Coast to coast, by motorcycle, in the snow

The hail storm eased off, leaving a thick white layer of marbles that crunched into powder between the fat tyres and the cobblestones. It was early on Boxing day morning, and as I carefully eased my motorcycle over the slippery surface, cosy lights glimmered from the snug breakfast warmth of the Yorkshire cottages.

My pillion, Iain, and I were heading for the North Yorkshire moors. Once we got there, we intended to spend the few days between Christmas and the New Year crossing England from east to west in time for our annual New Years booze-up in the Lake District. We were, of course, fully aware that the Pennine passes are usually closed at that time of year, but if you’re trying to find adventure in your own country you may as well make it interesting.

Sutton Bank

The temperature dropped steadily as we approached the loom of Sutton Bank, westernmost outpost of the Hambletons, a range of hills between us and our chosen starting point of Whitby. A sudden squall of snow obliterated my vision, forming a thick veneer of ice on my helmet. Unable to open my visor for fear of getting snow on my glasses, I had to be content with riding one-handed while continuously scrubbing with my left hand. It was already cold enough for the snow to settle even on the wet road, and a succession of sharp bends between high hedgerows began to make life slightly interesting.

We made it as far as the base of Sutton Bank before I decided that not all of the frantically flashing and hooting oncoming car drivers could be delinquent hooligans, so I pulled over into a convenient snowdrift to take stock.

It was clearly snowing up on the Bank, but the clouds parted occasionally to reveal that something else was also going on up there. Short jigsaw visions of frantically flashing brake and hazard lights added up to the realisation that cars were getting about halfway up the Bank and then slowly sliding down backwards until they could get enough purchase to turn round and come back down.

We consulted the map, and pointed the Honda Revere back at the village. The new heading was a wide sweep around the southern flank of the Hambletons, and above us the weak midday sun picked metallic highlights from the dark cloud that had now settled permanently over Sutton Bank and its luckless motorists.

Wass Bank

We turned east under Wass Bank, and considered our options. We could either continue our sensible lowland detour, which would not take us far out of our way and which would avoid the Hambletons altogether, or we could chance the louring bulk of Wass Bank.

The gradient was fairly fierce, but clear of snow until the final thirty feet, where it became a steep ramp coated with a couple of inches of fresh powder. We rolled to a halt just below the snowline and squinted into the glare. Traffic signs indicated that there was a crossroads on the brow, but the thick woods on either side obscured our view of oncoming traffic.

I left Iain by the roadside and took a run-up, only at the last second deciding to stop at the top instead of barrelling blindly across the crossroads. Fighting to keep the steeply inclined machine level with the Give Way sign, my heart skipped as two Volvos scrunched past. Had I been alone I would have had to stay there until the snow melted. Fortunately, Iain was wearing hiking boots, and so once he had struggled up the slope himself, he was able to get enough traction to give me some sort of a push. Half way across the junction, the back wheel attempted to overtake the front, and I put my own foot down to steady the bike. Unfortunately, I was wearing flat-soled motorcycle boots, and on that slippery surface I may as well not have bothered.

With a nasty crunching sound, the Revere toppled over in the snow. Cursing the vagaries of the manufacturers of motorcycle clothing, we righted the now slightly battered bike and surveyed the damage. The hard plastic of the right hand pannier had cracked like an eggshell and a piece about four inches long was missing, but the box had maintained its integrity and nothing seemed to have fallen out. Iain went back to try and locate a white piece of plastic in the white snow, while I stood by the equally white bike trying to pretend to motorists that it was bright red and bore absolutely no resemblance to the snowbank against which it stood.

A couple of miles down the road was the town of Helmsley, so we stopped to buy some food cans, a can opener (my fifteenth, I think. Where do they all go?) and a black plastic bin liner to wrap around the pannier and stop our luggage from getting too wet, just in case it started to snow again.

And snow it did. As we rode down out of the hills and headed northward across the flat exposed moorland toward Whitby, a storm came up out of the west and threw everything it had. I had to lean the bike right over into the gale, virtually scraping the footpegs just to travel the dead straight road over Goathland Moor. The snow drove horizontally across the darkening landscape, my hands were going numb even protected by two pairs of gloves, and I was back to continually wiping my visor in order to snatch brief glimpses of the road. One day, I swore, I would buy a set of heated handlebar grips.

Strange Happenings in Whitby

Then as dusk finally fell, we entered Whitby, and the snow stopped. The town was, not surprisingly, deserted. We parked up in the shelter of some public toilets by a children’s paddling pool, and considered our next move. This was obviously just a lull in a storm that looked set to blow all night, so for the first time that day we used the logic that raises us above the apes. To shelter from a westerly storm, we reasoned, camp in the lee of an east-facing cliff.

Whitby sits on the east coast, separated from the sea by a vertical drop of some hundred feet or so, with a small tarmac footpath winding in a series of hairpins down to the beach. The path is exactly the same width as a fully laden Revere. We parked about a third of the way down, and erected the tent a few yards away vertically upwards on a convenient flat grassy shelf.
Soon, some hot food and cold beer later, we drifted off to sleep.

Nobody knew where we were, apart from a vague “on the bike north of Coventry”, and we certainly hadn’t planned to camp above the beach at Whitby; it had just turned out that way. So for me to be woken up a few hours later by someone standing outside my tent calling my name was utterly ridiculous. In bewilderment I poked my head out, to meet the eyes of an embarrassed policeman looking most uncomfortable balanced on the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm.

Mr.Reading?, he said. I tried my best to act cool. “Is there a problem, officer? No sir. Or at least, there wasn’t, but I think we’ve caused you one…”

Apparently, someone out for a midnight stroll down the beach in the rain had seen the white Honda perched on the path, and had reported it to the police. A constable was sent down, took the registration, failed to notice my camouflaged tent in the darkness, and rang Fenella in the small wee hours. “We don’t want to bother you, they’d said, but w’eve just found your boyfriend’s bike halfway down a cliff…”

After the hysterics had passed, they admitted that it was in fact parked and locked rather than crumpled and smouldering, and, with her teeth firmly clenched around a brandy bottle, she ordered them back to look for the tent, and then ring her back, or else.

The rest of the night was uneventful, and next morning we got up with the dawn (not as early as it sounds in late December), road into town and wandered up to the Abbey. The cold soon drove us back down, and a different policeman directed us toward a cafe and a fried breakfast, and after a suitable amount of huddling against a radiator we set off westwards over the North Yorkshire Moors.

Across the Moors

We had decided to take the plethora of minor roads that accompany the railway on its journey toward Middlesborough, and had chosen two potential routes, one that wandered out over the high moors, and another that stayed safely in the valley with the trains. We planned to go high in good weather, and stay low in bad, and there was plenty of scope for switching between the two as circumstances altered.

The morning was glorious, the roads dry and the bends evil: in short, perfect riding conditions. We admired the scenery around Egton, and paused at Glaisdale where road, rail and water routes cross in a picturesque crosshatching of bridges. We were just about to take our high road when the rain started up, so amazingly we took the sensible option and made our way down through the mass of roads around Castleton, pausing briefly at a vandalised sign before continuing westwards.

Almost immediately I was presented with a torrential ford crossing. Iain got off, and I tentatively selected low gear and eased gently out into the torrent. The water came over the hubs but I was delighted to find that the bike showed no tendency to float like a car, but just ploughed along the bottom and up the other side. Rather than stop on the immensely steep valley side I ran up to the top and waited for Iain, who had crossed over the footbridge.

The hill should have made me think, but I was extremely chuffed about the ford and the weather was clearing again. Five minutes later we were riding blind through a cloud under a deluge of icy water. Visibility was down to a few yards and the road was littered with soggy sheep. We werent as miserable as the sheep, for we knew from our map that we had only to cross this small ridge of high ground before the descent into Kildale. But the ridge went on, and on, and on, until we fetched up against a road junction that just had no right to be there.

There was a road sign, but it was unlit and we had to get off and trace the letters with our frozen fingers, and then huddle over the dull yellow glow of a headlamp that I was sure used to be a fiercely burning halogen. There was nothing wrong with the electrics, just a thick coating of ice particles that no amount of rubbing would shift. That page in my Ordnance Survey atlas is now warped beyond recognition, but we found out where we were, neatly sandwiched between two symbols that mean ‘viewpoint’, balanced right on the highest point of the moor.

It was time, once more, to turn around. I successfully negotiated the sodden sheep and then, out of the cloud and full of new-found confidence, burned down the hill toward the ford, braking at the last minute and contemptuously hitting it at about 20mph. At the other side I stopped and thoughtfully emptied the water out of my boots.

Once off the moors we stopped at a village called Stokesley for a pub lunch and to dry my socks. They had good beer, good food, and lots of drinkers who watched in polite amazement as we peeled off layers of damp clothing and stacked them in front of the fire. Inevitably, there was the man who used to ride a Vincent, and he reckoned that the A66 through the Pennines was now open. We lingered as long as we could, but we wanted to camp somewhere closer to the pass to give us time to get over as early as possible the next morning. We donned our gear and went back out into the rain.


Richmond, situated in the lowlands to the east of the Pennine passes, fitted the bill perfectly. All that remained was to find a place to sleep, and a few minutes drive soon revealed a wide grassy verge next to a quiet lay-by.

The next morning was unbelievably cold. The alloy of the tent-pegs was cold enough to burn, but we couldn’t grasp them through our gloves, so we ended up leaving the bike engine idling, pulling the pegs out barehanded, and returning to the bike every few minutes to jam our frozen fingers up the exhaust pipe. The stuff all fitted back in, but as I was locking the last pannier the key snapped off in the lock. It was that cold.

A welcome hot breakfast in Richmond, and some more radiator-huddling, saw us setting off on foot to explore the town. There was a lot to see, but we spent most time at the castle around which Richmond is built. The restored tower commands tremendous views, and the lady who sold us our tickets used to be a biker herself, and allowed us to bring the bike up from its two-hour parking zone and leave it in the castle grounds. Below the ruin is a wide brown river that tumbles over a small cataract of falls. I commented on its suitability for kayaking, and the local standing next to me responded, “Oh yes, its very popular. We lose one or two canoeists a year!”

Through the Pennine pass

And then we were off once more on a swift blast toward the Pennines and the infamous A66. The pass was, in fact, open, but the dales were deeply buried in snow and the traffic slowly moved nose to tail in one another’s tyre tracks. We passed the hotel where, until very recently, a group of guests and motorists had been trapped for a week without food, and then thankfully dropped down the other side to the tea shops of Appleby, and the fast winding run through Windermere and Ambleside to the warm welcome and hot showers of our hotel under the Langdale Pikes. The guest ales were settling in their barrels and the first arrivals were trickling in for the annual celebration of the end of the old year’s tales, and the beginning of the new.

Mosel and Rhine

A Breakdown in Belgium

We rolled off the boat at Calais into a beautiful sunny morning, and instantly turned northward intending a late breakfast in Brugge. However, the 130kph E40 soon got boring, so we turned off to take the parallel the coast road through De Panne and Nieuwpoort. At first it seemed like a good idea, and a much better way of starting a tour than hammering up the motorway. Even though the Belgian polders were as flat as ever, at least there were interesting dykes and canals to look at, and I was just congratulating myself on another successful long cut when we suddenly ran into Grockleville B.V., packed wall to wall with cars carrying tourists to enjoy a day sandwiched on the beach.

Rather than struggle up the beach zone, we turned back toward the E40, but almost immediately Lisa’s CBR dwindled in my rear-view mirrors and rolled to a stop by the roadside. Only one of the four cylinders was firing, which didn’t provide enough power to ride, so after checking for the usual faults I left Lisa with her bike and went off to find help. First I met a policeman, who directed me to an Audi garage, who directed me to a bicycle shop in Nieuwpoort, who directed me to a Honda dealer in Veurne. Miraculously, this shop was still open on a Saturday afternoon, but their tow-truck was ‘en panne’.

They were talking about ringing around some friends to see if they could find anybody with a trailer, but instead I borrowed a tow-rope and went back to the CBR, where Lisa was getting happily sunburnt by the roadside. My TDM towed her CBR without any problems, and the hard shoulder was wide and clear so we didn’t have to worry about traffic.

A few miles up the road, a police van did a U-turn to check us out, but they couldn’t work out whether what we were doing was illegal or not so, realising that we probably knew more about what we were doing than they did, they left us to it.

Fifteen minutes later we were installed in the bike shop in Veurne, where the nice man soon spotted that the fuel pump had failed. He didn’t have any new ones in stock, but he did have a lot of customers bikes in for repair, and we spent a merry time poking around in a load of crash-damaged frames looking for something that would fit. None of the CBRs had the right pump, and one off a Revere was the right design but had far smaller bores which suggested that we wouldn’t get a high enough flow rate for the CBR. Not to be defeated, the salesman opened up the showroom and pulled the pump out of a brand new Transalp that was standing in the window. A few minutes later, we were off.

Finally we rolled into the Brugge campsite, had a much-needed beer, and then set out on foot to have a look at the city. It is an attractive town, packed with narrow streets lined with gable-ended houses, and dominated by the clop-clop of horse-driven taxis and by the huge cathedral in the centre. The cathedral did not seem to be open to the public, but from the outside it had a vast presence, sprawling over a surprisingly wide area, an imposing brick-built edifice reminiscent of the monastery in ‘The Name of the Rose’. We sat in its shadow in a terrace cafe and ate an expensive but excellent dinner of ‘kroketten’, ‘moules’, and a local dish made from a mixture of fish in a creamy spinach sauce. All, of course, washed down with lashings of Belgian beer.

Crop Circles

The following day, after a leisurely start, we whipped around the Brussels ring-road and then, rather than stay on the boring motorway, took the quieter N4 toward Luxembourg. It was another beautiful day, and at a petrol stop we spent our few remaining francs on chocolate milkshakes and sat at the side of a cornfield to drink them. The corn had been recently cut, and the hay was lying in golden rows under the blazing sun. We sat and admired the scene, and then something strange started happening in the air in front of us. and swiftly a little dust-devil built itself up into a straw-filled whirlwind some twenty feet high. It had a footprint about four feet in diameter and acted like a big hoover, sucking up circles of hay and then moving on with the stalks whirling around inside the cone. It bumbled around the field at walking pace for a while, pausing now and again to leave mysterious crop circles in its wake, before heading up the bank onto the main road. A car passed through it without any noticeable effect, and then it was across the road and into some shrubbery, where it dropped its load of hay but we could still make out its progress by the swaying of the bushes on this otherwise still day.

Bemused, we got back onto the road, and for a while enjoyed a leisurely ride past the little high-gabled houses that formed the occasional village, punctuating the long flat plains of cabbages and potatoes that stretched to the flat horizon. Soon, however, the road degenerated into just another motorway, and I was glad when we were overtaken by a dozen Belgian bikers out on a run. They were really tanking it, but I snuck in behind the rear machine and we stayed with them all the way to Luxembourg.


As soon as we crossed the border, the nature of the countryside altered dramatically from flat crop land to tree-lined hillsides. About 25 miles from the city we turned off down a random side road, sat on a bridge for a while watching damselflies, and then drove along the small hilly lanes until we found a small camp site.

It was a tree-lined field with no visible signs of authority, but some French campers told us to pitch up and then go to a certain house in the village at 18:30 to book in. A kindly elderly lady in a small house stuffed with antiques accepted a small amount of French francs in lieu of the Belgian ones that we didn’t have, and told us that although there weren’t any restaurants locally, tonight was the night of the local village fete and we might be able to pick up something to eat there. We were starving, so we made our way up to the tented area where everybody seemed to be having a fun time, although we felt very much like outsiders intruding on somebody’s private party. Nevertheless, we stood and drooled by a family-run hot-dog stand while they animatedly discussed exactly how much ten French francs was in Belgian currency, which was all pretty academic as all we had were ten-franc pieces and we’d have happily given away everything we had for a chance at those succulent sausages.

Finally everybody was happy, and we were ceremoniously presented with our food, which we wolfed hurriedly while debating going through the whole thing again at the beer stand. Cowardice prevailed, and we returned to our bikes to see if we could find a restaurant that accepted Visa. A few miles up the road was ‘Le Martin Pecheur’, dominated by an impressive stained-glass window of its namesake, where we washed down an excellent meal with a terrific Mosel wine, very tasty and a far cry indeed from the sugar water sold to teenage girls in England.

Feeling that our wine trip had now truly begun, we finished off with an interesting variation on Liqueur Coffee, with the coffee sandwiched between a layer of cream above and a clear layer of spirit below, served in a tall glass and drunk through a straw. Very potent.

Luxembourg City

Another late start, a leisurely coffee, another beautiful morning. A gorgeous run through rolling forested hills dotted with small sculpted villages and friendly people, ending in the fantastic city of Luxembourg itself.

Based around an AD 693 fortress almost surrounded by a deep hairpin chasm, the city is intermingled with rich parkland and vertical cliffs. Many of the buildings are impressively spired, most are intricately moulded. Walking along the old fortress wall, we discovered the Bock Casements, the remnants of the original castle which was voluntarily destroyed by the city itself in an attempt to establish their neutrality. They had comprehensively razed the castle itself, but there wasn’t much they could do about the subterranean tunnels, so they just blocked them off. Now they were open to the public, and stuffed full of history.

During the last war, 35,000 people sheltered during air-raids, and prior to that many of the caverns had been used for imprisoning this or that Duke, or provided a home for this or that exiled monarch. Most of the main tunnels were sign-posted, but many were not only unsigned but also unlit, and with a torch you could meander deep underground. In fact, the whole underside of the city is riddled with tunnels, and it is easy to see how it gets its name of The Gibraltar of the North. We completed our circuit of the city wall, grabbed some supplies from a handy supermarket, and headed for Germany, the Mosel Valley, and the start of our holiday proper.

The Mosel Valley

Suddenly we had arrived, and were confronted with more grape vines than I had ever seen in my life. My first impression was of the sheer mono-crop dedication that characterises Spanish olive groves. My second was that all the camp sites were heavily commercial and packed with caravans. Camping areas must be at a premium where every other square inch of land, even down to the roadside verges, is cultivated with grape vines. However, along a quieter stretch of road and a little away from the river itself we came across a little camp site that consisted of a small field ringed with permanent caravans. No sooner had we set up the tent when strings of people wandered up and introduced themselves, tut-tutting at our equipment and lending us tables and chairs, until very shortly we got involved in a Mosel wine-drinking session from the camp site’s own cellars. The world seemed to be entirely populated with friendly fat retired Germans slowly drinking the summer nights away, and as the sun set into the haze over the vineyards, I reflected that there was very little wrong with that.

The next morning we returned all the furniture, said our goodbyes, and headed off once more into the sunshine. The villages and towns along the Mosel valley were a riot of colour, skilfully painted and gilded and carved and hung about with flower boxes stuffed with colourful blooms. In Traban Trarbach a storm blew up out of nowhere and we sheltered under a bridge until the worst of it had passed. The rest of the afternoon was duller weather-wise, but geographically beautiful. The storm appeared to be trapped in the valley, but the villages continued to be picturesque, linear populations facing each other across the broad expanse of the river, dotted with far more thin-steepled and onion-towered churches than can possibly be required, and backed by a quilted patchwork of vineyards studded with religious shrines, huge rock sundials, and hundreds of tiny figures lovingly tending the vines.

Eventually we entered Koblenz, and headed into the city intent on finding the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine. We found it at a place called Deutsches Ecke, parked up and caught the sightseeing boat. The trip took an hour and travelled up each of the three arms of the t-shape where the rivers meet, surprisingly placidly, at a monument to the Kaiser. I say surprisingly, because the Rhine was flowing very fast indeed. The bow waves of the ubiquitous hundreds-of-feet-long Rhine barges threatened continually to swamp them as they forged their way upstream, and those coming downstream were greased lightning. These barges were immense, carrying all sorts of cargoes including coal, scrap metal and petroleum products, and sported mobile-home sized living accommodation fore and aft, with enough parking on board for a couple of cars too.

The Mosel had been occasionally punctuated by immense river locks for these craft, and often while one was coming through there would be another holding perfect station against the current below, waiting patiently for its turn, surrounded by a myriad tiny pleasure cruisers struggling against the fierce current, trying to stay close enough to nip in after the colossus when the locks opened.

The Rhine Valley

Once more on dry land, we were presented with a choice of two B-roads, one on either side, that headed south with the river. The B42 on the eastern bank ran through national parkland, so on the grounds that it might be less busy we took the western B9. The heavy traffic had become a bit of an issue for us, as even in the countryside it felt like we were driving through town, and as a side-effect it meant that the camp sites were literally packed tent-to-tent and caravan-to-caravan, not to mention satellite-dish-to-satellite-dish. So far, by judicious choice, we had been lucky with camp sites, and we wanted to keep it that way. The Rhine valley south of Koblenz sprouted more castles than we could shake a stick at, most of them apparently occupied, and although many of them were splendidly photogenic the roads were too narrow and busy to stop.

We only rode a short distance, just far enough to get fully clear of Koblenz, and then started looking for camp site signs that pointed away from, rather than toward the popular riverside locations, on the basis that these would probably be smaller and quieter. We ended up on a tiny strip of grass hacked out of a forested gully, with a little restaurant bar at one end. After a good meal, some beer, a walk in the woods and some more of yesterdays Mosel wine, we went to bed.

After a preprandial coffee at the camp site, we had a light breakfast in the picturesque town of St Goar, before continuing up the Rhine valley as far as Bingen. Here you enter the huge industrial complex of Mainz, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Ludwigshafen and Mannheim, so we cheated and took the motorway to Heidelberg. Although it strictly isn’t in the Rhine valley at all, I had always wanted to go there and this seemed like a good excuse.

The old town was pretty enough, and after lunch we set off up the hill to see the castle. This proved to be particularly impressive, all pink stone, heraldic emblems and gilding, and had obviously been extensively restored, with work continuing apace. In the Great Hall beneath the castle were two enormous wine barrels, called Klein and Gross Fass; the latter at 220,000 litres is allegedly the biggest in the world. Certainly it is the only barrel that I have ever seen with steps leading up to a balcony on top, on which you could hold a fair-sized dinner party. We supped a commemorative glass of Heidelberg wine, and then hit the road for the Black Forest.

Schwarzwald and Titisee

Motorcycling through Germany, we were headed for the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. Rain threatened and we put on our waterproofs, but the promised precipitation never came, although the hills of the Schwarzwald faded into cloud ahead. On a small side-road near Baden-Baden we branched off into the woods and set up camp in a small glade. Since the midges were active, we set up a spare flysheet as an insect-proof porch and picnicked on pickled herrings and bratwurst, washed down with olives, gherkins, Mosel wine, and beer. It was a very comfortable night, despite the rather lumpy ground. There’s a lot to be said for camping by a babbling brook.

Baden-Baden appeared to have turned itself into a tourist trap. There was a bewildering array of signs pointing to hotels and car parks, but none pointing to useful things such as the Roman baths after which the town is named, so we escaped along a tourist road invitingly called the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the Black Forest High Road.

It got colder as we gained altitude, and the forest got very thick and dark (surprise surprise!). We took a short walk in the gloom to a nice little waterfall and back, and then after a series of winding roads with vistas over blue-shrouded hills, stopped for lunch at a crowded little cafe on the outskirts of Freudenstadt. Bypassing Freudenstadt we took another minor road into Triberg, full of tourists and cuckoo clocks. We couldn’t resist experiencing the immense roadside shop ‘The House of 1000 Clocks’, which as well as an incredible number of over-carved tourist timepieces also sold what looked like quality Vienna clocks at what seemed to be reasonable prices. It must be all the competition.

We had some trouble finding a campsite, but eventually struck lucky in the tourist resort of Titisee. While contemplating the enormous list of rules and regulations (“From your selected pitch you should be able to see only the number of your own pitch; Motor vehicles must be parked at right angles to the slope; We would not hesitate to remove lines attached to trees; Vehicular movement is prohibited between 13:00 and 14:30”), we met up with a group of four other bikers, and after a shower and some friendly beers we all set off into town for an evening’s entertainment.

After the restaurants had closed, we found our way into a nearby bierkeller, where I started on Diebel Altbier (Devil dark beer, which is supposed to be drunk in moderation) and the other guys got into the pils with schnapps chasers. The ladies were a little more circumspect, but it turned into a riot of an evening, and next morning I suffered for every drop of alcohol that I’d consumed.

We spent a slow morning rehydrating in Titisee, and then took a nice leisurely pedalo out across the lake followed by a medicinal Black Forest gateau.

That afternoon we headed up the Feldburg for some dramatic views across the brightly lit but incredibly dark forest, but the traffic was getting heavy again so we consulted our National Geographic tourist map and found that it recommended a minor road through Schonau toward Mullheim. This was excellent advice, as we were the only things moving on it, and it was a fantastic scratching road through often breathtaking scenery.

Eventually we looped back around through Freiburg (where we didn’t stop, although the latticework cathedral steeple looked interesting) and back to Titisee, planning to head south to the lake at Schluchsee, since we had noticed that where there’s a lake, there’s a campsite.

Indeed there was, but the tent part was packed so we kept on going until we found a hillside site with no lake but lots of space. As a sort of money-saving exercise (more from guilt than because we were actually short), and because we couldn’t cope with any more rich restaurant food, we fried up some sausages, apples, onions, gherkins, and spatzle (a local pasta). No beer for me, as my head was still hurting.

The back roads to Bonndorf and Singen were fantastic for biking, with loads of sweeping forest curves and hairpins, beautiful weather, and a lot of motorbikes. It must be pretty popular around here, as some villages had signs up banning motorcycles between 22:00 and 06:00.


After a pleasant few days motorcycling around the Black Forest, we headed down to the German/Austrian border for a week in a hotel in Oberstaufen. Heading into Singen we took the coast road around the Bodensee, which was beautiful but plagued by terrible traffic. The local road planners didn’t seem to have understood the concept of linked traffic lights, as they were scattered around on apparently random timing patterns. People spend so much time there waiting at red lights that there are signs asking you to switch your engine off to prevent pollution. However, eventually we made it through and got back onto the minor roads all the way to the hotel that was to be our home for the following week.


From Oberstaufen it is a short step to Oberstdorf, where we climbed up the highest ski-jump in the world with a view to bungee-jumping off the top, but the jump was far too expensive, although the climb was worth it because the views from the top were incredible.


Another day we rode through dreadful traffic to the fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein (as seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and thought that a romantic-sounding horse-drawn carriage up from Schwangau would be a nice idea. The reality was far from romantic, as after a lot of loud wrangling with rude German tourists about who had and who hadn’t pushed in to the queue, about fifteen of us crammed into a very small buggy and were pulled very slowly up the mountain by a very smelly horse.

Once at the castle, we spent an hour queing for a ticket (the ticket clerks thought that it would be a good idea to go for lunch at the busiest period), and then we had to wait for another half hour for our guide. I think that if I hadn’t been there before I would have given up before we got in, but I knew that it would all be worthwhile in the end, and it was just as crazy as I remembered it, commissioned by Mad King Ludwig whose personal style could best be described as Big, Colourful, and Gothic.

Rather than face the crowds again on the way down, we hiked across country, following a stream bed that cut down the wooded mountain side back to Schwangau. We did look up at the twin castle of Hohenschwangau, and thought about visiting, but we’d really had enough of queuing for one day, and left it for another time.

Cheese and farming

Another morning we spent an agreeable if rather smelly time at a traditional cheese-makers, where huge rounds of cheese were hand-crafted by jolly German craftsmen.

One afternoon we spent a long time trying to find a local museum of traditional farmhouses at a place called Illerbeule. We nearly failed, but by considerable luck we managed to find it, although since we arrived at 16:00, which is closing time for most places in the area, we thought it had all been to no avail, but for some reason this one place still had another couple of hours of opening time.

It really was a fascinating place, consisting of a complete farm built from cottages and barns from different eras and from different parts of Germany. The thing that struck me most compared with similar structures in the UK, was the amazing amount of living space that these farmers seemed to have. In Britain, in most historical ages, everybody hunkered down in a tiny room with all the animals. Here, if a farmer decided to go in for instance for cheesemaking, then he just built a whole new cheesemaking room on the end of his farmhouse. The barns were enormous too, and beautifully finished in boldly painted designs.


On yet another beautiful day of blazing sunshine, we caught a cable car to the top of the 1833m Hochgrat ridge which marks the border between Germany and Austria, and set off westward along the top. Some 5km and several hard hours later we decided to leave the crumbly conglomerate of the main path and continue along the spine of the ridge, but somehow we went a little astray, and after an interesting 1500m descent through an almost vertical forest we arrived at somebody’s farm.

The amused farmer explained to us that the reason that we couldn’t work out where we were on our map was that we’d walked right off the edge and were now in Austria, so there was nothing for it but to climb all the way back to the top and then back down into Germany.

Once more at sea level, and thoroughly footsore, we were extremely grateful to discover a small bus waiting to take us to civilisation, Jacuzzi, and beer.

Breitachklamm and Sturmanns Höhle

We also spent a day visiting a couple of local geological features. The first was Sturmanns Höhle, a 300 metre meltwater shaft and tunnel bored over 600,000 years ago through a mountain near Obermaiselstein. There is quite a climb up to the entrance, and then, once inside, a long long descent into the heart of the mountain, at first along a crack or crevice, but then down the actual vertical shaft itself by means of a series of metal steps. It’s dark and drippy, but fun to be that far underground without benefit of ropes or a mineshaft.

From the Höhle we headed for the Breitachklamm, rightfully hailed as Germanys most beautiful gorge. It is really impressive, a deep fissure scoured by a fast-flowing river, with sides so high that they appeared to close in at the top and blot out the daylight. Judging by the mangled and twisted steel handrails along the way, the river must get pretty tempestuous at times, and there were also entire pine trees jammed crosswise across the valley some twenty or thirty feet above the current water level. It must be an incredible place in a storm.

White-water rafting in Switzerland

Finally, we nipped over into Switzerland to go white-water rafting with a German fire brigade, which wasn’t as scary as I expected but was still great fun.

And then it was time to get back on the bikes and go home, visiting a few more campsites along the way. On the border between Switzerland and France we passed a long queue of steam-powered cars, which was strange, and in the tiny French village of Freland we ate at a museum that doubled as a restaurant in the evenings, but on the whole we just rode, tired and happy, home to England and to bed.

Riding to Utrecht

The time had come for me to leave my home country of England, and seek my fortune overseas. I secured a work contract in the mediaeval Dutch city of Utrecht, and – having no further ties – swung my leg over my motorcycle and headed for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone.

The Channel Tunnel

The Chunnel train looked very French, big corrugated metal slab-sided carriages with tiny windows. I am the only biker in a queue of cars, and an official in a bright yellow jacket waved me to one side and continued to guide each car into one of two doors set into the side of the train, one leading to an upper deck and one to a lower. Every now and then he made twisting motions with both hands to indicate that a motorist should turn their lights off, but I can’t see why.

Evidently I will be the last vehicle to board. The official grins sympathetically as I put my feet up on the handlebars and lie back, watching the rain dripping off my visor. At the last moment another bike appears, a two-up British Kwak Harley-a-like, all chrome and leather. The official drags an orange trolley out of hiding and places it on the floor of the last carriage. It has widely spread arms that lie flat on either side to stop it from falling over, and two swivel-mounted cups that are meant to hold the tyre. The cruiser noses its front wheel into the first cup, and the official guides the other into place, neatly holding the entire bike upright. Within moments my own bike is similarly secured, and I look at it curiously, wondering how they are going to get it out again.

A pretty French blonde appears, similarly encased in bright yellow, and checks that we have left the bikes in gear. I wander off to find a toilet – the doors between the carriages have electronic locks controlled by illuminated orange buttons which take several seconds to unlock the manually-pushed doors – and before I know it we are moving. A number of public announcements are made in French and English, repeated in both languages on overhead illuminated scrolling signs. I strike up a conversation with the other bikers, who are travelling to Antwerp and thus in my direction. He was originally Flemish but now lives in England; his partner, a tiny dark girl with a big smile and curious marks on each cheek, was originally from South America. They warn me that there is no petrol for 60 miles after you get off the train, but I have ample in the tank. They plan to stop and eat at their usual place just outside Brugge, and I think that it might be worth staying with them for the company on the road.

Now in France, all the connecting doors between the carriages are opened and the vehicles roll out along the body of the train and out the front (where did the engine go?) into the drizzle. Unloading the bikes is very straightforward, as the trolleys just spit us out when they are rolled away. Nice design, top marks.

Riding through Belgium in the rain

Up the familiar coast road, following the Kwak, which puts on a good 130kph pace, about what I would have chosen myself, though it can’t have been much fun for them with their open-face helmets. At the border with Belgium, the rain began in earnest, and I was glad to have plastic gloves on underneath my leather ones. An hour later and my boots started to fill up with water, absorbed through the leather and goretex by the onslaught of the weather.The Brugge services eventually appear, and just as we are about to cut across the four lanes leading to the exit, there is a huge bang from the Kwak and orange flames shoot toward me from their exhaust. They have run out of petrol, and I slow quickly to push if need be, but by weaving from side to side they find some vapour in the pipes and make it into a service station.

We sit and chew steak and talk about this and that, and I muse that it doesn’t really matter which country I’m in, I dont even have to know or care because everybody takes Visa. But then I want to go to the toilet, and sheepishly have to borrow BFr10 because I havent got any change to placate the large dragon lady guarding the entrance.

Outside the windows of the cafe, the rain gets heavier. We fill up with fuel and say our goodbyes, because even though I’ll be following them for another hour to Antwerp, they will be turning off at their journeys end and I’ll still have another hour to go to get to Utrecht.

Riding through Holland in the rain

As I leave Belgium and pass the signs for the Netherlands, the rain eases off a little. I smile to myself, although my shoulders are now stiff and the rain has made its way through my silk scarf and it is chafing my neck. Just out of Utrecht I stop, ostensibly for petrol but in actual fact to consult the map, because I really haven’t a clue where I’m going. Once stopped, though, I realise that I’m really cold, and sit for several minutes just staring at the petrol pumps revelling in the lack of motion and the protection afforded by the canopy overhead. Presumably I am on camera somewhere because a puzzled-looking blond beard appears at the window of the kiosk, but a look of understanding crosses his face when I wave vaguely in a gesture indicating the heavens, the bike, and the general condition of the world in general.

Inside, I forced my crabbed fingers to forge some resemblance to my Visa signature, and the bearded angel asked, “Would you like a coffee?” Would I! A nice steaming freshly brewed black coffee to wrap my hands around while I consult the map. I didn’t have a street map of Utrecht, just a fuzzy aerial view downloaded from the Web and a Michelin map of the local area purchased on the way over. My only clue for orientation is a distinctively shaped spaghetti junction which I hope I can recognise from the ground, in the rain, in the dark.

As usual I find that trusting to luck and not getting worried about the fact that I don’t even have the phone number of the hotel pays off, and before long I’m chugging up Donderstraat to the converted apartment building that is the Hotel Ouwi.

First night in Utrecht

I stand for a while in a scalding shower and then wander into town at 8pm, marvelling at all the canals. The streets are full of young couples, and despite the somewhat labyrinthine nature of the dark alleyways that criss-cross the centre, I feel perfectly safe. The only place that makes me a little uneasy is a big shopping centre called Hoog Catherijne next to the train station, where there seem to be some unsavoury characters hanging out, although nobody bothers me. Eventually I find a cash machine and get some Guilders. On the way back to the hotel I look in through the windows of lots of bars and restaurants, and everybody seems to be having a good time, though I’m starting to feel lonely and don’t feel much like sitting on my own. However, the last one that I pass is a Firkin pub, complete with English-style beer pumps, and I can’t resist it and go in.The staff are friendly and I stay for a couple of pints, just watching people and listening to music (apparently the bitter is brewed in den Haag), until I get up for a final pee.

In the gents I meet a New Zealander called Brett, and one thing leads to another and I find myself wandering from bar to bar with him and his four Dutch friends, finally rolling into bed at about half past one. Breakfast comes with the room and is a nice mixture of continental breads, ham, cheese, a boiled egg and a yoghurt. The toast is curious because it has Good Morning branded into it, presumably by the toaster. After several hours of walking I discover the whereabouts of my new office, a mere 15 minutes walk away along tow-paths and through a little nature reserve. Everybody else is either cycling or jogging; from the looks that I get from passersby and car passengers, walking is a suspicious activity and people who indulge in it are probably up to no good. Note to self: must buy a bicycle.


I got on my motorbike one sunny Thursday and headed for Oostende, a couple of hours’ ride from den Haag in Holland. The theory was that I’d meet up with Lisa who was bringing her bike over from England on the SeaCat, and we’d camp up in nearby Brugge and meet a dozen or so other bikers on Friday morning. We would all then head off for the annual MAG Eurodemo, which this year was to be held in Bonn.


I arrived in Oostende (severely sore: the road from Antwerp to Brugge is probably the worst piece of tarmac in Christendom) and parked up outside the ferry terminal, noting the serendipitous proximity of an al fresco alehouse complete with electric heaters to take the chill off the evening. Settled into a comfortable chair, glass in hand, I switched on my phone and received no less than four urgent messages from Lisa. Apparently the SeaCat had broken down (again; it does this with monotonous regularity) and the best that P&O could do was to put Lisa and all the other motorbikes onto a hovercraft which was bound for Calais, in another country and about an hour’s ride away.

By the time Lisa arrived in Oostende, the night was well advanced, but we managed to blag the last food from the kitchen, and discovered that the bar (the oldest in Oostende, so it claimed), had rooms to rent, so we settled in with a vengeance, deliberately ordering glasses of Kriek and Kwak because it sounded good when the waitress shouted it across the bar.

A Nut Loose in Bitburg

The next morning we completed a leisurely breakfast and then discovered that the SeaCat was still broken, so we abandoned the wait for our friends and set off for the Eurodemo campsite. This was only three hours away so we took it easy, but after looking around the town of Bitburg (which I wanted to visit simply because it made the beer that is named after it), I found that the front sprocket nut had vanished from my bike and the actual sprocket had fallen off, instantly turning the whole machine from a useful means of transportation into just so many motionless parts. It was getting on for closing time so I left Lisa to look after the pile of bits and rode her bike in search of repairs, on the basis that I speak German and she doesn’t.

A Mercedes garage pointed me in the direction of a Toyota garage (on the basis that they were as Japanese as the Yamaha and therefore probably had non-metric nuts), but on the way I stopped at a Suzuki Jeep garage where a bemused lady receptionist – the only person there – let me in to the workshops to see if I could find anything that looked useful, but sadly to no avail.

At the Toyota garage I met their mechanic, who was just going home, but after discovering that he didn’t have anything remotely like the sprocket nut that I was looking for he borrowed a car from the showroom and took me to a nearby Honda dealer. Sadly, no dice (Hondas don’t have sprocket nuts), but the Honda people reckoned that there was a motorcycle shop in a nearby town that might have one.

A phone call revealed that (a) they had one but (b) they were going home, but if I could be there in fifteen minutes then it was mine. Swiftly we returned to the Toyota garage, where I put Lisa’s bike back together (I’d taken it apart to show the mechanic what I needed) and headed out. It was about 20 miles and I had good directions, but sadly they did not include the roadworks diversion, so I didn’t get there in time. However, stuck to the door was a post-it directing me to the owner’s house, but he’d been looking out for me and showed up waving happily, and soon I was back on the road, complete with a new set of directions and a nice shiny new sprocket nut in my pocket.

Back at my own bike there was no sign of Lisa, but I got on with fitting the new nut, only to find that the spindle thread was too knackered to tighten the nut by hand. At about this time, Lisa emerged from a nearby pub with a large number of Germans who had discovered her asleep by the bike and, discovering our predicament, were ringing around their friends trying to find us a suitable nut. Finding that I now had a nut but no 32mm spanner (after all, who does?) they then phoned all their friends again and amazingly produced one with the requisite tool.

Sadly, however, the thread was too knackered even with the correct instrument, so Lisa went back to her beers and I scratched my head. At some point in the foregoing, Lisa had managed to get into telephone contact with our friends who had now arrived in Germany and were strangely enough just entering Bitburg themselves. Soon they all turned up too and scratched their collective head in the time-honoured manner until I gave up and did what I always do, to whit, cobbled something together out of a beer can and bits scavenged from the nearest bin. I figured that it would get me to the camp site, and I’d worry about sorting the thread out in the morning.

Off we set, following our friends who knew exactly where they were going. The Road to… Bonn? Time passed, and the roads became curiously mountainous with interesting hairpins. The altitude increased and we passed a road sign that looked suspiciously like a border sign for Luxembourg, and the guy we were following finally stopped and admitted that he’d been reading the map upside down and we were 180 degrees out of phase with our intended route…

My sorely abused chain had been getting slightly irritable on all these mountain curves, so I enquired of a passing local (who was attempting to pass rather quickly; it was after dark in a small village and there were lots of large rumbling motorcycles with large foreigners rumbling angrily to each other…) and discovered that there were no less than three camp sites within 500 metres, and two garages. Leaving the others to make their own way to Paris, Lisa and I stopped for the night and were so exhausted that we slept ’til midday.

Emerging to greet the day, we discovered that it was half-day closing and all the garages were shut. Enquiries pinned down a couple of open garages, especially a Hyundai garage in the next town. Again I caught the mechanic just as he was intending to go home, but he was happy to tighten up my new nut for me. Ten minutes later, after ever so carefully easing it on with the absolute minimum of force, we sat looking at yet another ruined nut. The thread on the spindle was just too knackered. The mechanic thought for a bit, then said that he was hungry and needed some lunch, but after that he would nip round his friend’s house and borrow a thread-cutter and meet me back at the garage (which had now closed for the weekend).

An hour later he returned, sans thread-cutter but with a hardened steel file, with which he proceeded to laboriously cut a new thread for me, by hand, using the in-gear, running, hoisted-up back wheel as a lathe. Well, I was impressed. Another hour, and I was back on the road again, leaving behind a considerable amount of gratitude and a fistful of beer money.

Vianden, Luxembourg

That night we discovered that the village that we were in was actually the outlying part of a town called Vianden, right in the heart of the Deutsch-Luxembergischer Naturpark and surely the most beautiful town in Luxembourg, set in a dammed gorge and overlooked by an impressive castle on an outcrop projecting from the tree line.

A pleasant walk up and down the main cobbled street soon revealed a plethora of flower-bedecked restaurants. Eventually we chose one of them (no mean feat!) and had an excellent meal, eventually weaving our somewhat inebriated way back over the river to the camp site. We stayed for another day too, taking the chairlift up the sides of the valley to look down on the castle, and going for madcap burns around the mountain roads, most of which seemed to be named after Victor Hugo, to whom memorials are ubiquitous, and one of which lead mysteriously through a large field of cannabis plants.

The following day, having fond memories of our last visit to the capital, we set off for Luxembourg city, which was every bit as beautiful as we remembered it. We spent an extremely pleasant day wandering around the warrens of switchback paths and tunnels that climb up and down the sides of the lush green gorge that splits the city. Definitely my favourite European city.

Almost a Full Meal in Hellenthal

After the success of our stay in one national park, we headed for another, the Deutsch-Belgischer. However, even though this too was quite beautiful, it did have a serious lack of camp sites. The only ones that we could find were rather dire caravan parks on the outskirts of unattractive modern towns, and we were looking for another Vianden. Later and later into the night we rode, until eventually, after a couple more caravan parks (all of whom had closed their gates at dusk) we encountered a tiny camp site on the outskirts of Hellenthal which was mysteriously deserted of staff and customers, but which sported a small green field and a clean and functioning toilet block.

We had spotted glimpses of a beautiful mediaeval village high above us as we descended into the valley, so after pitching the tent we climbed wearily back onto our bikes and set off again, desperate for something to eat. Luckily for us there was a small restaurant at the base of the town, so we climbed out of our waterproofs and stumbled in, to be greeted by an extremely friendly staff who gave the impression that they’d been sitting waiting all evening just for the pleasure of serving us.

About half way through the second course, when we had taken the edge off the worst of our hunger and were beginning to think in terms of making a night of it, it began to percolate through to our awareness that we hadn’t seen a single Visa symbol anywhere in the restaurant. Discreet enquiries revealed that they didn’t accept plastic of any sort, and although we had Belgian francs aplenty we were pretty low on Deutschmarks; we hadn’t intended to camp on this side of the border but had accidentally wandered across while searching for somewhere to stay. Luckily we had exactly enough German cash to pay for what we had already eaten plus a small tip, so we halted our meal, handed over everything we had, and departed rather abruptly into the night.

The next morning, after a pleasant night’s sleep, we still couldn’t find anybody to pay so we packed up and headed back up to the village, whose name I have forgotten but which began with an R.

All The Best Things Start With R

It turned out to be an ancient fortified town from the 1700s, virtually untouched since mediaeval times and extremely well kempt. All the houses were spotlessly white, all the graves in the graveyard were beautifully tended with burning candles, the church bells rang out merrily across the valley, and a hushed aura of history pervaded the air. We stayed for a long time, poking around behind houses and in the dungeons of the ruined castle, which curiously enough was being rebuilt by two cheerful men on a scaffold tower. They had built up to around thirty feet from the original foundations and showed no signs of stopping, and why would they? Perched on top of the world in the sunshine, the whole of Germany laid out in a patchwork below, they carefully laid stone upon ancient stone and rebuilt the past.

Loire Valley

A mid-morning start on a beautiful day. We were embarking on what would turn out to be an eleven hour motorcycle ride from Utrecht in Holland to Angers in France, to meet up with the rest of that loose group of bikers, the Lemmings, for a weekend touring the Loire Valley.

Breakfast in Mons

To break up the journey, we stopped in the Belgian town of Mons for lunch in the picturesque central square, where they were setting up a music festival. The sun was shining and the populace were gearing up for a party, and it was tempting to stay, but we forced ourselves to finish our meal and continue on our way.

French Traffic

By the time we hit Paris it was the rush-hour, and the Periphique was a marvel to behold. Above and beyond the normal scalectrix free-for-all, hundreds of motorbikes were hammering conga-fashion between every lane of cars. Loaded with a full pannier system, we were a little bit wider than average, so I kept pulling over into the main traffic streams to let the slimmer bikes behind me past; about half a dozen at a time, and on on occasion at least six police motorcycles. At one time I snuck in behind an ambulance that was doing its own filter between the lanes, sirens blazing, and I was quite stunned when it pulled over into traffic to let me past…

We finally met up with the others at their Angers hotel at 9pm. There was little time to do anything but drink lots of beer and fall asleep.

Sneezing in Angers

On the next morning we rode into Angers itself to have a look around the town. It is situated at one end of a mediaeval stone bridge over the Loire, and mostly sits inside a fortress, packed with tiny cobbled streets arranged around a central castle. Those buildings that were not timber-framed were constructed from tufa, a light-coloured stone that is popular with stone-carvers, and which also accounts for the warm honey-colour of the bridges and chateaux in this region. The castle had a functioning drawbridge over the moat with an Audi parked on it, draped with a wedding couple and orbited by a photographer who was trying to fit pictures in between the tourists streaming through the gateway.

I couldn’t even get close to the castle – or more particularly to its gardens – because there was something in the air that day and my nose was streaming. I couldn’t even approach the entrance portcullis without collapsing into paroxysms of sneezing, so we gave it a miss and headed upriver to nearby Saumur.

Mushrooms in Saumur

Saumur is dominated by a chateau that looks down on the town and its bridge, but we were headed for the outskirts and a mushroom museum. This was part of an underground mushroom farm situated in a tufa-rock mine, and was not only fascinating but also blessedly cool. For the benefit of tourists, they were growing mushrooms in the traditional heaps as well as the more modern beds and bags, and the workers delayed picking until the evening so that the maximum number of fruiting bodies were showing during the day.

The whole thing was fascinating, and topped off by a beautifully presented museum that must have contained samples of every mushroom in Europe, each preserved in a perspex block and mounted in a niche hollowed from the tufa wall.

On to Orleans

It was well past lunchtime and we had a hundred miles to go to the next hotel, so we made a start by cruising up the river toward Tours. The road was superb, built on top of a levee with broad sweeping bends that followed the sinuous path of the beautiful green-shrouded Loire, offering views across the rivers many islands and out across the surrounding vineyards. By the time we got to Tours it was well past five, so we hammered down to motorway to our destination just south of Orleans and a well-earned meal.

Another sunny day dawned. As well as wine, this region is also famed as the home of the French perfume industry, so our first call was a perfume museum on the outskirts of Orleans. This was set in the Chateau Chamerolles, and arranged sequentially through a series of rooms each decorated in the style of a particular century, with the history of perfume interwoven with the history of France. It was very well done, and terminated in a darkened room containing examples of many kinds of glass perfume bottle, each set upon a tiny black uplighter so that it appeared to hang suspended and glowing from within in the darkness.

In Orleans itself, the centre of town had been cordoned off and laid out as a karting track. Other stalls had been set up in the locality, and I got hoisted up at the end of a crane to look down on the cathedral and the city, before wandering through the old quarter and down to paddle our feet in the river by the inevitable mediaeval bridge. The river was immensely wide here, but still flowed very fiercely indeed.

The old quarter came alive at night, and all the restaurants and bars spilled out onto the pavement. The food came and the alcohol flowed, and then before we knew it, it was morning and we were back on the bike for the eleven hours of riding back to Utrecht.

Luckily the beautiful weather held, and we stopped here and there to eat, drink and rest. Just over the Belgian border we happened to turn off into the town of Dour, which managed to live up perfectly to its name, completely failed to provide us with any food, and whose main attraction, as far as we could see, was the immense queue of people waiting for the bus out of town. However, we knew that Mons was nearby, so we decided to try our luck there again.

Back to Mons

The music festival appeared to be over, but the townspeople of Mons were having yet another party, this one related to dragons. The main square was packed with impromptu bars where they sold wicked-looking Belgian beer in huge flagons, and we ended up back at the same restaurant, as it was the only place that hadn’t foregone food preparation in preference to the sale of rivers of alcohol.

Still, we were looking forward to sitting in the square watching the world bustle by, chased by friendly street-sellers with fistfuls of hats, balloons and dragons. Everyone was having a great time, but we had some more mileage to cover, so regretfully we passed up on the local beer, bought a passing dragon-on-a-stick and pointed the bike toward Holland and home.

A Lesson in Dutch Bureaucracy

It all started so innocently when, after several years of living and working in the Netherlands, I finally tired of relying on the Dutch public transport system. Although the network of trams, buses and trains is undeniably good value and very efficient, I prefer not to be tied to somebody else’s timetable, and wanted to find some more flexible way of getting to work. To this end, I resolved to buy a motorcycle.

There are fundamental differences between the most similar of cultures. Even when you’ve lived abroad for years and really think that you’re coming to terms with your new home, basic assumptions built-in from your mother culture can still rear up and bite you in reminder of the fact that you are, after all, an alien. Although it is probably true that, deep down, people are all the same, the way that they run their countries most certainly is not. The laws and people of the Netherlands are among the most easy-going and permissive in the world. You can do pretty much anything you like, anywhere you like, and unless you are actually causing pain then it is unlikely that anybody else will try to interfere. The police tend to joviality, the general public are friendly, and the working conditions are second to none. However, in all this clear-sightedness, there is one enormous blind spot: As a nation, the Dutch are utterly addicted to bureaucracy. Filling in forms and dealing with officialdom are national sports. It was, then, with some trepidation that I began my quest.

Locating a bike

In England, of course, it is all rather simple. You decide on your preferred bike, find somebody who is selling one, and then buy it. I had however already decided against importing my English motorcycle because of colleagues’ horror stories of impounded vehicles and endless import fees, so I was determined to buy a local machine.

Having made my decision to buy a bike, I had already planned its first a trip to the UK some four weeks hence, and after a week of diligent searching I eventually located a two-year old but unused XJR1200 in an out-of-town showroom for a reasonable 18,500 guilders. I grabbed a passing sales assistant. Could they supply that motorcycle there by the end of the week? No, they couldn’t. But surely it was second-hand, and therefore had a licence plate and all the necessary paperwork? Certainly it did, but it was a rule that all re-sold motorcycles had to have the new Euro plates, identical to the old plates but with a blue ‘NL’ in the corner. This would take three weeks to arrange.

The paperwork…

The timescale did not greatly surprise me. The smallest unit of time for any piece of work in Holland is always one week. Shoe repairs, puncture repairs, anything, it all takes at least a week, and if there is any paperwork involved, additional weeks are inevitably required. However, I had a ferry to catch in exactly three weeks, so I was a little concerned that everything should be arranged up front.

What, I demanded, does an Englishman need in order to buy a Dutch motorcycle? Just pay us the money and it’s yours, came the answer. However, I’ve lived in the Netherlands for too long to accept such an unlikely statement at face value. I tried rephrasing the question. What, as an Englishman, do I need in order for you to allow me to ride my new motorcycle out of the showroom?

Aaah, now then. A Dutchman would need to show his driving licence. However, a foreign licence doesn’t count. I began to protest that all EC licences are the same, but that wasn’t the point. Whether you actually had a licence to ride a motorcycle was irrelevant. The point was that in order to fill in the registration form, the shop had to tick the box that said they had seen your Dutch driving licence. That was the rule. No tick, no registration.

After a number of phone calls and a bit of hand-waving it emerged that there was a special rule for foreigners, and that I could get by with a letter from the local council saying that I lived at my registered address, and a copy of my passport. Glad that I d asked so early, I hiked thoughtfully back from the shop to Amsterdam. My problem, you see, was that I didn’t have a registered address. If you live in Holland, you are expected to register your home address with the local council. However, you are not allowed to register hotels or no fixed abode, so if you’re flitting about doing contract work then often it is not possible. You are technically allowed to register at a friends house, but in doing so you have to be careful that you don’t infringe on their rights. A large proportion of the Dutch population live in what we in England would call Council Houses (though the system is different and the properties are, on the whole, well-kept and desirable places to live, rather than the rather run-down unfashionable areas that are increasingly common in the UK). The style of house that you can live in, and the price that you pay for it, are determined by, among other things, your salary, your age, and the size of your household. Registering at a friend’s place would increase the size of their household, and might therefore change their eligibility for that property at that price.

I really needed to register somewhere if I was to get this motorcycle. I asked a few home-owning friends, but surprisingly in such a red-taped country most people frown on anything that might be construed as bending the rules, and I found people to be generally reluctant. Luckily I did eventually find a volunteer to write the official letter granting me permission to live in their home, and sent off my application. A phone call to the council revealed that they would be sending me a registration letter in a week or so, but if I wanted one more urgently then I had to go into the office in Amsterdam personally. However, since the office was only open on weekday mornings, I thought I’d wait and, incredibly, with one week still to go, the official letter turned up on my friend’s doormat. Hurrah!

Unbelievably, I seemed to have all the paperwork to hand. It was Thursday, and I needed to pick the bike up on the following Thursday evening if I was to meet my ferry to England. Since all I needed now was the money already sitting in my current account, I could justifiably have rested on my laurels, but drawing on past experience, I decided to not only deliver the papers but to pay the shop in advance that very afternoon.

The pain of payment

This was a decision born of experience. For a country that is in so many ways more enlightened and advanced than England, personal finance is still way back in the dark ages. For instance, cash paid into a bank can take three working days to clear (that’s right: cash), and an electronic fund transfer to somewhere like the US can take as long as three weeks. Add to this the fact that credit cards are virtually unknown, cheques don’t seem to exist, and large denomination notes are regarded with suspicion if they are accepted at all, and you soon find that making a major purchase is a considerable problem.

Two local electronic payment systems do exist. ‘Pin’ is analogous to a debit card, and ‘Chip’ is a smart-card electronic cash system. Both are widely accepted in Holland, but the Chip is only for small purchases, and you cant Pin more than 5000 guilders, regardless of the size of your bank balance.

I checked with the bike shop. No, it was against the rules to Pin several times for the same purchase. I could pay by credit card (wow!) or by bank transfer, but it would take three whole weeks for the funds to clear. The only payment method that was feasible in my timescale was cash.

Did they have to wait for cash to clear? They didn’t (one up on my bank, then). Did they accept large-denomination notes? They did. Even thousand-guilder notes? Yes. I checked around with Dutch friends, who all said that I could merely present my Pin card at my bank (Any branch? Yes. Really? Yes) and withdraw as much cash as I liked without any further messing about.

Where’s the cash?

To tell the truth, I didn’t really believe them. There’s a branch of my bank right by Amsterdam Central Station. It’s a dodgy area, and it was difficult not to feel furtive as I sneaked up to the teller, checked nobody was in earshot, slid my card under the partition and quietly asked for 19,000 guilders in cash. I’m sorry, he said, but we don’t have that much money. I looked around, slightly desperately, to see if I had inadvertently walked into a greengrocers instead of a bank. No, it all looked reassuringly like a financial institution. Perhaps I had phrased the question incorrectly. Errrm. Look. I would like to withdraw 19,000 guilders from my account please. The teller continued to look dubious. We don’t have that many large notes… apparently he saw some mad desperate glint appearing in my eye …but maybe we have it in small change?

I nodded eagerly, not trusting myself to speak. There will be rather a lot of it? he quavered, before scuttling nervously off. After a short wait he was back, now secure in the certainty of his knowledge. No, we don’t have it.

In a daze, I wandered out onto the streets of Amsterdam. Surely this was no great sum of money for one of the major financial centres of Europe, especially in a country where everybody is forced, through lack of other options, to use cash? I decided to try another bank, and went right into the central Dam Square and the biggest bank that I could find. Here, finally, a smiling cashier handed over a small pile of large-denomination notes. Thankyou very, very much. I said, and legged it for the bike shop before she could change her mind.


The showroom is a train ride and then an expensive taxi trip from Amsterdam, but I was determined that nothing should go wrong. Armed with a copy of my passport, the letter from the council, a wad of cash and my driving licence (just in case), I arrived and triumphantly presented them with my stash. They gravely accepted the money, even the thousand-guilder notes, but they shook their heads over the rest of it.

They suddenly discovered that they needed my real passport, not just a copy. And the letter from the council was the wrong kind of letter. On Friday morning I took a long detour on the way to work, and after a little trouble found the Registration office. It opened at 08:30 to a tide of people all clamouring for the same kind of letter; a few minutes wait and a small payment and it was mine.

Hurriedly, I returned to work. I was out of town for the weekend, but on Monday morning I once again set off for the bike shop, now with (hopefully) the correct letter and my real passport tucked firmly into my pocket. The taxi driver was a crazy German who thought that sliding broadside around the front end of a fast-moving truck was an acceptable means of turning across a dual carriageway, and when we got to the showroom I was in two minds to pay him off and walk the hour back, but I really couldn’t afford the time, so I asked him to wait and ran up to the door. In common with many other Dutch businesses, it was closed all day Monday.

The Courier

Cursing, I went back to work. The taxi driver didn’t have any change and so got an inadvertent tip. The next morning I was up early again and queuing in the rain outside the post office. Rather than spend what remained of the week running back and forth, I’d decided to courier the documents instead. The helpful lady behind the desk told me that express mail would get my envelope to the bike shop by 10:30 tomorrow, Wednesday morning. I knew that the bike shop did their daily run to the vehicle licensing office at around 09:00, so there would just be time for them to arrange the licence on Thursday before I picked the bike up that evening.

Relieved, I handed her my package. She refused to take it. But that’s twenty-five guilders, she wailed. This is a common problem in the Netherlands. The typical Dutch person is proud of the care that they take over their money. They will laugh and joke about it with foreigners, but will still travel from one end of the city to the other in order to save a couple of guilders. It is a national trait, but since it is coupled with warm-hearted generosity, it never degenerates into meanness. However, it does mean that shopping can be an unusual experience. The concept of selling up is completely alien. If there are two thingamajigs and you pick the more expensive one, the sales assistant will persuasively argue you into buying the cheaper one unless you firmly stand your ground. It is almost worth picking up a really expensive item just to hear the hiss of indrawn breath and to see the forlorn shaking of heads.

And so it was with my package. Any normal person would pay one guilder for regular post and hope that the package arrived in time. To squander a whole twenty-five guilders for a mere guarantee of delivery was to invite divine retribution. We argued back and forth, each becoming increasingly desperate, until finally she hit upon a happy compromise. If she arranged for a third-party carrier, a company unrelated to the post office, to take it rather than their own driver, then it would only cost twenty-two guilders. She smiled triumphantly and I meekly paid up.

Wednesday morning, eleven o’clock. I called the showroom to see if my package had arrived. It hadn’t. I called the courier, who phoned their driver. Apparently he had delivered it to somebody who signed himself as Ron. I called the bike shop. They didn’t employ anybody called Ron. Did they have anybody whose name might look like Ron if it was scribbled in a hurry? Had anybody seen a big orange delivery van that morning? They would check and get back to me.

I hung up and sat and stared at the phone, playing back every second of the last two weeks, wondering if I could have done anything differently. The phone rang. They had found Ron, who was an under-mechanic in the workshop. Rather than handing the package in to the shiny manned reception desk in the entrance hall, the courier had seen fit to pass it to a pair of legs stuck out from under a bench in the workshop. Understandably, Ron had quickly smeared his name on the clipboard and lobbed my precious documents as far away from his oily rebuild as possible, promptly forgetting about them.

But was it the correct kind of letter? A rustle at the end of the phone indicated opening noises, and then the welcome words “This is perfect. You can come and pick up your bike tomorrow.”

The Grossglockner Pass

Munich (Germany)

It all started in Munich. Helga, her young son Jean-Paul and I all drove to Patrick’s place in preparation for our week or so in Italy. Considering that we’d just spent six hours on the road, and were planning to spend much of the foreseeable future driving, Helga and JP did the sensible thing and went to bed. Come midnight, of course, Patrick and I were sitting under the Maximillian statue in downtown Munich, hoping that a friend would eventually turn up and show us where the party was at. Sure enough, at one in the morning he eventually decanted from a taxi and took us to a wonderful rave in what appeared to be an old school, where we danced and watched the girls until the sun came up.

Only then did we set off, a somewhat bizarre convoy of Patricks Ducati 748, my fully laden XJR 1200, and Helga and JP in Patrick’s recently restored Alfa Spider.

We were supposed to be doing the long haul to Venice, but what with all the fun we had burning around the mountains in the sun, and time out for an impromptu dip in the lake at Achsen, we decided to make for our familiar ski-resort of Zell am See instead.

Zell am See (Austria)

Patrick and I were having a fantastic ride, ranging ahead of the car and racing each other and everybody else up and down the mountains, pausing every now and then to catch our breath and wait for Helga to catch up. It was wonderful, and we arrived content but thirsty at a campsite close to Zell, where we were delighted to find that the bar was open.

Several beers later we got around to having some food, and then, just as we were getting stuck in to the post-prandial refreshment, we realised that (a) we didn’t have any Austrian cash, and (b) they didn’t accept Visa. No matter. Leaving the others at the table, Helga and I nipped into town in the Spider, where my cash card put the machine into such a flurry that it had to reboot. Warily we tried a second machine with Patrick’s card, which Helga happened to have with her, and luckily it behaved long enough to give us some Schillings. Hurrah! We set off for the campsite… only to realise that we were now thoroughly lost.

After about an hour of driving around in the dark, visiting several campsites on the way, we began to laugh at the thought of poor Patrick, sitting in the bar with JP, while I was cruising around in his sports car with his girl and his credit card. To put his mind at rest, we called his mobile… which began to ring quietly in his jacket in the boot of the car. We turned into yet another darkened campsite. The fuel began to run out. Fortunately, after some furious backtracking, we made it back to the correct site, to find JP entertaining the (now off-duty) waiter with his comic book while Patrick desperately searched the tents for spare change. All in all we were too exhausted to stay for the live band, and crept, embarrassed, to bed.

The next day we decided to take the famous Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse into Italy, but before we got anywhere near it, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to the ski rental store on the Kaprun glacier. It was blazing hot in the middle of summer, and the surface of the glacier was awash with slush, but it was simply such a ridiculous idea that we just had to go skiing.

By lunchtime, though, the glacier was so wet that it was like skiing a blancmange, so we handed back our ski equipment and set off once again for the Grossglockner.

Weirdly, although the toll booths accepted just about any form of cash, they didn’t take credit cards, so we had to part with almost all of our notes and coins in a medley of different currencies just to get onto the pass. However, it was well worth it; the road was great fun and the views excellent. We stopped for nothing, not even photographs, and coming down the other side, Patrick and I just let go and rode completely balls-out.

About half way down the switchback mountain road, I became aware of the smell of burning rubber. As I overtook the next half-dozen cars and slammed into yet another hairpin, I noticed that the smell was getting stronger and I began to wonder just how hot my brakes were getting. A couple more cars dropped by, and suddenly I could see smoke, and then began to grin because now I could see the flames, too. Id tucked in behind a large German family packed into an elderly Opel, and I crept forward to knock on the window. What? shouted the children in the back as neck and neck we negotiated the next curve. Your wheel’s on fire! I yelled, in German. And it was, too.

Much later, the mountains spat us out onto a beautiful section of freshly made road, running through forested foothills and valleys, rolling us eventually into the pretty Italian town of Cortina.

From Cortina to Venice to Siena


Dropping out of the Grossglockner Pass down to Cortina, we successfully located a bank machine, and began looking for a hotel. Since I’d just made myself a millionaire – last chance before the coming of the Euro! – it seemed only sensible to stay at the best place in town. A Hotel de Poste valet fought for the privilege of being driven by Helga to the parking lot, while the manager ushered the bikes into the vaults beneath the hotel. The rooms’ jacuzzis eased away the aches of the day, and, through the window, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites rocked to the lights of an electric storm. All it needed was some Barolo and Chianti to end a perfect day.

Helga had become adept at picking superb biking roads from the map, and the next day she excelled herself. Patrick and I thrashed our bikes unmercifully, and soon, having regularly redlined in every gear, I began at last to regard the XJR as being fully run-in. After a mind-bending run down to Belluno, we got onto the autovia to Venice, riding in delta formation behind the Alfa, and making occasional forays into the distance whenever we felt the urge.

We weren’t actually heading for Venice itself, but for the Lido de Jesolo, a long thin peninsula that curves around to a point just short of the canal city. The promontary is one long beach packed with campsites, equipped with a regular ferry service into Venice itself, and we soon found ourselves a suitable berth in amongst a load of caravans.


The following morning saw us all crammed into the Spider for the short hop to the ferry, and we spent a pleasant morning ambling around the Venetian side-streets and back-alleys. The stripy-shirted gondola touts were out in force, and when we happened on a small fleet of particularly fine gondolas under the Rialto Bridge, we stopped and asked how long we got for our no doubt exorbitant fee. “Ah, said the gondoleer, we prefer-a not to think in-a terms of time. We think in-a terms of experience. You want-a the short trip, the medium trip, or the long trip?”

For 300,000 lire (about GBP 100), we took the long trip. Patrick and Helga were ensconced in some style on a padded throne, while JP and myself sprawled out at the sharp end. The man had promised to take us to corners where nobody else went, and we were somewhat surprised to find him true to his word. From the crowded main thoroughfares, where fleets of overladen gondolas jammed end-to-end with coachloads of tourists jostled for space with bargeloads of vegetables, we slipped smoothly into a maze of cathedral-silent canals backing onto old Venetian palaces, cruising the vivid green water and quietly wondering at things in hushed tones so as not to disturb the peace. It was quite a magical experience, and in the end the gondolier was right, we had no idea how long wed spent on the water, but all of it had been thoroughly enjoyable.

Back on land, the day was hotting up and the crowds were thickening. An hour-long queue snaked around the heat-bowl of San Marco on the way into the Doges Palace, so we jumped on a ferry bound for the Lido to see what was there. The answer appeared to be not much, but we had a fine time sitting at a streetside bar and watching the girls go by, until finally wending our way back to the ferry and to our sandy home.

On the beach was a bar restaurant which boasted an internet cafe, and since I was not only in the process of arranging an email mortgage but was also hoping for a job offer in the sun, I thought Id give it a go. Sitting only metres from the sand, I fired up the PC as the beautiful barmaid brought me the first beer of the night. This, I thought, is the life. But sadly, it was not to be. I couldn’t get a connection, whatever I tried. The barmaid poked heroically at it for a while, and then declared with pretty gestures that she’d have to call the expert. This worthy duly emerged, drying his hands, from the kitchen where he’d been washing dishes. He clicked on a few icons and then stood back, shaking his head. “Is-a the internet,” he explained, “sometimes it-a work, sometimes it-a not work. Try tomorrow?”


The following day saw us hammering down the autostrada towards Firenze. The truckers all loved the chick in the red sports car, and pumped their horns manfully, although they couldn’t quite work out what to make of the two powerful motorcycles hovering protectively by her back bumper. The sun was very bright and we were all wearing sunglasses, which became problematical in the frequent dimly lit tunnels, where all we could see were the faint disembodied glow-worms of tail-lights floating in the air before us. Still, we made it through alive, and at last Patrick guided us off into the wilderness toward Imprunetta, where he knew of an agrituristico where maybe we could get a room.

Theoretically, this is a kind of working farm where you can stay, but the Agriturismo Vecchio Borgo di Inalbi is a far cry from a farmhouse B&B. Exquisite little terracotta-tiled apartments are scattered amongst olive groves, the whole set in a chianti vinyard and supplied with a restaurant and swimming pools. Over dinner, we soon discovered that although the food and service, although passable, weren’t exactly cordon bleu, the wine was out of this world. Discarding the suggested carafes, we insisted on their best, a rich thick dark 1998 Chianti, which (to their evident delight) we proceeded to drink by the crate for the duration of our stay.

Tuscany is made for motorbikes. Stripped down to the barest minimum of protective clothing – the temperature was in the forties – Patrick and I howled around the local roads, grinning like maniacs, while Helga and JP lounged by the pool. Occasionally we’d stop in some tiny bar for a cooling ice tea or perfect Italian coffee, being politely ignored by unsmiling men nursing a plate of sausage and something in a small glass. In the towns and villages, children would point at the bikes. Strangely, they would dismiss the exotic but Italian-made Ducati, and would stare in awe at the XJR until they could make out the badge, upon which they would stare wonderingly at each other and breathlessly exclaim, “Yamaha!”


One evening we all visited nearby Siena, a marvellous maze of steeply sloping alleyways clustered about a vivid green-and-white striped cathedral and of course the huge bowl-shaped Piazza del Campo, the finish line for the bi-annual Palio, the famous bare-backed horse race through the town.

We arrived at the Piazza in twilight, just as the pavement cafes were lighting the candles, and we sat and watched the people taking an evening stroll or simply sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.

The chef of the back street restaurant that we chose had won the Palio in 1967, and such is the respect that this engenders that, when we asked, the waiters discuss it in hushed tones, beneath walls filled with pictures of his triumph.

They take the Palio seriously in Siena.

The Jaufenpass

We’d been having a lot of fun in Tuscany, but it was time for Patrick and Helga to return to work. I was resting between contracts and fancy-free, and had intended to carry on to the south of Italy. However, the weather was getting uncomfortably hot and I was hankering for some cool mountain breezes, so we formed the familiar delta formation and headed northward together.

In Modena, the others peeled off for Switzerland, and I headed in the direction of the Brenner Pass and Austria. The day continued hot hot hot, so I just hung in there at a steady 160 kph and waited for some altitude. It certainly got higher, the temperature dropped barely at all.

It was a Sunday, and the only way that I could get fuel was to feed my few remaining 10,000 lire notes into automated petrol pumps, so by the time I reached Varna I was not only low on fuel but hungry and broke as well. I pulled into a hotel/campsite/restaurant where a nice young girl took half my remaining cash in exchange for a place to pitch my tent, and told me that there was a bank machine just up the road. She was right, but it was broken.

Still, I had enough cash for a few beers, so after pitching my tent I wandered over to the bar, where a rather lovely Goth girl not only served me a well-deserved Weissbier, but also told me that if I hung around for another hour then the kitchen would open, and – joy of joys! – after that I could put my entire bill onto Visa. Several hours, a number of beers and a splendid meal later, I was joined by a German couple, and we laughed and told stories until it was time to stumble to bed.

In the morning, my new friends stopped by my tent on their 600 trailie and mentioned that instead of taking the Brenner Pass, they’d found a guide book that recommended the smaller and little-known Jaufenpass towards Otzal. Somewhat later, after leisurely breakfast, I followed, and soon found myself tearing around a tiny, crumbling and deserted switchback road, heart swelling with that sheer unadulterated joy that only comes from riding a bike fast in the mountains. As awe-inspiring view replaced stunning vista, I was both figuratively and literally on top of the world.

The pass dropped into a deep bowl, containing the attractive little town of St Leonhard, awash now with the lunchtime thunder of motorcycle exhausts. I considered staying to look around, but I was hungry for more and was soon climbing up some crazy mule-track of a road, emerging on a high ridge looking out onto a wall of alps stretching from side to side across the world. Here I caught up with the Germans again, who were having a great time, but who had blown a
headlamp bulb and were thus having some nervous moments in the tunnels. I rode point for them down to the Austrian border, and then at the toll booth found that once again I didn’t have enough cash for the crossing. Luckily, however, I found a forgotten envelope of German Marks deep in my luggage, so they let me through.

We continued in tandem down the other side until we got caught up in a snarl of bikes doing no more than 80 kph on beautiful winding roads. Not only was it a crying shame, but the sun was beating down on my leathers and I was getting uncomfortably hot, so I waved goodbye to my friends and got the hell out of there. Once up to cruising speed, I thought that I may as well stay there – and in any case the toll booth had stripped me of all my remaining cash – so I settled in until I dropped out of the mountains and onto the autobahn.

Munich (Germany)

I was going to meet up with Moz in Munich, but he was still at work when I arrived, so I scouted the local bars and settled, as usual, for the one with the most attractive barmaids. When Moz finally turned up, the shift changed, and we began to be served by Carole, who seemed to run the place. She turned out to be such fun and we had such a good time that we simply stayed there for the rest of the evening.

I had no real plans for my next destination, and sitting there under the stars in the middle of the night, chatting over yet another bottle of the bars best wine, I thought to myself, why move on? I could cheerfully come back to this bar every night.

So I stayed.