Robert Seeney Photography Touring Motorbike » Photography Biking Nottingham East Midlands

Europe Part 31 – The end or the beginning?

“The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time” – Jack London

It’s always interesting to look back at the experiences we have in life and see how they affected us…or not as the case may be. Having travelled over 20,000 miles (broadly the same as circumnavigating the globe) on a journey that was planned by picking key sights that I wanted to see on a convoluted route, what did I learn and more importantly, what would I do differently?

Finance

Cutting to the chase, the trip cost me around £8500. £4500 was fixed costs of petrol, vaccinations and tyres/servicing and ferries. £4000 was food and lodging (approx £40 per day). This could have been reduced to about £1000 with full camping or even less if you wild camped. For me though, this was a happy medium – able to spend money on a few restaurant meals per week to try out local foods and eating ‘normally’ at other times. Apart from Norway and Sweden where I ate tuna and haribo for 3 weeks.

Just for fun, I added up the cost of spending the same amount of time in all those areas I travelled to as a regular tourist. tour costs and food would be approximately £16,000.  Sure, you can get them cheaper  but it feels about right to me that its half the cost. What that doesn’t take into account of course is the complete and utter freedom to go, do and see whatever you want day by day. More importantly, it doesn’t factor in the chore of eating with groups, begin ferried around like cattle from A to B whereas on the bike, you are enjoying every minute. It really is a no brainer. The problem of course is that you need several months to see all of this, a luxury that we do not have with modern lives very often. For many, the trip I took would take 5-10 years of annual leave through work to undertake.

Detail of the Finance

20,000 miles of fuel was approximately 400 gallons and about £1800. I didn’t log it accurately but petrol was more or less the same cost all over once you evened it out.

2 sets of tyres and 2 full service racked up £1100. Once the bike is out of warranty, I’d service myself of course but this would only reduce the cost to £450 or so.

Ferries cost me about £1000 which was UK- Spain, Italy to Corsica, Corsica to Sardinia, Sardinia to Sicily, Sicily to Italy, Denmark to Norway, dozens of ferries in Norway to cross fjords and then finally the Lofoten ferry and then the overnight from Sweden to Germany and the final boat home. I guess I took 20-30 ferries.

Lodging was £4-6 a night for campsites and B+B’s averaged £25-30 with hotels costing up to £70. Pick your own budget for this one but I spent about £1900 on lodging. If i did it again, I would spend probably half that. Calculations are not as straightforward as this because B+B’s included breakfast which saved 5-8 quid per day if you were to eat at a cafe. As a rough guide, £1000 campsite/cheap breakfast, £2500 mid range, sky’s the limit for hotels and other meals

For food, I tried to eat from supermarkets apart from the odd meal to try local foods. With the exception of Norway and Sweden, most prices were similar to the UK. Norway and Sweden are crazy prices and I resorted to cans of tuna, water and the odd bit of hot dog when really hungry. With little space in the panniers, it was problematic to carry food – a big lesson learned for the future. Food ranges from a few pounds per day on a subsistence level making use of bread and cheese through to meals for those times when you want to pig out or taste something delicious. I mixed it up, food was and sis a huge part of any trip for me. I’d try the cuisine and then drop back to supermarkets once I had done so.

I drank very little alcohol which kept costs right down.

Other than the main sights like the Alhambra Palace, Jeronimo and the Helmut Newton museum, I avoided anywhere that had any charges. Everywhere tries to charge and after you’ve seen a few churches/museums you realise they’re all the same (unless thats your thing, then have at it). For me it was all about the mountains and remote areas with a smattering of the big tourist sights since I would be passing them anyway

I purchased 1 pair of jeans, 3 pairs of socks, 1 pair of trainers and sandals at a total cost of £70. I also bought a laptop (£140) because I had been stupid and relied on untested backup methods for photos. All of this expense was avoidable.

Clothing and Bike Gear

I had the ‘old faithful’ set of IXS gear which is now approaching 3 years old. It survived it all, I never got wet despite torrential rain for weeks of the trip. The IXS gear isn’t goretex but it never leaked and when the temperatures were high, as they were for 50% of the trip, I was glad they weren’t – I was hot enough as it was

The Daytona boots were super comfy and waterproof all trip long and survived the abuse. Still going strong even after 35,000 miles now

I had a pair of combat pants, 2 wicking t-shirts, 2 pairs of wicking leggings and one pair of underpants, 1 pair of sandals and 1 pair of trainers. I never once felt like I needed more. The only uncomfortable time was Sicily in the firestorm at temperature hitting the mid 50’s. There is no gear available that can really cope with that.

My HJC RPHA ST helmet survived the trip, with a single change of visor which shattered just after Nordkapp. On returning home, the helmet was retired after 2 years of faithful service, the inside was speckled with white – a sure sign of stress fractures in the protective frame.

I’ve looked long and hard at gear after the experiences and I can’t find anything that will cope with the rigours of the weather and keep you comfortable. For me, gore-tex is a non-runner and I won’t be buying any for touring with. I’d rather cope with jackets that are wet on the outside than having to deal with 35 plus degrees of heat in a gore-tex suit. The main factor however is off-roading. After just a few hours of off-roading, I was drenched in sweat even with the IXS gear. My struggle is to find gear that I can ‘morph’ so that I can go down to a minimum when up on the pegs on rough tracks and trails but that gives me enough protection when I hit the asphalt. I don’t think it exists.

Packing and Luggage

Even though I felt I had been ruthless about luggage when getting ready, I ended up dumping items on the day I left and also dumped items throughout my journey. My panniers and top box were constantly full to the brim which makes it really hard to use them – you need spare capacity in them to move things around. With a volume of approximately 130 litres used on the trip I have spent a lot of time since the trip reducing pack sizes and going down to minimum weights and volumes by replacing gear. I recently did a 2 week trip to Scotland where I camped all the way and used only 60 litres and about 20 of that was taken up with food to keep costs down. I’m pretty sure I can get down to needing just the panniers for everything by the time I have finished replacing and cutting out gear. I will do a more lengthy blog post about this because I did learn a lot about how not to pack and what not to take.

Honey Bunny, 1200GSA

I really can’t fault the bike in any respect. Love or hate them, they are the adventure bike thats done it all. After overcoming my inexperience in handling a heavy bike, especially off road, she carried me flawlessly. Others view might vary. Plain fact of the matter is that you can do any trip on any bike. The other plain fact is that most people spend their time arguing about luggage, bike brands and whats best for trips….yet they have never seriously toured. In any event, if you want a proper challenge, do it on a pushbike like the guys in the Lofoten islands or better yet, do it by foot like the pilgrims of Santiago.

Travelling by Motorbike

There are probably five areas of challenge when travelling – weather, safety, security, repairs and tiredness

I rode through some dreadful weather – over 100mph winds, 50 degrees plus heat, 5 days of continual rain and flooding. It is what it is, you can’t do anything about it and you learn to cope with it. Admittedly, there were times when I should have stayed off the road and holed up for another day but a reasonably tight itinerary meant I couldn’t. This is the key point, don’t have such a tight schedule that you can’t accommodate delayed ferries, awful weather and bike problems.

In the first half of the trip I was worried about bike security all the time. I found garages to store her in, chained her to fences and so on. By the second half of the trip, I still sought shelter for her but I’d realised by then that the chances of having a theft were very very low. I wouldn’t take a chain again. In terms of personal safety, I never once felt uncomfortable. The only time I can remember wondering about my safety was taking a trail in the picos when I realised I had forgotten my tools, first aid kit and phone. I didn’t see anyone for an hour and if I had come off I would have been in a spot of bother.

Repairs are inevitable on the road. I had minor problems such as knocking off mirrors, headlights blowing, clutch levers coming loose and straps breaking. Some basic tools and some basic spares are enough to get you through – I’ll write more about this later.

Tiredness. This was at times the biggest barrier to overcome. Always being up early and at times covering large distances for several days in a row makes you tired. regular breaks, plenty of water and most importantly, being aware that your concentration is waning are critical. Being dehydrated, suffering from heat exhaustion and being on fire or riding through driving rain for 10 hours are not easy to cope with. It does however, put life’s problems into perspective when you get back into the real world 🙂

Camping and Hotels

It’s a doddle to do either. Google has campsite information, booking.com handles everything B+B/hotel wise with amazing search functionality. Despite a mixed trip of camping/B+B’s, if I were to do it again, I would camp full time to reduce cost even more and also because camping just gets you so much closer to the best sights. Having said that, there are times when staying in a hotel at the head of a fjord or when you just need some pillows and a good sleep is a good idea! In my recent Scotland trip, I camped full time and found that the summer bag and mattress I had taken around Europe were woefully inadequate once the temps hit freezing. I’ve since replaced them with smaller, higher rated items. Again, there are those who think it’s not a proper adventure unless you’re sleeping under a tarp in the middle of a minefield.

Alone but not Lonely

Some people don’t get it and that’s ok. I like to travel solo with no ties, no one else’s schedule to follow and if I want to stay on the mountain, I can. I like the freedom it brings to just be me, to take in the air and to be alone with my thoughts. Others prefer travelling in groups, I get that but it’s not for me. Always people to say hello to, talk with and even share a day or two visiting the sights. Always alone but never lonely. A smile and open hands are a universal language and to be honest, I’m there to see and hear new things, not old ones.

The Final Word

I set off with limited biking experience, a ‘big’ bike with about 200 miles of riding experience on it and a rough plan scribbled on a map which basically had the Pyrenees, Tuscany and Nordkapp on it. It was an absolute blast. The route morphed and changed as time went on and if I hadn’t had the curiosity of ;what exactly is on corsica?’ I would have missed the jewel of the trip.

Whether riding through the fields of Tuscany with the warm wind caressing my face, standing on the top of Tourmalet and looking down at the snowline, watching the bike slide down the ferry ramp after the 16 hours of weathering the scirocco, seeing a rainbow over a fjord in just my underpants or getting blasted in the spuds by cold water jets, every mile was amazing. The biking is good, the scenery is good, the different cultures are good, its all good.

However, there is something much bigger that happens on trips like this. Something that most of us know but with the routines of life, we forget or push to the back of the mind. Life is for living, it isn’t for paying mortgages or rising the corporate ladder. Whether you’re alone on the mountain, staring at the sea from a ferry or watching the sunset over the cove, it isn’t just about that beauty. Those days where you’re riding through the cold, incessant rain and every muscle aches, those days when you reach somewhere and its covered in fog, those days where you drop the bike and you get back up again are equally as beautiful if not more so. It’s about living, challenging yourself a little and getting out of the humdrum race to the grave. Of course, careers and houses and stuff has some level of importance. I doubt its what people think about in their final moments however.

Most days I would stop by the side of the road, take it all in and think about….nothing. How many times do we do that in our lives or get the chance to do it? The loss of ‘stuff’ because of the limits of panniers is liberating. With no worries about clothes, keeping up appearances or buying ‘stuff’, you really do free yourself of the shackles we live in, if only for a brief time. Would it be the same on other trips…probably not. The key in all of this was the remoteness, the ability to just get out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a track in Corsica, a river canyon in the Pyrenees, the top of a mountain. Out there, Macs, careers, latte’s, shoes, fast food and mortgages fade from reality. You come back to them of course but for those moments when you’re there, they’re no longer real. The prison bars vanish as soon as you set foot on the journey and you realise, it’s all made up.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my Europe blogs and maybe got something out of them – if only for the tales of my spuds. You should get a medal or something if you’ve made it this far but since I haven’t got any medals then all I can do is say thank you, take care and see you in the next blog post…

“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against out habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.” – Christopher McCandless

Top Places 

Bear in mind that I like the open country, the mountain ascents and the roads that are gnarly but take you through the most amazing scenery. I should mention that, with the exception of Corsica and parts of the Pyrenees, nowhere came close to matching the West Coast of Ireland for riding or scenery.

Top Places to Ride

  1. Corsica, particularly the Northern and Western coastlines and the jaw dropping ride to the South from the North
  2. The Pyrenees and Canon de Anisclo and the N-260 from Jaca to Andorra, Spain
  3. Tuscany, golden fields and a warm sun, just mooch down country lanes…
  4. The road from the Swedish border through to Mo I Rana in Norway
  5. Gorges du Verdun, South of France

Top Scenery

  1. Corsica
  2. Pyrenees
  3. Norway – Pulpit Rock and Alta Fjord in particular
  4. Picos

Top Sights

  1. Belchite, an amazing place preserved exactly as it fell
  2. Ventimiglia
  3. Corsica, all of it, stunning
  4. Pyrenees, Spain
  5. Sevilla, I’m no big fan of Cities but this was special
  6. San Gimignano
  7. Santiago de Compostela, Portugal
  8. Palermo, Sicily
  9. Pulpit Rock, Norway
  10. Seville, Spain

Countries (or areas of countries)in Order of Enjoyment

  1. Corsica, breathtaking scenery, breathtaking riding
  2. Tuscany, just glorious to pootle around and eat and drink
  3. Pyrenees and Picos, Spain
  4. Sicily, gritty, raw and unspoilt
  5. South of France, it is as it is in the movies
  6. Norway, a lot of slow miles lets it down
  7. Germany
  8. Switzerland
  9. The rest

The ‘Not so Good’ of the Trip

  1. Lisbon, awful awful place
  2. Riding in Norway, soul destroying speed limits and camper vans
  3. Sardinia, if you’re not into beaches then don’t go
  4. The Royal Alcazar, very over-rated

 

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