Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Leg 5: Palermo Italy to Perpignan, Languedoc, France: 1900 km


In the last 9 days, we were strongly reminded of the nature in Europe in January and that, after all, we are trying to ride around the world and that it would not be a walk in the park.
In Palermo, our first intention was to find a ferry that would take us north to Corsica and then France; we discovered very quickly that the ferry to Corsica only starts in April so we were put in the position to face the riding North, towards the Italian Alps and then cross into France by land.  We checked the weather and we decided to head out, even though the forecast was a bit of rain here and there.  I told Carmen: "ah, it's nothing, we will take it a day at a time and avoid this whole thing"; me and my freaking wishful thinking!

We had a magnificent ride from Palermo towards Messina and then on to Cosenza where we veered towards the Tyrrhenian Sea to the little seaside town of San Lucido.  We had no clue what we would find here, but the road was great, winding on the Italy coast in the great afternoon sun.  We were happy just with the riding and the beautiful Mediterranean on our left.
Arriving at San Lucido we found a little hotel called CLICHE, a great looking place, clean and very new.  Alessandro, the owner/manager was a very welcoming, warm host, making us feel at home immediately.  The room was overlooking the sea and the village of San Lucido is a quiet, pleasant community.  We went to buy some food at the local Spar and I didn't realize that it was a one way street and as I was pulling out against the traffic, a local came out of a bar and told in signs that it is a one way street.  Cars were coming from the other side already and, to let me pass, the man jumped in the middle of the street and stopped the whole traffic to let me pass.  No one objected, which is not a general rule in Italy :)

We had a peaceful night in San Lucido and in the morning, after the usual Italian breakfast of brioche and cake and coffee, we headed out towards Napoli.  I heard before of the great, record-holding, coast of Amalfi, between Solerno and Naples, so I told Carmen that this would be amazing, to ride our bike through this beautiful coast.  Well, we did it!  Not only that we did it, and the coast deserves its name, but we did it in one of the craziest rain storms I have been in my life!  Photos below do no justice to that place and the storm we have been through, but I have videos and some day soon, I hope I can find a place to be able to edit the clips and put them on youtube for you; then you will understand!
The road through Amalfi is carved into the mountain, right above the sea, but this is not the only amazing thing they have done; they built their villages and homes, virtually suspended above the sea; not only that, but they planted orchards and vineyards that are almost vertical on the mountain and there are roads and infrastructure leading to all these places.  They have 5 star hotels built almost vertically on that mountain face and no one seems to be bothered by the massive peaks behind them or the few hundred meters drop in front of their houses.  We rode that coast from the sea level all the way to 1100 m above the sea as we were going on the other side towards Pompeii.  It was pouring down rain, we even entered into the clouds as we approached the peak of the mountain and the road was slippery.  But we made it!  I was in awe of both this amazing coastline and of my beautiful bike that survived that, in pouring rain, winding through the narrow roads at very low speeds for 4 hours. By the time we got to Pompeii that night, we were soaked, even though we have waterproof gear; nothing would be waterproof there in that storm.

We pulled into Zeus Camping at Pompeii as darkness fell.  It was still pouring, rivers were flowing through the streets and I sank my bike in the pools of water a few times. I didn't care anymore, I wanted to just sleep somewhere.  We were cold, wet and in a very strange place.  We decided to take a couple days to dry off and get ready for the next step, which we hoped would be Genoa. 
While things were drying out in camp, we took a stroll the next day and visited the ruins of Pompeii, which, I must say, were a great surprise for me.  The atmosphere there is not that of a museum or just a place to visit, I felt we were walking among the graves of the people that found their death there.
Goethe said: "I don't know of any natural disasters in the history of the world that brought so much joy to all of us then the Pompeii disaster"
I am not sure if he is completely right or not, but I do agree that this place is a beautiful place to walk through and experience it.  To be able to see their homes, their temples and in some cases even the bodies that were caught by the disaster while sleeping or praying or eating and you can actually see on their faces the expression they had when they died.  It was humbling, to say the least!

We left the next morning with dry gear and as we headed from Pompeii, the sun was shining and the roads were dry and I told Carmen: "today will be a great day to ride".  1 hour later we were in hell!
The wind picked up and within minutes the sky got dark and it started to rain so heavily that I could not see properly in front of me.  Trucks were passing us and sheets of water would smack me straight into my face and instantly drenched me.  I think I sent at least 100 beautiful phrases to the Italian truckers that day! 
We stopped every 2 hours or so to have some tea and warm up at the Rest areas on the highway and every time we got in, people would give us a long look and rightly so; we were dripping heavily and we were bundled up with several pieces of gear that are not too pretty, like: buffs, bandannas, face masks all soaking wet. 
There was no way we would make it to Genoa; there were the mountains and also the tunnels, darkness was coming and I hate riding at night, even when it is dry, but not it was impossible.  Towards the afternoon I decided we would sleep in Livorno and we were happy to do that.  First, we would dry out and secondly, Livorno turned out to be an amazing city, full of clean streets and buildings (no more garbage everywhere like in Sicily and Southern Italy) and with great places to eat and full of people walking in the streets even though it was still raining as we arrived there.
Well the next few days were spent, as you have guessed by now, in hard rain on the road, drying out at night and rain again the next day.  With the exception of the last day, when we headed out from Nice to Perpignan: the sun was out and we said, finally, here is a nice day.  Today we would just enjoy it; yeah, right!  It was 5 freaking degrees because we were heading for the Pyrenees and there it snowed like hell the night before and all the cold air was coming straight under my goggles and freezing my face.
So, here we are, in the great European winter, still drying out and still trying to warm up.  I never thought I would miss the 40 degrees temperature of Africa, but I am;
I don't know how we did not get sick, but I think all the lemons and oranges we had in Greece gave us more protection then we thought. 

My bike is approaching 40.000 km, I need to soon do the valve adjustment, and a full service.  I must also say that I am totally in love with my tires! The Yamaha dealer in Pretoria that did my service in October last year did not have the Metzeler Karoos and he said he can put the Heidenau K60. I have already 10.000 km done since Pretoria and there is not even a dent in these tires... They don't look like they were worn at all!  I am sure I can ride for at least 7-8000 km more.  Long live Heidenau!
My bike gave me absolutely no trouble for the past 40.000 km and I am not just saying this because it is my bike (which I am, but I don't care).  This baby was dropped several times, sank in mud, drenched in rain, drowned in the Flood of Italy and many other things.  I only changed the battery in Athens and I just put gas and keep going.  I did not inflate the tires once since Pretoria, I did not top up the oil, heck, I didn't even check bolts or anything.  We are 40 kg over the Manual top weight (sorry Yamaha) and this bike handles like it is brand new and naked.  Not only that she does not care how much we weigh or load  her, but it uses now less gas per 100 km than before.  I now do 4.4 l per 100 km with over 500 kg on her (wet bike, accessories, baggage, us), instead of 5.3 l per 100 when I bought it.  I am very happy about this, especially in Europe, where the gas is out of this world.  It looks like they bring this freaking petrol from Mars, that is how expensive it is.
Below you will see some photos of our trip north.  I am going to bed now.

Soaking wet in Italy; you can almost see my disgust through my goggles:)

 The beautiful coast to San Lucido

 This is how some of the towns are built on top of mountains; I love the sight of them.

 And the Amalfi coast starts...

 This how my GPS looked when we crossed from Amalfi to Pompeii.
 The beautiful city of Pompeii and its tragedy.

 Some photos of nice, I was so tired and wet, I didn't care about photos anymore.

 The freezing Perpignan...

Monday, 13 January 2014


The few weeks in Greece were a delight, in spite of our misguided expectations (built by the media, that Greece is in shambles and we would experience negative attitudes).  The Greek people were nothing but amazing: hospitable, accommodating, and giving, even though they have little themselves.  Most of them speak few languages, even in the smallest of the villages, and of course the food was great.  We had a cure of oranges like never before, mainly because they were free for the most part :)

We were inclined to head to Patra and then take the ferry to Bari Italy, but when we found out that the ferry takes 17 hours, we decided to ride instead.  It was a great decision: the road to Igoumenitsa is a delight, winding through mountainous landscapes and with great sea views, as you will see in the pictures below.
We arrived in Igoumenitsa around 6:00 pm and found out that the ferry was leaving at 1 at night.  We spent the rest of the evening at a cafe, having tea and biscuits.  It was becoming clearer by the hour, as we saw the people coming for the ferry that this was a crossing for immigrants, workers from Albania, Macedonia, and some other Eastern European nations to enter Italy.  The police checks were frequent and the security beefed up.  Once the ferry arrived, we were shocked to see how small the seating area was and how dirty the ferry appeared, with stinky toilets and garbage all over.  We could not find a place to lie down, and we sneaked in the cabins area where we lied on the floor on our bike jackets to find some sleep; I just rode 500 km and I had to ride again in the morning 400 more, so I needed my rest.  It was a nightmare of a night,with people shouting in different languages around us, smells of all sorts, loud TV sets in the main seating area, etc.  I decided then that there will be less ferry and more riding from now on.

We arrived at Brindisi at 9:00 am Italy time and headed out towards Sicily.  Only few short hours later, I had to pull in a B&B on the side of the road because I could not do it anymore.  We did not know where to sleep that night and we saw a sign on the side of the road : Les Collines de Gesul so we decided to try it.  We climbed some spectacular hills with beautiful Olive gardens and soft green grass in between the trees through which the afternoon light was gently showing and the silence and beauty all around us calmed our spirits down and we felt rested.  We were further surprised up the road when we discovered that Les Collines de Gesul is an old castle, with an architecture that sent me back in one of Dumas' novels.  Sitting on top of a hill, overlooking the olive orchards around, this place felt out of this world!  We got a room with high ceilings, antique furniture and amazing character.  I fell asleep happy!

The next morning we headed out early to be able to reach Messina, Sicily before dark.  Nothing spectacular on the way, the roads were mostly in construction, so we advanced slow and the vibration from the corrugated road, managed to break two things on my bike, for the first time: my license disc and my GPS bracket.  The funny thing was how it happened: the license disc broke in front of me, as we were parked and I was checking the tires, when I saw the disc just slowly falling to the ground.  The GPS bracket fell while riding, but I was looking at it as well, because I noticed it was shaking in a strange way; few seconds later it fell straight in my hand.  My GPS is now tied with tape around the butt of the former bracket; not so pretty as before but it still does the job.

Once we arrived in Reggio di Calabria, things suddenly changed: beautiful mountains appeared, the sea is beautiful and the great island of Sicily was looming across the channel like a mirage.  We jumped on the 10 min. ferry to Messina and spent the night there.  Sicily seems a different world then what we have seen so far: more bikers (first thing I noticed) and people are more communicative then the ones we encountered already.
The ride the following morning was very pleasant: the highway is built on super tall stilts around the mountains and, when they could not do that, they built it straight through the mountains.  Hundreds of tunnels pierce the Sicilian mountains on the way to Palermo. 

We stopped for gas in a small town, called Santo Stefano di Camastra.  It was the greatest decision of that day!  The town is high in the mountains, with very tiny streets winding around it and great sea views!  The people were out for a stroll and were very attracted by the site of these two bikers that looked strange to them.  We were very happy to walk around it a little bit. 

Few hours later we were in Palermo, a large city with amazing history and fantastic buildings.  It was sad to see how much garbage is thrown all over the place, but if you can overlook this you will enjoy Palermo.

There are no accidents to report, no other incidents either.  Below you will find photos of parts of this stretch of our trip.

 Great Greek landscapes.  I love the white house and the clean look of the villages
 My dream come true: soft boiled eggs, with a yoke so red you think it is not real.
 We found this little guy in the middle of the road sleeping, so we took him in our jacket and placed him in the grass.  He didn't even wake up to thank us... the nerve!

 Fresh picked strawberries in January!  How about that?

 Les Collines de Gesul:  Splendid

 Sights of Palermo

 Santo Stefano di Camastra, my favorite place by far!

 On the ferry to Messina