Saturday, 13 December 2014

Supper in Gdansk 2012

I decided that I'd travel to this RTE by riding another SS1000 because an acquaintance had repeatedly asked me to accompany her for a first ride and I figured it would present an excellent opportunity: few days after summer solstice, simple route, ample incentive (dozen IBA witnesses at the finish) and so on but apparently two months’ notice was not enough and the offer was declined!  I don't think, despite her protestations, that she'll ever earn her spurs.

Home to Gdansk by road is a journey of a little over a thousand miles but, for IBA purposes, it's short because a 39 mile section of the ride takes place on Eurotunnel, not actually ridden you see. So I had arranged for a witness to be present at the ride's start location, 30 miles in the other direction.

My start witness signed the paperwork shortly before 3pm. That was when I discovered that I’d only thought I packed my camera; I’d intended to keep a photo log of the trip but apparently that wasn’t going to happen. I fuelled up and set off up the M3 towards my first checkpoint at Fleet services, a short leg but just long enough for me to realise that I seemed to have acquired a stomach upset somewhere along the way, oh dear. I had budgeted only five minutes for Fleet services and I was there quite a bit longer than that. Getting back on the road I realised that I didn’t feel too well, not sick enough to quit but not well and, more importantly, time was now tight.

The M25 in Surrey regularly hosts an open challenge tournament to find the world's worst drivers; there are prizes both for individuals and for groups. On Friday afternoons it can be very exciting if you're a mere observer, or frustrating and anxious for participants. Of course filtering, especially at speed, demands patience, skill, alertness and practice and I'm a bit of an amateur in comparison with some added to which my queasiness meant that I really wasn’t at the top of my game but I was making steady progress; not rapid progress but progress nonetheless. It was disheartening when I recognised a bike growing larger in my mirrors as that belonging to FazerPhil.  I let him through and watched as he disappeared at much greater speed than I could manage.

Not wanting to get to Eurotunnel on an empty tank I stopped at Maidstone services and filled up; the satnav was telling me that I’d missed my scheduled train anyway so no real harm done. Although when I finally did reach Eurotunnel they rescheduled me a full hour behind my planned crossing, not a good start at all. Oh well.

You’re never alone on a motorcycle. Boarding the train at the back where they always put bikes – car drivers can’t be trusted to properly immobilise their cars according to Eurotunnel – we made a friendly group: a couple touring the west coast of France for the first time on their recently acquired BMW R1100RT; a younger couple riding an Aprilia Tuono to watch the MotoGP at Assen in Holland; two young frenchmen, one riding a Harley Davidson Sportster and the other on a Triumph Thruxton. And me of course.

The Thruxton rider spent most of the crossing admiring Sheila. I had to apologise for her unpolished state but he wasn’t concerned with that, he was impressed with how practical she is. His Thruxton has dropped bars and rearset pegs – it is designed to be a café racer after all – but for any trip over, say, 50 miles a Thruxton rider would be in trouble with his wrists whereas the Bonneville is just a solid, comfortable, ride.

I’d split the trip from Calais to Gdansk into five legs terminating at waypoints in Antwerp, Hannover, Berlin, Buk and Gdansk. This meant that the satnav would always be showing me an “achievable” ETA, in the worst case only four hours away. So leaving Calais I chose the Antwerp waypoint and settled in to enjoy the remaining hour or so of daylight. Sadly, my stomach upset hadn’t yet finished abusing me. Looking on the bright side though the extra (and longer) stops meant that I knew early on that I wouldn’t score an SS1000 so I stopped fretting about it and, in particular, stopped trying to minimise my stops.  Shortly after the sun went down I made a positive departure from my earlier overnight rides by stopping and putting on two layers and a hi-viz vest and swapping my summer gloves for insulated ones. In the past I’d waited until I was feeling the cold before dressing up but this time I dressed up beforehand. That worked well and I didn’t feel cold all night, I’ll do it that way in future. I reached Antwerp about two hours behind schedule; doesn’t sound much but the reduced achievable speeds in Poland meant that the ride timing had a fairly slim margin for error and two hours was almost certainly an unrecoverable deficit.

The first navigational issue cropped up around Duisberg when the ramp onto the motorway to Hannover was coned off. Needless to say, no diversion signs were posted. Shouldn’t be a problem though as, after last winter's jaunt to Colditz, I now use a Garmin Zumo satnav and it quickly found an alternate route to the next motorway onramp just a short distance away. That was also coned off so I pressed the ‘Detour’ button then followed a rather longer route – back to the first coned off junction. Plan ‘B’ then – ignore the satnav and ride in a straight line for a while – yep, that works just fine, added a few miles onto the route but then the satnav found me a path onto the Hannover road and I was back on track.

On track yes but still behind schedule and at Hannover the deficit had extended to two and a half hours. Essentially I arrived at Hannover at the time I planned to be in Berlin. The weather deteriorated quite badly on the stretch into Berlin and just before the weather turned, about 120 miles west, I had stopped at a near perfect “iron butt motel” to have some coffee and a nap and make sure I would be weatherproof:

By the time I reached Berlin I was three hours behind and it was still raining hard: time to reconsider the options. I had originally intended to leave Berlin heading northwest to Gdansk via Szczecin but whilst playing with various options in BaseCamp I’d decided to head east to Poznan then north to Gdansk.  I had also discovered over the previous few weeks that BaseCamp’s timings often differed from the predictions of the Zumo itself and that the Zumo’s predictions were almost invariably the best that could be achieved so, while still under the huge canopy of the petrol station, I set Gdansk as the destination and let the Zumo calculate the quickest route. It was 9am and I didn’t need to arrive in Gdansk until 4pm, so all should be well but, no – ETA 1655!

I spent a few minutes trying to convince myself that the Zumo had made a mistake but of course it hadn’t. I plugged in my original route via Poznan and waited – ETA  2140

So, quickest route it is then.  I reset the satnav, fired up the bike and set off – into brilliant sunshine. I was also on the “wrong” side of Berlin and progress would be painfully slow until I reached some sort of highway. It was Saturday morning and I soon found myself in heavy traffic moving painfully slowly and increasingly suffering from the fact that I was wearing several layers and full waterproofing in the rapidly warming suburbs. Just at the point at which I thought I might actually melt into the tarmac I spotted a McDonald’s just set back from the road. I did some very fancy riding to bypass the last few blockages and parked up before rapidly (and I do mean rapidly) removing helmet, jacket and two further layers right there in the carpark before rushing inside to use the facilities.

I had quite an audience when I joined the queue at the counter. Very few customers arrived with as much drama as I’d managed! I can’t make up my mind whether the language barrier was due to this being eastern Germany where no-one speaks anything other than German or this being McD’s where, even in English speaking countries, the server’s English wasn’t always entirely recognisable to me but what I wanted was three things: something to replace the fluids I’d sweated out in the last hour, some McDonald’s fries to replace the salt I’d sweated out in the last hour and some coffee so that I could relax over it before continuing the ride.  I have very little German so I confined my request to bare simplicities: “eins Coke, eins Fries, eins kaffee bitte” – how hard could it be, this is McDonald’s for goodness sake, it’s not like they have a huge subtle menu. Well apparently it could be quite hard. Eventually between two of them, they worked out that I wanted “Coca Cola” and coffee, they asked which kind, and finally the fries “grosse oder klein?” – “grosse bitte” looking forward to a large bag of fries and feeling very smug that I’d achieved my goal. 

Apparently not – they just hadn’t understood about the fries at all, even though I had at one point used the word “frites” and the right term is actually “pomme frites”. Never mind, I had coffee and Coca Cola and that would have to do.

Eventually I emerged from the chaos of east Berlin onto the A11 autobahn towards Szczecin. Crossing the border into Poland around noon I was finally able to appreciate something that had puzzled me for many years. In 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland their advance had been rapid and virtually unopposed despite the Polish army being reasonably strong and well-equipped; the defenders in western Poland had withdrawn from their forward bases to lines further inland. Riding along the E6 highway the reason becomes obvious: the land is entirely flat and open; the Poles simply had no chance of defending it against a force of almost any strength.

After a few miles the landscape changed with open fields being replaced by forests and a few miles into it I saw a woman standing at the entrance to one of the tracks leading into the forest. A fairly ordinary looking woman, nothing particularly noticeable about her apart from the location; waiting for a bus? her boyfriend? A few miles further on, another woman, then another.

The penny dropped: these were working girls and this was their "red light district". I've seen red light districts in just about every city I've visited in Europe, Africa and North America but this was a first: a red light district in the middle of nowhere!

The route had a 90kph speed limit, slow enough, but matters soon got worse when the traffic ahead seemed to be bunching up and eventually I was able to see why: the Polish army had chosen that particular day of all days to move some empty tank transporters and they could only manage about 60kph. The police escort meant that overtaking wouldn’t be possible either but never mind, patience is a virtue.

With about 10 miles left to go a shameful thing happened: I fell asleep; just for a tiny fraction of a second but asleep nonetheless. The bike's track moved perhaps a foot in that time and I immediately realised my mistake. I was horrified and pulled in to get off the bike and walk around until I was sure I was properly awake. I reset the satnav to take me straight to the hotel and spent an uneventful few minutes riding into Gdansk.

I pulled into the Novotel carpark at 6pm, two hours after I should have met the others at the Solidarity Monument just down the road, and was welcomed by a group of riders standing around in the carpark doing what bikers tend to do when they get together: fiddle with and talk about motorbikes. The festivities were to begin at 7pm so I quickly moved to get checked in, showered (it had been 35c all afternoon and I was still wearing waterproofs “just in case”) and changed before meeting in the bar. “Would you like smoking or non-smoking?” What??

In England these days you need a letter signed by the Queen herself if you want to smoke anywhere inside the three mile offshore limit (slight exaggeration). I haven’t smoked for many years but I was tempted to ask for a smoking room, just because I could.

Arriving downstairs the whole gang (five from England, four from Germany, one from Lithuania, one from Switzerland and one from USA (on European vacation) assembled in the bar to debate where we would go for supper. Surprisingly (not) we opted to stay in the hotel: we’d all had long journeys, we’d already started drinking and the hotel’s restaurant was just there. Fabulous meal and wonderfully cheap: 60 zlotys each. We all agreed that the low prices weighed heavily in favour of holding future events there!

We had all booked ourselves in for just the one night intending to head home the next day but, as I had booked my return Eurotunnel slot for Wednesday evening, I had plenty of time and the hotel was such a welcoming place that before the meal was finished I went out to reception and booked a further night so that I could spend Sunday exploring the area. I then found out that Werner and Doris from Germany had taken the same view and had booked their extra night earlier. I think it’s safe to say that we all slept well that night.

One of my earliest exposures to Polish culture was attending the Polish Masses held in the Catholic church at home. They were always sung rather than said and sung in Polish rather than Latin or English. Being in Poland on Sunday what am I gonna do? So off I trekked seeking any Catholic church, do they have those in Poland? Turns out they do; in fact Poland is a bit of a Catholic country – the last Pope, John Paul II, was Polish and he’s still considered a bit of a hero in the country and when I say Poland’s “a bit” Catholic, what I mean is it’s 95% Catholic. Anyway I walked into town and almost immediately found a suitable church, St Mary’s Basilica (largest brick church in the world), and stepping inside heard the familiar strains of Kýrie Eléison but in Polish (well, it could have been anything but I guessed Polish because I was in Poland) and yes it sounded just as good as I remembered it being all those years ago at home.

When Mass was over I continued my walk into town only to find that the Basilica is not the only Catholic church in Gdansk, in fact there are several and all of them were, at overlapping times, singing High Mass. No, I didn’t go into each church; it was 33c, the doors were open and it could be easily heard in the street.

Eventually I found my way to the Solidarity Monument commemorating the fallen (machine gunned) workers of the Lenin shipyards and marking the birthplace of the Solidarity free trade union whose actions began the downfall of communism in Europe. The plaza includes pieces of both the Lenin shipyard wall and the Berlin wall as well as an armoured personnel carrier, many photographs and a history of Solidarity.

Eventually I moved on and headed for the old town (which is fascinating and well worth a visit) and lunch, during which I tried, not very successfully, to use my phone to record the fabulous carillon when the clock tower marked 1pm; the melody last a good five minutes and caused tourists to stop walking about in favour of standing still to listen.

After lunch I made my way back to the hotel and climbed into my leathers in order to spend the afternoon riding around the local area and, in particular, to visit the Baltic coastline. The coastal area was quite reminiscent of southwestern England, quite different to the landscape on the way in from Berlin which reminded me of parts of Quebec or Sweden. There were plenty of daytrippers and other holidaymakers enjoying the beach and landscaped gardens.

At one point I came across this rather striking cemetery in an isolated village just a few miles inland.  I had a wander round it and noted that all the graves faced the same way, exactly the same way; that, although they were all different, they all had common design components and that they were all clean and very well cared for.

Having been alerted by this one, I started looking out for and noticing cemeteries elsewhere both in the local region and, on the long ride out to Berlin, in other parts of the country. They were all very similar; a veritable national characteristic style.

Supper in the hotel on Sunday evening was a fixed price, 69 zlotys, all you can eat buffet affair, excellent stuff. Werner, Doris and I enjoyed some late night beverages and wide-ranging discussions about Poland, motorcycling, EU politics and, curiously, bell ringing.
On Monday morning I was just leaving when Werner and Doris came down for breakfast. They’d decided to stay yet another day in order to visit more of the local area before heading back and completing another SaddleSore on Tuesday.

I decided that I would head south towards Poznan rather than simply retrace my route back to Berlin and this gave me plenty of opportunity to enjoy the Polish countryside and observe how the landscape changed across the different regions. I stopped at frequent intervals to admire a cemetery or other “attraction” including a bus shelter, way out in the middle of nowhere, open to all the elements but with a large “no smoking” sign on its back wall. Apparently the liberal attitude towards smoking doesn’t apply everywhere!

As I moved further south and west the countryside gradually changed and one of the main characteristics of the change had to do with the appearance of private property. In the north the land tends to comprise large open fields with houses or other buildings apparently plonked down in a corner all by themselves: imagine a five acre wheat field with a house in one corner having a small border where no wheat is growing. Between Poznan and the German border the place had a more domesticated feel to it and in fact once I’d crossed the border most houses had fenced in gardens: altogether a more proprietorial outlook. 

Just before crossing I made one last stop for fuel in a thoroughly rundown and dejected looking petrol station but then look at this wall pointing the way out:

The actual border in this area is the river Odra and the transition over a little bridge seems quite sudden and almost unexpected: there was little if any warning on the Polish side that an international border was just around the corner although I wasn’t surprised when I saw the sign welcoming me to Germany.

My plan, such as it was, for Berlin was to have the satnav take me to a suitable hotel, probably in the suburbs somewhere. I did this by calling up its list of points of interest – lodging and got a list of hotels but of course without useful info such as roomrate, parking facilities, etc so I arbitrarily picked the one Best Western in the list and let the satnav take me there. Along the way I passed through most of what had been East Berlin and some of the central commercial core but when I reached the hotel I realised that it was a bit too central: nowhere to park even briefly while I asked about a room so I called up the POI list again and got a new fresh list including hotels much further west. I opted for the Novotel: the one in Gdansk had been both cheap and very comfortable after all. This was central Berlin, right outside the Tiergarten S-Bahn stop, so I mentally doubled the expected roomrate before going in: 100 euro including breakfast should cover it.

“Yes we have a room – 99 euro, breakfast will be 21 euro” what was I going to do? Ok, is there somewhere I can park my motorcycle? Another 14 euro, oh well. It’s a modern 4-star hotel and everything, absolutely everything, is controlled by keycard: lifts, staircases, room power, garage access, etc – all very flash but a bit impersonal for my liking.

I parked Sheila in the very secure, clean, efficient, underground carpark and keycarded my way up to the room in order to have a shower, change into something less bike oriented and get out into the Berlin night. In Gdansk the shower was fabulous: grippy floor, simple controls, rails to hang onto everywhere; in Berlin: slippery floor, controls requiring a degree in practical plumbing and the only things to hang onto hotter than hell! How could they get it so wrong?

A block or two away from the hotel I’d caught sight of an impressive flash of gold mounted quite high up so I set out from the hotel on foot to find it despite the light rainfall and after a little while I found this view (sorry about the picture quality, I should have packed my camera shouldn’t I?) and spent some while admiring it from the comfort of the nearby bus shelter and figuring out what, if anything, to do about supper. I’d passed a couple of bars on the way from the hotel but hadn’t noted whether or not they sold food; I’d passed a sign pointing to a Burger King or I could go back to the hotel. I started walking back along the boulevard when I noticed a small sign leading into the shrubberies “Teehaus im Englischen Garten”; some dim lights apparently deep into the park. I decided to investigate and found several people sitting at tables outside what looked like an informal restaurant. I asked the waiter if I could get a beer – same question but in English this time “large or small?” By the time he returned I’d found the menu and ordered chilli con carne. What could be better? Sitting outside but under cover, in a beautiful garden, drinking fine German beer and eating freshly made chilli?

In the morning, after breakfast, after struggling with the hotel’s internet connection arrangements, after having to get the chambermaid to let me back into my room after I’d packed up, gone to the lift and discovered I’d left my precious keycard in the room – can’t even check out without a keycard! - I declined the receptionist’s generous offer to continue housing my bike until 6pm and set off on the bike to have a look at central Berlin.

Some film crew had set up shop on one of the main boulevards so my route to the Brandenburg Gate wasn’t entirely straightforward and by the time I reach the Reichstag the traffic was horrendous. I browsed around for a while before heading west. I still had two days in which to get back to Calais so I set the satnav to avoid motorways and took the “low road” to Magdeburg; a rather grand provincial city with wide open spaces and a mixture of ancient and modern architecture.

I sat in Magdeburg for a while considering what to do next. It was 2pm Tuesday, I had a Eurotunnel booking for 8pm Wednesday and I had nowhere else I particularly wanted to go or to see. What to do? I decided that I would take the autobahn towards Dortmund and probably find a hotel somewhere there as that would leave me with a leisurely ride to Calais by means of one of several possible routes on Wednesday.

I have heard it said, particularly by motorcycle riders, that motorways are boring and that they should be avoided for that reason. I reckon that if you find motorway journeys boring it’s because you’re not paying enough attention to your surroundings, the weather, the traffic and so on. Additionally, there are occasional surprises on motorways just to keep you on your toes and one such occurs on the A2 autobahn just by the second service area when heading west from Magdeburg. A sign, just ahead of the services sign, informs you that this was the site of the wall which, “from 1945 to 1990, divided Germany into two parts: East (German Democratic Republic) and West (Federal   Republic of Germany)”. Yes it was an actual physical wall supported at regular intervals by tall and intimidating watch towers one of which still stands at that site beside the A2. The wall came down a mere 22 years ago but emotionally it could be 200 years ago and yet 35 years ago it was unimaginable that the wall would come down in my lifetime.

As I drew close to Dortmund I was still thinking about my options and I asked the satnav for an ETA straight to Calais: 1am. That would be a bit pointless then, getting there in the middle of the night, or would it? Eventually Calais won the toss and I carried on past Dortmund into the night.  

Shortly after dark proper, on an empty stretch of Dutch motorway, my headlamp started flickering and dimming; it was on high beam complete with driving lamps so the light loss was quite pronounced. I switched to low beam and that seemed to be an improvement for a bit. Back to high beam the light started good but the flickering carried on and the light was getting really dim, switching to low beam now didn’t help. I pulled into a rest area thinking the bulb was dying and I’d need to swap it for one of my spares but when I got off the bike the problem became clear: I had ridden through a large swarm of some sort of bug and many of them had chosen to die on my headlight, my driving lamps and my visor. Once all the corpses were removed the lights went back to being brilliant and I carried on towards the wasteland that is Belgium.

Belgian motorways, a favourite whinge of mine, have many qualities, none good: they’re long, straight, flat, badly surfaced, occupied by inconsiderate drivers and, last but by no means least, you have to pay for petrol before drawing it rather than when you know how much you actually need which is the system adopted everywhere else in Europe except Liverpool. Of course I had to stop for fuel in Belgium and of course I actually paid for one more litre than would fit in my tank but never mind, I’d soon be out of the wasteland and onto the slightly less troublesome chunk of French motorway down to Calais.

But not before I’d had a nap. I pulled the bike round to the rear of the main service building, took my helmet off and replaced it with a woollen cap, sat on one of the picnic benches and went to sleep, immediately. I woke up almost two hours later (I must have been tired) and continued down the road, staying clear of the late night truckers, until finally the Welcome to Eurotunnel signs started appearing overhead.

One of the nice things about Eurotunnel is that unlike some ferry companies they never make a fuss about the discrepancy between your booked slot and your actual arrival time, they just charge the difference in price and get you on the next train. Pulling up to UK Border is always fun though, at any time of day or night: they never have enough lanes open (and never the one you choose either) and they always ask embarrassing questions. “Where have you just come from?” Berlin – eyebrow flickers (600 miles away) “When did you leave the UK?” Friday “Purpose of trip?” Attend dinner in Gdansk on Saturday – more eyebrow (900 miles away) followed by “Iron Butt riders?” Yes, how did you know? “We’ve had a few through here recently, have a good trip”

Of course you can predict what happened on arrival in England, having ridden all the way from Poland in warm dry sunshine but … I emerged at Folkestone in bright sunshine, only 5am but bright enough, filled up ready for a one shot ride home. Little did I realise my mistake – approaching Eurotunnel Calais from the north means that I’ve used 65 miles of a tank of fuel when I start up the M20, meaning that I have to stop, usually at Maidstone services, to top up the tank in order to complete the 103 miles home. Leaving Folkestone with a full tank and continued warm dry sunshine meant that I had given no thought to what the weather might do further up and so it continued until … just past Maidstone services. An early morning mist I thought, for a few miles, until finally it became clear that the “mist” had transformed itself (subtly) into quite heavy rain and at the same time the water started blocking my view through the visor I felt the tell-tale signs of water filling my boots and soaking through the stretch panels of my leather riding pants.

I should mention that the northbound M20 is just like the Surrey M25 in that it’s full of people who simply have no idea how to drive on a motorway and this morning was no exception: three lanes, each full of idiots with no understanding of the simple “keep left unless overtaking” rule and consequently all doing exactly 54mph – goons. Well, I was already wet; I felt fit and alert; I had become used to riding hard and I was feeling really intolerant of the incompetents around me so I cleared my visor, switched my bright lights on and opened the throttle. I more than made up for my feeble filtering on Friday and was able to make smooth steady progress at much better than 54mph – damn that felt good!

So a total of 2,244 miles, much improved understanding of the geography and climate of eastern Europe. Several new friends met and some important lessons learned.

The enforced slow pace through Poland at the end of a more normally paced ride across Europe meant that the risk of falling asleep was greater than usual and I should have taken more steps to mitigate the risk. The widespread myth that “speed kills”, used as an argument in support of lower limits everywhere, is actually an abbreviation of “inappropriate speed kills”. Speed limits set too low are just as dangerous as speed limits set too high.

Don’t bother arranging long distance trips with half-hearted participants and definitely don’t allow their half-heartedness to rub off on you. Plan and execute the thing properly anyway.

When returning to England from anywhere, at any time of the year, at any time of the day or night – always put your waterproofs on.

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