15 October 2017

Balkans II--Sep 22-Oct 2, 2017

September 22, 2017
I didn't do much riding over the summer, and flew back to Bulgaria to continue my Balkans trip on the evening of September 22.  My flight landed late, maybe 21:00 or 22:00, Peaches picked me up at the airport, and we drove the 2 1/2 hours to the motocamp.  Kind of a long day!

September 23, 2017
I wanted to leave early today, because I had a fairly long ride in front of me and I wanted to stop somewhere on the way....  So I guess I got up by about 06:00, packed up the bike, and left by about 08:30.

My destination for today was Thessalonika, and I wanted to stop at Buludzha, an old, ruined communist-era building in Bulgaria which looks like a spaceship, which was more or less on the way to Thessalonika.  I wouldn't have much time to mess around if I wanted to reach Thessalonika by dark (as I did!), so off I went after inputting the two places into my GPS.  Here is my bike just before I left the motocamp:

I was looking forward to getting some pictures at Buzhuluk; one of my friends had been there and took some awesome pix.  Here is what it looks like (pix from the internet):

Cool, eh?  I was looking forward to seeing it!

So I pulled up to Buzludza after a couple of hours, and much to my surprise, found a different kind of monument:
I figured the other monument would be visible when I climbed to the top of the hill, and it was, but just barely:
See that structure on the mountaintop on the horizon?  That's the spaceship...

Doh!  I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I think the waypoint labelled as Buzludzha on my GPS was actually the Shipka Pass Memorial, marking the site of a battle between the Bulgarians and their Russian allies and the Turks in 1877-1878.  (Battle of Shipka Pass).  I was not too pleased, because given my schedule I didn't have time to ride all the way over to the spaceship...   Oh well, one of my mottos is "Adventure is just another word for poor planning", so I nailed it this time.

Anyway, since I was there I checked out the Shipka Pass monument:

The view from the top is pretty impressive, but my picture of it has mysteriously disappeared.  This place has some kind of weird travel curse for me!  Here is a picture of the nearby monument to the Russian soldiers who helped the Bulgarians defend Shipka Pass:

The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful; I don't even remember if there was a border crossing or not (is Bulgaria in Schengen?), but in any event the last couple of hours were a boring ride down the highway into Thessalonika.

Thessalonika is right on the coast, so I pictured kind of a beach town with a lot of hotels, and since late September is not peak season I did not expect the slightest problem finding a hotel there.  BZZZZ-WRONG!  For the second time in a day, lack of planning caused me some problems.

If fact, for whatever reason, there seem to be very few hotels in Thessalonika, or at least I couldn't find them, an no one would tell me about them.  There were two hotels in the coast, both full.  They referred to another one, nearby.  Also full.  They had referred me to another hotel.  Also full.  Finally I found a place--the oddly-named ABC Hotel in the middle of the city.  It was nothing fancy but I was glad to finally find a room and get off the bike.  Here is my bike parked in front of the hotel:
After a shower I went out for dinner and to check out the city.  It was about a twenty minute walk down to the waterfront from the hotel, so I found a restaurant and had a pretty average dinner of Bulgarian sausage and fish before heading down to the waterfront.

The waterfront is the site of a monument to Alexander the Great and a couple of historical buildings:
The White Tower:
There were a lot of people walking around on the waterfront, but they appeared to be mainly Greek, I didn't see/hear many foreigners.  Anyway, Thessalonika was not really what I expected, and I was not too disappointed that I'd be leaving in the morning.

Here was today's ride:

September 24, 2017
I'll have to call this date "Greek Battlefield Day"--I went to see four famous Greek battlefields in one day.  Generally nothing spectacular, but good to see some of the places you've read about...

I left Thessalonika pretty early and headed south.  After a couple of hours I passed Mount Olympus of Greek myth; unfortunately I was on the highway and there was no where to stop, so oh well...

I had researched some of the battlefield sites on the internet and was surprised at how few of the battlefield sites are known with certainty--you'd think that archeologists with metal detectors, etc.would have been able to find most of them by now, but apparently not.  Anyway, the first battlefield along the way was Cynoscephalea, in which the Roman legions under Titus Flaminius crushed the Macedonian phalanx under Philip V (Battle of Cynoscephalae) in 197 BC.  One of the peculiarities of this battlefield was that it was not a flat plain as most ancient battles, but on a steep ridge.  Here are some pix, the ridges are actually quite a bit steeper than they appear in the pix, it was hard to imagine a couple of ancient armies fighting here:

Next battlefield was Pharsalus, only about 12 km away from Cynoscephalae.  Pharsalus was where Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in the climactic battle of Caesar's Civil War (Battle of Pharsalus) in 48 BC.  Not much to see here, unfortunately, just a field...
I had to take some tiny farm roads to get to Pharsalus, and getting out of there took me along several kilometers of dirt roads, which was good.  I guess there won't be a museum there any time soon...

My next battlefield destination was Thermopylae, the famous battlefield where the 300 Spartans and 1100 allies held off 100,000-150,000 Persians in a narrow pass by the sea before being overwhelmed and killed to a man (Battle of Thermopylae).  This is one of the most famous battles in history, so is what prompted Greek Battlefield Day in the first place.

Thermopylae is a much bigger deal than the other two battlefields; it is on a major road, and there are signs and even a monument, although is was all a bit underwhelming.  Here are some pix of the monument:

The text on the monument's base says "Molon labe," which is Greek for "Come and take them", which was, according to the legend, the response of the King Leonidas of the Spartans to the Persian king's demand that they lay down their arms and surrender.  To this day this motto is recognized as an expression of defiance; I actually have the motto on a patch on my moto jacket:
Here are views to the north, where the Persians came from:

Here is my moto parked in front of Kolonos Hill, across the road from the monument, where the Spartans made their last stand after the Persians breached their wall:

According to Herodotus, by this point all of the Spartans' spears had been shattered, so they were reduced to defending themselves with their swords, fists, and teeth.  At this point the Persians brought up their archers and killed most of the rest of the Spartans with a rain of arrows.  Here is the view from the top of Kolonos Hill, and a little memorial tablet at the top:

The tablet was erected in 1955; the insription is Simonides' epigram about the battle:

"Tell them in Lacedaimon, passer-by,
That here, obedient to their word, we lie"

Ok, that was it for Thermopylae, now off to the last battlefield of the day (and the trip), Chaeronea.

There were actually a few battles at Chaeronea, but the most famous one is probably the victory by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander (the Great) in 338 BC over a coalition of Greek states led by Athens and Thebes (Battle of Chaeronea).  This was Alexander's first battle, and after the death of Philip he would begin his campaigns of world conquest which would result in his recognition as "Alexander the Great".

The battlefield at Chaeronea is one of the few known with some certitude, because after the battle a monument--the Lion of Chaeronea--was erected on the battlesite to honor the 300 men of the Theban Sacred Band--previously seen as invincible--which also died to a man in the battle.  Here are some pix of the monument with me and the bike:

Here is another lion relaxing hear the Lion of Chaeronea:

When I left in the morning, I didn't know where I would end up spending the night, I thought maybe in Chaeronea,but when I got there I found that it is pretty much a nothing town and not somewhere worth spending a night.  I looked at the map and decided to head to Delphi, the site of the famous Greek oracle (Oracle of Delphi), founded in the 8th century BC.  This is some serious ancient history....

Leaving Chaeronea the GPS took me on a little tiny mountain road, very narrow and twisty...I actually get a little nervous on that kind of road on my huge bike, especially when I haven't ridden on them much, so I was glad to reach a normal road after several kilometers.

Like with the rest of the trip, I knew basically nothing about Delphi other than what I'd read in the history books, so didn't know what to expect when I arrived there.  Here is a shot of some mountains along the way (I think these mountains are from this stretch of road...):

The road to Delphi is nice, especially the last 20-30 kilometers.  I rode past the archeological museum riding into town, so decided to find a hotel and then come back to see the sites.  Unlike Thessalonika, there were a bunch of hotels in Delphi, so I picked one of the first ones I saw, checked out the room (balcony with a view over the mountains, check....) and took it after parking the bike out front:
It was all the way across town, and then some, back to the museum/ruins, so I decided to take the bike over there.  The ruins are pretty cool, and for some reason entrance was free on the day that I visited, so that was a bonus.  Here are some pix:

After checking out the ruins, I went back to my hotel room and had a cigar and some wine on my balcony with this view--spectacular!
After the cigar I went our for dinner and walked around town. Here is a shot of the town:
So that was it for the second day of my trip, a rather eventful day if I do have to say so.  Here is a map of my route:

September 25, 2017
For the third day of the trip, I planned to make it to Corfu, a place I have always wanted to go, but had never been.  Along the way, I wanted to drop by the famous monasteries at Meteora (Meteora).

So today the weather was very cloudy in the morning when I set out, and I was pretty sure it would be raining soon.  Sure enough it started drizzling once I'd been on the road for a while.  Meteora was actually pretty cool, although very touristy, and I could not get myself to actually go visit any of the monasteries, so I just drove around and looked at them a bit.  Here are some pix:

It was still raining, although not very hard, and I decided to head off to Corfu.  The road from Meteora was through the mountains and very twisty, with lots of trucks.  Here is picture, note all of the trash on the side of the road!

The rain had made it a bit slick, so I was very glad to get down into the plains again.  I found the ferry port in the town on the mainland opposite Corfu (some complicated Greek name), waited a bit for the ferry, and soon was on my way to Corfu!  Here are some pix:

Corfu was another struggle to find a hotel.  As usual, I had not made any reservations, I figured that staying in a beach resort in late September should not be a big challenge.  This time it was just hard to find a hotel in cluttered Corfu, with all of its one-way streets, etc.  Finally, after a couple of laps around the town, I pulled in front of the Hotel Cavalieri (or something like that) and scored a room with a balcony overlooking the square--nice!  Here is the hotel with my bike parked in front:
I walked around town, had dinner, etc, and made plans for the next day, when I was going to Albania.  There was a morning ferry to Albania, then I figured I would take a road up the coast to see how far I would get before nightfall.  I had traded e-mails with an Albanian ferry company before coming on the trip to check on the ferry schedule and thought that one was leaving at 10:00 in the morning from Corfu for Albania, but decided to call to make sure--I didn't want to miss the boat!  So I called the Albanian ferry company and was informed that the ferry was leaving at 11:30, not 10:00! Good thing I called!

Here is my route from today, note that a good part of the route overlapped with yesterday's route:

September 26, 2017
I got up, had breakfast and went to the ferry office at about 10:00 to get a ticket for the 11:30 ferry...imagine my surprise when I found out that the ferry was at 10:00 and had just left, and that the next ferry was not until 15:00!  Not good...

I checked with other ferry companies, and none were leaving before then; I thought about taking the ferry back to Greece and then riding up to Albania, but didn't think that would save much time.  Ultimately I decided to wait around for the ferry, but I was not very happy about it.  I figured out later that when I called the ferry company they gave me the time for the ferry from Albania to Corfu, not Corfu to Albania.  Really screwed up my plans for Albania.

Anyway, hung out in Starbucks for a few hours (for the free WiFi) then went back to the ferry terminal to wait around there for a couple of hours before the ferry arrived and we were allowed to board. Here is a picture of my bike on the ferry:
From what I could tell, it would get dark around 17:30, and I would arrive at about 16:00 or 16:30 (I forget), so the cool coastal road was out of the question.  While on the ferry I looked at the maps again, trying to decide whether I should stay in Sarande, the town on the coast where the ferry docked, or somewhere else...

Finally I decided to go to the town of Girokaster, mainly because it has such a cool name!  I also read that the town itself was OK, and it wasn't too far from Sarande, so I figured that I could reach it by dark.  Girokaster it was!

Pulling out of Corfu, there were some massive cruise ships docked in the harbor:

Look at those things--yuk!  What a horrible way to travel.  Here is another picture pulling out of Corfu:
And one of Albania in the distance:
When we arrive in Albania, the customs clearance and passport control were pretty easy, and within a couple of minutes I was on my way out of Sarande to Girokaster.  My main concern was to reach Giro before it got dark--I really didn't want to be riding in Albania after dark.

It was not very far to Girokaster, IIRC 50 km or so, and the first half was a nice ride through the mountains; once through the mountains it was a quick ride up through the valley to town.  By now it was getting dark, and I was glad when I reached town.  As usual on this trip, I had a bit of a hard time finding a hotel--there was one on the main road, but the location was not very appealing, and the hotel itself was nothing special.  So I rode uphill into the center of town and found a couple of tourists hotels on some kind of square.

At the first hotel, I waited at reception for about ten minutes, but no one showed up, I think that guy standing on the front stairs chatting on his cell phone was the check in person, but he didn't display any interest in checking me in, so I left and went to the hotel next door.

This place was pretty nice, and much more expensive than I'd planned on paying in Albania, but by now it was totally dark and I didn't want to ride around any more, so I got a room (a huge room with a terrace), unloaded the bike, and had my usual wine and cigar.  Here is my bike in Giro:
I walked around town a bit, supposedly Girokaster was a pretty happening place for Albania, but I wasn't that impressed.  Here are a few pix:

Most of my time in Giro was actually spent trying to figure out where to go the next day...  The late ferry had totally screwed up my plans, I had wanted to see the coast road or the mountains, but since I'd lost a day I wasn't sure I'd be able to do either. The road up to the mountains was apparently pretty hairy, and I wasn't sure I was up for that by myself on my big bike, especially since the weather forecast for the heavy rain the next day.  I looked at a bunch of different options but it was hard to judge them, because the map of Albania that I had did not have a scale (!), and my GPS routing did not work after reaching Giro.  So literally I had no idea how far it was to various places, or how long it would take me to get there...  Weird!  So I decided that the next day I would generally head north and decide where to go along the way, when I knew how far I was from places!

Here is my (very brief) route for today:

September 27, 2017
As described in the previous post, yesterday I couldn't determine any distances with my map or GPS, and couldn't route with my GPS, so I just picked out the name of some of the bigger towns heading north and followed signs for them.  Usually works OK, and this was no exception, although like usual it did get a bit confusing at times when the signage got thin.

I still wanted to head into the mountains, towards a town called Theth, but given the roads, I doubted I could make it by nightfall, plus the road to there is reportedly pretty rough, and the forecast in the mountains for for thunderstorms...hmmm.  I figured I would drive towards the town of Shkoder until mid-afternoon and then decide where to go.

I had a pleasant enough, if kind of boring, ride up through the middle of Albania.  Behind the mountains in the distance, massive dark clouds where gathering.  By the time I reached Shkoder, it didn't look like I would be able to reach Theth by nightfall, or maybe reach it at all on my big bike.  So with reluctance I decided to write off Albania for this trip and head up to Kotor in Montenegro, which was somewhere else that I wanted to check out.

Soon after leaving Shkoder I crossed the Albanian-Montenegran border, with Kotor not too far off.  I reached Kotor by late afternoon and found that it is an old walled city, and that you can't ride into it, even on a motorcycle, like I usually do.  So I parked my moto outside the walls near a bunch of other motos and hoofed it through the gate into the city to find a hotel.  Because I had to carry all of my stuff, I wasn't interested in looking all over for a place, so chose the place nearest the gate, which was nice but again pricier than I had expected to pay in Montenegro.

After having my usual wine and cigar on my balcony overlooking the town I headed out for a stroll through town.  Kotor is nice enough but very very touristy, kind of like Dubrovnik.  Ugh, not really what I had expected.  Here are some pix:
In front of my hotel:

 The view from my balcony:
Anyway, after exploring the city and having dinner I headed back to the hotel and hit the rack, because it looked like I would have a long ride the next day.

Here is today's route:

 September 28, 2017
While in Kotor I'd realized that I'd screwed up more planning for this trip...from Kotor I had planned to ride up to Split and then take an overnight ferry across to Italy, and then ride up to Bellagio.  I'd take this ferry a few other times and they are huge ships, so no need to reserve a spot for a motorcycle on them, especially in September I figured.  Unfortunately, what I didn't realize that was that late September was already the low season, and in the low season ferries don't run from Split to Italy on Thursdays...  So the ferry was out, I would have to ride up through Croatia and then through Trieste to get to Como.  Ugh.

I'd actually planned on staying another day in Kotor, but because of this change in plans, and the fact that it was too touristy, I had decided last night to leave this morning.

Luckily, that gave me the chance to see one place which I had wanted to see in Croatia anyway, the Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvice Lakes National Park).  I'd read that the park has some incredible interconnected lakes, and is really beautiful. I was a bit tired of my poor planning for this trip so decided that this time I would call ahead a reserve a hotel room in the national park, especially since most national parks have lots of tourists and a limited number of rooms.  The first hotel I called was full (rut-roh!) but the second one had rooms, so I reserved one.

This was going to be a long ride, I think about 650 km or so (don't have my notes with me), but doable.  I've ridden up and down the Croatian coast a couple of times now and it is very slow-going, so especially given the short September days I decided to haul ass up the highway in Croatia to save time.  It took me a couple of hours to reach the highway; it was pretty, but I didn't take many pictures, here is one:

I finally reached the highway and started cruising along, but it was much harder than I expected due to high winds.  Really really high winds; at some points going across big bridges and through passes, the winds might have been the strongest I have ever ridden through, and not very pleasant.  The good news was that as I approach Plitvice I went through a longish tunnel and when I came out the wind was much less; the bad news is that now it was raining and not especially warm...

I pulled up to the hotel just after dark--I was glad I had taken the highway anyway and found myself in a typical Soviet-style "turbaza" (tourist base) with a bunch of tourist buses in front and Chinese tourists running all over the place.  The room didn't suck too bad for this kind of place, at least I had a balcony overlooking the park:

 Rather pretty, actually...  I had a well-deserved cigar and glass of wine and then headed down to the kind of grim, institutional restaurant--the only consolation was that at least I wasn't in the tourist cafeteria with all of the Chinese package tourists.  The next day I planned as a rest day off the bike so that I could hike around the park.

September 29, 2017
The next day I got up early and hike out of the hotel to the nearby entrance to the park.  Here is a picture of the map I took so that I wouldn't get lost...the maps they handed out with the tickets were tiny and illegible:
So a few words about these lakes for anyone that didn't bother reading the Wikipedia link:  these lakes are really interesting because it is basically a series of connected lakes, with one near the top of the mountain, then the next one a bit lower down the mountain, and another a bit lower down, etc.  A total of something like seven lakes, each separated by a tall, thin strip of limestone which is penetrated by various waterfalls and streams, which feed the lakes lower down.  It is actually a pretty amazing geological formation...

Again, lots of tourists around, although I lost most of them early when I took a wrong turn somewhere and headed the wrong way around the lakes.  Anyway, here are a bunch of pix:

The hike is mainly along the wooden pathways shown in the pictures above, which are built all around the park, although of course some of the trails are on terra firma as well.  The hike could be as long or as short as you wanted, depending on how many of the lakes you wanted to walk around, so I choose a fairly long trek of 4-5 hours.  I forgot to mention that the weather was much colder than I expected--about 4-5 degrees Celsius (about 40 degrees fahrenheit), so it was kind of a brisk walk.  The real problem with the walk, however, was that despite the rather interesting geological features of the lakes, at the end of the day you were walking around...a bunch of lakes that were pretty boring in themselves.  The Grand Canyon this was not...

I got back to the hotel by mid-afternoon and tried to amuse myself there, but it was kind of a struggle in the Soviet-style hotel.  I would definitely be ready to push out bright and early in the morning.

September 30, 2017
I was going to Bellagio today--another long ride, so I wanted to leave as early as possible, but actually couldn't leave too bright and early the next morning because because of the late season it was dark until 08:00 or 08:30 and moreover it was actually below freezing--yikes, I didn't expect that!  Given all of the rain and general dampness over the last couple of days, I had no interest in riding along black-ice covered roads in the dark, so I decided to wait a bit until it was light out and it warmed up a bit.  I set out at dawn at a very leisurely pace to minimize the risk of hitting a patch of ice.

It was really slow going up through Croatia and then into Italy near Trieste, not a very interesting ride, and then I got turned around a bit in Trieste and it took me a while to find the right road (I was having problems with my GPS, I think I didn't load maps for this area because I hadn't expected to be here).  I hit a big traffic jam just past Trieste but being on a moto, just rode around the cars and even around the accident itself, which was a pretty nasty-looking motorcycle accident--bummer!

But now a new problem appeared--the "Brake Fault" light on my bike started coming on and off; having brake problems on a bike is never a good thing, so I was a bit nervous, although the brakes seemed to be working fine.  By the time I reached the town of Lecco at the base right arm of the "Y" of Lake Como, the beginning of a nice twisty road to Bellagio, the fault light was on continuously, which made me really nervous on the twisty narrow road, so I proceeded at a grandma-pace until I finally reach Bellagio as it was getting dark again.

In Bellagio I only stay at one hotel--the Metropole--and it is one of the few places that I make reservations for, because it fills up quickly, even in the off-season.  So I pulled up to the hotel with relief and parked the bike, ready for an evening in Bellagio, one of my favorite places.

The weather was not great in Bellagio; here are some pix:

Here is today's route, another long one:

Oct 1, 2017
Today I only had a short ride, because I was going to visit a friend in Geneva.  But before I left the hotel, I took a couple of pix, because I wasn't sure when/if I'll be back in Bellagio....sad!

It was a short trip, but through the mountains, and under the Mont Blanc tunnel, so I was hoping that there would not be snow up there.  Not many pix because not many places to stop, but generally a nice ride.  No snow along the road, only up on the peaks.  Here is one picture after passing through the tunnel:
I reached Geneva by mid-afternoon without any difficulties and stayed with my friend Tim McCarthy and his lovely family.  Very nice evening reminiscing about old times.

Here is the route:

October 2, 2017
Today I had to ride up to Heidelberg, where I planned to leave my bike with Stefan Knopf before having him ship it back to the US. Not an interesting ride, all autobahn, lots of traffic, lunch at a Burger King along the German border.  Not what travelling is all about, but you gottta do what you gotta do.  I made it up to Stefan's by mid-afternoon and got the bike ready for shipping.

I had last been at Stefan's place in 2009 when I picked up the red GS before riding it back to Russia and riding it all over the place there.  Kind of sad...  Here are a few pix of the bike and Stefan's place:

Here is the route; nothing exciting and not to be repeated except under duress:
So that is it for this trip; if I get a chance I will come back and revise this post later when I have my notes with me to put in all of the distances, etc.  Here is the route of the overall trip:
Not sure when I'll be riding again in Europe, so I was glad that I could get this trip in and see some places that I'd not been before (parts of Greece, Albania, Montenegro).  But there is still lots to see in this area (including the spaceship and the mountains of Albania), so hopefully I'll be back before too long.

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