Sorting a few teething problems on the BMW r1200GS TE and Navigator V

Not a very inspired ride, though enjoyable all the same. The aim was to sort out a few problems with the bike and GPS. First my new bluetooth headset (Interphone F3MC), unlike my five year old trusty Interphone F4, works properly with the BMW Nav V GPS that came with the bike instead of the intermittent loud hissing just when you need to know whether to turn left or right you can hear Emily lound and clear, second: one old pair of prescription sunglasses lets me actually see the GPS screen better than the new ones – their polarising must be slightly different, so those two things are really important to get sorted before going on a trip to foreign lands and inevitably getting lost and frustrated. Last, I worked out how to adjust the gear shift so that I can wear my huge motocross boots on the bike.

I spent many happy hours searching for bluetooth headset reviews. Sena seemed a good make and build highly specified intercoms, but reviews are very critical and about basic construction. Scores of people complain that a small plastic tab used to fasten the headset to the helmet breaks very quickly and in addition to that, it seems that the unit is ok in light showers but when it rains heavily water gets inside and it stops working. I find this astonishing. For me Interphone is tried and tested, though even that has some problems playing music from the Nav V. But it works in the rain, having ridden many hundreds of miles in pouring rain, I know that about the make. Crucially it is firmware upgradable via USB. My old one probably stopped working properly because it couldn’t be.

The back roads to Ipswich

Today I attempted the scenic route over to Ipswich to see my old friend Andrew Vass who is unwell. I am getting to know the bike but the Navigator V GPS is beyond me at the moment and I am thwarted in its use. For a start it does not talk nicely to my ageing bluetooth earphones (new ones on order), so a typical instruction is, ‘at the roundabout [loud hiss]’. Second, it clearly has a polarised screen because when I put my polarising prescription sunglasses on, the screen instantly turns blank. To see anything on it I have to tilt my head through at least 45 degrees. Finally I don’t understand how Basecamp routes turn into anything you are obliged to follow on the GPS. At junctions it shows you any number of optional turnings simultaneously and even a BMW GS can’t go in more than one direction at a time.

On the way back, I resorted to putting in the names of towns I remembered were on the route back and ended up with a beautiful sunny evening ride avoiding all main roads, absolutely ideal. The trip was 61 miles out and 59 coming back – strange.

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New Touratech luggage

A bit clunky yes?

Finally I’ve fitted this Touratech luggage so going somewhere on this bike this summer is a step closer. It is beautifully made and highly specified and anodised finish as opposed to bare aluminium which discolours easily as I discovered with my old BMW ‘adventure’ panniers. However, I think those old panniers fitted to my old 2007 Adventure made a better job of locking to the bike and locking themselves. These otherwise very nice Zega Pro 2 panniers have very fiddly lock mechanisms of needless complexity. At least I asked for a set that all opened with the same key. See this nice review of ammo can panniers. I love it.

Arriving in Ljubliana

As the train moved into Slovenia the landscape and the buildings became distinctly alpine, in fact the changing view from the carriage was stunning, snow topped mountains and wooded hills. And the trend from dilapidation to attention and repair continued. By the time we arrived at Ljubliana, not the train’s last stop, it was dark. Most of our travelling has been at night so it was good to witness this changing landscape. The stations have also got less hassling as a we’ve travelled west and Ljubliana was open and quiet and the evening was balmy.

We had good instructions to walk to the Atticus B&B, straight down from the station, over the Dragon bridge and then second left. Our instructions said that the key had been left in a box in the courtyard so it was a relief to find it there and that it let us into a stately solid building that used to be a boarding school and up the stone stairs into the top floor and into a small room with a ceiling made up largely of Velux windows.

The place was freshly built into the eaves of this grand building with newly installed bathroom, a change from the previous night’s adequate but not quite working I.e. Leaky facilities in Belgrade B and B. We spent a bit of time up there, eating another picnic dinner on the night of our arrival and went back there for an afternoon nap and shower the next day (it was really warm weather).
The main thing about Ljubliana is its perfect size… in fact its all a little too perfect. Endless beautiful outdoor bars and restaurants, the nicest ones lining the sides of the river, lots of boutiques and clothes shops (I bought some Crocs and a pair of Afghani trousers).
One nice memory was eating grilled sardines with white wine in plastic cups from a van by the market. Another and final nice memory was discovering the addresses of a wine merchant that stocked good Slovenian and other regional wines. The evening before the day we were due to leave for Zurich we visited and asked advice for a good sparkling wine to take on the train with us. After an initial slight grump we won over Mr wine and the next evening, on the way to the station, visited and bought it (an Italian wine made with the Champaign method), along with a generous supply of ice. Opening this, and drinking it, on the train as we pulled out of Ljubliana was one of the holiday’s pleasures.

The view from the more interesting than you’d think castle.

The cabin was the most modern but not the most spacious and doing anything involved playing jig saw (that’s not the right game) with our bags.

The next morning we arrived firmly back in the West, in Zurich, busier but cleaner than most of the Eastern European stations.

From Zurich, after a quick strong coffee and croissant, we took the three hour train to Geneva.

The final part of the travel was my flying back from Geneva to Gatwick – the Easyjet flight left 5 hours late, something that none of the rail systems of Eastern Europe did. Every train left on time and there was only one delay.

Leaving Belgrade

We are on the train from Belgrade to Ljubljana. It’s just gone 11 in the morning and the sun is shining on the city where it’s currently 23 degrees. 

Bucharest, to go back a couple of days, was a mixed experience. It was a sometimes shocking mixture of busy hedonism and consumerism, sudden dilapidation and sights of poverty and finally the practice of Orthodox religion. On Saturday we caught the metro over to the Opera House and bought tickets for The Elixir of Love that night. The opera house is very grand and a certain slice of Bucharesters dressed up and turned up, with lots of photograph taking in front of the opera’s insignia. The production was middling with set design featuring brash red (often in the form of hearts), black and white, with some TV screens thrown in. However the music was good and much appreciated by the audience who gave the performance a standing ovation. Our tickets cost less than ten pounds and they were not the cheapest. The opera house would benefit from air conditioning. It was unbearably hot. Researching the opera in advance meant we got to see on YouTube, Pavarotti performing una furtiva lagrima from that opera which was incredibly moving. It was an eye opener to see the difference between world class and regional performance. 
The Rembrandt hotel is one I would return to, if in Bucharest again (not a priority). It’s only down side was the incredibly soft mattresses. On night two we dragged the mattress cover onto the floor and got a much better sleep down there. 

On Sunday we had the night train booked from Bucharest North to Timisoara, where the plan was to catch the connecting trains over the Serbian border to Belgrade. More about that later.  The train was due to leave at 21.45 so there is a whole day free. The challenge was to avoid the wandering-around-all-day-waiting -for -the -train feeling. We had to brave an expedition into the shopping centre just south of the old part of the city where we were staying to buy an umbrella to replace the one that I left at the opera house probably along with hundreds of others. The whole thing was rather tiring. Interacting with the shop workers of Bucharest was mixed. A few were friendly and helpful but many were dour. We had started in the morning with a plan to visit all the churches marked on our map of the old part of town. It was a Sunday morning so there were many services going on. To start with we joined others sitting on benches outside but eventually got the courage to go inside and watch the service. We went to a large Orthodox Church and watched as people appeared to be writing prayer requests on provided sheets of paper and hand them to a waiting bearded priest along with sums of money. In the middle of this church was a crowd of, mostly, older women, around something that we couldn’t see but which looked like a collection of plastic water bottles. Eventually the priest came over and blessed the water and enjoyed sprinkling generous amounts on the closely pressed congregation. It felt good to feel the cool water on my head and consider the possibility of some kind of blessing. 
Later, with the knowledge that we were welcome at services we returned to the small and incredibly beautiful church of Stavopoulos with its attached cloisters where nuns live. We arrived an hour too early so spent time sitting quietly while visitors came and went and while a film crew were noisily filming some Brazilian dance routine just outside. The church was very dimly lit and occasionally the woman on duty there turned the lights on.

Just before six o’clock a rather elegant nun came in and started to prepare the candles and prayer books for the service, then five more beautifully dressed nuns arrived in floor length black robes with short round black hats on their heads. One of them came over and asked me to move to the right hand side of the church as that was where men are meant to stand. A priest came in who drew the curtains into the special space behind a screen at the front where he conducted much of the service. The nuns stood around a tall revolving lectern and span it round as they took turns to sing or recite prayers and readings, all in Romanian. There was some liturgical interaction between the priest behind the screen and their singing. They sang beautifully mostly in unison but sometimes with one or two of them humming a single note that harmonised with their melodies. We stayed for an hour, deeply moved and wondering about the life of this place and what these six nuns did when they weren’t involved in liturgy. The time of our departure approached and we had a second meal in our favourite restaurant with a glass is some beautiful and cool rose. After that we picked up our bags from the hotel which is a little gem in the city and caught the tube up to the station. 

Bucharesti Nord is a busy station and on the Sunday night of a public holiday weekend it seemed especially bustling. It’s also very dirty like most of the city, and unlit and unrepaired. Our train arrived. We had a friendly female guard who spoke virtually no English. Our sleeping cabin was probably the worst we have had to date, slightly grubby and this time no air conditioning just a loose handle that we had to wind to open the window slightly making it the noisiest journey so far.

We thought how nice it would be to have a glass of wine now but we went to bed instead and actually went straight to sleep being a bit more used to sleeping on trains by now. During the night I felt some unusual jolts and in the morning after we got up and dressed at six ready for the seven o’clock change to the two trains that would take us from Timisoara to Belgrade, our guard came along and wrote ‘9.30’ on the margins of her Soduko book and explained that in the night the engine had broken down, was repaired but that we would arrive two and a half hours late, so would miss our connection at Timisoara. There are only two trains a day to Belgrade (via the border town of Vrasc), so we emerged from the station, which we noticed was in a whole better state than Bucharest, and decided how to spend this unexpected day in this city before catching the train at 4.30.

Timisoara, so our guide book, the in your pocket guide, tells us, was where the revolution against Ciaucescu started with some mass gatherings in the town squares. This is a rather beautiful city with lots of green spaces and fountains, where travellers like us can sit, and there are  obvious and constant signs of care, maintenance and renewal such as the 91 billion Lei renovation (supported by the EU to the tune of more than half) of one large town square where an orthodox and a catholic cathedral face each other. From a blog we found the recommendation for local lemonade which we sipped (one with mint) before another picnic in a park on the way back to the station for our train. I really liked this city. It was a much more pleasant environment that Bucharest and different too from Brasov.

The train journey from Timisoara was interesting. The train was reassuringly modern and spacious though it travelled very slowly. At the border we stopped while the police took away all the passports  went into their building and returned about twenty minutes later with them stamped. The train continued to wait for another half an hour before moving off at a crawl down a single track to Vrasc. The state of the often derelict buildings that passed for stations was shocking. The odd one was vaguely in good order but one or two had every single window broken. There was a huge amount of dereliction on either side of the track and it seemed astonishing that people actually got off and disappeared into these incredibly broken and uninhabited places. Vrasc was an interesting place, it’s in Serbia and the clocks go back one hour. A dozen or so people sat around in the evening sunshine waiting for the train we got off to return to Romania and the other train, a reassuringly modern looking commuter train to go on to Belgrade. Once on our way we noticed the landscape completely change. In place of widespread dereliction we noticed well organised farms and modern industrial buildings. Also the train was moving at Western European speed. The passengers were taller. But it was turning into a long and tiring journey nearly four hours and we came to realise that we might want to revise our plan of walking the one and a half miles to our B and B, the Garden B and B, in Lomia, get local currency and find a restaurant. Belgrade Dinav (Danube) station is basically a little cabin with not an ATM or other facility in sight.

Outside was a line of taxis, it was dark by now. The woman at the wheel of the first said she would take Euros so we squeezed into the back seat with all our luggage (no helpful opening of the boot here) and sped at enormous speed with lots of lane changing through a surprisingly big and busy city to our accommodation in about ten minutes, hugely relieved not to be walking off into a dark city where despite our neat google map I think we were bound to get lost and fed up. It cost us four Euros. It was one of the great pleasures of the trip to finally reach this accommodation and shower after such a protracted journey. Once there we found an ATM round the corner, bought some cider at a small grocery with a smiley guy selling, found take away pizza and a fruit tart over the road and returned to eat in the courtyard of the B and B. We slept soundly. This B and B, was about half the price of the hotels we have stayed in. It is down to earth which is fine though the breakfast, a platter of sliced ham and cheese covered in cling film was not very appetising. 

We could not help making favourable comparisons between Serbia and Romania and between the two capital cities in particular. Although we only saw a very slim slice of Belgrade it felt like a much more thriving city than Bucharest, the kind of place you might want to return to. 
Now we are currently about half an hour into Croatia, waiting at a station where they have added some carriages, on our way to Ljubljana via Zagreb. We started off well with a combination of speed and air conditioning but gradually succumbed to an intermittent crawling pace and rising heat and humidity. The two lots of border guards came on at the border, this time with the stamping machine in hand. Now just a brief six hours and twenty minutes to go. 

Arriving in Bucharest

Our first experiences in Romania were the smartly dressed guards wrapping on our cabin door at 10.30 pm asking for our passports and telling us ‘welcome to Romania’ in a flat emotionless voice, still it was nice to be welcomed. The train took 13 hours of average speed, slow and stop with some inexplicable reverses of direction through the night. I will tell you about the mysterious carrier bag containing two packets of biscuits and bottles of Liptons tea another time.

Getting out at Brasov was a rude awakening trying to buy bus tickets to get to the old part of town from an old woman in a kiosk with a serving hatch about 4 inches wide who just refused to answer any questions plus the gang of fat old women in headscarfs who deliberately but mysteriously blocked our way onto the bus. But after that Brasov life seemed unremarkable but with a clear focus on tourism as the main means of making a crust.  Everyone in Brasov was either a tourist or making a living from them, stockiness and some degree of poverty seemed to be the norm among the latter. This afternoon we got a guided trip out to Bran castle, a surprisingly interesting site, more for its history of the rise and fall and rise of the Romanian royals than for its spurious Dracula associations. Apparently the Duke who currently owns it has put it on the market for £14M.

The castle also housed a museum of torture which at times made your eyes water. Here’s a mask devised for humiliation rather than torture, designed for 17th century women who have behaved in various unacceptable ways.

The train ride from Brasov to Bucharest gradually emptied out of the poor families with children as it got nearer to the capital. 

Warned by the In your pocket guide book that we’d be approached by unsavoury characters in the station we made our easy and unimpeded way down onto the metro and to the hotel Rembrandt to a thankfully quiet room at the back.

People in Bucharest are tall. And nicely dressed. And even without the communist history weighing down on their shoulders. We had some drinks and a thankfully cheap but enjoyable dinner in the cafe on the street outside the hotel watching the Bucharestians go by on this May 1st holiday. But the surrounding streets seem a swarm of open air drinking places, clashing loud music and a few young guys being sick, a real concentration of hedonistic venues crammed into a small amount of space in the old town with the odd street still dark derelict and covered with graffiti .  Stange and not entirely comfortable.