Tuesday morning and we had to be back in Stuttgart by 08:00 on Friday to avoid incurring penalty points or a DNF. As we said our goodbyes we
remarked we’d be visiting our first bonus some time around 20:00; it was going to be a long day.
The first bit of our journey was reminiscent of the previous day with some fantastic scenery and nice curvy roads. Our route was to take us through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia (officially the Republic of Macedonia, unless you’re Greek in which case it’s the FYROM) then Greece. Having travelled this way before we were conscious of the fact that the borders are not all ‘wave you through we don’t care who comes this way’ and we would have to stop and buy extra insurance for at least one of those countries. All this takes time and if you hit the border at the wrong time it can take hours which was clearly a risk with the route we had selected. On the up-side there was an escalator bonus running across both legs in which country stickers (the ones that go on cars to show where they are registered) could be collected with each sticker worth 250 points more than the previous one. The only catch was that we had to have visited at least one bonus waypoint in a country for its sticker to be valid. Our jaunt across several countries gave us more opportunities to collect those stickers for extra bonus points.
The majority of our route to Greece was on the E75 which traversed the various countries, changing character with each border crossing. It seemed the further south we went the worse the road became even though it was still mostly ‘motorway’. As soon as we got into Slovenia we stopped for fuel and to obtain a vignette for the motorway toll. This also gave us the opportunity to buy another country sticker (SLO) in anticipation of getting the Ljubljana bonus on the way back. Croatia had the best motorways with good services where we bought the country sticker (HR) and no tolls!
We were making more frequent stops than we normally would and at one of these we realised our first planned bonus stop, the Ada Bridge in Belgrade (Serbia), was a daylight-only bonus and our slower progress meant we were not going to be there until after dark. We had a big review of the route and also decided we’d reverse the route in Greece to ensure we got to the Acropolis during opening hours. It took us about an hour to sort all this out whilst we enjoyed some freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee at a service station.
Our revised route had our first stop at the beautiful Sveti Sava church in Belgrade, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. We pulled up to the side of it and my eyes popped at the golden dome and brilliant white walls. The photo really doesn’t do it justice, it would have been lovely to have seen it during the day. Even though it was very dark there were still lots of people milling around enjoying the evening. This isn’t just a church, it seems to be a focal point for the whole community.
We were riding through Serbia in the darkness when the road just petered out. Suddenly we went from riding on reasonably straight dual carriageway to tiny single carriageway roads that went back and forth across where we assume the E75 was eventually going to be; it was packed with lorries coming the other way. The lights on our bike are supposed to be flat and don’t require part of them to be blanked off when driving on the ‘other’ side of the road, as we were in Europe. Unfortunately the weight we were carrying in the panniers and top box meant they were pointing rather high and lorry drivers frequently complained in the usual way, i.e. flash, then upon receipt of a flash back blast into full beam. We have some fairly powerful lights on the bike and the lorry lights generally went back off again quite rapidly when Kevin reciprocated but both they and we could have done without the ‘light wars’ as Kevin termed it; we need to resolve that before our next trip abroad. At one point as we were fighting our way down the narrow roads I heard “Gerhard must be chuckling” come over the intercom as we assumed he knew this was the end of the motorway and we’d have hours and hours of this tortuous road to ride.
It seemed as though we criss-crossed through the countryside forever but finally we spotted a sign for Thessaloniki, our next destination, and were eventually back on motorway.
Not long afterwards we arrived in Greece and were about to be driven mad by the Greek road toll system.
Many European countries now have tolls for using their motorways. Austria and Slovenia have a vignette which you can buy when entering the country, other countries have booths that you have to stop at to pay a toll. This causes a lot of frustration when you are in a hurry, especially on a bike where it’s not easy to get ready in advance. I have a little pocket on my bum-bag with a credit card in and this is usually makes the stops fairly painless time-wise. Italian tolls are like alligators – bikes pay the same as cars so it seems like huge chunks are torn out of one’s wallet at every toll booth but at least the booths are long distances apart. The Greek ones are like Piranhas, constantly nibbling away but the result is the same. It felt like there was a Greek toll booth every few miles. The tolls weren’t huge amounts, in fact it was often less than a Euro, but they were incessant and they don’t take cards so I had to fish around for coins – not easy with gloves on. And then they insist on giving you a paper receipt which was just filling up my bag. I tried to avoid these as often as I could but it wasn’t easy – one woman started shrieking at us as we rode away because we hadn’t taken it.
We love looking at ancient buildings and ruins and our second stop, many hours after the first, was the 4th century Arch of Galerius for over 4000 points. There were still people wandering around despite the late hour, I guess they were enjoying the balmy evening, as were we. Nice not to have to worry about heated gear.
We worked our way towards three of the four bonuses that comprised the Aegean Sea combination bonus and by mid-morning we were at the stone clock in Lavrio. A short while later we were looking at a patch of sand on the beach in Saronikos wondering where St. Nicolas Church was but after a look round at our surroundings Kevin saw the church a short distance away. We felt sorry for Frank when we were talking to him after the rally as he’d arrived at this waypoint in the middle of the night and couldn’t see the church at all.
A road following the coast took us to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion that was built around 440 BC. Legend says that Sounion is where Aegeus, King of Athens, leapt to his death into the sea when he mistakenly believed that Theseus, his son, had been killed by the Minotaur. Theseus had slain the Minotaur but had forgotten to hoist the white sail on his ship that would let his father know he was alive and well (Tsk, kids!). The Aegean Sea takes its name from this event.
We continued to follow the coast towards the Greek capital.
Our next stop, the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens, had a whopping 16,050 points associated with it. Unlike Rome, Athens was absolutely heaving. When we saw the stadium we just pulled up onto the pavement, got off the bike and took our lives in our hands as we negotiated three lanes of traffic to get to the statue that had to be in the photo.
Once on the move again Kevin’s method for dealing with the traffic was ‘do as the locals do’ which basically meant extreme filtering. Admittedly we were on a large Super Tenere complete with panniers and the locals were mostly on small scooters but everyone just seemed to take it in their stride, making room as required.
It was really hot by now and I was having a bit of a funny turn. Each time we stopped and I had to stand in front of the camera to have my photo taken holding the rally flag Kevin would say “Stand up straight”. I was, or at least I thought I was.
By the time we got to the Acropolis things were getting bad. I was stumbling and really didn’t stand up straight at all. It was so hot and I was getting very cross with Kevin for keep nagging at me to stand up straight. He wanted to stop and pull out of the rally as he wasn’t at all happy with how I was but I didn’t want to have come all this way then not finish just because I was lop-sided. Besides, we still had to get back and we might as well be collecting bonus points while we did that (he’s not the only one who can be stubborn!).
Having found somewhere to park near the Acropolis we dealt with the bureaucracy. Entrance tickets had to be paid for with cash (what is it with this country and credit cards?). “You can’t bring that in here” at the entrance, ‘that’ being my crash helmet which Kevin was carrying, it had to be taken to a building a short walk away. And, most ridiculous of all, “You can’t take a photo with that showing”. This time the ‘that’ was our rally flag. The problem appeared to be the attendant feared the Acropolis would be associated with whatever logo was on our flag and used in advertising. We could see her point – the hunk of stone behind us that was dwarfed by the scaffolding would make such a fine image for an advertisement… There was no reasoning with her but we eventually convinced her to allow us to take a photo with me holding the flag rolled up like a certificate. I later managed to sneak a quick picture with the flag and the Acropolis in the background in case the Rallymasters queried the photo. In fact looking back on the incident now I’ve no idea why we actually went into the Acropolis at all. The rally book said we had to present our tickets as evidence but the picture I took of the flag and the Acropolis from outside the entrance was perfectly adequate to satisfy the photographic requirements. Oh well, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
With the exception of one bonus in the centre that we’d decided not to visit because we didn’t think the points justified the time, all the bonuses in Greece were pretty much on a continuous route round the edge of the country. We had a stop and a sit-down mid-afternoon at the Pegasus statue in Korinthos. Even sitting down I was leaning but by now Kevin had given up trying to straighten me up. We had a couple of pieces of my home-made flapjack here which were rather scrummy and showed once again how handy it is to have a flip-lid helmet. It was very tempting to just flop back into this fountain and cool down.
We decided our last bonus of the day would be the Rio Andirrio Bridge near Patra then we would find somewhere nearby to have a full 6-hours of sleep. The bridge is spectacular and has a car-park nearby from which we were able to take the required photo and log on to Booking.com to find a hotel.
We were in luck, there was one in the nearby town for 40 Euros – the Astir. We had a great omelette and chips then some shut-eye and started up again around midnight for our run back to the Rally checkpoint at the Relexa hotel in Stuttgart.
Overnight we had another couple of bonus stops left in Greece and we got to the pretty Neraida Church (worth lots of points at 8,850) just before it got light. It was in a small village and the only person we saw was a man taking his dog for a walk. It was so quiet you could hear the birds and insects singing to each other. We decided that it was time for a bit of a rest and the benches next to the church looked so inviting! Half an hour later we were on our way again feeling refreshed.
We were now well on our way back but the bonus locations would be few and far between. Our next scheduled stop was the Ada Bridge, in Serbia. We rode over and back across the bridge three times until we finally sussed out a safe place to stop. Even then we were in the middle of a cycle-path. The bridge is another beautiful sight but the city around it is not so picturesque. Kevin commented that it wasn’t many years ago that our country was bombing here.
Soon after these photos were taken it started to rain. We weren’t sure whether it was going to be prolonged – ever optimistic, it ‘looked brighter ahead’. Eventually we did stop to put on our waterproof tops but by then we were already pretty damp.
This photo, Zagreb cathedral, will always remind me of the time I was walking across the square to get to the right position for the photo when the entire contents of my bum-bag decided to make an escape bid. Luckily for me Kevin was there to pick everything up. No harm done except my waterproof bag now had lots of water inside it.
We needed to make an SMS call between 20.00 and 20.30. At 20.00 we were on a Slovenian motorway in the mountains and stopped at some services to make the call at around 20.10. Plenty of time. Except ‘No Service’. I walked around a bit to see if I could get a signal but there was nothing. I even tried rebooting my phone as that sometimes works but it didn’t. We tried again at the next services just down the road; nothing. Our only option was for me to hold my phone while we headed rapidly in the direction of civilisation to see if a signal appeared. Luckily it did and I was able to send the text with a few minutes to spare, managing to do all that on the back of a bike in the pouring rain, with gloves on, without dropping the phone – result!!
Our next bonus stop (and our last as it turned out) was the Ljubljana Philharmony. The satnav was trying to get us to go into a pedestrianised area in the centre of town. Oh well, what can they do to us? So through the bollards we went. Ljubljana seems like a nice place, full of open-air cafes with people enjoying the peace of an evening meal with friends. Their peace was shattered as we rode past but no-one seemed to take any notice. Eventually we found ourselves in the square where Mrs Satnav told us the waypoint was. I jumped off and asked a girl who was waiting on the corner where the building in my photo was. She looked a bit surprised as she pointed to the building right next to us. She was also very helpful in showing us the best way out of the ‘no vehicular access’ square.
Our plan now was to ride the 400 miles back to the hotel in Stuttgart, picking up a small bonus on the way, take a rest break then be at the final bonus, a group photo at 7.15 for 10,000 points. That proved to be rather a challenge.
As we attempted to get on the motorway on the outskirts of Ljubljana we found ourselves in a huge traffic jam. The motorway appeared to be closed and there was chaos with a rather bad-tempered policeman trying to get the traffic off the main road down a slip road (I suspect I’d have been a bit bad-tempered as well – he must have been a somewhat stressed). Now what? We eventually managed to get off the road, crossed under the main road then took a side road that seemed to be heading in the same direction as the motorway and found ourselves in a stream of traffic. Occasionally a car would peel off to one side or the other but we kept the faith with the majority and ignored the satnav which was constantly nagging us to turn left then turn right as it tried to get us back to the motorway entrance. We really hoped we didn’t end up at a party all the cars were heading for!
Eventually the satnav’s instructions coincided with where the locals were taking us and we found ourselves back on the motorway. The rain was torrential. Before we left home we knew Kevin’s visor and pinlock needed replacing – it was constantly fogging and wouldn’t stay up – but we’d forgotten to change it. We regretted that now as if he left it closed he couldn’t see where we were going because the visor was steaming up, if he opened it the rain was stinging his face and the visor kept falling down across his eye-line. It wasn’t much fun.
We started to fall further and further behind schedule and Kevin was getting tired. We stopped a couple of times but didn’t manage to find anywhere suitable to take the sleep he needed. Finally we stopped at a place where they had soft benches and after a quick word with the manageress she said she was happy for us to have a sleep here which was very kind of her. We decided to abandon the penultimate bonus, take the rest bonus now then run for the final group photo bonus. After eating some rather nice hot dogs we had a good sleep and documented a three-hour stop which contributed towards the rest bonus.
We left the services just before 03:00 with around 280 miles to the photo shoot and over four hours to do it in but it wasn’t to be. The rain was torrential and as we rode into Germany the traffic was really heavy; the rush hour starts a lot earlier there. The constant three lanes of traffic and appalling weather meant we just couldn’t make any real progress and we aborted our attempt on the bonus not far from the hotel as we’d have missed it by ten minutes.
It was a bit of a rough night and while we were disappointed not to have got those final 10,000 points, at the end of the day we were pleased to have been able to finish the rally at all and we’d really enjoyed it.
I was still experiencing weird things with my vision – everything was sloping – and when we got to the hotel Kevin decided it was more important to get me to a doctor than score the leg as he was concerned I may have had a TIA. With help from Gerhard and the hotel receptionist we did get to a doctor (in fact two) who both declared my issues were due to my back. I was feeling a lot better by then and we returned to the hotel just in time to do a last-minute scoring (thanks to both the rallymasters for allowing us to do this).
After a couple of hours of blissful sleep we joined our friends in the banquet hall for some lovely food – how do they manage to cook so many steaks at the same time and get them to come out so well?
As the results were read out we were really surprised to find ourselves at the front of the room with the other people who had made the top 5 and even more surprised and delighted to be told we’d achieved second place. Well done to Michiel on his first place – a deserving winner and what a great photo.
So that was another rally over, the first of what we hope will be an ongoing series of European rallies. Despite the weather and the health issues we’d managed to finish without giving up (although it was close at times!). We’d visited some fantastic places, discovered places we want to return to and, most important of all, we’d had fun.
Thanks to Chris, Gerhard, Frank, Dave, Ingrid and everyone else involved in putting on a fantastic rally.
Postscript. Kevin wasn’t happy with what the German Drs had decided so he marched me off to our GP not long after we got home. After hearing my symptoms the Dr told me I could not drive until further notice and referred me to a TIA clinic, he obviously had the same concerns as Kevin. I’ve been to the clinic today where they ran the full gamut of tests and I’m pleased to say that while they found some inflammation which they are going to refer to a neurologist, there was no evidence of a TIA so it’s a bit of a mystery what the problem was. I’m much better now though.
Kevin’s arm was operated on last Saturday and the specialist’s suspicions were confirmed when the radial head implant he’d had put in 22 years ago came out in two pieces. The larger piece was unattached and would have been moving round in his arm like a piece of broken bone so it’s no wonder it was painful. He’s on the mend now and we’re both looking forward to our next rally.