Crossing the Mediterranean on Visemar One

May 4 – 7, 2011

From Central Europe, I was heading to Egypt. Usually, there are three options for this route. The classic route would’ve been to go through Italy, Sicily and then onto Tunisia, across Libya and into Egypt. However, the Arab Spring was in full swing in Libya by early May and it was off limits to any outsiders. The other overland route was to go through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and into Egypt at the Sinai Peninsula. But it was now Syria’s turn to oppose their regime and the violent crackdown from Assad meant riding through Syria was a highly risky endeavor. And besides, I was running out of time on my European visa to go that far east before turning for Egypt. So, I took the third option – the recently running Visemar Ferry service between Venice and Alexandria. I was lucky that this third option was still available to me as the ferry service was losing money and they planned to stop running the route a few weeks after my journey.

It was a three day journey across the Mediterranean Sea and I enjoyed being back on the water again, that too with an Italian crew.

The check-in office for the Visemar Line in the commercial port of Venice. The shipping company is using Venice’s historical role as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe in its tag line. The service usually runs from Venice to Tartous in Syria and then onto Alexandria. However, with the Syrian uprising turning deadly, Tartous was dropped from the service and hence we saved one day in our journey to Alexandria.

The route across the Mediterranean Sea from Venice, heading down the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Croatia and then through the Ionian Sea, bordered by Albania and Greece, across the Libyan Sea and into Alexandria. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

My company for the journey would be these two young Dutch bikers, Ralph and Martijn (Mar-tyn) who had three months to get to South Africa on their BMW F650s.
Continue reading “Crossing the Mediterranean on Visemar One”

Europe, Part 6: The Italian Alps down into Venice

May 2 – 4, 2011

I was getting near the end of my trip in Europe and had a fabulous ride through the Italian Alps as I made my way down to Venice, to catch the ferry to Alexandria. The mountainous roads were excellent for riding and I enjoyed the architectural heritage of Venice.

Entering my last country in Europe, that land of pasta and Ferrari, Italia.

Within a few kilometers of the border, I was at the shores of Lake Como, the famous getaway for Italians and the jetset crowd.

Passing thru the town of Sorico and noting the church poised high above in the hills and commanding attention and respect.

The old, stoney clock tower next to a modern tabacchi (convenience store for cigarettes, espresso and lottery tickets).

I spent the night at a nearby campground for a hefty fee of €22.

Heading east the next day and riding through the industrial valley around Delebio and noting the nearby massive mountains. I also spotted the sign for Tata, an Indian automotive company.

The foothills of the Alps were looming ahead and whispering of twisting roads.

Looking back at the industrialized valley I had passed through with Lake Como off in the distance.

Morning light shining on the green Italian Alps.

Looking across the valley at a small commune surrounded by thick forests.

I was enjoying the ride and had to stop often to admire the views. The prominence of the Alps is what left me in awe. I would see some clouds on top of some mountains in the foreground and then see some dark patches further back and realize there were bigger mountains behind the clouds.

Narrow Italian Alpine roads, meant for sport cars and motorcycles. Note the lack of a shoulder, being barricaded with guard rail on one side and rock face on the other.

Getting very close to the snowy Alps. I had only seen views like this when I went on ski trips and didn’t think I could get this close on a motorcycle. In the US, the Rockies lose their snow pretty quickly, but I am still very early in the season, with snowfall just ending a few weeks back here.

The roads were well-signed and I was enjoying the tight, technical riding.

Another awesome vista of the Alps, which were formed around 60 million years ago when the African continent pushed the Italian peninsula into the European continent and raised the crumpled land. They are still growing by about a centimeter each year.

Crossing Passo del Tonale at 1883 m (6,176 ft)…

…that had a still running ski resort heading off into the peaks. I guess this is some really late spring skiing, but if there’s snow, why not. I had skied in Europe once, across the Alps in Austria and had a good experience getting to know this snowy land.

The ski resort map, with me coming from the left and heading down to the right. It snows at much lower elevations in the Alps than the Rockies or Andes.

A clear view of the snow-covered Alps. I had been much higher in the Andes, that too in winter and hardly came this close to snow.

From there, I exited the snowy parts of the Alps and it got warmer as I got down to the foothills. Pulling off in this rest stop for…

…a spot of lunch at the L’Oasi del Groll mobile cafe. I chatted up some Italians in a nearby work van and they concluded that I could afford to travel like this because I was from India, which is a booming country now, unlike Italy, which is stagnating. I guess seeing Tata trucks drives the message home. I was surprised and pleased that citizens of a developed country like Italy would recognize people from India to be rich, nowadays. They’re probably selling more Ferraris in India and China than here.

Down in the valleys again, but the mountains weren’t far away.

I got on the highway, which with four lanes was taking up all the space available in this narrow canyon.

Leaving the Alps, the landscape got more industrialized as I got closer to Venice.

Riding down this channel, close to the sea and arriving at…

Camping Fusina, where I spent my last night in Europe as I would be taking the Visemar ferry the next day to Egypt.

After settling in, I took a small ferry across the bay towards the old part of Venice.

Crossing the shipping lane that I would be taking the next day as I exited Europe.

The island of San Giorgio in Alga, shining in the late afternoon sunlight. Monasteries were built from 1000 AD onwards but a fire in the 18th century destroyed most of the buildings and it’s currently abandoned.

Approaching the modern residential part of Venice, the island of Sacca San Biagio on one side of the Giudecca Canal. It’s a recent island, which was made in the 1930s after being used as a landfill for the city.

And the traditional older part of Venice on the other side. It’s right on the Adriatic Sea, which cemented its role as an important port to Europe for centuries.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The peeling facade of this building, revealing it’s previous brick red coloring.

Getting close to shore and…

…arriving at Zattere in Dorsoduro, where the ferries docked.

Ahh, good ol’ Venice, still surviving with its buildings surrounded by the waters of the Venetian Lagoon. There are no roads in old Venice, except for canals navigable by small boats. Its history dates back to Roman times, with the majority of expansion from the 9th century onwards. The buildings sit on sunken wooden piles, that have become petrified into stone over the centuries

Crossing the Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal, that cuts through the city.

The classic shot of Venice, showing its buildings right on the water’s edge.

Narrow streets, just wide enough for two people.

The Chiesa di San Moisè, a Baroque church dedicated to Moses, which was rebuilt in the 9th century.

Pizza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which is regularly flooded in the acqua alta season (spring and autumn) due to the tides of the Adriatic Sea. With the ever persistent rise in sea levels, Venice has been ear-marked as a city that would succumb pretty quickly as sea levels rise over this century due to global warming. They’re trying a technical solution of building a huge movable sea wall but I think that too will be overcome by the rising sea within a few decades. The city might have to be abandoned at some point in the future.

But before that, come over and enjoy the splendid setting that old Venice harbors. A street lamp in the shadows of Campanile di San Marco, the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica.

The stunning Byzantine facade of the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, built in 832 and intended to project Venetian wealth and power.

The Doge’s Palace, the residence of the rulers of Venice, built in the 14th century.

A sunset shot of the three main sites around St. Mark’s square.

What would Venice be without its gondolas? The island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the background.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio (Church of Santa Maria Zobenigo), showcasing the best of Venetian Baroque facades.

Walking in to an exhibition of old string instruments from the Artemio Versari Collection, put on by Il Museo della Musica.

Appreciating the details of this Contrabbasso, played by Niccolo Amati in 1670.

Most of Venice has not changed for hundreds of years and this photo could be from two centuries ago.

But in contrast, the shops are very modern, like this pastry shop.

Walking back to the ferry and enjoying the sunset over this time-trapped, sea-locked city.

Back on the mainland, the campground was right on the sea shore and I was surrounded by camper vans.

Passing through Italy was a nice way to end my trip through Europe. The Italian Alps provided some stunning scenery and excellent riding and I know there’s a lot more to explore in those mountains but Africa was calling.

I enjoyed the past few weeks in Europe and was glad to have met so many interesting people whom I could connect with. I criss-crossed the continent and passed through varied landscapes, from industrial flat lands through to snow-peaked mountains.

Next: Crossing the Mediterranean on Visemar One

Previous: Europe, Part 5: Switzerland, for maintenance and the Alps

Europe, Part 5: Switzerland, for maintenance and the Alps

April 27 – May 2, 2011

I had been in Europe now for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t been in a place where I could wrench on the bike. There was some long term maintenance issues that I wanted to address before getting to Africa, namely swapping out some leaky gaskets on the engine. Thomas, a rider from Switzerland, had been following my trip in South America and once in Europe, invited me stay and work on the bike. After a few days there, I headed out across the Swiss Alps into Italy.

Tunnels on the Autobahn. Heading southwest from Munich towards northern Switzerland. I was caught in some spring rains the whole morning and finally the skies cleared.

Beautiful light in the late afternoon shining on the northern foothills of the Alps as I went around Lake Constance.

I crossed the Rhine River and rolled through the semi-open border into Switzerland. They’ve recently joined the Schengen Treaty so that now I could enter without needing a special visa. However, there are still customs checks at the border, but I wasn’t stopped. Close to the German border, I was headed for Gippingen, a small hamlet near the town of Leuggern, about 50 kms (31 mi) north of Zurich.

Thomas, preparing a barbeque for a weekly gathering that he has for his close friends. He and Andrea had recently traveled from the US down to Ushuaia and were slowly getting used to being resettled, but the itch to get moving again hasn’t died down and they’re planning to head through Africa in the next few years.

Dave, whom I met in Frankfurt, had also made it here by now and he’s slicing up some freshly grilled ribs. Thomas and Andrea had met Dave during their South America trip and now on his round-the-world journey, he was passing through Europe after Asia.

An excellent barbeque dinner, surrounded by a whole cadre of Heinz sauces. I had never seen so many different kinds of sauces, ranging from curry mango, cocktail, knoblauch, sundried tomato, barbeque and hot chili.

Getting to know some of Thomas’ friends over dinner.

Spending my days in their garage and finally giving sanDRina some much overdue care.

The main items I had to take care of were these two leaking gaskets. One was at the Cam Chain Tensioner housing and the other was from the clutch spindle.

Painstakingly scratching off the old, ineffective paper gasket at the tensioner housing. If something is leaking, it’s most likely due to a gasket being at the end of its life. These leaks started towards the end of South America and I had the replacements sent in a care package, while I was in Europe.

After maybe an hour or more, I had a clean surface to mate the new gasket to. If there’s any part of the old gasket left, it won’t form a proper seal and there’ll be a leak again. The thing with working on an engine is that there are no shortcuts. It takes time, but if you do it the right way the first time, you’ll be good to go.

New gasket going on the cam chain tensioner and note that the tensioner bolt has been pulled into the housing, which will be released once it’s assembled back on the engine to set the correct tension on the cam chain. This is what I should’ve done in San Francisco to have avoided destroying my original engine. It was an expensive lesson but now I know for life.

The hard plastic gasket around the clutch spindle got replaced but I could hardly tell what was wrong with the leaky gasket. When these parts reach the end of their life, it might not be evident to us that its structure has started failing and it’s not that effective as a gasket anymore. Some people are surprised when I tell them I’m going to make it back to India on this same bike as they can’t imagine that it would survive till then. Of course, not everything’s going to make it, but with preventative maintenance of replacing things before or as they fail, this machine called sanDRina can keep ticking as long as I care for her.

Having a look at the starter gears to see if I could find where this occasional noise is coming from when I shut down the engine. I couldn’t see any wear on the teeth or anything that looked like it was failing. I was told it was just a feature of higher mileaged single cylinder engines for the crankshaft to spin a bit more after turning off the engine, resulting in a loud knock. It’s been there since Brazil.

That’s the look when I realize I have a major problem on my hands to contend with. Before replacing the valve cover gaskets, I did a valve clearance check and everything looked to be in order. In doing this check, the outer spark plug (it’s a dual spark setup) is removed so that the piston can be moved into position without resistance. Since I was there, I decided to check the condition of the inner spark plug, but it required a lot of force to remove it, which was strange. After going back and forth a bit, I gave it a slightly stronger nudge and…

…realized I had broken the spark plug in the engine. This was an unusual issue because spark plugs don’t usually get broken in half. A common issue is to apply too much force when installing a spark plug and stripping the threads. These spark plugs were installed at the service shop in Brazil and I have a feeling that one of apprentice mechanics who was charged with putting the engine back together might have cross-threaded this plug, resulting in it getting stuck when I tried to remove it and thus, breaking off the threads. The threads of the plug were wedged in the cylinder head and the ceramic tip was broken.

I had to find a way to remove those threads and see if a new spark plug would fit. Thomas called up a friend at a nearby KTM shop and he told us to bring him the cylinder head. This was towards the end of the day, so I had to work quickly to remove the cylinder head from the engine.

Thomas lending a useful hand to get the job done properly.

This is looking at the bottom of the cylinder head that covers the piston. The hole on the left is for the outer spark plug and the inner plug, stuck in its hole. The larger circles on the top are the exhaust valves and the smaller ones are the intake valves where the fuel and air come through to get ignited by the spark plugs.

We rushed to Roger’s KTM shop, which had just closed down for the day but he was still willing to help. He managed to remove the old threads and I was eager to find out whether the cylinder head was damaged beyond repair or not. I was thinking through my options of how I could get a new cylinder head shipped to me, but luckily Roger said he could save this head.

Drilling out the old threads left the hole a bit too loose after it was re-tapped and I was eager to get moving in the next few days, since my European visa was expiring and extensions are not an easy affair, so I suggested to Roger whether he could find a way to permanently seal a new spark plug into the hole and I would deal with it later. He liked the idea and bashed in the new threads a bit to get better engagement and applied Red Locktite to the new spark plug, which would prevent it from being removed. He said a spark plug could easily last 20,000 kms or even 40,000 kms, which would easily see me through to South Africa, where I know I could get replacement parts for the engine.

So, that’s my situation now. I have a cylinder head with a permanently sealed spark plug. The whole cylinder head will need to be replaced when this spark plug reaches the end of its life. Roger assured me that it wasn’t that big of a problem, since if I just replaced the other spark plug, the engine’s ignition computer would compensate and all I would lose would be a few horsepower. Cleaning off the top of the cylinder, getting ready for reassembly.

The Camshaft, which is connected to the Crankshaft via the Camchain to regulate the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves.

Assembling the camshaft back in its place on top of the cylinder head. It was a bit tricky dealing with the chain and we needed all three minds (Thomas, Dave and me) working together to get this just right. I spent lots of time making sure that everything was spinning around correctly and going over and over my work before closing things up. The locktite and new silicone gaskets would cure overnight and I would find out the next morning if I was good to go or not.

Thomas heading to work on his bicycle and Dave’s DRZ400 in the background. Andrea planned to take us to a festival that evening, but since Thomas works the late shift at the nearby train station, he couldn’t join us.

Andrea took us to the Mittelalterfestival, a medieval festival across the border in Germany. In the US, they would call this a Renaissance festival. Most of the people dressed up in medieval clothes or just simply went goth.

Swords, axes and shields for sale.

It was a big venue with new age music from the misty stage.

Lots of traditional food was on hand and we got this…

…super-thin pizza of sorts to start with, called Flammkuchen mit Schinkenwürfel.

The next item was gyro cuts being stewed up. I liked the decoration around their kitchen.

Andrea getting us some gyro sandwiches.

Behind the new age area was a regular rock band setup in front of this old house.

An old-fashioned beer house.

Imagining what the scenes inside beer houses would’ve been like back in the day here.

Our group for the evening: me, Ute, Sabine, Stephanie, Andrea and Dave.

After the fun evening, we swung by the train station to say hello to Thomas, who’s the station manager at Gippingen.

He’s responsible for controlling the rail traffic through his station. He said this was one of the last places in Switzerland to still have manual control of this operation and within two years, a computer was going to replace him and I think that’s when they’ll set off on their next travel, into Africa.

The next morning, I fired up sanDRina and everything sounded good. I went for a test ride and was confident in taking off the next day. But before that, I was requested to prepare a curry. It was a last minute thing and we couldn’t find any fresh chickens but there was salmon on hand, so I made a salmon curry.

Getting ready to chow down on Thomas and Andrea’s patio with all their friends. I enjoyed these few days spent here and was grateful to Thomas and Andrea for letting me get things in order before setting off for Africa. It’s always comfortable staying with people who’ve gone on a big journey themselves as they clearly understand your needs.

Auf Wiedersehen Thomas and Andrea. I hope to see you guys on the road somewhere…

From northern Switzerland, I was heading to Venice to catch the Visemar ferry to Alexandria. It was early May and thus not all the high passes through the Alps were open yet, but Thomas suggested a route to cross this majestic mountain range. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

I avoided the highways, since besides being boring, the tolls are quite expensive and it’s harder to get close to the scenery. While waiting for a construction light to turn green, I took in this sight of a wooden shed at the bottom of a green hill.

Europe is crowded, compared to the vast expanse of the Western US or Patagonia and it’s only a few kilometers before you pass through another small, charming town. Even though it’s a very industrialized country, the tractor passing through town emphasizes how agriculture is still a big part of the European economy.

Getting my first sight of snow-capped peaks in the distance. I had this impression that Switzerland was all mountains, but it’s generally flat in the north and the big mountains are to the south.

That looks like Spring has arrived. A blooming field in the foothills of the Alps.

Now those are the Alps. It was stunning to see how close the rocky peaks felt to all these little hamlets.

sanDRina blending in with the jagged horizon of the Swiss Alps.

A wide angle shot of a huge valley, where I took a little break to let it soak in that I was finally riding in the Alps.

The small town of Wildhaus walled in by the pushed up landscape.

Heading down twisting roads and having to concentrate hard to not get distracted by the scenery in the distance.

Riding down into this big valley where the small country of Liechtenstein lies across the Rhine River.

Officially called Fürstentum Liechtenstein, the principality has the second highest GDP/capita in the world, due to a strong financial sector and being a tax haven in heavily taxed Europe.

It’s such a small country, measuring only 160 sq kms (61 sq mi), that within a few minutes, you’re either in Austria or back in Switzerland, whose country designation is CH, referring to the Helvetic federation (Confoederatio Helvetica) that formed the country of Switzerland. Vaduz is the capital of this small country and they rely on Switzerland for many things, such as their currency, fire fighters and army since it has no military.

Half the country is flat and the other half is mountainous, with stony villas perched on their edge. The principality was formed after the Liechtenstein dynasty started acquiring land in this region and through the breakup of various confederations and empires, this region stood on it own.

A shot of a cute rear end showing the unique plates of Liechtenstein, which like Switzerland, don’t conform to the EU plates.

A modern building with asymmetric glass panels, perhaps resembling the peaks of the Alps in the background. It’s interesting to note that besides producing machinery and ceramics, Liechtenstein is the world’s largest producer of sausage casings. No matter how small a country you are, you can be the world’s largest in something.

A tall church tower in this Alpine nation, known for its great skiing.

Heading out of the urban area and…

…crossing the southern border back into…

…the land of Schweiz.

The road narrowed and crossed this small bridge and I felt like I was riding into a walled city.

The beautiful countryside of eastern Switzerland…

…making for excellent motorcycling.

Passing through the town of St. Luzisteig and remembering Thomas’ instruction to not exceed the speed limit as the fines are very expensive.

It was a Monday, however, most of the towns and villages didn’t appear to be bustling and I guess that’s the charm of these old hamlets here.

Exiting town and noting the end speed limit sign, which meant the limit was now 90 kph (56 mph).

Seeing mountains in the distance, I was looking forward to crossing them.

But before that, I was content with passing through tree-shaded country lanes.

Working my way through the small city of Igis and noting how all the traffic respected the pedestrian crossing zones.

Taking a break in this flower-filled meadow and it’s vista of the snow-capped Alps.

Looking across the valley and seeing the clear distinction between the green forests and the white caps, demarcated by the snowline or treeline.

sanDRina inhaling the spring alpine flowers.

A mechanical beauty surrounded by natural beauty.

The alpine reservoir of Lai da Marmorera below its full capacity as I climbed the mountain pass. The Italian name telling me I had entered the Italian side of Switzerland, which is German in the northern part and French in the west.

Getting very close to snow and feeling the chills as I climbed up to…

The summit of Julier pass, which was freezing cold at an elevation of only 2284 m (7,491 ft).

Lake Silvaplanersee as I turned on the main route south from St. Mortiz down into Italy.

Spending a few days with other bike travelers was a nice change as I feel we’re all old friends, the first time we meet. I guess because the experience of traveling on a motorbike for a long time changes your perception of the world.

I was feeling good about taking care of the oil leaks on sanDRina, putting some life back in her heart, but now I had another issue to keep at the back of my mind; the condition of the inner spark plug. My first day’s ride through the Swiss Alps was a good of a test as any and the engine felt smooth, so I could rest at ease.

Next: Europe, Part 6: The Italian Alps down into Venice

Previous: Europe, Part 4: A Day in Munich at the BMW Museum

Europe, Part 4: A Day in Munich at the BMW Museum

April 25 – 27, 2011

From Prague, I headed across southern Germany to visit a friend in Switzerland and passed through the Bavarian capital of Munich. Ever since I saw my first Road&Track magazine in my early days, I’ve been drawn to BMW cars and the passion hasn’t let up. I was thrilled to finally be visiting the home town of this revered marque and its fantastic museum. If you’re not interested in cars, skip to the next post.

Taking sinuous secondary roads from Prague across the southwest of the Czech Republic. In my days of touring the asphalt of the US, I dreamt of riding in Europe and now I knew that those dreams were justified.

I love roads that don’t have all the markings on them and are not that wide, which seems perfect for motorcycling.

Heading off into the green hills of southwestern Czech country.

The markings showed up and the traffic increased but the riding was still enjoyable.

Passing by a lake near…

…the border with Germany, which was now just open and I can imagine how before Schengen and when the Iron Curtain was up, this portal to freedom must’ve been lusted by so many on the other side.

As I rolled back into Deutschland through the small border town of Bayer-Eisetentein, I noticed the changes immediately. There were a lot more Mercedes, BMWs and Audis running around.

I made sure to use up the last of my Czech Crown at a petrol station near the border as now I was back in the Eurozone, the countries in the EU that have adopted the Euro as their national currency. A single European currency was the dream of many economists and politicians on the continent since the end of World War II to unite all their peoples. It was introduced on January 1, 1999 and slowly got adopted by more and more member states. The transition was surprisingly smooth considering the varied economies and cultures that this currency was tying together. I remember seeing a BBC program where a reporter left with £100 from London and changed it at every country through Europe and when he got back, he only got £75 back. This loss in currency exchange was one of the goals of the euro, among others. Today, it is considered to be the second reserve currency of the world, behind the US dollar, but the value of all its notes in circulation have surpassed the dollar. $1 = €0.70. That €50 note is worth $71.

While the dream of the single currency was realized, Europe is still a strange union among cultures with clearly defined boundaries. This venn diagram helps to define which countries are party of which treaties in the area known as Europe.

Riding the beautiful roads of Bavaria and heading to its capital of Munich.

I spent just one day there and I spent that entire day getting to know my favorite car company.

The iconic BMW Tower, known as the Vierzylinder, as the four towers represent a four-cylinder engine. It was built in time for the 1972 Olympic Games at Munich as has been serving as the group’s headquarters since then. The round shape in front is the BMW Museum, which extends a few floors below ground. For €12, it was a special treat.

Upon entering the vault-like museum, this is the first display to greet visitors. Round metal balls are suspended from thin wires and they move up and down to create different shapes.

Along with me, everyone else there was in silenced awe of the display. It went on to create all kinds of cars through BMW’s history.

As was explained in the movie Finding Forrester, the BMW emblem of blue and white quadrats represents a spinning propeller against a blue sky with clouds. The company came together in 1916 when World War I aircraft engine manufacturer Rapp Motorenwerke became Bayerische Motorenwerke and was then bought by Bayerische Flugzeugwerke who were making motorcycles and that soon became an integral part of the new BMW company.

An impeccable BMW R32, the first motorcycle to wear the BMW badge, being produced from 1923 to 1926. It was a redesigned Helios motorcycle that was made by Bayerisch Flugzeugwerke (BFw). The redesign by Max Friz addressed the cooling of the cylinders by laying the boxer engine with its two opposing cylinders sticking out in the wind for adequate air cooling and coupled it with a shaft drive to the rear wheel. Amazingly, 90 years later, that configuration is still what defines most BMW motorcycles. It’s not to everyone’s liking, but it seems to tickle enough consumers to keep the design going. This is one of the primary aspects of the company that has kept me a loyal fan – their ability to buck the trend and stick to their ideals in a sea of convergent designs.

The first car to carry the BMW badge was the Dixi 3/15, produced from 1927 to 1929. This car was a German version of the English Austin Seven, which was made under license by Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach using the Dixi marque, which BMW bought in 1928 to enter the automobile industry. The car made 15 horsepower and hit a top speed of 75 kph (45 mph).

Many variants of the 3/15 were produced, including this cute roadster in the open-top gallery.

Behind it was the sexy BMW 507 roadster, considered one of the most handsome cars of all time with its long bonnet and swooping lines. It was produced from 1956 to 1959 with only 252 examples ever made. While being an aesthetic success with 202 models still surviving, it was a financial failure for the company due to the expensive manufacturing costs and drove them near bankruptcy. The body was made of hand-formed aluminum and thus, no two cars are exactly alike. From its initial list price of $10,000 in the 1950s, the 507 now auctions for a million dollars.

The 507 inspired the future roadsters of the company and is best captured in this BMW Z8, which is the exact car that was used in the 1999 James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. In the movie, the car was swapped for a model before being cut in half by a helicopter saw.

From the early days, BMW advertising showcased their superior precision engineering, captured here by a micrometer.

The company’s racing motorcycles were setup in an interesting display to depict them flowing around a race track. Up front is their newest S1000RR, which actually conforms to the current trends of putting in an inline-4 engine, driven by a chain and looking like most of the Japanese competition.

A bit further back in time showcasing BMW’s motorcycle triumphs in the Paris-Dakar Rally. On the left is a BMW R80G/S, which in 1980 launched the still running G/S line of dual sport motorcycles. The G/S (Gelände/Straße) is German for off-road/on-road. The blue one on the right is a more recent brother, the F650RR, built by Richard Schalber and Touratech to compete in the endurance rally event. Its 700cc single cylinder produced 75hp and it had a fuel capacity of 50 liters (13.3 gallons)!

BMW’s dual sport motorcycles took off after its numerous successes in the Paris-Dakar Rally and is considered by many to be the obvious choice for around-the-world motorcycle travel. However, I quite don’t like their complexity and heaviness, instead preferring the simpler Suzuki DR650.

Low-slung motorcycles with racing side cars. I’d love to try this someday.

The 1937 WR 500, a streamlined motorcycle, nicknamed The Egg, which with its 500cc supercharged engine set a motorcycle world speed record in 1937 of 279.77 kph (173.88 mph). It was ridden by Ernst Henne and the record stood for 14 years.

Hill-climb challenges were used since the early days to showcase the strength of engines. That’s some serious grade there, coming close to 45 degrees.

Another avenue of telling the world about your brand and letting them see for themselves your reliability and sportiness was to get into the top echelon of motorsport, namely Formula 1. It’s a motor racing series that’s been running since 1950 and the formula is a set of rules agreed upon by all the competitors, such as car length, engine configuration, etc. This is the 1983 Brabham BMW BT52 with its distinctive dart-shaped profile, powered by the awesomely powerful BMW M12/13 turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine, which in this car made 850 hp but by 1986 was producing around 1,300 hp from a four-banger. Those were the days of unlimited engine tweaking. Nowadays, everything is very restricted. This was a good promotion for BMW’s 4-cylinder engines in their production cars compared to Ferrari’s V12s. This Brabham was designed by Gordon Murray, who then went on to design the legendary McLaren F1 road car.

The rear of the car with its massive wing to generate as much downforce as possible. It’s the same principle of an aircraft’s wing, but flipped the other way so instead of generating lift to take off, it generates downforce to push the rear tires into the ground and stay in contact with the track as it rips around corners. Having test driven a Formula SAE car that I built during my college days at Purdue, I can attest to the addiction that downforce is, which I guess is the continued attraction to four-wheeled transport even though I am so deep into motorcycles. I don’t discriminate, as the feeling of riding two wheels is different from that on four wheels. On a street motorcycle, you lean into the corner and become an integral part of the riding dynamics, while in a race car, you are stuck to the chassis and fight the g-forces (weight of gravity against your body) as your steer it through a corner. I love both feelings.

The clean rear end of the 2006 BMW Sauber F1 car, which highlights the importance that aerodynamic efficiency gained in the recent years of car development. With engine design being restricted in the name of cost, aerodynamics is currently the area where teams differentiate themselves. A clean underbody (you can see the flat floor and the front wheels) is crucial these days in creating as much downforce as possible. Regular road cars don’t go anywhere near as fast, so the underside of regular cars is just a mess of engine, exhaust and suspension components.

I then walked over to the engine alley with all the super motors from BMW’s history on display. Being a mechanical engineer with a gear head passion, this is considered art to me. When I was young, I was just interested in the numbers, such as horsepower and torque, but after my education and learning how to tear down and rebuild an engine, the appreciation of the beauty within is much deeper. This is the BMW P84/5 F1 engine for the 2005 season. It’s a 3.0 litre V10 making around 900hp at 19,000 RPMs, but it was detuned from the previous season for the sake of reliability that was forced on the teams.

A fine example of the art of bending exhaust header pipes. Here, five exhaust headers are blended into one and to achieve a smooth running engine, the lengths of each exhaust header must be identical, taking into account all the bends. It’s a complex science, first simulated on the computer and then skillfully hand-crafted in reality by specialists.

The famous BMW M12/13 (mentioned above in the earlier Brabham Formula 1 car), considered the highest ouput per cylinder ever produced for a car. In its peak configuration, it made about 1,450 horsepower from a 1.5L four-cylinder turbo engine; that’s 362.5 hp per cylinder with each cylinder having a capacity of 375cc. Comparing that to the current most powerful road engine in the Bugatti Veyron EB16.4, which makes 1001 hp from a 16 cylinder quad-turbo engine with a capacity of 8L (translating to 62.5 hp per cylinder from 500cc), it makes one realize the technical supremacy that was achieved with the little M12/13 engine. Of course, it was built for a specific purpose and had to be rebuilt after every race, but still, wow. The engine is on the left side and the massive turbo lies on the right.

The BMW 132 9-cylinder radial aircraft engine that was used heavily by the Luftwaffe during World War II. The chairman of the company at the time, Fraz Josef Popp, tried to stop the company from becoming a war supplier because after supplying aircraft engines to the German army in World War I and with their subsequent defeat, BMW’s survival was at stake as when the engine orders stopped, the company’s lifeline was cut. Popp knew the war would end at some point and the orders would stop again, but the Nazi government demanded almost all of his production facilities to be converted to building aircraft engines. And to support the increased production, the Nazis supplied forced labor from concentrations camps (such as Dachau) to work in the factories. BMW regrets this period in their history and there was a section of the museum dedicated to telling this story. They’ve since compensated the surviving workers.

The hall of production, showing their aluminum body construction.

The hall of design, showing how a car is translated from concept to clay model before building a prototype. This is a clay model of the 1 series.

A timeline display of BMW’s trunk emblems. This is another reason why I’ve liked the company: sticking to simple yet meaningful designations of their models. A 325i (a car I owned) signifies a 3-series car with a 2.5L engine with fuel Injection. However, lately they’ve been straying slightly from this due to marketing pressures.

At one end of the museum was The Vault, showcasing the design stars of the company. This is the eternally beautiful BMW 3.0 CSi, highly revered by car collectors for its simple, yet elegant lines. This car’s design will still be appreciated a 100 years from now.

Moving into the motorsports hall and marveling up close at the 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL (the race car version of the previous car), known as the Batmobile, due to its wide bodywork. Besides building engines for other race series, such as Formula 1, BMW’s reputation for a solid handling chassis were showcased in their countless wins in production car racing, especially with the CSL. The early days of BMW’s racing also cemented their motorsport colors, the bands of light and dark blue, followed by red. The light blue represented the blue from the Bavarian flag and in the early days, Texaco was a major partner of BMW and the red represented them and the color in-between was used for a transition. However, nowadays, BMW says that red is supposed to represent motor racing.

The original deep-dish BBS wheel rims, with the hub (golden part) set in about 20 cms (8 in) from the lip of the rim. This allowed them to use shorter axles, for better control, while using the widest tire possible for maximum grip. Nowadays, these kind of rims are pranced about on hip-hop stars’ SUVs.

The BMW M3 GTR sporting a massive rear wing and an under tray rear diffuser (the slats below the bumper). This signifies a flat floor under the car, like Formula 1 race cars, to reduce the disturbance to the air as it passes under the car. More turbulent air creates a bigger aerodynamic profile, meaning the car meets more resistance the faster it goes.

From the motorsport hall, I flowed into the next logical place, my favorite side of BMW, it’s M division. M stands for motorsports and signifies the highest performing of their production cars in each class. So, for the 3-series, the black M3 up front would be the highest performer in that series. For the 5-series, it was the M5 and so on. Besides having a more powerful engine, the M cars have more racy suspension and handling dialed in, making them more of a driver’s car, as opposed to the luxury that the casual up-market buyer is looking for. These cars cemented BMW’s reputation for making real sport sedans. Any car wearing the M badge has been tested and tuned at the Nurbrugring racing circuit, where BMW keeps a permanent testing facility. In my view, other high-end manufacturers make luxury cars with some sportiness thrown in, while BMW makes sporty cars with some luxury thrown in. I’m clearly biased here.

A bit back in time and one car of my dreams, the E30 BMW M3 from 1989, which showcased simple design with a powerful engine and superb handling. Behind her are the original M cars, the 1984 M5, 1983 M635CSi and the 1978 M1.

A shot of this simple, yet butch-looking front end, which displays the traits of most BMW’s, namely the double kidney grill sandwiched by twin headlights. The company has tried to keep this common trait through all its cars but the headlights are now merging into one unit, but the double kidney grill will live on.

More exciting than the cars up front was this M engine sound display in the back with headphones hanging from the ceiling of each engine racing through its revs as it motored through some twisting curves. I think I spent about 20 minutes there, listening to each display with my eyes closed and feeling the gear changes as I drove these imaginary M cars. There was a similar display at the launch of the new E90 BMW M3 at the Chicago Auto Show with the engine racing through its rev and my friends had to come back and get me as I was so enthralled by those primal auditory waves.

The car that started BMW’s resurgence in the compact, sports car segment, the 1968 BMW 2002Ti. Besides looking quite chic (even today), it was lightweight with a strong enough chassis and 2.0L engine to provide responsive driving in a family-looking car and cemented BMW’s place in the US as a maker of sporty cars. This car is credited with inventing the category of compact sporting sedans, which are now very popular is numerous car companies around the world and it’s the predecessor of the 3-series.

The cutesy Isetta, an odd-ball in BMW’s history, but this little bubble car saved the company, when times were tough after the end of World War II. Since BMW made aircraft engines for the Nazi government, they were banned by the Allies from producing automobiles for three years after the war. The company survived by producing bicycles and kitchen supplies and slowly got back into motorcycles and then into cars by 1952. The design for the Isetta came from an Italian company, Iso who wanted to make a micro car for the city and their innovative design revolved around the whole front of the car being the only door, which swung out with the steering wheel and dashboard to allow ingress. This allowed them to make a very short car, which was ideal for parking. I had a Mini Cooper in the US and the shortness was very handy when trying to find parking in the city. BMW licensed production from Iso to produce the Isetta for the German market and get their automobile production going again. It had a motorcycle’s single cylinder engine, making 13 hp and was renowned for its fuel efficiency of 3 liters/100 kms (77.6 mpg), and it was chain driven.

After seeing the regular part of the museum, I climbed back up above ground and into the raised bowl for a special exhibition of BMW’s Art Cars. I had timed my visit to Munich just right since all 17 of the Art Cars were on display back at home. The Art Car project started when French racing driver, Hervé Poulain invited Alexander Calder to use his race car as a canvas for a painting. Poulain then went on to race the car in the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race. This started a program at BMW of artists being invited to paint special cars, which were usually raced and then put on display in various museums around the world. This is Art Car #2, designed by Frank Stella in 1976 using a BMW 3.0 CSL. The graph paper design was used by Stella to capture the precision of motor racing.

Art Car #4, Andy Warhol’s 1979 BMW M1, probably the most famous of the Art Cars. Warhol said he wanted to depict speed by his colors and when the car was seen at high speed the colors would all merge. A unique thing about this car was that Warhol painted it himself, compared to most other cars that were designed by artists and given to others to put the paint to the metal. This M1 went on to race in Le Mans and placed sixth overall.

Two 1989 E30 M3 Art Cars, #8 in the foreground by Michael Jagamara Nelson and #7 by Ken Done. Nelson, from Australia, turned his car into a Papunya masterpiece, a form of painting by the Aborigines. The abstract shapes have in them embedded kangaroos, emus and opossums. Ken Done, also from down under, tried to portray the beauty and speed of vibrant parrots and parrot fish on his M3.

I think an art student can appreciate the diversity in artistic styles that the BMW Art Cars represent. This 1999 BMW V12 LMR, #15, was designed by the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, who used words to convey her emotions. The car has messages that she says will probably never become void. The message on this sidepod reads ‘you are so complex, you don’t respond to danger.’ The rear wing reads ‘lack of charisma can be fatal.’ I like it.

The newest art car, #17, designed in 2010 by Jeff Koons is of a BMW M3 GT2. Koons wanted to capture the power that was under the hood and his explosion of colors is supposed to resemble the motion of this extremely fast car. It says something about the company when they commission an artist to paint a car and then go and race it, risking damage to their fine work of art.

Across from the museum is BMW Welt (world), which is a huge multi-purpose hall used for car deliveries, exhibitions and show-casing all the latest models. I wandered inside and managed to get myself on a factory tour. No pictures were allowed but it was very impressive to see the precision in the robotic chassis welders, a sort of robotic dance with sparks flying everywhere.

Inside BMW Welt and marveling at a sculpture of exhaust headers. They had informative displays on the internal combustion engine and how all their latest electronic aids functioned. After spending the whole day immersed in BMWs, I reflected on the smile-inducing drives of my very own Bimmer.

Meet Tiana, my 1992 BMW 325i that I bought when I was 19 after slaving away in a Pizza Hut for two years after coming to the US for college. She had 241,000 kms (150,000 miles) already on the clock when I got her and I put an additional 72,400 kms (40,000 miles) driving all over the US until she sadly got rear ended when I moved to Chicago. This is in southeastern Minnesota where I used to go for joy drives with Harjoth, testing the limits of the car and my driving skills, hitting its top speed and learning all about g-forces.

Going on a road trip with Tiana, Harjoth and the Rana brothers to the Rocky Mountain National Park. This is at the summit at 3,713 m (12,183 ft). The car was everything I had imagined a BMW to be and more. Its excellent condition for a ten year old car and good design had many people thinking it was a recent car or even a new one. I learnt how to wrench and maintain an automobile with her and she was very early in the line of mechanical beauties in my life that leads up to sanDRina.

Speaking of whom was getting some welds fixed up. My friend, Michael, from Hamburg put me in touch with the dual-sport community in Munich and Erik (with the welding torch) offered to put me up for two nights. He rides a KTM 950 and asked if I needed to fix anything, which is a common question from one biker to a biker who’s traveling because we know that there’s always something that needs fixing, but which can wait a while and isn’t urgent. My heavy panniers had started some cracks in the luggage frame after all the corrugated roads in Patagonia and I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing it up. Erik said he had a welder and working as a test engineer for a tank company, I knew I could trust him. We’re at his friend, Jens’ house, where he keeps his welder since he lives in an apartment block and Andy came over to help, by feeding the wire in the welder.

That luggage frame has been welded-up quite a few times now, but I can’t fault the design. It’s just that my panniers are too heavy and after some fast off-road riding, she needs a few welds.

I repaid Erik the best way I know by preparing my chicken curry for him. He was a very easy going guy and I enjoyed hearing stories of him test-driving WKM Tanks before customer delivery. On the side roads in Germany, I saw road signs that warned of passing tanks and now I understood why, because they’re allowed to do road tests on the public roads and sometimes they have to move from one facility to another. Erik has made some crazy tours with his KTM, like going on a winter off-road trip to Poland and he just came back from the Baja Saxonia rally. He has a nice story of why he ended up in Munich. He said after working four years in the army as a truck driver, he was riding his bike near Munich when it broke down. A man offered his place for Erik to fix his bike and he decided to stay.

The underground garage at Erik’s place. Due to lack of parking spots, as would be expected of Germans, a technical solution was found where four cars can be parked on this moving platform that owners move back and forth to get their cars out. While I was marveling at the idea, Erik was complaining that it’s not amusing when it stops working and you can’t get your car out. That’s the problem with technical solutions – what do you do when it inevitably fails?

Erik was thrilled to see my self-painted olive green DR as he too has painted his KTM a similar color and like me, he’s been derided by his riding buddies of his color choice but he felt vindicated that a world traveler would choose the same color. Being a proper gear head, he has an unused Audi and a boat. After Tiana got rear-ended, I kept her for a year before deciding what to do and just used her as storage space, which Erik completely understood.

Taking off the next morning and passing through downtown Munich to pay homage to their world famous beer, such as Hofbrau, which has a beer garden in Chicago.

I know there’s a lot more to be experienced in Munich, but I enjoyed my time spent in the hallowed halls of the car company that I’ve held up on a pedestal since childhood. Since those days, I’ve dreamt of visiting Munich just to experience BMW and my expectations were very high and they were surpassed. The brand lives up to its reputation and I think I’ve conveyed my fascination with this company. I’ll come back some other time to experience all the other things that Munich is known for, such as massive beer gardens and a warm social life.

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Previous: Europe, Part 5: Switzerland, for maintenance and the Alps

Europe, Part 3: Across Germany into Prague

April 21 – 25, 2011

After my month-long stay in Paris, where the trip changed directions, I was ready to hit the road and head for Africa. Instead of the original plan of going down the west coast, I was now heading for Egypt and the east coast of the mother continent. There was a ferry to catch from Venice in two weeks time heading for Alexandria and before that I planned to visit an old friend and meet some new ones as I made my way down to the Mediterranean.

Leaving the narrow streets of Paris that I called home for a few weeks and heading back into the saddle.

My route across Europe. Besides the one day jaunt from Hamburg to Paris, it happened to be about two months since I traveled with sanDRina (counting the month-long sea voyage from Argentina). I was heading to Prague to meet an old friend for the weekend. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

With time on my side, I didn’t need to take the expensive French Autoroute tolled highway and quite enjoyed the secondary roads heading east to Germany. Note the directional arrow in the center of the road, indicating an upcoming curve. I guess they didn’t want to spoil the view with metal signs.

Taking a break from the hectic overtaking near some fields. It appeared many other drivers had the same idea of bypassing the Autoroute and the secondary roads were packed with trucks and madly overtaking French compact cars.

At a rest stop; now you see where the phrase ‘eau de toilette’ comes from. It translates as ‘water from the toilet’ and refers to cologne that you use to freshen up in the bathroom, not water from the bowl. The French have made toilet water sound so chic.

From the movies, I had this image of a road cutting through fields lined with tall trees as being very French and here I was. I was smiling.

On my way to Prague, I stopped for the night in Frankfurt and through Thomas in Switzerland, I was put in touch with Silke and Oli (far right), who live here and rode two-up through South America a while back and were glad to host a passing traveler for a night. Dave in the green shirt is a current traveler on a DRZ400 and just happened to be staying with them. I would see him again soon. The couple on the left are friends of Silke’s. Thursday evenings are meant for drinking Apfelwein (apple wine) in Frankfurt. It’s the local liquor of choice and is comparable to a strong cider.

Along with the Apfelwein, we had some regional food. This dish is called ‘Handkäse mit Music,’ which means hand cheese with music. It’s a marinated sour milk cheese with a pungent aroma served with lots of onions and here with rye bread. Usually people outside of the Hesse region of Germany don’t like this, but it went down quite well with me. The ‘music’ part refers to the gas that most patrons produce after consuming all the onions.

Germans love their potatoes and this is some tasty ‘Kartoffelsuppe’ (potato soup).

The specialty of the evening was the fried fish served with ‘Grüne Soße,’ which is Frankfurter for Green Sauce. It’s made with seven herbs from a base of eggs and sour cream and is served cool to be refreshing. They even have a monument in the city to their Green Sauce, highlighting its importance to the region.

We spent the evening at Zur schönen Müllerin, a typical outdoor place to enjoy Apfelwein and beer. In Bavaria, they would call it a beer garden.

After a nice evening exchanging South American travel stories, I got back on the AutoBahn (the best highway experience in the world) and cut east across to the Czech Republic.

It was the Friday of Easter Weekend and traffic was heavy leaving the city. After a while, it started slowing down, backing up and then came to a halt. I was surprised when the supposedly well-behaved German drivers started heading down the shoulder to cut ahead. Ok, I followed, but that too soon came to a halt. It looks like there was some construction work going on in the tunnel or could’ve been an accident. Note the number of BMW station wagons.

After a few minutes of waiting, the picnics on the bonnet started popping up. Everyone was stocked up on food and snacks and the spreads came out on the hood and from the trunk. I saw an advertisement on TV once where the drivers on a jammed highway fired up the barbeque grill. I didn’t think it was true, that too in Germany. It was amusing to see picnics taking place from the trunk of Mercedes cars on the AutoBahn.

We got moving again and I hoped there wouldn’t be too many camper vans to overtake once I got on the secondary roads.

Getting off the AutoBahn and cutting across eastern Germany. The riding was sublime as the route climbed up and down hills.

Entering the Czech Republic and going behind the old Iron Curtain, which fell in 1989 along with communism in Eastern Europe. Now a part of the European Union and the Schengen area with its open borders, one hardly realizes entering a new sovereign state. I had to turn around as I missed this little sign board hidden in the shade.

The roads were excellent and the Czech Republic was the first of the former Eastern Bloc countries to gain ‘developed country’ status according to the World Bank. It embraced privatization after communism and is considered to be very safe and highly democratic.

I tried to run my gas tank near empty of expensive French and German petrol so that I could fill up with cheaper Czech fuel. It’s €1.26/litre here compared to around €1.50/L (US$8/gal) in Germany.

I was in the European Union, even in the Schengen Zone, and still the currency changed as not all members of the EU use the Euro as their national currency. The Czech Koruna (crown) has been the currency of the Czech Republic since it split in 1993 from Czechoslovakia. It’s obliged under EU membership to adopt the Euro but it’s not popular with the locals, so that’s been deferred. Notably, Sweden and the UK are holding out on joining the Euro. $1 = Kc17 and that Kc500 note = $29.

A ‘manly’ truck at the petrol station with his favorite lady next to his European license plate.

Taking some secondary roads towards the capital of Prague. It flowed over the hills and through small villages.

Meeting my good childhood friend, Harjoth, for the weekend in Prague. First thing was some hearty goulash for dinner, a stew of meat and vegetables. Harjoth and I went to school together and have known each other since the 5th grade (10 years old) and were roommates for four years through high school. After studying in the US for a while, he got a graduate finance degree from Belgium and is currently working in the banking sector in Frankfurt. I hadn’t see him for four years, so there was lots to catch up on.

At a jazz bar near our hotel. Prague is known for its lively jazz scene and both of us appreciate it as I used to play the saxophone in school and Harjoth played the euphonium (similar to a tuba).

Heading to the Prague Castle the next morning.

The not-so-welcoming entrance to Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle), with intruders either being stabbed or clubbed.

The grand facade of St. Vitus Cathedral, contained within the Prague Castle complex.

The bright sunlight shining through the stained glass windows inside the grand cathedral. It was commissioned in 1344 and took nearly six centuries before it was fully finished. The initial architect was French and he imported their extravagant Gothic style.

Intricate stained glass windows depicting various Christian stories.

What would a Gothic cathedral be without its gargoyles? A wild cat with a fish in its grasp. While they look quite exciting, they actually have a very prosaic function, which is to divert rain water away from running down the building and eroding the mortar.

A werewolf leaping from a balcony. The gargoyles have a water channel cut in their back with the exits being their mouths and thus animals were usually chosen for these grotesque figures.

A bat with a wide open mouth for rain water.

I guess ugly monks also qualify for gargoyles. Nowadays we just have boring old rain gutters.

In the castle complex, there happened to be some classic cars on display. This is an Austin-Healey Sprite, first introduced in 1958.

A beautiful example of a Jaguar E-Type, a British motoring icon of the 1960’s, being used for Austin Powers’ Shaguar.

A classic Å koda with a three headlight front. Å koda is a car company from the Czech Republic with its roots going back to 1905. Along with Lada (from Russia), it was considered a laughing stock of the automobile industry during the Cold War years due to poor reliability and unexciting drivability. However, partnering with Volkswagen during the privatization phase of state companies after the collapse of communism had been a much needed lifeline for the brand. And since 2000, when it was completely bought out by VW, it underwent a transformation and is again considered a reliable brand with a growing international presence.

This looks like a Ferrari 250 variant, but can’t be sure.

Penned by the specialist car design firm of Pininfarina who have had a long collaboration with Ferrari. A 1980’s Å koda and the Prague Castle reflected in its shiny door.

Walking around the castle complex, we were drawn in by the smells of freshly baking trdelník.

It’s a hollow pastry baked around a wooden stick, referred to as a trdlo. It comes from the Slovak town of Skalica. The freshly baked dough is rolled in sugar and chopped walnuts and tasted heavenly.

Looking out across the red roofs of Prague from the castle. The city has been in existence over 1,100 years and the area was inhabited for at least a thousand years before that. It’s currently a cultural capital of Europe and is very charming to walk around and get lost in.

I’ll just imagine this was a race on the cobble-stoned streets of Prague and the Classic Mini Cooper beat out the new, flashy Porsche 911.

Having dinner in a tavern of some juicy rabbit being washed down by tasty Czech beer.

The next morning, on our walk around the city, Harjoth was intrigued by this mini art gallery/cafe that had paintings of only cats with a zodiac reference under each one.

We had a tea in-between our pints of beer and the atmosphere was very relaxing. I caught the salt and pepper shaker stealing a quick one. Note the Lamborghini designed paper napkin holder.

The cafe was run by beautiful Alena, who seemed to exude a sense of bohemianess about her.

Harjoth started inquiring about the paintings and Alena revealed that she was the model in each of them and her close friend had painted them. Since walking in, Harjoth was set on buying the Scorpio one, even though that’s not his zodiac sign and here they’re negotiating the terms, which was a fun moment to capture. Since she hadn’t sold any before, it sounded like she was unprepared for a sale of the one-offs.

The city is filled with excellent architecture, ranging from Gothic to cubism and I can’t really place this.

The interesting facade of the National Gallery drew us in for a closer look.

For a reasonable fee, we were treated to a variety of displays of art through the ages. A grand hall with massive paintings and sculptures.

Busts by Matyas Bernard Braun from the 17th century.

Representing a sinister monk, perhaps?

I say, that looks like the first incarnation of the ‘sprok’, a combination spoon and fork. Brilliant! I want one.

Before the Swiss Army Knife and Leatherman, there was the folding set of cutlery (from the 18th century).

Having a hearty pint of dark Czech beer in one of the many cafes lining the narrow streets around the castle.

Prague is filled with tourists and shops are keen on novelty for sales. How about cannabis flavored vodka?

Or coca leaf liquer, straight from Bolivia. They even had coca flavored fernet, a liquor from Italy and Argentina.

Another jazz bar with scribbles on the wall by all the famous musicians that have played there.

Heading over to the old city across the Vltava river.

The Prague Orloj (Astronomical Clock) dating from 1410. It’s a very complex clock representing the position of the Sun and Moon and other astronomical details. It’s a form of a mechanical astrolabe, a device used in the Middle Ages to predict the position of celestial bodies for purposes ranging from horoscopes to triangulation and land surveying.

The clock recently had its 600th anniversary in 2010 and is the only still functional astronomical clock in the world.

The Týn Cathedral of Old Town, dating from the 14th century with classic Gothic spires on the roof. Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe is buried inside, after being invited by the Bohemian King Rudolph II in the 16th century to become the official imperial astronomer. Brahe is credited with challenging the previously held belief that the heavens were unchanging and is considered the last naked eye astronomer, as after him, Galileo invented the telescope, which transformed our understanding of the Universe. Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler used Brahe’s extensive data to form his own theories and derive the laws of planetary motion, which Newton in turn used to form his famous laws of gravity.

A beautifully decorated exterior in Old Town.

Having dinner in the Small Square. Starting with goulash soup accompanied with some cognac for the chilly evening.

Followed by a mixed grill sizzler. Mmm.

The tower at the Staro Mesto end of Charle’s Bridge, connecting Old Town to Prague Castle. From the 15th century to 1841, this was the only means of crossing the Vltava river and made Prague an important trade route, connecting Eastern and Western Europe. It was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357. Today it is a pedestrian-only bridge, adding to the flair of the city.

From the bridge, a grand view of Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral lit up in all its glory. Prague Castle is considered the largest ancient castle in the world and it’s still in use today as the official seat of the president.

I enjoyed the weekend in Prague, especially the time spent with my close friend, Harjoth, who’s been there through thick and thin. I’m glad that things worked out so that I could swing by and visit him on this journey, of which he is a major part of as he acted as a bouncing board for all my ideas in the years leading up to this trip.

Prague has always been one of the places on the to-do list because it seemed so captivating with its fabulous architecture and long-lived history. In the two days I spent there, I was able to marvel in some of its glory and wished to come back again to spend more time getting beneath the tourist facade.

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Previous: Europe, Part 2: Paris, The City that Captivates

Europe, Part 2: Paris, The City that Captivates

April 4 – 20, 2011

During the second part of my stay in Paris, I went out and did a few of the typical touristy things that Paris is famous for. Being the most visited city in the world seems far removed from the remoteness of the Bolivian Altiplano, but the throngs of tourists can’t hide the beauty of this captivating city.

I walked by this fresh food market in the 14th arrondisement, where I was staying and captured the variety of seafood that was on display. This is a type of ray fish.

Scallops, referred to as Coquille Saint Jacques in France in reference to Saint James as the shell was his symbol and worn by pilgrims on their pilgrimage to his shrine at Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

Escargot (snails), a French delicacy.

Jumbo shrimp.

An old variety of tomatoes, marmande ancienne, with its unique ridges, coming from the south west of France.

This is Uwe, who invited me to stay after we met at a CouchSurfing event. He had a beautiful apartment, but typical of this city, a tiny kitchen.

We had fun cooking together and I prepared this salmon dish with garlic, chilli powder and soy sauce, baked in a toaster oven.

To go with a spinach and mandarin orange salad. To get the maximum benefit from the main ingredient in spinach, which is iron, the body needs vitamin C to help it absorb all those minerals.

Another evening, Uwe made some crêpes, filled with ham, eggs and cheese.

At a Venezuelan party in the 19th arrondisement. We met a few of them at another CS event and they invited us to this birthday celebration. I think there was one French person there.

I chatted up these Italian beauties from Torino and Valentina (on my right) had just traveled through South America and we found out we were just a few days apart at the Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia.

Time for a chicken curry in Paris. This organic, free range bird came with head and feet. It was the first time I had to chop the head off, but if you’re going to eat meat, you can’t get squeamish about how it got to your plate.

Sharing my curry with Uwe, Paolo (from Venezuela) and Marjanne (from Holland).

Staying in the city as long as I did, I became a frequent user of the Paris Métro, the underground rapid transit system, with one of the densest networks in the world offering a métro station about every two blocks. Besides its efficiency, the Métro is known for its beautiful art nouveau entrances designed by Hector Guimard.

Along with artsy exteriors, the interiors of many m̩tro stations are worth a visit by themselves. The vaulted design of the stations, instead of the usual support pillars, lends the space to creativity. This is Cluny РLa Sorbonne on Line 10, under the famed University of Paris that was referred to as La Sorbonne and was founded in 1150 and got broken apart in 1970 into 13 different universities.

The Métro was inaugurated in 1900 and since the early days, advertisements have been plastered on the walls, but in a decadent manner, being framed by a gold border.

The cast-iron balustrade in a plant-like motif of the entrance to the Anvers station.

Besides art nouveau, there a few stations with a completely unique look, like this one of the Arts et Metiers Station on Line 11 right under the Museum of Arts and Crafts, which also houses items of historical scientific significance. It was designed in 1994 by François Schuiten in a ‘steam punk’ style to capture the essence of Jules Verne’s science fiction works. Besides the huge gears, the station resembles a submarine, complete with portholes.

The entrance to the Abbesses station on Line 12 is one of only three original glass canopy entrances from Hector Guimard that are still standing. The original company that operated the system was La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, which was shortened to Le Métropolitain and further shortened to Métro. It’s from the Paris Métro, that the word ‘métro’ has been genericized from to refer to underground urban rail networks. In the US, the word ‘subway’ came from the New York system but elsewhere in the world, the word ‘métro’ has taken precedence.

The Abbesses entrance brings you up to Montmarte, a traditionally artsy neighborhood of the city, where this quartet was strumming out some good tunes.

Montmarte refers to this hill, which is the second highest point in Paris, and this surrounding neighborhood. The biggest attraction is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, built on top of the 130 m (427 ft) hill.

A characteristic of the neighborhood are its many long escaliers (stairs) leading to the top.

A grand view of Sacré-Cœur at sunset. It was built for a variety of reasons, such as to honor the dead in the Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1870, along with being a national penance for the excesses of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. The winning design was from Paul Abadie who went with a Romano-Byzantine style and incorporated many national symbols, such as the two equestrian statues of Joan of Arc and King Saint Louis IX at the entrance.

A view of Paris through one of the arches at Sacré-Cœur.

Being the highest place in the area, it offers a panoramic view of the city. The Haussmann influence of setting the height of the buildings showing through with the flat skyline.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Besides the basilica, walking around Montmarte is a pleasant experience (if you ignore the throngs of tourists).

A few streets from the basilica is Place du Tetre, known in English as…

…the Artist’s Square, as it used to be the home of Paris’ modern art movement, with Picasso, Salvador Dali and other great painters taking up residence here at one point in their careers. Nowadays, local artists sell their works along with doing the typically tourist thing of portrait drawings and caricatures.

Meeting up with Shanaya, a classmate and old friend from Kodai School days in India and her recently married husband, Anurabh. She’s running a successful food products company in Ahmedabad and flies regularly to London, where Anurabh is finishing up at the London School of Economics. They just happened to be coming to Paris for a weekend getaway while I was there. Shanaya’s been following my trip on facebook and asked, “what happened to you? You were such a good boy. Where did this crazy motorcycle trip come from?” A good connection was made with Anurabh since his father is an Indian ambassador and is currently in charge of the passport division back in India. If only I had met him a few days before he could’ve got me a full 10 year passport, instead of the 2 year passport that the Indian embassy in Paris gave me, citing that I wasn’t a resident of Paris.

We found a Tibetan restaurant for dinner to relive the cuisine we had up on the hill of Kodaikanal in southern India. When the Chinese took over Tibet in 1959, India offered asylum to the Tibetans and they’ve setup communities in various places around the country. Dharamsala, in northern India, is the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. This issue is a thorn in the growing good relations between India and China.

The small town where our school was located had a sizable Tibetan population and along with that came some great food. Having some steamed momos, which are a rice dumpling stuffed with beef and vegetables. We hadn’t eaten momos in about 12 years.

The abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the resting place of the great rationalist René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy, popularly known for his statement “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). He is highly influential as he was the first thinker to frame the natural sciences in a philosophical framework. His ideas on dualism (that the mind and body are separate) are still being debated today and continues to influence thinkers. He put forward the idea of methodological skepticism, where by doubting the truth of all beliefs, one could arrive at the beliefs that were certainly true. He is also the inventor of the Cartesian coordinate system and founded analytic geometry. In the 20th century, this area around Saint-Germain-des-Prés was home to the existentialist movement with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir frequenting the nearby cafes.

A night out in the 11th arrondisement, catching a performance of a reggae-bossa band at Le Réservoir.

They had the coolest toilet there. To ensure the seat was clean and hygienic, upon flushing, the seat spun under the central band that had a flow of water on one side and a squeegee on the other side. Brilliant.

For a Sunday brunch, Uwe prepared this Chicken Quiche, using mushrooms, onions and Thai curry paste. Super tasty.

Uwe was heading for a dinner to a friend’s house and invited me to come along.

Xavier is quite the cook and he prepared this unique dish called ‘Welsh’ that comes from the northern state of Nord-Pas-de-Calais on the English Channel. A lot of cheddar cheese is melted with some amber beer and then the slices of bread (from above) with ham and onions are placed in the middle of the dish and smothered with more melted cheddar and then it’s placed in the oven. The name comes from the 17th century when the term ‘Welsh’ was applied to mean anything of low quality as this dish was traditional eaten with rabbit meat, considered a substitute for other meats.

Some hors d’Å“uvres of black olive spread, while we waited for the Welsh to bake.

Xavier’s super heavy cast iron tea kettle.

The Welsh, all baked up.

And to top it off, it’s crowned with a fried egg. Mmm, tasty, but maybe not so healthy French food.

A toast before dinner with Xavier and his wife, Maria.

After having some pinot noir wine with the heavy dinner, we finished it off with the digestif bitter of Underberg, made from a wide variety of herbs and produced by the same family since 1846 in Germany. It was kept frozen and went down well.

Saying goodnight to Xavier after a nice evening. Almost every doorway in Paris is decorated quite elaborately.

Another evening, after talking about East Africa a lot, we decided to head out for some Ethiopian food, to give Uwe a taste of what it was like and I told him I’d report back once I got there on how close this was to the real thing. A variety of wat (stews) served on top of injera, a sourdough flatbread. The meal is eaten with your hands (only your right hand, mind) and everyone eats from the common dish.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we headed out to Parc des Buttes Chaumont for a picnic with Christophe and Vicky. Good conversation over bottles of wine, lots of cheese and andouille sausage.

Clean, free, public bathrooms.

And last, but not least, the grand monuments of Paris: The Arc de Triomphe, inaugurated in 1836, to honor all those who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It was designed by Jean Chalgrin with strong patriotic symbolism and set the tone for future public monuments. In the center lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an eternal flame in memory of those who died and were never identified from the World Wars.

This is one of the four main sculptures around the arc titled Le Départ de 1792, also referred to as La Marseillaise (the name of the French national anthem). It was designed by François Rude and incorporates the idea of heroic nudity with nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail.

The arc sits on one end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the center of Paris’ high life, making it the second most expensive strip of real estate in Europe. The wide boulevard framed by clipped horse-chestnut trees make it easily recognizable.

The Eiffel Tower overlooking the River Seine at sunset; the classic image of Paris and France. Built in 1889 for the World’s Fair, it has become the most visited paid monument in the world.

Viaduc de Passy, a cast iron bridge crossing the Seine and being captured in many movies.

La Tour Eiffel at night from Trocadero. I caught the spinning beacon just as it passed dead center to appear like the tower was beaming a laser into space.

Catching the full moon as it passed behind the tower (this was a month after the super moon). The puddle iron lattice work of Gustave Eiffel showing through brilliantly with the night light.

The pièce de résistance as the tower bursts into a dazzling, glittering show of light for about 10 mins every hour.

A grand way to end my month-long stay in Paris, the city that captivates. Being a major hub and influential city of the world, I’ll definitely pass through again. I made some great connections during my time there and felt I got to taste a part of what it’s like to be a Parisienne.

Next: Europe, Part 3: Across Germany into Prague

Previous: Europe, Part 1: Autobahn into Paris

Europe, Part 1: Autobahn into Paris

March 16 – April 3, 2011

Riding in the Old World. I wasn’t planning to pass through Europe on my trip and I thought I could go from South America to North Africa directly. However, plans changed with Grimaldi, the shipping company, and now I was in one of the most developed parts of the world. Having ridden through the ‘New World’ of the Americas, it would be good to see the land of the old colonial powers, especially since I would be heading into Africa, where their legacy is still strong.

Once I got rolling on the ground, I thought this would be a short transit through Europe after collecting my Moroccan visa in Paris and then heading for West Africa. However, the visa rules were very strict and I was refused, unless I applied from my home country. This changed all the plans for Africa and I rerouted the trip, heading to Egypt and the east side of Africa. Due to the waiting game with the Moroccan embassy, applying for a new passport (since I was out of pages) and then updating my carnet de passage for Egypt, I ended up spending more than a month in Paris, catching up on my website and other tasks.

Rolling on the ground on the third continent of this trip. Käthi and Michael in their LandRover Defender traveled with me on the ship from Buenos Aires, after finishing a two year trip through the Americas. They were heading back home to Switzerland and offered to help me get my bearings of riding in Europe, after we got out of the customs area in Hamburg. Surprisingly, we didn’t have to do any paperwork for the vehicles. We asked in two different offices in the port and they didn’t know what to do with us and just sent us out. I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport. What a contrast from traveling through developing countries. They said the big red box on top with the Swiss flag got them waived through a lot of checkpoints, since they were mistaken for a medical vehicle, like the Red Cross, but that’s a white cross.

Parking on the sidewalk; I was going to have to get used to the more relaxed approach to two-wheelers in Europe compared to the US.

Before I boarded the ship in Buenos Aires, Thomas, a bike traveler from Switzerland who was following my ride report on ADVrider, put me in touch with Michael Happe, who runs the website for a regional motorcycle forum (, dedicated to enduro riding in northern Germany, and I asked him to help me out in getting some new tires for sanDRina.

Within a few hours of getting down from the ship, sanDRina was being pushed into Jens’ garage. He’s a friend of Michael’s, who recently opened an online off-road store ( and got the tires for me and had all the tools needed.

Jens and Michael working the new bead breaker. Jens was happy to put his new equipment through the paces. I ordered the Heidenau Scout K60 tires after reading lots of glowing reviews. Besides the deep 50/50 tread, it’s been said to be really long wearing, which would be highly important, considering that getting tires for my kind of bike will be difficult in Africa. I was saving the Kenda K270 that I was carrying from Bolivia for the rough roads expected further into Africa. I mounted the Heidenau here since I knew there would be a lot of tarmac riding coming up and that too at high speeds, to keep up with traffic around Europe, and the Kenda needs to be treated nicely (slow speeds) at the beginning to ensure a long life.

The bald Pirelli MT 60 that was being replaced after 13,000 kms (8,075 mi) of rough riding from Santa Cruz, Bolivia down Ruta 40 to Ushuaia. The tire performed well and is available throughout South America, but it is a bit soft and didn’t last as long as I would’ve liked. However, lots of riding at low pressure over gravel, sand and rocky roads definitely ate into the tire’s life.

I also replaced the cush drive rubber inserts, which dampen the vibration between the rear sprocket and the wheel. They were rock hard and I think they contributed to my rear wheel bearing failure near Ushuaia.

Jens balancing the front wheel, which was a treat for sanDRina, since the wheels have not been balanced since I got the bike. I always made sure to balance the wheels on my previous street bike (GSX-R600), but didn’t think it was as important on a dual sport.

Replacing this spacer and dust seal, which got damaged while repairing the first rear wheel bearing failure in Peru. I got all these parts shipped to me in a care package to Buenos Aires (thanks to my sister!).

Checking the clearance between the new Heidenau and the swingarm. The stock rear tire on the DR650 is 120 mm wide, but most people run 130 tires. The Heidenau comes in a 130 version, but the tread and compound of this 140 model is far superior and I was glad to see it fit nicely. Let’s see if I can get more than 15,000 kms (9,300 mi) from this tire.

Thanking Jens and Michael for their super help in giving sanDRina some new shoes. It always a pleasure to experience the camaraderie that exists amongst bikers the world over.

I stayed the night with Michael, who was prepping his Honda Africa Twin in the garage for some enduro riding coming up in Sweden.

It was very cold in the morning, around 1 C (34 F) as I got rolling towards Paris, 940 kms (584 mi) away. I wanted to get there as soon as possible to figure out my visa for Morocco.

I did the Hamburg to Paris leg in one day, after being on a ship for a month. It was reassuring to see how easily sanDRina and I could switch on and do a high mileage day. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Thanks to Michael who took these nice shots on his way to work after pointing me in the right direction.

Michael also helped out tremendously by giving me the GPS maps for Europe, which made navigation a breeze in my travels around the continent.

Thanks for the good help, Michael. Onwards to Paris.

I was super excited to finally be riding the German Autobahn, the standard against which all the motorways of the world are compared to. Of course, I wish I had my sport bike to truly appreciate it. It’s famous for not having a blanket speed limit, all though about a third of it now has permanent limits around urban areas. The fact that road accidents are comparable or even less that motorways in other western countries (4.5 fatalities per billion vehicle kilometers in the US compared to 2.2 on the Autobahn) is a feather in the cap of speed lovers as we can site the Autobahn as a reference where good driving skills and strict enforcement of safety laws is much better than conservative speed limits, like in the United States.

The overpass; the brilliant idea of grade separation, where one axis of transportation flies over the path of another axis at a junction to ensure unhindered mobility. Before the Autobahn, all junctions were intersections, which are considered at-grade (meaning at the same level) and this simple idea transformed the concept of roads. It is also now universally recognized as the symbol for limited-access motorways the world over. The overpass meant that traffic joining a motorway had to ‘ramp’ up to speed before entering and ramp down while exiting. We take these facets for granted living in a modern world, but it was only a few decades ago when these ideas were major breakthroughs in traffic management.

I was so pleased to be amongst drivers with a very high level of discipline for road manners, owing to the strict and arduous process of getting a German driving license. Everyone was cruising in the right lane and only using the left for overtaking. They strictly followed the rule of no overtaking on the right (referred to as ‘undertaking’), which is considered dangerous. This rule also exists on the US Interstate system, but is hardly enforced, leading to a culture of zig-zagging around traffic, which I admit was great fun on my sport bike. There are unmarked police cars and motorbikes on the Autobahn equipped with video cameras to aid in enforcement of these rules. Tailgating is also strictly enforced, along with faster drivers being too aggressive with slower ones. I was cruising around 110 kph (68 mph) and had to twist the throttle a bit more when overtaking the numerous trucks on the Autobahn, to ensure that I wasn’t going to be run over by some speeding BMW in the left lane.

Cruising in the right lane, freezing with the low temperatures, my spirits (of being an automotive enthusiast) were uplifted seeing the multitude of high speed German automobiles bahn-storming by in the left lane. This is after all the homeland of BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche, which were more than 60% of the cars that I saw on the Autobahn. Too bad the auto-capture mode on the GoPro only caught this Volkswagen Passat Wagon whizzing by. However, it illustrates the majority of the car types that I saw: station wagons. This shape is not popular in the US, even being looked down on and to fill their need for space, the cumbersome SUV is the accepted shape. In Europe, they’re generally more practical and fuel conscious and this shows through with their love of the station wagon. I can see now why BMW makes an M5 Touring, a station wagon with 500 horsepower.

I was wearing my maximum protection against the cold and managed to do at least 200 kms (124 mi) between breaks, since this was a high-mileage day. Criss crossing the US, I learned to pay attention to overall average speed and used the estimated-time-of-arrival readout from my Garmin 60Cx GPS to gauge my breaks and the time spent running warm water over my fingers to bring the blood back. I installed heated grips but couldn’t use them since the switch was broken in the accident from Bolivia and I never got around to fixing it.

As I got near Cologne, it finally started warming up and the terrain got a bit hilly, compared to the flat riding through northern Germany. An indication of the high quality of German automobiles is the higher octane petrol that they need with 95 being the lowest grade (with 10% ethanol), going up to 98 (5% ethanol) and 102, which could be considered race gas in the US. This is why Europeans are so worried about the fuel quality in the Americas. What will they do with 86 octane fuel? I also wanted to avoid riding through Europe on this trip due to the high cost of petrol here. At €1.50/L (US$8.12/gal), it’s one of the most expensive prices for petrol in the world. About two-thirds of the price is government taxes. This is done to encourage public transportation use, which is generally one of the best in the world and it also encourages the use of smaller-engined cars that have better fuel efficiency. Due to its slightly lower price, diesel-engined cars are very popular and make up about 50% of all personal automobiles. The fun thing about modern diesel cars is that they produce more torque than horsepower, which is more usable around a city and torque is fun! The old image of dirty diesels has been replaced with cleaner burning fuel sippers.

Taking a break in a roadside park after crossing into Belgium. Due to the lack of borders between countries in the Schengen Area, there was hardly a notice indicating that I had entered a new sovereign nation. However, I did note the reduction in high end German automobiles and also the driving manners slowly deteriorated as I headed west. By the time I got to France, it was only Renaults, Citroëns and Peugeots who were cutting back really close to me after overtaking, compared to ample space given on the Autobahn. Besides the no speed limit factor, the Autobahn trumps the motorways of other European countries by being toll-free (along with the BeNeLux countries). I paid a hefty toll of $11 for the last 220 kms (137 mi) into Paris on the French Autoroute and vowed not to take anymore toll roads through Europe.

I navigated the streets of Paris and rolled up through this typically narrow Parisienne street to the apartment of a good friend, Vincent, in the 6th arrondisement (district).

Vince and Agnes (pronounced An-yeah) taking me out for a sushi dinner, which I haven’t had since leaving Chicago. Vince and I used to work together and became good friends over lots of ski trips. He and I were the most adventurous of our group of friends and we would head out for all the double blacks. He’s from Nice, in the south of France and has been skiing since he was 5. After Chicago, he moved to Paris and met Agnes, a lawyer.

Mmm, so much salmon and tuna. I did have some sushi when I was in Picinguaba, on the coast of southern Brazil, but it wasn’t as colorful as this.

Vince had a really nice apartment, referred to as a ‘flat’ outside the US, but in accordance with the high property values of living in the city of Paris, most people can only afford so-called ‘shoe-box’ flats. This is half the flat with a bedroom on the other side. Lots of charm with the wooden rafters, and sufficient for one or two people.

Vince was in the heart of the city, close to the grand Église Saint-Sulpice, with only Notre-Dame being slightly bigger. This church was built over a long period of time and was completed in 1870, but soon after, the northern tower (on the left) was damaged by Prussian shelling. You can see they look different as the northern tower was designed by Jean-François Chalgrin and the southern tower by Oudot de Maclaurin, which was never finished for the lack of funds and the start of the French Revolution. Restoring the northern tower was undertaken by many people over the years since the damage, but only with a serious effort from the local government in the last ten years, did it finally get done properly, opening to the public in 2010. The church is also well-known due to Dan Brown’s novel of The Da Vinci Code, where the gnomon (astronomical solar indicator) in the church was referred to as the ‘rose line’.

The beautiful staircase leading up to Vince’s flat. Most buildings in Paris are either four to six stories high and there are no elevators, except in some modern, high-end buildings. Vince and I were supposed to meet our friend, Ian, from Chicago, for a short trip to Morocco, but with my visa taking much longer to approve, I could not go and meet Ian who was bringing a huge care package for me with spare parts for the bike and most importantly, a new Canon 50D SLR camera. But Vince went and brought me these goodies. I sent my old Konica-Minolta 5D SLR back to the US as I decided it was time to upgrade. I got lenses to cover a wide range from a Sigma 10-20mm ultra wide to a Tamron 18-270mm tele-zoom, along with a Canon 50mm fixed lens. I wont be able to use the SLR for all the pictures, as it’s impractical, so my Canon SD940 point and shoot will be taking most of the shots.

Entrance to Vince’s building. I had this image (from movies, like Before Sunset) of Parisienne apartment buildings with a courtyard in the middle and here I was.

Vince, surfing his couch in the streets of Paris. Agnes was moving in and I helped out with the furniture hauling.

The narrow Rue Servandoni, wide-enough for just one car with protection for the pedestrians.

On Sundays, the thing to do in Paris is have a huge brunch and then go for a walk in a park. Some delicious French bread with a healthy spread of butter to go along with…

…a variety of tasty French dishes: Salmon Roulade with cream cheese and herbs, muffin cake, fruit salad, fromage frais (fresh country cheese, similar to Indian curd) along with hot chocolate.

The heavy brunch was followed with a stroll through nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, the second largest park in the city, a place of tranquility from the busy streets outside. It was built with direction from Marie de Medicis, the widow of Henry IV, from the year 1611 onwards.

The park has over a hundred statues and Vince pointed out this first model of the Statue of Liberty, which was designed by Frédéric Bartholdi in 1870 before the full size version was erected in New York Harbor in 1886.

Men playing a round of boules, a French ball game, in the grounds of the park. They try to get a series of heavy, metal balls as close to a target as possible. Everyone was armed with a tape measure.

An 1870 bronze sculpture of a lion and his ostrich prey, called ‘Lion de Nubie et sa proie’ by Auguste Cain.

La fontaine Médicis, one of the first features of the park, designed by Tomasso Francini, who was brought in from Florence, where the patron Marie de Medici was from. The fountain was built in 1630, but degraded over the years and then Napoleon Bonaparte had Jean-François Chalgrin restore it in 1811. Along with work on St. Sulpice, Chalgrin is most noted as the architect of the Arc de Triomphe.

Seeing as I had to wait for about three weeks to get an answer from the Moroccan embassy whether I would be granted a visa or not, I gave Vince and Agnes their space and surfed a few couches around Paris. I left the bike safely at Vince’s work garage outside the city. This is Florence, whom I met at a CouchSurfing meeting in Buenos Aires, a couple months ago, and I contacted her once I got here and she invited me to stay for a while. She’s very active in the Paris CS community and was in the midst of planning the biggest CS gathering in the world, which happens every summer in Paris, the city with the largest number of resident CouchSurfers. We had lots of good talks around her kitchen table. She comes from a small town on the way to Lyon and works at a private bank here.

Florence lived near Gare du Nord (the main railway station) and her flat was conveniently located right above Madras Cafe. This part of the city is known as Litte Jaffna, due to the presence of a strong Tamil community from Sri Lanka, who were granted asylum during the 1980s when the civil war was raging back home there. I come from Madras (Chennai), just across the Gulf of Mannar from Sri Lanka and whilst we are both Tamil people, our culture is quite different, including the language. Even if they’re Sri Lankan, restaurants usually get Indian names, since they’re considered to be more easily recognizable. In the same vein, most of the Indian restaurants in the world are run by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and even a few Indians.

Right next door was Saravanaa Bhavan, a chain of South Indian restaurants with branches all over the world. I was as excited to find this place as an American tourist might be upon coming across a McDonald’s in Cusco. However, this restaurant has a good reputation back home and is a real treat for South Indians and other lovers of Tamil food.

I treated myself to a dosa with an assortment of chutneys and dahl (lentils). This would be a typical breakfast from my mom and I was really craving a dosa, as it had been over a year since I had my last one (back in Chicago). The dosa is a crêpe (thin pancake) made from rice flour and is eaten with savory items, as opposed to a French crêpe, which can be eaten with sweet fillings. There are many different varieties of dosas, with the highlight being the super thin paper dosas that are about a meter long.

Being an active CS city, there were lots of events going on, like meeting up for a movie, picnics in a park, etc. One of the evening gatherings was a Quiz Night at Lions Pub, where the whole bar is taken over by CouchSurfing. Teams of CSers have to identify the names of strange songs and movie trivia with the winning team getting a bottle of vodka (we won once!). I became good friends with Uwe and Christophe and we chatted up these au pairs one evening. Christophe is from Le Mans, working for Renault outside the city near Versailles and he had similar aspirations to travel and was plotting his own path to get there. Uwe is a German mechanical engineer, who moved here recently and after exchanging good vibes, he invited me to stay for as long as I wanted.

Christophe had a house warming party for his new flat in Versailles and invited a bunch of CouchSurfers. This is tabbouleh, a salad from Syria and Lebanon, made with bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, tomatoes and onions, with lemon juice and olive oil. Good healthy eats.

A shot of one side of the party.

A slice of Roquefort (Bleu Cheese) that the French eat like butter. The distinctive flavour comes from the green Penicillium mold in the cheese, which was used as an antibiotic before the medical benefit of penicillin was discovered. I never liked the taste in the US, but here, it went down a lot smoother and I was actively seeking it out.

Duck liver pâté.

A cute shot of classic, tiny European cars: the original Fiat 500 and the original Mini Cooper. Both cars have been revived with the new Mini Cooper already being a success story.

This was the name of a French song I liked for many years since India and was pleased to see it as a store name. Also, if you see the scooters parked out front, the one with the two front wheels is a very popular model here, since there is a loophole in the law that if the front tires are separated by a certain distance, then a motorcycle license is not needed to operate the vehicle and just a car license will do.

Motorbikes can park right along with bicycles. I was liking this laissez-faire approach to two-wheelers.

A French crêperie, making Nutella stuffed goodness.

Regarding my paperwork, after a long wait, Morocco refused to give me a tourist visa, saying that I could only apply for one in my home country and couldn’t do anything for me since I didn’t live in Paris. I told them many other countries said the same thing (Brazil, Chile, the EU) but upon seeing that I was traveling overland and it wasn’t practical to get all the visa beforehand, they made an exception, but nope, no dice with the Moroccan consular. I could’ve gone to another city, maybe Madrid, to have tried there, but I think it would be the same answer and besides, by now, I was going to be heading into the thick of the west and central African rainy season, so I changed the plan to heading down the east side of Africa. To do this, I would need to enter in Egypt. For Africa, a carnet de passage is needed (or makes life easier) when temporarily importing the bike and each country has its own rate with Egypt being the most expensive. I wrote all about the carnet here.

Since I didn’t plan to pass through Egypt till much later, I had to wait another 10 days to get my carnet approved for use in Egypt. The French Automobile Club was very helpful is taking care of this for me.

The most recommended paper maps for Africa are the ones made by Michelin and three separate maps cover the whole continent. I had No. 741 and No. 746 for west and southern Africa, but needed to get No. 745 to cover the northeast and I found this bookstore (Librairie Eyrolles) which had the whole basement dedicated to travel books and maps. This whole section was just maps of Africa, with detailed country level maps.

Getting to know my new camera and walking around Paris provided me with ample photo opportunities. This is the Église Saint-Séverin in the Latin Quarter of the city. The church was started in the 11th century, but didn’t get finished until the 15th century. That shows how old the city of Paris and this area is, going back to Roman occupation. Beyond that, it has been inhabited from 4000 BC onwards.

The popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which was also featured in the movie, Before Sunset. The original store and reading library were setup in 1911 and till today it keeps to its original creed of giving a place for young writers to stay and work.

The bookstore is very charming, like numerous others around the city with spaces to sit and read in various nooks and corners.

A water fountain outside the bookstore and across the street from…

…Notre Dame de Paris, the grand cathedral on the Ile de la Cité, surrounded by the River Seine. It’s considered the finest example of French Gothic architecture. Construction started in the 12 century and it was completed by 1345.

A fresh seafood stall at night.

A street corner displaying the signature look of Parisienne buildings, which were dictated by the civic planner, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Paris is a very old city, but its street plan hadn’t changed from the Middle Ages into the 19th century and over-population was plaguing the city with its narrow, winding streets and leading to a low quality of life for its residents. This prompted Napoleon III to finally enact the plan of rebuilding Paris and charged Haussmann to implement it. From 1853 to 1870, the old buildings were torn down and the streets were redrawn to the current wide boulevards and similar looking facades or style of all the buildings in the city. He designed city blocks as a whole, instead of individual buildings by themselves. He’s credited with improving the quality of the life in the city, but also stifling creativity with his strict rules.

Next: Europe, Part 2: Paris, The City that Captivates

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