Monthly Archives: March 2013

Memories of a Rainy Day in the Caribbean

A sudden tropical cloudburst brings out the beauty of an otherwise ordinary row of palms along a road in the CaribbeanSomehow rain just looks pretty on a rainy day in the Caribbean. But now all that is just a fanciful recollection as I am sitting back here shivering in rainy, snowy, frosty old England having just lobbed in here yesterday morning, jet-lagged and weary after a ghastly flight across the Atlantic. Already I am missing the sunny indolence of the Caribbean.  Still, I am glad to see my bicycles again and am eager to get back in the saddle again and to get My Bicycle and I back onto its natural footing with posts about cycling and riding and the pleasing indolence of the open road. It’ll be another week or so until I am back in the saddle – my shoulder injury was a bit worse than originally thought – but for those of you who have faithfully checked in on this sadly neglected blog these past six weeks, I will at least back back writing and on-topic. Thanks for your forbearance.

Chapter 21 – The Adriatic Sea

 

AdriaticThe ferry company’s booking office was in an old dockside terminal that used to belong to the White Star Line back in the day, judging by the block letters still visible through the faded whitewash on the brick facade.

It was crowded inside, a swirl of brassy voices and cigarette smoke and piled-up luggage in a great, lofty, old-fashioned waiting room.  I shuffled my way through the crowd and up to one of the ticket windows where I paid for deck passage to Igoumenitsa.  Ticket in hand, I drifted over to the yellowed route map on the wall curious to know, now that I was about to go there, just where in Greece this place was supposed to be.

I found it after a bit of looking: just opposite the island of Corfu, and near the Albanian border.  Interesting; I’d never been quite sure where Corfu was either, although of course I’d heard the name.  At any rate, from Igoumenitsa it appeared to be a fairly straightforward matter of riding across northern Greece down to Volos, a port city on the Aegean Sea, and from there island hopping to Turkey.  All that was for later; at the moment I had a twenty-hour sea passage ahead of me and not much in the way of supplies laid in to tide me over.

Judging by the look of my fellow deck passengers, extended Greek and Albanian families mainly, and the bulging sacks of foodstuffs and bottled water piled around them, the done thing was to stock up well and err on the side of plenty. I had hours yet before the ship sailed, so I hopped back on my bike and took a turn around Trieste to see what I could find that was open this early on a Sunday morning.  Not much; the city was dead quiet.  All the holiday bustle was down the coast, seeking sea and sun, not cluttering up the streets of faded old Trieste.

At that, it was kind of nice pedalling up one grand old boulevard and down another, getting a feel for the place, without a lot of distracting traffic. Back in the day Trieste was one of the grandest seaports in Europe, a name on luggage labels that conjured the romance and intrigue of steamship travel to the East.  A lot of tides had ebbed and flowed out of its harbour since then, but it was still a pretty and evocative place, in an antique sort of way.

I roamed the city far and wide, stopping off for gelati here and an espresso there, and in the course of my wanderings found enough open delicatessens to gather up an goodly array of supplies. I finished up at the Caffe Tommaseo, Trieste’s oldest and most opulent café and in its brass and mahogany surrounds and played at being a boulevardier and imagined Sir Richard Burton sitting over cigars and coffee here when he was the British consul in Trieste, until finally the wall clock told me it was time to head back to the wharf.

Other than the lot filling up with more cars and truck, not much had happened there since I’d pedalled away that morning.  The ship still wasn’t in, although it should have been.  Engine troubles was the story being passed around. I parked my bike amongst a group of motorcycles and sprawled in the sun to read and wait.  And wait.  And wait.

Dusk was gathering by the time we finally put to sea, an anticlimactic five hours behind schedule.  I leaned against the railing that curved around the stern, and watched Trieste recede with a growing sense of relief: whatever else happened now, I was going to have made it at least as far as Greece, something I’d begun to doubt a couple nights earlier, back in Pula.

My bicycle was stowed below with the cars and trucks, lashed to a railing along one of the bulkheads.  My saddlebags, bedroll and bags of groceries were at my feet and, taking my cue from the scramble unfolding around me, in the first great rush to come aboard, I’d pegged out a few square feet of deck space to call my own, and to sleep on later on in the evening.  A twenty-hour passage lay ahead of me.  Sometime tomorrow afternoon we’d dock at Igoumenitsa and then I’d have to start worrying about Greek drivers and Greek topography, but for now at least I could loiter by this railing, nibbling from a bag of dried fruit, and watch Trieste slip astern in the soft evening light.

It was a warm night, and a long one.  The deck was crowded and restless and too brightly floodlit for sleeping. A couple of times, in the small hours, I gave up even trying, and stood by the rails looking at the lights of cities and town twinkling on shore, listening to the throb of the engine and watching our silvery wake recede into the darkness.  Dawn found us running along a barren coast: Albania, unless I missed my guess.  More tedious hours dragged by.  The sun climbed higher and beat down on the deck.  From memory of that wall map in the ferry terminal back in Trieste, I knew that we had to be seeing Corfu off our starboard side before we could consider ourselves close to Igoumenitsa.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually a rocky, lightly wooded coast appeared off the bow and the ship entered the strait between Corfu and mainland Greece and after steaming nearly the whole length of Corfu made a long slow turn to port and headed into the harbour at Igoumenitsa. It was mid-afternoon by then and breathlessly hot, the town dead quiet in the glare and the mercury hovering well above the century mark on the old Fahrenheit scale.

I was among the last to disembark from the ferry, walking my bicycle down the steel ramp and thinking back to that ferry landing in Boulogne five weeks ago and what felt like ten thousand miles, but in an agreeable sort of way.  I like the world to feel big and grand, a little larger than life, and for distance to take on meaning.  And now I was in Greece, on a white hot afternoon, in a seaport I’d never heard of until two days ago.

Not much was happening here.  Igoumenitsa dozed in the heat.  It seemed the only traffic that afternoon had been whatever we brought with us on the ferry.  Once its bellyful of cars and trucks had rumbled away off the wharf and dispersed – to where, I don’t know – the town’s sun-drenched streets resumed their slumbers.  Nothing stirred. As I pedalled up the wharf and into town, groggy from lack of sleep myself, I decided to follow the locals’ lead, find myself a place to hole up, get some shut-eye in a darkened room, and make a fresh start in the morning.

And really, there wasn’t much else I could do.  Other than a vaguely formed idea of riding across northern Greece to a town called Volos, on the Aegean Sea, and that from only a brief study of a large-scale map on a shipping company’s office wall,  I hadn’t a clue where to go from here, which roads to take, and which to avoid, and the shops, where I might be able to buy a road map, all seemed to be closed for the heat of the day, everyone off taking a nap.

I found a cheap hotel near the waterfront and took a room.  The girl at reception gave me a can of insect spray along with my key. “The mosquitoes are pretty bad here at night,” she explained,  “and some of the screens in the windows have holes in them.” And so they did.  But if they let in any mosquitoes, I never knew about it.  I drew the shades to shut out the glare then sprawled out on the mattress in cool, blessed darkness and knew no more until the next morning.

I’d wanted the hot yellow landscapes and boy did I find them.  The countryside through here was open and stony, with a cloudless vault of sky arching overhead and a narrow road winding its way higher into the mountains in a series of long meandering switchbacks.  It was set to be another scorcher  – forty-one degrees, according to the shopkeeper back in Igoumenitsa who’d sold me a road map of Epirus and a couple of extra bottles of mineral water to supplement what I was already carrying.

I had no doubt it would get there, either.  Ten o’clock in the morning and already the sun was packing a wallop.  I didn’t mind though.  It was dry heat, unlike the thundery sultriness back in Trieste, and such a blessed change from the damp chill in the Ardennes and the Black Forest and along the Danube that all I wanted to do was soak it up.  I was a sponge for heat.

All the same it was steep going, hot, hard and thirsty work.  Villages were few and far between along the dusty backroads I’d chosen for myself and there was little in the way of traffic.  But what people I did encounter up here were friendly – like the shopkeeper who insisted on washing the peaches he sold me in case I didn’t have an opportunity chance to wash them myself before I ate them.

Or the local family who, on driving by and seeing a cyclist pedalling up their desolate mountain road, and on such a hot day too, slowed to a crawl beside me, rolled down their windows and asked in English if I needed anything.  When I said I was fine, they insisted that I at least accept a bottle of Coke, which they passed out the window to me with as much pleasure as I had in receiving it, before driving on, all smiles and waves and tooting horns.  Such kindness, together with all that hot bright yellow sunshine and the tranquillity of the roads and the growing sense that I might just make it to Istanbul after all, made these miles as upbeat as they were uphill.  I finished the day on a long cooling downhill glide and camped in the scrub near Ioannina.

 

Farewell to the Islands

Looking like a scene from an old postcard a cruise ship departs the harbour at Road Town Tortola in the British Virgin IslandsAnd so today I bid farewell to the islands and head back to Blighty – and my morning bicycle rides, something I will be very glad to resume, although I am going to miss the Caribbean, Tortola and the British Virgin Islands, to say nothing of taking my morning coffee in warm tropical sunshine on a patio overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel. As a collector of old postcards I couldn’t resist creating a golden oldie of my own, something to evoke a little of the old aloha oe spirit as I pack my bags and prepare to depart.

Chapter 20 – Trieste Once More

TriesteAnother hot clear morning dawned on the Istrian Riviera.  I broke camp at half past five, grumpy and bleary-eyed after another fitful night in that rowdy campground. A quarter of an hour’s easy pedalling brought me around to Pula’s sleepy railway station.  The place was practically deserted at that hour, just an old man in a floppy brown suit sitting beside his suitcase on a bench out front.

I glided up to the curb, dismounted and ushered my bicycle into the vaulted cool of the station, looking furtively around and about, this way and that, curious to know if there was anybody manning the ticket counter at that time of the morning. By golly, there was.  And she had titian hair.  Our eyes met, mine registering disbelief, her frosty blues touched by irony, implacability and the exquisiteness of the situation.  She shook her head, jabbed a finger at me and snapped out those by-now oh-so-familiar words: “Nicht mit fahrad!”

And so to the highway.

It wasn’t so bad, really. Traffic was still light at that hour, relatively sane, and the air fairly fresh, with most of the lead molecules from the previous day’s burden of auto exhaust having precipitated out overnight. I made good use of my early start and by the time the world and his wife were pushing back from their breakfast tables and feeling the urge to drive somewhere, I was rolling up to the picturesque seaport of Rovinj, some twenty-five miles up the coast, my roadwork done for the day.  I’d decided to do this thing in stages: Rovinj today, then make another dawn run up to Porec or Piran on the morrow, and reach Trieste the day after that.  Slow going to be sure, but infinitely safer than riding through the midday rush on that highway.  It was also infinitely pleasanter and prettier.  All you see of Istria from the highway is an ugly sprawl of hotels and condominiums and holiday homes.

Rovinj is said to be one of Croatia’s most beautiful towns, and it would seem churlish to argue the point.  You’ve seen it.  It’s one of those aspirational places that’s forever appearing on glossy travel calendars, coffee table books and the covers of Conde Nast; that familiar cluster of ancient red-tile roofs and weathered facades huddled together at the end of a promontory, with the Adriatic sparking all around it and the bell tower of St Euphemia’s Basilica – a twin to the one at St Mark’s in Venice – standing proud overhead.

To ride into such a scene bright and early on a fine hot August morning was lovely indeed, even if Rovinj’s narrow streets were rather more clogged with double parked Audis and jaywalking pedestrians in designer gear than the pictures in the travel magazines would have you believe. I wasn’t inclined to be hypercritical, not after making such an unexpectedly safe, easy and uneventful run up the coast from Pula.

There was still the potentially fraught matter of securing a place to stay for the night, but it was hard not to feel optimistic this early on a bright and sunny morning.  I swung around to one of the dozens of ‘official’ tourist office-travel agencies that were dotted about the place, leaned my bike against the big front window, where I could keep an eye on it, and trotted inside.

It was already busy, crowded and full of holiday expectancy.  I joined the cue, eavesdropping on a conversation in English taking place at the counter to get an inkling of how likely or unlikely I’d be to find accommodation.  From what I could gather, it sounded possible, but expensive.   As I was mulling over the cost in time, effort, risk and money this ill-advised jaunt down the Istrian coast was putting me to, and hoping that fellow at the counter wasn’t hogging the last room in Rovinj, I glanced up and noticed on a placard that the daily ferry from Pula to Trieste called in here on its way north.

“Say, I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get aboard today’s ferry to Trieste is there?” I asked the girl behind the counter, when it was my turn to speak.

“Sure.”  She reached for her ticket book.

“I…ah…I have a bicycle,”  I said, imparting this salient piece of information in the sort of low, confidential murmur you might use to tell someone that you had a particularly loathsome communicable disease.

“Oh, that’s no problem,” she replied, not even looking up as she began the routine of filling out the ticket.  “Bicycles go free.”

“They do?” I replied, a waspish note of challenge in my voice.  I craned my head back for another look at the logo and the name of the ferry company; it was the same one as in Pula, no doubt about it.  “I was given to understand that bicycles were not allowed on your ferries.”

She looked up from her ticket pad and frowned, puzzled.  “Who told you that?”

“Your man in Pula.”

She shrugged.  “Well, he’s wrong.”

“He’s a prick.”

“Sounds like it. We carry bicycles all the time.  He ought to know that.  If you want, I‘ll radio the captain and make doubly sure for you.”

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”  She stepped into a back room and returned a few moments later, with an I-told-you-so smile on her face.  “It’s all set.  I’ve spoken with the captain and he’ll be expecting you and your bicycle when he docks this afternoon.  Was there anything else?”

I celebrated my new lease on life with a slap-up lunch at a restaurant by the old church and afterwards did a spot of sightseeing.  Freed from the life and death struggle of the highway, I could appreciate things like antiquities, architecture and Byzantine mosaics.  All the same I kept a chary eye on the clock.  The last thing I wanted to do was miss that ferry.  And so I drifted back to the landing a good half hour early, and bought an ice cream cone and sprawled on a bench in the sunshine, watching all the comings and goings along the harbourside while I waited for the boat.

It arrived dead on time, a smallish, fairly ordinary passenger ferry but looking beautiful to me as it glided out of the violet haze to the south, motored purposefully into the harbour and up to the wharf.  A gangplank clattered down and in the next few minutes the usual exchange of people took place – one crowd shuffling off the boat, while another waited in the wings to board.  There was no trouble whatever about the bike.  A deckhand showed me where to stow it, up near the bow.  I lashed it to a railing.  By the time I’d finished we were moving.

An Italian customs official was on board, impeccable in a dark and crisply fitted uniform, making the rounds of the new boarders.  He examined my passport, thumbing absently through its pages in that way they do, then paused for a moment at the page containing my personal details.  He smiled as he handed it back to me:  “Happy birthday.”

And so it was.  I’d forgotten.

It turned into the laziest of Saturday afternoons.  This particular ferry was the slow service, calling in at every town and hamlet along the coast.  The scenery was so beautiful it felt more like a cruise: a cavalcade of achingly pretty Italianate seaports, wooded inlets, and golden beaches, all bathed in a fine champagne light.  Seeing it from out the water, you’d never imagine the nightmarish sprawl of overdevelopment and traffic-clogged highways that existed just over those hills.

It had been hot and sultry all day, and as the afternoon wore on a heavy waxy violet cast came over the sky.  Up ahead, to the north, massive cumulus clouds billowed in the heat, reaching incredible heights.  As the long afternoon declined into evening, and the sun dipped into the sea, the tops of these mountainous clouds caught the dying rays and glowed creamy gold and pink, while their lower reaches were a deep smudgy indigo.

There was plenty of weather in those clouds and we were steaming straight for it. By the time the lights of Trieste could be seen twinkling in the distance, the sky behind it was pulsing with lightning. The constant flickering, and the scratchy way it lit the heights behind the city made me think of newsreel footage of old artillery battles.

By now, too, the ferry was nearly empty.  Only a couple passengers besides myself were travelling all the way through to Trieste.  The rows of vacant seats, the reflections of the harbour lights, and the night sounds carrying across the water, made it feel much later than it was.

I wheeled my bicycle down the ramp, said good night to the steward who was puttering about the deck, tidying up, and then set off along the darkened wharf, towards the lights and purling traffic on the boulevard that ran along the waterfront.  It wasn’t raining, but it had done so recently; the night-lit pavement glistened and the air had the fusty aftertaste of rain, and held the promise of more to come.  Lightning was flickering almost constantly over the hills now, and from here you could hear the low growl of thunder mingling with the restless murmurs of the city.

I wished I had somewhere to go.

A couple of grandiloquent hotels along the seafront suggested themselves.  I marked them in my mind as I strolled past, hoping that I might find something a trifle easier on the budget, but prepared to turn back and sound them out if something didn’t turn up soon.  Something did.  A couple blocks’ walk brought me to the doors of a tourist bureau.  Surprisingly enough, at that desolate hour on a Saturday night, it was still open. There was nobody about, just the girl who worked there, standing in the lighted spill of the doorway, smoking a closing-time cigarette as she watched the lightning flicker overhead.

If she was put out at having a last-minute straggler front up and break the spell, she didn’t show it, but obligingly led me inside and went to work.  She put through a couple of calls and found me a room in private house a few blocks away.  A bed for the night would be about ten pounds.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

Feeling on a roll, I mentioned that I wanted to take a ferry south as soon as possible – Greece or Albania, I didn’t care which, so long as it got me around the holiday hordes in Istria and the Dalmatian Coast.

Once more I came up trumps.  A ship for Igoumenitsa would be sailing tomorrow afternoon, she said, plucking a shipping schedule out of a rack of brochures and handing it to me.  As I cast my eyes over the fares I saw in amongst the fine print the very words I’d hoped to see: the ones about bicycles being welcome on board, and better still, carried for free.

She couldn’t book the passage for me, she explained; that was something I’d have to do myself in the morning at the shipping agency office just down the road.  She handed me a folding tourist map of Trieste, labelled in English, and sent me on my way.

I found the address on the card easily enough.  It was one of a long row of ornate old Habsburg piles, about six stories high, that had long ago gone to seed but in a genteel sort of way.  I scanned the row of buzzers in the entry way, pushed the one that matched the apartment number on my piece of paper, the waited for my landlady to bustle down several flights of stairs to admit me.

She showed me where I could park my bicycle – underneath the stairwell, beside her Vespa – and then we began the long climb up to where my room was.

As we mounted the steps she explained, apologetically and in fractured English, that something had gone ‘wrong’ with the room she had been going to give me, and that instead she would make up a bed for me in the old kitchen on the uppermost floor; she was sorry but it was the best she could do at such short notice; I could take a look and if it was acceptable, the charge would be only half the rate she’d quoted the girl at the tourist office.

I put on my concerned but understanding face, brow furrowed, lips pursed.  The truth was, this late on a Saturday night, I didn’t care where I slept, as long as it was safe, reasonably clean and out of the storm.  Which this was: a fold-out cot in the middle of a cramped Fifties-vintage Italian kitchen, with the old classic black-and-white chequered tile floor, Formica table, a pair of rickety chairs and an ancient gas stove.

The open window looked out over a narrow courtyard, six stories deep, that was full of family sounds, laughing, scolding, and the garlic-and-onion smells of dinners frying, and the cyan glow of TV sets flickering through the net curtains of the windows opposite and below.

The woman pointed out where the bathroom was, bade me good night, and retired down the stairs.  I took a long, steamy shower and afterwards sprawled on the springy cot and listened to the rainy thundery night,  scarcely able to believe how sweetly everything had played out.  And all it cost me was five quid.  A happy birthday indeed.

 

Road Town Saturday Night

Road Town Saturday Night-2I find that I am missing my low-light, nighttime photography nearly as much as my cycling and so I took myself down to Road Town after hours, down to the bright coloured shacks along the harbour front where throbbing reggae music filled the air and where Baz’s smoothie shack was doing brisk trade blending up rum-laced fruit smoothies. Hard to imagine that a week from today I will be back in England, pedalling along the dead-quiet Bexhill seafront by the light of a waning moon.

Zeiss Glass

Zeiss GlassAgain I must apologise for my neglect these past few days. Between the rather sporadic internet connections here and the long days I have been putting in chasing things down for the project my brother and I are working on I have not had much opportunity for posting. And as for actually riding a bicycle – well, I am just going to have to hope that the adage is true about never forgetting how to ride a bike. It has been a while – forty two days and some hours, but who’s counting?  Much as I am enjoying the Caribbean I am very much looking forward to getting back in the saddle again, which should be next weekend as my time in the islands is drawing to a close.Zeiss Glass

One thing I have been doing much of here is photography. In the past five weeks I have gathered together a nice portfolio of images from around the British Virgin Islands and Dominica, I have also fallen in love, big time, with Zeiss lenses – specifically the 35mm f/2 lens that pretty much lives on my Canon 5D3 these days. I not only love the focal length, but the sharpness and colour rendition of Zeiss glass just blows me away. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is a shot I took of a crab hiding in a conch shell that my brother and I found on the beach at Marina Cay the other day – together with a much zoomed in on and cropped close up or an eerie eye peering at us. And for those who might be wondering about manual focus with a Canon 5D3, it is a doddle with the camera’s highly accurate focus assist. A lovely combination of camera and glass.

Introducing The Big Wide Yonder

In the cockpit of a BVI Airways turboprop flying at 17,000 feet over Guadeloupe - image from award-winning photojournalist Roff Smith's new website The Big Wide YonderIntroducing The Big Wide Yonder. For the past few weeks I have been beavering away working on a website to showcase my writing and photography beyond the cycling sphere, and to advertise myself a little. With this in mind I have been stocking it with various favourite magazine stories I have written as well as galleries of photos that I have taken and particularly like. I plan to expand it’s contents considerably in the coming weeks and months, and to post a (captioned) image of the day by way of a blogging element. I am calling this new website of mine The Big Wide Yonder and if you would care to take a look at it, you can find it here.  I hope you will find some things in there you like. I will of course be continuing My Bicycle and I – and with more gusto than ever once I finally get back in the saddle again! For now though I give you The Big Wide Yonder.

Chapter 19 – Round and Round in Pula

Pola IMorning dawned bright and hot over the Istrian Riviera.  I rose early and pedalled into town in the drowsy quiet, hoping that this would be all the pedalling I’d have to do that day.  I found my way down to the waterfront and sure enough, there amongst the water taxis, sightseeing boats and fishing charters, were notices mentioning a daily ferry service up the coast to Trieste, and not far away a travel agency-shipping office where you could buy tickets, and a local tourist bureau where I might obtain information and timetables about ferries to Greece.

Both were closed.  It was far too early in the morning.  Hardly anybody was up and about yet.  I took a turn around the town, while the streets were still quiet, and had a look at the coliseum, said to be the sixth largest in the ancient Roman Empire, and in better shape than the one in Rome itself.  I found myself a shady spot close by, and idled away the next couple of hours while Pula stretched and yawned and roused itself to life.  And when it did, I rode back into town and called in first at the tourist bureau.

The girl behind the counter there knew nothing about the ferries out of Trieste, but she did say that the one from here left at midday and took its sweet time going up the coast, calling in at just about every little seaport and fishing village along the way and not arriving in Trieste until nine o’clock in the evening.  Given that sort of timing it would be unlikely I could hop straight onto another ferry that night.

On the bright side, she said, the scenery was beautiful, bicycles were carried free of charge, and it was a lovely day to be on the water.  I couldn’t have agreed more.  And so it was with a jaunty step and an air of expectancy that I shimmered around to the shipping company office, my pocket brimming with Croatian crowns, all set to buy my ticket to happiness.

A little bell chirped when I pushed open the door.  The ferry agent, a slender, dark and urbane looking fellow, and dressed in the shiny sort of suit a used car dealer might wear, glanced up, then rose from his desk and welcomed me as though we were old friends about to catch up over lunch.  I was to get to know that smile rather well as the day progressed, and come to loathe it, but for the moment I thought it augured well.

I gave him my own cheery top-‘o-the-morning and after ascertaining that he spoke English – and rather well at that – I explained that I’d pedalled down from Trieste the previous afternoon with grand plans of cycling through the islands and on down along the Dalmatian coast, but instead found myself overwhelmed by the crowds and hostile holiday traffic.  Now all I wanted was to get back to Trieste.

He flashed me a sympathetic smile and said of course, the traffic on the roads in August was terrible, then adding as he reached for his ticket book:  “But I’m afraid that while you can go, your bicycle will have to remain here.  We do not allow bicycles on the ferry.”

I paused, hand on wallet, my bonhomie melting away.  “What do you mean you don’t allow bicycles on the ferry?” I said, rather sharply, although in truth there had been little ambiguity in his statement.

“No bicycles.  It’s company policy.”

“But they told me at the tourist office just now that you carried bicycles on the ferry all the time.  For free.”

His sad, head-shaking shrug was eloquent of a man weary of the gormlessness of those around him.  “Ah well, can’t help what they tell you there.  But I’m afraid we don’t carry bicycles.  No bicycles on the ferry.  Company policy.  It’s out of my hands.” And he held up his empty hands to demonstrate.

“Perhaps it was another ferry operator they were thinking of.”

He flashed that winning smile again, and shook his head.  “We’re the only ferry company in town.”

“Uh-huh.  I see.  Okay, well, how about if I purchased a ticket for it?” I suggested, in my best man-of-the-world way, wanting to cut to the chase and reading in his offhand demeanour a suggestion that perhaps money might grease the wheels.

But the dapper gent was immune from such vulgar temptation.  “Oh, no, no, no.  I’m afraid that’s quite out of the question.  It’s not a matter of buying a ticket.  You see, our ferries are… how do you say?… luxury.  For passengers only, not cargo.  We can’t have motorcycles and things cluttering up on the deck.”

“I’ve a bicycle, not a motorcycle.”

“Is same thing.”

“Is not.”

We batted this concept around for a while, our conversation polite and unhurried.  My man held firm on Trieste, but being a helpful sort countered with an offer to sell me passage on the weekly ferry to Venice, which would depart in three days’ time.  That one, he explained, carried automobiles and other such sundry unpleasant cargoes, and not being ‘luxury’ could sustain the degradation of transporting a bicycle.  “It is perhaps this ferry they are thinking of at the tourist office,” he said brightly.

I considered this possibility, as well as the possibility of my altering course and going to Venice instead.  It could see it up there on the wall map, about a hundred miles in a sweeping westward arc along the coast from Trieste, precisely the wrong direction for anyone aspiring to Istanbul.  It might be that I could get a ferry from there to Greece, but Lord, what an expensive way to do it.  Three days here, then maybe day or two in Venice, in high season, waiting for the next ferry would take an unconscionable bite out of my fast dwindling road stake, and that’s assuming I could find and afford a place to stay in Venice.  With no advance bookings and being of limited means, Venice in the first week of August holidays seemed a grand place to steer clear of.

“I do not want to go to Venice.  I want to go to Trieste.”

“Ah, well, as I say, you can go, of course, but your bicycle must stay here – those are the rules.”

He didn’t close the conversation, but half-sat on the corner of his desk, hands clasped, wearing his helpful face. Evidently he had nothing better to do that day.  Neither, unfortunately did I.  I cajoled, entreated, beseeched, appealed to his sense of humour, his livelier better nature, his humanity and the inherent decency of helping out a fellow being, in all likelihood an angel in disguise.

It was good stuff.  I felt a lump gathering in my throat even as I spoke, but it was all for nought.  He remained unmoved, cheerfully, gloriously, exuberantly unmoved – and wonderfully loquacious, agreeing wholeheartedly that the roads were extremely dangerous this time of year, a disgrace really; bad enough in a car, suicide on a bicycle.  And yes, traffic would be at least as bad on the islands, maybe even worse since they had fewer roads – not that I could have gone out there anyway, since it was his ferry company that operated the route as well and sadly, as I now knew, their ‘luxury’ passenger-only craft could not accommodate heavy duty machinery like bicycles.

No, the thing for me to do was to wait three days and then catch the ferry to Venice.  That, he could do for me.  “It’s not a very nice ferry, you see, so we can put bicycles on that one,” he explained, before adding, as an afterthought: “But Venice itself is very nice, of course.”

“I’m sure it is. But I do not want to go to Venice – it’s in the wrong direction, for one thing.  I’m trying to get to Istanbul.”

“Ah well, my friend,” he said sadly, shaking his head at my foolishness and intransigence.  “Then I am very sorry but there is nothing more I can do for you.  Perhaps you could try the train.  They might take bicycles; I don’t know.  If they don’t, come back and we’ll get you a ticket to Venice.”

I said I’d think about it, then spilled back out into the broad morning sunshine.  It no longer seemed like such a nice day.

 

I’d known, of course, that Pula was on the railway line; I’d seen signs for the station on my way into town yesterday afternoon and had already toyed with – and dismissed – the idea of taking the train back to Trieste.

I’d done so on philosophic grounds.  This was a cycling journey, born of an old boyhood fantasy of hopping on my bike one day and riding down the street, free, clear and beholden to no one, off to see the world.  To hop a train along the way and promote myself a few stops down the line not only wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of the thing, but it broke that lovely line of continuity of having cycled from home.  Yes, of course, I’d had to take the boat across the English Channel, but that was different, a geographical and physical necessity.  You can’t cycle across water, any more than you can walk over it, making ships and boats and dugout canoes a legitimate part of many a great ‘overland’ journey, and an aesthetically satisfying part as well.  There is something romantic and adventurous about wheeling your bicycle up the gangplank of a ship that fits in well with the ethos of the thing.

Catching a train, however, buying distance over the counter, just seems shabby. Now though, having been rebuffed by sea, and facing the prospect of a potentially lethal horror run up that coastal highway, I found myself deconstructing my attitude towards rail travel with the sophistry of a Talmudic scholar.  What we were talking about here, I reasoned, wasn’t so much an abridgment of my journey but putting to right a terrible wrong, an error of judgement, avoiding needless repetition and risk to life, limb, safety and sanity.  After all, I’d already ridden the blasted sixty miles down here, and not one of those miles, sad to say, was now going to count towards getting me to Istanbul.  I could, in fairness, consider this a side trip, and a fruitless one at that.

Such being the case, a correction by rail seemed wholly acceptable.

 

I’d reasoned all this out by the time I rolled up to the sleepy old Pula railway station a few minutes later.  The last great question was answered in the affirmative even as I drew up in front of the place: there up on the platform, where a train was making ready to depart, I saw a man scurry aboard with a ratty old mountain bike.  Bikes, no problem.

Relief glowed within me: I was out of here, liberated from that infernal highway.  I was going to get to live.  I didn’t care how long it was until the next train departed, not even if it staying here another night; I was going to be on it.  I dismounted and walked my bike into the airy coolness of the station and glanced at the departure board.  There were no direct trains to Trieste from here.  Pula was on a branch line, not an international one, but if I waited an hour or so I could catch a train that looked as though it would take me well up the coast, cutting off many a dangerous mile.  It wasn’t even lunchtime yet.  With luck I could be in Trieste by mid-afternoon, sooner than if I had taken that smarmy git’s ‘luxury’ ferry, possibly getting in there in time to grab a boat down to Greece that very evening if there was one running that night.

I approached the ticket window where a pouty but not unattractive red-hared girl who looked to be about nineteen sat reading a paperback. She glanced up with a bored expression.

“English?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “A little.”

“I’d like a ticket for the next train north, please, as close as I can get to Trieste …”

She peered over my shoulder, the better to see my tourer, then sniffed and made a dismissive gesture.  “No bicycle on train.”

“Huh?”  I blinked in astonishment.  “What do you mean no bicycles on train?  I just saw somebody hop aboard with one not two minutes ago.  The train that just left.”

“No bicycle on train.  You can’t take.”

“Come on, you’ve got to be kidding.”

She shrugged again, and made a face.  “You want ticket?”

“Yes, but I need to take my bike.”

She shook her head.  “Is not possible.”

“But I just saw someone get on a train with a bike.”

“You cannot go with bicycle.”  And then, thinking I’d grasp the idea better if she expressed it in German, the universal language for telling churls and fools that something is forbidden, she leaned across the counter and said, clearly and loudly, as though she were speaking to a none-too-bright child: “Nicht mit fahrad.”

I asked if I could speak to the stationmaster, but alas it seemed I was doing just that; my red-haired friend was apparently the one in charge that day, the only other visible railway employee being a burly platform guard who stood by and smirked, enjoying my discomfiture no end.

I persisted.  Our exchanges took the form of a litany.

“Look, I don’t understand.  I just saw somebody …”
“Nicht mit fahrad.”

“Can it travel as freight?  In the baggage car or something…?”

“Nicht mit fahrad.”

“Surely there is some way, I mean, I just saw …”
“Nicht mit fahrad.”

And so forth and so on.  No matter what I said, it earned me the same response, delivered in the same bored monotone.  Eventually though she lost patience – if patience is the word I am looking for – and banged the counter sharply with the palm of her hand for emphasis and snapped out “Nicht mit fahrad!”, her blue eyes blazing.  She glared at me extra hard for a moment, to drive home the point, twist the blade as it were, then settled back and resumed her book.   The interview was terminated.  I was dismissed.  Thereafter I could speak, but whatever I said elicited no response whatever.

I no longer existed.

 

I betook my diaphanous self back to town, spluttering under my breath as I rode.  It was far too late to make a healthy start towards Trieste.  The traffic on the highway would have been at boiling point by then.  I swung around to the harbour instead and found myself a shady bench to sit and sort my aces and eights.  The ferry to Trieste was out, and so too apparently was escaping by train. That left me with a choice of either wasting the next three days in that noisy, shabby overcrowded campground and catching the non-de-luxe ferry to Venice and hoping something would work out there, or taking the plunge and braving the highway back up the coast.

I plumped for the latter.  I’d do tomorrow what I should have done today: set out before dawn, as soon as it was light enough to see, then pedal as fast and far as I could in the quiet of the morn, before things got too crazy.  In thinking this over, and wondering how early a start I could make, illumination suddenly came to me.  Hadn’t I seen some early trains listed on the departure board in the railway station?  Quarter past six, as I recalled, an hour when Miss Night mit Fahrad would almost certainly be home in bed.

This was a provincial town.  Chances were the ticket window didn’t open until nine, with early-birds expected to buy their tickets from the conductor on the train.  I could always plead ignorance on the matter of bicycles, if their presence on the train was really that objectionable, which I doubted, and at any rate at that hour of the morning it was unlikely anybody was going to care very much.  Bingo.  I was out of here.  I swung back to the campground, reclaimed my old tent site and spent the rest of my day playing tourist, taking in the old Roman sites sights, poring over huge coliseum and the Gates of Hercules, and finished up with a nice splash around on the beach.

 

The Western Embassy

Nancy - the bar girl - playing the flirt at the Western Embassy

Nancy – the bar girl – playing the flirt at the Western Embassy

I am not really sure what the name of the place is, some call it the “Western Embassy” others refer to it as the “Seville Palace”, but by any name this little rum bar on a back road a few miles south of Road Town is quite a watering hole – friendly, engaging, boisterous, the sort of place, like a tropical version of Cheers, where everybody knows your name. It is run by three girls from the Dominican Republic who love to play the outrageously provocative and flirty Spanish senoritas, but only playfully, without there ever being anything seedy or sleazy about it. This is a genuinely nice place – but also very much a man’s bar, where you come to get your stiff pour of Brugal – a potent Dominican rum, which the locals joke is the perfect drink for anyone seeking the Three F’s: fighting, forgetting or, well, this is a G-rated blog so I’ll leave the third F to your imagination.

The Western Embassy is well off the beaten track, and while there are a few American expats of long standing who know and frequent the place – and are always made welcome – it is very much a local institution. I was introduced to the place the other day and have had a couple of good evenings up there since then – therapeutically of course, taking the cure for my poorly shoulder.

Here’s a few images:

Spanish Bar-3

 

Spanish Bar-5

 

Spanish Bar-2

 

Spanish Bar-6

 

Spanish Bar-8

 

Spanish Bar-9

 

Spanish Bar-11

In Dominica

Abandoned coconut plantation, Dominica

Abandoned coconut plantation, Dominica

They say that is Christopher Columbus came back today he would probably recognize much of the coast of Dominica, an island in the Lesser Antilles that he ‘discovered’ back in 1493. It is still much the same steep, jungle-clad volcanic island that it was back then – wild and unspoiled enough for the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean to want to use it as a location for some of the beach scenes in the movie.

Dominica is where I have been these past few silent days for my blog (and my apologies for this truly unavoidable neglect). It is a lush beautiful and very friendly place where it is easy to lose yourself, although I am not sure, as a cyclist, whether I would ever care to live there. It is no place for road bikes, and certainly no place your big chain ring would ever see much use. The roads are hideously steep and rough, but the views from the precipices and switchbacks are unforgettable, and the landscape is alive with all sorts of vivid greens, touched up here and there with dashes of bright reds and yellows.

The other morning though I was walking along one of the black sand beaches that was used as a location in Pirates of the Caribbean – in part because there are no houses in view anywhere along this stretch of coast. What there is, though, is the remains of a abandoned coconut plantation, its palms having long-ago gone wild. There was something about this glorious tropical disarray that appealed to me as I walked through the overgrown plantation, and so I decided to try to capture its mood and feel in the style of one of those 18th century etchings. I hope you like it.