Going South. – DB Autozug
When I told Stefan that I had no intention of not riding for a whole winter, and about my thoughts of going south to Spain for the cold season, he mentioned a special train that goes from Germany down to the Italian and Spanish frontiers, and the special treat about it is that you can comfortably spend the night in your cabin while your bike (or car) rides behind on a special car. This saves you euros and hours of driving, fuel, and fatigue.
I had already heard something about this train, even saw it once at the Vienna Südbahnhof, but it had not occurred to me that I would use it. I decided immediately that it was the thing to go for, and thus started the process I like the most about my trips: The planning.
There are hard-core travellers (bikers or not) that view trip-planning as a heresy, and like to keep things spontaneous and sort out problems as they appear. Maybe that’s true and the best way to get a sense of adventure, but freezing my gonads off while looking for a hotel late at night starving and in desperate need for a beer is not for me. On top of that I have other limitations and factors to take into account, like never having enough time, being subjected to train and airplanes’ schedules and connection times. Besides, there is the simple fact that it takes me eight hours to get to Madrid or Barcelona and from there take another plane or train to wherever it is that I left the bike. This is what I have to do to maintain this little project of going around Spain, and managing my time is easier said than done, as I’m learning fast.
Anyway, it took me a bit of time to put together dates, flights, train tickets and time off from work but I finally managed, with the problem that I only had two days to get it done. This was going to be tight but I had no choice as it was the last train of the season, and the date was set for September 26th. I reserved the train and got the tickets online, organised the flights to Germany and from Barcelona, and started packing. I took several new gadgets and accessories (too many) with my new Zumo 660 GPS with a Z-Technik support, a SPOT GPS locator so that my beloved wife could keep an eye on me (works great and gets you lots of points with the missus), plus the original Schubert intercom for the helmet so I could keep listening to a female voice telling me what to do, and maybe some music in case I don’t get enough entertainment. Of course, this came with a massive amount of cables, chargers, adaptors, memory cards, and enough instruction booklets to head towards insanity.
The flight went without problems, it even arrived to Frankfurt on time which these days is a total achievement, and as I had organized for Stefan to bring the bike (along with the massive suitcase with all my junk) to me so I had no worries there. The part that I was already dreading was the wait at the train station. I initially had considered going for a ride in the area but, being a firm believer in Murphy’s Law I decided against riding the bike with all my shit on it and run the risk of getting lost or – even worse – had any sort of accident that could ruin my whole “operation”, and the name is adequate since this is far closer to a military operation than a weekend on a bike.
Upon arriving in Frankfurt I took a cab to the tiny train station at Neu-Isenburg which is only a few minutes away and easy to find. I was familiar with the town since years ago I used to stay at a hotel there while at work. Stefan was already waiting for me with his usual punctuality with bike, gear, and an open hand to receive a good sum of Euros for the bike transfer, insurance, etc. His help and assistance are worth every penny.
I moved the bike closer to the building and some shade and made myself comfortable as I still had almost six hours before the loading and boarding process even began around 7pm. My next task was to install the mount for my newly acquired GPS. It was only just after 2pm and what a better moment to play mechanic and install the new toy. This mount was the kind that is placed in the middle of the handlebar so you must remove the main screws that secure the handlebar itself. So, I took the tiny Allen keys that came included with the mount, gave it a gradual go, and… nothing. Neither screw moved at all.
I tried again with more force, and again nothing. Not one iota. I realized that I might as well have got that tool from a box of cereal, and right before either it or my finger broke, I gave it up and resigned myself to not mount the stupid GPS, deciding instead that I could easily keep it inside the clear plastic pouch of my tank bag. Well, it would be proven later that I thought wrong. (Note to self: Buy a decent set of tools).
After my failed attempt to prove my prowess with DIY, after a couple of hours the first group of bikes arrived. I was kind of happy to have some company after all the hours on my own with nothing to eat or drink as it was all closed and I did not want to leave my stuff unattended. It was a group of Harleys (germans of course). Five bikes ridden by three couples and two guys on their own. Naturally I said hello, and they just ignored me. They stopped literally a meter from me and for the next three hours they did not even acknowledge my presence, even though they were sitting right next to me. They had a nice picnic and did not bother to even offer me water. I don’t know if I was expecting too much, but not even after they came to examine my bike did they address me and when I said something they plainly looked right thru me and ignored me again. I don’t know if this is part of the Harley thing, but I was extremely impressed by their shitty stupid arrogance. I am not going to criticize the idiotic brand-new rebel-without-a-cause outfits they had on looked ridiculous, but what really got me was that despite the fact that they had more US flags on themselves than the Boston Bay on a 4th of July, none of them spoke any english – or pretended not to -. Arrogant pricks.
Just as I was finishing profiling my neighbors, a 1200GS arrived with a far more friendly BM’r brother, and right after him many other bikes started to arrive. All of the sudden the little shop at the station opened up and beer started flowing freely (YEEEEEAHH! – God knows I needed it) as the train loading crew arrived. At 7 O’Clock sharp it all started to roll and get prepared, the loading of the vehicles was fast and efficient, they are very organized and do not waste anytime. It is all setup so that when the train arrives from Hamburg the cars are all ready and they just have to be joined, the passengers board their respective cars (separated by both class and destination) and away it goes. With my luck, the train arrived late, and was even later departing. With this, my trip began to drag.
I found my car and quickly my assigned cabin with the help of the steward, a fantastic gentleman called Hermann, and after dropping my stuff y proceeded to the bistro wagon. Dinner wasn’t exactly worth of a Michelin star but we must keep in mind that, after all, it’s a train, and if the service was shitty at least the beer was great, so after guzzling my dinner down on my own (even my BMr friend now ignored me as I do not speak German) I went back to my cabin to get my stuff to take a shower in the shared-showers at the end of the wagon (I don’t know if I should call it “car” or “wagon”, but you get the idea). Hermann had already made my bed and had it all prepared, so my toughest challenge became finding enough space for THE FUCKING SUITCASE and try to get some sleep, as I already knew that a long day awaited me. Luckily for me, I had no idea how long it really was going to be.
I would love to say what a wonderful sleep I had but that was just not the case. Worse, I slept as if I were to be executed the next day. The funny thing is that it wasn’t even the product of a dirty conscience, but because on top of the excitement of simply being there doing what I was doing, the damn train was rocking away so violently that I have no idea how I did not spew the chicken I had for dinner, it must have been the beer that kept it all in place. Only later I found out that the train driver was trying to recover some of the rely and was cranking the thing up as if he were going to collect an inheritance, but the only thing he achieved was to fuck up the brakes, and the poor old thing had to be repaired in Strasbourg when we got there, with the loss of yet another two hours. I didn’t even realize this as, after hours of bouncing around in my bunk like an epileptic I finally had managed to fall asleep.
After a few hours of bad sleep and the time difference I just gave up on sleep and got up. I decided to make myself useful and try and charge the helmet’s intercom battery, only to discover with horror that it needed to be plugged in for at least four hours before first use!! It meant I was screwed. I carried it for thousands of kilometres only to find out now. So good bye to hearing the GPS instructions. Oh well, I can at least see the damn thing… or so I thought.
We finally arrived to Narbonne with a four-hour delay, and I started to get a bit agitated since that not only meant my much-hoped-for stop in Girona for lunch was gone, but also that the time to catch my flight back to Madrid was going to be tight, and this was just not negotiable as I had to work the next day. If I had any doubt to whether we were in France or not, it became evident when I saw how SLOW it all moved. To begin with, the entire load of people from the train had to be bussed to the loading yards behind the station, it was particularly fun for me to carry the huge suitcase I had with me, cursing it every step of the way. These frenchmen at the train station work as if they don’t eat, but I’m sure they eat as if they worked. Everything took them ages. What in Germany took 30 minutes took these bastards two full hours. Finally the vehicles started to unload, first the cars and then the bikes. Once I had my bike I had to find a way to secure the suitcase, a move I had diligently rehearsed during my wait at the station in Germany, but for some reason I could not get it right. Must have been the stress. I finally managed and by the time I left the unloading area everyone was long gone except for a Norwegian rider that invited me to follow him to Barcelona, but at the first turn he went the opposite way looking for the secondary roads, and I was not in schedule for a leisurely ride so I ignored him and turned the other way. Leaving Narbonne was dead easy as I had reviewed the route out of there carefully, so I quickly found the gas station, filled up and took off towards the Spanish border. Once I was on the Autoroute I had no choice but to crank the throttle because it was getting late… VERY late, so my bike and I started devouring miles the same way we guzzle popcorn while watching a scary movie.
I rode a lot. I saw nothing.
For having been my first cross-country ride on a motorway (or freeway, of superslab, whatever you wanna call it. For my own benefit, I will use the local names, in this case, “Autopista” or “Autovia”), I could say it went really way since i had no chance to get bored, exploring as it was the behaviours of not the bike and of myself, as well as my capacity (or lack thereof) to ride it adequately. I experienced for the first time the feeling of really strong winds on the road, no doubt worsened off by the odious big suitcase strapped behind me.
It was very rewarding to finally gather some confidence and finally relax a bit as far as the riding is concerned, but in almost every other aspect the gods were definitely against me. For the most part I kept an average speed of 110-120 km/hr but in some sections where the wind was calm I cranked it up to 140km/hr without a glitch, and the bike felt very stable in spite of being heavily loaded, with me more tense than when I signed on for my first marriage.
As I already described earlier, I was unable to mount the GPS adequately for lack of tools, so I was left at the mercy of its battery power only, and as I chose to try it and enjoy the cute female voice throughout the entire trip, it wasn’t until much later when my brain caught on the thought that I’d be better off saving the battery for my arrival into Barcelona, which is when I would really need it. It was a shame for me to have to just drive by so many interesting spots along the Catalonian coast, particularly not being able to stop in Girona for a decent meal as my original plan was. At this point, it was far from being a ride for leisure as all i was trying to do at this point was to arrive in Barcelona so i could catch my flight.
Nevertheless, I did manage to enjoy the ride in perfect weather and of many nice views – all from afar – since I couldn’t see shite from the Autopista.
Mi initiation into my biker’s persona would have not been complete without enjoying the delicacies from the gas station, especially those sandwiches that taste as if they were made ready for Easter – in 1989 – . So in the three stops I made at as many service stations, I did not miss my chance to guzzle them down.
But as every enjoyment must meet its end, as soon as I arrived to Barcelona’s urban area, a navigational chaos was unleashed upon me. It all started when I decided to ignore the GPS and follow a huge road sign instead, because it said B A R C E L O N A, immediately followed by LLEIDA-MADRID. This was when the cold sweats started because I had exactly one and a half hours before my flight left. At that precise moment, the GPS kindly lets me know that the battery is low. This is just fucking dandy. More cold sweats. More rushing. More traffic… As i am digesting this, I miss another exit indicated by the GPS… Another exit for Barcelona… FUUUCK MEEE! And it was all so relaxing only two minutes ago! So I take the next exit and end up in a horrible street that looks more like a slum, so I ask two guys walking by what is the best way to head into downtown, they say nothing and just keep looking at me as If I had just popped out of a Star Trek episode. I immediately understand that they are not Spaniards but Romanians or something like that, and when they try to speak to me in Catalan I just simply lost it, started swearing and blast off. Shit, Shit, Shit and more SHIT!!
My GPS complaints again about its battery dying. One hour left for my flight to depart. My nerves are now killing me. I get back on the motorway somehow and I decide to listen to the poor GPS, that even in its last stages of life doesn’t know how or in what language to tell me to start FUCKING LISTENING to it. I acquiesce and take the next exit, which says “CAMPUS DE LA UNIVERSIDAD DE BARCELONA”, and after one more roundabout takes me back to exactly the same way I came from. One, two, three more panic-filled turns, and after being cursed at by some old bitch on a white SEAT I end up joining a major street called “Avinguda de les Corts Catalans” or something like that. I immediately despise the Catalan language. The reflection of the sun on the GPS screen makes seeing its directions impossible, and as I now have only :50 minutes to get to my flight I begin to ride like the scooters that are all around me flying at the speed of sound. I am now in a totally foul mood and make note to self: Do not EVER get yourself into a rush like this. Not one picture exists of all this saga as I did not even have time to stop for a piss.
My poor GPS is at the verge of death due to electrical starvation, but it perseveres and lives. In fact, it stayed with me until the end. Finally, after two more wrong turns and a plethora of expletives, I arrive to my destination, the Barcelona office of HISPANIA TOURS, where Volker is waiting for me as agreed. It took me the best part of three seconds to unpack and flag a cab, and after the pledge of ten additional Euros he gets me to the airport in record time, squeezing the living crap out of his poor Skoda. This feat of devotion to duty has elevated the Barcelona taxi drivers to the same status and adoration as the New York Fire Department.
In a bout of brilliance, I put my roaming to good use and check in to my Vueling flight, paying the surcharge for extra baggage. This time technology really did the trick, and thanks to this payment and to my charming smile, the ugly broad at the check-in counter reluctantly agrees to check me in as I am FOUR minutes late. She has no idea of the shit I have put myself through to make this flight, the rude bitch.
The rest is a nice story. I had no problemas at all during the flight or to make it on time for my connecting flight to Dubai. In fact, after three beers in rapid succession it was kind of fun, I met Cristina and Diego on board, and they were great. all in all, it was a valuable experience with many good lessons, in spite of the adrenaline spent. I cannot wait to come back to Barcelona and ride again, but before that i have to do some shopping.
The lessons this time are:
1) Get more time. Avoid rushing at all costs.
2) Burn that nasty huge suitcase and only carry light stuff. There is absolutely no need to carry a five-pound Clymer Service manual.
3) Review the route in Google maps and insert it on the GPS days before the ride.
4) Get proper tools. Now.