Thursday, 31 May 2012


Rode a scenic major highway with almost no traffic on our way to our next destination, Matera. The road infrastructure in this part of the country is very impressive. I didn't mention yestesterday that we went through about 20 tunnels through mountain ranges up to 1 km long; and today we more of that elevated highway with fantastic views on either side. For the Bega Valley readers, imagine a 2 lane road that tackles Brown Mountain by leaping into space at Pipers Lookout and descends slowly in nice arcs to land on Little Brown Mountain and then goes through the air to the range north of Pollacks Flat Road and joins the existing road at Numbugga. That's how they would tackle Brown Mountain here! The cost must have been huge. Though maintenence must be a problem because some of the road surfaces need urgent attention.

photo taken from about 1000 m elevation

Near Potenza we left the highway and went up into the mountains on a minor road through deciduous forests and cork oak plantations and then down through wheat and hay country to the town of Matera.

The tourist information centre in Matera found us a B&B  on the edge of the old part of town. We have a huge room with a kitchen and dining table and the bike is parked just outside the door in the narrow street.

We thought that with it being a tourist town the restaurants would be a rip off but my lunch of salmon and spinach fettucine with a basket of bread and a 1/4 litre carafe of the local red wine , plus a plate of homemade peanut brittle, cost the equivalent of just $12.50 and tasted superb.

The old part of Matera is called Sassi meaning "stones" because the original houses were carved out of the limestone rock. The first cave houses date back to the 8th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries more conventional one and two storey buildings were constructed on the hill among and above the caves using limestone blocks.

We visited one of the old cave houses which had one room for the family and at the back of it a room for the mule and another for the pig and the chooks. The smell must have been terrible.

Note the high bed which was elevated above the floor as high as possible to get away from the filth. Their infant mortality rate was 50% so the government began a rehousing programme in the 1950's. This house was vacated in 1956. Now the area is a major tourist destination and Mel Gibson used it as the location for his movie about Christ.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Amalfi Coast and then inland

At breakfast I heard a French guest at the hotel telling the proprietor that it had taken him and his wife all day to drive the 45 km to Amalfi and back to the hotel the previous day, because of the density of the traffic and stops to take photos and eat and drink. Our plan for today was to head towards Sorrento, take the mountain road south across the peninsula and the ride the Amalfi  Coast and then head into the interior of Italy.
By setting out just before 8.00 am we manage to beat most of the tourist buses for the first hour or two and had a reasonably clear run. The Amalfi Coast Road what not what we expected. We thought it would be near sea level but it is half way up the immense cliffs and is several hundred metres above the ocean with magnificent views up and down the coast and down to the seaside towns. We were able to stop the bike several times to take photos, which would not have been possible if we had been travelling by car. In fact many of the best views would have been totally impossible to see from a car because the stone walls at the edge of the road would have obscured them.
Looking back where we have ridden.
You can see the road running horizontally nearly half way up.

Just after Amalfi we turned into the mountains and headed for the cliff top town of Ravello where we stopped for coffee. On the way up we passed a flock of goats wandering along the side of the road guarded by a scruffy looking maremma dog which attempted a token chase after the bike. According to the guide books Ravello is one of the most scenic towns in Italy. We wandered around the old town a bit and had a coffee in the piazza. It had taken us 3 hours to travel the 48 km to here, most of it in 2nd gear.

When we topped the mountain range and saw the vista on the other side we couldn’t believe our eyes. The area in front of us which ranged from the outskirts of Naples to the outskirts of Salerno is totally built up; just one huge mass of humanity, traffic and chaos. We descended into the middle of what seemed to us to be busier, dirtier and noisier than Delhi in India. How people can voluntarily live in a place like this amazes me. After getting lost and twice asking our way we eventually found the autostrada and got the hell out of there.

The other side of Salerno we stopped at a services area and bought sandwiches for lunch and continued east along the autostrada until we struck north at Contura into beautiful mountainous country that was very similar to parts of the Alps. Much of the first 25 km was on an elevated roadway that spanned across valley and gorges and must have cost a fortune to construct. The traffic was so light when we got on to the minor roads that the solitude was a bit un-nerving after the congestion of the past few days. Now we were up in what the road signs said is snow chain country in winter.

Found our way to the town of Melfi where after asking directions to a hotel we found a room in the hotel next to the railway station. Walked through the alleyways of the old part of town and visited the cathedral and the 11th century castle which has been ruined by recent renovations using EU money that has included the installation of modern windows and doors and white internal wall plaster and conversion to a regional museum. What a sad loss. But thinking about it, a plaque on the wall said it was Norman castle which means it was built by French invaders from Normandy, so perhaps that's why the Itaians didn't think it was worth preserving.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Naples and Pompeii

The boat discharged us late, about 12.30, in to the chaos of Naples traffic and on to their appalling road surfaces. We headed out of town on a major road of potholed cobbles with broken drain covers, no road signs and a self-inflicted maximum speed for all traffic other than some crazy scooter riders of 20 kph or your vehicle would be shaken to pieces. The road lined with shops, offices and workshops topped by storeys of apartments with washing billowing from their windows and balconies. Cars, vans and trucks double and even triple parked and emerging from all directions. This went on for about 40 minutes until we decided to head inland and get onto the toll autostrada and head straight for Pompeii, abandoning all thoughts of finding Herculaneum.

Being on a bike we were able to park right outside the entrance to the Pompeian ruins instead of having to pay for parking hundreds of metres away. We put our jackets and other gear in our Pacsafe stainless steel mesh basket and locked it to the bike. That way we could walk around in the heat without having to carry them.

Everyone knows the story of Pompeii and what has been found by the archaeologists, but we were amazed by the scale of it and how much of the town is still standing. The old city covers 66 hectares of which 50 have been excavated to reveal streets of buildings including the forum, temples, markets, shops, houses, baths, a laundry and municipal offices. None have roofs but most have walls still standing to full height many with frescoes, sculptures and mosaics. The Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D. which covered it all in ash and rock preserved it amazingly.

Vesuvius in the background

After spending 2 and a half hours there and seeing only a fraction of it we got back on the bike and returned to the heavy traffic with the aim of finding a hotel as soon as possible. An hour later we decided that anywhere would do so we stopped at the next hotel which happens to be high up on the Cliffside looking towards Sorrento. It’s one of those places where the proprietor personally introduces himself and shakes your hand when you arrive and the porter takes the luggage to your room. At a claimed heavily discounted price of 100 euros including breakfast it is still beyond our budget but just look at the view from our balcony.

Our plans come unstuck!

There isn’t a ferry to Sicily until 4 days’ time! So we had to do a rapid rethink and I’m writing this on board a ship to Naples. It is a 17 hour voyage and it is more of a roll on roll off freight ship than a ferry. There are only 15 cars, a campervan, 12 foot passengers, 6 motorcycles and one bicycle on board, but lots of truck trailers with containers, tankers or open freight. When we get to Naples tractors will pull the trailers off the boat so they can be connected up to prime movers and continue on their journey. The ship is fairly old and shakes, rattles and vibrates a lot. Our cabin is basic, a bit worn but clean. There is a lounge, bar and self-service cafeteria. Gail was a bit perturbed by the ferries we have taken so far so this is right outside her comfort zone, 17 hours on the open sea in a rattling comparative rust bucket.

When we bought the ticket we thought it was a normal ferry and assumed it would have a shop on board where we could buy a map of northern Italy as our map doesn’t go far enough north, but of course there is no shop on board this ship so we can’t even plan where to go when we land. What an adventure, I love it. Time for another red wine or two.
A reasonable night’s sleep. Breakfast of cappuccinos and apricot filled croissants. Sunny sky and flat sea.

We’ve decided to go south from Naples and try to find Herculaneum and Pompeii. The only map we have is very small scale so navigation may be a challenge. Then we’ll head for the Amalfi Coast.
approaching Naples

Southern Sardinia

When we were checking out of the hotel in the morning the guy at reception asked where were going today. When we showed him on the map that we intended to visit the Nuraghi archaeological site near Barumini he insisted that the best way to get there was to take the highway south and then double back to Nuraghi Su Nuraxi. We shouldn’t have listened, the highway was fast but boring and we got tied up in road works.

The archaeological site itself was very interesting. The Nuraghi were the people who inhabited Sardinia 3,000 years ago. They had relatively advanced building construction techniques for what was then the Bronze Age and there are remains of about 7,000 examples of their buildings on the island.
At this site there is a central 3 storey tower, though the top storey is missing, with four 2 storey towers at the cardinal points around it and a connecting wall between them, so when built it looked similar to a medieval castle of over 2,000 years later. They know it had ramparts around the top of the outer wall and the central tower because during excavations in the 1950s they found a scale model in clay that showed the original shape of the tower and explained the purpose of the shaped cantilever rocks that they had found, which served as supports for the ramparts. Outside the fortress are the remains of a closely built village of houses with up to seven rooms. Every room and tower is circular in shape and reduces in diameter as it gets taller. The towers were built of volcanic basalt for their full height, so they are a tall beehive shape, but the rooms of the houses had dwarf rock walls topped by a wood and thatch dome roof with a central open space. Life must have been pretty desperate 3,000 years ago if the people had to go to such great lengths to construct a complex stone fort to protect themselves and their food stores from their neighbouring tribes.

It cost 9 euros each for a tour which was conducted in Italian and English. Well worth the money.

After a coffee in a nearby café we took the country lanes to Cagliari though very pleasant undulating scenery with many olive groves and masses of beautiful wild flowers on the road verges and in the many of the fields; mainly red poppies, tall yellow daisies and a purple flower of some sort. Looking for a lunch stop we passed through many villages but they had shut down for their noon to 4.00 pm lunch break. Eventually found a supermarket that was open and bought some pre-packed sandwiches which we ate in the shade of the awning of a closed café in a small park.
Continued on our way to Cagliari where the plan was to buy a ticket for an overnight ferry to Sicily.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

West coast of Sardinia

Started riding at 8.00 am after a breakfast of bananas, cheese and bread that we bought the previous evening. Amost the only vehicle on the road we cruised SW along the Costa Paradiso (Paradise Coast)which lived up to its name, with rugged rocks and deserted white beaches on our right and countryside that reminded us of Connemara in Ireland – small fields scatted with boulders and with drystone walls and full of wildflowers. Lots of camping villages and eco-resorts but all of them closed as it is out of season. Passed the lovely hill-top old fortified town of Castelsardo which looked very interesting but we decided to keep going as it was too early for a coffee stop. Skirted the city of Sassari and went south to Alghero, a place that is described on some websites as one of the best coastal sights in Sardinia, a claim that we though a bit exaggerated but it is certainly nice. It has all the touristy trappings like seafront cafes and horse and buggy rides, but I have to say I preferred the place where we stayed last night because it was more genuine.

Had cappuccinos and then got on one of the boats going to Cape Caccia to see Grotta di Neptuna (Neptune’s Cave). A good way to spend 3 hours but the sales pitch is a bit misleading. We got the impression from their advertising board on the wharf that the boat actually went into the cave to see the stalactites and other formations, but in reality they put you on shore and then you have to buy a 13 euro ticket on top of your 15 euro boat fare to enter the cave. Once inside it is very nice, with 2 main chambers full of very nice limestone formations and several water pools.

The boat trip out and back is spectacular in itself, cruising past high limestone cliffs on flat calm water.

Back on shore we continued south long a very scenic winding road with more rocky coast on our right and this time mountains on our left. The mountains are “softer” than those in Corsica, being covered in vegetation rather than bare and craggy.

A late lunch at an outdoor café at Bosa Marina and then as we continued south we started looking for somewhere to stay the night. We soon discovered that on Sunday afternoon Sardinia is closed! We found hotels but their doors were locked and many had their shutters shut tight. We went through some small towns that were almost devoid of any sign of life. Eventually we found a Travelodge type business hotel in the not quite so deserted large town of Oristano, but I’m sure we are the only people staying here. Nice room at a good price including breakfast.
Wandered into town at  7.30 when the place was just starting to come to life again and the restaurants were open for drinks but not for food yet and found beer, wine and a great dinner in an alleyway restaurant though it cost us an arm and a leg because we splurged a bit. They seem to be very nice people in Sardina and are very helpful to those of us who dont speak a word of their language.

To Sardinia

Woke up to rain! Is this stuff following us? Thunderstorms rattling round the mountains inland. Got up late and breakfasted at the place over the road where we had beers yesterday. Set out in light drizzle for Bonifacio in the extreme south of the island where we planned to take a ferry to Sardinia.
Bonifacio is a medieval town built on the top of limestone cliffs that are eroding away under the ancient township. It looks like sooner or later some buildings and streets are going to plunge into the sea. The township itself is a made up of narrow cobbled streets and in an approximation of a grid pattern much of it dating back to the 13th century. The more recent buildings are 18th century. It’s quite touristy though which spoils the atmosphere a bit but is inevitable when a town is so historic and picturesque.

The next ferry was due to sail at 3.30 so we parked near the wharf, walked up the hill to the old town, bought some sandwiches and sat on a seat watching the world go by until it started to rain again and we headed back to the wharf where we hung out in a coffee shop until we could buy ferry tickets.
A big ferry with a car deck and lounge area and café but only 15% full. Ours was the only motorcycle but several touring cyclists on board. The ship is Italian so it was a new language experience when ordering coffees and a bottle of water. I’ll have to pick up some Italian quick as we’ll be in Italy for quite a while now as we travel through Sardinia, Sicily and mainland Italy .

The view of Bonifacio as we sailed away was dramatic.

An hour later we docked at Santa Teresa Gallura in Sardinia in glorious sunshine. By now the riding day had almost gone so we cruised around town until we found a bar that had a B&B sign. The proprietor walked us through the bar and a snooker room to a brand new accommodation section where we settled for a large newly fitted out room with king size bed and its own balcony, new bathroom with everything, for 50 euros, without breakfast which we declined because it isn’t served until 8.30 and we are hoping to get an early start, IF IT’S NOT RAINING.

Went for a walk round town and to the 16th century tower we had seen from the ferry. The tower was built when Catholic Europe was at war with Henry and Liz 1 in Tudor England.

A very nice town. Modern in a classic way, with everything in perfect condition. The roads for example, instead of being of bitumen, are paved with granite slabs laid perfectly uniformly, so they must be on a bed of concrete to be that flat. There’s no sign of the Italian financial crisis here. Some roads are patterned with cobbled sections of small round river rocks of uniform size. Many of the restaurants have taken over and enclosed not just the footpath but also part of the road. I can just imagine what an Aussie town council would think of that.

Had a great dinner. In typical Italian fashion the restaurants don’t open until about 8.30 pm.  My grilled tuna steak with grilled Mediterranean vegetables and a basket of bread which would have cost $25 in Oz was $17. A bottle of excellent red wine was $11. Dessert was a local speciality, a 10 cm diameter pastry flying saucer filled with cheese and lemon and coated with hot honey. “Most peculiar” was Gail’s verdict.

Friday, 25 May 2012


Arrived at the Corsican port of Bastia at 7.00 am and disembarked into a massive traffic jam that lasted for the 20km ride through the city and south to a major  junction where we escaped on the road to the mountainous interior of the island.

What a place! The mountains are absolutely beautiful. Almost enough to bring tears to my eyes as we rode about 80 km for 3 hours  in 1st, 2nd and 3rd gears only past cascading rivers, snow capped peaks,  wild flowers everywhere and cattle and pigs wandering on to the road. Lots of bikers coming the other way. All tourers, no sports bikes.  Eventually emerged on the west side of the island and then rode south along a beautiful coastline with lovely villages and beaches and mountains inland of us. I have to admit it made the Great Ocean Road in Victoria seem a very poor cousin. To top it all, blue skies and 26 degrees, though an afternoon thunderstorm hit the mountains well after we had passed through making them even more dramatic.

The Corsican people are equally marvellous. We stopped for morning coffee at Corte where we had coffee and the local Corse gateau, a leaf shaped cake with chopped fig and a leaf actually cooked into it. Very nice but we ditched the leaves. Corsicans, unlike the mainland French are super friendly and seem to have no trouble understanding my crap French, unlike their mainland cousins, some of whom look blankly if I mispronounce a word or use the wrong tense. Lunch at a harbour-side restaurant at Sagone. Salad for Gail and mussels and home-made chips for me.  Again great staff at this informal timber cabin eatery. Not cheap though.
Found a marvellous little hotel in the narrow main street of Propriano. Again over a bar, with a view of a bay of the Med which is just  50 metres away. Had a shower, went for a walk, had a beer at an outside bar near the water just outside our hotel, where I am writing this. Of the 70+ countries I have visited, Corsica has to be the best, and it isn’t just the beer speaking. BUT, like Tasmania it is a small island, about 200km by 80km so it wouldn’t take long to do everything there is to do if you lived here. Having said that, we’re not sure we would ever get tired of a place like this.

Thursday 24 May, Marseille

Went in search of a travel agent or ferry booking office to get our tickets to Corsica. The first 3 places would not help us because we did not speak French, quite rude in fact. On the 4th attempt found an English staff member who said our experience was the norm. He has lived in Marseille and thinks it is the pits. He initially thought we were too late to book for today as the lists for the day would have been closed off but he got us tickets with just 10 minutes to spare. The two of  us, the bike, and an ensuite cabin for the overnight 12 hour voyage to Basti in Corsica for 176 euros which was 30 euros cheaper than the best deal I could find on the net before we left Oz.
Has some breakfast in a cafe hot chocolate, coffee juice and a croissant, and then returned to our room to pack and check out. Rode through dense city traffic to the Gare Maritime to check out where our ferry would depart from and then followed the coast west to Carry-le-Rouet a flash expensive resort town where rather the pay the extortionate restaurant prices for lunch we bought sandwiches and ate them on the quay watching some disembarking learner scuba divers being bossed about by their teacher. Then had a coffee and an orange juice at a little coffee shop .
Rode back towards the port along the coast hugging minor roads past some crap beaches and one very nice one. Stopped at a park to rest under a tree in the shade to kill time and update this report before checking in at the terminal at 5.00 pm. Apart from walking up and down Marseille this morning it has been a lazy day.

Boarded the boat about 6.00 pm. About 30 other motorcyclists, mainly with French plates plus two Portuguese guys who have toured extensively round Europe and Scandinavia on a Yamaha scooter and a FJR.

Unusual system for lashing down the bikes – a specially fitted yoke that swings over the bike seat and then fixes to the floor. Excellent cabin with comfortable beds, plenty of space and a good shower.

Some last comments on mainland France: excellent road surfaces; some people very nice and others very rude; the French seem to have no sense of humour and are serious about everything; excellent food; tasteless beer; all bikers wave to each other; good drivers; scooters and motorcyclists can park anywhere including footpaths and can nip up one way streets the wrong way, use bus lanes, tram routes, etc , with seeming impunity; all scooter riders think they are Rossi; most petrol stations are credit card only and have no staff; petrol about $2 a litre.

The Mediterranean at last (or a bad switch day)

Made a 9.00 am start in dubious weather, heading south towards Marseille. Just out of town was stopped by a couple of police officers at the side of the road because the bikes lights weren’t on.  I must have accidently hit the off switch, so we all had a good laugh at my expense and they let us go.

To our amazement strange patches of blue started to appear in the sky followed by small patches of sunlight. It took us a while to remember what it was. Rolling countryside with mountains appearing ahead of us. Every few km we rode through a village and either side of us we saw other villages, usually constructed on the top of a hill, with a large chateau where the nobility used to or still do live, a church and the stone houses of the plebs.

As we started climbing the Ardeche mountain range it got foggy, but once we got over the first range it cleared and the temperature changed from about 10C to over 20. Beautiful scenery and the road crossed the cascading Ardeche river several times. Like Brown Mountain but 25 km long and native mixed conifer forests.

Vineyards and olive groves until we got to the very nice town of Orange where we bought salads and a baguette for lunch with the intention of eating them in a park somewhere, but we found ourselves riding for half an hour through light industrial developments with nowhere to stop. Eventually found a park where we had a break and a late lunch. Then disaster – the bike wouldn’t start! Tried again and again and sent Gail walking back to a nearby roundabout to get our exact whereabouts before I rang the breakdown service that came free with our insurance. Before ringing I tried one last time and discovered that this time I had accidentally hit the kill switch. I offered myself for a ritual kicking but Gail declined, though she said she would make me pay later.

We could have ridden on the peage to Marseille but we opted for the minor roads and Gail did a fantastic job of navigating us through a myriad of minor towns and junctions to come out at the side of the Med west of Marseille. A lovely road alongside crystal clear water until we hit the city itself, which was very well signposted and we easily found our way to the Old Port. Marseille is the second largest city in France, about the size of Sydney, but the traffic though dense is very well disciplined and they are excellent drivers compared with home.

Marseille, a city that has been on my “to do” list for decades is not what I anticipated. The population has the high proportion of African and Arabic people that I expected but the architecture is totally unexpected. Instead of medieval influences it is mainly wide streets and 4 or 5 storey buildings with shops, bars and restaurants on the street front and apartments above.

Our first attempts to find a bed for the night were unsuccessful – fully booked – but after parking the bike on the footpath near the railway station I eventually found a room above a bar with ensuite for 50 euros (about $60).

Explored the old port area until about 8.00 and then had an excellent meal in a restaurant near our digs. I had the plat du jour  -  a mega salad, Brochettes de Porc a la Provencal avec puree maison, with half a litre of wine and crème brulee all for $26, while Gail settled for mushroom pasta. I win!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

2 days of riding in the rain!

Next morning we headed of into overcast weather that soon turned to drizzle and then to heavy rain. Kept off the peage and travelled on the D roads which were quite pleasant but very slow with many 30 and 70 kph zones through towns and villages. Stopped in torrential rain at a sandwich and patisserie place where we dried out a bit and debated whether to go on or to find a hotel.  As it was unlikely the weather would improve for tomorrow and we’d have to bite the bullet sooner or later, we decided to carry on to Riom near Clermont-Ferrand. It’s on the tourist chateau trail. We passed several beautiful chateaux as we went through some lovely hilly, forested countryside but weren’t tempted to stop because of the weather. Lots of European grey nomads on the road in campervans. Caravans don’t seem to be popular here but there are white campervans everywhere. It appears that they are allowed to stop overnight almost anywhere they can pull off the road provided it isn’t a residential street.
Found an ensuite room over a bar for 46 euros and after unpacking the bike went for a walk through the old part of town. Bought some fruit and nuts and a bottle of wine. The bike is parked in the back yard of the pharmacy next door and they have given me the key to the gate so we can get an early start tomorrow if it has stopped raining. So far I have managed to get by again with my very poor school boy French. I start by asking them in French whether they speak English and when they say no I say I am Australian and apologise for my poor French. We get the impression they expect English tourists to have taken the trouble to learn some French but they don’t expect it of Australians, so any attempt on my part goes down well and they are very helpful.

Wandered out at about 7.45 pm to find some dinner but restaurant after restaurant had only the bar open and no food. Eventually found a pizza and pasta place where the waitress explained that 4 days of last week had been a holiday and today, Monday, nobody had any money left so almost everywhere was closed.
Next morning, Tuesday 23 May, it was pouring with rain again. Set out a bit before eight and got lost when we reached Clermont-Ferrand at rush hour. The road signs are being renewed and lots of them were missing or blank. Had to turn round and go back through the city again before we got on the right road. Got to le Puy en-Velay about 12.30 wet and fed-up after all the traffic, rain and visibility at times down to 50 metres going over the hills. A bloody awful morning and not going one km further today. Stopped at the Ibis Hotel in the middle of town but it was fully booked. The receptionist kindly phoned around and at the 4th attempt found us a bed in a hotel about 1 km out of the historic centre. Got lost again trying to find it but were eventually successful. Nice hotel but a bit expensive, but we would have paid anything by that stage.

Got out of our wet gear and Gail had a shower to thaw herself out. Rain had stopped, so went for a walk into historic town.  Narrow cobbled streets. An apparently very famous cathedral on a hill in centre of the old town, with unusual black Madonna and child, though the reason they are black is uncertain according to the brochure.

Having walked up to the cathedral we than walked even higher up to the church on the nearby rock, the Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguile. Like the cathedral it is very dark and miserable inside. Perhaps a feature of 10th century church architecture around here. I pity the poor people who had to carry all the building materials up the rock just because a deacon at the catherdral below had a great idea. The photo above is of the cathedral in the distance taken from half way up the rock.

Rain started again and we got wet yet again walking back to the hotel . Won’t be straying far for dinner tonight.

Le Mans MotoGP

Woke up to a very wet start. Pouring with rain, and lots of motorcyclists, most of them English, milling about the lobby and outside the door wondering what to do. By 8.30 it had subsided a little and we and about 20 other bikes headed off for the Le Mans track about 55km away.  An exhilarating ride in sometimes torrential rain among bikes and cars doing 130 to 140 kph down the peage (toll road) which is free for motorcyclists this weekend. Crazy stuff but if we went any slower we would have been cleaned up by the traffic behind us.

The lane discipline in France, like Germany, is very good. Everyone moves into the slower lane as soon as they have completed an overtaking manoeuvre in case there is a faster vehicle coming up behind, even if they are doing 200 kph themselves.
Finally reached the track and joined the maelstrom of bikes trying to find somewhere to park. Eventually found a spot and then walked about a km to the main gate to buy tickets. Got inside in time to watch the main races from a tiered concrete viewing area just after the starting grid. Grabbed a sandwich for lunch between races (equivalent to $30 for 2 ham and cheese sandwiches and 3 small bottles of water!). Very hot and sweaty in all our motorcycle gear and full waterproofs.

I'm still amazed at how fast the riders go in the rain and on a water soaked track. On TV you just don’t get the same impression as when it is happening just in front of you. In the earlier races many riders came off their bikes but in the MotoGP race a lot fewer; due to the advanced electronics on those bikes perhaps. It was good to see Rossi and the Ducati get their act together at last and get a podium even if it was at Casey’s expense.

The Le Mans 24 Hour Circuit is very different to Phillip Island. The 80,000 spectators who turned out in the rain today were confined to a relatively small area and are separated from the track itself by a high chain-link fence so it doesn’t have the spaciousness of the island or the intimacy with the riders. Having to watch the race through a fence is a bit off putting. Like the island there aren’t enough toilets but rather than queue, at Le Mans they just pee against any wall anywhere.

As soon as the last race finished we headed for the gate and were one of the first few hundred bikes to hit the road as we were parked just outside one of the exits. Found ourselves on the peage south and blasted our way the 75 km or so to Tours, a nice town where we had pre-booked a room an Etap hotel which was nearly double the price of last night’s HotelF1 but has a full ensuite.
Spread our sodden gear round the room, had a shower and then walked the short distance into town to find some dinner. Most of the restaurants were closed, it being Sunday, but we found a nice one near the station.  Talked to some kiwis on the next table who are touring France and Germany by car and were also at the MotoGP today. Gail had a vegetarian pizza and I had a chicken skewer with curry sauce, chips and salad and we had a carafe of Cote de Rhone red wine.

Walked back via Maccas and the train station, the former to check out their modern décor and self- serve electronic ordering system which is very different to Australia and the latter to look at the impressive Greco-Roman facade and to play with their high tech multilingual ticket machines. They were high tech to us!

Saturday, 19 May 2012


An almost flat calm crossing of the English Channel. Had a drink in the bar after boarding and then we retired to our tiny windowless cabin with bunks and an ensuite. An hour before arrival at Ouistreham just north of Caen we were woken by piped music. First down to the car deck we were ready to disembark as soon as the doors opened and as we were the first vehicle to board the night before we had an unobstructed departure. To our surprise we exited into sunshine and a cloudless sky but it was quite cold.

After a false start in the wrong direction we headed west along the Normandy coast to have a look at the D Day beaches where the allied forces landed on 6 June 1944 to free Europe from German occupation in WWII. We stopped in several of the scenic little towns and read the memorials to the battalions that had landed on each beach. In Arromanches-les-Bains we had a coffee and some breakfast and had fun dodging the town parking inspector who had locked us into a carpark at 9.00 am when free parking expired. He seemed to be keeping a close eye on us but when he wasn't watching for 10 seconds we nipped out through a pedestrian exit and sped off.

Further along the coast at Omaha Beach we spent a couple of hours at the American Cemetry and Memorial which covers 172.5 acres and has 9,387 graves representing only 40% of the Americans who died there. The families of the other 60% opted to have their remains sent home. There's a very interesting visitor centre with lots of information and videos about the preparation for, and implementation of, the landings. The crosses in the photo aren't really leaning - that's what happens when I take photos without my glasses on!

By this time it was clouding over and looking like rain so headed for Alencon, north of Le Mans, where we had prebooked a room for the night. Along the way we bought a sandwich each and put our waterproofs on.

Arrived in the rain at the HotelF1 and discovered why that class of Accor hotel costs only 30 euros (about $40) per night for up to 3 people. The room has a queen size bed with a single bunk over it, a handbasin and TV. The bathrooms are shared though numerous. There are no staff on duty, you have to swipe the credit card you used to make the booking and the machine gives you a printout with your room number and access code to get in the doors. No food available but we spotted a restaurant a 10 minute walk away so we'll brave the rain a bit later and try it out.

Friday, 18 May 2012


The original plan was to ride from Milton Keynes down to Portsmouth on Friday 19 May, spend the rest of the day at the historic dockyard area and then take the overnight ferry to Caen; but the weather forecast for Friday is heavy rain, so we decided to leave a day early while the weather was fine.

Got away after lunch at 1.00 pm. As we were about to go out of the door I got a call on my mobile phone to tell me that my money card had been ‘’upgraded” and my money returned to me. Arrived in Portsmouth mid-afternoon. Checked out where the ferry terminal is located and then the historical shipyard so we know where to go tomorrow. We got into a lengthy conversation with a parking inspector who rides a Honda VFR. He gave us advice on where to find motorcycle parking and where the B&Bs are located. On his advice we rode a couple of km down the coast to Southsea, the seaside resort part of Portsmouth, and found a not so cheap 2 star hotel at £60 for a double ensuite room. It was starting to rain so we didn’t look any further, and it did have off street parking for the bike. 
Had a pint of Adnams in a little street corner pub and then took Chinese take-away versions of Thai curries back to our room.

Looking forward to tomorrow and seeing HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled warship which was powered by steam as well as sail. It was built in 1860. Also HMS Victory the world’s oldest commissioned warship. Unfortunately we won’t be able to see the hull of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, as it’s undergoing conservation work, but at least we’ll see the museum which if full of relics retrieved from the sunken wreck.

Next day
Got up late because we’ve got all day to kill before catching the 10.45 pm Brittany Lines ferry to Caen.  Got to the Historic Dockland at about 10.30 and started by going on a boat tour of the harbour. There were lots of navy ships in harbour and the tour included a description of the class, size, speed, armaments, etc  of each of them.

Then, back on shore, we went to the Mary Rose Museum which was quite a disappointment. It isn’t a museum at all but a school kid oriented description of the Mary Rose story – it’s construction, role, sinking, finding and recovery. All the relics discovered with the wreck are currently being installed in the new museum and wreck display complex that will open in late 2012.

HMS Victory was very impressive. Built in 1759 it served until 1812. All six decks are open to the public and the ship is furnished and equipped as it was when Nelson died on-board at the Battle of Trafalgar. In adjacent buildings, which themselves date back 250 years, there are collections of items relating to Nelson himself and displays about the nature of naval warfare at that time. In one of the big wharehouses is the original fore top-sail of the Victory with 94 cannon ball and shot holes and a large tear. It is the largest piece of fabric from that era in the world.

Next a visit to HMS Warrior which, though very historic, being the largest, most powerful and fastest warship in the world when it was built in 1860, just didn’t have the character and feel of the timber built Victory. It was built to counter French developments in naval shipbuilding was itself soon obsolete and served for only 22 years.

By 4.40 the complex was closing for the day and the weather had turned to drizzle so we headed for the ferry terminal where couldn’t find anywhere to park without a risk of the bike being clamped so we went to a nearby pub the Ship and Castle where I’m writing this with the assistance of a pint of Seafarers Ale. The pub is full of people waiting for ferries, half of them on bikes heading for the MotoGP. Had a long chat with the family sat next to us who are sponsors of James Ellison.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Tyre, tourist stuff and tucker

The rear tyre on the bike was half worn so I had a new one fitted today at the Honda dealership that gave it a service a year ago. They remembered me and the bike and gave me a discount price. While the wheel was out they checked a weakpoint on these models - the swinging arm in the rear suspension - and declared it corrosion free - which was good news.

Then I picked Gail up from a local shopping centre and we set off to do more of the English stately home touristy stuff and went to Woburn Abbey.

The ancestral home of the Duke of Bedford it has been open to the public since the 1970's and is furnished with exquisite antique furniture and the walls are hung with hundreds of of paintings, most of them family portraits going back hundreds of years but including a Rembrandt. Photography isn't allowed in the house so these poor photos are shots of pictures in their brochure. I used to go there in the 50's and 60's to caravan rallies with my parents before the house was open to the public. I remember the Duke of that time having a glass of sherry with my parents in our caravan.

Got back to Dave and Irenes place in the late afternoon and thought I'd get on-line and check that my Post Office money travel card had been credited correctly with the money I'd handed over at the post office counter. Found to my horror that 3,500 euros had been removed! Phoned them and found that my ID had been insufficient so they had removed all but a small sum until I could assure them I wasn't a money launderer. So I shot round to Colin's, scanned my UK driving licence, passport and documentation showing where I'd got the cash from and emailed it to them. Fingers crossed.

Then Gail and I shouted Dave and Irene and Colin and Chris to dinner at a local pub restaurant, the Old Beams, by way of thanks for everything; Dave and Irene for putting us up and tolerating the disruption to their routine and peace and quiet and Colin and Chris for minding the bike and sorting the registration etc so it was ready for us.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Claydon House

It's still raining! Gail's sister Irene and her husband Dave, with whom we are staying, took us to Claydon House today. It was built in the 1600s over a period of 40 years by Sir Edward Verney who was Standard Bearer to King Charles 1st at the time of the Civil War. He was killed in the first skirmish and as Standard Bearer he was hacked to pieces to such an extent that all that could be found of him was one hand still clutching the pole of the standard.

The house was built on deficient foundations and soon started to crack and become unstable. A later generation demolished two thirds of the building leaving only the western wing. The materials were used to fix the remaining part and other buildings on the estate, which left a smaller but more stable house that could be maintained without bankrupting the family.

It's an unusual building inside because of the amazing and in some instances strange carvings in all the main rooms that look like marble at first glance but are in fact pine carvings that are painted white. The craftsman was Lightfoot who apparently took 10 years to complete just three rooms and a staircase.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Wet, wet,wet

The forecast was for showers but apart from a brief break in the rain mid-afternoon it was very soggy.

Visted Gail's sister Lyn who lives in a village a 45 minute ride away. Her husband Jack is the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, a position that has been in existence for over a 1000 years. They are mentioned in the Magna Carta and had a key role in managing the Shires. These days it is an independent non-political Royal appointment for one year. Jack has to attend all royal visits to the shire and officiates over the judges, police and emergency services and other agencies concerned with crime prevention and law enforcement. There's no remuneration involved. The uniform includes a velvet jacket and breeches, tights and, of course, a sword. Unfortunately I forgot to take my camera, so no photos.

We went with Lyn and Jack (not in uniform!) to the Shuttleworth Visitor Centre to look at the collection of vintage cars, motorcycles and aeroplanes. Very impressive and a good place to go on a rainy day because it is all under cover in a series of interconnected sheds and hangers. Jack took lots of photos for me on his smartphone. I am hoping he'll be able to email some to me in which case I'll retrospectively slot some into this post.

Then we headed off to a nearby village for a pub lunch. I had one of my favourites - steak, stilton and stout pie with all the trimmings.

Gail and I Got soaked on the way back in a sudden rain and hailstorm. No opportunity to stop and put on our waterproofs because of the heavy traffic and no hard shoulder.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ace Cafe

A UK Ulyssean, Frank, whom we met when he visited Australia a couple of years ago and again when we came to England last year, lives about 20 minutes from the Ace Café on the North Circular in northern London, so I had arranged for him to show me how to get there. A friend who lives in Merimbula gave me an Ace Café badge several months ago, so I had to go there when I had a chance to legitimise it.
I met Frank at the Toddington Services on the M1 motorway and we hammered down the M1 and then round the North Circular to the Café.

It was BMW Day today, so about 30% of the hundreds of bikes that came and went while we were there were beemers, some of them dating from the 60’s and possibly earlier. Three other UK Ulysseans turned up and Frank and I also had a long chat with Linda who with her husband Barry, owns of the Café. If you want to know more about the Ace Cafe see

Frank and I then rode to Windsor with the intention of having lunch there. But little did we know that there’s a pageant on there today and this evening to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the place was absolutely packed, so we meandered back towards Milton Keynes and after he had put me on the right road he headed home himself.

Arrived in England

Friend Colin, who has been looking after the bike for us since we used it last year to go to the Isle of Man TT and to tour Ireland and Scotland, has done a great job, it’s registered and polished and raring to go. I had it serviced before it was put away and Colin has had the battery on a trickle charger and ran the engine until it was hot every now and then. Today, our first day in England, I have been sorting out our motorcycling gear and fitting the bluetooth communication system into our helmets.
For a test ride I rode the bike into Milton Keynes town centre to buy a money travel card from the post office on to which I can load cash rather than carrying loads of paper money on the trip. There are other cards that give a better exchange rate than the Post Office but this one is almost unique in that it can be purchased over the counter instead of having to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive in the post.

Saturday 13 May
We went for a ride to Birmingham to visit my old university which I attended from 1968 until 1972. Some years ago I met a young guy at a Hash House Harriers meet  in Tanzania who was wearing an Aston University t-shirt. He was the son of the vice-Chancellor and told me the University had expanded to cover much of the neighbouring area that had been terraces of back-to-back slum housing and that the Sack of Potatoes pub where I had drunk many a pint was still there but was now on the campus. Had to go and have a look.

We blasted up the M1 and had no trouble finding it at all. That part of Birmingham has changed mostly beyond recognition, but Aston University is still recognisable by the main lecture building, the students guild (which used to be called the students union) and the pub which is called the Sacks of Potatoes, though I remember it  being the singular "Sack", though it was a long time ago and my faculties at the time were no doubt addled by the vast quantities of beer.

A security guard, when I explained why I was there - a nostaligia trip - let us in to the main building which now has swipe card entry on every door to keep people like us out. Most of it was recognisable but there is a new flash foyer and the old lino floors are now carpeted and there are artworks on what had been stark walls. The Sack of Spuds was much the same inside. The stinky beer soaked carpets have gone and it now has varnished floorboards. The street outside has gone and there's a lawn giving it a village green look to it.

 Then we headed back via Royal Leamington Spa. It got the Royal tag because 11 year old Princess Victoria once stayed there overnight on her way to Birmingham. On that basis I’d have thought almost every town in the country could claim to be royal, as sometime over the millennia a king, queen, prince or princess must have eaten, slept or been to the toilet there.
We had lunch in the old spa pump house. The town used to be famous because of its saline springs. The drinking water in the café tasted as if it still comes from the same source!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Last day in Tokyo

This morning we got on the subway and headed for the Imperial Palace Gardens. The forcast was for drizzle so we though we'd try to beat the rain and visit the gardens in the morning and then go to the Ginza shopping area in the afternoon.

The gardens cover 210,000 square metres and occupy the site of the former Edo Castle. They have been open to the public since 1968 and are surrounded by amazing stone walls and moats.

Because we were early we almost had the place to ourselves.

After exporing the gardens we walked to Ginza, having lunch on the way at an Italian restaurant near Tokyo main station with a $12 early bird (before noon) special of dish of choice plus a salad and a drink. We hadn't had any breakfast so we didn't take long to wolf it down.

Ginza was very disappointing. When I first came here about 30 years ago Ginza was very Japanese. It had hundreds of neon signs in Japanese script and huge department stores selling domestically produced goods of every kind. Now it is mostly Cartier, Bulgari, and all the other stuff you see in any big city in the west and the high rise department stores are anonymous stroctures in glass and concrete. After half an hour of wandering around we fled back to Asakusa on the subway. Ginza isn't our scene at all.

The 10 square kilometre area of Chiyoda that includes the Palace area, Ginza and the Diet (their Parliament House) is said, at the height of the Japanese land price bubble, to have been worth more than the value of the whole of California.

A comment on Japanese protocol. They always keep to the left on footpaths; there is absolutely no litter in the streets despite an almost total absence of litter bins; on the subway the people standing always face the windows and not another passenger; in shops and restaurants your purchases and change are always handed to you with both hands and a bow; politeness is everything. Yet they are very friendly people and keen to help with directions if asked. For a westerner Tokyo is a very easy city to get around in on foot or public transport. The ticket machines on the subway have an "English" button, which if pressed changes the whole display to English and a voice gives instructions in English.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

More Tokyo

The plan was to then get the subway to Ueno but instead we were feeling energetic and decided to walk. A very interesting walk through narrow residential streets with a total absence of parked cars anywhere. It seems that on street parking is totally illegal so if  any of the residents want to own a car they have to park under in a space under their apartment block or in one of the carparking facilities that have a lift to get your car up and down from street level.

Finally we reached Ueno Park which was our destination. Ueno hill was the site of the last-ditch defence of the Tokkugawa shogunate in 1868. When they were defeated by the imperial army  the Hill was tranformed into Tokyos first public park. It as temples, shrines, a boating lake, buskers, a zoo and cafes. At the south end of the park there are hundreds of homeless men who live in cardboard and plastc tarpaulin shelters. Apparently many are failed businessmen who went bust in Japan's financial crisis. We saw about 300 hundred of them queueing for a lunchtime handout of food in a corner of the park from what seemed to be a religious organisation as their were a couple of musicians singing what sounded like religious songs. They had to line up in a quasi-military fashion and walk in step with each other when called forward in groups. It looked very humiliating and very sad. Not a smile among them. It clashes strongly with the general prosperity that we have seen everywhere despite the Japanese economy having effectively been in recession for years. Everywhere is spotlessly clean and the roads and footpaths are in excellent repair, there are no empty shops and everyone except the homeless are very well dressed and seem to be spending plenty of money.

We lunched in a cafe just outside the park and then went to the National Museum which we wandered round until we were suffering from culture overload and then headed back to the hotel via a cafe where we had coffees for the equivalent of $7.00 each.

In the evening we went for a walk along the Sumida River along a lit tree lined path. There were a few other walkers and half a dozen joggers. Under one of the bridges were several down and outs settling into their cardboard box tents for the night with their shoes neatly placed outside. After eating we walked to the Sensouji Temple again to see it floodlit. Very impressive, but it's hard to reconcile the fact that one block from the wealthy Buddhist worshippers in their suits and expensive dresses and accessories are people living in cardboard boxes.


Getting through passport control when we arrived at Tokyo took about an hour and a half. The queue zigzagged backwards and forwards until we finally got to the desk, were fingerprinted and photographed and issued with our visas. Then, after collecting our luggage, we negotiated the Tokyo metro and subway system to our booked hotel in Asakusa. We had to change trains just once but need the help of locals to find the right platforms. Most seem to be able to understand English even if they can't speak it.

The Chisun Inn is a modern hotel with small but very well appointed rooms. The only downside of our room is that the window faces onto a blank wall about 1.5 metres away. Most of the 200 hundred rooms are the same as the 10 storey building is wedged on 3 sides between other high rise buildings.

After a comfortable night's sleep we went in search of a place where we could get breakfast with a vegetarian option for Gail. In the end we resorted to Macdonalds, where she could have hotcakes, then as we left we noticed a cafe opposite that did a rice and salad breakfast plate. perhaps we'll go there tomorrow and I'll have a more traditional Japanese breakfast than Maccas bacon and egg between two hotcakes which is their version of the MacMuffins we get at home.

Then we explores Asakusa on foot. First Japan's oldest Buddhist temple, the Sensouji Temple dedicated to the goddess Kannon, which was first built in 628. It is entered through the Kaminarimon Gate which has a huge lantern flanked by the gods Fujin (god of wind) on the right and Raijin (god of thunder) on the left.

Through the gate is a market street selling mainly touristy stuff and then the temple itself.

To the right of the temple is the Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to protecting the Buddhist Temple in a typical Japanese arrangement.

Then we walked to Kappabashi-dori, the restaurant and hotel wholesale district where for about a kilometre the shops sell cooking equipment and the plastic food that Japanese restaurants arrange on plates in their windows to show what delights can be eaten within.