We were a little bit apprehensive about the Russian border crossing, but my thinking was that if they didn’t let us through then we’d just go back to Bulgaria, and sod the lot of them! I have written this post in a little more detail than usual, because others that are following us might find it useful.

The road to the border had disintegrated in places, but we stood up on the footpegs, so it was fine. It was pretty, and twisty, as it went alongside the mountains. When we got to the border, we stopped beforehand to take off the GoPro, so nobody would get upset, and I took the lead, as we’d discussed. The Georgian desk was fine; they just asked us for our passports and V5s, and they briefly mentioned the fines we had received. I told them we had paid, and we showed them the receipts. I was happy and cheerful with them, and they were the same with me. We got through without incident, and then made the journey through the longest no man’s land I’ve ever gone through, to the Russian side.

There were cameras everywhere so I made sure I wasn’t speeding, although that didn’t stop a few Russians in their big cars from beeping me and pushing past. No bother mate, I’d rather know that they have no reason not to let me in. We got to the first guard, who was the other side of a barrier, which he lifted for the car in front. I waited until he beckoned me forward, and then he spoke to me in Russian, and I made my “I’m really sorry mate, but I don’t understand you, although I am trying” face, which prompted him to look at my number plate and say “Great Britain?”, “I’m afraid so!”, I reply with a nod. He smiles and hands me a piece of paper (the migration card), motions that I need to fill it in and then give it to the people in the booths. “Spasiba!” I say, which was one of my two-known Russian words (the other being “nyet”) and we head further down and park up to fill out our migration cards. Crucially, we put ‘tourism’ as our reason for visiting, as we thought they’d probably see right through us if we put ‘business’, what with our method of transport and our route plastered over the sides of our panniers. Our thoughts were that if they questioned it, we could tell the truth about having to get the business visa because of the timing and the number of entries, or we could even say that our next entry into Russia would be for business. We also put the name of a lovely gentleman (Mikhail) down as our host, who had very kindly ordered us some new tyres, organised a garage to fit them, and found us a place to stay in Stavropol for a few days.

After we’d filled it in on both sides, we went to join a queue. We waited in line for a bit, and then they opened the lorry lane especially for us. I thought that might be a good thing, but probably a bad one, as it pointed towards them thinking of keeping us for a while, and not holding the rest of the traffic up. Never mind either way! The guard beckoned me forward, so I drove through and parked my bike where he told me to, and then gave my documents to the man in the booth, who was refusing to smile, and just furiously tapping away as his computer, whilst looking at my documents. I only gave him my passport, my V5, and then after a while he asked for my migration card. The guard was asking me a couple of questions though, like where I am from, where were we going (Stavropol to see Mikhail) etc. He had few English words, but he was being nice, so I was trying to answer his questions in a way that he would understand. The man in the booth then told me that he was holding on to my passport for the moment as his colleague needed to speak to us, and he’d be with us in 5-10 minutes. After a while he beckoned Roger over too, and did the same with his papers. Whilst that was happening, the guard asked me to unlock my panniers, so he could see what was inside, and I did Roger’s too, although he didn’t bother looking in to his inner bags. It turns out we were stood next to the bikes for probably 10-15 minutes, and we’d removed the keys from our bikes, and our tank bags, as per our plan, just in case they wanted to take us off for an interrogation somewhere. Another guard then came through and asked us where we were from. After we replied, he said “can I have some English coins please, as I like them?” I said of course, and did he collect them? He said that he did. I fished the bag of coins I’d saved for that purpose out and emptied the lot into my hand, expecting him to want all of them. He looked through them and took a single 10p piece from me, and then gave me the equivalent Russian 10 Ruble coin. I was quite touched by that as I didn’t expect anything back, and it was a bit like when Beaker gives Michael Caine his red scarf in the Muppet Christmas Carol, after Scrooge turns good and agrees to donate to their charity. This experience was really not what I expected it to be! The other nice guard was looking at my English coins, so I offered my hand out to him too. He took a 2p coin.

We waited some more and then after another 10 minutes or so, another man came along and he had our passports in his hand. He asked us where we were going (Stavropol), and wrote down our home addresses in his book, and then gave us our passports back. “Welcome to Russia!” said the nice guard. A different chap in a blue camo suit then said to us we needed to fill out a customs declaration/temporary importation permit for our bikes, and he pointed to where to go. The nice guard then gave us some chocolate coated marshmallow things, and insisted we take two each before we left! It was so surreal compared to what I’ve read about other’s crossings. We scrambled back on the bikes and blue camo led us down to park them, right outside the office for customs declarations. Another guard who spoke English very well then came and offered to help us as well, and we thanked him and told him that we’d come and find him if we needed help. We went inside with blue camo, and he showed us the forms (written in Russian only), and the board where they have an example translated into English (yay!), so we used that and filled two copies out, and then took them outside to the lady in another little booth. She also spoke English a bit, and asked for our home addresses, stamped our forms and told us we’d need to give the other copy of the customs form/TIP when we leave Kazakhstan for Uzbekistan. Then we could go! (Really? That was it?!) Hurrah!

We went no more than 40kph out of the border zone, as we’ve heard stories of the rozzers waiting just down the road from the border to catch anyone speeding/overtaking/breathing, once they’ve relaxed after the border crossing. We went past the rozzers, and pulled over to exchange our driving licences for our photocopied ones*, plus to put the GoPro on, as I intended to record everything from now on, to try and combat any bribery for ‘speeding’ etc. We rode along and I saw a sign for ‘Sigorta’, which I remembered from Turkey meant insurance, and I remembered that we hadn’t got any! We turned around and pulled in, and the place looked closed, but I saw a number, so I rang it. A man answered, and I said “sigorta? Insurance?” he said “yes!” and we had a failed conversation as he spoke Russian and German, which didn’t match with my English, French or Spanish! Anyway, I hung up and we were just debating whether to drive on, or to drive back and ask at the border crossing, when a chap drove up and waved at me. It was the man on the phone, and it turned out he’d popped out for pizza, and he offered us some when we came in. He also made us coffee. The insurance was $25 each, so I paid and he wrote out the certificates painfully slowly (for Roger, as he was aware of the fact that we had a long way to ride. I was just happy to have made it through the border!) Anyway, the whole border plus insurance** chapter must’ve taken us just over 2 hours in total, which was still shorter than Georgia!

We’ve only gone and gotten ourselves in to Russia!

 

*Our driving licences we had photocopied in Bulgaria, as we’d heard reports of people giving their real ones to some unscrupulous police at the side of the road, when they’d been ‘speeding’, and the police wouldn’t give them back unless they paid a hefty fine/bribe. We only ever use our real ones at borders, and leave our photocopies for Police officers who stop us at the side of the road.

**There are plenty of insurance booths all along that road by the way, so don’t assume (like me) that the first one is the only one. You may get a better price if you’ve the time and inclination to play one off against the other!

We left Trabzon in Turkey, and headed for the Georgian border, at Batumi, which was just over an hour away by main road. There was a massive queue of lorries on approach, but we whizzed by all of these, and were instructed by the border staff to go right to the front of the queue, where the barrier was down. The man in the booth (Turkish side) beckoned us towards him, and explained that the Georgian computer system was down, so we had a bit of a wait, and he wasn’t sure how long. Luckily, the system seemed to get going again after about 20 minutes, and we were let through the Turkish gate. At the Georgian booth, we gave our documents and the man informed me that my bike would have to go for an x-ray (and they kept my passport and V5). I made a bit of a joke about it and asked if they meant me or the bike. They laughed, and asked me to ride around to the other side, heading back in the opposite direction, which I couldn’t do, as there were cars everywhere. I had to bump up the kerb, ride through the pedestrian gate, and down the other side (sorry Oby), and then wait in a queue, where nobody seemed to know what was going on. Eventually I found a guard who had people around him, and a stack of passports and vehicle documents in his hand. To cut a long story short, there was a lot of waiting and fannying around, and the word “Hopa” was mentioned a lot, but I didn’t understand what that meant. Finally, I was told to follow the car in front, and the border guard got in it, and then we drove back towards Turkey, leaving Roger in no-man’s-land. Roger and I make a habit of leaving our helmets on at borders, where possible, as we have an intercom system, so we can talk to each other even if we get separated. At this point I said to him something like “I think we are going for a drive!”, and I was right; we drove about 20km back into Turkey, to the town of Hopa, in a convoy of one car, me, and then a handful of lorries, to use their x-ray machine. Luckily, they did Oby first, and then gave me my documents back, and a personal escort police car (speeding all the way) back to the interesting looking border building (http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/sarpi-border-checkpoint). All in all, the crossing took about 3 hours! Entering Batumi was busy, and the driving was crazy, even though we’d acclimatised to Turkish drivers. We used the main coast road through central Batumi to Kobuleti, where a lovely family welcomed us, chatted about our travels, and made us coffee. We unpacked in the palatial room we’d been given, and then went out to get money and find food. We ate in a lovely café, where I tried chicken chkmeruli, a traditional dish absolutely loaded with garlic, which I shared with Roger, and a cat.

Our next destination was Gori, the town where Josef Stalin was born, and a place recommended to me, as apparently people there seem to overlook the bad things he did, and celebrate him! They even have a museum dedicated to him. On the way, we visited Katskhi Pillar (http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/katskhi-pillar), a Christian church, built on top of a pillar of rock. The standard of the roads to get here deteriorated rapidly, with massive potholes and ruts in the road, and I felt so sorry for our poor bikes. The only thing we could do to make it easier on them was to stand up on the pegs, and try and navigate around all the potholes as best we could.

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Arriving in Gori was marvellous, and gave a great example of how nice the people there are. We arrived at where we thought the guest house was that we’d booked, only it didn’t look right, so we asked a chap, whilst pointing to my phone at the name of the guest house. I don’t think he quite understood that we already had a booking, as he got in his car and led us around the block to a different guest house, who then said they didn’t know where the one we’d booked was! I think they’re a bit like the Turkish with their desire to help people! Once we’d found the correct guest house, we checked in, and chatted with the host and her family for hours. It was as though we were part of their family. They made us great big mugs of coffee, and put on a brilliant spread of bread, local cheese, local wine, homemade plum jam, omelette, spring onions dipped in sea salt, and my favourite, chkmeruli sauce. They fed us so much that we then didn’t have to go out for dinner at all, and could just chill for the rest of the evening.

The next morning, Marina, the host, made us Khinkali for breakfast. Khinkali is another Georgian dish, which is like a cross between a dumpling and a ravioli, and is filled with pork, herbs, leek and a hint of chilli, and it’s beautiful! After we’d stuffed ourselves, we went to the Stalin museum. This place was very informative, but I felt I was lacking a bit of background knowledge, as I really know very little of the history from this part of the World. From here, I came away with the impression that although he did some awful things (which were glossed over, as I suppose they’re the things that most people already know about?), he actually instigated a lot of change within Russia after the fall of the Imperial Royal Family, and he escaped from prison. A lot.

After this, we made our way to Tbilisi, again using the main road, where we stayed a few nights, to allow us to rest a bit and plan our entrance into Russia. It was also at this point that I realised that there had been a bit of a cock-up with visas. Back at Christmas-time when I’d done a lot of research into visas (and even done an Excel spreadsheet!), I was happy to read that Uzbekistan would be starting a visa-free regime for UK-citizens from 1st April 2017, so that was one less visa to apply for, and quite a bit less hassle, especially as the Uzbekistan visa is not known to be the easiest to get hold of. After this I didn’t question it, until this time, when I read a forum post asking about other Brits’ experiences of getting an Uzbeki visa. It turns out that they didn’t implement the changes they had already published the details of, so we still need visas. Brilliant. Especially now as we were only a month away from actually getting to Uzbekistan!

This however, was future-Suzanne’s problem, as we were due to cross the border into Russia in only two days’ time, and this needed a strategy, as we’d heard terrible stories of people being kept for hours, people having to pay bribes, people being separated from their bikes and having to make a list of every piece of luggage and what it contains, whilst customs officials went through the bike, removing anything that wasn’t listed…you name it, we’ve heard it!

The strategy we came up with was:

  1. assume they want a list of everything in our luggage, so we used the time in Tbilisi to create those lists, omitting everything that we didn’t want them to see, and therefore having to find proper hiding places for those things, such as reasonable amounts of cash in note form, and fake/out of date credit cards used in our muggers wallets.
  2. At the actual border, I would go in first and dazzle them with my smile/stupidity.
  3. Take off the GoPro and the Sat-Nav, as you should never record at borders, and sometimes countries don’t like you using GPS, especially if they think it has speed camera detection.
  4. When they ask what you’re there for, reply with ‘tourism’. It sounds stupid, but like many overland travellers we have business visas for Russia, and as such, many people assume that at the border they have to say they’re there on business. However, I’ve never seen anyone ride a motorcycle across multiple countries, with stacks of luggage and maps of an around-the-world route plastered over the panniers, with both her and the bike being completely filthy, to a business meeting, so we decided it would be better to tell the truth and if asked why we have a business visa then we tell them it was because of the length of validity and number of entries it afforded us.
  5. Keep a bag of English coins handy. We read a report of a lad called Ian, who crossed the border only a week or so beforehand, on his UK motorbike, and who was kept waiting at the border for 4 hours, before being asked for some English coins.

Whilst we were in Tbilisi, we visited the Leaning Tower of Tbilisi, which was assembled in 2011, using materials taken from abandoned buildings over a 30-year period, and buildings destroyed in an earthquake. Although it was assembled in 2011, it is currently being held up by a steel beam! We had lunch in the newly-renovated, and very nice, David Agmashenebeli Street. We also visited the Iveria Hotel, a building which was converted from Hotel to Refugee camp, and then back to hotel over the course of it’s life. It is currently the Radisson hotel, and they have left no indications of it’s previous existence.

Leaving Tbilisi was the only bad point of our stay there. It was horrendously busy, and whilst at crawling speed going around a roundabout, Roger managed to hit a car transporter with one of his panniers, that saw the pannier coming clean off its bracket, and Roger being thrown to the floor the opposite way. It’s important to say that both he and the pannier were ok, but I was so disappointed with people’s reactions. We were in the middle lane of the roundabout, with probably 2 lanes either side of us, of solid traffic at crawling speed. After Roger fell off, I stopped my bike, and it was essentially shielding Roger and his bike, and I helped him and the bike up, then we put the pannier back on and got going again, but rather than stop to help, people were beeping us! One man was even yelling and gesticulating out of his lorry to us, presumably that we should have had the accident at the side of the road, or that we should have moved out of the way, but that was exactly what we were trying to do, and they could have all moved around us without inflaming the situation. Dicks.

We made it to Stepantsminda (the last town before the Russian border), without further incident, and were able to make a plan for how to get the Uzbeki visa. Our options were either to apply in person to an embassy, or to use the visa agency at home who currently had our second passports, and apply for it after it had been returned from having the Mongolian visa. We decided that as our only options in person were either behind us in Baku (Azerbaijan) or Ankara (Turkey), or miles out of our way in Astana (Kazakhstan), we would use the visa agency at home. We therefore prepared the paperwork, and arranged for it to be sent to the agency.

The next day would see us going to Russia, or the border at least!

 

After we left MotoCamp, we headed straight for Turkey, as we were fairly sure we’d have the opportunity to explore Bulgaria more at a later date, and Asia was calling us! We decided to dispense with Istanbul, under recommendation from Polly, as riding motorcycles across a small area containing almost 15 million people, in 30°C or more didn’t sound like too much fun for either of us. I would like to visit Istanbul very much, but at a later date, and probably by plane.

We therefore headed down through Gallipoli and took the ferry across the Bosphorus to Çannakkale, then we visited the ruins at Troya. It was very hot, and we got stopped by the Turkish rozzers quite a lot. I think we were breaking the speed limit for motorcycles, but the cars were speeding constantly, and if we did the speed limit it would have been dangerous for us. However, when they saw we were foreign, and on big bikes as opposed to the tiny little scooters that most people own, they understood, and we were soon sent on our way with a smile and a wave; “ok, ok, ok, ok!”

We got a wriggle on and did some long days down the Western coast, as some of Roger’s family were in Içmeler, near Marmaris, and we wanted to see them before they went back to the UK. We spent a lovely few days with them, chilling out in the sun, riding bicycles around the town, and we took a Jeep out for the day around to a different part of the coast. At this time, we also applied for our Mongolian visa, using a visa agency at home, as we expected to arrive in Mongolia within three months. Thank you Carrie and Rob for having us stay, and for helping us so much with the visa application 🙂

After we left Içmeler, we made our way to Pamukkale, where there are an area of travertine terraces, with hot water springs flowing over them. The spring water is saturated with calcium carbonate, and when it rests in one of the many pools there, it deposits the calcium carbonate, which is like a white jelly! Sadly, a lot of the terraces have been closed off due to damage from people walking and bathing in them, but there is still one pathway up the hill, which you have to go barefoot on, and there are plenty of pools of warm water (with ‘white jelly’) to bathe in. It was a brilliant day, and I’d say it is one of my favourite places to visit in Turkey.

We then visited Cappadocia, which is a region in Central Turkey, where there are many sedimentary rock formations, pushed upwards during volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, and then eroded over time, into the pillar-like shapes that are there today. People of the villages then carved out entire houses and rooms out of the pillars, and there’s even whole sections of the city which is underground! Our plan was to go up in a hot air balloon during our time there, but as it pretty much rained constantly, all the flights were cancelled. We did manage to get out and explore some of the areas, and once, we had to take shelter in an abandoned cave when a storm came in!

We then had a couple of long day’s riding to reach Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast. En-route, we attempted to visit Sümela Monastery, a Greek Orthodox Monastery, which is nestled in a steep cliff at an altitude of 1,200m. Unfortunately, it was closed for safety reasons, due to an increase in rock falls, so we only managed some pictures from afar, again whilst it was raining (apologies for the picture quality)!

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Once we reached Trabzon, we spent ages trying to find the place we’d booked to stay at, in the pouring rain, only to find it was up an extremely steep hill, with slippery cobbles on the ground. We had to get a bit inventive and find another way to it, as we weren’t sure our big, heavy bikes were gonna cope so well. Once we got there, we encountered probably the only grumpy, unhelpful person in the whole of Turkey; a lady on the ground floor of the building we were staying at, who kept telling us we would have to move our bikes from where we’d parked them. Once we’d found a place she was happy with, I was carrying our bags up the stairs, whilst Roger locked the bikes up and put their covers on. When we got upstairs, he said she’d told us to move the bikes again, so he’d gone outside the flat to put his shoes on, and then I heard “aaarrrggghh! *thud, thud, thud*” Bless him, he’d fallen down the stairs. He escaped relatively unscathed, with a broken finger, and some chunky bruises, and luckily he didn’t hit his head. We took him to the hospital the following day, and was again met with Turkish hospitality and kindness, as a lovely man escorted us from place to place, getting x-rays, talking to doctors, getting a splint, and having it fitted. For 90 lira, Roger had his finger fitted with a splint, and had drugs prescribed too, and we were in and out very quickly, thanks to the lovely man, who seemed to be a member of staff, but also told us he was the manager of a food stall! Crucially, the doctor said that he could still ride his bike (without one glove, of course).

Everyone we met in Turkey was extremely nice and hospitable, and couldn’t do enough to help. One of the gentlemen we stayed with said to us that sometimes the Turks want to help so much, that even when they don’t know the answer, they’re likely to guess the answer, and tell you, even if it’s wrong! On our first day in the country, we stopped for fuel just before reaching our campsite for the evening. We had no Turkish Lira, so after fuelling up and paying with a credit card, we asked the man where the nearest cashpoint was. He replied that it was 4 or 5km down the road, but he offered to charge to my credit card and give me the same back in cash, which was very kind of him, and saved us hunting around, when we were already tired, and still had to put up our ‘home’ for the night. The kind man also gave us tea, and many people who stopped in the garage came over to talk to us.

I’m not sure why, but people advised us, and others, not to go to Turkey. I know it has had it’s fair share of terrorist attacks, but so has the UK, France, Germany etc., and people still visit those. It was very sad to see the people in Turkey struggling so much with the lack of tourists, so I would definitely recommend people to visit. It is a beautiful country, with very nice people in it. However, don’t drive or ride on the road without having your wits about you, as they are crazy drivers! On the way down the mountain road to Içmeler, unfortunately, we saw a bus that had fallen over the Armco barrier and toppled over the side onto the road below, killing 20 or so mothers and children that were out for Mother’s Day. I think there’s more risk from bad driving in Turkey (or falling down the stairs), than from terrorism. It is a beautiful country, with lovely people, that I would encourage anyone to visit.

 

Time has really flown for us after returning to the travel after my Dad decided to give us all (and himself) a fright! He is on the mend now, and is back to doing his dance classes and riding his motorbike, which has helped him get his mental health better too.

We arrived back in Skopje all quite uneventfully, and we spent a day or so looking around the city, and sampling it’s food offerings. We found the city a bit odd in terms of architecture and feel; there seemed to be so many monuments and statues all over the place (it’s had a lot of money spent on regeneration recently) that dare I say, it felt a bit fake, although the old town area was still unpolished, and felt more honest. The friendliness of the people and the quality of the food was the biggest win for us though. We stayed with the same gentleman who had very kindly stored our bikes for us whilst we flew back to the UK, and he spent time with us, recommending some great (and cheap) restaurants, and places to see. I can’t remember where the food changed in style, but at some point in Eastern Europe, and probably before Macedonia, they began favouring grilled meat and vegetables, so that every time you ride through a city you get these beautiful wafts of grilled meat every few yards, from the fast food places and little restaurants.

Back when we originally arrived in Macedonia (which is not in the EU), we were stung at the border for 15 days-worth of motor insurance for €50 each, and we asked if we could have less days for less money as “there’s no way we’re gonna be in Macedonia for 15 days!” Unfortunately, as we flew home unexpectedly from Macedonia, and stayed there for 2 weeks, our insurance ran out just as we flew back, and therefore we weren’t covered for the 2 hour trip to the Bulgarian border, which I was a bit nervous about, but we made it safe and sound to lovely Bulgaria, who are part of the EU, so our UK insurance would cover us.

The first stop in Bulgaria was for a few days in Sofia, the capital city. It was snowing on the way there (although it wasn’t settling on the roads), and we’d seen pictures on Facebook of our next stop, Idilevo, where they’d had quite a lot of snow that had settled, which made us wonder if we were too early in the year to be there. Luckily though, this was a freak event, as from February onwards in Bulgaria, snow is rare. Sofia was beautiful, with interesting, grand old buildings and monuments, and some ruins exhibited down within the metro stations. It was a nice touch as they had given the ruins a glass roof, so you could see them whilst walking on the pavement above. During our time here, we sampled a couple of restaurants, both of which were awesome, and busy, and I’m told they were where the locals ate. The staff in both were extremely friendly, and in one of them it was customary to have a shot of rakia (the traditional Bulgarian drink) with the waiter after your meal. Had I been a waitress there, I would have been plastered for most of the shift!

The next day we decided to take Oby to the BMW garage, to have his oil pressure sensor fitted and to be put on the diagnostic machine to see why he kept stalling and having gear change problems. The first BMW garage we took him to was the wrong garage, but the kind man in there said he’d ring ahead to the other (correct) garage and warn his friend the mechanic, that we were coming, as he spoke no English. It took us ages to get there, as although it was only 15km across town, the traffic is manic in Sofia. We made it there and left Oby and the sensor with the mechanic, and went to collect him later. It turns out that Oby not only had a faulty oil pressure sensor, but he also had a faulty air sensor, which the mechanic fixed by robbing one off another bike, as he didn’t have one in stock. The whole thing cost a meagre €30 for the air sensor, and 100lev (about £45) for the labour, and Oby was running sweeeet!

After this, we made our way across Bulgaria to a little village called Idilevo, where we’d heard good things about this place called MotoCamp, run by Polly and Ivo. We’d booked a room for a few nights there, and were promised beforehand of being able to watch the MotoGP that evening. En-route we made a detour North, to the Belogradchik Rocks, which are some mainly sandstone formations created over 200 million years ago, containing a lot of iron oxide (giving them a red colour), and becoming well eroded into strange shapes over time, and giving rise to some strange stories and names for them. Unfortunately, it was again lashing it down, so it wasn’t the best day to go really, and I have few pictures as my camera was getting wet!

When we arrived at MotoCamp, we were invited in, although we were quite soggy after the day’s riding, and there were a few other people from the village there. All British (save for Polly and Ivo, who are Bulgarian originally, but I’d say they are almost British too by now!), and all bikers. We were treated like old friends, when really we had never met any of them before in our lives. They made us pizza, and we all sat down and watched the MotoGP.

What was supposed to be a 3 day stay there, turned into over 2 weeks, as we spent time exploring a few of the sights nearby in Veliko Tarnovo, and Dryanovo, and just hanging out at MotoCamp and generally having a rest. Luckily, the weather turned after we arrived, and it became lovely and hot the very next day 🙂 As the village is so quiet, and doesn’t really have a bar, people go down to MotoCamp to have a drink, so we met a lot of people and made new friends over the days, and a lot of them, including Polly and Ivo, Graham, Peachy, and Martin and Gina, helped us out tremendously with lots of different things, and we’ll always be grateful. One funny old day in particular, three Brits turned up and they were looking at our bikes parked up, so we came out to say hello. We all got chatting, and they had come from a village a few hours away, where they all lived, as they decided the UK wasn’t for them any more. We obviously feel the same way, so we were chatting about their experiences of living in Bulgaria. They had nothing bad to say about it, aside from the challenges of learning a new language and a new alphabet (Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet). Then after that, someone said “let’s all have a drink, shall we?”, and we ended up drinking all afternoon, and chatting more. We later found out that our assumption that they knew Polly and Ivo, and had come over to visit them, was utterly wrong. They’d visited to look at a bike that Polly was storing for someone, which was for sale. They didn’t know Polly and Ivo at all, and ended up looking at the bike for about 5 minutes just before they left! It was a very random day, but totally worth it, as we made even more new friends.

 

 

 

Moving on from Dubrovnik saw us using the coast road again, all the way down to the Montenegrin border, where we encountered the grumpiest man ever, on the border post. The man wanted to see our insurance documentation, and wouldn’t accept that it was an electronic copy. He insisted we went and bought a green card from the insurance agent in the cabin 50m down the road. Luckily, it was only €10 for 10 days, but the man didn’t even bother to fill in our names correctly, so I doubt it would’ve been any use if we’d had an accident! We’ve since found out that Montenegro is not part of the EU, although it is in negotiations to join, so our UK insurance doesn’t cover us, hence the green card. Once in Montenegro, we made our way along the coast, and then to the peninsula where the town of Kotor is located. It was absolutely stinking hot, which was very welcome, and being by the water was great too. The Old Town was a lot smaller than others we’d been to, with even narrower streets, no cars or bikes at all, and some lovely looking individual shops. The pre-budget-imposed, pre-lack-of-storage-space Suzanne could have emptied her bank account there! New Suzanne had to settle for sitting in the sun with a large dark beer instead, which wasn’t so bad! One thing that we were amazed by here, was that in a lot of areas, the cobbles on the floor were all numbered consecutively using what looked like a marker pen. We found the cause; workmen were having to pull up the cobbled streets, presumably to lay pipes or cables below, and they were laying the cobbles back in exactly the same place and orientation as they were in before, which was extremely meticulous, and got huge respect from us. I nearly offered them a job replacing the roof on my flat!

The next destination was Budva, another town on the coastline of Montenegro, however, we were to visit a Mausoleum on top of a mountain(http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mausoleum-of-petar-ii-petrovic-njegos), and within a national park, en-route. This sounds simple, but the truth was, getting up the mountain was a complete pain, as there were so many roadworks where we had to wait sometimes 30 minutes for a green light, and when we did get a green light there were sections of completely uncompacted gravel to ride over. When we reached the gates to the national park, the chap told us to just keep following the road to get to the Mausoleum; “you can’t miss it!” I’m not sure how it happened, but we missed it. However, we did find an excellent road leading back down the mountain again, which was pretty much deserted as it was only a single-track road. The town of Budva turned out to be much like Kotor; with a quaint little Old Town, right on the coast, with lots of cats just strolling about inside 🙂

After this, we continued to Albania, where we were visiting Shkodër, and the capital city, Tirana. Entering Albania was like going through a time warp, and initially reminded me of Morocco, with how developed it was. We had said goodbye to a lot of Multinational chain stores like McDonald’s, Starbucks etc. a while ago when we left Zagreb, but outside of Tirana there were pretty much no chain stores at all, and in Tirana itself, there were only Albanian chain stores at that. Also, as we found out, people in bars and restaurants do not accept credit cards here; it’s cash only, and good luck with finding cash machines and banks outside of a city centre! It was quite a shock at first, but once we got used to carrying a bit more cash, just in case, we were fine. Another thing I must mention here is the traffic! We had noticed a long time ago, when we were in Poland, that people are more brave when it comes to overtaking. Rather than waiting for the road to be completely clear, like car drivers do in England, they just look for a big enough gap in the traffic before overtaking, so that occasionally, you may see a car up ahead coming towards you on your side of the road. This is worrying at first, but you get used to it, and it was mostly safe, with us having to take evasive action only a couple of times. It was similar in the countries South from Poland, but upon reaching Albania it was a lot more extreme. Sometimes there wasn’t even a gap, and someone would just barge down the centre of the road, and your choices were to either hit them, or move over.

In Albania, we learnt that it wasn’t about the landmarks, monuments etc., as there were less of these in comparison to our previous destinations, but it was all about the people. Pretty much everyone we met was extremely friendly. When we first arrived near Shkodër, we made our way up to the ruins of Rozafa Castle, and having not been able to locate an ATM, we had no cash on us whatsoever. A man who was standing near the gate asked us where we were from, and so we told him about the trip. We explained that we’d not found a cash machine yet, but he explained this to the chap manning the gate, who then let us in for free! The entrance fee wasn’t much anyway, but he could quite easily have refused us entry, which is exactly what would have happened at home. This was just one example of their hospitality towards us. Another thing I was so impressed with was their English speaking. I know that most countries have English as a second language, so in a lot of the countries we go to, we are lucky to be able to communicate with the people in our first language, but it still amazes me that people try so hard to talk to us in our language whilst we are in their country!

Our last day in Albania was spent visiting Dajti National Park by cable car, which was a little strange, as at the top, people were shooting balloons with air rifles right next to people who were picnicking or riding horses, which was another thing you would not get at home! The cable car journey and the view from the top were brilliant though! We then found a lovely little café in the middle of nowhere for our lunch, where the ladies had to take me into the kitchen and physically show me the menu as they spoke no English, and I spoke no Albanian. It was a lovely meal and cost about £6 for both of us, drinks included!

When we reached the Macedonian border, we were stung for green card insurance again, but this time it was €50 each for 15 days, which Roger is still feeling sore about! We travelled to Lake Ohrid, where we stayed for a few nights, as it was so nice. It was more developed than Albania, and a little easier in terms of paying for things. It had a very relaxed atmosphere, and was very pretty. We visited Saint Sophia’s Church, and the site of an early Christian Basilica, and had some nice local food in some restaurants there. We also stayed with some lovely and friendly people, who were great hosts, and great to chat to. I’m sure we’ll be back here one day!

For a little while before this, Oby had started misbehaving again, but I was managing it. He was stalling again when I rolled off the throttle, but he was only doing it when the engine was hot, so it was a little strange. I’d also noticed for about a week or so, that he was struggling to go down into first gear when doing a block gear change, and was also not going into neutral very easily. Whilst we were at Ohrid, Roger had a look, and found that oil was leaking from the oil pressure sensor, so he started making arrangements to try and find me a new one in Sofia, Bulgaria, which was to be our next big city stop.

We then left for Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia, and got drenched and very cold riding over a mountain pass. After a while, we stopped at a petrol station that had a café, where we had a nice cooked lunch and a cup of coffee. They had wifi too, which presented a good opportunity to check and see if we’d heard back from BMW in Bulgaria about my oil pressure sensor. Unfortunately, the news we received wasn’t good news, and it wasn’t from BMW. A message from my Mum came through saying that my Dad had been taken to hospital as he’d had a heart attack overnight, but typically of my Mum, she had said not to worry, and that he was ok, and stable. Without taking much time to think about it, we booked flights home, whilst still sitting in the café. Luckily, the lovely gentleman who we’d booked a room with in Skopje, said it was no problem to store our bikes in his garden whilst we went home, and also offered to help us get to the airport. Also, the café we’d stopped in was only about 100m from where the road split into the minor road or the toll road, both going to Skopje. We were due to take the minor road, but with only 3 hours before our flight, we took the toll road, and made it to Skopje in just over an hour. We made it to the airport, with the help of our host in Skopje, and flew home, where my very kind Uncle picked us up from the airport at whatever o’ clock it was! I’m pleased to say that Dad is on the mend, after having some stents fitted to unblock some of his completely blocked arteries. He has also stopped smoking, as although he wasn’t a heavy smoker (10 or so per day), he had smoked for nearly 60 years, so this was the major cause of his blocked arteries. He’s done really well, and once he recovers, I think he’ll be fitter than he was before, and doing plenty of rock ‘n’ roll dancing!

When one is away for long periods of time, there are things that will be missed, and I have come to terms with that. I’m aware I will miss weddings, babies being born and growing up, funerals, and general life events of my friends and family. However, as I’m so close to my Mum and Dad, I had subconsciously made a decision that they will always come first over my travels, and they have always been my greatest concern on this trip, as I’m well aware of how quickly and suddenly someone can be removed from your life. This experience has actually reassured me a little, that if something did happen, I am able to make plans to come back quite successfully.

We were able to return to our bikes and continue travelling on 18th April, and we were even able to bring an oil pressure sensor back with us, for little Oby 🙂

 

I’d love to say that after our short visit home, we started travelling again with renewed vigour, but that would be a lie, as we were both a bit knackered. Still, whilst we were away, a mechanic in Hungary had been checking and adjusting the valve clearances, and changing the spark plugs on our bikes, so at least the bikes were running more smoothly, even if we weren’t!

Our next stop in Hungary was to visit a biker guest house/campsite called Magyar Route 66, only we were a little early in the year, and the water wasn’t switched on in the campsite part yet. The owner, Leen, asked us what we could afford to pay for a room in the guest house, and let us have it for that, which was sweet of him! He invited us in for beer after we’d checked in, and then for dinner that evening, and we had a good old chat about our travels, his travels, and his living in Hungary for the last 20 or so years (he is originally from Holland, hence why his English was fantastic). Our stay there was lovely, and Leen gave us a tour of the whole place, plus of his garage (with many bikes in), the next morning. Roger may have been a bit jealous!

The next destination, and our last in Hungary, was Pecs, which turned out to be a lovely little city, and we were both really glad we had ended our time in Hungary on a high note with it, as the rest of it hadn’t blown us away. The streets were very clean, with no ugly high-rises, very pedestrian friendly, and very open and quiet. There were lots of nice little boutiques and cafes etc. Whilst we were out, we came across an estate agent and I’m afraid I always have to look in the windows as I’m curious about how much houses cost in other countries. It turns out for the same amount of money I paid for my little 2 bed flat in Stony Stratford, I could get a 4 bed villa with swimming pool in Pecs 😳 At this time, things with my tenants had deteriorated to a point that I had to give them a choice to stay or leave, but after a long chat on the phone where we both listened and explained our positions to each other, we managed to rescue the situation, which was a big relief. Also, after making a complete pain of myself to the freeholders, they have agreed on a date for the roof replacement, meaning that we all know where we are, and I can now concentrate on repairing the damage that has been done. But I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than buy a leasehold property again, especially if the freeholders happen to be Milton Keynes Council! 😡

Things continued to get better as we crossed the border into Croatia. It was instantly prettier everywhere, even along the little country roads we rode down, where not much other than farming was going on. Also, someone had turned the heat up, which always helps! The only thing which I found odd were the speed limits. We’d be riding through a village where the speed limit was 60kph, and then exit the village and have to slow down to 50kph just because there was a junction somewhere along the road. It kinda ruined what could be a nice 90kph country road, and they would do the same when they thought there was a dangerous bend in the road too; it just seemed to make no sense! After a while, we realised that the locals took absolutely no notice of the speed limits anyway, so we just used our judgement.

We found a very nice room in a flat, which was shared with a lovely couple in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Even though Zagreb is nowhere near the coast, it was extremely pretty, with a lot of old buildings, and interesting areas tucked away, so that you could spend a long time exploring the place. Also, it was touristy, but it had a lot of people just living there and going about their business, and it wasn’t too clean and sanitised, it was still relaxed. I would recommend a visit there for sure! After this, we had the twistiest day yet, with some of the biggest slopes, as we rode from Zagreb to Karlovac, to Rijeka, and finally, Poreč, which is on the West coast. Thankfully we’d had our valve clearances done, or else it would have been a lumpy ride with all of those slopes! We camped for the evening here, at probably the poshest campsite I’ve ever used (it had a gym on the ground floor in the sanitary block, and a slide that you could use instead of going down a flight of stairs, although thinking about it now, that was probably intended for children). After this, we followed the coastline pretty much all of the way down to the Bosnia and Herzegovina borders, and most of it was spectacularly beautiful, and very twisty as you went around the headlands and bays in succession. It was almost as beautiful as Norway, and the roads being twisty, with predictable bends and good visibility, were perfect for bikes, especially at this time of year when they were quiet. We spent a couple of nights in the city of Split, which I probably wouldn’t recommend to visit, save for the fact that you can get a ferry crossing from here to the beautiful Croatian island of Hvar, which is exactly what we did. Also, we stayed with a lovely lady called Veronika, who we found out has tickets to see Phil Collins in concert at the Royal Albert Hall this June! Veronika, if you happen to be reading this, I still hate you 😉

Hvar was a beautiful island, and we spent the day riding it end to end on twisty narrow roads, and having coffee in a bar in its main town, plus chatting about our travels to a very friendly local chap. We caught another ferry back to the mainland, and then crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we stopped in a beautiful old town called Mostar. 

As soon as we crossed the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, things were different. The rural areas looked a lot more basic, and some of the buildings looked like they had been built by the owners, out of materials they had found. It was honest though, and the people there were cracking on growing food wherever they could on their land. I remember when I was a kid there would always be something about the country on the news, due to the war that was happening at the time (1992-1995), and we have been told that there are still tensions there at a political level, as the Bosnians, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats still cannot agree on forming a government together. The emergency services are formed and they work, but some other governmental sectors do not, and we saw this with the amount of litter that there was, which was such a shame, as the country really is beautiful. We didn’t visit the capital; Sarajevo, but we could tell that the war had affected the city of Mostar too, by the amount of partially destroyed buildings that still stand today. Half of the courtyard where our Airbnb place was, was peppered with bullet holes, but some of the buildings were brand new, or had been renovated, which was fascinating and extremely sad all at once. We visited the old town in Mostar, which contained the Stari Most bridge; a bridge that the locals traditionally jump off, into the river below. The old town was lovely, and very quaint, but as soon as we ventured out of the old town, we were reminded that it was still part of a developing country.

 

Moving South from Mostar, we travelled back down into Croatia, where Dubrovnik would be our next stop. Dubrovnik was very pretty, extremely clean, but much busier with tourists, and very expensive. For a meal and drinks out, you’d pay the same here as it would cost in Central London! All of the buildings and floors in the old town were made out of limestone, and it had a wonderful feel about it, with many little streets spurring off the main walkway, and no traffic permitted inside the old town walls only made it nicer. However, personally I preferred Zagreb, as it wasn’t trying as hard!

 

I’m afraid that due to us moving on quite quickly at this point, and also due to any free time I had being taken up with sorting out problems with my flat, I have gotten behind with this blog, plus forgotten and not documented a lot of Italy, Slovenia and Hungary. What I do remember I am just going to put in this post, so it might be longer than usual…

There was an immediate change upon crossing the border into Italy, with the amount of traffic, and its pace. There were many more mopeds, it was less relaxed on the roads, and everyone was making more progress. There are also stacks of designated parking places for motorcycles everywhere, as mopeds and scooters especially, are the norm.

We headed firstly to Genoa, where we stayed a couple of nights and took some time to explore the city. Most of the city centre consisted of old buildings, and there were obviously some chain stores here, but they were nestled into the old buildings in a respectful way. The marina area was great with lots of places to sit, and it was a lovely day, so we did! We also decided to book flights home for Roger’s Dad’s surprise 80th birthday party, which I can now talk about, as I’m so far behind on this blog that we have just returned from it last weekend!

After Genoa, we moved on to Verona, where we had booked a lovely little self-contained basement flat for a couple of nights. The host, Serena, was quite taken with our trip, as her family had done a lot of travelling too. We loved the city; it was absolutely full of character, and I don’t recall seeing a new building anywhere. We visited Juliet’s balcony, and we went inside some extremely elaborate churches. I had my absolute favourite food in the world; Macarons, filled with ice cream, in one of the little cafe’s there, which tasted amazing! On the evening before our departure, Serena asked if her eldest daughter could interview us for 15 minutes or so, for the school newsletter. We said of course, so she invited us for ‘aperitivo’ at her house, a couple of doors down, where she lives with her three children and her parents (three generations in one house is quite typical in Italy, and was lovely to see). Of course, the wine then came out, and we were all talking so much and getting on so well that the 15 minutes completely got forgotten about by all of us, and 2 hours later Serena decided that we should all go out to dinner to this fabulous place down the road! The next day we were due to move on to Venice, but we were having real problems finding suitable accommodation. Serena explained that it was probably due to the next day being carnival day, so it would be fully booked/expensive to stay. She also said that we could get to Venice by train from Verona in 1 hour or so, and we could stay on with her for extra days if we wanted. Being as the basement flat wasn’t available for the extra time, she offered us her own bedroom and said she’d go and share a bedroom with one of her three kids. I still struggle to find the words to explain how I felt about this; ‘amazing’ and ‘kind’ just don’t seem to be enough! We stayed on for three extra nights with them, they fed us beautiful Italian food, and we went Venice by train on a lovely sunny day. Because there had been the Carnival only a few days previously, there were still people dressed up in fancy costumes, plus lots were wearing traditional masks, so it was a great time to go, but quite busy. The best thing by far was that everyone was on foot, so we didn’t have to worry about traffic, bicycles etc, which was really pleasant.

After Venice, we then left Serena and her lovely family, to go to Trieste, where we camped for the night, before crossing the border into Slovenia. The first stop were the Skocjan caves, where we managed to get a guided tour, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures. They were definitely worth a visit though! After the tour, we’d managed to get our stuff locked inside the visitors centre, as all the staff had gone home, but luckily some chaps who had been doing a documentary on how the caves were discovered and excavated over 100 years ago, helped us get it all out, plus they gave us a DVD of one of their previous documentaries! Next stop was to see Predjama Castle, which is situated inside a cave/cliff face, and then it was on to Ljubljana for a couple of days. Ljubljana was clean, open, and relaxed, with not much traffic. The buildings were quite similar in style to the ones in the Baltic countries, or indeed in Austria; large and a lot newer than what we’d seen in Italy, but not modern, and certainly not with glass or concrete everywhere. It was all really tasteful.

After Ljubljana, we travelled to Lake Bled, which was beautiful, and well worth a visit. We spent most of the time just walking around the lake taking pictures, which made us both very happy! We realised that we couldn’t have made it this far much earlier in the year, as there was still snow at the sides of the road on all of the areas higher in altitude.

Once in Hungary, we travelled to Lake Balaton, where we met a lovely couple, whose flat we’d booked to stay in, in Keszthely. Although Keszthely was a nice town, and the flat we stayed in was lovely, Lake Balaton itself wasn’t a patch on Lake Bled, which was a shame! We also found out on the second day in Hungary, that we should have bought a vignette the day previously when we crossed the border, as even though the road we entered Hungary on was just a bog-standard single carriageway, it still required a vignette. We bought one quick-sharp as soon as we realised, but we may have a fine coming our way for the first day 😦

Moving on from here took us to Budapest, which made me very happy, as after a few days of sightseeing, we would be flying home for three days! Budapest was a lovely city (and IMO, any city that has a statue of Peter Falk as Columbo is a lovely city), but it was very big and spread out, and did need the few days to explore. After Columbo, my top pick was the ‘For Sale’ Pub, where notices and messages are pinned to every surface, there’s hay and monkey-nut shells all over the floor (monkey-nuts are on the table to help yourself), the food portions are massive and tasty, and they do a great dark beer!

Being at home was lovely, and it was nice to see my parents, our friend Jerry, and my cats, even if my time with them was ruined by my tenants deciding not to pay their rent any more. However, I was glad to be at home then, to be able to sort it out. The real purpose of the visit was to see Rex, Roger’s Dad, as it was his 80th birthday on the Sunday. Rex did not know anything about us coming home, so when we walked in to their house on Saturday, he promptly dropped the tool he was using, as he was so surprised (but very pleased) to see us! Then the Sunday was his actual party, but that was a surprise also, and credit goes to Roger’s Mum, Sister, Brother, and Sister-in-Law for keeping it so quiet and for organising it all so well. This is also the only party I have ever been to, where every single person invited has shown up, which goes to show how well liked and respected Rex is! It was a lovely party!