The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Now that Yugoslavia has turned into twenty-eight different countries, Customs and Immigration is easy. It wasn’t when it was still just one country.
There were lots of fellow Australasians at the camp, and we spent most evenings standing around the fire drinking beer and telling lies. Because we’d taken the bike off to be serviced, we had to use public transport for getting around. This consisted mostly of buses like enormous green tin sheds on wheels, which are free.
Well, they do have a ticket machine, but the only people who seemed to use it were the nuns. Nobody ever appeared to check for tickets. We visited the Colosseum and the Capitoline Hill, which was inhabited by a great tribe of tough looking cats. They are protected by law, it seems, and fed by the inevitable little old ladies. The catacombs were closed, allegedly for renovation. Renovating the sewers, how nice.
For us, the highlight was the Vatican Museum. Not so much for the Sistine Chapel, which looks and feels like an ecclesiastical railway station with a nice ceiling, but for the superb ethnological section.
With the bike back on the road, though not greatly improved by Italian servicing, we took in the more remote spots like the Villa d’Este, with its hundreds of fountains, and Hadrian’s villa. One night, the Goodyear blimp put on a brilliant lightshow over the city. While we sat on a park bench craning our necks, moving coloured pictures flitted across the sky – we were entranced.
Before departing for Umbria we bought some new clothes, which was a real luxury after living in the same very limited range of clothing for so long. Our first stop was Assisi, with its houses of honey-coloured stone stacked one on top of the other on the hillside and a quiet campsite overlooking it all. The tomb of St Francis, deep in the rock, was very impressive. We had some pleasant sunshine, but it was still cold in the shade – as I discovered when I washed my one and only jacket.
It was wet and windy again on the road to Florence and we were forced to fortify ourselves frequently with coffee and cakes. Having arrived, we decided to cop out for once and stay in a pension. We were sick of the rain and wanted to feel warm, clean and human for a change.
Punishment came, of course – someone broke into the bike’s top box and stole the only thing in it, our airbed pump. I had locked the steering, put the alarm and the massive Abus lock on as well as covering the bike with the Vetter cover, but all to no avail. I guess we didn’t do too badly, all things considered. The pump was the only thing stolen on the entire trip.
Our pension was comfortable, with en-suite bathroom featuring a working hot shower and central heating. A little time was spent outside – we looked at the Ponte Vecchio, wandered the streets drooling at the shop windows and toured the Uffizi gallery. I become very easily overloaded when confronted with too much art in one stroke, and emerged shell shocked. Annie coped much better.
Then it was back out into the rain and off to the mountains and the snow, but the road over to the east coast had been freshly cleared; it was empty of traffic and fun on the bike. We rode up the mountain to San Marino with the big motor enjoying the work. Hills were never a problem for the Yamaha and I very rarely even had to change down.
San Marino was a real, genuine tourist trap of the first order; a gem of a rip-off. The only good value was booze, so we stocked up. It was cold, too, and we huddled in our sleeping bag waiting for the morning, which brought a dullish run to Venice, where we installed ourselves in the Treviso campsite across the lagoon.
Venice repays the effort made to get away from the main tourist haunts; there’s a wealth of interest in the back streets and alleys, and coffee is cheaper, too. Perhaps the place is a little too devoted to chasing the lire, but it’s nonetheless interesting for all that. All the dogs wear muzzles, by the way, although some of them have their pacifiers just slung casually around their necks without interfering with the use of the teeth at all. Very Italian.
I felt inspired that night – perhaps Venice had kindled a fire in my soul – and excelled myself at dinner, even if I do say so myself. With only two pots and one flame I produced hamburgers, mashed potatoes with onions and mushrooms in white sauce. Didn’t taste too bad either…
Italy had seemed tame to us after the rigors of North Africa, so we were rather looking forward to Yugoslavia. We didn’t have long to wait before things got rigorous again. At the border, the official took one look at our pretty blue Australian passports, went into a huddle with his pals and then disappeared indoors.
Here he got on the telephone, looking worried and leaving us sitting in the drizzle without an explanation. All I could think of was that there had been some reports of terrorist training camps for an anti-government right-wing organization called Ustashi in Australia. Perhaps the border police thought we were Ustashi shock troops, on a Yamaha. Eventually they decided to take a chance that we wouldn’t blow up any bridges and let us in.
On to Zagreb with a will, through pretty, agricultural country with the first flush of spring on it and the last clouds of winter above it, but one of Zagreb’s alleged campsites had disappeared. The other was closed, and so were most of the cheap hotels.
We checked into a reasonably comfortable place near the railway station and went out to do the town, but the grim weather made that a rather uncomfortable pursuit, so we retired early and wrote letters.
We had intended to devote a day to the famous Plitvice lakes south of Zagreb. The rain became heavier and colder as we rode out of town, and the bike began to run rough and lose power. I pulled into a petrol station in Slunj – what a name for a town to get stuck with, although it is very pretty – and took parts of the fairing off.
The problem wasn’t difficult to trace. One of the plug leads had come undone and been casually pushed back, which I can only presume had happened during the service in Rome. It was soon fixed and gave no more trouble, which is more than I can say for the Yugoslav weather.
When we got to the lakes the rain turned to sleet, so we decided to get the hell out of there and down to the coast. Then, naturally, I got lost. The bloke behind the counter of a hardware/booze shop gave us directions. It seemed like an odd range of stock for a shop, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
“I’ll take a hammer and a box of tacks. Oh, and give me a flask of brandy. Two.”
Back on the main road I overtook a truck without realising that there was a dip in the road ahead; the dip, of course, held a car coming the other way. The big Yamaha dived off the side of the road into the accommodating snowy ditch quite gracefully, I thought. Annie’s opinion was otherwise. The bloke in the car just shook his head.
We recovered with a terrific meal of roast pork and chips in a cafeteria above the bus station in Otocac and washed it down with a brandy (possibly sourced from the local hardware shop) before tackling the godforsaken plateau above Senj. It snowed again on the pass, but then we were through the weather and rolling down the twisting, lightly oiled and diesel soaked mountain road to the sea and sunshine.
We found a sweet little campsite on the water and it was actually warm enough to eat dinner outside the tent, although not quite warm enough for a dip. The rain came back the next day as we rolled into Dubrovnik and we couldn’t resist the offer of a pension with a garage.
A German couple touring on an elderly BMW R60 joined us and we spent most of the evening telling stories over a few drinks. A lot of Germans seem to speak English, which is handy. A few days in Dubrovnik were a real pleasure.
We did all the usual things – walks through the medieval city, around the walls and out to the fortress, as well as familiarising ourselves with Yugoslav cooking. There was a small bar tucked away in an alley down by the harbour that specialised in burek, the cheese or meat pastry. They also had cevapcici and rasnici (grilled meats) which I knew from Australia and we spent almost every evening there having a few beers with dinner.
This is all sounding pretty good, isn’t it? But the gods of the road had noticed that we were having it easy…
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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