The Road to Drac
It still works … and once again, the more people told me that I (we) was MAD, CRAZY and downright STUPID to attempt this ride because of my health bla bla bla, the more determined I became to DO IT!
As so often in the past, my fellow “mad man” Peter Löffler was the catalyst behind our “scheme” and seeing as I was going to be in Germany anyway, I decided that I simply HAD to join him and the result was, that I covered 21 countries and just under 10000 km in 3 and 14 days riding. Might I also take this opportunity to take my helmet off to Peter who, at the ripe young age of 75, is as hard core as it gets and if I consider how I felt after riding 700km in the 35deg-C heat on some days, I can only imagine how tired he must have been. Respect my friend!
As far as a bike was concerned, I went back to “my day 1” Harley Ride and (we) bought a 2016 Heritage Softail and truth be known, I thoroughly enjoyed the bike with its 103 Cui Motor, Cruise Control etc. although a bit more ground clearance would have been welcome at times.
The first (3 days) part of the trip took me from Munich to Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and back to Munich via Aachen, Hamburg and Berlin. On this leg of the journey, I crossed into Switzerland by ferry from Friedrichshafen, saw the ONLY waterfall on the Rhine at Schaffhausen and marvelled at the High Road and picture-perfect lakes and villages through the Black Forrest and The Pfalz. My companion for part of this trip was riding a “little” 600 cc, shaft drive BMW scooter and my advice to you is: “Do NOT mess with this spawn from hell” as it will make you look utterly stupid and even at 180km/h on the Autobahn, I was unable to catch this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
On 7.6.2017 I set off for Ljubljana – the capital of Slovenia.
Here I met up with Peter and the next day we teamed up with Eric Werne – a “ghabba” from Switzerland – and together we “hit” the road and literally whipped through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldovia, The Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and back to Germany.
Why? Because they are there – THAT’S why. But wait… there’s more … and besides the ride, I had 2 “mozzie bites” on my bucket list and THOSE needed scratching badly.
Riding on old pass roads like “The Brenner” is as good as it gets and as The Autobahns cater for 90% of mainstream traffic, you often have these spectacular roads pretty much to yourself and despite being very much secondary these days, they are largely in VERY good shape. From Innsbruck, I set out across the Alps and soon found myself in the Karawanken Mountains and The Wurzenpass (1073m) took me into Slovenia. Sadly, it was raining heavily so I couldn’t fully enjoy this pass, which is really narrow, twisty and most of the time you are riding in a “tunnel” of trees that block out the sky. During the Cold War, the Austrians built many fortifications on this pass and if you ever get there, take the time to visit The Bunker Museum. I would hate to have been on the receiving end of THAT arsenal.
In Ljubljana, we stayed Hotel Galaria situated in “the old town” and if one day you were to follow my tyre tracks, I recommend you find yourself accommodation in all the old parts of whatever cities you may visit as a) the hotels are damn good and reasonably priced and b) the sights, scenes, restaurants, bars and “flat out” action in these “old towns” are simply FAB – especially in summer when it starts cooling down and the people “come out to play”. Whether you’re in Beograd (Serbia), Podgorico (Montenegro), Thessaloniki (Greece) or Krakow (Poland) you are smack bang in the middle of the best these cities have to offer and in some cases, you are surrounded by history, buildings and traditions that go back to before Christ.
Sadly, the whole Balkan region has had more, than its fair share of “Sodom & Gonorrhoea” and over the centuries, EVERYBODY from Genghis Kahn to the Romans to “Schickelgruber” have been part of the mix and more recently the conflict in Bosnia / Serbia etc. has left these countries rather shaken AND stirred and in some places the ravages of war are still VERY evident.
In spite of this, there is some fabulous wealth around and the coastal ride along the Adriatic in Croatia down to Dubrovnik left us gob smacked at the natural beauty and the opulence of the properties along this stretch. Dubrovnik itself is a magical melting pot of all kinds of cultural influences including Italy, which lies just beyond the horizon on the other side of the sea and can be reached on any one of the “sky scraper” Ocean Liners that are docked along Dubrovnik’s wharfs.
Montenegro was a real eye opener and the short ride inland to the capital was equally stunning. As we had not booked anywhere in advance, we relied on late afternoon TRIVAGO log ins to find us a place to stay and as luck would have it, we found really “lekker” hotels, but uncannily most of the time the Garmin took us to the hotel(s) up the wrong way of a one-way street and on many occasions, we ended up riding through a pedestrian zone. As nobody really seemed to care and after all, we were dumb tourists, this didn’t cause us any major problems but in Podgorico we ended up in the middle of a national, pre-soccer game, melee – complete with riot police and a cavalry detachment that looked like it was about to charge.
Fearing for the overnight safety of the bikes we enquired about safe parking for them from the hotel reception and were promptly advised that the safest place to park was IN RECEPTION… who were we to argue!?
Road conditions, although generally good, range from SUPERB to ROUGH and (once again) The Ukraine did not disappoint and since I last rode there in 2008 not much has changed and the roads are still atrocious! Besides the potholes and 10 cm, high ridges in the road(s) The Garmin played yet another trick on us and we ended up on a cobblestoned, ROMAN road in a deep, dark forest and for all I know, Julius Caesar last whipped his horse drawn chariots through this part of the countryside. Whilst trying to figure out where to go, we were surprised by “Hansel & Gretel” who came wandering through the woods and much to our delight Hansel spoke English. After some deliberation, he literally begged us to turn around and go back as, having lived in the area all his life, he expressed serious doubt that we would ever be seen or heard of again should we carry on.
I didn’t need much convincing after that so we back tracked and eventually made Khmel’nyts’kyy that night. In case you are in any doubt about my mental health, THAT really IS how you spell the city’s name and I didn’t dare ask how you pronounce it. Now spell it in Cyrillic and you are in REAL trouble …!
In Thessaloniki, we visited a 2000-year-old church built by the first Christians in that part of the world and I suddenly remembered all about The Thessalonian Letters written by the Disciple Paul, which is mentioned in the New Testament. You SEE, I’m not a complete heathen after all. Anyway, talk about living history… The guys from the local HOG Free Chapter welcomed us with open arms and besides the early dinner that we had at around 17h00, the REAL feast only started at 22h00 and ended up way beyond our normal bed time and the Raki (Ouzo) and Meze Platters just kept coming.
In Kosovo, we hit The Durrës Autobahn Pass and God alone knows why they built this 4-lane high way through the mountains towards Albania as, for over 80 km or so, we saw almost NO other traffic in either direction so we “played with ourselves” at 170km/h plus and it was here that I suddenly remembered that when a Heritage STOPS wallowing in a high-speed corner you are in deep sh….
Border crossings are mostly “not a major” but a lot of countries that are not yet fully part of the Euro Zone still have their borders and when we crossed from The Ukraine into Poland, the waiting truck & car lane stretched out for 10s of KMS. Fortunately, we tagged onto a group of Polish Bikers who just breezed past the whole mess and as nobody seemed to mind, we jumped to the very front of the Q but even then, it took us a good 3 hours to get through. Whatever else you do at these borders, make sure your (and your bike’s) papers are in order, take off your helmet and sunglasses and just smile and act “the ass” as, getting smart with Mr Border Plod can easily add a day to your waiting time. Also, watch what the locals do and simply follow their example … All non-Euro currencies have, by the way, been dubbed “Mueslis” and the best way to ensure you don’t come home with piles of garbage money is to fill up your tank with whatever you have, just before you leave a country.
My bucket list items surprised me in close succession in the East of Romania and after giving a Bucharest a wide berth we headed towards the Carpathian Mountains. Initially, the industrial low lands did not make a great impression and the stop / go’s, traffic & road works were tiring, to say the least. Eventually, however, this gave way to an ever more sparsely populated countryside and factories etc. were replaced by quaint Romanian villages with really OLD folk sitting on their verandas. (Just like you see in the movies)
Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by lush green mountain meadows and the dense, dark forests simply go on forever. Once we cleared the last humungous mountain side mine, we were suddenly in a different world and started climbing into The Carpathians on the Rucâr – Bran Pass. That night we spent in the town of Bran and although bucket list item No. 1 – Vlad Tepes The Impaler (aka DRACULA) – had (has) a castle there and impaled a few 1000 Turks along the road, it was not THE CASTLE DRACULA I had to see. That came the next day as we entered the Transfagarasan Pass and a few short corners later, THERE IT WAS and after dreaming about it since the age of 10 (or thereabouts) I was finally standing at the foot of Castle Poenari – the REAL home of my toothy, blood sucking hero. Sadly the 1498 steps to reach the castle were going to be too much for me but hey, I’ve been, I’ve seen and I’ve conquered and that’s good enough for me. Here’s to the next 600 years. Bite me …!
What came next left all of us speechless at the utter beauty of the vistas as well as the very challenging pass road and for more than 60 km (out of 100) we climbed and climbed and climbed … only to top out at nearly 2100 m with the temperature hovering around 6deg-C. With glacier ice on the road beside us, we really were on top of the world and photographs and words barely do this pass justice. You MUST go and if you do, have some fun and let your imagination run wild as the sun sets and a chilly wind gust from the mountains around you… HE is nigh! (He He)
Anybody with even one eye will also see why good ‘ol Vlad chose this pass as the location for his fortress and I can just imagine him sitting high up on his mountain while the Turks hurled themselves at the cliffs below. Needless to say, he prevailed and once the Turkish Hordes decided that they didn’t need Europe THAT badly, they turned around and went home and Dra Cool was hailed as the saviour of the West. Little did they know what Hollywood was going to make of him!
After only briefly entering Turkey just so we can say “we’ve been” and having had a very unpleasant encounter with one of their Border Plods I personally am of the opinion that Drac should have impaled a lot more of them but hey, that’s the subject of another story.
In Bulgaria, we spent one night in the city of Stara Zagora (The Old Place) and what I thought was the scent of a perfume factory turned out to be the sweet, vanilla laden aroma of 1000s of Linden Trees that were in bloom and the trees themselves sorted out the pollution from heavy city traffic which left the whole place smelling fresh and clean. Once again HORSE MEAT was prominent on the menu and in hindsight, after ordering the steak, I should probably have gone for horse … then again, maybe it WAS horse – “would you like one gallop or two?”.
Countries like Moldavia came and went and whilst we did spend one night in Chisinau there was simply not enough time to take it all in but should I visit the region again, I would now know where to go and where to avoid.
Krakow in Poland made a HUGE impression on me and the Sunday evening hustle & bustle in the huge, old town square, as well as the buildings, crammed full of Bvlgari & Gucci Shops simply oozed opulence and wealth and stunning high fashion (never mind the contents) was the order of the day. The next day we had enough time for a quick walk about and once again buildings and fortifications dated 800 and older simply defy belief. As Peter needed to get home we parted ways in Krakow and I had one final item on my list – being the country town of Raciborz (Ratibor) where my late father was born 107 years ago in 1910.
Whilst the ride through the Polish country side was superb and I entered my ancestral home town with great expectations, I was utterly disappointed and devastated at the rather drab sight that greeted me. Sadly, the place is a bit of a “dump’ but it’s not their fault as, what used to be a beautiful little city dating back to medieval times, was all but wiped off the face of the earth during the last days of WW2 when the Russians flattened it. Thanks “Ivan” … YES – I know we started it!!!
The next (and final) day I set out solo across the rest of Poland & Czechoslovakia and besides getting totally lost around Brno and briefly ending up in Slovakia (Country 21) I made Munich late afternoon and great as the trip was, I was glad to be “home” with my family there. A final “funny” occurred at a massive road block that The Germans had set up on the old Austria / Germany border and when an immaculate, young German Officer asked me if I was hiding any refugees in the bike I couldn’t help but tell him about the entire family of midgets that I had stashed in my saddle bags. Fortunately, he had a sense of humour which (as you know) is strange for Germans – Ha Ha!
A few days later I had “slummed” it back to CT and now I’m busy adding another 21 country pins to my “cut” and I have ordered maps for Western Europe …
Wolf – Dieter Sowade – The Viper Lounge