got local advice from a nice guy on the top of the mountain, who was part of a team that spend all year keeping the pass clear of snow and rocks. He was also a biker and basically said we would have a better ride if we went back down the way we came and headed into the Dolomites in Italy. As we have said all the way through this trip, the plan is continually changing so we decided there on the spot that we would make the most of local knowledge.

The ride on the way down was very different than the way up, apart from the compression on your wrists as you hook into the very tight corners, we saw literally hundreds of bikers heading up. Looked like the memo was finally sent, but the newcomers had missed the bright blue skies as late morning clouds had started to form above the peaks and the views that took our breath away were slowly disappearing.

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But saying that, most of the bikes we saw had no luggage on them and were sports bikes with a capital S… So they were probably there for speed rather than sightseeing. Judging by the registrations, many of them came from Italy, just over the far mountain. It’s incredible the number of Italian bikes on the roads in Europe, ridden by guys in all kinds of coloured leathers…

There are generally four kinds of bikers on the road it appears. There is the traveller, Triumphs and BMWs with a ton of luggage including camping equipment, cameras, partners’ wardrobe changes and cosmetic bags… we generally keep to ourselves and don’t have too much to do with other bikers apart from a quick chat at a coffee stop, as we are all on separate journeys, which seldom point in the same direction.

Then there are the bikers that like to ride in packs, clubs that have their name blazoned on a T-shirt or waistcoats for easy identification when it’s time to stop for a cigarette. They decide on the route in the morning and ride together until they stop for a greasy lunch somewhere, before heading home. Usually a very friendly lot who would welcome anyone to join their group along the way and smile and wave at all those who pass on a bike.

Then we have the ‘road warriors’ who only ride Harley Davidsons… Many are accountants during the week and wannabe-‘hells angels’ on the weekend, unless their wives tell them they have to take the kids shopping for a new pair of shoes. It must be an image thing, because who in their right mind would buy a leather jacket with tassels hanging off it… come on it’s not right… (Please Damon, for the love of God, you don’t have a jacket with tassels, do you?) I do feel a bit sorry for them because many of them take the image over practicality thing a little too far with their tiny, black, bowl-shaped helmets and aviator sunglasses, which offer absolutely no face protection when it starts to rain. You watch them riding into a downpour with an expression that says “it’s really stinging my face and I’m soaked to the bone, but damn I look cool… don’t I?”…

Then there is a group of bikers like no other… The ‘Istallion’ … the Italian-Stallion with slicked back hair (which you rarely see due to their sleek helmets), black visors and an extremely tight pair of crotch-hugging white leather pants and matching jacket. All this is rounded off with the super polished sports bike that makes ours look like a dirty tractor… you can do it with your mates or do it alone… but when you do it… do it flat out and with arrogance… we encountered hundreds of them, one minute you’re riding along quietly looking at the scenery, and then they come past you like a swarm of wasps.

The ride to the Dolomites took about three hours, where we saw some of the most spectacular mountains and towering grey rock formations very different to anything we had seen so far.

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It’s a magnet for rock climbers and mountaineers who wish to conquer nature at its steepest. Some of the rock faces are thousands of metres high, therefore ideal for base-jumpers who take the sport of parachuting to the extreme limit. Given the small amount that participate, it’s one of the most dangerous sports to hit earth, so to speak, as there have been over 200 fatalities since William Harmon became the first official base jumper who landed harder than planned on the 11 April 1981. I used to paraglide for a sport, about ten years ago, and found having a reserve parachute a reassuring addition to the gear I would pack in the morning, just incase something went wrong; at least you have a second go at getting to the ground safely. With base jumpers they rely solely on the first pull of the cord and if it tangles, swings in or doesn’t open in time… “Bon voyage”…

We discovered that it’s also a very popular area for tourists doing activities with less of an ‘impact’ on their lives, the number of campervans and cars packed with bored looking children grew steadily as we navigated our way through the labyrinth of small roads and passes. Our GPS took us on some very unusual routes, and at one stage we found ourselves in the middle of a forest on a track heading towards an area renowned for its pretty vistas overlooking Switzerland. Throughout this area, which in the winter would be a ski heaven, we saw dozens of mothballed ski lifts, some of which were being used to ferry summer walkers to the high peaks. It’s an amazing place if you like the outdoors, skiing and snowboarding in the winter, walking, canoeing and paragliding in the summer. Nic and I would love to come back one day to explore the area a little more, perhaps in a campervan; accommodation prices are ridiculous in summer, we can’t imagine how expensive they would be in winter.

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With our day coming to a close, we set our sights on a small town called Ortisei, but before the boots could be kicked off and the smell of damp feet become the room’s bouquet for the night we had one last pass to get over, The Valparola Pass (Italian: Passo di Valparola) (el. 2168 m.)

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Not as high as the Grossglockner but equally as cold and barren. It’s a strange thing we kept experiencing, one minute riding along with the heat of the sun on your back, lush green grass waving gently in the breeze and then pull back the throttle, turn a load of hairpins and bang, you are high up on the side of a mountain, freezing cold, surrounded by thick snow. The transition takes place in the space of thirty minutes and is a bit of a shock to the system as we couldn’t be bothered stopping, putting our warm gear on and then stripping at the other end. Besides which, we were adventurers following in the footsteps of the Romans who used these passes to cross the Alps, so I’m sure we could tough it out for a while… until I flicked the heated-grips switch and warmed my hands up, indicating I would have made a pretty shoddy Roman soldier.

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Riding in the mountains is completely knackering mentally and physically. With 180-degree corners every ten feet, steep ups and steep downs, shear drops on at least one side of the road and a cliff face on the other, the concentration level required to keep the bike’s rubber parts pointing downwards is on another level. In hindsight, I’m so pleased we navigated the trip the way we did. If we had done it the other way around we would not have been so ‘bike fit’ upon reaching the Alps; I think given the shear kms we have done so far has allowed our bodies to adapt. My hands are the things that get the most tired and painful, I actually think I’m suffering from repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). When I looked it up in Wikipedia, it is described as:
“Injuries to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression, or sustained or awkward positions”

Kind of sums up riding a bike for three months and may be why my wrists feel as though they have been hit with a baseball bat every evening. As for the rest of our bodies, we both seem to be so used to the hours of sitting that we don’t even think about it anymore, we now have what is best described as ‘buns of steel’ which would put any buttock firming video to shame, I just wish I could say the same about the rest of me.

We found a little B&B style guesthouse in the main part of the town, showered, ate a slice of pizza (see… fat boy food) and collapsed into a deep sleep dreaming of mountains, roads, corners, tracks and being covered in whipped cream by a midget in a ballerina outfit. Weird, huh?

Slovenia

Misty mountains covered in lush green forests with fast flowing rivers winding their way down never-ending valleys, interlinked with some of the prettiest roads we have ridden so far on the trip, Slovenia was a surprise to us both.

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As we made our way towards Bled, we could see in the distance in the direction we were headed, black clouds were beginning to appear accompanied by the odd flash of lightning, which was making its presence felt with a distant roll of thunder. It was serendipitous that, just as the first few spots of rain hit our helmet visors and were just about to stop on the side of the road to pull on the wet weather gear, we rounded a corner and saw a lovely little café right in the middle of nowhere. We just managed to grab the map and wallet before the heavens opened with a huge clap of thunder above our heads, and a deluge of rain came down. “Two coffees please”…

There was a lovely man serving behind the counter who said we were lucky to have reached shelter in time. He also said we were most welcome to stay as long as we wanted and joined us to point out where we were on the map. Sometimes things just seem to work out.

It’s not often you meet truly fascinating people in the deep forests of Slovenia with perfect English, great coffee and stories of their life that make you want to pull your shoes off, sit back in a comfy chair and be taken on some amazing journeys as they give you snippets of their adventures. Apart from his mountaineering stories or the motorbike trips similar to ours, it was the story of how he became one of the secret teams working on state-of-the-art command bunkers belonging to Saddam Hussein in Bagdad. This was of course in the 80’s when the American administration was not only financially supporting Iraq’s war on Iran but was actually helping steer the ship so to speak; how times quickly changed… We sat and listened with fascination, as I had no idea how big these bunkers actually were and the amount of work that went into making them impenetrable.

Halfway through one story, sipping coffee, we all stopped talking and watched in silence, a very odd sight on the road pass by. Out of the torrential rain emerged two people in their 50’s sitting in waterproofs in a very old open-top 1920’s Rolls Royce. It was one of those moments when nothing really needed to be said, just continue the story with the expression, ‘that was odd’. I noticed, however, it had British number plates and could only think of that song, “mad dogs and Englishmen”.

We could have stayed there for the rest of the day, but during the couple of hours engrossed in stories, the rain had stopped, so it was back out on the road heading towards Bled after bidding our new friend farewell.

The journey there was so lovely, quiet roads washed by the downpour, and the smell of ‘damp earth’ that always takes me back to England and into the garden after the rain.

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Our first night’s accommodation wasn’t actually in Bled itself, we decided on a smaller town about 30 minutes ride away, we had read it was very popular with people who wanted quiet, relaxing, and quaint. After the last night we had with the Contiki tour we just wanted sleep, so it was perfect.

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We found a super little guest house in a small village, very well priced, pub next door selling local dishes of sausage, schnitzel and big mugs of beer. It had the feeling of Austria with its architecture, and the locals all spoke excellent English, all in all we immediately liked the place. However, if we stayed too long we would admittedly have become the size of a small family car as the menu was not for the faint hearted. Chips with mayonnaise, sausage and schnitzel were the house meals, but it was a nice change from pizza and pasta.

Bled is a small town on a big lake surrounded by mountains, there is an iconic castle overlooking the town and a church on an island in the middle of the lake. It’s a really lovely place to visit with small flat-bottomed rowing boats lining the shore and restaurants dotted about serving the small numbers of tourists.

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What we did find out the next morning when we arrived for a look was it was playing host to a very special event.

Bled was part of the 100-year celebration of the Rolls Royce 20-Ghost Club. In 1913 the then relatively new Rolls Royce took part in a very grueling race, a 1850-mile, 16-day drive through some of the most scenic, tight cornered, steepest and in those days, frightening passes and Alpine roads on earth. The rally started in 1910 and car manufactures such as Bugatti, Daimler, Audi and Rolls put their cars in to see if they could win this bone shaking race. If they succeeded it would help with sales and, more importantly, prestige. During the 1913 rally a privateer driver, James Radley, finished first in each stage with his Ghost and with that incredible win, earned Rolls the moniker ‘best car in the world’.

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We were privileged to be just at the right place and the right time to see the cars, all of them Rolls Royce’s as they came to the completion of the near-identical route, with two days remaining before they all arrived in Vienna.

There was an estimated 26 million pounds worth of cars, 48 in all, parked at the most posh hotel in Bled, on the shore overlooking the castle.

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James Radley’s car lives on today, and was the main jewel in the crown participating in this centennial re-enactment organised by the 20-Ghost Club – something that has moved modern Rolls-Royce to build a limited edition Alpine Trail Centenary Ghost to support the endeavor. His car is stunning; it may have been one of the most expensive at a price tag of three and a half million pounds, but it was not the oldest. We walked along the long line of these extremely delightful machines ranging from a 1910 to a few years later. We met a really down to earth couple from Australia that owned two Rolls Royce’s in the rally… you can never have too many. They had a friend drive one and they swapped between the two that they had shipped from the other side of the world.

Then to our surprise we were told there would be a visit by their Royal Hignesses, The Earl and Countess of Wessex and Price Edward and Sophie who were out on a “look at what Britain can do” tour which was carefully timed to coincide with the rally.

The local Slovenian police protecting the small entourage of British guests must have received an email from their superiors that started with… “No expense spared boys … don’t stuff this up … watch how Obama travels and use that as your benchmark”. Nicola and I were standing admiring the cars outside the front of the hotel, when we heard the sirens of four police bikes and two cars, which came hurtling around the corner from the town centre. They all came to a screeching stop on the road, both sides of the hotel… “Guess they are arriving”… Nicola said.

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Then there were security cars, more police, men jumping around the place talking to their sleeves, more police, a couple of dark 4×4 full of more personal protection and finally a very nice silver Jaguar car with the Prince and his wife sitting in the back seat. First thing that struck me odd about that was they had been invited to a Rolls Royce function… Unlike the local police, who in fairness did not let the team down in any way and should be proud of the way they stopped the traffic… the Rolls Royce team may have forgotten to sort out the car the royals were to step out of. Given they had four brand new Ghosts sitting in the car park, I would have suggested it would have looked better for the photos if they had followed suit.

I am, as my friends and family would vouch, a big supporter of the Royal family, for many reasons… I think they work jolly hard and on a whole do good; financially the simple fact is having a Royal family is a net gain for Britain, regardless of what people may wish to argue. But saying all that, on this occasion, in a small town in Slovenia, had the Royals visiting come quietly, with a driver and their personal security people pull up into the car park and walk into the venue like everyone else, then I think the profit they give back to Britain would have been considerably higher. It was a little over the top and I hope it was just the overenthusiastic response to the original email the locals received that made it so. I would hate to think that much money was spent every time the youngest son of the Queen went for a day out waving the British flag. But it was nice to see them there and we got a little wave from them both of them as they went in for a round of handshaking.

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We would love to have stayed in Slovenia for a little longer, but had made the decision that our journey would finally have to be coming to an end. We have been on the road now for about 11 weeks and even though are loving the trip, we are starting to miss a bit of what one would call ‘normal’. Hotels and campsites are great for a while, but having a drawer full of clean socks seems to be something we both used to take for granted. Besides which, we can’t spend our whole lives having fun, guess I should get back somewhere and earn some money. However, we still need to ride back and to do this requires us to navigate the hairpins of the Alps on-route to Paris.

We had a final dinner in the local pub that night, which was playing yodelling music, while a waitress in a ‘Heidi of the mountains’ traditional costume served us bratwurst and beer, love this place, especially when she pulled the bottle of local schnapps out from behind the bar and started dishing it out for the guests.

Italy (Part 4)

Without a guidebook or map of Venice I wish you all the best in finding the sights and actually navigating your way out of the place. They do have the odd sign pointing you occasionally to the main plaza or train station, but I get the feeling the locals have adapted in their environment and over the years learnt to be kind and patient to lost tourist. They seem quite happy to lend a hand when required, as it’s so easy in the maze and series of dead end streets to loose one’s way.

We took off to see a couple of the ‘must sees’ and headed for St. Mark’s Square, the main gathering point for the boatloads of tourists coming into the city. There is an estimated 50,000 arrivals each day, so without a plan-of-attack on the day’s agenda one can be stuck in the wrong queue at the wrong time.

We had just managed to just get in front of a particularly large contingent of Spanish tourists that were landing on the dock outside the Palazzo Ducale, one of the main landmarks of the city. The palace, built in Venetian Gothic style, was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice; in short they were everything to do with the courts and governance of the city.

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It’s a lovely looking building and again had too many fascinating corners and stories to mention in a blog without sounding like I’m writing a visitors guide.

What did fascinate us both was the tour of the old prison. I say ‘us’ loosely as, if the fascination level was draw on a pie chart, perhaps my slices would be slightly larger than Nicola’s, but she humors me. There is a special tour attached to the main entry fee that I really wanted to do which involves a look ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. But, as with many things in Europe over the summer, “we” were not the only ones with the idea and discovered that there was a one-month waiting list.

It is all to do with Giacomo Casanova, an Italian adventurer and author from the Republic of Venice. His autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), is regarded as one of the most authentic sources of the customs and norms of European social life during the 18th century. His fame and popularity is probably best known for the often complicated and elaborate affairs he had with women, so much so that his name is now synonymous with “womanizer”. He associated and become friends with European royalty, popes and cardinals, along with luminaries such as Voltaire, Goethe and Mozart. Spending his last years in Bohemia as a librarian in Count Waldstein’s household, he wrote the story of his life, which has plots and drama thicker than the whole series of the Bold and the Beautiful condensed into one.

The tour we were interested in was to visit the “The Leads”, where Casanova was incarcerated in 1753. “The Leads” was a prison of seven cells on the top floor of the east wing of the Doge’s palace, reserved for prisoners of higher status and political crimes and named for the lead plates covering the palace roof. A state spy, Giovanni Manucci, was employed to draw out Casanova’s knowledge of cabalism and Freemasonry, and to examine his library for forbidden books… Without a trial, Casanova was sentenced to five years in the “inescapable” prison. He was locked-up for a few crimes, which by today’s standards would be considered a typical Saturday night out in London. They included blasphemies, seductions, fights, and public controversy as well as reading a couple of forbidden books.

What I believe to be true is this spy, Giovanni Manucci, was not born with particularly good looks, had a slightly soft handshake was never invited out to anything remotely fun with the lads. This created intense jealousy of the 30-year stud the women called “hot stuff”, so he did whatever he could to trip him up and eventually had him arrested.

This is the part I will fast-forward, as it’s a fairly lengthy tail, I want to give you the meat without you having to carve it. So in short, Casanova was chucked into a dark room with nothing but flees to talk to in what was described as “the worst of all the cells”. However, he was a resourceful chap and after five months of appeals which got him nowhere, decided he had had enough and it was time to get the hell out of there. He managed to get through the roof, I make it sound easy but he actually had a tough time of it, but out he popped, climbed down with the aid of knotted sheets and disappeared into the mist with the aid of a gondolier. It’s a great story and again as I have said so many times, worth a read.

The area you can visit if you missed out on the tour, as we did, is what is described as the New Prisons and a bridge that links the chambers of the Magistrato alle Leggi and the Quarantia Criminal.

The prison itself is fascinating and if you were unfortunate to be put in there, there wasn’t a convenient roof to climb out of like Casanova had. It’s made of sold stone and the spaces are very tight with solid doors and hard floors. There is Italian graffiti on many of the walls, which if I could translate would probably say things such as… “Bored now, can I come out?” or “why are all the good looking, charismatic, men locked up Mr. Manucci?”

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The most famous part of the whole area and one most people have heard of is the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614 to link the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house the New Prisons. It’s enclosed on all sides, which makes sense, and has two separate corridors running next to each other so it can be used for two-way traffic. The well-known name was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners as they passed the window on the bridge and took one last look at freedom across the lagoon and San Giorgio. Many were also heard to shout, “she can take the house, but not the car”, but that is only legend so don’t quote me.

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After a brief interlude of lunch we were off to see St. Mark’s Basilica, known as Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold), mainly due to the millions of bright mosaics containing gold, bronze, and a massive variety of precious and semi precious stones. There are more than 85,000 square feet (or 8,000 square meters) of mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica… or enough mosaic to cover over 1.5 football fields. Most of the treasures came from looting during the Crusades that ended in 1204, and from conquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul in Turkey).

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There are some pretty impressive things to see. The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold, is studded with hundreds of gems. They include 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes.

From the Basilica, we continued our tour, including 25 bridges, 12 religious buildings, 16 glass shops, 9 dead-ends, 38 shops selling masks, 6 pizza sellers and one furious American who didn’t ask the price first and had just received the bill for an hour’s gondolier ride. From that slightly awkward scene on the side of a busy canal we had finally arrived at the Ponte di Rialto, or as the locals call it, ‘the first bridge to be built across the Grand Canal in 1181 by Nicolò Barattieri’. Perhaps the locals don’t actually say those very words, but the amount of words the Italians do use when describing anything is astounding so it has to be something like that… crazy romantic lot…

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It’s true that the first bridge was built on that date, but the original few attempts either burnt down, due to their construction in wood, such as in 1310 because of a few angry workers at a pasta factory who were having a revolt led by Bajamonte Tiepolo, or collapsed, like the time in 1444 under the weight of a rather large crowd watching a boat parade, apparently they had all just been out for dinner in a local restaurant with a promotion “all you can eat Pizza –Pasta”. Unfortunately in 1524 it collapsed again and the local mayor wrote to his chief engineer…”enough, for the love of God can we please just make the damn thing out of stone.”

Plans were offered by famous architects, such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches in the designers, these were judged inappropriate to the situation, I can’t quite work out why. Michelangelo also was considered as one of the designers.

The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591. And a little interesting fact I managed to skim from the surface of this thick and creamy historical dish is… In the construction of this bridge Antonio was helped by his nephew Antonio Contino, who would also later design the famous ‘Bridge of Sighs’ I told you about, see how nepotism works in its purest form.

I think on that note we should all head back to campground and start to pack for our departure the following morning to the next stage of the journey… however, before we put anything into a bag I have to explain something that happened the night before, which took the whole campground by surprise and turned out to be one of the most fascinating things to happen on the whole trip. Not for its historical content, beautiful architecture, gastronomical delight or anything culturally positive now I think about it, but for what I now consider one of the must vulgar human experiments commonly known as “The European Contiki tour”.

I’ll set the scene so you can some idea as to what it was like.
Recipe:
3 x busloads (130 people).
Make sure they are between the ages of 18 and 23.
90% Australians who have never been away from home before.
5% other nationalities, including one Muslim girl from Malaysia who’s father had not read the brochure properly.
5% who we were not sure were humans or animals.
900 x bottles of beer.
50 x bottles of vodka.
30 x bottles of Jaegermeister.
1 x DJ and massive sound system provided by Contiki.
1 x invite for the evening’s entertainment, called ‘beach party’. Regardless of the fact that we were about 20 km from the nearest beach and if they want to call a small patch of grass next to the toilet block of a campground ‘beachy’, then who are we to argue?

We arrived back and immediately had that “oh God, what’s going on?” feeling, as the place had filled up from a few quiet grey nomads wandering around in flip flops, to groups of kids running around with bottles of beer shouting at the top of their lungs at each other. It’s easy for anyone reading this to think ‘Gareth’s getting old and grumpy and wasn’t he young once, full of life and care free?’ I like to think I still am, but I have to admit never found myself of a tour like this from choice.

The evening just got louder as the alcohol started to kick in, girls coming back and forth from their tents seemed to be wearing less and less, while the boys circled like vultures looking for the evening’s meal. It was really fascinating to watch as Nicola and I sat in the corner eating dinner in the once quiet restaurant while the beach party was being prepared. The rules and behavior seemed to be as follows, must have a few beach balls to toss around, wet T-shirt competitions, young men pulling their board shorts down occasionally in front of their mates, girls in bikinis, water hose cooling the crowd of seven dancing in a small group pretending that they were at a rave in Ibiza, have no consideration for anybody that wasn’t part of their group, drink as much as possible in the shortest timeframe possible, scream obscenities at everyone in your strongest Australian accent, vomit all over four of the five toilets in the washroom, have a short drunken fight with somebody in your group that may have just caught the eye of your new “girlfriend” you met the day before… and go to bed at five in the morning.

It wasn’t the best night’s sleep we had ever had, but I still managed to get up at 7am the next morning to do some emailing. A bomb had hit the area next to the restaurant that once had a nice little garden, where the “Beach Party” was the night before. The manager, who was on morning shift, was there scratching his head, wondering what the hell had happened and why the bar was completely empty. The place was strewn with hundreds of empty bottles, cigarette butts, condom wrappers and vomit.

While I sat there completely alone, the first of many to follow came into the restaurant looking a bit peekish to say the least, we have all been there…

What surprised me was that they seemed fascinated with their phones… then a few more arrived and then more and before I know it there were about 80 kids sitting around me looking as though they had all been dragged though a hedge backwards.

Then I realised nobody was talking to one another… they were all on their phones in silence, tutting or muttering to themselves. I asked the lad who had sat next to me as I was fascinated with what they were actually doing and he just simply said, ‘uploading to Facebook’. And then it dawned on me that the simple act of communication in the first degree had been replaced with the fact they were all communicating to each other, sending messages, videos and photos via their phones instead.

Once this had finished they all just wandered off one by one to complain to their friends about how terrible they felt. I truly heard one lad say to his mate that he felt, in more polite terms, ‘rather under the weather’ and how he wasn’t looking forward to the day out in Venice that was part of the tour, as he wouldn’t make it. To which his friend replied, and I kid you not… “Don’t stress mate, we can get smashed tonight, they have half price cocktails at the club we’re going to.”

It appears the campsite makes a fortune from these groups that come in twice a week from the alcohol sales alone, so are prepared to sacrifice the odd boring guest who moves out as a result…

We learnt one thing and that is a Contiki tour is not all about culture.
So Nicola and I moved out. Loved Venice but were terribly embarrassed to say we were from Australia after that night, as after the groups had left, we heard everyone complaining about the nightmare we all witnessed.

Anyway, never mind, life is full of rich surprises and just as we were about to leave the campsite we had one. A couple were sitting next to us with a coffee asked if we were heading north. We said we were as the weather was getting too hot for the bike and perhaps the Alps would offer us some respite. Our original plan was to head south to Greece but that’s what’s great about not having a concrete plan, things can change.

They said that they were heading to Bled in Slovenia, which is to the east of Italy at the northern most part. We asked a few questions about the place and within 5 minutes of looking at maps and seeing a few pictures online via the iPad, we turned the compass heading to due east. Slovenia here we come.