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Chapter 22 – To the Plains of Thessaly

bigPaestumI’d been pedalling across Europe for some weeks now, travelled about fifteen hundred miles through nine countries and in that time seen what I considered to be my fair share of hills, from that puffy little rise on the way to Parenty my first day on the road, to those tortuous grinds in the Ardennes to that endless upward crawl to Zuflucht in the rain that day in the Black Forest to the previous day’s long hot thirsty climbs through the scrub along the Greek-Albanian border, but it turned out that all these challenges had been merely the opening acts, the warm-up if you will, for the journey’s main event, the hors category monster that lay in wait on the road out of Ioannina.

I’d no idea, of course.  Everything I knew about Greek geography you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, and my cheap  and cheerful road map of Epirus hadn’t enlightened me much.  A squiggly line of road was all it showed and I assumed that to mean another day of moderately strenuous ups and downs, pretty much a reprise of the ride from Igoumenitsa and so I set off from Ioannina full of jaunty high spirits, blissfully ignorant of the Pindus mountains up ahead, sometimes known as the ‘spine of Greece’.

It was another fine day, hot and sunny and not a cloud in the sky.  I topped up my water supply at a grocery shop on the edge of town, bought and ate a fresh hot flat-loaf of olive bread from the baker’s for breakfast, and thus fortified began the climb up the long slow grade out of Ioannina, admiring the view over the lake as I went.  The first inkling I had that this was not going to be a day like yesterday came a few miles down the track, when I’d already been up and over one tougher-than-expected climb and was beginning the day’s second hard upward slog.

Another of these hospitable Greek motorists had slowed beside me to offer me a bottle of water, and while he was about it asked, in concerned tones, if I realised that the road ahead continued to climb like this for the next thirteen kilometres.  I hadn’t known that, but I shrugged and smiled as though it were all in a day’s work and thanked him for the gift of the water.  I tucked the bottle in my jersey pocket and waved him on, hoping that I’d misheard that bit about the thirteen kilometres; this gradient was damned steep.

In point of fact, I had misheard him.  He hadn’t said thirteen at all: he’d said thirty.  And at that, he was low-balling it.  It turned out to be nearer thirty-five kilometres of solid upward slog from where he spoke to me to the top of Katara Pass, the notch in the as-yet-unsighted mountain range into which I was heading.

On and on it went, that steep, narrow precipice road winding around one shoulder of the mountain after another, angling ever higher.  Every now and then I’d look up from my toils, hoping to see some sign that this grade was coming to an end, only to see instead the twinkle of a distant car moving upward across a seemingly inaccessible cliff face far away and far above and realise with sinking heart that there was at least that much further to go.  And when at long last you reached the point where that sparkle of car had disappeared from view, and rounded the next, you’d see another long serpentine rise up the mountain, and perhaps again the distant twinkle of a car much, much higher yet.

I’d lapsed into reverie and was musing over the ancient Greek legend of Sisyphus, how he had been condemned Zeus to keep pushing a huge rock up a hill for the rest of eternity, and wondering if this was the road that had inspired the story, when I noticed a sign up ahead for a turn off to a village called Metsovo.  The side road dipped invitingly.  I could see Metsovo’s red tile roofs down amongst the trees and imagined the cool shade in its village square.  Sisyphus mightn’t have been entitled to take a break, but I sure was.

Metsovo turned out to be as cool and shady and invitingly old-fashioned as I’d imagined, with little old Greek ladies in black dresses and scarves tending terraced herb plots beside their houses, and gruff old men in smoking in front of cafes.  I bought myself a couple bottles of water, some more peaches, a slab of local cheese and bread, propped myself up against the base of a tree, settled in with a book – and, well, before I knew it the afternoon sort of slipped away.

Looking up, around four or so, with the light sweetening and shadows lengthening around me, and contemplating the uphill slog I faced just to get back to the main road, I decided I’d make this a two-day hill, establish my advance camp here for the night and mount my final assault on the summit in the morning.

I woke to the tinkling of bells and the clatter of many little hooves as a shepherd drove his flock up the narrow stone passageway that ran just outside the window at the guest house where I’d put up for the night.  I rolled out of bed and peered out the window at the cool damp of a mountain morning. Time for Sisyphus to be up, shoulder his boulder and set off to his hill.  I filled up my water bottles, and pedalled back up to the main road.

A dense and clammy mist had enveloped the mountains during the night, reducing visibility to practically nil. There was no traffic at this hour, nothing stirring at all, just me and these cold, grasping fingers of mist and a few visible feet of bitumen which I followed upwards, curve after curve until at last a road sign materialised – Katara Pass, elevation 1690 metres.  I glided to a halt beside it, feeling like a conqueror.  I  broke out a chocolate bar to celebrate, and ate it in the ghostly stillness, the hush broken only by the tinkling of a goat’s bell somewhere out there in the mist.

It was cold up there once you’d stopped pedalling.  I shrugged into my fleece to keep from becoming chilled and in preparation for what I expected would be a brisk and breezy descent.  They’d told me back in Metsovo that it would be all downhill once I’d cleared the pass.  They weren’t kidding. I barely had to touch the pedals for the next thirty miles.

By any reckoning it was a spectacular stretch of road, plunging like a cataract down the mountainside in a series of fast tight S-bends.  As the mists lifted, and the road dropped, stomach-fluttering views opened up beside me of rocky gorges hundreds of feet deep and yawning precipices and crumbly curves where guard rails might profitably have been placed, but weren’t.

As I pumped my brakes and averted my eyes, I thought of Federico Bahamontes, winner of the 1959 Tour de France, and a man who, although he was a brilliant out-of-the-saddle climber was such a nervous descender that once, after handily beating the peloton to the top of the Galibier, he astonished spectators by pulling over and spending the next few minutes idling about the summit, licking an ice cream cone, and waiting for the others to catch up so he could descend the mountain in the psychological safety of the pack.  I knew just how he felt.  But I had neither ice cream nor company, just the swift silent pull of gravity to keep me warm and interested.

Thirty miles spun by in a blur, and as the landscape eased and relaxed around me, so did I – pedalling now and again to maintain my momentum, booming along out of the mountains and on to the broad sunlit Plains of Thessaly, the so called breadbasket of Greece, with nothing but farmland stretching before me now clear to the Aegean Sea.

I made brisk time. The roads down here were busy, but miles flew.  I’d clocked my century for the day, and more, by the time I reached the town of Larissa – birthplace of that famous heel, Achilles – but there was still plenty of daylight in the sky so after threading my way through its tangle of streets, I pressed on, my sights on Volos.

I got there just on dusk, with the lights twinkling on the hillsides above the town and the harbour shimmering a luminous violet-blue in the afterglow of the sunset.  I found a cheap hotel a couple of streets back from the waterfront and after stowing away the bike, treated myself to a slap-up dinner of fried calamari with all the fixings at a open-air place along the promenade, and waded into it with the gusto of a man who’d clocked a hundred and fifty miles on the day.  In the morning I’d trot down here to the harbour, first thing, and check out the ferry possibilities for island-hopping across the Aegean.

 

 

 

Volos, as I’d surmised from seeing it on the map, is a busy seaport and had quite a decent selection of ferry services out to the islands, most them scuttling back and forth to a nearby island group called the Sporades, but one that went all the way out to Mytilene on the far side of the Aegean and just off the Turkish coast.  That looked like the one for me.  Trouble was, it didn’t leave until two o’clock in the morning, giving me plenty of time to kill here in Volos.

I spent the forenoon browsing around the town and found a bookshop that had a gratifyingly decent stash of English-language paperbacks, quite a few second-hand.  My afternoon read-a-thon in the shade at Metsovo had left me low on reading material, and now with another long day of leisure stretching before me and nothing to do with it but idle in some café or other and improve my mind, I bought not just one book but three: a Penguin edition of The Odyssey; an old copy of Murder on The Orient Express, with a garish Seventies cover; and an equally shop-worn copy of my old boyhood favourite: Around the World in Eighty Days.

With these in my bar bag I coasted down to the waterfront, ordered myself a bottle of lemonade at a nicely shaded café, and settled in, choosing The Odyssey for my afternoon fare.  Time passed agreeably.  The seating was comfortable, the sea breeze soft and warm, and Homer turned out to be quite an entertaining storyteller.

I ordered calamari for lunch, and a succession of lemonades as the afternoon progressed to justify my continued occupation of a table, but the café was never more than about a third full and nobody seemed to care in the least whether I ordered anything or not; it was a pretty relaxed sort of a place.  Every now and then I put the book away, took a leisurely turn around the town, then drifted back again to this same old café, and usually to the same old wobbly table.

Afternoon segued into evening, a lamb dish for dinner, more Odysseus, more slowly sipped lemonades.  About ten o’clock a migratory urge came upon me and I drifted out to the ferry landing.  It was night-time dark by then, but the wharf was well-peopled, and well lit, everybody waiting on the ferry.  I found a comfortable bollard to sit and lean against, and sprawled out, watching the constellation of lights twinkle on the harbour and the hazy stars overhead.  I wasn’t feeling at all sleepy, nor even bored, and two o’clock in the morning rolled around more quickly than I’d have thought possible – and bringing with it the throb of an engine in the night and the navigation lights of an approaching ferry.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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Caribbean Colours

Violet dawn-1One of the things I love best about getting out on my bicycle bright and early every morning is seeing the sunrise. Seeing it gives me a sense of ownership of the day. Happily enough, even though I have been off my bicycle for a month now – both because of injury and because I do not have a bicycle here in Tortola – I have been able to get my daily dose of sunrises and evocative moon glow from the patio here with its hilltop view over the Sir Francis Drake Strait. No green flashes on the horizon lately but some lovely colours in the sky nonetheless. Here is a sample:

Cruise Ship-1

Sailboat-silver sea-4

Sunrise 9 March-4

Caribbean Moonlight - Lo-1

 

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Chapter 18 – Road to Trieste

Hotel labelsTwo nights later I was in Opicina, Italy, sprawled beside my bicycle at a scenic lookout on the Carso, the high limestone escarpment above Trieste.  The evening sun was low in the sky, the air sultry and scented with warm earth and pine, and the view lifted straight out of an old-style travel poster: picturesque Italian seaport, all antique browns and ochres, spreading below in perfect miniature and in the violet distance beyond it the great shimmering reach of the Adriatic, smooth as glass and burnished to a steely blue by the summer heat so that the cargo ships anchored a few miles offshore appeared to be hovering in the air.

And over there in the shade was the good old bicycle doughty that had brought me here, careened against a pine tree, jaunty, hopeful, its air of carefree abandonment touching a chord, calling to mind long-ago days skipping school and riding over to the lake.  Here though was escape on the grand scale.

The descent through Slovenia was a treat, a two hundred-mile cavalcade of old-fashioned Europe: vineyards, forests, castles, mediaeval villages and purplish mountains in the haze, and the whole of it brightened by a delightful evening spent in the village of Loce, about a hundred and forty miles back.

I’d rolled in late in the afternoon, the day after my adventures in the Hungarian woods, weary after eighty, maybe ninety miles in the saddle but nevertheless looking to press on and round out my century.  There was a fair bit of thunder in the air, though, and a hard look of rain in the hills up ahead and so I thought I might pull over in Loce for a spell, have a quiet drink and press on again into the evening after the storm passed.

I say a quiet drink, but the place was jumping that evening; they were holding some kind of farmer’s fete along the main street, with carnival rides and music, crowds and laughter and the air was fragrant with the smoke of sausage sizzles.  Something about the festooned lights and main street cheer, set against the purplish backdrop of the storm, made me think of an Edward Hopper painting.  I was just thinking this, assembling the elements in my mind, the juxtaposition of loneliness and cheer, when a man called out to me in English from one of the tables at an outdoor bistro a few feet away: “So how do you like Slovenia?”

He was a young guy, mid twenties for a guess, sturdy, blond, with an open friendly face, sitting at a table crowded with friends and strewn with bottles.  Startled out of my reverie, I said I liked Slovenia just fine.  It pleased him to hear it.  A broad smile flashed across his face. “We’re a brand new country and we’re loving every minute of it.  Why don’t you pull up a chair and have a beer with us?”

And so I did.  His name was Boris.  He was a policeman, originally from Loce, now living and working in the big city, Ljubljana.  He and one of his best mates, Isidore,  another policeman, also from Loce, had come home for a long weekend to visit friends and family and were having a grand time.  They were clearly a popular pair, judging by the number of waves and greetings from passers-by of all ages, many of whom stopped to chat, some pulling up chairs and dragging over extra tables and joining the party, or else filling the seats vacated by those who had migrated to other tables nearby and were now chatting sociably over there, for a kind of homecoming atmosphere seemed to settled over Loce, everybody catching up with everybody else.

Boris paid for the first round, but when I went to return the shout, he wouldn’t hear of it.  Neither would Isidore, nor anyone else at the table.   “This is Slovenia!” they cried, as another round was ordered.  Two or three beers later, feeling a little guilty and also aware of the passage of time, I managed to catch the waitress’s eye with a view to buying at least one round on the sly before taking my leave.  But this didn’t work either.  She brought the beers readily enough, but refused to take my money.  “Sorry, but Boris already told me not to,” she laughed, as she placed a few empties on a tray.  “And I do what he says!”

“Irena’s my girlfriend,” Boris explained brightly, clearly pleased that my ruse had failed.  “This is on us.”

“Please.  I’d like to buy at least one round before I go.”

He blinked astonishment.  “You’re not thinking of going?”

“I’m afraid I really ought to …”

“Oh, no, no, no.  We can’t have that.  As a policemen I can see that you are far too drunk to be allowed on the roads.  Don’t you think so, Isidore?”

“Oh, yes.  Far too drunk,” he agreed.

“It is all settled.  Irena and I have already talked it over and decided that you are staying with us tonight, at her mother’s house.  There’s a spare bed. That’s what she and I were talking about a few minutes ago, except of course you don’t understand Slovenian!”

And so began my night in the custody of the Slovenian police.  More beers were called for, Lasko as well as Union, to make sure I was fully au fait with the beer rivalry in Slovenia, Lasko being more the rural and working class brew, with Union favoured in the cities.  A bottle of local red appeared from somewhere, and a plate of Slovenian sausages – the local patriots not wanting me to miss a thing – and thereafter the evening dissolved in a breezy and slightly surreal camaraderie that flowed on far into the evening before winding up in the homey spare bedroom at Irena’s mother’s place just around the corner, and then resuming the following morning over a ‘Boris special’ omelette and cups of hot rich Turkish coffee – acts of kindness and generosity that sped me on my way and move me still.

 

As with the Wachau Valley and Austrian reaches of the Danube, the storybook beauty of the Slovenian countryside drew me on and inspired another of those gloriously long cinematic days in the saddle, following the Sava River down through the forest to Ljubljana and then climbing through the hilly karst landscape southwest of there into the Dinaric Alps, along the ancient amber trade route, up and over a famous old pass known as the Postojna Gate.

Nearly a hundred and fifty hard and hilly miles passed beneath my wheels that day.  I was knackered by the time I wobbled up to the edge of the escarpment in Opicina, with the afternoon having faded well into evening.  But here was the payoff: watching that smouldering ball of sun sinking into the Adriatic and knowing I’d made it.  This time tomorrow I’d be somewhere in Croatia, down amongst those vague bluish-violet hills I could see stretching away down the coast.

 

I pitched my tarp that night at a little Mom & Pop campground a stone’s throw from the view point, and early the next morning joined the eager rush of humanity down the escarpment and into Trieste.  It was a helluva ride, more like a roller coaster plunge than a road.  At twenty-two percent, it was steeper than the Cresta Run, the notorious bobsled course at St Moritz.  Except there, at least, you’d have had the course to yourself.  Here you shared it with lots of fast and erratic company: morning commuters, trucks, delivery vans, motor-scooters, all of them hell-bent to get to the bottom first, taking the hairpins high and wide and with suicidal élan, horns tooting, tyres screeching, and with the occasional slam of brake lights to test your reflexes.

I found myself slip-streaming a cherry-red Vespa at about forty-five miles an hour, my fingers gripping the brake levers with the rigid intensity of a strangler as we swerved in unison through the traffic.

It was a day for it, though. The air was warm working on hot, the sun bright and sparkling cheerfully on the Vespas’s chrome work, and I have an idea that the descent itself was pretty.  Fleeting, corner-of-the-eye impressions came to me of the hazy blue Adriatic shimmering between the pines, glimpses of Trieste’s sprawl of domes and spires and rooftops, and then, lower down the escarpment, near the bottom, a blurry sense of rushing along narrow Italian streets, past crumbly old renaissance facades and green shutters and ornamental ironwork with shafts of strong sunlight bursting through in places, and violet shadows obscuring the doorways in others.

Then finally the run-out at the bottom, coasting along ever wider and grander boulevards, now and again pausing for traffic lights, until finally I found myself rolling along the harbour itself, at sea level, passing wharves and warehouses, shipping offices, and loads of travel agents with signs in their windows spruiking ferry passages to romantic sounding ports in Greece and Albania.

I reined in at one of those cheerful Italian sidewalk kiosks, the ones that are crammed with all manner of brightly wrapped candies, cigarettes, magazines, postcards, newspapers, notions and whatnot, and after a bit of thoughtful browsing bought a packet of chocolate wafer biscuits and a tourist map of the Istrian Riviera.  I found a bench along the waterfront, parked myself in the sunshine there, opened map and biscuits and began to formulate some plans.

There were two ways I could ride south from Trieste: take the main highway to Rovinj and then follow its bold red line down the coast to Split and Dubrovnik and points south; or mosey down the Istrian peninsula, sixty miles along a curvy coastal road to an ancient Roman town called Pula, at the tip.  From there you could hop a ferry out to a long skinny island called Losinj, from which more dotted lines sprang, more ferry routes to other islands further south along the coast.  It was impossible to tell from just this little tourist map how far down I’d be able to island-hop like that, but every mile I didn’t have to ride along Croatia’s main coastal highway was all to the good according to some of the things I’d heard from Boris’s friends back in Loce.

One of them, who was both Croatian and a keen road cyclist, and who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, warned that it would be a nightmare of holiday traffic this time of year, with everyone heading for the beaches, aside from it’s being the main truck route.  I hadn’t considered the summer rush when I’d decided to abandon the Danube in favour of the coast, but it was too late now; I was here and had to make the best of things, and the best of things seemed to be the road down to Pula and island hopping from there.

Sixty miles seemed an easy ask on a fine summery day such as this, and even with all the hills that were implied by that squiggly road along the Istrian coast, and allowing for traffic, I was odds-on to raise Pula by mid-afternoon – perhaps even in time to catch a boat directly out to Losinj that very evening, depending on how often they ran the ferries and when.

At any rate, I’d be sitting pretty for the first one out the next morning.  And so with high hopes and great expectations I mounted up and joined the swim of August holiday traffic southbound out of the city, following a crescent of hot, hazy, brightly peopled beach towards the seaside tourist town of Muggia.

 

 

 

 

I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of the great vacation spots for the millions crowding America’s eastern seaboard and so I felt I knew a little something about holiday crowds and traffic; how often had I seen our very own Route 16 chock-a-block with flatlanders swarming up from out of state; Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labour Day, leaf peepers and skiers; I thought I’d seen it all.   God, I was naïve.

It was a madhouse down there: one long seething mass of traffic all the way down the coast from Muggia to Pula.  And if I used to think Massachusetts drivers were crazy, Connecticut drivers dangerously fast, and New Yorkers rude and impatient, it was only because being a country boy and all, I’d never seen how they do these things in glitzy glamorous Europe.

Civility, along with the highway code, was tossed out the window, together with an endless stream of cigarette butts, beer bottles, soiled nappies and snack wrappers, as tens of thousands of Italians, Austrians, Germans, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, you name it, roared down the highway in a mad, high-octane rush to their fun in the sun, all of them red-hot to beat the crowd and be the first to throw down their towels.

I lost count of the number of times I was forced off the road – and by that I don’t mean merely squeezed or intimidated into the sidelines, but actually clipped by the wing mirrors of speeding cars as they whipped past my elbow.  Or, if it wasn’t that, it was the maniacs coming up the other way, overtaking half a dozen cars in a suicide squeeze and heading straight for me, filling the lane, playing chicken at seventy-five miles an hour.

There was nowhere to go but the ditch. The highway lacked anything in the way of shoulders, its broken edges dropping straight down eighteen inches or so into the mud and weeds.   And once you were off it was the devil’s own job to get back on again.  There was no break in the traffic, just a steady whiz, whiz, whiz, whiz of cars hurtling by on their way to better places.  Nobody yielded an inch.  Why should they?  With a year of lost living to try to cram into a few frantic weeks, who was going to give a damn for some no-mark slow-poke cyclist?

I was a wreck by the time I lurched into Pula late that afternoon, grimy with sweat and a filmy residue of car exhaust, and nursing a skull-splitting headache from not enough water, and too much heat and ozone and carbon monoxide.  My neck and shoulders ached from the strain of wrestling traffic.  I’d long lost interest in the idea of catching an evening ferry out to Losinj; all I wanted now was to call an end to the day.  I spotted a sign for a tourist campground and rode around to a point of land south of town.

Like everywhere else along the manic coast, this place too was mobbed, a raucous sprawl of tents and campervans, screaming children, barking dogs, loud music, barbecue smells, litter, smoke and beer and sunburnt, unpleasant-to-see midriffs.  I scored the very last tent site in Pula, and wouldn’t have had that but for the fact that some poor sod – no doubt caught in traffic – hadn’t turned up in time to claim his pre-booked space.  I felt sorry for him, whoever he was, but not so sorry I didn’t grab his spot when it was offered.  The town of Pula was packed that night – hotels, resorts, holiday lets, youth hostels, campsites, the lot, all of them full to overflowing.

“You have no idea how lucky you are,” the girl behind the desk told me as she handed me a numbered tag and a mimeographed map of the campground, on which she had put a dot in yellow highlighter to indicate my site.  “To come down here like this without a reservation and get a site…”  She shook her head at the sheer folly of it all.

“I’m starting to get a picture,” I sighed and since I had her attention, and she spoke good English, I wondered aloud and with a forlorn sort of hopefulness in my voice, if things might perhaps be a little quieter, less crowded, once I got out on to islands, Losinj and points south.

“Are you kidding?” she scoffed.  “This is peak season.”

She filled me in.  Apparently things were only going to get worse.  Sure, I could island hop a short ways down the coast, but after that it would have to be the main highway.  ‘Suicidal’ was one of the adjectives she’d used in characterising any plan to cycle it this time of year; ‘stupid’ was another.  Based on the evidence so far, I was inclined to agree.

I slunk away to erect my tarp, gulp down an aspirin or three and sprawl in the shade for a quiet think – or at least as quiet a think as a body could manage amidst the competing radios, screaming children, crying babies, barking dogs and load brash beery laughter.

This wasn’t going to work. The thing to do, I decided, as the aspirin took soothing effect, was to write off this whole ghastly day, and indeed the whole idea of pedalling the Dalmatian Coast, and instead go back up to Trieste, call in at one of the steamship offices I’d noticed that morning along the waterfront and book passage on a ferry to Greece; skip this god-awful stretch altogether.  I hated to cry uncle, but as Sir Ernest Shackleton said of his decision to turn around ninety-seven miles short of the South Pole and miss out on his chance at being its conqueror: better a live donkey than a dead lion.

That still left me with the sixty miles between Pula and Trieste, and as I thought over how I might make lighter work of that, a sudden inspiration came to me: perhaps I wouldn’t have to ride back up that hellish highway after all.  What about those signs I’d seen for local coastal ferries from Trieste down to Muggia, that beachy town I’d passed on my way down here?  Perhaps there was a service to Pula too.  Certainly there was a ferry terminal here, at least for those ferries that went south to the islands. Why shouldn’t they run north to Trieste as well?  On that happy thought I drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

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The Green Flash

Green Flas II-1No, not a post about Mark Cavendish and the odds of his winning the green jersey in this year’s Tour de France but about the tantalising, elusive burst of green light that occasionally comes with sunrises or sunsets at sea – at the precise moment leading edge of the sun’s disc rises above the horizon in the morning, or the instant the last of it slips below the horizon at dusk. People who have never witnessed this phenomenon often dismiss it as a myth or optical illusion, but it exists. I have had the optics of it all explained to me by an atmospheric physicist, who described the warping of the first (or last) rays of the sun as they burst over the horizon so that the rays of green light are the only ones through the atmosphere – for just a brief microsecond.  It is most readily  observed  on the flat horizons at sea, particularly when the sky is clear and the atmosphere is still. There is even a violet flash, but this is rarer. I have only ever seen the violet flash once, while sailing through the Doldrums between West Africa and Brazil on a clear still morning when the sea was like glass.

I have seen the green flash, on the other hand, many times, as recently as this morning when I watched the sunrise from the hilltop house where I am staying.  It was beautiful and very, very transitory. It is never an easy thing to photograph. I had my camera trained on the spot where I knew the sun was about to rise and my reflexes (and the camera’s) were nearly quick enough to catch the green flash in its prime.  It was fading to yellow-green when the shutter closed. So here it is. I’ll do Mark Cavendish another time.

 

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Greetings (and advice) from the Caribbean

BWIA AirwaysApologies for my seeming neglect these past couple of days but between the packing and the making ready to travel to the Caribbean and the actual hours spent in the air in getting here I have been unable to devote much time to preparing a post. But now I am here in Tortola, all bright skies and bougainvillea, looking out to sea with a view of Virgin Gorda in the violet distance, and with the sails of a couple of yachts providing visual interest in the middle ground.

It all feels a world away from the cold and drear of February in East Sussex, as indeed it is. But as is often said of travelling, you invariably bring your own little problems with you; travelling merely provides you with a change of backdrop. In my case, one of those troubles I have carried with me is the messed up shoulder from my spill a couple of weeks ago. The damage turned out to have been a bit worse than I had initially thought and it appears I may be off the bike rather longer than I had expected.

One of the things I did (belatedly) just before hopping on the flight was to pay a visit to an osteopath, something I should have done some time ago – say, the day I wiped out. I am fortunate that I do have a very good osteopath in the neighbourhood. I should make better use of him although at thirty quid a visit I am rather (naturally, but in my case foolishly) reluctant to do so.

But then again I’ve always had this unshakeable belief in my own native resiliency and an optimism that everything, no matter how debilitating, will heal up in a day or two of its own accord. It is an outlook I dare say that I  share with a lot of males and one that goes a long way towards explaining why those of us of the Y-chromosome persuasion tend to have higher insurance premiums and lower life expectancies.

At any rate, my osteopath congratulated me on the very thorough job I did of inflicting a great deal of soft tissue damage to my right shoulder and suggested that my achy ribs are the result of multiple greenstick fractures and some additional cartilage damage as well. Six to eight weeks he tells me, and possibly longer before I am fully well again although I might be able to be back in the saddle before that if I take care of myself. He had wanted to see me again fairly soon for another session but since I had left my visit to the last moment that was not possible. A pity, since the manipulations he did on my shoulder worked minor but immediate wonders. Extra sessions might not have shortened the overall healing time but I feel certain they would have reduced the amount of discomfort by quite a bit. Alas. Another of life’s bitter lessons.

So now I sit in the sunshine doing my prescribed shoulder exercises and feeling inspired to spread the word among my fellow Y-chromosome-burdened cyclists that getting treatment from a good osteopath is a very good investment when you’ve gone base-over-apex on your bike, even if it isn’t covered on the NHS. On the cycling side of things I hear there is quite a road cycling fraternity here in the British Virgin Islands and my brother has put me in contact with the president of the local club. So although I might not be riding much in paradise myself these next few weeks, I can at least get a flavour of what it must be like and hopefully some nice images to post on the site.

 

 

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The Bridge of Dreams

BVI Airlines IAll this fine weather and not only am I off the bike but packing to go overseas as well, for a month this time, to the Caribbean. I am going to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

I am going there for work but this time it’ll be a different sort of work.  For once I will not at the beck and call of a magazine editor, or following any pre-ordained script. I will be working on a start-up project with my brother, who owns a small but profitable airline out there, based in Tortola and servicing Dominica, St Maarten and, as of next month, Antigua and Anguilla as well.  Over the next year he’ll be adding a few more islands to the network and as part of the expansion our families will be working together to build and launch a new website for the airline, as well as a Caribbean travel website and on-line magazine covering events and happenings on the islands, plus publishing on-line travel guides for Dominica and the BVI (for starters).

We have had some encouraging interest so far and hopefully we can make this a profitable venture, both in terms of promoting the airline and as a publishing project in its own right. At the very least, it ought to be interesting. Between the two of us, Luke and I, we cover a lot of ground – air, in his case. He has been a pilot for about 35 years, has logged something like 18,000 hours in all sorts of aircraft, from vintage flying boats to Boeing 777s.

Neither of us have exactly been company men, climbing corporate ladders and fitting into moulds.  While I have spent my career freelancing for various magazines, and seeing much of the world on somebody else’s nickel, he has crowded in a lot of interesting living in the skies – everything from doing flying scenes for Miami Vice to delivering relief supplies into Haiti after the earthquake to delivering Lake Amphibian seaplanes to the Iraqi Air Force back in the mid-80s. He is a lively raconteur and as for coverage of our chosen area, there is virtually nowhere in the Caribbean he hasn’t been. I’ve got a good handle on the writing game, know my way around a camera and Lightroom and have even written a hefty sized guidebook in the past – National Geographic’s travel guide to Australia. Hopefully we can combine our talents to make a worthwhile product. I believe we can.

I have written in an earlier post (here) about our cycling adventures back when we were kids in New Hampshire; riding our Schwinn ten-speeds over to the Bearcamp River to go fishing and chatting along the way about our dreams and plans for someday. He was always going to be a pilot; I was always going to trot the globe writing stories and taking pictures.

There was one afternoon in particular when we laid it all out as we sat beneath a bridge. Over the past few months, as we talked over our plans to launch this publishing/marketing project in the Caribbean, we have often referenced that afternoon under the ‘steel bridge’ as we used to call it – to distinguish it from the wooden bridges that characterised the backroads of Carroll County in those days. So many of the hopes and ambitions we laid out in the cool summer shade of that bridge have come to pass, not always in the way we might perhaps have expected, and not always with the results we might have hoped for, but enough to create a pleasant sense of retrospection and satisfaction.

We like to think that this forthcoming partnership of ours in the Caribbean will be a brotherly drawing together of these childhood dreams made under that bridge all those years ago. Time will tell, but for now it will be an interesting adventure.

 

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