Goodbye, cheap food. Goodbye, shitty roads. Goodbye Eastern Europe – hello again Western Europe.
As terrifying as Western Europe is from a budgetary perspective, I was glad to be back – while the East certainly provides more of a sense of adventure, I do find that the stress involved with adventure… wears at you a bit. To be honest you appreciate the adventurousness of doing something the most before you’ve actually done it – when you’re doing it it’s stressful as hell, and afterwards it doesn’t even seem like it was a big deal. Having woken up early in Slovenia, I rushed through the Alpine roads over the border to Italy, where I had an appointment with some old friends from Estonia.
Could be an album cover for some terrible Il Divo-style group
This was what I’d rushed through half of Europe for – Nicola, who I’d met at a hostel in Tallinn, had been showing Anthony and Simon (also from the hostel in Tallinn) around in Italy and had said that seeing how there was a big party for the Bassano del Grappa rally in the Italian alps that I should come along. I’d been pretty good in keeping to the Krakow party ban described in an earlier post, but it was about time to have a night off. I arrived at midday, and immediately sat down to an amazing Carbonara cooked by Nicola’s mum – immediately vindicating my stereotypical idea of Italian hospitality. That afternoon Nicola took us around and showed us some of the beautiful little towns around the area. Buildings in Italy have this certain way of ageing – cracks in the walls, vines growing all over them, exposed bricks from where the render’s fallen off… but you wouldn’t want it to look any other way.
Italians drive down alleys this wide… in both directions
After a bit of tourism we picked up our camping gear and drove up the mountain. After some lovely twisty roads endured as a passenger in Nicola’s Seat Ibiza, we got to the party – and were we three Australians ever impressed. I always thought that Australians had a pretty good system for outdoor drinking – a few eskies full of beer cans, a gas BBQ, a campfire… you lil beaudy! The Italians take it to a whole new level though – they’d brought a whole bar complete with proper beer taps… camping
. It even had a modified car stereo set up to pump out music, and a car horn so that they could honk at the cars going by. It was great, cars would come by during at the night, be honked at, then stop just to laughingly exchange horn broadsides for a few seconds before continuing up the mountain.
Pretty impressive setup
Unfortunately I can’t say I represented my country too well in the drinking stakes – the Italians insisted that we, their guests, drank and drank and drank… and that’s about as far as I can remember because the next day I woke up in my tent feeling very poorly and with no real memory of how I got there. Egh. Nonetheless, I stumbled out of my tent and went to investigate the roaring engines that I could hear – the rally was about to start.
Robert Kubica deftly handles the hairpin
I’d never seen a rally, and it was pretty cool watching all the cars go by even if it took me a while to feel well enough to enjoy it. In between the cars, it was also fun watching the Italian people deal with each other – it’s such an outgoing, friendly culture. At one point some another group of guys who were watching from the other side of the track started shouting and jeering at Nicola and his friends, prompting him and his friends to flip ‘em the bird and shout back. After this went back and forth I a few times I was starting to wonder if a fight was going to break out. But this was a long way away from King’s Cross – eventually some of them did come over and were poured a beer, then stuck around chatting and watching the race for an hour or so before going back to where they were sitting. This wasn’t unusual – a number of people came by, got chatting and had a beer with the guys. One crazy old Italian guy called Franco kept coming back again and again for beer, keeping the glass each time – at one point he came up with a bag full of (framed) photographs and showed Simon the history of his life. A couple of times he was getting changed, prompting all Nicola’s friends to shout “Nudo! Nudo!”, then when he called their bluff “noo, Franco, nooo!”. I was however, assured that this wasn’t a typical Italian man – “ee is eh typical Italian crazy man!”. I was quite amused.
Despite my now chronic inability to hold my liquor, it was a great night and day – one of those travel experiences you always hear other people talking about and think “man, I bet I’d never have the opportunity to do that”. Going into the mountains with a bunch of mates and a bunch of beer is something so universal, but it was funny to see how different the whole ritual was on this side of the world. It must be freaking difficult to be a shy Italian – everyone’s always talking, always joking, and it’s always so friendly. Admittedly I didn’t understand a lot about what was said most of the time, but everyone’s always smiling when they talk, so I assume they’re saying friendly things. It’s a lovely culture, and I’m so grateful to Nicola for inviting me and letting me experience it. Couldn’t stay much longer though – Nicola had to work the next day, and I had 3 weeks more trip to fill. So I picked up my bike, which had fallen over in the rain-soaked garden and, after a beautiful degustation meal at a local restaurant, I was off to Austria.
If there was ever a country that looked exactly the way you hoped, it’s Austria
Unfortunately it was already really late by the time I left, and I pretty soon realised that my handlebars were twisted… although I managed to get them pretty untwisted at the side of the road,my plans to ride the whole route over the alpine passes were quickly dashed and I found myself slabbing it the whole way north to Innsbruck. Upon arriving late at night, I located the local campsite in the dark and the next morning went to the local motorbike dealership for a service. I didn’t think it’d be too much of a big deal… an oil change and a tire, really. That was up until the mechanic read the size of the rear tire and noticed a massive dent in the rear rim… one that I’d completely failed to notice up until now. After originally telling me it’d take at least a week, a few calls later and they said come back in two days. Phew.
Not bad for 10EUR a night with internet
Innsbruck wasn’t the happiest time… like I mentioned before, if the bike is unhappy then I’m unhappy. I ended up spending three days there, which is two more than I really needed… staying in a campsite and not talking to anyone, in combination with not really having anything that I really wanted to see, was a bit of a downer. Unfortunately most of the time I was in Innsbruck there was dense fog everywhere too – it wasn’t until my last day that I finally realised the campsite was surrounded by dramatic mountains. It’s a nice little town though – particularly cool is the Tyrol panorama, a 360 degree painting depicting a battle where a bunch of Austrian peasants defeated a professional army of Bavarians lead by one of Napoleon’s generals.
It even has 3D props. Solid effort.
Getting my bike back from the dealership was a rude shock. I certainly wasn’t in Hungary any more – the new wheel, the new tire and labour costs totalled over 1000 euro. Adding insult to injury, somehow the dealership didn’t accept credit cards, so I had to withdraw the entire amount at an ATM and physically had over this stupidly massive amount of money… the can of chain lube that they threw in didn’t even end up working. Scheisse! The euros didn’t all go to waste though – upon getting the bike back it felt good as new. The steering that’d been loose since Slovakia had been tightened back up, the engine that had felt out of breath ever since Turkey was back to being as powerful as it had ever been… proper job, Innsbruck. I was back in business – and just in time for the Alpine roads.
The bikers' promised land
A short ride later and I was staying in Imst, a small town not too far from Innsbruck, but right in the middle of Austria… and indeed the middle of the Alps. I was at a beautiful little hostel in an Gasthof that dated back hundreds of years, but this being the end of the season, there was barely anyone else there. Given how nice it was, I decided to stay two nights and spend the next day on my newly serviced bike exploring, particularly the Dolomites which I’d missed on the way out of Italy. I was, after all, really impressed by this part of the world – I’ve heard of hotels in other places being deliberately unfriendly to motorcyclists, but in the Alps, you’re not a real hotel unless you have a picture of a motorcycle on your sign. I must have seen hundreds of “Biker Hotels”, as well as “Biker Cafes” and other themed establishments – to be honest there was probably as much tourism centered around motorcycling as there was skiing.
Totally worth the backtrack
It also marked my first time going over the proper passes in the Alps – the first and the last one of the day was the Timmelsjoch pass, which goes over the border between Austria and Italy. On the way up I paid 18 euros for a return ticket, was given a free sticker and a bunch of pamphlets, and subsequently froze my arse off going over the high, foggy pass. After a great day exploring the endless awesome roads of South Tyrol, I put the hostel in Imst into the GPS only to be given an ETA of 9pm. The pass closed at 8pm, and it was itself about an hour away from the hostel. Uh oh. I raced back to Austria – Italian signs gave way to German which was encouraging, but at the same time the blue sky gave way to a cloudy one, and the sun quickly dropped out of the sky. Eventually I got back to the pass before 8pm… but it was pitch dark, raining, foggy and I wasn’t sure exactly what part of the pass they closed – if I encountered a boom gate I’d have to turn around and take an incredibly circuitous, hours-long route all the way back through Innsbruck. And so I found myself going as fast as I dared up a wet, winding mountain road, freezing my arse off and finding that what little was illuminated by the headlight was obscured by the fog. I’ve never wanted to see the top of a hill so badly. But eventually I found it, and after a similarly gnarly but far shorter ride down the mountain I saw a bunch of red lights looming up at me out of the fog ahead.
Finally I’d reached the tollbooth, handing the disappoving attendant my return ticket just before the clock hit 8pm and he closed it down. No massive trip through Innbruck for me tonight… one hour more and I could be back in my nice warm hostel bed. Curiously, there was a tiny cafe still open right next to the tollbooth, so I stopped to have a coffee and warm up, finding the host enjoying a few shots of jagermeister with a lone, middle-aged woman. None of this is particularly remarkable, but the whole image struck me as being rather artistic – these two sharing a lonely drink on the side of a foggy Austrian mountain. It was one of those moments you have travelling – the ones where you feel more like you’re in a movie or a book or a painting than real life.
Pretty lakes : )
The next day was a big milestone…
Only one place with this ridiculous of a map…
My TopGear tour of Europe continued, as I finally hit the Stelvio Pass. To be honest I wasn’t that impressed – it’s not really a great riding road, unless you’re a massive fan of endless blind hairpins. Really what does make it notable is that it’s very high and very spectacular.
No one will notice how terrible you are at going around hairpins if you just stop in the middle of one and take a photo
Nonetheless, it is a mecca and I had to go there if only to get the sticker and the photo.
Jeremy Clarkson must *love* doing U-Turns
From the Stelvio it was a quick and convenient trip down into Italy to see Lake Como. I only stayed one night there – as a smelly motorcyclist with barely any money and a wardrobe consisting of a couple of crumpled T-shirts, I don’t think I was really the target market. It was one of those places that I went not to experience, but just to have a squiz and make sure it looked the way I thought it did. And it did indeed even exceed my expectations for how beautiful a place could be. If I had a few billion lying around (and once I make the next Facebook I’m sure I will), I could think of worse places to buy a holiday house.
This place was used for the filming of the Star Wars movies. Supposedly. I don’t recognise it so I’m guessing it was from the rubbish ones.
Two days ago, Austria. Yesterday, Italy. Today… why not Switzerland? And so I found myself on the Grimselpass to Interlaken. If Austria looks exactly the way you hoped it to be, Switzerland is much more of a surprise. There are bits of the landscape that look really alien – green-tinged stone bordering turquoise water. Much of it does look exactly as you’d expect though, which is good because that’s what I’d come to see. Having checked into my hostel in Interlaken, I went for a quick walk down to the supermarket, and out of the corner of my eye realised that I was basically looking at the North Face logo… the Eiger was right there… as long as there was no fog. Which there often was. C’est la vie, as they’d say in other parts of Switzerland.
What planet is this supposed to be?!
I’m not sure how heinously prejudiced mentioning this makes me, but I was surprised to find that Interlaken (and a lot of Switzerland in general) seems to be ridiculously popular with Aian (particularly Korean) tourists. I saw barely any in Austria, which is nearly the same country in a lot of ways… is it the chocolate? The watches? The knives? The ultra-brutal prices? Puzzling. Sure was interesting wrestling for kitchen space with Korean grandmas rather than the normal filthy backpacker crowd though. Also rather confusing is that everything in Switzerland is expensive except petrol, which is cheaper than nearly anywhere in Europe. Given that the region isn’t famous for being oil-rich, I’ve no idea what’s going on there. However, Seeing how I spend more on petrol than on food, accommodation or really anything it worked pretty good for me.
A more conventional view of Switzerland
I expected to do a bunch of hiking around Interlaken, but constant rain and fog made it a bit pointless. I’d also hoped to ride the Jungfraubahn to see the from the top of the Alps, but didn’t realise that it cost in excess of 100 euros for a half-hour train ride there and back. Nein danke. I still braved the rain to see waterfalls and glaciers, but truth be told the scenery was starting to get a bit dull. Although I was entertained to pull up to a petrol station and find that some kind of Bollywood movie was being filmed there. I’d love to know the story behind that one.
Moving westward, I said a sad farewell to German-speaking Europe. Although Swiss-German threw me for a loop every time I tried to listen to it, I still enjoyed the feeling of safety in knowing that if I had to communicate with someone who didn’t speak English, I probably could make myself understood. Back in Austria I’d been doing nearly everything in German – eating, buying stuff at shops, I even managed to have some really limited conversations. Alas, now I’d be in French Switzerland, where I was limited to “oui”, “non” and “ooh-la-la”. But that was a cost that I had to bear.
The Aletsch Glacier
Having left Interlaken I stayed a night in Lausanne. Lausanne was one of the few places I ever got asked for ID on my trip… for buying a single can of beer to drink with my crappy microwave meal, in a country where beer is legal to drink at 16. Oh dear
. On the upside, Lausanne has an art gallery which collects the art of non-professional artists with mental health issues and learning disabilities, and contains some amazing pieces of art. I was expecting the whole thing to be a complete wank, but there was really something raw about the pieces they have on display there… naturally they didn’t allow photos (lame!), but if you’re ever in Lausanne I do recommend you check it out.
There was a lot more to see in Switzerland, but the date of my flight back home was looming, as was bankruptcy – and paying 40 euro a night to sleep in a dorm bed wasn’t going to help that. After having a quick think about what I really wanted to see in Europe before I came, I realised that I really wanted to see the Nurburgring, and I also really wanted to see Monaco. Those of you who’ve ever looked at a map of Europe might realise that both of those places are quite a distance away from Switzerland… and in completely opposite directions. But what was I, afraid of a bit of long-distance riding? Never! Filled with cheap Swiss fuel and expensive Swiss croissants I started the long journey south – there wasn’t much time left for this trip, but it was hardly over yet.