Aren’t digital cameras great? If you have a memory as bad as mine and need to work out when you did something, check the digital photos you took of it.
The day was the 18th of July 2011, my best friend and I were waiting in Harwich port to catch the ferry over to Esbjerg in Denmark. The air was muggy and the sky looked the way that most British summer days look; like it might rain, but probably won’t.
But we were excited and didn’t care about the weather. We were on holiday for the next two weeks. After a busy week at work, the ride out of London is always a cathartic experience, leaving the buildings and the people behind. You can feel the buzz of the big smoke fading away far behind as you move back into nature, and into wide open space.
A relaxed-fast ride down the A13 was a great way to unwind after a busy week at work. Two weeks away from it all in a new and unexplored land, with great roads and not many people was stacking up as a delightful proposition. I had my good friend and trusted biking buddy Prew with me. I sensed this was going to be a lot of fun, a real adventure.
As far as motorcycle touring trips go, the big one, the trip that was up there on my must-do list was a bike tour of Scandinavia. I’d been round France twice; once on my own on a CBR600F way back in 2005, and once with Prew, and I’d also been to the Highlands of Scotland on my CBR600.
My solo tour of Scotland was a wonderful experience, which really lighted me up to the wonders of touring, especially touring alone. Luckily for me, the weather had been great. It was a bit fresh, but sensually invigorating and not a midge in sight.
The wide open spaces, the ability to set my own schedule and the sheer beauty of the landscape in front of me was undeniably moving, I have described that trip to some as a spiritual experience, and while most people just smile and look uncomfortable, I stand by my original comments; I came back a different person and I could feel it.
I’d heard that Norway hosted a similarly dramatic and ancient landscape to Scotland, and I was up for the challenge of getting out there. This photo was taken in Sutherland, east of Ullapool on a bright crisp October day.
In days gone by, a passenger ferry linked Stavanger in Norway and Newcastle, which would have been perfect for a round trip from Harwich, but sadly the passenger route has now closed down. That’s not to say you can’t get a boat across, but it would be something of an unknown entity. Harwich-Esbjerg and Esbjerg-Harwich it is then.
Normally a trip abroad commences in a busy crowd in Dover, with hundreds of other vehicles, caravans, motorcycles and HGV’s. There’s also a great sense of the hustle and bustle of Europe which lies ahead over the channel. But as we sat in Harwich waiting for the ferry, surrounded mostly by HGVs, with a single line of cars, and our two motorcycles, the Scandinavian connection seemed altogether a more chilled out proposition.
Our plan was a simple one, crafted in the spirit of adventure. Book two weeks off work, book a return ferry ticket, and travel where the mood and the weather takes us. Travelling in July we had a few concerns about accommodation, but the fun of making it up as you go along is so much more gratifying than the security of knowing that you have somewhere to stay at the end of the day. And when you’ve done this a few times, you come to trust that things work out well the more you relax and let go. Booking ahead is safe, but since when was safe any fun? Touring is so much more interesting when there are no concrete plans; stay another day, don’t stay at all.
Jenny, an ex-housemate in London, had moved back to Malmö, set herself up in her new flat, and she had told me that she was more than willing to accommodate us for a night or two. Great! First stop Malmö.
DFDS seaways operate the route to Esbjerg, and for someone used to a Dover-Calais P&O ferry, the Scandinavian ferries were a revelation. You pay a bit more for a cabin, and you pay more for your food, but you get a good night’s sleep, and the food is millions of times better than your usual cross-channel ferry fare. There’s not a chip in sight, and there’s lots and lots of seafood (cold shelled prawns, crayfish, salmon, all the varieties of herring you can think of, and some you can’t). The Scandinavians enjoy a good standard of living, and they don’t mind paying for it. This attitude, I like.
It’s 6am and we arrive into Esbjerg port, the tall stack of the town’s CHP plant lets us know that we are indeed in Scandinavia. Esbjerg is a typical port town, with a rather less typically attractive town centre. We get some cash from a cashpoint and start our trip across Denmark to Malmö.
Malmö is in Sweden, just over the border from Denmark’s capital city, Copenhagen. The two cities are joined by the Øresund bridge (The Bridge of TV crime drama fame), a nearly 8km suspension bridge which spans the Øresund body of water. It is not unusual for people to live in one city and commute to the other.
Things of note about Denmark.
1. The Danes are easy on the eye
2. There are lots of blonde people with really good tans
3. The land is mostly flat
4. There are wind turbines everywhere
5. The Danes drive fast (for Scandinavians)
We take a scenic route on our way to Copenhagen and Malmö. Our little detour takes us down to a pretty little Danish marina; Faaborg, with pretty white shacks, cobbled streets and sailing boats. We stop for some refreshment; a cup of tea and a slice of cake before heading on our way. The smaller villages are a bit like you might find in the southern counties of the UK, Sussex, Dorset, Devon. Small, pretty and quaint little cottages. The place is certainly old, and well tended.
The last blast to Malmö is a fun ride, fast and flowing, and we enjoy keeping up with the local drivers who like to put their feet down.
Crossing the Øresund bridge is one of my highlights of the trip. It is not particularly blowy today (thankfully) so the ride is not a daunting one, and the view of the bridge and from the bridge is epic. There’s something great about experiencing the world from a motorcycle with its panoramic visibility, rather than being stuck inside the shell of a car.
My iPhone tomtom app is programmed with Jenny’s address, and as we pull into Malmö town centre at 6.30pm, we are hot, tired and ready for a shower and nice cold beer. We are encouraged to wheel our motorcycles into the courtyard for safe-keeping. Jenny’s flat is nice. modern, spacious and elegant. We have a catch up, meet Robbie (Jenny’s partner) and have a bite to eat before heading out to see the town and have a few drinks.
Jenny takes us to the old part of town, The Stortorget, where we sit outside and have a few reassuringly expensive beers. It is a very attractive place to unwind from the day’s activities. As we’re sitting there, basking in our achievement, and feeling excited anticipation of the weeks ahead, we are feeling full of ourselves; really in our element.
We notice a couple of pretty girls nearby giving us the eye. We wait a while to check that they are indeed trying to get our attention, before approaching them for a chat. Before long they are appreciating our English accents, and we’re getting on like a house on fire.
As the outside bars are closing, we head off to another local bar for a drink. The bar becomes a disco / bar, and we dance away until this eventually closes too. We head to the Danish equivalent of McDonalds for some post alcohol nourishment, before continuing the party back at theirs. Come the early hours of the morning, as it’s just starting to get light, we begin the long walk of shame back to Jenny’s apartment. It’s a wonder that we manage to find it. I certainly wasn’t paying attention when we left the night before, and Malmö is hardly a small city (3rd biggest in Sweden). Somehow we find our way back, and grab a couple of hours kip.
The next day we need something to wake us up, so Jenny suggests that we head down to the shore and go for a swim. Jenny and Robbie have some errands to run, and leave us on the decking to contemplate the cool waters of the Øresund. The structure adjacent is the twisted torso tower, which is an interesting piece of architecture. The Øresund bridge is visible in the distance. The local boys are impressing the local girls by jumping into the cool waters. We’ve not got our ladies here to impress, but a dip in the cool water is just what a hangover requires, and snaps us back to life.
It turns out that Robbie is also a biker, and Jenny has her leather jacket and helmet at the ready, so we decide to take a leisurely ride out that evening, away from the city into the local countryside. The landscape is rather pretty, and the local roads are small and twisty. It’s not great territory for a sportsbike, but the GSX-R is a willing participant, and we take it easy as we ride along. That evening we head out for a meal in a local restaurant, Rebell for some really great modern Swedish cuisine.
Malmö has been good to us, and our guests more than giving, but two nights is a good stay, so onward we must go.
We are given a heads up to visit Båstad (yeah funny, but it’s pronounced Bor-sta), which is where the Swedish ATP tennis tour is held. It’s only 80 miles or so up the coast. Jenny and Robbie ride with us most of the way, and after another tea and cake stop (it’s a hard life touring by motorcycle) the weather takes a turn for the worse and summer rain starts to fall, it’s shower cap time.
The last leg up to Båstad is a (ahem) bastard motorway slog complete with spray and poor visibility, and as we pull into town, soaked through, the kangaroo burger van and other market stalls are packing up. It turns out the tennis finished yesterday. Oh well, at least we should be able to find somewhere to stay.
We visit the tourist information centre and hook up a B&B. The little room is reasonably priced, warm, and most importantly to any biker, it comes with radiators, and places to hang wet clothing to dry. It may look like something out of Hansel and Gretel, but we don’t really care. The shower is hot and wet, and the towels are dry. We refresh ourselves before heading out to look for some food and drink.
The local restaurant we choose is located in the marina, and very attractive it is too. Not that there’s much choice; most of the town appears to be shut. We find a seat outside with a patio heater attached and order our food. Meat.
What comes out, and I’m not exaggerating, is the best steak that I have even eaten. I know they say that hunger is the best sauce, but sometimes when you are not expecting something to be as good, it just bowls you over. This was one of those moments. (We had another when we rode up to Ady Smith’s off-road school in Wales, and stopped in an all but empty Dolce Vita restaurant in Shrewsbury.)
This is the benefit of making it up as you go along. When it all comes together for you, you feel like a King; like there’s a concierge party going out ahead of you and paving the way, and all you need to do is show up. We spent a good half an hour gushing over how delicious our meals were, before we wondered what other gems this little town could serve up.
We headed up the hill, as the rain was starting to fall in bigger drops, to the casino / bar where music could be heard. We stumbled across a live band. I’m not sure where they were from but they sounded to my ear at least to be singing in Portuguese. Brazilian? The dancing girls accompanying them looked like they might be from the Rio street carnival.
Four musicians; Acoustic guitar, ukulele, percussionist and a guy with a floor tom and mallet. It was a riot, an absolute riot. If I’d not been so tired, and if I knew how to dance the Brazilian way with a strong confident Brazilian woman (must go to Brazil), I’d have been giving it everything I’d got. Another gem, unexpected, and all the more brilliant for it. As we left in the rain, we were grinning from ear to ear.
Båstad to Göteborg is only 110 miles and an obvious choice to visit. As we ride North, the weather warms up, and just south of Gothenburg I have to stop to put my jeans on, I’m so hot. I also check out my poor functioning rear brake, only to discover that one of the caliper bolts has fallen out, leaving it hanging from one solitary bolt. At least the brake hose is helping to keep it in place. It’s not ideal, but not the end of the world either. I can work with it. I tighten the other bolt and ride into town avoiding using the rear brake at all.
After a chat with the Tourist office, we settle upon the least most expensive decent hotel in town, a Best Western by the harbour. It’s not cheap, and it only has 1.5 beds, but it will have to do. As the taller of the two of us, I bag the proper bed. We have two nights here, so a full day tomorrow to explore the place.
As we leave the hotel to find some food, I fashion a makeshift brake repair using items I’ve found on the ground outside the hotel: A bamboo chopstick from the Chinese restaurant next door, and a couple of used cable ties are put in place to hold the caliper on the disc.
Prew has been complaining that his bike doesn’t feel right, we don’t know what it is, but suspect it may be ignition related. We look up dealerships, only to find that they are few and far between in Sweden, and not open 5, let alone 7 days a week. How spoiled we are in the UK.
The next day we take our Scandinavian breakfast: mini frankfurters, streaky bacon, eggs scrambled or boiled, danish pastries, cheeses, meats, bread & muesli, and some kind of soured yoghurt called filmjölk which the Swedes love.
We take a trip around the replica Swedish East India Company boat in the harbour (conveniently located right next to our hotel) and learn all about Sweden’s maritime past. We do a bit of sightseeing in town, take tea and cake next to the CHP plant, and finish the evening off in a club called Nefertiti dancing away to some seriously funky tunes. The club usually hosts jazz, so it knows what it is doing music-wise. We dance away until the early hours in the dark basement with lots of funky swedes. Their dancing wasn’t too shabby either.
I could easily see myself living in a city like Gothenburg. As Sweden’s second largest city, it has a good feel, lots to keep you interested, and it is on the coast and receives milder weather than the rest of the country due to the gulf stream. It is also beautifully built, and is big enough, but not too big. That perfect city size. It is slightly smaller than Manchester, to give you an idea.
Onwards and Upwards
Our next leg took us up towards Olso. We considered heading east to Stockholm, but there’s not much in Eastern Sweden besides Stockholm, and not having experienced the kind of roads we came here for, we really were hankering after Norway. So we pushed on up towards Olso.
The North of Sweden is mostly forests and lakes, and little roads scribed in between them. The riding is good fun, the scenery is great, and there aren’t that many people around so we can get into a good rhythm. The roads in the north of Sweden are extremely good when dry, but for my tyres at least, not quite so good in the wet. I think I was running Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsas on my Suzuki.
We later found out that on the 22nd of July, the day we rode into Gothenburg, extremist terrorist attacks in Olso killed 77 people. We decided that if we were heading to Olso, that we should aim for the outskirts to avoid having these rather depressing events spoil our holiday.
We found a place called Drammen on the outskirts of Oslo, and headed there. We found a nice hotel which put us up for the night. The room included the evening buffet meal; it was clearly geared up to serve businessmen. We didn’t mind and had a luxurious buffet meal washed down with a few jars of beer at the bar.
The next day we planned our trip west. I had wanted to visit Bergen on the coast, but it would take a fair old trek to get there, it was the 25th July and we only had 5 days till our return ferry on the evening of the 30th.
Then we stumbled across an idea; we could catch the overnight ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen on the 28th, spend a night in Copenhagen on the 29th, and ride back to Esbjerg on the 30th. Very civilised.
As soon as we got going on our trip to Bergen, it started raining. By small way of compensation, at least the roads became more interesting. Norway heading east from Oslo vey quickly becomes Fjord country, and the valleys and scenery are stunning. This is why we came here; grippy, empty roads.
The first leg takes us over the Hardangervidda National park, it is a notoriously inhospitable place, a wild and barren wilderness. It sits above the tree line at an average elevation of 1100m, so it’s pretty cold even in summer. Ray Mears did a survival programme about the Real Heroes of Telemark, which was about the Hardangervidda.
It looks like the sort of landscape the dinosaurs might have lived in. At the end of the Handangervide, sits the town of Eidfjord. I’d seen photos of this town, nestled in between the Fjords; they frequently appear in Norway Tourist Brochures. But the weather was so poor and the visibility so appalling that while I knew the hills were out there, I couldn’t see them. After a frankly horrid day riding across the Hardangervidda, with yet more drizzle, we were soaking wet through, and decided to stop at the first decent town. We stopped and eventually found a room in Eidfjord (the home of the creepy toll).
The next day we got the boat over the fjord, but again the visibility was so atrocious, we might as well have been crossing the English Channel for all we saw of the scenery. The stretch from Eidfjord to Bergen was not much fun either, more rain, drizzle and lots of traffic. It saps the energy, and keeps your core cool.
The traffic we did encounter was driving pathetically slowly, and I was beginning to lose my patience with Norwegian drivers (have you all been sedated? Let me hear your viking ROAR?). They dawdle along at 50mph. Even the Porsches were sticking to the speed limits. Yawn.
Prew’s bike was still misfiring, and I told him we could stop to have a look, or try to find somewhere where we could get a mechanic to check it out. I scratched my head. It’s a Honda CBR600 for god’s sake. It’s tried and tested. What could possibly go wrong? I put 47,000 miles on my CBR6, and the only thing I changed was the fluids.
We pulled in to do some rudimentary repairs. Prew got handy with the bike’s toolkit, removed the plugs and put them back in again. What we forgot to do was brush the points. The misfiring continued. It later turned out the misfiring issue was caused by a spark plug. He’d bought the bike with 2,000 miles on the clock, even though it was about 7 years old. The plugs are changed every 16,000 miles, but clearly these ones had corroded and weren’t firing properly.
‘This is bollocks’
It just isn’t any fun to be riding along on a sportsbike at 50mph. 60 is just about bearable, but 50 is a step too far. It reminded me of the Family Guy episode where Peter is at the games arcade playing ‘virtual stuck behind a Bus’. Except I wasn’t enjoying it.
By the time we got to Bergen, with the drizzle firmly in place and showing no signs of abating, I couldn’t care less that the place was a beautiful picture-postcard destination, I’d had enough. I wanted fast, smooth, empty roads, and this was about as far from that as it was possible to get.
So we made an executive decision to keep on riding. I think Prew’s exact words were: “This is bollocks”. So rather than stopping in Bergen, we decided to press on eastwards and hopefully away from this annoyingly relentless weather front.
If we stayed in Bergen, we would only have a single day to get from Bergen back to Oslo, which is a fair old slog allowing some room for manoeuvre. While we hadn’t booked a place on the ferry, we were intending to get it, to knock out some serious miles of the return leg to the UK.
Having approached Bergen from the South, our return trip would head north, past Vossevangen and Flåm back towards Oslo.
The one thing you notice when you visit Norway, apart from the fact that the motorists are driving around like scared old ladies, is that the Norwegians love their tunnels. When your landscape looks like sheer volcanic rock interspersed with flat plains, you can’t go up and over, you have to go through.
Of the many tunnels that we rode through in Norway, the most interesting one took us completely by surprise. As you enter a tunnel, there is a sign on the side of the road telling you how far you have to go to get out of it. It normally says 5km, or maybe 8km. This time I read the sign, then did a double take. 25km? You’ve got to be kidding me.
As we drove forward, deeper and deeper into the darkness I realised it was true. I could see no end. This was a 25km tunnel. I checked my mental thoughts to keep myself from going into fear. I was grateful for the reliability of my motorcycle, I was also glad that I had someone with me. I remembered stories of the Mont Blanc tunnel fire, and quickly put them to one side. It felt exciting, a bit scary, but I was in no doubt that breaking down in a tunnel like this could spell disaster. It didn’t even bear thinking about, so I thought my happy thoughts and maintained a steady speed.
The tunnel has three rest areas every 6km, to help drivers to refresh, or to gather themselves if they suffer ill effects from driving in tunnels. As you reach these inner sanctums, they certainly break up the monotony of what is effectively driving in the dark down a narrow lane of two way traffic for a quarter of an hour, they are actually rather nice places to be. I bet they hired a colour consultant to find the most soothing colour.
The Lærdal Tunnel is 25km (15 miles) long. Completed in 2000, it took five years to build and is the longest road tunnel in the world. I was just relieved to come out the other side.
Leaving the tunnel, at last things started to dry out. The sun came out and the road emptied of pretty much everyone. As the sun lowered in the sky directly behind us, we drove down the empty glacial valley floors down fast sweeping roads, and suddenly everything came together, everything clicked.
This was the experience we had come here for. It reminded me of the A835 in Scotlad between Ullapool and Maryburgh; fast,flowing, grippy and empty. It’s the sort of sustained high speed riding that makes going fast so exciting; the scenery is awesome, the roads are well surfaced and there’s nobody there to impede your progress.
After a long day of twisty and mostly wet riding (about 270 miles), we pulled into Hemsedal, a skiing town with no snow and a skeleton crew of winter sports workers running approximately one restaurant and some skiing accomodation.
£20 was a bit steep for a pizza, but we were so tired and hungry we devoured it gratefully. Norway is expensive, and if you go there, you just learn to deal with it. We ended up drinking in the only bar in town which happened to be in a hotel over the road from our accommodation. I’m sure the place is more fun in the winter, but in the middle of the Summer it’s like a wild west town without the tumbleweed. Dead.
Our final push to get to the ferry was the best day of riding in the whole trip. A combination of elements (mainly the elements called the weather) came together to make it really special.
1. We’d been in the saddle riding for a number of day, so were at-one with our bikes,
2. We had a target to aim for; a ferry which was leaving at a specific time
3. The roads were dry,
4. The sun was shining,
5. The scenery was spectacular.
You might even have some good tunes playing on the iPod. Also, because you’ve been tip-toeing around on wet, greasy roads, when they do eventually dry out, you feel like a riding god. You know exactly how much grip you have, and you know that it’s a lot. You can feel precisely how far you can push it as your sensitivity setting has been amped up from riding fast in the wet.
Once we entered Oslo municipality, the run to the ferry was a race against the clock, combined with underground tunnels and blindly following the satnav, it felt a bit like the arcade game Out-Run. We made the excellent DFDS ferry in plenty of time, managed to get a cabin, and climbed aboard, satisfied that we had experienced one of the best day’s riding ever, and wouldn’t have to slog it out to Copenhagen by road. The overnight ferry kills two birds with one stone; travelling and sleeping. So while you might consider the ferry expensive, factor in fuel, tyres and hotels before making up your mind.
There are people who enjoy the thought of living in the Caribbean, where the sun shines every day and the weather is always hot. Me, I like a bit of contrast in my life. I like the seasons; I like the hot and the cold, I like the light and the dark, the wet and the dry. Motorcycles are all about contrast. If you don’t like contrast, you won’t like motorcycles. Like to be at a climatically controlled 20.5 degrees? Get a car.
You need to experience one aspect before you can know its opposite. Does one day of amazing riding amongst 10 days of mediocre riding make it all worthwhile? For me, absolutely yes. In fact I would say the one day is made more delightful, precisely because the other days were so bad. We could have rendezvous’d with Norway under better conditions, but the days which were good were better because of the bad days.
The last day in Copenhagen was interesting. It is a beautiful city, fun, big but friendly, individualistic, academic and intellectual. We found a little hotel called the Best Western Hebron. It wasn’t the best location; in the red light district next to a strip club called ‘Lady Love’ (tagline: where wet dreams come true). But the hotel’s staff were extremely friendly. In any case, the scandies don’t have the same prudish attitude to sexuality that we Brits have, so they wouldn’t think anything of it; there were plenty of families staying there. The hotel kindly let us park our bikes inside their courtyard, which involved bringing them through the main hotel reception lobby (I doubt you would find a more accommodating hotel anywhere).
Copenhagen was a fun place to hang out, but by now travel weariness was setting in, the clothes in our bags, having been wetted and worn and wetted again were starting to ripen nicely, and needed to be wrapped in plastic to keep their rich aromas at bay. Touring with soft luggage may help the handling of your bike, but if it rains, you’ll wish you had a top box and hard luggage.
We enjoyed the last blast back to Esbjerg and Harwich and then back on home.
To this day, thoughts of the Scandinavian adventure still linger in my mind. If I want to remember one moment of sheer riding joy, where I felt free, powerful and completely in control, I remember the dash to the Oslo ferry. The sun was shining, and I was scraping the footpegs as we rode along the valley floor; fast, flowing and totally in control. It was as close to riding perfection as I’ve experienced.
We didn’t encounter any problems (apart from the annoying misfiring and the brake caliper). We met some locals, ate the local food (mostly fish) drank the local beer, and generally had fun exploring and riding our bikes.
It was the most memorable road trip I can remember, and if you manage to get good weather, I would say Norway is the place to go. It would be fabulous if the Newcastle – Stavanger route reopened. If you can’t afford Norway, give the Highlands of Scotland a go.
The google map below shows our approximate route from Esbjerg to Oslo via Bergen