IBAUK Euro Ride To Eat to Zagreb Zoo, the final ERTE of 2015, on the weekend before my birthday, why not? So far I’d not managed the photo @ 1600 on any of the ERTEs so I was determined to manage it this time. In fact, a trip round the zoo itself was planned for 1400 so I’ll aim for that then!
- I am slightly unkind about Belgium
- It goes on a bit, you might consider sitting down
- I use multiple tenses and multiple persons, just remain calm, the world won’t end
- Despite carrying a camera I didn’t take pictures - use your imagination instead
- I am somewhat critical of British driving standards
I spent a little while with BaseCamp figuring out the route and timings then booked Chunnel tickets for Friday morning and the early hours of Monday morning as well as a hotel in Augsburg for a stopover Friday night.
Friday 16th October Left home 0820, arrived Eurotunnel Folkestone 1010
The weather forecast suggested that southeast England would be mild and dry whereas northern France would likely be pretty wet. I set off dressed accordingly, planning to add my top rain suit in the Chunnel. Getting to the Chunnel is a routine two hour trip up the A3, round the M25, down the M20. Just outside Guildford the matrix signs started showing “Channel Tunnel Long Delays” oh dear, well press on anyway. The weather forecast seemed pretty spot on until I hit the M20. For some reason there is often a dramatic change of weather around Maidstone and on Friday the “northern France” weather made an appearance in Kent. Lesson learned, next time top rain suit from the off. My Hein Gericke gear is all waterproof but I’ve found that the rain suit makes the difference between ‘ok’ and ‘snug’. Despite the inclement weather, little traffic meant that I made good progress and I arrived at J11A comfortably early to find the slip road was full of HGVs queueing to get in.
Filtering to the check-in I was relieved to be given a hanger for the 1050 crossing but too soon of course - the 1050 train didn’t actually leave until 1250! When I checked in my hanger read ‘X’ and the info boards were summoning ‘R’, ‘S’ & ‘T’. Let’s not mess about, I was just told ‘1050 train’ so I joined the queue for boarding, cleared the police checkpoint only to be turned back by the Eurotunnel jobsworth who pointed out that I was too early. C’mon, I’m just a bike but no, I must complete the ride of shame back to the terminal.
I didn’t know how long the delay would be but decided that I’d take the chance of getting something to eat while waiting for my letter to be called. I once took a girlfriend on a double-date to Heston services on the M4 (and yes it all went very well thanks for asking) but quite frankly Eurotunnel Folkestone isn’t that good, there’s not a whole lot of choice and none of them leap out and say “me, choose me!” and I randomly joined the lengthy queue for Burger King. The queue was lengthy because there were many trains’ worth of people held up in the terminal and, despite that, only one of the six cash registers was manned.
I kept a beady eye on the info boards but no change, no change, no change and the BK queue moved at a rate approximating to that of molasses in January. The board now showed ‘S’, ‘T’ & ‘U’ - surely it’ll be late afternoon before I get away at this rate - still at least 10 feet from the counter. Nearly at the front now and the board changed again ‘T’, ‘U’ & ‘W’ - goodness, ‘X’ will be next, should I even stay in the BK queue?
So Whopper meal. Yes I know it’s not good for me but life’s too short. I consumed it calmly and the board calmly remained unchanged. I finished up and walked back to the bike, no change yet. Then a sudden flourish of vehicle movement alerted me to ‘X’ being called - yes, we’re finally going to France!
Friday 16th October Left Eurotunnel Calais 1425 (two hours late)
BaseCamp plotted the route through Reims and Strasbourg but the Zumo chose Brussels and Luxembourg. There’s not much in it but worth remembering that, having plotted a route in BC, if you really want to follow that particular route, you need to include enough waypoints to force your device to go that way. I fretted about it for a little while - I was thinking about Reims and it was telling me to ignore the Reims turnoff, what to do? Did I set it correctly? Ticked the right boxes? Oh well, let’s just see what happens.
ETA was showing 2238 as I left Calais; I’d told the hotel to expect me before 2300 so that was going to involve some progressive riding. In fact, when I’d glanced at the ‘house rules’ page on their website it said something about check-in closing at 2300 so I’d better get a move on.
Luxembourg seemed as good a place as any to stop for food and add a fleece layer ready for the transition to night. I set off again with the temperature gauge showing 9c and falling with a little over 300 miles to go before bedtime.
Up in the hills somewhere between Stuttgart and Gunzburg, temperature dropping with height, light drizzle and low cloud drastically reducing visibility I fluffed a gear change and OMG I’ve broken the engine! Calm down, it’s just the ice warning coming up on the dashboard, the scariest light ever on a motorbike. And of course the light drizzle had now turned to actual snow. There are times during these long rides, and this was one of them, when the question “why are you doing this?” becomes hard to answer. Fortunately when this happened I was already on the way down so I was only tip-toeing for 20 minutes or so before normal service resumed.
ETA was now showing as 0038, a little after the 2300 cutoff and I spent some while considering options. If check-in really did close at 2300 should I give up now and find a nearer bed? I decided that I would just go to the hotel anyway and, if I then couldn’t get in I’d do something else.
The last 70 miles or so seemed to take forever but at last I reached exit 74A and could see the hotel over on my left. Just a few minutes more and I’d either be tucked up in bed or finding a warm ditch, no more riding tonight. That would have been the case if I hadn’t missed my exit off the roundabout and rejoined the A8, still heading east instead. 5.6 miles on I took the exit, joined the westbound carriageway and 5.6 miles later very gingerly negotiated the exit ramp and roundabouts to reach the hotel at 0130.
Of course the hotel was closed up and everyone was in bed but the hotel had helpfully provided a computer terminal outside the front door. Yes, it knew about my booking but 195 euros! I tried a few buttons but was unable to alter the room rate. I decided to take the room and argue the price some other time - smart move. The room was perfect and I slept like a log.
Saturday 17th October Left Augsburg 0815, ETA Zagreb 1420
The receptionist laughed when I mentioned the 195 euros “no, no it’s 79 euros”. A waiter then pointed out that I’d left my [only] gloves on top of the computer outside overnight, oops. I knew that I wasn’t going to make the zoo visit as I’d calculated that I would need to leave at 0600 but 1600 for the photo was definitely on.
The route took me round the Munich ring-road and on to the border with Austria where I stopped to get a vignette. Five euros for ten days, compare and contrast with the £3 cost of a single journey on the M6 toll! The roads in Austria are wonderful: comfortable volumes of traffic, fast sweeping bends, beautiful scenery and then there are the tunnels. The route crosses the Alps and rather than having to climb each mountain and descend into each valley a network of tunnels, some as long as 8-10 kilometres, allows the motorway to just continue. It’s interesting to watch the temperature rise through the tunnels and also the satnav’s recalculation of ETA: on entry to a 6km tunnel ETA was showing 1500, just before exiting ETA had slipped to 1630 reverting instantly to 1500 once satellite access was restored.
Stopping for fuel near Spittal I bought a vignette for Slovenia, 7.50 euros, and some while later crossed into Slovenia which is like a less mountainous Austria, pretty countryside, open spaces, sweeping bends, passing close by the resort town of Bled and the capital Ljubljana before approaching the border with Croatia. Curiously, as both Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, I had to produce my passport to leave Slovenia. Crossing into Croatia (no passport check), the most noticeable change was that I saw my first pothole for many hundreds of miles and the landscape was generally less picturesque.
As I entered Zagreb, ETA showing 1538, I consciously switched into foreign city driving mode: slow down, watch what other vehicles did, look around to discover architecture, pedestrians out exercising their dogs, city layout and so on. Zagreb was pretty much what I’d expect from a former communist bloc city, a little shabby seen with western eyes but obviously moving towards capitalism like the rest of us. Many posters advertising either “Italian lingerie” or “Italian legwear”.
The chequered flag icon appeared as I reached a major crossroads and I looked around for either some sign of the zoo entrance or a crowd of bikers but neither appeared. I decided to go straight across the junction still scanning for signs but it soon became apparent that this was the wrong way. I used a small roundabout to come back on myself and turned left when I reached the major crossroads. As soon as I did so I saw the bikes in an unmarked entrance across the street but with much traffic including high-speed trams on either side crossing over was going to prove difficult. I waved to make sure they’d seen me - at 1554 I had only a few minutes before the deadline - then carried on until I was able to cross to a petrol station and return to join the group. My first inclusion in an ERTE photo!
Saturday 17th October 1605 Hotel Residence
We were all booked into the Hotel Residence about half a mile away and we rode down together, parked in the offstreet carpark at the back of the hotel and checked in. The staff were expecting us and made us welcome straight away. While collecting passports and allocating rooms I was “Mr Bob”. The standing instruction is “seven o’clock in the bar” but after a couple of hours of showering, resting, & TV channel hopping I descended to the bar and was unsurprised to find most of the group already in place.
We mostly drank the local bottled beer before moving to the dining room and ordering some local red wine - very nice - and were about to start reading the menus when our host suggested we might like some chicken wings followed by steaks and he made it sound so attractive that we all just returned the menus unread. One of the best meals I’ve enjoyed and with fine company!
Sunday 18th October Left Zagreb 0910, ETA Calais 0128
I decided I’d attempt an SS1000 on the way home and duly got witness forms signed by two of the Johns. Including a Chunnel crossing made the venture iffy but I had to go home anyway so what the heck.
I had been a little cold at times on the ride over and I wanted to ensure that I’d be able to comfortably ride into and through the night on the way back. I may be the only rider who hasn’t yet resorted to heated gear so I dressed carefully:
Top: Merino wool baselayer, Swedish army sweater, EDZ Pertex microlite layer, Hein Gericke textile jacket with insulated liner.
Bottom: EDZ Micromate baselayer, Hein Gericke waterproof leather jeans without insulated liner.
Feet: thick knee-length woollen boot socks, Alt-Berg boots.
Hands: Hein Gericke waterproof claws
plus of course an IBAUK winter neck tube AND Held rain suit. Yes it worked and I remained warm and dry throughout the trip home.
I left the hotel in search of petrol and a starting receipt. I was handed the receipt by the smiling but non English-speaking attendant and looked at it to check the time. Oops, no glasses within easy reach; I turned to ask him to read the time to me but - no common language - well, it’s probably ok, let’s go.
I navigated by telling the Zumo to take me to Eurotunnel Calais and it chose a different route out of Croatia, almost due north towards Maribor and Graz.
I should mention the tolls I encountered, not covered by the vignettes. In Austria some of the longer tunnels are supported by extra tolls which apply to all vehicles; in Slovenia I can’t remember any applying to me although I passed through several toll stations which did apply to heavy goods vehicles. On the way out of Croatia on the A2 motorway I passed through a section resulting in a charge of about 29 kunas. Actual toll payments on motorcycles are always inconvenient because cash is hard to handle with gloves on and taking gloves off results in a disproportionate delay but all the tolls I encountered would also take cards without wanting PINs.
When leaving Croatia I had to produce my passport and again when entering Slovenia. I think this must be connected with the constant streams of migrant/refugee influxes we keep seeing on the news.
The ride westwards was thoroughly enjoyable with ideal weather conditions, 14c, sunny, dry; lovely scenery and fast roads. After a particularly progressive stretch in eastern Germany I found myself needing fuel a little sooner than I’d planned, in fact I really needed fuel quite quickly, in fact I’ll just get off the motorway right now and find some fuel. An unexpected bonus was that, having diverted the Zumo to get me some fuel, I told it again to take me to Eurotunnel and its ETA changed from 0139 to 0028 - I’d saved over an hour just by stopping for fuel.
In Germany they don’t mollycoddle about road closures the way they do in England. There are no advance warnings of road closures, there are no diversions posted and there’s no information about the extent of the closure so, while sailing quite happily along the A60 motorway at a comfortably progressive speed and with Calais ETA showing well ahead of schedule, I was dismayed to be confronted with the dreaded road closed red ‘X’s in the middle of nowhere close to the Belgian border.
The right thing to do at that point is to press the Detour button on the Zumo but I chose the more traditional get off the motorway and look for a sign of some sort instead. Of course none of the available signs helped at all so I wasted some time letting the Zumo take me back to the point of closure then wasted some more time driving in a straight line so the Zumo would be forced to reroute me. This was all doing serious damage to my ETA and within 30 minutes or so it became highly likely that I would miss my train. Never mind, I still have to go home and there aren’t any local hotels available so just press on. I started following the Zumo’s new route, hoping that I’d gone far enough that it wasn’t just taking me back to the closed motorway. I decided that if it did take me back I’d try the Detour button and if that didn’t impress me I’d find a suitable ditch to sleep in for a few hours.
When I crossed the border into Belgium I stopped fretting about being led back to the closure but started fretting instead about how I wasn’t merely passing through a series of out of the way villages, I seemed to be using only the back lanes of those villages. Eventually I came to the small town of Malmedy (actually a city, the site of a famous massacre during WWII) and found signs to the E42 motorway, ok now we’re cooking but then I turned the corner to find - road closed! Lesson learned, press the Detour button - wait - yep, new route this way. Having followed the new route for about ten minutes I found myself on what might have been someone’s back yard with an incline of about 10% and was just going to climb further onto a farm track with a rather steeper slope disappearing round a corner into a field.
It’s 1am, I’ve been riding for a long time, I don’t know where I’m going and I really don’t fancy an offroad course. I did a careful, less than flowing, U-turn and chose option ‘B’, brute force and ignorance. I rode down to the point of closure then picked the next available exit. I carried on in broadly the same direction, not necessarily obeying one-way streets or “access only” restrictions until I found more signs for the E42. ETA had slipped about 90 minutes by the time I joined the motorway, no chance of catching my scheduled train now and that almost certainly meant no SS1000 either but at least now I could make progress.
Belgian motorways have one saving grace in my book, they’re always lit. Not the E42 at Malmedy which was extra dark. The ordinary darkness associated with a lack of lighting was greatly enhanced by having actual rainclouds at ground level, visibility was practically nil, and wet. This condition continued for several miles - hard work! I decided I should make a late supper stop, no fuel just coffee or juice and some sort of snack to be enjoyed sitting down inside out of the rain. I found a suitable stop, attendant behind security glass as usual but I wandered around making up my mind and also deciding whether or not to invest a further 70c to use their toilet (it’s never a good idea for anyone over the age of 50 to pass a working toilet). A bottle of Oasis, a Belgian waffle and a banana revived me and I zipped up and ventured out for more of the E42. Further west the lights came on and the rain stopped, normality returned and I started making good progress towards Brussels where I’d stop for a final tank of petrol.
One of the reasons I hate Belgium is that you have to pay for petrol before drawing it. Everywhere else in Europe, apart from Liverpool obviously, you ride up to the pump, fill to the neck, go and pay the smiling attendant, get a receipt, write up your fuel log and ride off but in Belgium that’s far too dangerous. Presumably they’re scared of people taking fuel and driving off without paying, probably to hasten their exit from the wasteland into civilisation so in Belgium you walk into the attendant glaring out from behind his bank clerk glass barrier and he declines to help because you’re paying with a card and have to return and locate the hidden chip and pin authorisation terminal. The instructions have all been worn away years ago but it’s not rocket science so insert card. Machine condescends to speak English and asks for a pump number, then your PIN after which the pump is authorised and you go fill up. Normally I’d want a receipt. I wasn’t particularly fussed this time as I’d abandoned the SS1000 but I thought I should get one anyway. The machine really should have just asked if I wanted a receipt when I re-inserted my card shouldn’t it? Because, really, that’s the far and away most likely explanation for my action isn’t it? But, no, first it wanted a pump number then it wanted my PIN. I just couldn’t be arsed with it anymore so I pulled my card and got back on the road. (Yes, I’ve bought petrol in Belgium before; no, the procedure isn’t always the same; yes, it always aggravates me; no, I don’t learn)
Rejoining the motorway for the last few miles down to Calais I was starting to feel tired. Not tired enough to warrant stopping for a nap but tired enough to let the lorries do the trail-blazing until, maybe 20 miles from Calais I overtook the lead lorry and pressed on ahead. Unfortunately, the waypoint I’d used for Eurotunnel Calais marked the large retail park attached to the port rather than Eurotunnel itself and by the time I realised my mistake it was too late, I was committed to the road and, despite it being the early hours of the morning, found myself in amongst several groups of, presumably, migrants wandering the streets. Eventually I reached the ET check-in at around 0650 to be advised that “you have arrived too late for your scheduled train”  and offered me 0720.
Monday 19th October 0710 Eurotunnel Calais
As I rode up to the embarkation roundabout I noticed a lack of marshals, a surfeit of cones blocking the path to the trains and info boards all showing [sorry] notices. Yet again the tracks had been invaded by a wave of migrants and all services were immediately suspended.
A few of us discussed the situation in the terminal carpark and decided to move the cones and go to the forward lines. The ET man at the gate told me that they had no idea how long it would be before trains resumed and I’d be better off returning to the terminal where I’d be warm and dry. I pointed out that I was already the warmest driest passenger and would remain so even if it rained throughout and he let me through.
I parked up behind two carloads of French police who were fully occupied standing around doing nothing. I noticed that in the next line were two carloads of UK Border Patrol who, if not in uniform, might be mistaken for south London gangsters: all short haircuts and unsmiling silence with occasional short conversations among themselves. In the next line were two coachloads of students from Czech Republic including Stefan who came over to talk to me and ask about England and which countries I’d visited by motorcycle. Next two lines were fully occupied by various white vans.
At about 0915 an ET van appeared bearing packaged breakfasts for everyone in the embarkation lines and shortly after that they opened the barriers and boarding commenced.
Every other time I’ve taken a bike through the Chunnel I’ve been loaded after all other traffic in the last carriage but this time they had me ride right through the train and join the police and BP people. Last vehicle in that carriage but a long way from the last carriage. Another change since my last trip is that ET staff walk through the train after boarding now and scan each of the hangers so they know who travelled on which train.
Emerging at Folkestone and travelling up the M20 I became increasingly embarrassed. Not by anything I was doing and I felt particularly sorry for the east European lorries I was passing. They will have crossed many hundreds of miles of fast clear roads occupied by drivers who understand lane discipline, following distances, signalling protocols and other basics of driving. The M20 traffic on Monday morning included some of the most clueless behaviour I’ve witnessed including:
- Lane 1 empty, lane 2 empty, lane 3 nose to tail at 60mph
- High-speed in lane 3 followed by sudden braking and forced traverse of lanes 2 & 1 to exit
- Signals switched on as afterthought once lane change is underway
- Lane 1 empty, lane 3 empty, plonker in lane 2 can’t use mirrors and get out of the way
- Despite highly restricted visibility, driving with no lights
An hour and fifty minutes later I reached home safely so I must have done something right along the way.
So 2,248 miles through seven countries but no pretty pictures, no GoPro footage to impress the non-riders; I didn’t get to visit the zoo and I didn’t see that much of Zagreb. What was it all about?
It’s about the ride, and meeting up with other like-minded riders. The journey is the destination.