Montenegro 2024

Over the winter I had a call from Raytcho, one of my trail riding buddies, asking if I was interested in coming to Montenegro to do a bit of trail riding. Originally from Bulgaria he now lives in London but has a holiday home near the coast in Montenegro and likes to spend the summer there. He had been working on an idea to set up trail riding holidays using their holiday home as a base. The house is already set up for guests, having three seperate studio apartments on the ground floor : https://www.booking.com/hotel/me/apartmani-simba.en-gb.html
He had a plan to get hold of some Honda CRFs that could be used as rental bikes and the last piece of the jigsaw was to work out what routes to use, so he put out a few calls to friends to see who would be interested in helping with some scouting of trails around the area. My mate Dougie agreed to come along and planned to fly in together with his daughter Millie. I decided that driving was a better option as it seemed there might be a shortage of bikes and I always prefer to use my own bike if possible. In retrospect flying was probably the more sensible option as it took me four and a half days each way to drive with three overnight stops. On the plus side I did get to see some parts of the world that were completely new to me.

2200 Km – 4.5 days driving !

I drove through France and used the Frejus tunnel which connects France to Italy (70 Euros for the van!), across the top of Italy to Trieste. From there I had to pass through a small amount of Slovenia, where the road changed from motorway to winding A road. Then into Croatia onto a superb motorway that runs almost the length of the country. All of the above are in the EU so there were no border formalities involved. However, Montenegro is not yet in the EU, although they have adopted the Euro, which meant a 1.5 hour delay queueing to get through the border check point. You also have to switch off data roaming at this point to avoid exhorbitant charges – Raytcho was quickly able to sort out local SIM cards for us at very reasonable prices.

When I mentioned to some of my French friends that I was going to Montenegro to do some biking, the reactions were along the lines of “aren’t they still fighting ?”, “is it safe ?” and “isn’t that near Ukraine ?”. Well I can tell you that it is perfectly safe, although we did see some rather unsafe driving behaviour, and everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming.

Montenegro on the Map

We stayed close to Bar, right on the coast in the south of the country. For our scouting trips we limited ourselves to routes that were achievable in a day so that potential clients would be able to return to base every night. This ruled out much of the North of the country which would require staying overnight, but as this area is quite mountainous and there was still snow on high ground, it was the sensible option. We did go as far as Albania in the East and Bosnia in the West.
Montengro is about half the size of Wales and has about 20% of the that country’s population at 630,000 people so it is quite sparsely populated. Relative to the UK it is very mountainous – the highest we rode was 1840m, the highest point in the UK is Ben Nevis at 1345m.

En route alog the Montenegro coast road

I had brought my KTM 300 TPI, Raytcho was riding his GasGas ES700 Enduro and also had another KTM 300 and a Beta Alp available for guests to use. Dougie was hoping to be able to use a CRF250 which was also part of Raytcho’s fleet, but that had unfortunately been sold the previous week. However, once he had fiddled about with the suspension he felt reasonably happy on the KTM – apart from the piece of 2×4 that KTM call a seat. In the end Raytcho and I rode for a total of 10 days and covered 1350 Km, we were joined most days by Dougie on the KTM and some days by Millie or Raytcho and Iva’s daughter Yanna riding the Beta. The general routine was that Raytcho would work out a possible route and then we tried to follow that, making sure it was all safe and rideable and looking out for other possible trails to add in. We were using the Outdoor Active app to track our progress and that proved surprisingly accurate in identifying the difference between rideable routes and hiking routes (which were generally too difficult to ride).

We were staying in the town down below.

On the first evening our hosts suggested going out to “Starry Bar”, which I assumed was some sort of cocktail bar with a view of the night sky. It turned out to be nothing of the sort, “Bar” is the name of the neighbouring town and “Stari” means the old part of the town. In fact Bar is a fortified town and was originally built inside a walled fortress on top of a hill which is now abandoned but open to visitors.

Taking in the view from Stari Bar
Sunset over the old town.
In the mountains
Raytcho, Dougie and Millie
Picnic spot overlooking the sea

Following one of the routes, we spotted what looked like an abandoned church high on a hill so decided to go up for a closer look. Once we got there we discovered it was not abandoned at all and was in fact a working Monastery that had recently been restored from a ruin. There were five monks and an Abbot living there and one of them came out to meet us. We were a little apprehensive – four grubby bikers, parking their noisy bikes on sacred ground, but we needn’t have woried as he was extremely welcoming and took us inside for a tour of the monastery. We were very lucky to have Raytcho as our guide as there didn’t seem to be any English spoken. Even luckier when he asked us to sit down at a table outside and then brought coffee, cakes and fresh orange juice.

Millie and the Monastery

The next day Dougie and Millie chose to have a more relaxing day so Raytcho and I decided to head up into the mountains to the North on a longer ride (200Km).

Heading North from Bar it’s about 45Km of road to get to the capital of Podgorica (which also has the main airport). On the way we passed the absolutely enormous freshwater Skadar lake. Once out of Podgorica we started to climb, inially on a twisty ribbon of tarmac that resembled a go kart track which then gave way to more broken tarmac and then to a gravel trail. We could see quite a lot of snow on the higher peaks and did wonder what it would be like when we reached the top. In fact we didn’t encounter any snow until we arrived at the pass – the highest point of the ride at 1840m. It didn’t look too difficult, “How hard can it be ?” said Raytcho as he set off into the snow. He didn’t get far before the rear wheel dug in and he was stuck. Although it looked harmless the snow was quite soft and about two feet deep – the weight of the GasGas and the massive torque turned it into a trench digger. He quickly gave up and went ahead to look at what lay in store over the other side of the pass…

How hard can it be ?

There was more snow on the other side and a lot of downhill hairpins. If we did continue there would be no going back – it was bad enough making progress on the level, going uphill in the snow would have been impossible. Between us we manhandled the bike through – the trick was to get right over to the edge and pick up some grip where the snow met the gravel/rock. The KTM fared better being a lighter bike but still not easy.

Tricky downhill hairpins. No chance of getting back up here.
Made it through the snow !

We dropped down the other side to an isolated lake for a lunch stop, very glad of the picnic lunch Iva had prepared for us. The lake had several “summer houses” nearby, including Hagrid’s hut…

Hagrid wasn’t at home…
Snowy mountains

Back home safely we decided to rule out any routes going over 1800m on this trip, as there was sure to be more snow.

Waterfall up above Stari Bar
Coffee stop in Stari Bar – real coffee !
Raytcho and Yanna checking out the view
Light lunch at a delightful restaurant – and a potential reception venue for Yanna’s forthcoming wedding.
Another day, another trail and more amazing views…
Coffee stop at the appropriately named “Panorama Restaurant”

On the way home on this day we decided to pay a visit to another fortified coastal town to the South of Bar, called Ulcinj. We followed signs towards the old part and were surprised to find it was quite busy with lots of sombre looking people walking through the streets. As we weaved our noisy bikes through the throng we arrived at the front and realised we were in a funeral cortege and there was the hearse and cemetry right in front of us. Lower down in the village one of the locals on a scooter had tipped us off that motorbikes were allowed inside the old town so were fortunately able to make our escape through a hole in the defensive wall. As if we hadn’t suffered enough embarrassment we felt very conspicuous riding bikes through the very narrow cobbled streets. It was true there were a number of scooters parked in the streets, but no-one with full sized enduro bikes. We made our escape through another hole in the city wall, tails between our legs.

Bikes allowed ?
Another coffee stop with an amazing view.
We were up there yesterday…

At one of our coffee stops we checked the map to look at our options. We found a gnarly looking trail heading down the mountain that should meet up with the road further down. Raytcho and I decided to check out the trail while Dougie took a break and agreed to meet us further down the road. The trail was a beauty and we had great fun riding it and then rejoined the road to meet up with Doug. Just as we pulled up to where he was waiting for us Raytcho’s chain fell off and he lost all drive. Our first thought was that the chain had snapped but on closer inspection it appeared that the axle nut had come loose, fallen off and then the axle locating block had followed. This allowed the spindle to slide out and the wheel to twist, throwing the chain. It was very fortunate it had happened at zero speed on the road rather than on the bumpy trail we had just ridden.

Axle nut and locating block missing..

We propped the bike up and got the spindle and wheel out, fortunately there didn’t seem to be any damage. But how were we going to fix this so far from home and with limited tools ?

We left Dougie to try to improvise something while we retraced our steps along the trail to see if we could find anything. Nothing doing, so bodging was the only option. Dougie had spotted that the chain adjuster could be backed out sufficiently to support the axle in the right position, it would just need something to stop it moving backwards and on the other side something to stop the axle sliding out. We found a few scraps of material and got to work…

That should stop the axle moving back.
And that should stop it sliding out…

It was a long a slow ride home, but it all held together. A spare wheel and axle block/nut off a KTM 690 soon fixed the problem once back at base.

I managed to get in a morning run on the beach most days – we were blessed with great weather for the first ten days of the trip. It was very quiet as the town is only slowly gearing up for the season. Apparently it is heaving with people in the summer.

Morning beach run.
Up in the mountains again..
Mille and the Beta
Exploring a hill fortress
Great views in every direction from up here.
Raytcho on the skyline

On the last day before the rain arrived we went up into the hills behind Stari Bar again to try to find some rock carvings and a waterfall that Raytcho remembered from years ago. There was a monastery nearby and apparently the monks use the waterfall for baptisms. It took a long time to find as it was not marked on the map and there was no information sign.

Rock carvings.

And then it was all over… Ten days of riding and 1350 Km. We found enough routes to easily provide a week’s worth of riding for potential guests. With such mountainous terrain it seems that every track has an amazing view and you have the benefit of being by the sea as well.

My return journey followed a similar route although I did use a different tunnel through the Alps (Montblanc 55 Euros). The fuel in Montenegro and Croatia was surprisingly cheap at 1.45 per litre – I paid 2.20 at a services in Italy ! To try to avoid getting stuck again at the border Iva and Raytcho gave me a route to a smaller border crossing known only to locals. It involved a slight detour but was much quicker – no queue at all. On the Montenegro side there was just a man in a shed recording the vehicle and passport details in a hand written ledger. Of course once you enter Croatia (and the EU) it was much more professional but still very quiet. Having got used to day time temeperatures in the 20s it was a shock to get to Limoges and find it was close to freezing.

A huge thank you to Raytcho and Iva for the invitation and being perfect hosts, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip and hope to see you again very soon.

Honda CRF300L

The CRF300L is a great do-it-all trail bike that can be used for commuting on the road and off-roading at the weekend. There used to be many bikes like this in the old days : Honda XR, Yamaha XT, Suzuki DR and similar. But these general purpose bikes have been out of production for years although still with a loyal following and surprisingly high prices on the second hand market. The general purpose trail bike market seemed to disappear in the late 90s and split into two : the more off road focussed enduro bikes and the more road biased adventure bikes. In fact the adventure bike category became the highest growth sector of the bike market and is still hugely popular today. For many years there was really noting available in the trail bike category – you either had to choose a more focussed light weight off road bike or a bigger a heavier long distance adventure bike. Many riders simply went back to the old school solution of an air cooled Japanese trail bike. It seems that Honda spotted this gap in the market and introduced the CRF250L as a no nonsense do everything bike with electric start, fuel injection and modern suspension and ergonomics. It has proved to be very popular and has now been superseded by a 300cc version. If you could only have one bike, this would be a pretty good choice.

At the various events I attend over the year, the CRF has gradually become the bike of choice and it seems that almost everyone has one, or is looking out for one. Austin VINCE is a Honda brand ambassador and misses no opportunity to sing the praises of the little red bike and having done many long distance adventure trips on his CRF250 he knows what he’s talking about. My mate Dougie used to ride a KTM Freeride, a much lighter off road machine, but had never ending reliability issues. It broke down on the VINCE one year and he borrowed Austin’s CRF as a replacement. He was very impressed as it just worked – he had to have one !

My stable of motorbikes used to consist of a Montesa Trials, Suzuki DR350, KTM 250 enduro and a KTM 950 Super Enduro. Of these the DR350 (a traditional air cooled trail bike) was my go-to general runabout and shopping bike. However, I had originally bought the DR for my son Alexander to use and had made some modifications to make it more suited to him and he decided he would like to buy it. So I started looking for a replacement as a local shopping bike. I knew Dougie was keen on the CRF and thought it might be interesting for us to ride the same machinery on some of our adventures. However, they are much less common in France and the waiting list for a new one was over 6 months. And then one suddenly came up locally and I bought it. It was almost brand new (300Km) and the price was reasonable so it was hard to refuse.

I’ve had the bike two years and done over 8000 Km and it hasn’t missed a beat. I’ve used it as a shopping bike and done some joint events with Dougie on his CRF, but the highlight was taking it round Maroc on a trip covering over 3000 Km. Although it worked perfectly throughout the Maroc trip showed up some of it’s limitations as a long distance road bike – limited performance and lack of wind protection. Which is why I bought the GasGas Rally for the Maroc trip last year. I was also never really happy with the CRF off road, especially compared to my KTM enduro bike : it’s much heavier (145 v 105 Kg) and feels slow to respond, the controls are very light but don’t have the instant snap response of the KTM. As a result the CRF hasn’t had much use since the Maroc trip. Part of the reason for this is that I am fortunate to have a few different bikes and don’t have much use for a do-it-all bike. For off road I prefer to use the KTM and on the road I prefer something with more performance like my GasGas Supermoto. So the Honda needed to go…


Text of the advert on Le Bon Coin…

8800 Km
25/02/2022

I bought this bike in early 2022 to use for local journeys, mainly on the road (I have a KTM enduro for off road riding). It proved to be very capable and comfortable and I decided to use it for a trip to Morocco over the winter of 2022/23. This was a trip of over 3000Km of road riding and the bike performed perfectly. However, since that trip it has had very little use and is now being offered for sale. I am under no pressure to sell as I still find the bike useful for local journeys and have the space to keep it.

Honda France offer a 5 year warranty on the CRF, which still has 3 years to run, until 25/02/2027.

Modifications

  • hand guards
  • engine protection guard
  • USB port
  • tail tidy

The rest of the bike is completely standard.

It will be supplied with a complete stainless steel Moto-X exhaust system which I purchased from Le Bon Coin but is not fitted to the bike.

Servicing

The Honda service schedule requires an initial service at 1000 Km and then a service every 12,000 Km.

The 1,000 Km service was completed according to the schedule.

The next service would be at 12,000 Km, but as a precaution I carried out an additional service at 7,500 Km which included changing the oil and filter:
HiFlo HF103 oil filter
Castrol Power 1 Racing 10w-30 synthetic oil
The paper element air filter was replaced with a twinair foam element filter.

Next service would normally be due at 12,000, but taking account of the 7,500 service this could be done later.

Tyres

Pirelli MT21 Rallycross (50/50) tyres front and rear in excellent condition.
The tyres are fitted with BIB Mousses – no punctures and suitable for both on and off road use due to the light weight of the CRF.

More photos here : https://v2xs.com/CRF300L/

GasGas ES700 Rally

If you’ve read the post regarding my Maroc trip in Dec 2023 you’ll know that the GasGas Rally is the bike I intended to use. Having previously done the trip on my Honda CRF300L I felt it was lacking in performance for cruising on the road and no wind protection. The GasGas adresses both these issues. Having researched the type of bike I wanted, searched for one on line and then done a seven hour round trip to buy one it was a massive disappointment that I wasn’t able to use it for the trip. This was due to the registration documents getting lost in the post and without them I wouldn’t be allowed in to Maroc. Fortunately I had a back up plan which worked out very well. In fact the most fun I had was riding the sand dunes at Essaouira on my KTM, which I think would have been too risky on the GasGas (on my own).

Having returned from the trip I started to wonder where the GasGas fitted in my now quite extensive bike collection. And the conclusion was that it doesn’t. I still believe it is an ideal lightweight “adventure bike” – but don’t have any trips like that planned in the near future and although I plan to be in Maroc next year I’m not at all sure how I will get there.

I do have a trip to Spain for the VINCE in September, where we are planning to ride there on the back roads rather than take the vans as usual – a trip known as “Dougie’s Tours”. The GasGas would be great for the road trip to get there but I’m not sure about the off road aspects of the VINCE itself. I’m sure the bike would be able to cope, but am not sure my skill level would be up to it. I’m much more comfortable riding my KTM enduro bike in any off road situation and it is supremely capable in this role. Where it is much less able is on the road, but for me I think it is a better compromise. We will be covering the road miles in convoy with most people on CRF300Ls so it should be able to hold its own. So the GasGas had to go…

Below is the text for the ad in Le Bon Coin.

First reg : 29/06/2023
3000 Km
Ready for adventure ? This bike has been fully prepared as a lightweight adventure bike. 160 Kg 74hp/55kW and a fuel range of 250-300 Km. This bike is the same as the equivalent KTM 690 Enduro R and Husqvarna 701 Enduro. It was manufactured in the KTM factory in Austria using KTM parts. The biggest difference is the colour of the plastics. In the future Gas Gas models may be diferent to their KTM equivalents but for this bike they are almost exactly the same. The bike is covered by the 2 year Gas Gas manufacturers warranty which runs until 29/06/2025.

The bike is in excellent condition and has mostly been used for road riding around my local area. I have done some gentle off road riding to check the capability of the bike ready for the trip, but it has never been dropped and has no scratches or damage.

Standard features on the ES700 include :

  • gear position indicator
  • switchable engine modes for on and off road
  • switchable ABS and traction control
  • gearchange quickshifter and blipper for up and down changes

Modifications

The bike has been prepared for adventure touring with the following modifications:

  • Rally navigation tower in Carbon from Rade Garage with LED headlights and a USB port (1500 Euros)
  • Rally foot pegs (100 Euros)
  • Engine/radiator protection bars (75 euros)
  • Heavy duty aluminium engine guard (100 euros)
  • Carbon engine case protectors (50 euros)
  • Handebar risers and cushion grips (50 euros)
  • Rear luggage rack (150 euros)
  • Wings exhaust (400 euros)
  • Graphics kit (170 euros)
  • Tail tidy

Over 2500 euros of parts

Servicing

The GasGas service schedule requires an initial service at 1000 Km and then at every 10,000 Km.
The 1000 Km initial service was completed on schedule by GasGas.
The next service will be due at 10,000 Km.

Tyres

The bike has been fitted with new tyres – Pirelli MT21 front and Continental TKC80 rear. Heavy duty tubes fitted and filled with anti-puncture liquid.

Lots more pictures here :
https://v2xs.com/ES700/




Alvor 2024

My 2023/24 winter migration started earlier than usual on the basis the weather at home in Cahors was cold and wet in early November and I just wanted to head south. I set off around the 12 November with the intention to spend a couple of weeks in Alvor in the Algarve, before heading over to Maroc for a month or so (including Christmas), then returning to Alvor in early January through to mid-March. Always hoping that the weather in France would be suitably Spring like in time for my return.

I have written a separate post about my Maroc trip this year, so this post covers my time in Alvor.
https://v2xs.com/maroc-2023/

It’s a 1500Km drive from Cahors to Alvor and I spread this over three days, with two overnight stops. For the first half of the journey the weather was horrible but as I got further South through Spain it started to brighten up.

Heading South to the sun

My first overnight stop was at a Truck stop near Burgos that I use every year. It is rather basic and full of truckers, but it’s cheap and has everything I need. As usual in Spain, dinner is not served until 8pm. There is no menu, you get what they have prepared together with a full bottle of red wine straight from the fridge. It seemed very strange the first time I stayed there with Georgina but is now very familair and hasn’t changed a bit.

My second stop was near Caceres at a campsite recommended by Tim and Helen – not camping but in a cabin. This was also basic and cheap but had the big advantage that the restaurant opened at a sensible time for dinner. I got their early enough to have time for a run into Caceres in the evening and had a coffee in the main square.

Caceres

I arrived in Alvor in the late afternoon and checked in to my apartment, which left me enough time to go for a run on the beach at sunset.

Sunset beach run

I had booked an apartment for a couple of weeks in the centre of Alvor (Alvor Sol) and had noted from the comments by previous renters that it overlooked the Alvor cemetry. This was not a problem for me and did at least mean that it was “dead” quiet. There was a south east facing balcony which was an unexpected bonus and allowed me to have breakfast in the sunshine each day.

Early morning view from my apartment.
Breakfast in the sun on the balcony

My typical routine each day involves getting out early for a run along the beach followed by breakfast in the apartment – the weather was very kind this year and I managed to go running almost every day, only missing a few days due to rain. After breakfast I would usually head down to the Plaza Cafe for my “second breakfast” of coffee and a muffin or toast (no croissants or chocolatines here). I’d quite happily spend an hour or so in the cafe watching the world go by and planning what to do for the rest of the day. The choice would be guided by the weather and if I was meeting Tim and Helen for lunch, but would typically be going out for a walk, a mountain bike ride or on one of the motorbikes (I brought two with me in the van). Looking back, the most popular choice seemed to be taking the mountain bike up into the hills inland from Alvor, where there are lots of off road trails to explore and a few places to stop for a coffee.

Coffee and smoothie in Monchique, 25Km inland from Alvor.

Two or three times a week I would have dinner out with Tim and Helen at one of the local restaurants – several to choose from within a few minutes walk.

Bouganvilla restaurant, where they do superb and enormous salmon steaks.
Morning run with the beach to myself.
Lunch at A Nora where they do the most amazing fresh tuna steaks.
In the hills between Monchique and Marmelette
Wine cork with tasting notes…
More drinking tips…
Lunch on the quayside in the sun. Casa de Mare.
Acai smoothie bowl at Velochique in Monchique. Sadly they’ve changed the menu and this is no longer available…
Coffee and cake at Pai Thomas Cafe overlooking Vau beach, about an hour’s walk from Alvor.
Second breakfast in the sun at the Plaza.
Out on the Gas Gas for a smoothie at Roche Poke, up above the beach (Praia de Rocha) in Portimao.
Play time on the beach.
Rainbow over the lighthouse.
UFO on the beach. Unidentified Floating Object.
Lots of coastal erosion.
Out for my morning run early enough to catch the sunrise.
Specs on the beach…
Orange anyone ?
Must be Spring…
My birthday cake !
Tea and toast for second breakfast instead of the usual coffee and muffin.
Mint tea, omelette and salad up at Velochique in the sunshine.
Vegan Poke Bowl at Rocha Poke.
Coffee stop in Casais – fabulous blue sky.
Marie Celeste on my morning run.
Flip flops…
Stormy seas…

My sister Sara came to visit for 12 days. She is just as exercise mad as I am so we had the ubiquitous morning run followed by either a long walk or a mountain bike ride using a bike we had hired locally. Her favourite was doing a walk along the beach to Portimao, which is only possible at low tide and is quite a long way. However, the reward is the best mint choc chip ice cream ever, as long as the kiosk is open !

On the beach..
Door stops for breakfast at the Plaza.
Cake !
More cake !
Feeling knackered after the uphill ride to Casais.
The best mint choc chip !
Early (or late) Christmas in the Algarve – at Honey and Cafe.
Sara having a paddle.
On the coastal path to Portimao
Pai Thomas cafe overlooking Vau Beach en route to Portimao
Acai smoothie bowl at Roche Poke overlooking the Praia de Rocha

After eight weeks in my apartment in central Alvor I was supposed to pack up and head back home, having reached the end of my rental term. However, the weather in Cahors was still very cold and wet so I decided to stay for another couple of weeks. Prices had started to increase and the available options were rather limited but I managed to find another place overlooking the harbour and only a five minute walk away.

View from my apartment in central Alvor. Plaza Cafe down below where I take my morning coffee.
View from my new apartment overlooking the harbour.

Although more expensive, the new apartment called “Homem de Ferro” or Iron Man was larger (2 beds) and had a fantastic view of the harbour and across the dunes to the sea beyond. An additional benefit was that it is south facing and has a small balcony with all day sun.

Breakfast on the balcony in the sunshine.

The weather was rather mixed for my last two weeks, although still a lot better than Cahors where they seem to have had none stop rain. I managed to break a spoke on my mountain bike but found some wire to temporarily tie it to another spoke to prevent it from getting jammed in the rear disc or causing a puncture. I was reluctant to use the bike after that, particularly on rough terrain in case I broke some more spokes. I got a new spoke from a shop in Portimao and managed to remove the cassette but didn’t have the right size star drive to remove the disc, so was unable to complete the repair. For one day I hired a road bike from a cycle shop in Alvor to try out. This was a proper “racer” with very thin tyres and drop handlebars. I found it extremely uncomfortable – a combination of the bum-up riding position, harsh ride and very narrow seat. I did about 56Km up to Casais and Monchique but it was enough to convince me this was not the right type of bike for me.

I decided to load up the van a couple of days in advance to allow myself plenty of time and it was just as well I did as I discovered that the battery was flat. Tim charged it up for me, but I decided the safest bet was to get a new one from Portimao and treat the original as a spare. Fairly straightforward but the battery is very difficult to remove being under the driver’s seat which doesn’t slide completely out of the way.

The journey back took three days to cover 1500 Km through Spain and on to Limoges to collect Hebe dog. I was doing about 500Km / 5 hours per day which seems to work well. First stop was at Camping Caceres in a cabin – actually the same one I stayed in on the way down to Portugal. Second stop was in a hotel in Irun, near San Sebastien in the top corner of Spain.
Hebe was very pleased to see me when I got to Limoges, having been away for about 4 months.

Out for a walk with Hebe

Now back home after four months away it seems I have managed to completely miss the winter, which was the whole idea. The neighbours have updated me with the goings-on, but mainly bemoaning the amount of rain they had – everything certainly looks very green.
So that’s my winter hols over for another year, but I’ve only got two weeks here before packing up again to head off to Montenegro for motorbiking with some friends. Watch this space for future updates…

Back to normal. Hoinda 500 to a cafe in Prayssac.




Maroc 2023

As a keen follower of this blog you’ll no doubt remember last year’s trip to Maroc that I did on my Honda CRF 300L. If not you can read about the trip here :
https://v2xs.com/moto-maroc/
My conclusions from that trip were that I wanted to do it again, but to be a bit more adventurous in terms of exploring more off-road and wanted to improve the wind protection on the bike plus having some heated grips or gloves to combat the cold. I spent what seemed like an endless amount of time going round and round the goldfish bowl trying to decide between two basic options for the next trip :
Option 1 – Do it on a bike, but preferably a “better CRF”
Option 2 – Take the van with the bike in the back

Option 1 is the more adventurous choice, but the dilemma is that having a “better CRF” capable of more easily covering the distance on the road means the bike is less suitable for tackling anything tricky once riding off-road. Plus the fact that you are relying on the bike to get you back home again.
Option 2 is the “cop out” by using the van to cover the distance and then using the bike to loop out on potentially more adventurous off road rides, always having the assurance of the “mother ship” to get you home if something does go wrong. Additional benefits of the van option are being able to take my mountain bike as well as motorbike for exploring off road and being able to take my KTM enduro bike which is a weapon off road, but not much good for road riding.

My preferred option was to do the trip on a bike and I spent some time searching for a “better CRF” and eventually found a GasGas 700 Rally which I spent some time fettling for the trip..

As last year my plan was to take the van down to Portugal (Alvor in the Algarve) and stay there for a couple of weeks before setting off for Maroc. To keep maximum flexibility I managed to fit the GasGas, KTM and mountain bike into the van for the trip South. In the end the decision as to which option to take was made for me as there was an issue with getting the registration documents for the GasGas (lost in the post) and without them I wouldn’t be able to get the bike into Maroc. They eventually turned up but too late for this trip so the van it was ! This turned out to be for the best as the first couple of days of travelling were very wet and would have been very unpleasant on a bike.

My rough plan for the trip was to take the fast ferry from Tarifa to Tanger, head down to Marrakech and spend some time there and at Essaouira on the coast. My sister Sara would be joining for a few days and I wanted her to experience both of these destinations. I also had to make a flying visit back to the UK and it was most convenient to fly from Marrakech. After that I would be free to cross over the Atlas mountains to the Eastern side of the country and the desert, which I had never experienced before despite visiting Maroc several times. After my trip last year I bought Chris Scott’s book “Morocco Overland” which is full of his recommended routes both on and off road and I had spent some time plotting out GPS tracks of these routes and validating them using Google Earth, so I felt quite well prepared. Armed with this rough plan and my prepared routes I set off and to keep things flexible I only booked one or two nights ahead to allow me to revise the plan as I went – a very wise move as it turned out…

Asilah

The ferry crossing was straightforward, the van was searched a couple of times as expected, it wasn’t until I got to passport control on the Maroc side that I had some issues. For some reason the passport official was convinced I had just come in through Gibraltar wich didn’t make any sense but he clearly thought I was up to something. In the end it turned out he had misread the stamps in my passport and was looking at my visa stamps from last year’s trip. The next issue was temporarily importing my vehicles – the van was no problem, but they weren’t happy about the bike as they couldn’t work out how to categorise it. They are clearly more used to dealing with road bikes. I was a bit nervous as I knew that being an enduro bike it was in a “barely legal” grey area and knowing full well that all the homologation parts to make it road legal were sitting in an unopened box back home. Once I had explained that I was heading to Merzouga to ride the dunes and not planning to use it on the road, it was smiles all round and they managed to find a suitable category to use.

My normal first stop from the ferry is in Tanger itself, but the van presented a big issue as regards safe parking, particularly in cities. I therefore decided to head out of Tanger and down the coast to Asilah, which us a delightful place with a very arty feel to it. Just navigating through Tanger gave me a taste of what was to come – traffic everywhere and no-one following the highway code (do they even have one?). At some roundabouts I seemed to have the right of way and at others I clearly didn’t which just made no sense. The van felt very big and visibility poor to spot pedestrians, cyclists and donkey carts creeping up on you from both sides. I just pressed on in the hope that it was big and white and other road users should at least be able to see I was there. I don’t remember having any of this stress on the bike which just seemed to go with the flow and be able to nip in and out of gaps in the traffic.

I used a bit of autoroute to get down to Asilah (only about an hour from Tanger) and found that the toll booths have multiple lanes with most of them dedicated to people with “beepers” – a system I use in France, but not here. This meant I could only use the one or two lanes reserved for pay-as-you-go users. Of course these were the ones everybody was using so there was always a queue, and it’s strictly cash – no cards accepted. I did come across one toll station that showed a card symbol as well as the “beeper” symbol so I went for it rather than join another queue. It turned out that it only accepted Moroccan cards not international ones, so I then had the embarassment of reversing and rejoining the cash payment queue… With no little relief I arrived in Asilah for my first overnight stop,

Staircase inside my Riad
Big, comfortable room.

I quickly unpacked and headed out into the town to find something to eat, but my first tasks were to get some money (you can’t buy Dirhams outside Maroc) and to sort out a SIM card. Not being part of the EU, data roaming is very expensive here and you have to rely on WiFi in the hotel and cafes. I managed okay last year but had to plan routes and download maps in advance and wanted to have more flexibility and a safety net with the off road riding I had planned. I have a second smart phone that I use as my navigation phone and wanted to get a SIM card for that to use primarily for route finding. I went into the main Maroc Telecom office in Asilah, feeling pretty stupid as it’s years since I bought a SIM card and had no idea how to top-up credit etc. The chap in the shop was very helpful and sorted it all out, which I would have struggled with as there are particular codes you need to enter to add credit for data and not for calls/SMS and knowing which number to dial to check your credit, etc. Being a modern establishment I had wrongly assumed he would take a card, but no it was cash only – a repeating theme in Maroc. I didn’t have enough Dirhams with me, just the ones left from my last trip, but he was happy to accept euros instead at a preferential (to him) rate, but I didn’t mind as it was pretty cheap and he had been very helpful. With that box ticked I set off to find a bureau de change to change some euros, which was very staightforward and I even picked up a couple of restaurant recommendations.

Fish restaurant in front of the Medina.

Trying out my new data connection I found it was very slow, but a bit of googling using the restaurant’s WiFi suggested some changes to the phone settings which made a big improvement and it was fine for the rest of the trip.

As last time I was using booking.com to make reservations a day or two in advance, usually in small hotels or Riads, which typically include breakfast. I quickly adopted a routine of making the most of breakfast (they were usually copious) and then just having a snack in the evening.

Huge Riad breakfast.

Berrechid

I had decided it was too far to try to get to Marrakech in one day so chose to break the journey at Berrechid, not far from Casablanca. I chose this place because of the location as an overnight stay with no intention of exploring the surrounding area. Unlike most of the other places I stayed ths was out in the sticks and not really walking distance to anywhere. Fortunately they provided an evening meal which I was able to eat sitting out by the pool…

Equi Palace Hotel and Spa
Tagine by the pool.
Sharing my dinner with the local moggie.
Another generous breakfast
Hotel lobby.

The next day I set off for Marrakech. Stopping at a motorway services for a coffee I took the picture below. Just a simple rest stop but you only have to look at the scenery and signs to know that you are already a long way from home…

Motorway services stop…

Marrakech

This bouganvillia flowering in December tells you a lot about the climate here…

More wrestling the van through the Marrakech city traffic until I arrived at my hotel which had an underground parking garage that I used last year on the bike. I was concerned about the height clearance for the van and hadn’t been able to get confirmation of the height limit from the hotel in advance. In the event the height was fine but the steepness of the access ramp was a bit more of a concern, or it would be when trying to get out with a loaded van…

The hotel was in Gueliz which is in the newer NW part of Marrakech. For me this has the advantage of being within walking distance of the medina, but also allows the possibility of a morning run to the outskirts and the Oliveraie with a view of the Atlas mountains. The hotel did have a cafe but breakfast wasn’t included so I made a habit of going out for breakfast each day.

Morning run…
Breakfast Sportif…

My usual habit when in Marrakech or any big city is to spend time wandering about and just letting the place soak in. Ideally finding a little cafe with a mint tea and just sitting and watching the world go by. The mint tea varied but was invariably incredibly bitter, which they counteract by loading it with sugar. If I remembered I tried to order it without sugar but with a bit of sugar on the side so that I could add some to overcome the worst of the bitterness. I’m sure it’s very good for you ? Back home I drink herbal/fruit teas and decaff coffee, but they don’t seem to do decaff here. I eventually tried the coffee and concluded it didn’t have much caffeine in it anyway and was often more palatable than the mint tea.

Mint tea in the Cafe de France.
Cafe des Epices
Yet more mint tea…
Traffic jam in the Souk.

Sara’s Visit

I managed to persuade my sister to fly out and join me for a few days. She had never been to Morocco before – or to any “interesting” destination that wasn’t just an all-inclusive, sunshine and pool type of holiday. I was a bit concerned that the novelty of Marrakech might wear off quite quickly as I wasn’t sure that just wandering about soaking up the atmosphere was really her type of thing. With this in mind I had planned a two destination break even though she was only here for three days – a day in Marrakech, followed by heading to Essaouira on the coast for a day or so before returning to Marrakech for the plane home. Having the van was a bonus as it meant we could be more flexible than if we had to catch a bus or arrange a taxi – Essaouira is about a 3 hour drive away.

Arrivals in Marrakech airport.

As already noted I felt very nervous about driving the van in Marrakech traffic and really didn’t want to risk it at night, so I looked at other options and we ended up using the bus. The taxis at Marrakech airport seem to operate a cartel to rip off the tourist. There is an official taxi rate but none of them will offer that and they usually refuse to use the meter (it’s only about 8Km), preferring instead to negotiate a rate with the unsuspecting new arrival. The bus on the other hand is cheap and fixed price. My fears about driving in the night traffic were realised when we saw a minor accident just in front of us on the way in from the airport.

I was planning to do a short trip to the UK a couple of days after Sara’s visit, but this was complicated by the fact that, having temporarily imported two vehicles, I wasn’t able to officially leave Maroc without them. Apparently there is a procedure you can follow to get a special authorisation from customs and while I was at the airport I tried to find out more details. Having dragged around from one office to another and temporarily had my swiss army knife confiscated after one of the security scans, I found a helpful chap who explained that it was possible but could only be done on the day of travel…

Morning run…

As a fellow running nutcase, a morning run was “de riguer”, followed by a substantial breakfast. For our next entertainment I had booked us tickets to see the Majorelle Gardens, which I have seen twice before but I felt was an unmissable experience.

In the Jardin Majorelle
Koutoubia Mosque
Lunch at the Cafe des Epices, 28 degrees !
Morning run..

As expected, getting the loaded van out of the underground car park was far from easy. There was a steep ramp to negotiate, but at the top there was only a few cms space to spare at either side so while you wanted to take a run at it and build up speed, the tricky bit at the top demanded a bit more caution. In the event I stalled it half way up the ramp ! And I had a motorbike right behind me and the handbrake wouldn’t hold the van on the hill. Two attempts and a lot of tyre smoking wheelspin later we made it…

It’s about a three hour drive to Essaouira which I quite enjoy as it’s across country so you get to drive through a few small villages and get a snapshot of life out in the countryside. Sara was less impressed and would have been happy to sit reading her book until I insisted she take it all in ! We did spot the famous trees that normally have goats in – but the goats were nowhere to be seen. Don’t know if it’s the wrong season (they were there last year) or maybe just not lucrative enough to be worthwhile for the goatherd.

Chilling in Essaouira
Cat in the Medina
Fresh fish for lunch !
Sunset on the beach
Morning run…
It feels a long way from Preston in December

UK Trip

I had a day or so to myself after Sara’s visit before heading off to the UK for a long weekend.

A variation on the breakfast theme
Taking Earl Grey at the frightfully posh Grand Cafe de la Poste
Sunrise over the Atlas
Manchester – morning run along the canal
Coffee and gingerbread person
My favourite Manchester breakfast – Eggs Benedict at Crumbs 102

Marrakech

Back in Marrakech for a day before setting off across the Atlas mountains to start the second part of my trip…

Crossing the Atlas – Tizi N’ Tichka pass…

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazarte is the “Gateway to the Desert” and was my first stop once across the Atlas mountains. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky (they hardly ever see rain) and it was sunny and a reasonable 18 deg so I checked into my hotel and went for a wander about.

Mint tea…
I also ordered a smoothie but wasn’t expecting this…

When I got back to the room it felt quite chilly and I realised there were no extra blankets and the room heater barely worked – went to bed wearing some of my clothes. In the morning I was up and out before dawn for my morning run and was quite surprised to find there had been a frost and it was -2 degrees !

Freezing morning run…

I got back to the room, looking forward to a nice hot shower to warm me up – but no, it was barely luke warm. I put all the clothes on I had with me, including a fleece and coat and went down to breakfast, teeth chattering. Breakfast was in the cold and draughty hotel bar and did nothing to raise my spirits, or warm me up.

Chilly breakfast

Back in the room, sitting on the bed fully clothed, I contemplated my options. My first priority was to warm up so I went outside to the van, which was fortunately parked in the sun, and sat inside it to warm up. I then quickly decided to bin the plan I had for the second part of my trip…

In planning the trip I had looked at the daytime temperatures for the places I was planning to visit and they were all showing high teens, which I thought would be fine. What I hadn’t taken account of was the temperature RANGE of the desert climate in December. That morning it was -2 in Ouarzazate, but forecast to be 19 later in the day – that’s a 21 degree temperature range which is huge and unfortunately means that the “reasonable” temperatures are confined to a few hours in the afternoon, but the rest of the time it’s cold ! This in itself might be manageable “no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing” and all that, but the hotel I was in was unfortunatey quite typical of this part of Maroc – no real heating, no extra blankets and luke warm water. And this was supposed to be a holiday and not an endurance test, plus the feeling that the whole reason for me heading south for the winter was to avoid the cold and usually wetter weather back home in Cahors. Decision made, even though I had paid for two nights in the hotel I checked out and headed back across the Atlas to Marrakech, where it was 7 deg warmer.

En route I stopped off at a film set that was used for the 2006 horror film “The Hills Have Eyes” – a zombie apocalypse type of film, apparently. The Gas Haven is an American gas station where the film’s victims stop to refuel and ask directions.

The Gas Haven
View from one of the abandoned cars

As mentioned earlier I had researched a lot of potential off road routes over this side of the Atlas. A lot of these are routes across the desert that are called “pistes” – usually quite easy to follow and regularly used by the locals. Bit by bit these routes are being upgraded by the local authorities to proper tarmac roads, which I’m sure is welcomed by the locals but makes them a bit less adventurous for the intrepid explorer. Since Chris Scott’s book was last updated in 2017 there have been a lot of changes. See picture below for one example, which used to be a piste, but is now tarmac, even though it feels like you are driving through a Martian landscape.

On Mars

Marrakech

Back in Marrakech for a few days to come up with a new plan, enjoying the dramatically warmer temperatures. I decided I needed to stick to the West side of the country and the coast and the obvious destination was to head back to Essaouira and see if I could work out some motorbike/mountain bike routes from there. I didn’t feel compelled to head out on the bike from Marrakech, being quite content with aimlessly wandering about. My reasoning was that I could ride the bikes at home and in Portugal almost every day (and usually do), but soaking up the atmosphere in Marrakech is an experience not to be missed.

Morning run…
Maroc Telecom gardens, Marrakech
Mint tea and smoothie at the Cafe des Epices

The cafe des epices is hidden away inside the Souk but is one of my favourite places to sit and watch the world go by. The nearby place Jmaa El Fnaa is the beating heart of Marrakech with snake charmers, fortune tellers, tame monkeys, henna tatooists and pop up food stalls that appear in the evening and look like they’re on fire in the picture below.

Place Jmaa El Fnaa from the roof top terrace of the Cafe de France
Taxi, anyone ?

Essaouira

Back in Essaouira and with a forecast for the Christmas period of mid twenties and sunshine every day, I decided to break my usual routine and booked into a hotel for a week.

You know you’re abroad when…
Moroccan salad near the Medina
Sunset over the harbour
Sunset parasols
Pre dawn run
Copious breakfast…

Having been here last year on the CRF I did have a couple of routes in mind and one in particular led to a remote surf shack up on some cliffs to the south of Essaouira, I was keen to see if it was still there so plotted out a route and set off on the mountain bike.

The cross country route I had selected proved to be very hard work as it wound its way through the dunes and the soft sand was treacherous. To prevent the bike digging in, you have to keep up a reasonable speed which is only possible on an electric bike, but then you’re going a bit faster than comfortable as you have very little control over the direction. I did get more used to it, but used a lot of battery in the process and, in fact, took the road route back from the surf shack and got home with only 2% remaining.

Surf shack still there…
Back to the medina for fish tagine.

Having explored some of the trails on the mountain bike I was able to study the maps and Google Earth a bit more carefully to work out other possible routes. The main beach at Essaouira is out of bounds to bikes etc. and is reserved for sun bathing, swimming and surfing – plenty of surf schools. However, to the south of Essaouira there is a 20Km stretch of beach and dunes that seem to be relatively unrestricted – there are lots of places renting quad bikes, plus camel and horse riding options. The next day was Christmas Day which is just like a normal day here and I was determined to get out on the KTM at last – after my morning run and big breakfast, of course.

On my Christmas Day morning run I came across this chap on the dusty road, which I thought was quite evocative/symbolic – no sign of any wise men though…

On the beach

A huge expanse of beach with the tide out, no-one around and a KTM to play with. What better way to spend Christmas morning?

The beach proved to be quite easy to ride. The sand was mostly quite firm, but there were some soft patches which you had to watch out for. Not much different to riding on a gravel trail.

The dunes on the other hand were a different matter entirely as I had already found with the mountain bike. By way of preparation I had looked at a few YouTube videos to pick up some tips on sand riding which proved quite useful. In soft sand you have to get up enough speed for the bike to “float” over the sand rather than dig in – the feeling was likened to a small boat and the difference between ploughing through the water and being up on the plane. That’s all very well but you have to get up to speed to begin with and then maintain that momentum. And once the bike is floating you have no control with the steering so the usual countersteering input that you might use on the road simply doesn’t work and you have to get the bike to turn with your body weight. It was a huge amount of fun playing in the dunes and the most exciting Christmas Day I’ve had since Father Christmas stopped visiting.

And if you don’t keep up enough speed, the bike digs in and you get stuck…

Very glad I was on the KTM and not a bigger bike…

Exploring Dar Sultan Palace
Got this far along the beach but now need to get over this dune…
Back at the Surf Shack
Inside the Medina
Morning run
Making donuts on the beach…
Empty beach and KTM to play with
Stuck again…
Morning run by the light of the silvery moon…

Having spent all week in Essaouira and getting out every day on either the Trek or the KTM, it was time to start heading back up North ready to take up my apartment rental in Alvor starting on the 3 Jan.

El Jadida

Coffee stop en route to El Jadida. Hot and sunny.
Moroccan salad in El Jadida

My hotel in El Jadida was one I’d stayed in before and was selected mainly because they allow parking in the hotel grounds. I arrived on the 30 Dec and had originally planned to stay for the New Year, but their room rate tripled for the night as it included a meal and some entertainment. I knew I wouldn’t be staying up until midnight so it didn’t work for me – and they wouldn’t give me a reduction if I didn’t have the meal! So the next day I went further North to Asilah.
Before leaving Essaouira I had treated the van to a jet wash to get rid of the build up of dust and sand while I had been in Maroc. It didn’t come completely clean but was a big improvement. Imagine my horror when I got to the van in the morning and discovered I had parked under the local bird toilet…

Unfortunately the screen washers didn’t work so I had to splash a bit of bottled water onto the screen in order to get some visibility. I then set off looking for a service station where I would at least be able to clean the screen properly and I must admit I was feeling pretty grumpy at this point. I called into a services and asked about cleaning the screen but two lovely chaps offered to clean the whole thing and did a great job…

Clean van !

Soon after the cleaning stop I was driving along a dual carriageway with no barriers either side. when a car a couple of hundred metres ahead in the outside lane drifted into the central reservation and threw up a cloud of dust. I started braking and he then span across the road ahead of me and rolled into the ditch. I stopped to help get them out – dazed but apparently ok. That was a close one…

Oops

After having published this article I was reminded of another near miss on the road that I forgot to include, so I’ll add it here…
This was when Sara and I were driving either to, or from, Essaouira (can’t remember which). I was generally following the satnav and knew I had to turn right at the next roundabout, but I also like to check the signs as reassurance that we are still heading in the right direction. Sure enough there was a big sign and I turned right – they drive on the right so you go anti-clockwise around roundabouts. I then found myself driving along a two lane road on the right hand side which was perfectly normal, but it just didn’t feel right. Sara hadn’t noticed anything but I spotted another two lane road just off to our right heading in the same direction which I thought was a bit odd. I quickly looked back at the satnav, which wasn’t flagging a problem, but showed that we were on a dual carriageway AND WE WERE ON THE WRONG CARRIAGEWAY ! I thought something didn’t feel right, but fortunately there was absolutely no traffic in either direction and we managed to find a spot to get across the central reservation with a big sigh of relief. A couple of Km further on we passed a police check point and though “Oh shit !” they must have spotted us, but they just waved us through. Another close one…

Asilah

Back in Asilah for two nights with a bit more time to wander about and look at some of the wall art that features everywhere here..

Morning run on a deserted beach…
More beach riding on the Trek
Asilah
Asilah sunset

Tanger

Back to Tanger for the ferry home. I arrived early so had time for a bit of a wander round.

Tanger
Into the Medina.

El Cuervo

After the crossing, this was my overnight stop en route to Alvor. When doing this trip on the bike I stopped in Seville, but I decided that the traffic and parking with the van would be too much hassle.
As usual in Spain, no food available until after 8pm so I had to make do with some gourmet crisps and a glass of wine. It was only the usual Spanish plonk but tasted like nectar – my first alcohol for about three weeks…

Reflections On The Trip

It’s now about 6 weeks since I left home and I’ve been in Morocco for about 4. As it turned out the trip wasn’t the one I had originally planned but it was always very flexible as I only book a day or two ahead.

The highlight was definitely riding the dunes in Essaouira – so much fun. It was also nice to be able to get out on the mountain bike – also good fun and lower risk than the motorbike. Couldn’t have done this without the van. On the other hand, the van felt a bit of a liability especially in the cities – big and poor visibility. There is definitely an appeal in the minimalist approach of doing it on a bike.

A big lesson learnt was the weather, or more specifically temperature (temp range) in different parts of the country…

If the weather isn’t great in France at the beginning of March I’m wondering about coming back for a couple of weeks on the bike…

Until next time…