Motorcycle travel, Travel

Leaving Italy

Thoughts about returning here have already swirling around my head; Roberto’s encouragement to leave a bike in Italy seems to make a lot of sense, and Andrew’s words about how much of a letdown riding in Canada is after a European tour seem to ring true as well. But even visiting with family in a 4-wheeled cage would be a treat. There are so many things I need to share with Nagu and the kids…

Florence skyline

Florence skyline with Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Enjoying morning cappuccino

Enjoying morning cappuccino

Beautiful architecture

Beautiful architecture

Street art

Street art

Florence cityscape

Florence cityscape

I did a walkabout on my last day in Florence and headed up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a view of the city – this is where to be in the evening to catch the iconic views of the Florence skyline at night. I had a nice chat with the cab driver heading off to the airport after getting a small negotiation out of the way first. Talking about kids is always a good way to start and it goes from there.

Drumming

Drumming

'Searching for Utopia' by Jan Fabre in Piazza Della Signoria

‘Searching for Utopia’ by Jan Fabre in Piazza Della Signoria

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Till next time.

Thank you Roberto, Andrew and Mike!

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Motorcycle travel

Firenze

Found a nice hotel near train station and city centre – I booked a small room for a bargain online and was upgraded to an executive when I checked in. Settled in Florence and ready for a walkabout. First things first I need to eat. Right beside the hotel was a recommended restaurant. Caprese, Ossobuco, Chianti, Moscato on the house, Grappa – perfect fuel for a few hours of wandering.

Florence

Florence

View from the bridge

View from the bridge

Florence is one of those perfect cities made for exploring. Pedestrian friendly with large areas off limits to motors, cafes and restaurants on every street corner, and so much history, culture and beauty it would take years to know it well.

Cathedral

Great statues

Great statues

Ubiquitous scooter

Beautiful music from across the river

Beautiful music from across the river

San Lorenzo market

San Lorenzo market

City of beautiful doors

If the Balkans was the main course and the first rides through Italy were the appetizers, then this is the best dessert one could hope for. But now I need to get home.

Florence side street

Gucci!

Gucci!

My 6 year old daughter just did a 5 km race in Ottawa – finished about 3000 out of 9000 people. Big race on Ottawa Race Weekend with her track star older sister who runs a volunteer read/run elementary school program, which Kiera joined as an honourary member for the day. Wish I was there…

 

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Motorcycle travel, Travel

Leaving Fontarronco

Yesterday I ran the GS into Arezzo for Fabrizio to change the fluids and filters, put in new rear brake pads and possibly put on new tires. This would be my contribution for the generous use of the bike. Fabrizio is Roberto’s regular mechanic and was telling me he just got back from a rally in Morocco where his rider was looking at 2nd place finish when he crashed on the penultimate day. He had to ride the last stage slowly with a damaged shoulder and still finished top 5. Great mellow vibe hanging out in the shop.

Then it was time for a little wander through Arezzo’s old town – beautiful and very enjoyable even in the sweltering heat. Ravioli with truffle and Parmesan, lots of water and a beer allowed time for people watching and cooling down in the shady street side cafe.

Train station art

Train station art

Packing and doing a little writing consumed most of the rest of the day, but I had a learning moment getting back to Fontarronco, Roberto’s little town. I think was charged by temperature and not distance for the taxi ride! What looked like the meter read one number yet I was charged the number that appeared in the rear view mirror – I asked about it but was charged the 30 Euro anyway, a few more than the apparent meter read. Thirty also happened to be the temperature in Celcius! He was nice guy and provided good conversation, but I’ll know to look around the next taxi I’m in and confirm the meter!

Arezzo square, Italy

Arezzo square, Italy

I am well taken care of by Constanino and Lica, the Romanian couple who help manage the house and grounds. I get the gist of what is said but learning some Italian before my next trip should be relatively easy and really add to the experience. Andrew has benefited from his knowledge of Italian (language and culture). There is much to learn…

Treated very well!

Treated very well!

Off to Florence today where I have a room booked near the train station and within an easy walk of the downtown sites. Then taxi (watch the meter!) to catch my flight late Monday. As I sit on the train and watch beautiful Tuscany fly past the windows and listen to the happy chatter around me, I’m reminded of how civilized train travel is.

It’s been a wonderful trip, and cruising the streets of Florence in street shoes will be a relaxing finish.

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Iron Butt

My last day on the road was of a very different character than the previous days, which were full of rich, challenging riding that took much of the the day but covered lesser distances. I needed to be back in Arezzo to drop off Mike’s bike for servicing, and the ferries hadn’t worked out – actually I had planned to ride but once the task was at hand I realized the ferry would be a better option (with good advice from Roberto who understands the challenges of covering long distances in Europe). Still it wasn’t going to be a ferry so I hit the road from just north of Dubrovnik at 5:30 am and started the journey.

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Dalmation coastline

The Dalmation coast road is beautiful; having experienced some of it last evening it was now seen in a much different light with sun starting to touch some of the islands off the coast. Gorgeous riding for sure but the sinuous path as it curved around the headlands and bays meant slower riding and longer distances so off to the autostrada it was. There is a new divided highway that runs up the spine of Croatia and it is a stunner – great riding surface, beautiful views and useful pit stops along the way. Essentially I could follow this type of highway all the way to Arezzo, south of Florence.

Croatian fields tucked between sea and mountains

Croatian fields tucked between sea and mountains

Mid morning I was falling asleep on the bike – not a good thing – so I stopped and amazingly was able to take a catnap on the roadside under a tree. I never sleep in the day. But here literally 5 minutes recharged me for the next 6 hours.

Seaside village, Dalmatia

Seaside village, Dalmatia

One fellow I chatted with at a gas stop told me the ferries ran every day from Split, but it was too late by then as I was committed to the ride. Seems I had been given bad advice by the young lady at the tourist booth in Dubrovnik…

Many long tunnels

Many long tunnels

Rijeka threw me a few navigation blips where I rode into the city and had to backtrack out. Interesting how that section of coast brought back such strong memories from a driving trip the family had done in the Istrian region of Croatia nearly 10 years ago; we had made it as far as Rijeka.

Crossing Slovenia was by a smaller, two lane road that went through mountains. This was scenically beautiful but I had to pass long lines of traffic – the European method of passing fast and often even in short stretches proved very useful and probably saved me an hour compared to travelling in a car.

Once in Italy it was a bit of a grind down busy motorways past Venice, Bologna and Florence. The GPS finally started working properly around Florence and came up with a sensible route to Roberto’s house. Previously in the stretch through Croatia it had wanted to route me deep into Hungary before heading back to Italy, and once in Italy it had wanted to take to Milan first. Nothing I could do would change the routing, but once in Florence the GPS forgot out about Milan. Interestingly we had a similar glitch when planning the route and Roberto couldn’t figure it out. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the Open Source Maps we use interface with the Garmin brain in the GPS. This is probably why Lady Garmin had tried to route Andrew and me up a mountainside goat track in Italy at the start of our trip…

Coming back to Roberto’s was like coming home, and the riding through these streets was very relaxing compared to how it felt when I first jumped aboard the bike in Italy at the start of the trip. The driving here now seems the most sensible way to do it – fast, a little aggressive but with mutual give and take from all the drivers to make the system work.

Texts from the guys told of some interesting riding and camping spots. I envied them for sure but at this point I am keen to get home…

I may dig up a few pics from his section but 15 hours riding and at least 1200 km covered meant not much photography…

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On my own

After the shared experience of SH20 we stayed in a beautiful eco boutique hotel on the edge of the lake in Plav, Montenegro. It was a chance to relax, talk about the events of past days and get ready for the next leg.

For Roberto and Andrew it would mean more spectacular roads, visits to Mostar and Split, and some time in the Italian Alps. For me it meant getting from the southern Balkans around the Adriatic back to Florence in 2 days. But there were things I couldn’t miss along the way.

Road to Pluzine

Road to Pluzine

The Tara canyon is the largest in Europe and second only to the Grand Canyon. We had to see that. And it was awe inspiring. Huge drops to the blue river below, tight turns and a multitude of tunnels. Much of that ride was nice fast medium radius turns – a real joy to ride. One long bridge hundreds of feet above the water has a zip line running beside it, while below rafters and kayakers play in the waves. In the picture the main span is only partly visible hidden behind trees.

Bridge over Pivsko Jezero

Bridge over Pivsko Jezero

Bridge over Tara River (with zip line beside it - wild!)

Bridge over Tara River (with zip line beside it – wild!)

Then a stop in Durmitor National Park at Zabljak, where I wwaited for the guys to kindly deliver my passport. The previous night the hotel had asked for the passports rather than copying them, and since I had left first without doing the checkout routine I forgot the passport. This  was my first mistake of the day…

Count the tunnels...

Count the tunnels…

From Zabljak (the highest town in Montenegro) I could take highway or run a high mountain road to Pluzine. I chose to do that one as it was also supposed to be spectacular. The guys were going to leave later and do something even more dramatic and dangerous. So at this point we truly parted ways, after sharing a pizza and some Montenegrin red wine.

The cold alpine world

The cold alpine world

Road to Pluzine

Road to Pluzine

More hairpins!

Beautiful alpine road, Durmitor National Park

From Zabljak the P14 road is described by dangerousroads.org as a “spectacular and dangerous mountain road”. It starts as a narrow, one lane paved track that winds past farms and a ski hill. I went back and forth on it twice thinking it wasn’t the way to go but confirmed with map and GPS and carried on. It then rose through Durmitor National Park into a gorgeous and dramatic alpine area and crossed two passes at near 1900 m each with highest, Prevoj Sedlo measuring 1907m. There were some no-guardrail drops on the hairpins, and expansive vistas of alpine meadow, rock, and snow and ice. It was a real highlight for me and different from the previous roads. I was then lulled into thinking it was over as the road descended into a plateau of rolling alpine farmland and some small communities. Then around a corner I was shocked! I was on the edge of a canyon maybe a thousand feet or more dropping vertically right from the edge of the road. This road was cut out of the sides of sheer cliffs as it descended into the canyon, and had hairpins carved into tunnels; as one rode into a tunnel another would be visible right beside and below it, where the hairpinned road would reappear. On it went with me in my lowest gear gingerly making the turns, which were often covered in loose gravel.

Tunnels within tunnels

Tunnels within tunnels

Switchback tunnel

Switchback tunnel

Cliffside road, Pivsko Jezero, Montenegro

Cliffside road, Tara Canyon

Road in cliff, montenegro

Road in cliff, Montenegro

After this descent I knew I was running out of time and didn’t stop in Pluzine to review the route. So onwards the bike went covering miles of steep single laned pavement rising up into a different kind of woodsy alpine area, and then the pavement ended at an open gate and a rough, rocky track carried on. Not wanting to chance a fall on my own but not able to spare the time to retrace the last few hours I carried on. Now the road went into an open high country of rock and sheep with the occasional shepherd laying back in the heat and looking at me with puzzled expression. I later found out why. Once down I continued to follow the GPS towards Split till I realized my second big mistake of the day when I saw a sign for Mostar – I had entered Bosnia -Herzegovina over the rocky mountain path and had skipped the official border crossings… What my illegal entry into Bosnia would mean I had no idea but it was very worrisome.

Illegal border crissing

Illegal border crissing

On the road to Bosnia

On the road to Bosnia

Sneak route to Bosnia

Sneak route to Bosnia

 

I was reassured by the guys (whom I had texted for advice) that this might not even be noticed as I left Bosnia for Croatia. Well the passport was scrutinized but the BMW seemed of more interest to the border guard and soon I was on my way to Dubrovnik, where I found out that the ferry I had hoped to take to Italy wasn’t leaving till he next night. So it was onwards into the evening to make as much distance up the coast as possible before night fell.

Roberto and Andrew had an interesting journey by the sounds of it; probably the most dangerous road yet and as night fell over their tent they were serenaded by men in the distance singing and sporadically firing automatic weapons …

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SH20

Well it’s hard to write this as it seems hyperbolic every tine something gets posted, but today rocked. We rode SH20 from Montenegro across northern Albania back into Montenegro. It is highlighted in Dangerousroads.org as follows:

“This road has humbled many egos. It’s not for the sissies and shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. The road is in dreadful condition and requires strong nerves to negotiate it. It’s certainly breathtaking and it has a fearsome reputation. It still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs. Words can’t describe the road and pictures don’t do it justice.”

Hairpin turns at paved start of SH20, Albania

Hairpin turns at paved start of SH20, Albania

Road crisscrossing waterfall

Road crisscrossing waterfall

Bike nap at a bunker

Bike nap at a bunker

After passing an excavator in the 2 foot rocky gap between its side and  an 800 foot drop to river below, and getting stuck on a pile of loose rocks and mud too close to the edge, the push from the machine operator was not only welcome but it confirmed the words posted on Dangerousroads.com. And I think all three of us had some challenges today.

Farm and 3 bunkers, Albania

Farm and 3 bunkers, Albania

SH20 road in Albania, before it climbs over the pass

SH20 road in Albania, before it climbs over the pass

Slippery bridge

Slippery bridge

Incredible challenge and equally huge rewards. As we enjoy our beers in Montenegro I feel sadness parting from these great riding partners tomorrow. I need to get back to Italy in time to get the bike ready for Mike who very generously loaned it to me. He will be picking up the bike a few days after I leave; unfortunately our paths won’t cross. I’ll make it up next time we meet.

Plav, Montenegro

Plav, Montenegro

As we sit here enjoying the rest, our stories and the food, the sounds of the Balkan music – vaguely Russian /eastern sounding- emphasize the feeling of solidarity amongst riding mates and friends. Especially with fine Montenegran wine to accompany it…

Plavsko Jezero, Montenegro

Plavsko Jezero, Montenegro

 

 

 

 

 

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Kotor

One of the sections we had all been looking forward to is a famed section of road snaking up a cliff out of Kotor and running over the alpine country to descend into Cetinje. Lots of tight turns as an appetizer just to get to the main course, then 24 numbered switchbacks, followed by dozens of kilometres of prime alpine riding. Even Roberto after all he has seen couldn’t control his excitement at doing this ride.

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Before tackling that we followed the road around the Kotor peninsula where the views across the bay of cliffs, mountainside churches and giant cruise ships competed with those of the small old stone towns on the waters edge making it hard to concentrate on negotiating the tight turns.

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Then a dose of history and culture wandering the streets of the old walled city of Kotor before being chased out by tornado like squall.

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With no destination planned and with the torrential rains that had nearly drowned us in Kotor’s old town, we decided to camp and Roberto found a tiny little road that impossibly found a way down a cliff to a campsite in Rijeka Crnojevica. This is on a pastoral river leading to the Skadar Lake (or Schkoder Lake to Albanians). It is shared by Montenegro and Albania and is the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula.

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Tomorrow I may part ways with the crew as my clock is ticking.

Photos to follow…

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