“Wales to Albania & back again (nearly)” is a road trip story by professional photographer Owen Howells. Over 20+ days he saddled up his BMW, leaving his hometown in West Wales for the sunny and snowy sights of central Europe. It’ll come in a few parts, so settle in and keep checking back as Owen takes us on a journey that will turn you green with envy.
“An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it- but it stays there.”
Dominick Cobb, Inception 2010
That’s how all my road trips start, with an idea. At some point I’ll be looking at a map or a globe and I’ll think “that could be an interesting trip”. For the next few weeks it’ll develop in my mind and next thing I know I’m packing a passport into my tank bag and setting off on an adventure.
I knew very little about the Balkans. I knew there had been a war there from it being repeatedly on the news as a child. I also knew that the chances of being shelled to death or torn apart by gunfire had now been reduced to “below average” now that the war had stopped. This total lack of knowledge made it a perfect candidate for exploration (once I’d established it was a safe place to travel), and for me the best way to explore an area is by motorcycle.
My steed would be my trusty 1982 BMW R100RS (I’d better state now that I call it “Jurgen”, to avoid confusion later in the article), modified with a bikini fairing after the original crumbled away.
Actually I don’t know why I’m calling the BMW trusty, up until this trip it had repeatedly caused me problems, failing on numerous other trips and emptying my wallet quicker than all my ex’s added together. But with the other options being a T595 Daytona which is heavy on the wrists & an 250 MZ which is, well, an MZ, it really was the only choice.Aside from its past reliability issues it is actually a wonderful bike to tour on. The seat is comfy, it can carry large panniers & is stable on most types of road. The boxer engine delivers plenty of lazy torque and produces a exhaust note which is hugely satisfying, yet somehow inoffensive & gentle through the stainless Keihan silencers. Just what you need when it, along with wind noise and the tapping sound of the valves, is your only soundtrack for 12 hours a day.
DAY 1 – Pembroke to Plymouth, Plymouth to Santander Ferry
With gale force winds & weather I can only describe as “violently damp”, I set off on my adventure to Plymouth. My excitement for the trip meant the 5 hour battle against the elements flew by. Meeting a fellow early 80’s airhead (Moto Guzzi 850 T4) at the services helped keep spirits high. Back in the day these two machines would’ve been fierce rivals for sales, but 35 years on they seemed more like friends reminiscing of simpler (& better?) times.
With no dramas I arrived at the ferry and anticipated a fairly rough crossing of the Bay of Biscay.
DAY 2 – Santander to Pamplona
After about 18 hours of seasickness induced sleep I awoke to find the ferry was not far from Santander. During breakfast I was lucky to meet a group of bikers who for the first day would be heading in the same direction as me. That afternoon we travelled from Santander to Pamplona on some excellent roads. Despite its extra weight and 35 year old suspension, the BMW handled well enough to be hustled along the newer, more nimble machines. Where it lacks in horsepower & refinement, it makes up for with low down grunt & stability.
DAY 3 – Pamplona to Belcaire
After a fairly leisurely first day riding with a great group of guys I knew if I was to make the Balkans in good time I’d have to start picking up the pace. I said my goodbyes early that morning and followed the legendary N260 along the Pyrennes.
DAY 4 – Belcaire to Gorge Du Verdon,
Despite good progress the day before, I still felt that if I wanted to have time to explore the Balkans I’d have to make more miles in a day. After a morning winding through beautiful countryside & quaint villages in Southwest France I logged onto the motorway, got my head behind the bubble and munched some serious miles.
By mid afternoon I was satisfied that I’d achieved enough distance to allow for my planned detour to the Gorge Du Verdon. The roads just got better and better the closer I got, but the gorge was mostly hidden from view as I winded up the hill, making the impact of the view as I finally reached the crest even more mind blowing.
The scale & depth of it took my breath away, and were on par with what I’d have expected from the Grand Canyon. I’ve since learned the Grand Canyon is nearly 3 times deeper, so if I ever visit that it is likely I will need sectioning.
The road around the top of the Gorge is dizzying, and the foot high wooden barrier protecting you from certain death certainly adequate stop a rogue mini moto, but not much else. Riding it was brilliant and very challenging, although I couldn’t help thinking my efforts were infinitely miniscule in relation to those incredible folk who built it in the first place.
What made ridng around the road even more of an experience was the fact that it was virtually deserted, this would however also be the cause of problems down the line.
I generally hate camping. I can just about stomach it if there’s a fire & barbeque (being tended to by someone else), I have a deluxe heated tent (built by someone else) and the temperature is hovering around 20 degrees all night. This will give you an idea how far I was from the nearest B&B when I realised my best option was to setup the survival tent and spend the night out in the elements. Turns out this region was pretty much on shut down in April, the skiers had left and the summer tourists were yet to arrive. I went through three towns before realising the inevitable truth…I was going to have to camp!
I spent the night wearing every layer of bike gear, freezing and hungry. I woke regularly in the night to jog around the nearby field in the hope of regaining body temperature. The outside of the tent had frozen and wasn’t quite big enough to fit me and my bike gear in…so I was always touching the outer layer with some body part. Needless to say the experience has strengthened my resolve against camping!
I woke up tired and fed up, but relieved to find I hadn’t succumbed to the elements. In a few minutes I’d be back on board my BMW on a hunt for food in the nearest town…or not! Turns out plugging my phone into the battery overnight had caused it to go almost completely flat. A few attempts at bump starting the big twin on dew covered grass were obviously fruitless, so that left me with no choice but to push the bike uphill across the field and onto the nearby road. Further pushing, bumping and swearing couldn’t coax the bike back into life. Thankfully two friendly Frenchmen passed by and offered to give me a push. The extra manpower gave the necessary boost and progress was once again resumed.
DAY 5, 6, 7 Monaco, Cinqe Terra, Florence, Tuscany,
Being a big F1 fan since a I was about 6 years old (its gone a bit stale recently so I’ve lost a bit of interest) I had to visit Monaco on my way past. Time wasn’t on my side so this consisted of high temperature filtering through traffic that included Bugatti’s, Ferraris & Bentleys, all for a brief ride on the hallowed ground of the Grand Prix circuit.Obviously for 360 days of the year its just a normal road, so all I could manage was a cruise following traffic around, but it was still a special moment for me.
My ride through Italy took me to the Cinqe Terra, an amazing section of coastline where the road twists like an umbilical cord along the tree lined cliffs, occasionally dipping down to sea level to meet a seaside town.
Aside from the amazing architecture, the overriding memory of Florence was the traffic light drag race that automatically appears between scooters and bikes every time a light goes green!
From Florence onwards the weather took a turn for the worse. The thermals and wet weather gear I thought I’d packed away for good came out and I endured torrential downpours and thunderstorms all the way to Rome.
Taking refuge for coffee in this Tuscan social club gave a great glimpse into the life of the locals.
Day 8 & 9 -Rome & Pompeii
Rome would be my first day off riding.
I enjoyed a day of sightseeing and touristing, but on Easter weekend I found the hustle & bustle of thousands of others all trying to occupy the same space hard work and I yearned again for the open road.
A highlight of the city was happening upon this fantastic little Ducati café. I enjoyed cake & coffee next to an immaculate retro racer (and yes that is a 1098 mounted vertically on the wall!).
After half an hour of enjoying the sights in relative quiet, once again huge crowds took the edge off the fun, and by this point my need for some true open road escapism had reached fever levels.
Check out part 2 as Owen twists along the Amalfi coast and into Albania.