England seems so far away as we sit and write this update in the mountains of Montenegro. We have the windows open and are listening to the thunderstorm which is sweeping through the valley leaving streams descending the steep sides all around us to the swollen river just behind the hotel we are staying in. The lightening is roaring across the heavens leaving bright streaks through the sky. The rain hits the floor and bounces upwards about 6 inches such is the force as it clatters against the windows. So it is we have seen the first rain really on the journey. It’s funny as we have just sent our second parcel home to England and in this were the storm bags which have acted as carriers for assorted clutter which is now winging its way home.
At the end of week four it is getting harder to know what to write as so much has happened over the last two weeks. We finished the last update with our visit to the Swiss Guide Dogs in Aushwil. Since then we have crossed Switzerland, Italy and Croatia to find ourselves ploughing through the mountain roads of Montenegro. We have met complete puzzlement from other travellers and people we have come in contact with. While this is true we have also met extraordinary kindness and consideration when people realise I am blind. We have tripped our way through the streets of Rome, slithered down the roads on the bike, crossed the Adriatic Sea with kindly Croatian Deck hands looking after me. Border guards who harass other people have been as gentle as kittens with the blind woman on the motorbike from England. So it has been we find our way on day 28 in Montenegro. Now it is time to go backwards.
Today has turned out to be a day of reflection really. I have been really fed up at sitting still as we seem to have got stuck at the Relais de Rixheim hotel just before the Swiss border. Bernard and I have had long conversations about why this has been so and we have concluded that we are still catching up on things we had no chance to complete before leaving home. It is also true the updates are taking far longer than anticipated by the time we write everything, edit pictures and create video clips. Time seems to disappear on us. At the moment we are sitting in chairs for longer than on a motorcycle! Not a good thing when you consider this is supposed to be a round the world trip! My mood has been really down and it would be true to say that Bernard seems more pragmatic about the slowness of our progress at the moment. We were to move on today but, again, things conspired to keep us still as we had some problems with the internet site which meant we were up deep into the night to resolve. Thus when we got up this morning there was no possibility of Bernard riding the bike as he was far to tired to handle the weight. So we sat still again but did pack everything for leaving tomorrow. Then we retired for a few hours sleep before have a rough and ready lash up from the local supermarket as the hotel restaurant is closed for annual holidays. Tomorrow we move!
The part-time hotel became even more part-time this morning as it is Sunday and there is no breakfast. Talk about casual approach! Needless to say it did not take us long to get moving as me without breakfast is like a car without wheels!
The road back to the Swiss border was busy and queues started to form by the time we arrived. Trundling very slowly up to the border we were waved to one side and the guard asked if we had our motorway pass? Sounds of complete puzzlement came through the intercom as Bernard asked about this pass which we had not needed on our visit to Guide Dogs. It turned out that the cost to drive on the Swiss motorways was 30 Euros and for this princely sum we ended up with a genuine Swiss sticker on the windshield right in Bernard’s line of vision – not too good really and we had to move it later on as a wagon could have been approaching and he would not have even seen it through the sticker!
It is so good to be on the move again and the bike is humming softly through the foot pegs and I can feel the thousands of mechanical bits and pieces creating their own symphony which I am now tuned into. I could tell if the sound changed for some reason. I am so tuned in that as the tyres go over different surfaces I know; the rubber creates different sound waves of different intensities.
After a couple of hours it was time to eat! Bernard is still a coffee and cigarette man and “You don’t want to eat again do you!” can be heard coming through the intercom to my plaintive pleas for substance. Grumbling about wanting to get some mileage covered he acquiesced and pulled into a service station to enable me to restock the physical frame which is in danger of fading away before the journey has even go going. Listening to the ping of the cooling engine I heard sounds of approaching footsteps and then somebody talking in French asking Bernard for directions. An exchange of French occurred and then it was really funny to discover that Bernard was talking French to another Englishman who was on a motorcycle with friend. So it was we met Nick Argent from Dorset and Alan who were doing a three week sponsored ride through nine or ten countries for Unicef. When Bernard looked at the other bike he realised the number plate was from the UK and for the rest of the day he kicked himself for not being more observant.
The food went by the wayside as I listened to the two of them talking bikes and road and all things two wheels. Even the loud rumble of my stomach did not dissuade them at all. Hopping from one leg to the other did not better as they continued to waffle on about bikes and roads and journeys. Nick was riding the obligatory BMW GS motorcycle which we had ourselves pondered about using but he agreed with many other people that it is a very top heavy bike and they had already dropped it once and so our decision was – perhaps – vindicated. Putting our trust in Bertha (from Berlin), even at 19 years old, seems to be the correct decision so far.
After a little while and after swopping details with Nick and Alan we headed for breakfast and the satisfaction of the rumble-stopping food. Even after finishing breakfast and walking back to the bike to set off we then bumped into John from London and so another long conversation ensued about the journey. After about an hour, and a wave to John, we climbed on the bike and off we went.
The day passed with the journey interspersed with 180 degree bends over and through the Swiss mountains, with mad German riders flashing past on their bikes, diving past cars, accelerating hard and braking at the last minute as they sought to pass everything on the roads. Through the intercom I would hear Bernard exclaim “No way, don’t go there mate, you are having a laugh aren’t you?” as the German riders really did ride hard and fast through the surroundings. We just thumped along very gently.
After several hours of riding we came to a small town just at the border with France where we planned to spend the night. Parking the bike and stretching – gratefully – our limbs we walked through the main street looking at the cost of the hotels and searching for the cheapest.
Eventually we settled on the Hotel Suisse which nestled in the Swiss mountains covered with forests and power lines disappearing off into the heavens up the side of the mountains.
Our meal consisted of a bubbling – flame powered – pan of cheese, mushrooms and cognac where I had to stab pieces of bread with a skewer and locate the pan and swirl the bread in this potent mix!
Very interesting to do as a blind person I can tell you.
Day 18 (Switzerland to Italy through the Mont Blanc Tunnel)
Driving through the border we headed for the Mont Blanc tunnel which is about 7 miles long deep underneath the border. We had planned to video the drive but after stopping and starting numerous times to try to get the camera to behave we gave up – although really, a tunnel is a tunnel is a tunnel as it turned out to be!
Mont blanc itself was full of back pack carrying people and every second shop seemed to consist of outdoor clothes (a bit like Ambleside in the Lake District really but with better sun!)
We came through the tunnel to glorious sunshine and we both felt the mood lift immediately as everything was completely new – even the road signs to Bernard which he could not read! We pulled up outside the tunnel in a lay-by and I reached for my trusty phone to let people know we were now in Italia.
Shock, horror, complete catastrophe as my voice software decided to get complete and absolute laryngitis and not a peep could be extracted from the infernal thing. My mood changed instantly and for the next hour we did nothing but try to get it to work to no avail. I really did feel cut-off with this event and my phone is not only important in terms of communication but it gives me a sense of autonomy and control. Suddenly this was gone and I felt it most keenly.
We set off into Italy with Bernard promising we would sort it out a little further down the road where we took a completely wrong turning and ended up doing 29 kms (plus 3 euro 30 cents toll) only to come back 29 kms (plus 3.30 Euro) to then discover we had to go back again the same 29kms (plus 3.30 Euro toll!)
At this point Bernard was feeling very sheepish about his navigation skills although we laughed and put this small hiccup in the scale of 25,000 miles and twelve months. Thus an hour is only an hour and nothing more. In the end we worked out it was the sat navs fault and Bernard felt much better! It wanted to take us the fastest route which would have meant going back through the Mont Blanc tunnel (another 22 Euro toll) to go to Rome. In the end we ignored the little box and went back to the old fashioned (map on the petrol tank) method!
At the eventual petrol stop I made an impassioned call to my sister in England (suggested by Bernard) regarding my phone problems and two hours later (so Bernard reminded me all day) we had resolved the problem. Relief and sunshine flowed around me. The sound of Bernard laughing as we set off filled my helmet at the waves of gladness coming from me at having my phone back fully functioning again.
After hours of passing though Italian tunnel after tunnel hewn through the mountains we arrived at Vercelli and our bed for the night. It was expensive really but we are both tired and it is 7pm when we arrive. Bernard has a rule about travelling on this journey. Actually he has many rules but this one is applicable here and now. Once the light starts to fade then we get off the road and find a pillow for the night. This is what we did even though it was an 82 Euro pillow.
What actually sold it to me was the fact the hotel had a garage. This meant Bernard would not be trundling up and down stairs on numerous trips with the bike equipment.
Little did I know until later that the garage was subterranean labyrinth which involved going down a ski-slope full of speed bumps about 8 inches apart. Thus he was very shaken – but not stirred – when he shambled in to the room scratching furiously at the zillion bites he seemed to have suffered with his short exposure to the Italian animal night life. As I drifted off to sleep I heard scratch, scratch, scratch. It was the last thing I heard of the day.
The same sounds greeted me in the morning along with the moans and groans and vivid descriptions of all the lumps and bumps which now infested him. I must admit his head did feel somewhat lumpy and when I told him this he didn’t seem that impressed with my distinct lack of compassion to his extreme discomfort. Men!
We discussed the problem of getting the bike up the ski-like ramp and Bernard was mightily impressed with my suggestion of unloading the bike to some degree in order to lighten it for the ramp climbing event – which he promptly did and the happiness in his voice when he sailed up the ramp was apparent.
We started trying to stay off the Autostrada (motorways) in order to save money but the first grid-locked Italian town changed our mind! Then we elected to use the Avoid Traffic function of the sat nav to get to Rome only to discover it took us down single track farm paths with pot-holes which would swallow the bike completely without a trace. So we headed back to the Euro swallowing motorway. Relief and speed became apparent.
If you have ever driven on an Italian motorway you will know that either there are no speed limits or it is genetically programmed into Italian drivers to ignore them. It is one or the other. Speed limits do not seem to exist as far as we could tell. The Italians also have a wonderful tradition of overtaking and then coming in so close it is as if they are collecting wing mirrors (left side) as a hobby. Talk about cutting in close. On many occasions we thought they wanted to park their car on the petrol tank of the bike they were that close.
The motorway twisted and turned through the mountains and we did seriously question if they were going to actually charge us for driving on this road but, needless to say, they did.
After several hours of Italian motorways we stopped for food and discovered the joys of motorway service stations. Not a simple – look at food, place on tray, go and pay system for the Italians. No. You go and look at the food and then go to the other end of the building, order your food, pay, take till receipt back to another cue where, eventually, you get your food. You are probably ahead of me here.
Yes, you are right.
You cannot point at the food and jabber like an excited monkey making vaguely, Anglo-French-Italian sounds to indicate what you want. By the time you look at what is available (in Italian of course), get to the queue, you have forgotten what you want. So it was that the three course meal became a cup of coffee until we could work this one out!
Hours later we did manage to find the inevitable pizzeria and happiness abounded as we munched our way through copious amounts of overflowing toppings with cups of coffee. At each stop now we are consuming gallons of water and we carry four bottles of water on the bike. The heat is profound. Waves and waves of hot air come at you even at 70mph. It is like somebody has turned a hair dryer on full and is pointing it at your whole body. The front of the bike is even worse for Bernard as he is behind a fairing and his feet are underneath the cylinders and so he gets the full force of the engine’s heat as well. He gets off the bike dripping in sweat every time we stop but he takes it all in his stride as he gulps bottle after bottle of water before we replenish our stocks for the next set of miles.
Hotel searching began in earnest at 6pm in Viareggio and my head was filled with descriptions of ‘beautiful’ people as Bernard described them – in other words they drove Lamborghinis and Porsche cars and frolicked scantily clad in the streets. The first hotel wanted 150 Euro for the night at which Mr Indignant did his customary “No, no you do not understand, no buy, just use one night!” The hotel staff did not seem amused at his comments but he just acted innocent and stuck to “No, not buy whole hotel, just have room for night!” He alternated, eventually, with “Best price?” by which time I wanted to get out as quick as possible! The second hotel was so much cheaper at 130 Euro and Bernard gave up and we climbed back onto the bike and headed away from the Italian Southport (or Newquay) as it had turned out to be with the sun-worshipping and very rich sportscar owning people getting ready for their evenings entertainment.
As darkness fell some time later we ended up at a services, a rest and a loo stop. I hear Bernard apologising in French to the Italian women as he clumps into the inner sanctum of the ladies and it makes me laugh but there is little else we can do as disabled facilities are few and far between. We are both very tired now but we have little choice but to continue on the motorway – which has a good road surface and so Bernard exudes confidence that we will find something in a little while and sure enough about 20kms later we found the hotel Europe for the sum of 70 Euro (B+B for both). It was such a relief to see the end of what has felt a very long day. Sleep came easily and quickly to the both of us.
Today we should arrive at our destination in Rome and we are heading for a convent where the nuns do a little side number in bed and breakfast! The heat is oppressive and heavy. Your mouth dries up as soon as you breath in and all you can do is take little sips of water to keep it moist. As soon as you start to sweat it dries on you and you feel clammy all day and you look forward to the inevitable shower which will occur in some room, somewhere, at some time later on. Bernard is very quiet today as we ride and I talk to him and he admits the heat and the straight white lines are somnambulic and there is little to keep him interested on this long straight road into a furnace. His feet, he tells me, feel like they are in two boil-in-the-bags which he cannot do anything about.
He describes the cars that pull alongside to read the bike signs before accelerating hard away. Then the next one slows down to look and then the whole process is repeated for hour after hour as curious Italian drivers translate the English on the bike. The day drifts past in petrol stops, drink stops and toll stops and then Rome appears in front of us. We nearly come off the bike at the toll to enter Rome as the rear wheel hits a lump of concrete and the whole bike lurches sideways. I threw myself to the right and I felt Bernard do the same and felt his left leg stamp down to stop us going down on the left hand side of the bike. A huge sigh of relief came out of the two of us as we pulled over and Bernard lit several cigarettes one after another. Then I knew how close it was as he is usually fairly dismissive of ‘little things’ like this. By the time he smoked the third cigarette I truly understood how close it had been.
The traffic of Rome closed around us and swept us along much like in Paris except there did not appear to be any rules which Bernard could work out. Cars and bikes zapped past us on left and right. Some so close I could feel the wind of their passing.
We stopped at a bus terminus and asked the Cabinieri (Police) for directions and they didn’t seem impressed we had pulled up in a ‘no cars or traffic zone’. I could hear the best British voice my other half has ever used being used to great effect and we left in the general direction we needed to go in shortly after. The bike bounces up and down in the potholes and the screech of Italian tyres fill the air as they rush from one lights to the next before braking heavily on smooth cobbled surfaces which have been worn away by the passage of vehicles and time.
The convent is full when we arrive and, like Joseph and Mary, there is not even any room in the stable. So we ponder. It is getting late and we fire up the sat nav and get a list of hotels and walk around the corner and find the Hotel Cecil where, once again, we negotiate the price down from 120 Euros to 100. I didn’t think we could do any better as, after all, we are in the middle of Rome not far from the Vatican (as the crow flies). We stand in the foyer with sweat dripping down onto the immaculate marble floor as Bernard tries his last ditch “Does that include evening meal?” The lady laughs and shakes her head and so we assume not before accepting the key and making our way up to the room.
The ritual of ‘the scraping’ occurs as copious amounts of hot water are washed through the hotels plumbing before we retire to the bar to check emails. It was only after I stabbed Bernard several times with my specially converted white cane tip did he become aware we hadn’t eaten for most of the day and so he prised himself off the computer and we set off to discover food. We ended up in a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Rome. And very good it was as well along with the replenishment of vital bodily fluids as we pondered on the days events until the pillow called.
Bernard, as you may have guessed is prone to a bit of exaggeration. Actually, he is prone to a lot of exaggeration. As we entered the breakfast area he went off to discover what was available and when he came back he described in great lengths the builders helmets hung on the wall. He did have me going for a while. It was his description of the hanging Lacrosse gloves and hockey sticks which gave it away he was off on one of his fabricated stories. I could hear a mechanically clunk every now and then and he admitted that the sound was the toaster which he had already taken note of.
The toaster, if I am to believe him, fires the toast up in the air. It doesn’t just click, it was a pronounced clunk as the toasting was finished. From that point on he explained that you could bring your own crash helmet to protect you from low-flying toast if you wanted or, in the spirit of the European Union, the owners has kindly supplied a range of equipment to deal with this potential hazard; thus the lacrosse gloves, hockey sticks or builders helmets. Every morning after this description the clunk signified an “Incoming!” from either of us and we would laugh as the other patrons looked at the two giggling fools in the corner.
We set off from the hotel with vague directions for using the metro (underground) to get to The Vatican City and, on the one day we want to use it, the whole system is closed. We find out later that some poor soul had decided to “Kiss the train” as a guard told us later. Thus the whole of Rome took to the buses and, after a long walk and multiple stops to ask directions, we found one.
We spent the next 30 minutes being told all about the city by a man who adopted us at the bus stop. He insisted on describing all the main features as Bernard furiously tried to keep track of the road names as the bus zipped along. It was really funny to listen to as Bernard would – obviously – point to map and say “Where?” During the whole journey the man would say he was getting off only to decide he was staying on. I think we shook his hands three or four times as he was getting off only to discover he had changed his mind! We think he stayed with us to make sure we got the Vatican without getting lost. As we said our farewells with the whole bus watching we are, even now, certain he stayed on the bus to direct us and that he then stayed on to go all the way around the circular route to his own destination. Such a nice man and a fantastic greeting from a citizen of Rome.
St. Peter’s square was quieter than we expected and we joined the cue to enter the Basilica and see the resting places of Popes from the past along with St. Peter’s tomb itself where a very heated exchange occurred between tourists and guards who would allow no pictures or videoing. Voices were raised and the guard could be hear saying “I put you out if take picture!” We passed on by and went on leaving them to argue about recording their visit to the centre of the Catholic world.
The Basilica itself felt ‘cold’ and with little real atmosphere compared to for example Notre Dame where you could feel the age and you could smell the history – the same was true of the Cathedral at Bayeux. It is probably a function of marble which encased the whole building leaving it with a very clinical feel. Bernard described the massive structure and artefacts of the building and explained and described everything he could see. There was no information boards or leaflets available that we could find and people seemed to be relying on various guide books which they had brought with them.
We made our way to the Vatican post-office and kept our promise to buy cards from Rome before setting off to find the Coliseum (the metro was by now working). This seemed full of French college students complete with loud voiced teachers endeavouring not to lose one of their charges and we set off across the city to the fabled building which has been reconstructed in so many block buster movies; the Coliseum.
Outside this fabled structure Bernard encouraged me to have a hands-on exploration of a full-dressed roman soldier. I must admit I was extremely bashful about this but Bernard insisted as how can you picture s
omething if you have no reference points for the uniforms.
So it was that people passed by and stopped and watched as I explored the uniform with the owner explaining in broken English the significant of each item. We thanked the person and went to join the queue while my face returned to its normal (non-blushing) colour. An American tried to convince us to take his tour which would mean us not waiting in the queue for 40 minutes to get in (obviously at an additional cost). We pondered and decided what was 40 minutes and were rewarded by talking to Mark from Brisbane in Australia who was on holiday. He was fascinated as he listened to the hundred bits of information which Bernard seemed to know about the history. Sometimes he doesn’t realise how much he knows about bits and pieces from all over the place. It probably comes from his many years as a teacher and mixing with teachers of all subjects. Mark asked many questions which were answered and elaborated on as we made our way to the front of the queue. On arriving there it turned out that our entry was free due to being blind. Thus it was very naughty Mr American to try to take our money when it was obvious entry would have been free anyway. Naughty, naughty!
We paid for the hire of an audio recorder and went to pick it up but unfortunately they would not give us one. The reason was that we had no identification on us and this meant “No ID then no player”. We did try to explain all our ID was back at the hotel but they would not relax the rules even though Bernard plainly pointed out (even though it was obvious) that the player was for me; the person with the big white stick. An American woman behind got quire irate about it and even though she offered a large deposit (name your price) they would not relent. We entered the coliseum tapeless but not beaten!
Moving around the coliseum it was interesting to note the guides where actually giving the same information as Bernard was giving to me anyway! Plus if you use an audio player often it can leave you cut off from those around you. In the end, I was glad I did not have the audio player as I could expose Bernard’s lack of knowledge whenever I saw fit!
So here we are in the middle of Rome, in the Coliseum, and who should we bump into? None other than a colleague and my former teacher at Liverpool Community College. No matter where you are in the world, you can easily meet someone from home! Cameras where unslung and multiple pictures taken which we believe will be appearing in the college magazine on his return. Sometimes it really is a very small world indeed. Hello Mick if you are reading this!
Our journey back to the hotel meant taking the Metro several stops and despite Bernard’s best efforts the ticket machine did manage to eat several Euros without giving us our tickets!
I passed though the barrier without any problem but it didn’t like Bernard and it would not let him pass. Not to be deterred he jumped the barrier to the consternation of staff indicating “Madame Avergler, Madame Avergler!” (madam blind). It didn’t matter he was in Italy shouting in French, over he came in a surprisingly youthful bound (at least that’s how I pictured it – he probably fell over the barrier really!) Fortunately and international incident did not occur and they let us proceed.
We walked part of the way back to the hotel taking in the architecture and fabulous fountains which are all over Rome and turn up in the most unexpected places. During this walk we even managed to find our Italian pin badges and so a very successful day on many levels!
The evening passed in a tired but satisfied way as we talked about the days events and the gentle hum of the air conditioner filled the room as our freshly washed clothes dried on the balcony in the night air.
Today we tried to visit the Italian Federation of the Blind and found nobody at home! We rang every bell on the door several times and no response at all – even Bernard’s size ten boots made no impact! It wasn’t during the traditional two hour Italian lunch either we hasten to add and so it was our first strike-out! We pondered about going to the retinitis pigmentosa society but it would have meant a cross-city ride on the bike and Bernard point blank refused to enter the mayhem of the slippery roads and I completely agreed with him. So went shopping instead.
Well what can I say, a girl in Rome and no shopping? It cannot be allowed! So it was that I am now the proud owner of two little Italian numbers (one in white and one in black). After all his moaning and complaining about the amount of clothes I had with me he took me shopping – and it felt really, really good!
We retired to the roof-top garden to feel the warm night air crossing through the city and Bernard went back to the room to get his camera only to find the lift would not come back to level six where I was left sitting. He went up and down, and up and down, at every floor he tried level 6 only to retire defeated to the lobby. The receptionist explained that the roof-garden was closed from 9pm due to neighbours and noise although once he know it was the blind woman on the motorbike he let Bernard back up to finish his drink! A lovely warm breeze swirls across the roof tops as we sit drinking Italian red wine and listen to the peel of the church towers counting time of our last night in Rome. Tomorrow we go to Ancona where the ferry to Croatia waits.
The sound of the ship and the hum of turbines fills my ears in the cabin as the crossing to the Port of Split in Croatia lies in front of us. The fittings in the cabin rattle and shake to the movement of the ship as it crosses the Adriatic sea through the 12 hour night sailing.
Cathy has taken to bed as she is not feeling well and she has a very high temperature and feels hot to the touch. Two duvets are placed on top of her and soon she is asleep but restless. As she rests I go to explore the ship and change some money in the Croatian Kuna which we will need. The ship is empty really and I get really excited when 200 Marlboro cigarettes cost only a fraction of the price I am used to (20 Euro!) I find I like Croatia before I even set foot on the soil of the country. My first Croatian is learned and I enter the universal language of Please and Thank you with much gusto. I thank everybody for anything and everything!
The road out of Rome to the Port of Ancona was an absolute nightmare for Bernard as every conceivable Italian driving tradition you can imagine was displayed. I could feel his heart pounding at ever higher levels as he tried to get us out of the city in one piece. People undertook, overtook and nearly went over our heads in their eagerness to shave 2 minutes off their vitally important journeys. It was mayhem by the sounds of things. One driver sat inches off the number plate around a tight approach road to the motorway as if to say “Move over!” The problem was there was nowhere to move over to unless we wanted to kiss the Armco barriers which – despite our hospitality and endearing politeness to other drivers, we were completely unwilling to do!
When the driver did pass he gave Bernard a withering look from his air conditioned Jaguar and Bernard took great delight in just smiling back sweetly at him and gave a friendly wave (as me muttered “What a prat!”) He didn’t appear too amused and replied in the customary Italian way by flooring the accelerator. Fastest man in the grave-yard perhaps in the future?
The temperature rose the further east we travelled until even I felt hot on my air conditioned seat on the back of the bike. Bernard? Was in a blast furnace hell with his boil-in-the-bag feet protesting loudly at every gear change and brake effort required. It was to get worse as we approached Ancona and a huge traffic jam with miles and miles of slow moving cars, and trucks making the bike very unwieldy to manage. Eventually the source of the problem was passed. It was a hugely embarrassed German driver who couldn’t look anybody in the face as the traffic started flowing around his vehicle.
We stopped for something to eat but the system for ordering food completely defeated us so Bernard disappeared off into a shop, bought sandwiches and water and came back clutching his illegal booty to the service station restaurant. We sat munching our illegal food and waiting for the heavy hand of somebody to throw us out. Nobody appeared to shout at us so we munched away and then left for the final spurt to Ancona. We arrived at the port very hot and very tired and went to explore whether a ticket could be got for the night crossing and everything went smoothly. The cost was £223 for bike and two people plus cabin plus breakfast. We had considered doing the longer road journey but when we calculated the additional time (petrol, accommodation and food) the three day detour would have taken then it was cheaper to catch the ferry.
The queue of cars waiting to board were largely Italian and we found out later that Croatia is a big holiday destination for many Italians and the cue definitely confirmed this fact. We were the only north Europeans around and when we came to board the ship the officer approached us for our tickets. Speaking Italian he changed to English and said “It is so nice to meet somebody English rather than Italian”. Meanwhile all the other pillions had to get off the bikes to ride onto the ship but once he realised I was blind he waived the rule and we rode onto the ship.
As we rode onto the ship the deckhands were not amused to see a two-up bike on the deck and one started shouting “Off, off” to which Bernard relied “Bugger” in a quiet voice through the intercom. He spoke to the deckhand and said “Blind” to which the response came back “Blind? Blind? I no understand Blind, off, off!”
He started to harangue us and I did get very rattled as I was about to get off the bike. Through my helmet I heard Bernard say “Take no notice of anybody but me. Calm down, everything is fine, you take your time and do everything as we normally do. Take no notice.” From that point I slipped into our tried and trusted method of getting on and off the bike. I climbed off gently and moved to the back of the bike while Bernard lowered the side stand and came around to guide me to a bulkhead against my back where I would be safe clutching my cane.
Bernard assured me that I was safe where I was standing and not to worry about the sounds of cars and wagons as they came onto the deck. Everything was fine. From that point I could hear sounds of the bike being shifted and strapped into place for the crossing. The white cane seemed to have little impact on the car deck and we made our way clutching our bits and pieces up through the ship to collect our cabin keys. It is interesting to note that the next day there was a complete change of approach from the deck hands. We think, perhaps, they were made aware of the fact it does take us a little more time to do anything and that being blind means that things have to be done differently at times. By the time I got to the cabin I was feeling worse and worse. During the day I could feel aches developing and I really just wanted to crash and relax. Within twenty minutes of arriving in the cabin I was deep in a restless sleep full of hot and cold flushes.
Completely at a loose end I wandered the ship after waking up at 2am and not being able to get back to sleep. I checked Cathy’s temperature and her eyes fluttered open. She feels a little cooler and she wallows some paraceptamol with some water and then goes back to sleep. I go out on deck and witness a fantastic light show of an adriatic lightening storm which I tried to capture on video and with stills but failed miserably. I drink coffee with Croatian seaman at 3am and we swop please and thank you like two school children. Wandering the ship through the night I step over sleeping bodies wrapped in blankets and mats. The ship is cool as it is air conditioned and the warm breeze hits you as you step out onto deck. I can feel the vibrations through the deck as I stand on the bow of the ship and watch an explosion of stars in the sky. The whole ship is in darkness at the front and you can see millions of stars like candles winking against a black sheet called the sky. Eventually I feel tired enough to try sleep and make my way back to the cabin. I fall asleep about 4am to the sounds of the waves.
I am feeling a little better this morning and wanted to explore the ship after breakfast. As always, Bernard camera firmly attached to head took multiple pictures as we entered the Port of Split. When we went down to the car deck and everything was secured back into the panniers and onto the bike a deckhand magically appeared to guide me to the bike. This morning there were no arguments about pillions walking off the ship! He was so gentle and considerate in the way he guided me to the bike. We pulled off into a blazing hot sun and trundled towards the police check point and the formalities took seconds and then we were waved through into Croatia! The next couple of hours we spent walking around Split looking for the elusive pin badges to no avail and eventually we had to give up and move on. If anybody out there has two Croatian Pin Badges then please feel free to email us!
With the way I was feeling I didn’t want to spend too long on the bike today and Bernard had been up most of the night and so we decided to find a hotel as soon as possible.
The roads and driving came as a relief after Italy as everybody seemed to drive slower and more considerate and Bernard relaxed a little as we searched for a hotel on the main highway from Split to Dubrovnic. Lots of people rent rooms out and they stand on the side of the road holding signs saying “Rooms” or “Apartments” and this seems to be the main way of finding accommodation outside of the agency approach which the rough guide seems to say is common.
We stopped at one Hotel and dripped our way into the foyer and Bernard winced and said “This looks really, really expensive” and he was right. The receptionist seemed condescending as she responded to our polite request for costs of one night “Well first I have to check if we have a room available!” and then lo-and-behold she did have one available at 150 Euros. I could hear Bernard choking and spluttering but managed to usher him out of the hotel before he went off on one of his – by now international famous “HOW MUCH!” rants. We clamber back on the bike and set off again looking for somewhere that was not seeking to pay off the Croatian National Debt!
During the next couple of hours we rode carefully and gently onwards until, on one right hand corner, the bike’s rear wheel slid sideways and an exclamation came from the front in terms of “That was slippy!” and onwards we went. Little did we know at that time what we were to discover later on. Soon after we found the Hotel Merlot and we gratefully accepted as tiredness had truly set in by 3pm as it now was. We had planned to have a couple of hours sleep to take the sting out of the tiredness but plans soon changed.
As Bernard unloaded the bike I explored the room and orientated myself to my ever changing surroundings.
After a little while he reappeared with the first load of belongings and told me we had a problem. It seems the shock absorber had slipped on the mounting bushes and it was this we had felt earlier when the bike slid sideways. He reassured me it could be fixed and after unloading the bike out came the tools and exhausts were taken of and after much swearing and cussing the offending shock absorber came off under a very hot sun shielded by a very British umbrella!
We decided that the next morning a reinforced heavy duty part would be required to restore the bike to something Bernard would be happy to continue on. So we left everything until the next morning (it was Sunday now) when everywhere would be open for business.
For now we have to focus on fixing the bike and so off we went to see the hotel staff to explain the problem and sure enough a solution came leaping at us. It seems that the hotel know a ‘fixer’ of things and so off Bernard went with the hotel receptionist as translator to locate some bits and pieces. Bernard was a little miffed when he came back (but very, very happy). He was miffed as the previous day – being so tired – he hadn’t noticed the dismantled engines everywhere at the rear of the hotel which would have supplied the bits he needed with a bit of persuasion and a big hammer! The mechanic (or fixer) came out with a big box of bits and pieces which Bernard gratefully rummaged through it until he found some heavy duty thick washers with which to reinforce the mounting of the shock absorber – after having driven back into place the bush itself. From that point onwards the problem became known as The Croatian Washer problem! All back together and packed up with a sigh of relief we moved on towards Dubrovnic.
After sweltering in Dubrovnic looking for pin badges (and even considering staying put until next day) we moved on and took the road away from the Old Port and walled city towards the border with Montenegro. About 4kms from the border we pulled into a garage for petrol and Bernard described the four Harley Davidson’s parked there with denim and combat trousered bikers standing around.
As we filled up they came over and started talking to us and they turned out to be from Sweden on a 3.5 week tour of Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro (amongst other places). They were burnt from the sun and readily admitted that the temperature was somewhat different than they were used to! One of the bikes had broken down and they were waiting for a pick up to come for it and take it to be repaired. We spend some time talking about bikes and mileages and our own trip and they lined up to take pictures as we set off towards the border. Their advice was to miss out Albania as a destination towards Athens and we gratefully accepted their advice. After all, after Bernard’s descriptions of them, if they were concerned about travelling through Albania then there must be something to worry about!
We arrived at the Border and sat in the queues to cross into Montenegro from Croatia. They moved slowly and eventually we arrived at the border hut to be confronted by Guard demanding ‘Documents for bike’ which, just happened to be locked deep within the panniers! So off I have to get while Bernard tried to retrieve documents from the bowels of the pannier while holding up whole place! Its obvious to me there is a problem as we do not have something called a ‘Green Card’ (an insurance bond). The guard is getting impatient with Bernard and tells us to move off to the side and clear the border. Bernard indicates it may not happen as quick as he wants due to the fact I cannot see. What a transformation in a person.
He instantly understood what Bernard was conveying and came our of hut and very gently took hold of my arm and guided me to a bench where I could sit while the bike was moved. He then went back to his hut and started shouting at everybody in sight!
At this point we went up several flights of stairs and into an office where another person filled out the relevant documents for us and we paid the 10 Euro levy to be let into Montenegro. Once we had this document we could retrieve our passports from the border guards – who had taken them when we first arrived.
Driving through the border we couldn’t help but talk about the impact that blindness has on even the toughest looking person. They seem to understand and go out of their way to assist in any way they can. It is an amazing experience to go through. I suppose it is even more amazing for Bernard as he can see these people in their uniforms and holding their guns and – he says – looking very intimidating.
The ride from the border was short and soon a hotel / guest house appeared where a room was acquired for the night complete with the biggest rack of lamb ever seen on the planet. We feel into bed and gratefully went to sleep after an event filled day only to be woken by wild dogs barking through most of the night!
The day started with sleepy eyes and a huge breakfast of omelettes and eggie bread with coffee and juice (included in the 20 euro price). We set off to the massed ranks of the locals all lining up on the veranda to wave us off as the first English to have ever appeared at the hotel. It was very strange to be seen off in this way after only one night staying with them.
We soon had to stop as the sat nav system has no detail for the country and so the old traditional paper map had to be used and following town by town. We had plotted a route around a very large lake but found that there was a ferry which cut out at least two hours driving so for the princely sum of 1 euro 50 we set off onto the ferry for the short 15 minutes ride with the bike crammed in amongst the cars and no room to breath! No prisoners is taken in the rush to disembark and we enter the fray and pull up to consult the map to decide which way to go. In the end we decide to head to toward Budva, Cetinje and Podgorica.
The route we are following stays with the major roads as this was a decision we took even before leaving the UK as with the whole safety aspect it was decided we would minimise the risks wherever possible thus major routes are always selected. The road to Belgrade soon appears amongst the signs and we sweep along the road which joins Montenegro to its former Capital Belgrade before gaining a peaceful independence in 2006 after the turmoil of 1992 onwards with the conflict which pitted peoples against each other.
The road is mountainous and torturous, winding its way through valleys and gorgeous scenery with sheer falls off to the side to catch the unwary. Unwary is certainly not what we are as we travel slowly and carefully though the rapidly switching roads with uncertain surfaces. We pass through tunnel after tunnel with the sound of the bike echoing against the hard rock surfaces and my ears can tell the size of the tunnel by the amount of echo which bounces back at me. The tunnels are dark according to the descriptions of Bernard and after leaving the bright, bright light of the day he finds it hard to adjust to the darkness and has to talk himself through the dark with “Where’s the road gone!” and this concerned me somewhat! We travelled safely though – which I never doubted – and eventually ended up at the latest fuel stop.
Bernard has been tense all day and on edge and as we drank coffee and water he admitted that everything just feels wrong. It seems that the weight of the bike and the whole concentration levels required with this weight, on these roads, is starting to get to him. Over the next 30 minutes we discussed ways of lightening the bike and we decided at the next stop for the night we would go through the equipment and see what could be sent home.
He went off to try to find the Montenegro badge and came back reinvigorated clutching the badge like an excited two year old. He recounted the story of the young female petrol attendant hunting for the badge for him and then presenting it as a “Gift for traveller” to which he responded by blowing her a kiss – smoothy, ever the smoothy. From this point onwards all his cares seemed to disappear and we remounted the bike in a greatly improved frame of mind to go hotel hunting. It wasn’t long afterwards we found where we are currently writing this update.
The receptionist / waiter reminds us both so much of Manuel from Faulty Towers. He greeted us with such enthusiasm and genuine pleasure as we fell into the door after a frantic day of mountain riding through stunning scenery. On these roads 130 miles feels anything but this short. We have done 400 miles which felt shorter than what we have encountered today and we are both glad the day is over and we collapse gratefully into bed within the Mountains of Montenegro.
We set out through the hotel this morning to sample our second Montenegrin breakfast although we must admit that the term ‘breakfast’ got lost somewhere in translation and so we ended up with a plate of cheese, hard bread, soft bread and yoghurt. The coffee would strip the paint of a banister but our friend Manuel (or Slobodan as we discovered his name to be) could not have been more attentive or kind in any way. He soon picked up all the little things that being blind means in terms of placing cup handles the right way, or indicating where things are and so on. He is a real treasure and such a lovely, lovely guy. His English is as good as Bernard’s Serbian but between them it is really, really funny when they communicate. Once we had traversed the mine field of breakfast we set of to the local town to find a pharmacy in order to buy cold remedies as I still feel pretty bad really.
Now please try to picture this. We are in a Serbian speaking area in Montenegro. In a pharmacy where we want to buy cold medicines, toothpaste, shampoo and face wipes. Picture Bernard doing pantomime to the girl behind the glass screen. It must have been hilarious as he coughed and sneezed, washed his non-existent hair, cleaned his teeth before wiping his face with face wipes! I was laughing just listening to him. In the end the shop filled with people all having a good laugh at the lunatic doing mime. The girl behind the counter, in the end, let him through the counter to go hunting for everything I needed. Mission accomplished after some considerable effort on his part! Once we got back to the hotel I dosed up with everything and went to bed to sleep.
After I had finished blushing at entertaining the whole town with my antics in the chemist and Cathy had curled up under several duvets I unpacked the whole bike and pondered on what could be sent home to reduce my anxieties about the weight.
The car park was littered with everything we possessed and I hand weighed each individual item and considered its merit and its worth in terms of space. After about two hours I went to find Cathy awake and we went back to the car park for her opinion on the box full of materials I wanted to send home.
It was gratifying to be in agreement and the box was rapidly filled with bits and pieces we had not used or could easily replace should we need to. I agonised over one item only – my second bike manual but it was consigned to the box be sent home tomorrow.
If I laugh anymore at the antics of Bernard then I’m sure we’ll have to fly me home in a straight jacket.
This morning was hilarious as we pondered what to do about breakfast. The language difficulties mean that we are never sure what we are getting to eat. Either we end up with platefuls of cheese and little else or we end up with something we have no idea what it is. In the end Bernard pointed to our ever considerate friend and said “Ok son, let’s go, me and you into the kitchen and sort out breakfast”. Thus the two of them disappeared through the door and 10 minutes later they reappeared with bread, yoghurt. bananas, kiwi fruit, butter and fruit juice. He had raided every cupboard and fridge in the hotel to find their secret stashes of understandable food stocks. He then proceeded to mix the yoghurt and the fruit into a lovely bowl of breakfast which we savoured for some time. All the time our ever considerate shadow hovered to make sure we were supplied at the slightest raising of an eyebrow about anything. It was like something out of a Fawlty Towers sketch with John Cleese and the hapless Manuel!
After breakfast Bernard fired up the bike and strapped the parcel onto the seat and set off to the post-office to send back our second parcel home in four weeks.
Oh what a day so far! Little did I know what was in store for me with a simple task of going to the post office. Arriving in town I was immediately waved off by the police when I tried to park the bike. It seems I could not park where I dropped the side stand and so I set off again around the corner where he could not see me!
The post office was empty when I walked in but it certainly was not empty by the time I left!
I plonked the box on the counter and was met with completely blank and puzzled expressions by the three staff – all smoking despite the no smoking signs everywhere. After about 10 minutes of frantic gesturing in English / French and my two words of Serbian (please and thank you) it dawned on me that the parcel was not acceptable as it was not wrapped in brown paper. Ok I thought, let’s have some brown paper and parcel tape and we’ll sort this out. Ahhhh, big problem (so it seemed), we don’t sell brown paper (I think). Ok then, pass me the parcel tape. Ahhhh, big problem (I thnk), we don’t sell parcel tape.
Ok, hang on. This is a post office yes?
But you don’t sell parcel tape?
or Brown paper?
But you need both to send a parcel?
But you don’t sell either?
One of the women waves at me to follow and takes me though post office to back door with me clutching big parcel under arm.
She waves in vague direction while repeating Scorpio several times!
So off I go looking for an insectoid called Scorpio which, actually turned out to be (logically?) a ‘T’ mobile shop who do a side line in brown paper and parcel tape!
After taking over their whole shop floor and chasing the parcel around for 20 minutes I thanked everybody in the shop at least twice in my fluent Serbian before exiting quickly.
Back to the post office.
Now, not that they all ducked when I reappeared but they did all breath in quite sharply and I swear they were arguing about who was going to deal with me.
To cut a long story short – we all survived and I even managed to fill out a Serbian post office form (but only after they gave me one in French with which to translate the Serbian from). 40 Euros were handed over to cover the parcel and the 15 Vatican cards sent from Montenegro(!) and I insisted on shaking hands with all of the counter staff while practicing my Serbian for thank you (which sounds like hwhala). To say that there was a lot of laughing in the post office would be an understatement. I swear I could still hear them laughing as I rode out of town.
By the time I got back to Cathy in the hotel she was on the verge of ringing the British embassy in Belgrade to report me missing.
Just another day in downtown Montenegro doing a simple transaction!
The rest of the day was spend writing this update and in the evening our every thoughtful friend – when he found out we were leaving tomorrow insisted on buying us a drink each and giving us his card with contact details on. Tomorrow we move on and it is time as we can both feel this. It seems we cannot really sit still for longer than two days at this point. We have got used to being on the move.