All roads lead to Rome…

May 7th, 2010

(Emily) Having changed her flight to depart from Rome instead of Dubrovnik as originally planned, Jessie had to be at the airport for about 7pm on Friday evening giving us the day to make the 150+ km there from the agriturismo. Plenty of time… so Jack had used his trusty satnav to rustle up a 300 km route that would take us round the top of Lake Bolsana and west towards the coast where there was an island/peninsula to explore and then the coast road down to Rome! Sounded do-able, and the weather wasn’t too bad so off we went. No problem as we went past Pitigliano, a small town impossibly perched on a rocky ridge, and down through Manciano on fantastic sweeping roads. James and I picked up some provisions on the way (the KTM speeding off ahead of us) and we all enjoyed a picnic lunch from a great viewpoint on the island peninsula. That’s when it all started to get a bit hairy…

We should have started to suspect something as the roads started to deteriorate and narrow, and although my Italian is rudimentary, I’m sure there was a sign saying something to the effect of ‘private land, access only’ but Jack had spoken to a local who said that yes, it was possible to circumnavigate the whole island. The question was, were we on the right road? Seeing as the satnav abruptly stopped showing any trace of road whatsoever, I’m guessing no!! The cars that kept coming past us for the second time having done a u-turn should have been another clue! For Jack and his adventurous spirit, this was all a walk in the park, but I have to say that once the tarmac disappeared for good and there was only rocks and gravel, I wasn’t sure I could continue. Hence, the next hour was a painfully slow palaver of me going about 10 miles per hour on what I felt I could do (and all the while muttering expletives into my mike) and then James having to come back on foot and rescue me to do the steep bits I just didn’t have the confidence to tackle. James was a hero; unerringly patient and encouraging, despite getting increasingly sweaty and tired from walking back to me in the heat on the uneven terrain. Jess and Jack, meanwhile, were at the end and being entertained by a crazy 68 year old local jogger performing cartwheels!! Surreal!

(James)  The result of our little off road session was that we had taken 2 hours longer than had originally been intended and so, with Jessie’s flight being that evening, we were suddenly a little pushed for time and were going to have to make up for it by taking the Autostrada for the 130kms down to Rome – something not pleasant at the best of times but when combined with Italian drivers and the fact fully loaded our bikes top cruising speed is about 65mph, makes it pretty tedious. Eventually, however we pulled off the autostrada and parked up at the airport where we were able to sit down and spend half an hour with Jessie before she went through to her gate. It was another sad moment for us and one I know that Em and Jess in particular had both been dreading as it meant saying good bye to another family member.

Having seen Jess off we headed back to the bikes and got ready to ride into Rome itself – a scary enough prospect at the best of times, but this was late rush hour on a Friday night! Still, at least, I assured Em through our intercom system I could talk her through it, that was until as we were leaving the airport Em’s voice suddenly cut out and we were faced with the oh-so-slightly inconvenient realisation that the batteries on the head set had died!…

Throughout our trip to date, Matthew and I had taken turns leading or keeping up the rear with Em in the middle so she would feel less vulnerable (me generally at the rear unless we were in mountains or on very technical roads  or steep hairpins at which point I would go to the front and show her the correct line to follow and advise her on what to expect next, gear choice, oncoming traffic etc.) This allowed me to talk her through what she was doing, respond to her concerns and generally slowly build her confidence. It was a system that had worked well thus far, but here suddenly there was no Matthew and no chance for communication. As we got to some traffic lights in the Rome suburbs, and with cars coming up either side of us (there didn’t ‘have’ to be a space for them!) we were able to agree a system which Em was happy with. Em stayed close to Jack, who was leading with the satnav (a difficult task in itself to concentrate on this while negotiating the crazy traffic but we would have been lost without it), and I was to act as a ‘blocker’ at the rear to ensure no cars got to close to her and clearing lanes for her when we needed to change lanes or make a turn.

Our destination was Jack’s friend and fellow EasyJet pilot, Charlie’s apartment in the Trastevere area of Rome. Charlie had very kindly agreed to put the three of us (plus all of our luggage!) up for a couple of nights and even gave up his bed, despite the fact that he was having to get up at 4.30 am the next morning for work! Having found his place in the myriad of tiny packed back streets, we lugged our stuff up to his flat (naturally, on the fourth floor), had a quick change and went straight out for something to eat and a much needed drink in Trastevere, an area it turns out famous for all its bars and good restaurants and very popular with the locals. Bizarrely, as we sat there at a restaurant, Em received a text from her friend Lauren, who had spent a year living in Rome, suggesting that if we had the chance we should go to this vey area for a night out! Charlie is one of life’s real characters and has clearly already made an impression on the locals who all seem to know him. We weren’t in for a dull time!!

When in Rome…

May 9th, 2010

(James) By the time we awoke at a not indecent hour Charlie was long gone, in fact whilst planning our day – Em and I sightseeing and Jack to finally purchase a decent replacement helmet – Charlie came home from having done a ‘day’s work’ (Cyprus and back). Em and I headed out to see the sights on what was already a beautiful day, crossing the Tiber into the city’s heart. Our itinery won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been to Rome – and won’t surprise anyone who hasn’t – and so we took in the wonders of the Coliseum, not named, it turns out, because of its sheer size despite having a capacity of 50,000 people (it was small compared to the nearby Circus Maximus – think Ben Hurr chariot races – that had a capacity of 250,000!!) but because of the colossal statue of the Emperor Nero that once stood outside the front entrance. The Coliseum itself is still staggering even when compared to modern stadia – it’s hard to imagine that 2000 years ago they could build such a building, one that came (like any modern stadium) with kitchens etc for food sellers in the crowd, that had numerous trapdoors in the arena floor underneath which existed a complicated system of lifts and pulleys that would bring new gladiators and animals into the fray, that could be flooded (that’s right, despite all this the arena floor could be made water tight!) so that naval battles could also be recreated.

We spent time seeing the Palantine, the Roman Forum , Trevi fountain and relaxing in Piazza Rotunda starring in wonder at the Pantheon with its enormous  unsupported domed ceiling – whose construction, even to this day baffles architects and engineers who admit that any attempt to construct something similar today would result in a building with a very short shelf life and certainly wouldn’t still be standing and still be in use as a church without any real problems after 2000 years!

Despite all of this, Em’s favourite place was Piazza Argentina, a square that as well as containing the ruins of 4 Roman temples is home to about 200 abandoned cats who are cared for by a local charity (we ended up going there twice!), where she able to wander round, stroke cats and take way too many photos!

What really amazed me in particular about Rome (I, unlike Em had never been there before) was the sheer scale and amount of Roman architecture that survives to this day. I guess I sort of expected it to be in certain areas of the city sealed off to protect it, but what you can’t prepare yourself for is the fact it is quite literally everywhere you look, in almost every street you can see Roman columns standing alone or in pairs, columns that once supported arches and ceilings now long gone, that anywhere else in the world would find them screened off from the public but not in Rome where they stand next to houses, cafes and gelaterias. There are even Roman buildings, some three or four storeys high that have simply been ‘extended’ and now have more modern fifth and sixth floor containing flats or offices sitting atop of them. Seeing this, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether this is some sort of historical/culture sacrilege or whether it’s Romans ‘embracing’ their history by using these buildings and ‘adding’ to them just have they over the last 20 centuries, either way Rome is an incredible city that oozes character and charm and I instantly felt at home there.

And then there were two

May 12th, 2010

(James) Having picked up a few provisions in the morning including a map of Italy (we had originally planned to come down through Slovenia and Croatia) Jack and Charlie helped us  lump our bags and panniers down from Charlie’s flat to the bikes parked down in the street below and started to load them up for the journey south and our first part of the trip alone. After saying goodbye we headed  towards the bridge to cross the Tiber and then down towards the Coliseum. We had no Rome map but noticed that is was the most southern of the famous landmarks so reasoned that if we headed towards it and then continued in a south easterly direction it would take us out of Rome and towards the towns we’d marked as our first waypoints of the day.  It was quickly apparent to me as we rode through Rome that Em’s confidence on the bike had taken another giant leap forward. We both adopted the general rule for driving in Rome that you just worry about what’s in front of you and that you assume that the person behind you is doing the same! So if somebody in front of you just start moving across into your path it’s up to you slow and give them room, as they’re going to keep coming anyway. On the morning we left, with me at the front, it was Em’s voice I could hear, not worrying about what was coming behind her but confidently calling out warnings to me to let me know what someone was doing in my blindspot. She sounded like she’d riding in cities for years!

True to our plan we rode past the Coliseum and headed south east entering the countryside on the road we’d wanted to get to and soon we were riding south with the port city of Bari and a ferry to Croatia our final destination.

We’d hope to find a campsite that was marked on our map near Cassino (site of a large battle in WWII) but upon our arrival that evening it turned out the site had been closed for some time. This meant we had a decision to make as we were determined to camp and make up for the fact that Italy had put us over our planned budget and Italy doesn’t seem to cater for camping to any great extent. The decision was made to head 40km west (the opposite direction to Bari) towards the coast north of Naples as the map indicated that there  were 3 campsites there. We eventually found one in Formia just after dark (never ideal), and could have easily missed it as it looked closed. We were guided to an area and told we could set up wherever we liked which we promptly did, making dinner and going straight to sleep. With daylight we were finally able to gauge our surroundings – we were indeed the only ones there, and our inspection of the facilities didn’t exactly win us over. Suffice to say, if you’re looking for a camping experience with clean, secure facilities look elsewhere. If, however, you prefer your campsites dingy, unsecure, mosquito ridden and with no flushing toilets you’d do well to put the delights of Formia somewhere near the top of your list. Still, at least it was cheap!…

After packing up we hit the road and spent a fairly uneventful day heading east towards the Adriatic coast (there were no campsites apparently anywhere in between) and by early evening we were passing through the olive orchards that cover this part of Italy. However, despite everything, Italy once again failed to come through on the camping front and the campsite we’d aimed for failed to materialise. We decided to follow the coast road towards Bari in the hope of coming across another one and did eventually find one but once again, it was closed. This was a blow as it was now after dark and we’d put in a big effort to get across the country that day so were very tired. Em felt that her tiredness was starting to lead to mistakes on the bike so the decision was quickly made to find the next available place to stay, campsite or no campsite. The ‘next’ place turned out to be a 5-star hotel and we weren’t quite that desperate; we did, however, find something less grand further up the road and despite it clearly be a hotel aimed towards the corporate market, we turned in. Our room stank of cigarette smoke and the bizarre ‘restaurant’ was reminiscent of a conference room: not the best money we’ve ever spent, but safety must come first.

In the morning, we headed into Bari to enquire about ferries and were told that the next sailing wasn’t until the following night, meaning another day in the dump that is Bari. The lady at the information centre told us there was another campsite to the south of the city along the coast that would definitely be open and that it was very nice. We promptly rode off towards the village where she had indicated it was (passing numerous gypsy ‘dwellings’ on the way) and were grateful to see that it was indeed open. However, it quickly became apparent that the lady at the tourist information office had never actually been to this campsite as ‘very nice’ it was not!! Once again, we were the only ones there, other than builders who were still constructing it for the summer season, wild dogs running in packs across the waterway, and the local prostitutes plying their trade 200 yards away under a bypass!! Still, beggars can’t be choosers and we took advantage of being able to relax together, do some laundry, catch up on some reading and sleep.

The next evening, we headed down to the port and were directed to the ‘ferry’ that was to take us across to Croatia at 10pm. Having ensured the bikes were tied up, we climbed up to the top deck to cool down and say goodbye to Italy (not Bari, which is about as un-Italian as is possible to be – unstylish, far from cosmopolitan and full of fast-food joints; think Dagenham with sun!) We quickly made friends on the deck with some of the multi-national passengers that were aboard, including a friendly Ukranian man and his wife who after talking to us for a while, offered to take a picture of both of us on our camera, uttering the line (cue Ukranian accent), “Smile like the cheeses” which we found absolutely hilarious and has now become something of a catchphrase for us! We also befriended a young lone motorcyclist from Germany, called Marco, who was riding to his father’s house in Croatia and spent the evening chatting and drinking beer with him before we each found a nook on the warm deck floor (we think we were above the engine room!) and tried to get some sleep as the forecast rain began to fall…

Thank you!

May 16th, 2010

Just wanted to say a very quick BIG thank you for all the lovely (and amusing!) messages family and friends have been posting on the site. Sorry we haven’t had time to reply to them individually but be assured that each one is read with smiles, laughs and, occasionally, tears in the eyes… We miss you!!! xxx

Holed up in Dubrovnik

May 17th, 2010

Despite reports of bad weather in Croatia, we awoke on the ferry, a little stiff, to a beautiful morning several miles off the stunning Croatian coastline. The ‘port’ of Dubrovnik was a world away from the delights of Port Bari: clean, pretty and quiet. We disembarked the ferry and got in the queue for our first non-EU border customs check, not entirely sure what to expect. What we could see from the cars in front of us was that the authorities seemed to be fairly rigid in their duties and every vehicle was getting a thorough search with bags opened etc. We were waved down to the front to find Marco and his bike being subjected to a comprehensive opening of luggage, despite him being a Croatian national, so we were preparing ourselves for the likelihood of having to unpack all our carefully organised panniers and bags. Sure enough, the unsmiling official asked us what was in the first pannier and indicated for us to open it (a palaver in itself as you have to unstrap the bag from the top of the bike first to get access). While we were sorting this out, he had started to look through our passport and was asking us various questions. Upon finding our Pakistan visa stamps, he said, “You have long journey”, then turning to the China page, “World travellers?!” and from then on seemed to warm to us and decided that we were no longer a risk or likely to be smuggling, and waved us through – meanwhile, poor they were still going through poor Marco’s bags!!

Having waited for, and then said goodbye to Marco, we headed in towards the centre of town in search of tourist information to find out camping/hostel options. As we came round the one way system (Dubrovnik’s at the bottom of a steep mountain), we got our first sight of the old town and harbour which is beautiful . It wasn’t clear where tourist information was so we ended up doing quite a few laps of the one-way system but on finding it, discovered there were two options; one campsite, one hostel. Given the weather forecast, and the fact that the hostel was only ten minutes walk from the old town, we opted for that. Cue another few laps of the town to try and find it, but eventually we were sorted with a 4-bed dorm room to ourselves.

Dubrovnik’s old town really is stunning, with a relaxed bohemian vibe and cute little streets to wander round and explore. It’s obviously geared up to the tourist market, who must flock here in the summer months, but luckily we seem to have stumbled upon it before the majority of cruise ships and organised tour groups descend. The streets at this time of year are pleasantly bustling and the weather warm so it’s definitely seems like the right time to come. After a relaxed wander, we grabbed some bread, meat and cheese at the mini-mart and found a secluded spot further back up the hill on the way back to the hostel to enjoy ‘dinner’ overlooking the Adriatic. We say secluded, but it quickly became apparent this was probably by design rather than accident – it was mosquito central!! Normally, it’s Emily who gets bitten but not on this occasion as James racked up an impressive 13 bites on his legs within five minutes of being there!! So, having finished our meal, we decided not to wait and watch the sunset for fear of being eaten alive and went back to enjoy a few beers at Roxy’s, a cool biker bar just down from the hostel which plays classic rock all day long!

We slept SO well on our first night in Dubrovnik (technically first proper sleep in 48 hours as you can’t really count the ferry as quality rest!) We had a very lazy morning but as it was such beautiful weather and rain was forecast for the next few days, we thought we’d better take advantage and headed up to the top of the mountain that overlooks the old town (both on James’ bike!) where we had a picnic, totally isolated on the top, following a pretty hairy steep and twisty road up the mountain. We ate our picnic (what was rapidly becoming our staple diet of bread, cheese, cured meat and tomatoes!) and then read our books in the sunshine, watching the planes coming to land at Dubrovnik that were level with us as they flew by, hugging the coastline round to the airport just 10 km away. In the evening we went for a wander in the old town before heading back to Roxy’s for a beer (having been slightly put off by the £7 a pint price in the tourist traps in town…) After looking at the forecast, we decided to stay on in Dubrovnik a few extra days to wait for the storms to pass as there seemed little point ploughing on in bad weather when we couldn’t stop and enjoy the beautiful coastline down the Adriatic.

Our decision was proved correct as in the night an almighty thunderstorm kicked in and stayed for 48 hours without really letting up. We amused ourselves for the next two days just relaxing and catching up on rest (and reading ‘Shantaram’ – awesome!!) A couple of students from the US, Travis and Sarah, joined our room on the third day so we spent an evening (at Roxy’s of course!) with them – they were backpacking following a exchange programme at a university in Copenhagen. They were both studying foreign policy type courses so James had a lot to talk about with them! (I nodded and agreed!!)

On Monday morning, we awoke to a definite improvement in the weather (though forecast was still mixed) so we made the decision to hit the road – we were getting a little too comfortable in our new ‘home’ in the hostel! We headed for the Montenegro border with some trepidation as despite extensive research in the web, it was still unclear what insurance forms we needed to get into the country – the infamous ‘green card’ seemed to be a pre-requisite but all UK insurance companies seem to have stopped issuing them, claiming they are no longer required in Europe. Something the clearly, the border officials in the Balkans have not been told about…

Mellow in Montenegro

May 19th, 2010

(Emily) We rocked up at the Montenegran border trying to looked relaxed. Passports? Sure. Vehicle documents? Here you go. Green card? Ah. Would this be where the problems started? Would we have to go back into Croatia and sort out better insurance with the UK, where only one company issues green cards? Er, no actually – we just had to go to the little office by the offical’s window where the sign said ‘Green cards – upstairs’ and buy one!!  Phew! To be fair, James had heard this was often the case; the problem really lies in how much different country borders charge for the privilege (essentially it’s a document giving you 3rd party liability insurance in their country so you’re not covered but whoever you hit or are hit by is). With Montenegro, we were lucky – just 10 euros each – but word on the street (or the Horizons Unlimited online forum) is that Serbia charges as much as 150 Euros each. Suffice to say, we’re not choosing that in our route across to Bulgaria and Turkey!

While James was up in the office, there was what sounded like a rumble of thunder and about twenty Harleys pulled up to the check point. I was slightly apprehensive as one by one they rode over to the car park where I was waiting for James, pretty much surrounding our bikes which looked teeny in comparison.  They were proper old school bad-ass, with worn looking tents strapped over their handle bars, home-made leather panniers, neckscarves and shades. Gulp! But of course, they were lovely and, it turns out, they thought we were pretty bad-ass too!! It was a group from Holland who were riding down to Greece for a huge Harley meet. Like us, they’d been caught in the temperamental weather and had had rain pretty much the whole time. After a chat, James and I left  but they soon caught up with us so, for a brief while, we were ‘leading’ a column of Hogs along the coastal road. Yes, we did feel pretty cool!!! (James: or it looked like they were chasing us – think Any Which Way But Loose, “Right turn Clyde!”)

All too soon, the Harleys peeled off in another direction and it was just the two of us. And of course the rain. We’d been telling ourselves it looked like it would pass but it just got heavier and heavier so we quickly pulled in to put covers on our non-waterproof bags. In the layby where we had pulled over there was another guy stopped to put on waterproof trousers and a jacket. Smiling and saying hi, James then realised he had no vehicle… just a metal cart which, on closer inspection, was covered in world stickers. “Travelling?” James asked. Well, check this out; he’s WALKING round the world!!!!!! We were stunned; the sheer scale of it is inconceivable. He’s a lovely, unassuming Japanese guy who started in Shanghai and has been on the road now for 1 year and 5 months already. Wow! His current destination is Lisbon which he estimates will take him another 6 months, but he said he’d also like to do the Americas. We just couldn’t get over it, and were gutted not to spend longer  with him and find out more. Alas, he was on his way from Kotor, where we were heading, and the rain wasn’t conducive to a sit down for a chat, so we took pics of each other and exchanged details (turns out he had met Tiffany, a well known female adventure biker, when he was in Kazakhstan and had her sticker in his diary – we’d recently met her at a bike meet in London!) We rode off, shaking our heads in disbelief. What a guy!!

Arriving at Kotor, a place where the whole old town is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, we were dismayed yet not surprised to discover that no motorised vehicles were allowed in the old town within the city walls. Standing in the rain, pondering our options, I suggested the best bet was to ride a bit further on, find somewhere cheap to stay, then come back for a day trip. This was preferable to 1) lugging all our panniers and bags down the winding streets of the old town to the hostel and 2) leaving our bikes outside the city walls where they were already quite a few gypsies eying us up. James, ever the optimist, thought he’d just go in a suss out where exactly the hostel was  to rule out the option and returned with good news: it was a nice place, there were rooms and, most importantly, we could leave our bikes in their courtyard… as long as we walked them in with our engines off through the labyrinth of tiny streets that is Kotor (Florence flashbacks, anyone?!) James, gentleman to the core, took his bike in (quite an effort when loaded up and over wet cobbles) then came back for mine, while I carried the helmets!!

(James) Having managed to park our bikes a sheltered corridor in the hostel, we lugged our gear up to the six bed dorm we’d been allocated (which turned out to be in another building a few streets away; meaning three trips back and forth in the rain to carry our stuff!) Having turned our part of the room into a bit of a Chinese laundry, we were quickly joined by three room-mates from Sweden; Sami, Sarang and Majed. They were really friendly from the off and soon we were sitting round putting the world to rights over their box of cheap white wine! As it happens, two of the three are currently based in Albania doing some research for a thesis so were able to give us loads of information about the country on the back of which we decided that we’d be stupid to leave it out of our itinerary, despite the range of horror stories that tend to float around the internet. Not only that, as two of the three were Iranian (the other being an Iraqi), we were able to talk about Iran and its many merits (which we still hope to experience, despite our first visa application being rejected…) Em and I then cooked dinner as they kept the flow of cheap wine coming!

We awoke to slightly thick heads in the morning (that’s cheap wine for you!) and found that the guys had left some breakfast for us while they went to climb the fortress walls on the hill above the town before heading off. We didn’t quite feel up to the challenge yet (and Jackson wasn’t there to drag us up regardless!!) so we took advantage of the hostel wireless to do some admin and generally laze around. On the way,  we started hearing loads of drumming and football-style chanting from what sounded like a large crowd. I couldn’t quite work out what it could be for (it was clearly too early for a pre-football match, and they couldn’t be celebrating a result from that morning) so we followed the crowd, over 200 strong, as they marched through the town to the little square. Here, they came to a halt while the chanting continued, only to be joined by a guy with a trumpet from the window of one of the rooms above, getting the crowd into an even bigger frenzy! They were, it turned out, supporters of the town’s water polo team  (no, we couldn’t believe it either!) who had just returned as runners up from an international tournament in Italy. Apparently, they go absolutely nuts for water polo and when the tournament was on, the whole town watched the matches on big screens in the piazza! Who’d have thought?!!

After getting lunch made for us by Steve, an Aussie we met in the hostel (Em: risotto, but no cheese, damnit!),  we summoned the strength to tackle the town and the ramparts. The town is absolutely stunning and is set at the top of a series of inlets and bays that resemble Norwegian fjords. Despite its small size, it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of tiny streets and alleyways -again, one to see now and not at the peak of summer when it must be absolutely heaving! Having put it off long enough, we headed for the ramparts and began the long and, it has to be said, knackering  climb up the mountain to the top of the fortifications. The climb itself took about an hour and the views as we ascended were so spectacular that they almost (but not quite) took our minds off the pain that results from climbing the 1450 uneven steps to the top (Jack, you would have been proud!), steps that always had a cobbled slope running alongside them which originally was used to drag cannons up to the top!!! The view over the bay and the town was absolutely stunning, which was just as well as we were shattered and needed a good twenty minutes sit down to recover. Although we were the only ones up there, I managed to get Em to stay up a little longer as I was convinced that there was going to be a break in the clouds and some sunshine might poke through which, eventually, it did; we were rewarded with some great photo opportunities and a sun-kissed descent.

By the time we got down, it was gone seven and we spotted a group of hostellers having a beer in the piazza so went to join them for a drink and eventually some excellent pizza. We went to bed, praying that the weather would continue to improve for our departure in the morning – entering Albania was not an appealing prospect given what we’d heard about the condition of the roads and standards of driving!

We woke to a beautiful clear morning (a rare thing given the weather in this part of the world recently!) and loaded the bikes before pushing them out through the nearest town gate and started off around the bay towards the coastal town of Budva. However the tiny (but very pretty and untouched) ‘roads’ meant that our progress was slow – we averaged 9mph! This indicated that our target destination of Tirana might be a tad ambitious and, not wanting to rush what was turning into a lovely ride, we decided just to amble along and see where the road took us that day. The views on the coastal road south were simply stunning, with tiny villages nestled into little coves and inlets along the crystal clear coastal waters. We were really surprised at how pretty it was, having expected more Soviet style buildings rather than the classic Mediterranean terracotta tile roofed villages we saw. Once past Budva, we stopped at the a little beach and had our picnic lunch (admittedly, the appeal of bread, cheese, tomato and cured meat sandwiches  is starting to wane…) and made the decision to stop for the night in the town on Ulcinj, just before the Albanian border where the map indicated there was a campsite.

As we rode south that afternoon, we could definitely sense a real change in the towns and people we saw – the south is definitely more impoverished and as yet comparatively untouched by the new money pouring into the country. Towards late afternoon, we arrived at the outskirts of Ulcinj and started to discuss the potential difficulties we might, and usually do, have finding the tourist information office (with no satnav or guidebooks, we rely heavily on them for local town maps), so were shocked to see a Tourist Information office at the side of the road within a kilometre of passing the ‘Welcome to Ulcinj’ sign. We pulled over and were ushered in by the man who ran the office; a very friendly, German-speaking local whose staff seemed to comprise of his six year old son doing colouring at the desk. He quickly informed us that the campsite was closed and we asked about a cheap room said he could definitely help, before showing us some photos of a local, centrally located place with secure parking and quoting us €35 for the room and breakfast. He said we could pay him and that he’d then take us there to save us needing a map, which we promptly agreed to. We followed him in his car through the outskirts of the town and sure enough, turned in to a pretty house with a patio covered by grape vines and a couple of foreign registered Harleys parked on the grass (clearly on their way to the ‘Hog meet’ in Greece). Having gone into the main house, we assumed to get the owner, he came out with my change for the room and informed me that he was a couple of Euros short but assured me that he would make sure I got them at breakfast. I indicated my surprise at this ‘concierge’ level of personal service, to which he promptly replied, with a perfectly straight face, “It’s no problem, this is my house”!!!!  Em and I laughed our arses off and initially felt like we were the victims of a scam, which in a way it was, and as we talked about it, we recalled that we’d both noticed that as we’d followed his car into town, we’d passed dozens of tourist information offices, clearly each one of which was owned by a local with rooms to rent!!! However, the fact is that the room was actually reasonable value for money and our bikes were nice and secure within the gated drive, we deduced that this is just the way it’s done down here and laughed at his entrepreneurial approach! He quickly drive off back to his ‘office’ (which throughout this period was being managed by his young son!) and soon after returned followed the rumble of more Harleys! In the end, there were eight bikes staying (everyone apart from us were Austrian). Following the owner’s advice, we took a walk down to explore the old town which was an experience that words and photos could never quite do justice… suffice to say, it’s a work in progress!!! Having quickly tired of the delights of Ulcinj (by now nicknamed Urchin by us), we headed back to the ‘villa’ for a make-shift dinner (surprise, surprise; bread, cheese, tomato and meat!) and met our fellow biker victims who, once again were bad-ass Harley types and all round nice guys. In between my make-shift German and their make-shift English, we were able to have a good laugh over a 3 litre coke bottle full of the owner’s own home-produced wine made from the vines we were sitting underneath as we heard the highly evocative sound of the call to evening prayer by the local mosques – a first for Em and our first real sense of ‘the east’. Meanwhile I pummelled Emily at cards (for once) before turning in!

Entering the unknown…

May 20th, 2010

(James) It’s very easy to form an opinion on Albania – let’s face it everyone seems to have one – and as we had ridden down the Balkan coast over the last week we’d had a constant stream of people telling us not to go, saying the country was dangerous (bandits in the north; terrible driving; awful roads etc) to the extent that we had considered alternative routes. For every person who told us the country was worth seeing, there were a dozen advising us to avoid it altogether. So it was admittedly with some trepidation that we set off from Ulcinj the next morning towards the Albanian border. The road to the border itself was bizarre – given it was the main road south from Montenegro, it got smaller and more rural the further we went. After 40 minutes, just as we were starting to worry we’d taken a wrong turn – the ‘road’ had become little more than a track – we rounded a corner to see a large modern border checkpoint.  We pulled up behind the last car in the queue but were ushered down to the front and then up on to a kerb where we were told to ride along a pavement and down a corridor to a window where our passports were taken off us for our ‘exit’ stamp and we were told to roll the bikes to the next window (2 metres away) which it turned was Albanian passport control where we were quickly stamped and told to enjoy Albania (presumably the Montenegro official simply passes passports over his shoulder to his Albanian counterpart!)

Normally as we ride I make a point of alerting Em to any hazards or oncoming vehicles so she doesn’t have any nasty surprises and our first few miles in Albania certainly kept us busy with Em getting a constant stream of warnings as I listed the obstacles on the road – “donkey on the left, goats crossing the road,  stray dog ahead,  tortoise in the road (no, really!)”, and even “ football about to hit the road” – it did, landing on the front of the scooter ahead of us smashing his screen and almost wiping him out! But as we passed through our first villages the one thing we noticed, other than the fact that the main form of transport seemed to be donkey, was the warmth of the people who waved and called to us as we passed to the point that Em said she was starting to feel like a bit of a celebrity!

After about 20 miles we arrived at our first ‘junction’ (a choice of tracks) and opted to turn right – the compass said it was south) and soon arrived at a rickety looking wooden bridge over a wide and fast flowing river. We started across (you could feel the bridge dipping as you crossed!) and when half way we suddenly saw an old truck unbelievably overloaded with hay coming towards us from the other side. As it got nearer I moved over as far as I could to let it past, and then was forced to lean the bike on to the side of the bridge to give it every possible inch. Judging by Em’s laughter in my earpiece it was an hilarious sight as I was forced to duck by head down onto my tank to avoid the hay that was piling over the edge of the truck! Sadly I had the camera so that moment is lost forever to all bar Em but it was certainly an entertaining an event filled first hour.

Our instinct to turn south across the river was proved correct when finally we came upon our road sign for Tirana and the main road south. The next couple of hours proved to be something of a learning curve as we came face to face with the reality of Albanian driving. What became clear was that pretty much anything goes, with overtakes happening on either side, and as we approached our first of several major road works on the road – there was no diversion and we were expected to drive ‘through’ the work site, round the diggers that were operating, and across sodden muddy ground more suited to tracked vehicles – we saw that the art of queuing is still unknown in Albania as once in the roadworks it became a complete free for all with everyone taking a different path a trying to pass everyone else! It was mayhem!

Our one relief throughout the day had been that the weather had been perfect but as we rode further south we could see grey skies ahead that only seemed to be getting darker and heavier. We didn’t think we had a chance of making it to Tirana without getting wet and true enough when just 40 kms away the heavens opened turned the driving  conditions from bad to worse (and the road work sections into quagmires!)

As we hit the outskirts of Tirana at rush hour the level of traffic increased significantly and we had to ensure that we rode increasingly close to each other to prevent people from coming between us (the road was about four lanes  wide but nobody was ‘using’ the lanes). All was going relatively well and we had survived the many obstacles that we’d come across (foot deep pot holes etc!)  and then the traffic slowed for another obstacle. We couldn’t tell what was ahead as our view was blocked by a couple of large vans but when we got to the front, we were at a level crossing with  15cm deep ruts in front of the rails with no chance of avoiding them. Metal when wet is like ice and this, combined with the trenches before the rails, caused Em to lose the front wheel and down she went.  I then tried to get out of my trench to help her but it was no good and I soon joined her on the ground!! Between us we’d managed to block the entire road but rather than continue beeping (Albanians seem to drive with one hand constantly on the horn – my dad would fit right in!) we were inundated with people desperate to help us. Em couldn’t move as her lower leg was under the bike but she quickly had half a dozen or so people helping to get her and the bike upright. Once we’d managed to get the bikes to the side of the road people couldn’t help us enough, offering local mechanics if needed and calling people they knew from nearby workshops. The important thing was that we were both ok – the bikes had some minor damage with Em’s steering being a little bent and me having lost a pannier (the mechanism that attaches it to the frame had bent – an intentional design weakness to ensure the frame of the bike doesn’t get damaged). After a quick assessment we thanked those who had helped and the bikes ‘limped’ into central Tirana as we tried to find our hostel. The rest of the journey proved no less eventful and an hour later we rocked up at the hostel wet, muddy and exhausted (we must have looked quite a sight). We were welcomed in by Claas, the owner, who was more than happy to let us park our bikes inside the grounds and immediately invited us to the evening BBQ before we went off for a much needed shower. What a day!

Tirana

May 23rd, 2010

(Emily) The hostel was an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos of the city of Tirana. With a garden full of lemon and cherry trees and grape vines, it was the perfect place to chill and recover from our eventful ride in. On that first evening, there were only three of us staying at the hostel – James and I, plus Greg from the UK who was very friendly, and worldly-wise beyond his years. It was Greg’s birthday (only 19!) so an impromptu bbq had been arranged with everyone contributing something (James made burgers, yum!) The owners, Claas and Lira (German and Albanian/German) had invited a couple of friends living in Tirana and it was a lovely evening sitting out on the balcony, despite the rain lashing down a few feet away.

On Friday, we told ourselves we should see to getting the bikes sorted before we went off exploring the city. Amazingly enough, the internet revealed there was a Yamaha dealer only a few blocks away (called Moto Tirana – reminded us of the lovely Moto Varese in Italy) so we went off together on my bike to see if they could sort the steering (needless to say, James was riding with me pillion rather than the other way round!) Despite going all the way along the road that google maps had indicated, we still hadn’t spotted the bike shop, so when a friendly local on a damaged bike (that incidentally was being towed along by his mate in the car!) said he was going that way and to follow him, we didn’t hesitate. Trying not to choke in the fumes or get cut off by the constant barrage of cars pulling out this way and that, we had to explain to the guys whenever we stopped that no, we didn’t want to sell the bike to them! Once at Moto Tirana, it seemed there wasn’t much they could do (I was able to ascertain this through my broken Italian – a language that many Albanians speak better than English) but luckily for us, their courier was about to go to another place that might be able to help… cue hairy ride through Tirana number two! (James: trying to keep up with a local on a scooter that obeys no traffic rules, ignores red lights, goes the wrong way up one way streets and makes sudden and unpredictable turns is not for the faint hearted!) The mechanic at the next place promptly took my bike off for a spin around the block (er, ok bye then…) and when he returned, the steering had magically realigned itself!! He wouldn’t (couldn’t?!) explain how and wouldn’t take any money so that was that. We were beginning to like Albania, a lot!

It was a beautiful day on Saturday so we sat eating breakfast in the glorious sunshine (well, for five minutes before it got too hot and I had to go in the shade – typical English!) chatting with Sacha and Anna from Russia, who were travelling with their gorgeous two and a half year old, Sergei. It was the perfect day for talking a leisurely walk around the city to discover what it had to offer. Claas had recommended a few places to see, so we started with the bazaar; a colourful market located in the back streets which seemed to sell anything and everything. It was all very calm and peaceful, with no one hassling us as tourists to buy their wares; indeed, we’ve noticed that Albanians generally seem to communicate in very soft tones, with few words. From there, we headed to the Blloku district which is the area of Tirana once used exclusively by the Communist Party officials.

(James) Albania is an incredibly interesting country to visit and is unlike almost any other; until very recently, it was a member of a rare group of states (N Korea & Burma being the most obvious others) whose regimes were internationally isolated and whose people lived an enforced backward lifestyle in a cultural void in complete ignorance of the outside world. Under the Hoxha regime, listening to foreign radio was punishable by 10 years in prison, there were only 1000 cars in the entire country all of which were reserved for senior party officials (during the 45 year regime only 2 driving licenses were ever issued to non-party members) making bicycles and the horse and cart the main form of private transport for Albanians, although the public transport throughout the country was free. The last 17 years has seen the introduction of cars to those that can afford them but they are generally old wrecks (mostly 1970’s & 80’s Mercedes!) and cars palmed off to Albania by European countries who recognised that it was cheaper to do this then scrap them. The result is a dangerous combination of dodgy old cars and drivers with very limited driving experience, often without licences and no understanding of any sort of highway code or rules of the road so cue red lights being completely ignored, double parking being the norm and one way streets are a joke (I’d estimate that up to 40% of traffic in our local streets was going the wrong way up the one way streets!)

In the last decade or so Albanians have also had to catch up culturally with the west as during the regime they were denied access to and had no knowledge of anything outside the country. So whilst you hear modern music in bars, there’s no knowledge of all music that went before and influenced it, unsurprisingly then, there’s little appreciation of the  evolution of music in the 20th Century, of the Beatles, Elvis, Blues or Jazz and the effect they had on modern culture. Nor can they be expected to grasp the impact that some of what we would call major cultural events and landmark moments had on the world as they happened.

Whilst we in the west were experiencing these events and changes, life in Albania continued just as it had since the 1940’s except that as Hoxha’s iron fisted grip on power grew  so did his paranoia – and many of his enemies, rivals and allies whom he considered threats were dispatched either via charges of treason or more sinister means. Hoxha was a great admirer of Stalin, but following his death, felt that the Soviet Union ‘softened’ and so in the mid-60’s Albania broke away leaving the Soviet Union and aligned themselves with Maoist China under Mao Zedong leading to the country’s own sort of cultural revolution. However, once again in the years after Mao’s death as China looked to develop its own not-quite free market economy, Hoxha felt that China too had softened and eventually Albania’s relationship with China ended leaving the country internationally isolated. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 (Albania still held on a tad longer) that communist Albania, it’s economy utterly broken, finally ended. Hoxha never had to face the music: he died in 1985. It was only following the collapse of the regime that Albanians were allowed to leave their drab grey blocks of flats in Tirana and enter the Blloku district of the city that had been the residential homes of the communist party elite and utterly off limits to ordinary citizens. Even now, with Tirana trying to develop, the difference between Blloku and the rest of the city is stark and walking into the district with its smooth roads and pavements and tree lined avenues that shade quality expensively built houses, apartments and, of course, Hoxha’s own mansion, is like walking out of Albania and into another country. One can only imagine the sense of awe and rage that regular Albanians must have felt as they entered the district for the first time, although the fact that the mobs went straight to Skenderbeg square and tore down Hoxha’s statue might provide an indication of their feelings (national hero, Skenderbeg’s still stands proudly!). Today, the Blloku district has been reclaimed by students and the young and the area is filled with bars, cafes and restaurants and has an utterly cosmopolitan, bohemian feel to it.

Exploring Albania

May 26th, 2010

(Emily) Having no prior knowledge about Albania, and as usual lacking a guide book, we generally went by recommendations from other travellers or hostel owners. The town of Berat, to the south of Tirana, had been mentioned several times as a pretty place to visit so on Sunday 23rd we packed the essentials into one of our roll bags and walked across town to catch a bus down to the town (Lira and Claas had very kindly let us leave the bikes at their hostel, along with our bags and kit – it was quite the novelty to be travelling light sans bikes). Albania’s long distance bus service works remarkably well – destinations are clearly indicated by a sign in the window and they always seem to leave and arrive as timetabled. The ‘buses’ are invariably ancient Mercedes coaches – the one we got that day to Berat had certainly seen better days, and air-con was but a distant memory; we had blissful moments when the side door remained open for a while and we got gusts of air up our shorts but apart from that it was pretty sticky! The distance between Tirana and Berat is only about 60 miles but the journey took a good three hours due to the poor road surface, mountain passes and general incompetence of the vehicle. It was a good trip though, and gave us the chance to see some of Albania’s beautiful countryside and the innumerable bunkers that litter the landscape (another legacy from the Communist era – Hoxha ordered over 700,000 pill boxes and heavy artillery bunkers to be built such was his paranoia of invasion. The chief designer and engineer was required to prove that the bunkers were able withstand full on tank assault by standing in one of his prototypes while it was attacked by tanks! He emerged unscathed, though probably more than a little bit shell shocked! Albanians today have to live with them but try to hide them with plants or decorate them with bright paints. It said that today, though entirely redundant in a military sense, the bunkers are a common place for Albanians to lose their virginity!

Berat was indeed a very pretty town with white Ottoman houses climbing the hillside above a wide river. The Backpackers Hostel was in itself worth the trip – more like a boutique B&B than a hostel, it’s in a UNESCO building with shady terraces under the cherry trees and grape vines and beautiful mosaic tiled floors in each room. That evening we had a relaxed stroll down on the main boulevard, trying to blend in with the locals all dressed up in their finery for the giro. We clearly stuck out like a sore thumb – where were my heels and skinny jeans when I needed them?! – and had many friendly hellos from those we passed, clearly pleased that we were visiting their town of which they are very proud. One teenage boy stopped to chat with us in his excellent English, introducing his family and translating for them. Back at the hostel, we lucked out with some left-over soup from a lovely Danish family (mum, dad and three children under 14 – pretty cool taking your kids travelling round the Balkans for a holiday!) and went to bed feeling very chilled.

After climbing the steep cobbled streets up to the old castle and fortifications of Berat the next morning, we got to the bus station in good time and nabbed a front seat for the long ride down to Sarande. It was a decent journey, despite lack of leg room and an unscheduled stop when we came upon an accident on a hairpin between a van and a lorry (much debate ensued between the driver and the male passengers, including James, who had got off to judge the gap between the crashed vehicles – after 15 minutes he decided to go for it and we just squeezed through, slightly unnerving for those of us left on the bus!) Again, we were wide-eyed at the stunning views and constant stream of contradictions – a loaded up donkey passing a brand new villa-style house; ice clear rivers with garbage piled up along the banks; beautiful poppies surrounding indestructible concrete bunkers. Sarande itself was not up to much – a half-finished resort of high-rises which, in the darkness, revealed that only a fraction of the buildings were occupied – and we were somewhat bemused when our ‘hostel’ turned out to be on the 8th floor of a block of flats. It was rather lacking in atmosphere, with no real communal area, but we did have a nice chat with two retired couples from New Zealand who were taking a couple of months to travel in Europe, old school backpacker style – cool!

Our main reason for coming down south was to see the ancient ruins of Butrint (a UNESCO site), a short bus ride from Berat. Seeing as we weren’t going to be going to into Greece, we hoped to get our fix of ancient history here. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed strolling round the extensive excavations… admittedly they were not quite as spectacular as anticipated but then we had recently visited Rome so were probably a bit spoilt in that respect! Later on, we hopped on another bus bound for Syri i kaltër or ‘Blue Eye’ – a recommended spot of natural beauty. (Trying to ascertain quite which bus to get on was trickier than usual; it wasn’t written in the window as it wasn’t a final destination. Cue five locals all trying to help us via an exchange of English, Italian and Albania!) After being dropped off in pretty much the middle of nowhere, it was then a 3km trek to reach the pool but it was well worth it – the ‘Blue Eye’ refers to the pool formed by the underwater spring source of a crystal clear river; resembling the iris of an blue eye with green edges. Quite stunning, and even more beautiful as we were able to enjoy it in complete solitude, with just one other group arriving as we left (comedy Greek guy who stopped to chat with us in his loud booming voice, extolling the virtues of the UK!) Bit stuck for getting back to Sarande so stood by the side of the road hoping for a bus to pass… our inadvertent hitchhiking soon came up trumps and a mini-van of middle-aged Norwegian women stopped to offer us a lift (well, their taxi driver did – don’t think they had any say in it!)

On Wednesday, we got up early(ish), planning to catch the 9.30 am back to Tirana but pancakes for breakfast and chatting with fellow hostellers, Thomas and Anne from Munich, put us back a bit… such is the luxury of being flexible! It was a long journey but this time we actually had air-con that worked, and we managed to get the seat with the most leg room – bonus! More fantastic scenery on all sides, though we were the only ones enjoying it; everyone else had their curtains drawn to block out the sun. Unfortunately, perhaps due to their lack of experience with motorised vehicles in the past, Albanians don’t equate not seeing the horizon with travel sickness. Cue most of our fellow passengers spewing up at least once along the way, nice!!! (At least they were well prepared with plastic bags and newspapers at the ready – reminded me of school trips!)

Back in Tirana

May 29th, 2010

(Emily) We were really excited to be getting back to Tirana and, as most of our stuff plus the bikes was still at the hostel, it felt  a little like coming home! (I even got the same bed back!) That evening we actually went to the cinema – something that hadn’t even occurred to us but Thomas and Anne had mentioned that they’d been when they flew into Tirana and we did really want to see Robin Hood. Like so many things in the Tirana, the ‘Millenium Kinema’ was an ultra modern building with popcorn counter and comfy bucket seats… tickets were still written out by hand though – nice touch! It was fun to do something so normal (like a date night, Martha!) and the film was awesome (James was mighty relieved to have missed the release of Sex and the City 2 by two days!!!)

The next morning we nipped back to the bazaar to find me some flip-flops (mine had broken when out the night before, cue some difficulty walking home and piggybacks from James) and this proved to be quite challenge. Women in Tirana like to dress up to the nines, even during the day, and heels are de rigueur, thus it took a while to seek out some basic flipflops amid all the stilettos and even then they’ve got diamante on! James also got his haircut at ‘Berber Special’ as the bouffant was getting rather large – they did a great job and it was only 250 lek (less than two euros). The main priority for the day was to make sure the bikes were fully ready to hit the road following our synchronised tumble; the mechanic had magically sorted my twisted steering but we still needed to fix James’ pannier mechanism and do some general servicing. It was a hot day but we moved the bikes into the shade of the trees and it was quite satisfying to tighten up all the loose bolts (quite a few, rather alarmingly!) and sort a few other bits out (can you tell I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to the technical stuff?!!) We asked Lira from the hostel, who is Albanian/German, if she could come and translate when we took the pannier for repair – it’s quite a delicate system and James didn’t want to tackle it himself without a vice. Unfortunately the main place round the corner was closed so we lugged the boxes (stupidly had only unpacked the broken one) down to somewhere else she knew. A rather gruff guy hammered at it here and there (er, we could have done that…) but to be fair, although it’s still not perfect, he did improve it rather than make it worse!

That evening we went for dinner with Thomas and Anne (a lovely couple from Munich who we had met at the hostel in Sarande) who were back in Tirana to get their flight home, and we finally got round to sampling some traditional Albanian fare; James’s ‘piglet in oven’ was a tasty stew covered with pastry all around the whole bowl! It was a fun evening with good company and finished off perfectly with a crepe for dessert at a place our friends had found previously – the biggest pancakes ever, with every filling you could wish for (including Amaretto liqueur – hello!) and made by what must have been a robot, he was so fast! All good for our last night in Tirana, or was it…..?

Rain (well, drizzle) the next morning was all the excuse we needed to stay another day!! To be fair, after the horrendous journey in, we were not going to risk a repeat performance; torrential rain and Albanian roads just don’t mix. And it gave us the opportunity to do a little day trip to the town of Kruja, which lots of Albanians had been asking us if we’d visited so we thought it must be worth a look.

(James) After walking across town to the area where the ‘furgons’ leave from (semi-legal vans; no buses to Kruja), we negotiated a price with the driver – his opening gambit of 1000 lek was met a suitable level of contempt as we reminded him that that would have got us to Sarande in the south of the country. Realising that we hadn’t just arrived in town, he lowered it to 200 lek, which although significantly better, we weren’t entirely sure about as firstly we didn’t know what the actual price should be and secondly, we didn’t trust him. We decided to board and monitor what others were paying. The journey when the furgon eventually left (there’s no timetable, they only leave when full) was one that seemed to lurch from one near death experience to another and even the locals on the bus seemed to be in agreement that the driver was completely incompetent, even by Albanian standards! An hour later, we arrived in the hilltop town of Kruja and as everybody got off the van, we noticed they were paying 150 lek each. So I questioned the driver who pleaded ignorance… by pure chance, Em had got talking to a girl who had been on the bus with us and it turned out that whilst she – Kathryn – was English, her husband, Florjan, was Albanian. Having confirmed with his that the true price was 150 lek, I continued to demand he correct change at which point Florjan got involved and after some fairly curt words in Albanian, we had our change. Florjan was unnecessarily apologetic to us but clearly didn’t like to see the few tourists that came to Albania being ripped off (even if it was only a small amount). We ended up spending the rest of the day with them, and Florjan’s cousin, which was great as they were able to fill us in on a lot of the history and translate when necessary!

Kruja itself is small and for the most part unremarkable bar the fact that it was the site where Skanderbeg, national hero, united Albania’s tribes and successfully defended Albania from several Ottoman campaigns to conquer the country. The town now consists of a cute little bazaar selling tourist trinkets and a museum dedicated to Skanderbeg up by the castle. The highlight of the day though, was the ‘Ethnographic Museum’ (you haven’t heard of one? Me neither!) which Emily had been desperate to go to (don’t ask me why!) ever since she first heard about it. In essence, the museum was simply an original Ottoman/Albanian house that had been preserved to allow visitors to see how life was in a traditional Albanian home. (Emily: I love stuff like this!!!) The house itself was all very interesting but it was our ‘tour guide’ that stole the show; he must have been in his seventies and spoke limited broken English in a voice that was both hushed and exuberant for dramatic effect. He had the whole group in absolute hysterics throughout the tour as we walked from room to room and he explained what everything was and how it would have worked – his demonstration of how raki (the local spirit, akin to ouzo or grappa) was produced involved him swigging from his own bottle as if it wasn’t clear what one would do with it! Given that he must do the tour a dozen times a day, it was a wonder that he was still standing, but it was clearly doing him no harm!