Why Tallinn? someone asked around 6 months before we left. Well, I had the urge to do a decent length bike trip for some time and so I started planning just after New Year 2005 but I needed a destination and that was where Tallinn came in. How far could I sensibly travel in two weeks or so, taking into consideration that I was riding my wife’s ’83 Suzuki GS650GT shaft drive. I looked over maps and played around with a European route finder to get an idea of time and mileage. Tallinn looked perfect, it was pretty close to Russia, about as far away as I could get in the time and it looked like I might have an adventure getting to and from it, after that, it was looking up other points of interest that could be worth a visit. The Frank Zappa statue in Vilnius in Lithuania was the next find. I like his music so that became another reason. The idea of being able to say that I’d been to Hel and back appealed and so Hel in Poland joined the list. There were a couple of other places but they turned up after looking to see what route could be made from the original three places.
Now you may have noticed all this ’I’ and not ’We’ stuff, well originally I was going to make the trip alone. Having gigged and toured in bands with folks complaining about lodgings, comfort and itinerary, I really didn’t want to go that route again, especially when doing something that’s supposed to be fun, it is a holiday after all.
My good lady wife though was looking to my safety and wanted me to travel with someone – it was that or get low-jacked so she could track my whereabouts, a bit unrealistic and far too James Bond for me. She then suggested a good mate Peter from Glasgow. Peter is used to traveling down to his sister’s place in northern Italy and he doesn’t worry too much where he sleeps, he’s quite happy in a sleeping bag next to his bike in a service station car park and he’s not one for complaining either. He jumped at the opportunity, he’d just been waiting to be asked. We met up to finalise a rough plan over a few beers in March 2006 and then again a couple of months later at the Welsh International Motorcycle Show, 18 days before our boat sailed from Harwich for Esbjerg in Denmark.
I arrived at Harwich to find Peter already waiting in the car park of the supermarket near the harbour with his BMW F650 and chatting to Henry, the Danish owner of a rather beautiful 1953 Indian Roadmaster. Henry had been touring the UK for a week or so, only to have a problem with his bike on the way back to the port. We sat and had a couple of beers then it was time to head over to the terminal. Whilst waiting to load onto the ferry we stood with our bikes chatting. In the next lane to us were a group of riders traveling from Ireland to St Petersburg. As they mounted up to ride onto the ferry one of their number fell and his bike ended up pinning him to the ground. He was in a fair bit of pain as we gathered round to pick the fully laden bike up off of him but seemed OK to ride once we had. Bikes loaded and strapped down we settled into our cabin and then found the bar, Henry arrived a little later and we spent an enjoyable evening chatting all things motorcycle over a few beers and the Irish guy bought us a round, in thanks for helping him earlier at the terminal. We woke the next morning taking it easy until docking at Esbjerg early afternoon. We helped Henry load his bike into a trailer to get it back to Copenhagen then we were off, heading East.
As we rode across Denmark it became apparent that my reserve tap wasn’t working after I had to push the bike a couple of hundred yards into a petrol station. From then on it was to be a case of looking for somewhere to fuel up from 80 miles, any further than a ton and it was going to be touch and go. The first rain we were to encounter on the trip was whilst crossing a string of islands linked by a long bridge and boy did it come down. In the deluge that followed my waterproof clothing proved otherwise very rapidly. We crossed the huge Orsund Bridge that spans between Copenhagen and Malmo in Sweden, it looks very impressive from a distance but the view from it wasn’t anywhere near as good. Once into Sweden we headed for Jonkopping where we were camping by Lake Vattern for the night, the weather changed and we started to dry out, well I did, Peter’s clothing had kept him dry in the first place. After around a 400 mile ride we arrived in Jonkopping, it was getting dark and shortly after putting my lights on my bike died but the engine bumped fine and we made it to the campsite a few miles further round the lake though I had no lights. It looked like it may be a problem with the rectifier, something to be looked at in daylight. We pitched up at the campsite and as the bar wasn’t open we nipped out on Peter’s bike to go find some beer for the evening. We eventually managed to find a garage selling some, it wasn’t cheap and it wasn’t very strong but it was enough for us and we spent a couple of hours drinking with some folks from the Swedish Sidecar Club back at the site before they went off to bed and we went and sat by the lake eventually watching a most beautiful sunrise before turning in for the night.
After a few hours sleep we got up and I looked at the Suzuki to see if I could find the problem. It turned out to be just a broken earth wire off the rectifier, a quick fix, excellent. Bike fixed and both packed we left Jonkopping for Stockholm. It’s one road all the way and what a great road it is to ride, especially as the weather had improved to the point where it was becoming decidedly hot. The long sweeping bends took us all the way to Stockholm where I made the mistake of taking us into the city (no satnav in those days) so it took us a little longer to reach the ferry port. It didn’t really matter though as the ferry was loading very slowly and we waited in the sweltering heat for a fair while.
Once on board, the ratchet straps we’d taken with us came in very handy because the ones they gave us to strap the bikes down, proved not to be a great success. We made our way to our cabin, cleaned up, found food and the bar. During the evening there was a really good musician in there playing loads of good songs including a few by Tom Waits so I was happy. We stayed in the bar throughout the evening until he finished and then stayed a bit longer until the bar closed around 2am at which point we moved into the disco and sat drinking there, finishing off some time around very stupid o’clock. Peter rather drunkenly asked for my key to the cabin as he’d left his in there earlier and because I was also very drunk I gave it to him before taking a short walk on deck to try and clear my head a little. When I arrived back at our cabin I couldn’t get in, there was no waking Peter from his slumber so I rolled my cutoff into a pillow and with a laugh at the situation I lay down in the corridor and went to sleep. I wasn’t laughing a couple of hours later when a steward woke me with a few slaps telling me that I couldn’t stay there and that I best get back to my cabin. I don’t remember hitting him (I learned in the Forces that you are not responsible for your actions when first woken) but I do know I explained that you don’t wake folks up by slapping them around and that this was my cabin. I took myself off to reception and asked for another key. Returning to the cabin I hit the sack forgetting both to set an alarm and turn the radio on for any announcements which is why we were awoken rather loudly by the cleaners half an hour after the boat had docked. We packed rapidly, left the ferry and rode out into the bright morning sunshine, hung-over but smiling. Here we were then, Tallinn, Estonia.
Tallinn has been around since the 9th century and was possibly settled as far back as 2500BC. It’s prime position as a trading port has made it enviable to other nations and many peoples have fought over the region. It survived a 29 week siege by Ivan the Terrible in 1570-1571 but was surrendered by Sweden to Peter the Great in 1710. Tallinn was badly damaged during the Second World War by Soviet bombing but in the 1990’s and now under Estonian rule, Tallinn was transformed into a contemporary mid-sized city with a beautifully restored Old Town, which is where we were heading. My guide book had said that there was a hotel just off the main square with rooms starting around €18 per night but when we arrived things had changed and they were just putting the finishing touches to the 5 star reception area. They had a single room that they would allow the two of us to use but it was going to cost €100, needless to say we went off in search of other accommodation. The local tourist information hooked us up with some very good folks who provide rooms for backpackers. We ended up in a hostel about 20 yards from the main square, location, location, with our bikes parked up in a 24 hour guarded car-park 10 minutes walk away.
For the next two days we walked, ate, drank and walked some more around the Old Town catching some great views of both the old and the new parts of the city. We didn’t feel the need to explore any further as the new part of the city looked pretty much like any other city. The weather was fantastic and our evenings were spent around the main square dominated by the Town Hall sharing our patronage between the bars whilst watching the girls go by. I’d taken a mandolin with me and it made a few appearances and it seemed that a good time was had by all. On our last morning in Tallinn we awoke fairly early to bright sunshine, collected the bikes, loaded up and eventually found our way out of the city.
As we hit the main route south away from the city we were hampered by major road works on the Via Baltica which links Tallinn to Poland via Riga and Kaunas along it’s 670km pot holed, long and winding route. It is hoped that by 2010 the road will be a smooth surfaced international highway. I hope so too as it may alleviate the problem of trucks thundering down the smaller existing routes, overtaking at the most ridiculous moments. Absolute madness. We turned towards Tartu and by early afternoon we had reached our destination for the day.
Otepää is a small town with a general population of 2000+ folks, summertime bumps it up with folks sailing on Lake Pühajärv and in wintertime it is the main skiing area in Estonia. We arrived at the town and rode around the lake a ways until we found a sign telling us that we had found our campsite run by a local bike club. The site is open to Josef Public but bikers pay half price which is handy. We didn’t bother putting up tents as the owner of the site told us in broken English (which was far more intact than my meager Estonian) that a hut with a couple of bunks would cost us 100 EEK (about £4) for the night. A meal and a beer each cost us the same, result. The beer was welcomingly cold and the food excellent after which we took a ride into the small town to find an ATM machine and have a wander. It came across very much like a really small seaside town on the south coast of England. Returning to the site we had a lazy evening, a few beers and an early night catching up on the lack of sleep we’d had since leaving the UK.
Next morning we awoke to another hot day. Apart from when we were traveling through Denmark the past few days had been hot, around 35°C hot and here we were at breakfast and it was already approaching that. That sort of heat is great all the time you’re moving but a tad uncomfortable when sat on a bike in traffic. Still, the ride to Riga should prove no bother as it’s only 120 miles at most. Leaving Otepää after breakfast we made good time on good roads heading South West towards the Estonian/Latvian border. I’d checked the route over a few times on the map and was confident as to where we were going so when a signpost pointing left to the town we were heading for appeared I knew that the direct route was straight on, so I ignored it. Twenty minutes later we were in the middle of a bloody big forest, the road had disappeared into a wide gravel track that was testing my riding abilities no end. I found out that we were still going in the right direction though from a guy passing us in the opposite direction. There were a few houses and small holdings here so folks did travel through the forest along these tracks. Knowing all this though didn’t make the riding any easier but hey! wasn’t this supposed to be an adventure anyhow.
It’s at this point that I’ll make a public apology to Peter. Due to me needing to concentrate to the full on what I was doing (I’d never ridden on anything like this) I neglected to keep an eye on my mirrors and thus for Peter traveling behind me. Having done some off-roading in his native Scotland he was much more used to this than I and had decided to go play in the loose stuff at the side of the track. He managed to bury his front wheel and dropped his bike. I reached the junction of track and good road and a sign pointing to the town that I’d seen sign posted way back before we got onto this stuff and noticing for the first time that Peter wasn’t with me, I waited. Nearly 10 minutes passed and I was about to go look for him when he came into sight.
As he pulled up and told me what had happened I could see that he wasn’t over impressed that I hadn’t been there to help him but he said that he understood, I’d struggled over the miles through the forest. Cheers mate and a lesson learned, see a sign for where you’re going, take it. Short cuts can lead to long delays … but they can also be exhilarating.
As we drew nearer the border at Valga, the good road became very bad. There had been a road here once but it looked like it had been scraped down to the rubble with the idea being to resurface it but I reckon they ran out of money before they could finish what they had started. The dust was incredible with the trucks thundering along at 50 – 60 mph whilst we picked our way through at thirty and less, minding out for manholes that were now standing a good few inches proud of the rubble. Both of us wanted to stop and get a photo of the trucks coming through the dust clouds but neither of us fancied being truck tyre jam. Once back on some good road the border post turned out to be down a side road from the one we were on so I missed it first time round, I got us there some minutes later though and soon we found ourselves in Latvia.
Through Strenci and Valmeira we rode and by mid afternoon we were on the outskirts of Riga. It was hot, hell yeah, damned hot. We had spoken with a couple of guys from New Zealand at the hostel back in Tallinn and they had recommended another hostel here in Riga that wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg, Riga being possibly the most expensive of the Baltic capitals. We stopped to get directions and whilst I was talking to a young couple, Peter went off with a student who knew a hotel close by. I sorted the directions to the hostel but then Peter came back with news that the hotel was cheap, well it was until we parked the bikes outside and went to check in, at this point the prices doubled and we loaded the few bits we’d taken off back onto the bikes and went in search of the hostel. It turned out that the hostel was pretty much in the heart of the city next to a major traffic junction, across from the railway station and with the Old Town about fifteen minutes walk away. The price was good and the place very clean, the only drawback was that it was on the 4th floor of the building it occupied, along with an internet café and various offices. There was no parking apart from locking the bikes to a signpost on the pavement below. Feeling very uneasy I chained the Suzuki through Peter’s F650 to the post and carried my stuff up to the room we were sharing with a very quiet and polite Japanese backpacker. We showered the dust and sweat off and put on some clean(ish) clothes – Hatsumoto didn’t clock Peter’s ’ Stinky Sumo’ T-shirt … or maybe he did and was remaining aloof.
Whilst we were chaining the bikes up the sun had disappeared, the air grew heavy and it felt like a storm was on it’s way. As we walked round the part of the town where we were staying, looking for somewhere to eat, the sky became darker and the air heavier still.
We walked and within a few streets we found a suitable looking place. Beer and food was ordered and once again the TV was full of the world cup. So there we were, enjoying a beer in the bar when the heavens opened for the second time so far during the trip. Thunder, lightning and relentless rain for the next hour or so. We moved into the back bar and from the window we could see where the rain was being funnelled off the roofs around us and through one main drain pipe. Where the water exited through a hole in the wall to our right into the courtyard there was a plume of around six to eight feet. We stayed for a couple more beers before the rain eased and we made our way into the Old Town and found de LACY’s one of three Irish themed bars in Riga, there had been a few in Tallinn too. After a few pints of Guinness and during the break between matches on the ubiquitous TV in the bar, Peter suggested to the bar staff that I could sing a song or two, the Irish Rover etc. I had no mandolin and the manager wasn’t too keen to start with but he had an old fiddle screwed to the wall above the bar and took it down for me to use as a mandolin (same tuning, turn it on it’s side and you have a fretless mando) but it was fairly trashed so I said I’d just sing. Song sung, much clapping, the next match on the box and another Guinness in hand. We had a couple more then returned to the hostel. The station clock across the way looked fantastic as we headed off to bed trying not to wake our room mate. I couldn’t sleep so I popped down to the Internet Café on the floor below to drop a few lines in on a couple of the forums I frequent. We’d had some great texts off mates wishing us well and I wanted to let them know how we were doing before retiring for the night.
We went out for breakfast and it was raining. It had rained on and off but mainly on for most of the night, there was a lot of water on the roads. My sense of direction was obviously off kilter again as we came out of the hostel, turned left and walked round the block in the rain looking for McDonalds (needs must and all that). If I’d have turned right we could have found it quicker as it was right next door to our building, it didn’t bode too well. Returning to the hostel, we picked up our bags and in the rain loaded the bikes which had remained untouched overnight, any worries that I had being totally unfounded. It was still raining as we crossed the River Daugava running through the city and finding the right road out took a while, with a couple of false starts which left us heading toward Jürmala on the coast. Once we realised this we about turned and found the right road. So what’s the worst road surface to ride on then? Cobbles? or worse still, wet cobbles? you reckon, huh? how about cobbles under six inches of water, you can’t even see the potholes where cobbles are missing. This was what we found we were riding on having crossed the river and before we found our way finally to the road south. With some relief we picked up the pace a little, it was still raining and it looked like doing so for a while. Visibility in places was down to 100 yards or less but even then as we slowed down behind a car and a couple of trucks we had some total lunatic in another truck decide to overtake us. We let him pass and gave him room to pull in and then stared incredulously as he overtook the car and trucks in front of us. Eventually we did the same though I reckon we had twice the visibility when doing so. The road to the Latvian/Lithuanian border was nothing short of boring, especially in the bad weather we were having. There was only one bend in it, at Jelgava so it seemed, then we were at the border. No problems there, we continued into Lithuania. The road didn’t get any more interesting other than riding through the town of Šiauliai and even though it had stopped raining I was soaked through, becoming very cold and starting to shiver. It was probably my most miserable moment of the trip. We stopped at a garage for petrol and I changed into a dry t-shirt and fleece whilst drinking down a large black coffee and getting some food down my neck. Back on the road again we made a stop at a service station on the outskirts of Kaunas and phoned Olegas, who we were going to be staying with. Whilst we waited in the car park for Olegas to arrive, we were accosted by possibly the ugliest whore that ever walked the streets of Lithuania. This was one gap-toothed, wall-eyed, off her head woman and boy were we relieved when she snared a John and disappeared off with him. Olegas arrived shortly after and we followed him into Kaunas.
Kaunas, it is believed, dates back to the 13th century and has a fair history as a successful river trading town. Situated on the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris Rivers it had been fought over and reduced to ashes and rubble thirteen times before the second world war began during which it received yet another battering. With Lithuania having won independence, these days there is a growing middle class amongst it’s inhabitants and it is a growing city with many museums, memorials, statues and some great architecture. We arrived at a yard behind Olegas’ flat, where he lives with his wife Alesia, who was heavily pregnant, which is why we were staying in the nearby flat of his sister, Viktorija and her boyfriend, Tomas. Bikes parked in his garage and bags in our room we set off out to see some of the city without even time for a quick change of clothes. Now, when I had been planning this trip Tallinn had been my first priority as a destination, get that far and we’re near as damn it in Russia. It was after that I found out about the Zappa statue in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania about 70 miles from Kaunas where we were staying thanks to Olegas’ bike club, the Roadhogs, kindly inviting us to spend the weekend with them, after an e-mail I sent requesting info on any rallies happening there, whilst we were on our travels. Olegas had arranged for us to meet up with a few of the Roadhogs in Vilnius the next day to go find the statue but for now we were heading into Kaunas’ city centre. The first place we went was the Church of Christ’s Resurrection for a stunning view over the city. The church’s architecture itself was fantastic, all square, modern and slabby but superb. There was a small wedding ceremony taking place in the rooftop chapel whilst we stood admiring the view and taking photos. Leaving the church we took a funicular down to street level from where the church sits on a hill. I’m told these are now a rare thing but Kaunas has two of them. Arriving at street level we wandered around many memorials and statues and having walked down the main thoroughfare and shopping area found ourselves in the Old Town where there were even more memorials. Olegas and Alesia took us to a restaurant brimming with charm and an excellent menu. before we returned to his sister’s flat for a wash and change of clothes, before venturing out for the evening to the bar that the Roadhogs meet at.
We arrived at the bar and sat drinking a few beers down with members of the club and their friends. I’d taken the mando along with me as an ice breaker and duly played a few tunes whilst we had a couple more beers. The bar closes early being out of the city a way, apart from Saturday, so we moved on and went to a viewpoint overlooking the River Nemunas and the city.
When we arrived we found many small groups of people partying there. The midsummer weekend is special in the Lithuanian calendar and many couples marry on it. Many others have stag and hen type parties and it is a great time of merriment … picked a good one to turn up on then, didn’t we. After Peter and myself had our photo taken with a bevvy of beauties on one such party, we went to another club’s bar and finished up the evening there before returning to our accommodation, where we would be staying for the next two nights. Another good day.
Saturday dawned and we awoke to find it was a beautiful sunny day and we left to ride to Trakai castle and then on to Vilnius around 10am. We stopped briefly at a mead producer on the way, where we had a sample of the weakest mead they produce at 13% though we bought a couple of small bottles each to take home, one of which was a staggering 70%. We stayed off the main highway keeping to smaller roads but they were fine to ride with very little traffic all the way to Trakai. When we arrived, Olegas took us to a bar where we parked up and settled at a table to wait for the guys from Vilnius to show. Whilst waiting, Olegas ordered up a Lithuanian specialty for us to try. All we were told was that they come in a choice of beef or lamb, we chose one of each. I don’t recall it’s name in Lithuanian but when it arrived at the table Peter and myself couldn’t contain ourselves, we burst out laughing. There before us were what could only be called pasties because that’s exactly what they were.
The restored castle at Trakai sits on an island in Lake Galve. It was originally built around the 13th century and we were soon in the throng that were visiting it. The island is connected to the shores of the lake by long wooden bridges which folks were diving off or traveling under in rowboats. Reasonably large sailing boats dotted the lake and there was a steady stream of newlyweds, their families and friends crossing to the island and it’s castle for their wedding photos. The castle was very impressive but a little too busy for me, we spent around an hour looking round before heading back outside to the others. The journey from Trakai to Vilnius is just a short hop and we were riding through city traffic in no time. The Roadhogs from Vilnius made short work of finding the park with the Frank Zappa statue. It turned out to be a bust sat atop a four meter high stainless steel post erected by the Lithuanian Frank Zappa fan club with the wall behind it painted with a rather good mural depicting the man who had absolutely no connection with Lithuania at all. A totally ‘because it’s there’ visiting experience.
Thanking the guys for their efforts, as they were off home, we crossed the city again to Three Crosses Hill where we rode up through the car park and along a narrow track passing a fair few pedestrians and a couple of no entry signs. Reaching near to the top we parked the bikes on a small patch of ground but no sooner had we done so, a forest ranger type on a horse turned up and a heated discussion ensued between him and Olegas, occasionally they both laughed then it was back to the shouting. An agreement was eventually reached whereby Peter and myself could leave our bikes there whilst we nipped up to the Three Crosses monument to get a couple of photos but the others would have to return to the car park below. All would have been fine and well but for the Kultural Touristic police type bloke who turned up and whilst we were taking our photos he was taking some of his own and calling the local cops who duly turned up wanting passports, licenses, ownership docs and eventually the equivalent of a £20 fine each. Olegas paid half and wouldn’t let us argue as they felt responsible for our minor predicament. Whilst the local cops were booking us I asked the Kultural Kop if he wouldn’t mind getting a couple of photos of the event for posterity seeing as he had the best camera there, he looked at me quizzically so I explained that they may be used in a custom bike magazine back home in the UK, after that it was no problem. When the cops asked us each to sign a receipt for the fine I was so tempted to sign ‘Best Wishes Stevie’ , so tempting but I decided that we’d got off with a minor fine, so best leave it at that.
We returned to Kaunas and upon arriving back at the flat were told to get a change of undies, bring a towel and don’t be long about it as they had a surprise for us. Well we had a surprise for them too. We walked out to the waiting car in kilted attire, their jaws dropped. Well here’s our surprise, now what’s yours? The pair of us were a little worried after Peter had overheard the word massage in a conversation earlier in the day and we remembered the battering Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor received at a sauna during their Long Way Round trip. After a short drive we arrived at the house of Kestas, one of the Kaunas members and his wife, Ziga. A couple of small bar-b-qs sat on the lawn, whilst on the large sheltered porch stood a long table, chairs and many large bottles of beer. After a few drinks Kestas showed us their surprise.
“Sauna” he grinned and handed us both a white sheet each and a hat to stop the top of our heads burning. I got the Harry Worth model. Kilts off and sheets wrapped loin cloth style we entered Kestas’ self built sauna with Tomas and a good friend of the club, George. The sauna had been heating up for a while and was now hot, eighty odd degrees hot. “Welcome to Hell” said our host as he basted the coals with water.
I was about to quip that we weren’t due in Hel for a couple more days but quickly shut my mouth as my lungs suddenly felt as if on fire. A few minutes later we were out and cooling down with a few gulps of beer in the evening air. “Three more times we go” said Kestas, “The last is the best”. The next was even hotter and the third hotter still. As we stepped outside into the garden we were met with buckets of cold water before laying down on the lawn to cool off at a more steady pace. Kestas eventually came over to me and said “The next is the best”. I had seen leafy twigs soaking in water as we went in the third time and so had some idea of what was about to happen. “OK, we go” he said. This time we went in separately with Kestas. As I lay face down on the bench inside the sauna I could feel it was not so hot, I heard the twigs dripping as they were lifted from the bowl of water then I could smell the aroma of the water as it hit the hot coals. Then the twigs were swishing onto my back, gently at first then more vigorously and then more so. It was not unpleasant, it was invigorating. Once Kestas was finished I floated out into the garden to be met with more buckets of cold water and a large beer after which I sat cooling down whilst Peter took his turn. Everyone was telling me how I would sleep like never before and they weren’t wrong. After a few more beers and a few songs, until we realised how late it was, we returned to Viktorija’s flat whereupon I retired to bed and drifted off into a marvellous slumber.
I awoke next morning and WOW!! did I feel good. I’m not much of a morning person as a rule. No, strike that. I’m not much of a person in the morning but I felt really great. We packed the bikes and were on our way midmorning. Not many goodbyes were said as we left because some of the Roadhogs were riding with us as far as the border, some 70km away. Meeting up with them at the bar we rode at a steady pace under sunny skies and on the road a few hundred yards before the border we said our goodbyes and thanked Olegas, Kestas, Darius, Audrius and Vaida and the rest of the Roadhogs for a really good weekend. Their hospitality had been superb. Thanks made and hands clasped and shaken they turned, waved and headed for a local lake for a swim whilst we rode the remaining couple of hundred yards to the border crossing into Poland.
At the Lithuanian border control they asked to see our passports and vehicle documents as they had at previous borders. Whilst handing over his docs Peter realised he’d forgotten to switch off his petrol. Now Peter had been having a problem with his bike for the last couple of days whereby if he didn’t turn off his petrol his airbox would fill up with the stuff. He’d tried tapping the carb to see if a sticky float would free off but to no avail. The airbox was a nightmare to remove to get to the carb so he’d just have to remember to turn off the petrol. If he didn’t it was a case of draining the petrol from the airbox and then waiting an age trying to get it started. Today he’d remembered fairly quickly to turn it off though so all was well. Peter was given his documents back and fired up his bike, the starter turned then it fired B-BANG!! The border guards jumped for cover in all directions and luckily for us no one went for their gun. Peter and myself grinned and had a good laugh once the guards realised what had happened and were grinning themselves. We rode straight through the Polish border and parked the bikes whilst we went off in search of a change of currency. Top-tip here, don’t bother with travellers cheques if you’re off to any of the Baltic countries if our experience was anything to go by. No one wanted them any place, a total waste of time and somewhat infuriating, that said none of the banks would accept Peter’s Scottish banknotes either. Most places we went had a cash point and they took any of the cards we had with us. Just don’t forget your pin numbers.
We entered Poland and found the road from the border to be just as good as the roads in Sweden we’d travelled and even more fun to ride, I reckoned they were some of the best roads I had ridden. We soon found ourselves at Gizycko and having a rethink about where we were going to stop for the night. The plan had been to carry on about another 20km to the tiny village of Gierloz near Ketrzyn to a thick forest where the demolished remains of Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s main HQ during WW II lay. This was East Prussia then, far away from important towns and transport routes and a very convenient spot to command the planned advance of the German army eastwards. It was also the place where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg made an attempt on Hitler’s life with a bomb in a briefcase. A couple of his staff were killed in the explosion but Hitler escaped pretty much unscathed. Around 5,000 people directly and indirectly involved in planning the assassination were executed. It’s possible to stay there in what were the officers quarters that have been converted into a small hotel. We decided to stay at Gizycko though, having found a good campsite by a lake. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and this was a far better place to enjoy it rather than under the cover of a forest. We rode into the town for a meal and a beer then returned to the campsite picking up supplies for the evening on the way. We sat by the lake for a few hours catching the sun and then as it dipped to another fantastic sunset we took some photos of ourselves and our bikes with the setting sun as backdrop. Over a few beers and some very weird Polish rock show on the radio we chatted over the great weekend we’d had and took a look at the route for the next day. It wasn’t very late when we called it a night but the rest of the campsite was already asleep.
After an early breakfast we were on the road around 9am, today we had a fair distance to travel to reach the Hel peninsular which sweeps round into the bay of Gdansk some 220 miles away. Now 220 miles ain’t that far on good roads but many of Poland’s roads don’t come within that category. They’re lumpy and bumpy, that said at least most of the potholes are filled in. We set off in beautiful sunshine and made our way through Ketrzyn and many small villages to Elblag where we followed a fairly major road through to Gdansk where it took us into the city and it’s horrendous traffic. We moved at a snails pace over the next hour or so unable to filter due to the density of the traffic, it was bloody awful. Eventually as the traffic eased and we were able to move out of the city all that went through my mind was the idea for a title of a new song, G’day Gdansk Goodbye. We followed a good dual carriageway up the coast past Sopot and Gdynia but the weather had become dull whilst we were stuck in Gdansk and was looking worse by the minute. I needed to stop and get food and a coffee inside me and as we pulled into a roadside services the sky grew increasingly dark. We filled the bikes and watched as what appeared to be a rather large storm headed our way. Strike ‘large’ and change it to HUGE. I had never experienced rain like it. The storm was traveling very fast and in no time there was thunder and lightning all around and it raged on for half an hour or so. After a while Peter nudged me and pointed to the west, in the distance we could see the sky was clearing as rapidly as the storm had hit us and soon we were back upon a much soggier road to Hel. There was plenty of traffic on the road as we headed up parallel to but not hugging the coast. There were plenty of roadworks, vehicles and more roadworks and though we rode past loads of stationary vehicles it really slowed us down. After what seemed an age we arrived at Wladyslawowo where the peninsular starts with Hel twenty miles away at the other end of it.
The guide book says that the peninsular is about 500m wide for most of it’s length only expanding to 3km towards the end at Hel, one of three fishing ports along it’s length. There are a further three villages and in July and August many holidaymakers. It has a railway line and a good road running between Wladyslawowo to Hel though as we rode along it we encountered some serious flooding due to the storm and were forced to ride up a small grassy bank to a paved walkway to get past. We arrived and found a soggy but drying out campsite that was in the process of being renovated at the very end of the peninsular. We pitched up and wandered into Hel, the town although a fishing port looks to be aimed at a holiday crowd too with many bars and restraunts. The church is now a museum and memorial dedicated to the local fishing trade with many small boats ‘moored’ in it’s churchyard. Whilst we sat outside a bar with a couple of beers and waiting for a meal I had another look at my guidebook. Hel has been around since the 9th century and never grew much bigger than it was in the 14th century with a population of around 1200 folks. This is due to weather patterns and a shifting coastline. During the second world war it was the last place in Poland to surrender to the German army in 1939 with around 3000 Polish soldiers holding out until October 2nd. It was a battlefield once more in 1945 when the Red Army trapped around 60,000 German troops there and was the last bit of Poland to be ‘liberated’. So that’s Hel, no fire and brimstone just fishermen, wind surfers and bars serving good Polish beer and food.
The next morning saw us up and away fairly early heading back along the peninsular road to Wladyslawowo. We were going to turn south and make our way to Reda to pick up the road to Lebork, Slupsk and finally Szczecin near the German border. From Wladyslawowo the road was busy with traffic so when I saw a sign at Puck pointing to Lebork we turned off. It was a much smaller road than the one we would have traveled on but we were out of the traffic and we were able to make our way fairly quickly to Lebork and on to Slupsk. With a couple of exceptions our days consisted of riding around 200 – 250 miles at most. The quality of the roads we traveled was okay overall. Sometimes the road surface was rough but it was rare to find an unfilled pothole. We were able to keep our speed up well on these back roads, it was just a case of keeping an eye open for horses pulling carts and thus piles of horse poo. Taking these roads we passed through small towns and villages where we saw families working in the fields and oily mechanics repairing cars in small roadside garages and the inevitable horse and cart. We reached Szczecin mid afternoon having had another good ride and found our campsite fairly easily. It was on the shore of Lake Dabie and there were a couple of small single seat powerboats blasting round the lake when we arrived. We put up our tents and watched the boats race round for a while then made our way over to the bar/restaurant for a beer and something to eat. We ate the food of the country or area we were in mainly and it had mostly been good. The menu here at the campsite was somewhat interesting though. There were Larks Tongues and Beef Guts on there but we settled on the more plain sounding Sausage Hungarian Style which was just fine. The beer was rather good and we sat drinking and chatting about the journey so far and where we would like to take a trip next, maybe in a couple of years. We thought it would be fun to take a blind stab at the little European map I had in my notebook, which we did and came up with Bucharest in Romania as our next destination. We had a few beers but not too many and as we had a long day ahead of us the next day we headed back to the tents not too late, which was just as well as it turned out. When we had left the tents there was a family camped to one side and some cyclists with their tent behind us, a couple of German guys and an American. Whilst we were sat outside the bar a group of around a dozen young Polish guys arrived and camped up the other side of us. There was plenty of room so we were fairly well spread out though the cyclists were closer than the rest. A couple of the German guys had been up at the bar and were getting fairly drunk, by the time we arrived back at our tents they were getting fairly loud along with the American. The Polish lads were partying too but were being a damn sight quieter about it. What the hell, we headed for bed as we had a fair few miles to ride the next day. I drifted off to sleep eventually with the guys behind still shouting about the beautiful stars in the sky.
When the shouting and sound of bodies clashing woke me I checked the clock on my phone, it was just after 3am. One of the German guys was yelling “I think my hand is broken, I think my hand is broken” whilst the American told him “Find it in your heart brother, let it go man, they ain’t fightin’ fair, just let it go”. I had an idea what was occurring and could probably guess why but after a few grunts and groans from the German things quietened down again but only for a few minutes. The German was still gobbing off and this obviously incensed the Polish guys again as fighting broke out again momentarily until I heard the American shout “I ain’t lettin’ go your neck an’ you ain’t goin’ back. Find it in your heart man, let it go”. Sod this I thought. This ain’t my fight and after listening to the German moaning some more but quieter and the Polish guys taking the piss out of the American’s accent over by their tents I drifted off once more. Morning came and I was awake fairly quickly. There would be some retribution this morning. Peter and myself had a routine of sorts, whoever was awake first would go shake the other’s tent and wake them, apart from a brief “Morning” barely a word would be spoken until we’d dropped the tents, packed, loaded and about to leave. We’d have a quick natter to sort where we would stop for breakfast and get on the road finally chatting properly over food and a coffee some miles down the road. This morning was no different apart from the dagger looks each of us was firing off at the cyclists tent. Words were not necessary, Peter had been woken during the night too. Time these guys had a wake up call courtesy of Messrs Fraser and Simpson. The bikes were just about loaded and we were ready to hatch our unspoken plan when the loud guy with the damaged hand staggered over toward his tent from a large party tent that was rigged up for guests to use. He was still hammered and gathering his sleeping bag and camping mat he lay down outside his tent and was very soon snoring. We fired up the bikes as quietly as we could and gently rode over to where they were camped with just a gentle popping from our exhausts. Peter positioned his exhaust so as it was in their doorway whilst I eased mine up beside the Germans head where he had laid down. We both wound our throttles open like a Spaniard at Faro and gave them hell with a torrent of abuse. The guy outside the tent woke with a ‘what’s goin’ on’ expression on his face and the American emerged from their tent looking like a dishevelled Catweasel. As we rode away there was a camper van from Denmark parked nearby and the owners were already up and sitting outside in the early morning sun. They gave us a huge beaming grin and a wave then we were gone. Over breakfast a half hour later Peter suggested that some new rings may be in order for my Suzuki having seen the cloud of smoke I left the German spluttering in.
The road to the Polish/German border, then to the Berliner Ring road and then for a little of that too is, it has to be said, bloody awful. It consists of slabs laid down a long time ago which have since lifted, dropped, tilted and skewed making the next hour a fairly uncomfortable one. Bumpy, lumpy roads we’d cracked, no problem but the pounding my spine was taking over this surface was too regular, you knew when the next was gonna happen, boo-dum, boo-dum, boo-dum, boo-dum. The border crossed and the first part of the ring road done, the road became much better and pretty soon I was wringing the Suzuki for all it had, this was Germany after all and mostly there are no speed limits on the Autobahn system. As we left the ring road to carry on west towards Hannover on the E30 we were zipping along at a good pace. It didn’t last too long though. Around fifteen miles out from Hannover we encountered standing traffic and from the look of it they had been there for some time. We filtered slowly through it as folks were standing by their vehicles and others were taking the chance to have a nap. We filtered to within about half a mile of our junction and came to the head of the queue. Another bike was already there and waiting and a few more came along as we waited for the police and breakdown truck to clear the debris from what looked to be a fairly tragic accident involving a large truck and a small car, there was very little left of the drivers side of the car. While we waited one of the guys was lending out his chain lube to any that needed it and we offered up our V2 sponge visor cleaners that had served us so well on the trip that someone had recommended beforehand. We chatted until eventually the police gave the all clear for us to proceed. Off we roared, bikes way out in front of the cars, at first packed together then the faster bikes were away and gone leaving me to realise that I’d enjoyed the burn up so much that I’d gone right past the junction we were going to take. It took us another two junctions and a petrol stop where we had no German cash and found that they wouldn’t accept any cards after we’d filled up. A little walk to the supermarket sorted that and we were on our way again. At Hannover we turned south onto the A7 another autobahn that runs down to Kassel. If I’d have taken the turn two junctions back on the E30 we’d have made much better time. So we were still pushing it …. and then some. We’d seen some dumb arse and down right dangerous driving from truck drivers since we’d arrived in Estonia. There wasn’t a single country you could single out as being the worst, there were just some manoeuvres you just had to see to believe. Nothing had come that close to an accident but when a rather large truck decided it wanted the piece of lane I was in at the time there was no warning, Peter swore that the trucker only blipped his indicator the once and pulled out. As it came across I hit my brakes and came to what felt like a complete stop from around the ton. I’ve never done a ‘stoppie’ but if that’s the feeling then you can sod that for a laugh. My near stop left me at most a couple of feet from his back end and I could see clearly that he had more tread on his tyre than I probably had just now. Peter ended up so close to my rear end that he could have probably checked my tyre pressure whilst there. Still alive but somewhat shaken I carried on and found the required junction that would take us to Uslar then onto Lauenförde. After the ride down the autobahn I was quite happy to slow it down a little on the wonderful roads we found ourselves riding.
After an hour or so we arrived in Lauenforde and soon found Villa Lowenherz, the biker hotel where we were going to stay for the night. We could have had a room but decided to sleep cheap and our beds for the night in the bunk room (that it turned out we had to ourselves) cost us €15 including a large buffet breakfast. The set evening meal cost € 7 and the beer in the bar (dispensed through an old Z1 engine) was also a fair price. It’s really popular too. We stayed on the Wednesday night and the place was busy by 8pm. Many folks use it as a stopping off place for their evening ride-out and I reckon there were around forty to fifty folks staying there along with us. We hooked up with some folks from Finland and Germany and had a great time, finally leaving the bar around 2am having played a few songs out in the beer garden until Martha (one of the owners) asked us to take it into the bar as it was late and she didn’t want locals complaining about the loud singing coming from a couple of the tables – it’s amazing how easy folks pick up ‘500 Miles’.
We didn’t rush down to breakfast the next morning as we didn’t have too far to go and our German clubs Summer Party that we were finishing the trip with didn’t start until Friday anyhow. Over a large and very enjoyable breakfast we decided that seeing as we’d had such a good time the night before we would stay over another night – We would have only been camped up at our German MC Rottum clubhouse on our own anyhow. So we stayed a second night enjoying ourselves as much as the first but not so late as the bar shut a little earlier. That second night along with songs from my normal set I played a couple of songs that I’d written about our journey whilst we’d been travelling. They’ll both be on the next album along with other songs about the trip. Villa Lowenherz is a superb place to stay, the roads in the area are fantastic and the hospitality superb, I can’t recommend it enough. They even washed Peter’s dirty clothes (I’d already had mine done in Kaunas) that could probably have walked home on their own.
We said our goodbyes on the Friday morning and took a very scenic ride back up to the E30 reaching Lingen, where our German club resides, in the afternoon. It was great to see our mates and over a good steady evening’s drink we regaled them with stories from the road until the small hours of the morning.
Saturday consisted of lazing around chatting, drinking and looking over the bikes arriving on site. They don’t have a band or entertainment other than some tunes pumping out from the sound system in the marquee and there was still a good turnout of friends and friends of friends. We stayed the weekend and then on the Monday left early after saying goodbye to our club mates to reach the Hoek van Holland in time for our ferry back to the UK. The ferry docked around 7.45pm and to save stopping on the way back we said our farewells at the petrol station before we left Harwich to head for home. Both of us agreed it had been a fantastic trip and looked forward to catching up in a couple of weeks at the Arrowhead Trike and Bike club rally in Wales. From Harwich we rode the A120 then the A12 to the M25 where with a wave Peter carried on into London see his girlfriend whilst I travelled west round the M25 towards another sunset and home with the idea for another song echoing round my head.
The songs that this journey inspired can all be heard on RIDE.