The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Europe started somewhat inauspiciously, but then things picked up. Mostly. The Bear has now reached Greece, with the journey continuing on towards Italy in Part 14.
In Greece, as in Turkey, they write your bike into your passport so you can’t sell it and disrupt the local economy. If, on your way out, you can’t produce the bike, they don’t let you leave. With this in mind, and knowing that Charlie would be flying out to attend a genetics congress in Moscow, we asked Customs to write both bikes into my passport. As I would be looking after them until Charlie came back, that seemed reasonable.
Not to Customs it didn’t. First they were very suspicious of this trip to Moscow, which Charlie had unfortunately mentioned. Was he going off to get instructions from the Kremlin? Then they decided it was against the law to bring in more than one bike on one passport. Then the bank at the border wouldn’t sell us any petrol coupons. Bikes didn’t entitle us to them.
Our first impressions of Greece were sorted out over a lunch of calamari and retsina in Alexandropoulos, and we weren’t sure we liked it. After the third bottle of retsina we mellowed, and that night in Kavala we decided it wasn’t such a bad place. We spent the evening sitting at a sidewalk cafe, listening to a trio with two clarinetty things and a bass drum playing something that didn’t sound in the least like ‘Zorba’, and had a few beers. Then we dossed down in the vineyards and slept under the stars.
We couldn’t quite work out what was happening in Thessalonica. There were tents everywhere, in parks, squares, even in parking lots. A Boy Scout convention? No, it turned out that there had been an earthquake, and nobody was game to go back into their houses. No wonder.
Greek building codes are honoured far more in the breach than in the observance. We had one building pointed out to us that had begun with three stories, but now had six – one added on at a time, ad hoc.
Around this area bike cops abounded, mounted on machines as varied as Nortons, Moto Guzzis, BMWs and, of course, old Harley-Davidson Glides. The local bikers seemed to favour the mighty 50cc Kreidler Florett.
Time was running out—Charlie’s congress started the next week—so we found ourselves a campsite down on the Halkidiki peninsula and settled in.
I wrote to Annie, who was then supposed to be in Athens. Charlie went through all the Customs hassles that we had hoped to avoid, putting his bike into bond so that they would cross it out of his passport. The bond turned out to be an underground car-park. He even had to pay the parking fee when he came back.
Once alone, I settled into a happy routine involving eating, sleeping and visits to the taverna, with a bit of swimming thrown in. Annie arrived, looking edible in her Chicago Bears T-shirt, and we spent an idyllic week together.
She had to go back and start her Eurail pass then, and Charlie returned. He had his tent, which an obliging fellow scientist had brought all the way from Australia. He also had a box of genuine Havana cigars and a bottle of Russian vodka, with which we celebrated his return in style.
New tyres, East German semi-trials pattern, went onto the bikes and we moved to Thessalonica to get something done about the stripped threads in Charlie’s cylinder. He had spotted a shop advertising helicoiling. The mechanic took a look at the bike and nodded, sure, he could helicoil that.
Then he retapped it to a larger bolt size. What happened to the helicoiling, we asked. Helicoiling? Oh, helicoiling. They didn’t do that, any more. We went and had another beer. The bolts worked fine.
Yugoslavia looked great at first. Even the autoput, famous for its state of disrepair, was in pretty good nick. On the first night we hid away in a bit of forest, since free camping is not allowed in this country, and set up the tent. The rain started early in the morning, and it became obvious to me as we rode up into the dripping hillside forest before Prizren that my wet weather gear was due for retirement.
Just after Pec, the alleged main road turned into a gravel path, then a goat track and then it started crawling up and down an endless procession of ridges. It got colder, it got wetter, and I became more and more miserable. Charlie was at least dry! The bikes handled the ‘road’ quite well, but I’d hate to do that stretch on anything but a trail bike. I’d hate to do it again on a trail bike!
We stopped under an overhang to consider whether this could possibly be the main road. The driver of a battered locally-built Fiat that came along assured us that it was, giving us the left-fist-in-the air and right-hand-on-left-biceps salute to show us how tough he thought we were. I hope that’s what he meant, anyway. We headed back out into the cold rain.
A tiny pub saved us, high up on a ridge top. It provided brandy and hot bean soup, and it was warm. The scenery was chocolate-box pretty, and not much later the road improved as well. The last few miles to Titograd weren’t bad at all and we saw lots of other bikes, mainly touring BMWs with German plates. The Titograd campground had the loveliest lady at reception and hot showers. We camped under the damp trees and, feeling human after the shower, went over to the restaurant for some dinner.
Since there was a ‘music charge’ if you ate in the main restaurant, we settled for sitting with the help in the kitchen and listened to the strains of ‘Ramona’ and ‘Charmaine’ filtering through the door, for free.
The Kotor hill with its hairpins, rotten surface and steep drop impressed us greatly, as did the tour buses using it at breakneck speed. There was another cloudburst just after we left Kotor Bay and we arrived sodden in Dubrovnik. There was even water in our panniers, a most unusual occurrence.
We splurged on a pension to dry out. The pension made a good base for exploring the old walled city. We wandered around the steep stone paths, admired the medieval buildings and splurged once more, this time on a top-notch meal. Despite the heavy emphasis on tourism, Dubrovnik seemed a pleasant place to us. A pity that most of the tourists were so dull and conservatively dressed. The few Americans made a pleasant splash of colour with their bright T-shirts and Bermuda shorts.
We had clear sky and sun most of the way up the coast. The hills are quite stark here, dry and infertile and the limestone ranges look as though they’ve been hit with a gigantic mallet and shattered. This is an early example of the dangers of clear-felling.
The Romans cut down all the trees, around the time of Christ or before, and the country has never recovered. The goats which were introduced subsequently helped by eating anything green. Jagged rocks are everywhere, and we had trouble finding a flat place large enough to put up the tent. We finally settled on the concrete base of a building that had never been constructed.
Coming up to the Italian border, the temporary circlip Charlie had made in Turkey broke again. He had to use one of the spacers fitted to the bike to make another, which led to a great deal of play in the rear wheel. We jumped the two-mile queue at the border—motorbikes are invaluable for that – and got as far as Trieste.
No, signore, XLs are not imported into Italy. So there were no spares. What now? The bike was pretty well unridable in its present state, and eventually the rear wheel would of course fall off. Charlie, being an incurable optimist, decided we should make some spacers out of a spare inner tube. Being a decidedly curable optimist, I pointed out that Soichiro Honda would hardly make spacers out of steel if rubber would do the job just as well.
Unfortunately I was right. The bike ate the rubber spacers on the autostrada. We got the can opener out and made some more out of the tops of oil cans. Did you know that they use really thin metal for oil cans? We made dozens of infinitely thin oil can top spacers and hobbled along, periodically making more until the hopelessness of that solution finally sank in.
We camped in a layby near Vicenza and slept with our heads inches from the traffic roaring past. A bike shop came to our rescue in the morning; they turned a new, thick spacer and fitted a new circlip, and we had no more trouble. I was so grateful that I bought a set of rainproof overalls from them.
Cheered by all this success, we decided to get an idea of the real Italy by taking the back roads. After a number of suicide attempts under our wheels we returned to the autostrada at Verona. Italy was a bit too hectic.
Tolls weren’t expensive for bikes on the autostrada and we buzzed along in fine style, passing Milan’s enormous suburbs and turning up into the Alps. We forgot to use our last petrol coupons at the last station in Italy. Anyone have a use for a 10-litre Italian petrol coupon?
Next installment we do business with the Swiss and continue to a hero’s welcome at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Trip over? Oh, no.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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