I felt rough that morning as I opened my tent and peered out at the grey light with squinting eyes. The endless rain that night had kept me awake and transformed the campsite near Assisi into muddy mayhem. It was camping misery at its finest and I was in the thick of it with a sopping tent and a puddle of water that squelched through my sodden ground sheet. Clearly, it was time to pack my motorbike and leave the Umbrian Apennines as soon as possible. The mid Spring weather had to be better further South.
I left Assisi behind and followed the busy road to Foligno, Spoleto and then on to Terni. There was just one more town in my sights before making my escape to the Adriatic coast. The infamous town of L’Aquila.
L’Aquila, the Eagle
Perched on the hills just south of the snow crested Gran Sasso massif, L’Aquila is the administrative capital of the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In the past it was a quaint medieval town with its fair share of attractive baroque and renascence architecture, a fine Spanish fort and beautiful basilicas worth a visit. L’Aquila was home to just under seventy thousand people and had a lively student community with a university known for it’s courses in engineering and science. In the early hours of the 6th April 2009 everything in this appealing, small Italian town came to a grinding halt. An earthquake, 5.8 in magnitude (Richter scale) ripped through the squares, the alleys and architecture sowing death and destruction in one of the biggest natural disasters Italy has witnessed in recent years.
I had never been to a disaster area and held some reservations as to how appropriate a visit might be. After all, I intended to take pictures and poke my nose into people’s hardship and misfortune. Several years from the quake had passed though and I guessed visitors were now welcome to take an interest in the recovery process.
A Sky full of Crains
L’Aquila greeted me with the uncanny sight of a crane crowded horizon. There was little traffic on the roads that led to the old town, no cafes, no markets, no shops or offices either. Once I reached the “centro”, disjointed and awkwardly leaning buildings appeared. There were condominiums four to five stories high, empty and abandoned with banners advertising their imminent “special demolition”. The walls were cracked with recurring “X” shaped patterns whilst wide patches of missing masonry gave a feeling of total neglect. Doors and shutters were left purposely open and made the eerie hollowness of empty homes all the more glaring. This was just the beginning.
The closer I rode towards the heart of old centre the greater the sense of devastation. Older buildings of historical value, the ones that make up so many of Italy’s iconic architecture, were wrapped up in braces, steel armour designed to support the battered “palazzi” and stop them from crumbling to waste. Those were the lucky buildings. Many smaller ones were simply left to their sorry fate with broken walls revealing bathrooms and kitchens of ex family homes.
The majority of roads were blocked off to traffic and access even on foot. Wooden barricades didn’t permit as much as a peek at what was hidden behind.
Most jaw dropping of all to me though was the sight of the thirteenth century church of S. Maria di Paganica an iconic symbol of L’Aquila, now missing its roof and almost all its frescoed apsis reduced to a heap of chipping on the ground.
Ask the Locals
I was aghast at the scale of the damage, the ruins and the ghostly stillness around me. I plucked up some courage though and asked a couple of strolling locals what they felt about their town and how the disaster had affected their lives. Young, perhaps in their early thirties, they didn’t mind my questions and answered with a smile about life as a “teremotato” (literally an “earthquaked person”). “It’s like putting your life on hold indefinitely” they said. “Some can’t take it and leave for a new start elsewhere. Others stay and help in the reconstruction efforts”. “We are all aware though that life in our hometown as we knew it, is over. The old communities have been erased for good. Many people have died.” “What’s bothering is that L’Aquila is now known for what happened here with the earthquake more than anything else. Those who come to visit these days have little idea of what our town was like before April of 2009”.
I left l’Aquila with a heavy heart, shaken and shocked. Images and words cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and helplessness that the old town conveys in its current state. I felt for the people of this place and their precarious sense of identity with a home town that is now a pale reminder of its former self. Livelihoods, careers, community, homes, all gone, all demolished. I thought of the over 300 fatalities of that distant April morning in 2009. Many were young students, just starting out in life.
I rode away and searched for a place to camp for the night. It didn’t matter any more if it meant more cold, rain and lack of sleep inside my wet tent and damp sleeping bag. After what I had just seen in L’Aquila, any camping hardship for the night was a very minor thing in comparison. At most, I hoped it might be a small tribute to the tenacity of the Aquilaians.
Over 300 people lost their lives in the earthquake.
Around 60,000 were left homeless.
L’Aquila’s old town centre was declared off-limits for over a year as the foundations for reconstruction work were being set.
Reconstruction efforts have been hampered by public contracts awarded to companies with ties to the Mafia.
In what some have described as a Witch Hunt, six geo scientists were convicted for man slaughter in 2011 for allegedly producing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” or, simply put, “unjustifiably reassuring information ” relating to tremors ahead of the earthquake of 6th April 2009. All the scientists were acquitted on appeal in 2015.
My route across Ukraine was blocked. People were shot at every day a few hundred kilometres ahead of me in the war torn Donbas area close to the border with Russia. Snipers were busy and artillery shells pounded, even civilian jet liners were blown from the sky as separatist rebels and government forces exchanged blows for control and sovereignty. It was unthinkable for anyone to cross the zone unscathed. My only option for further travel East by motorcycle was via a dubious, but much safer ferry service across the Black Sea or a very long detour north via Kiev and beyond.
Mr Vladlem of the UKR Ferry agency fixed an appointment for me at his office in downtown Odessa at eleven o’clock that morning and greeted me with a smile. He thanked me for my punctuality and offered me a seat. A quick look around his cramped working space revealed stacks of paperwork piled on desks and shelves, he was a busy man.
Slowly, in English he gave a well rehearsed speech on what to expect during my three day sail from Odessa to Batumi, in Georgia and warned that the ferry catered mainly for trucks and railway wagons carrying goods and occasionally livestock too. Tourists and motorcycles weren’t really part of the “picture” and there were no frills to be expected on board. I smiled, booked a cabin for myself and paid cash for the passage of one tourist and motorbike. The “picture” to me was better than a war zone.
The dock was somewhat isolated an hour’s ride South of Odessa and took a while for me to find. There was a run down check in facility with offices I needed to go through for authorisations and passport control. Finally, I was told to queue for boarding With the few other passengers travelling with me. To my astonishment and surprise, I found I was not the only motorcycle tourist in the line that day. I met Paul, from Scotland, another adventure biker heading East on his mighty KTM 990. Conversation got going and I was happy to have found a new biking pal.
The good ship MS Greifswald was no “family ferry” by any standard. Rather, she was more like some pick up truck of the sea, conveying, as Vladlem had told me, a mix of heavy freight vehicles, noisy pigs and sheep, massive rail wagons and a few stacked containers as well. Paul and I were held back and were amongst the last to board with our machines which were parked and secured next to some heavy rolling stock. Then, we were directed to our cabins which although a little bleak were surprisingly clean. I collapsed on my bunk with my riding gear and closed my eyes. When I woke up some hours later it was dark, the Greifswald had left port and was steaming at sea.
The first night of navigation took us no further than Costanza off the coast of Romania. Here anchors were dropped for a refuelling stop. As I stumbled out of my cabin early in the morning I learned there had just been some commotion through the night on the main deck. A couple of pigs had broken out of a truck and sparked a frenzied chase around the rail cars. All was in order now but it had taken a while to tire out the animals and secure them back in the truck.
The focal point of the Greifswald was definitely the galley. There was a bar here that would open a few hours a day for coffee, tea and expensive beer and this was really the only social event available on board. There was no television, no movies, no internet ……not even karaoke.
Announcements over the intercom were made regularly in Russian and English when meals were about to be served with wishes of a “good appetite” to all. The food was ok, I mean I liked it and lapped it up without fussing. It’s fair to say though that what we found on our plates was unusual. Pasta served with fried fish and tomatoes, or spaghetti with a scoop of liver and baked beans. Russian borsch followed by mash and rye. Breakfast was my favourite: semolina, cabbage and sausage served with a cup of lemon tea. I noticed Paul struggled with it all. In my mind it was all still better than food in a war zone.
So my friends, all in all the ferry crossing on the Black Sea took almost four days. It should have taken no more than three however, the long fuel stop in Romanian waters, some choppy weather conditions and a technical glitch once docked in Batumi stretched my crossing that little bit longer.
I found the Greifswald enjoyable, really! The basic service on board was comfortable enough and certainly left me with enduring memories. The staff was mostly accommodating and courteous. Perhaps the food could have done with a little more care but it was part of the experience none the less. The long crossing was a chance to relax and get away from riding my motorcycle every day. It was a chance to catch up with my thoughts in a clean, relaxing environment. I had time to plan some routes beyond Georgia and write some emails to send once internet became available once more.
In May 2016 the crossing cost 270 Euro. This included passage for my motorbike, a clean quiet cabin to myself and all meals as well. The connection between Odessa and Batumi is a regular service that runs at least twice a week although I recommend getting in touch with the UKR ferry office in Odessa a few days before you intend to sail. Their website in English and easy to navigate.
The Greifswald has space for cars and vans along with motorbikes and trucks. One last word of caution…if there is livestock on board you can expect smell when stepping outside in the open. It gets worse after day two and by day four all the animals are moaning about it too, it can be foul ?! Special thanks to Paul Maclean for pictures!
“Sasha has a Dacha in Sochi”…..these words taunted me throughout my Russian CD course some years ago. It was a catch phrase, part of a jingle just before the end of each lesson.
Russian is no easy language to learn, even the basics are frustratingly tough and not much stuck with me after the end of my course. However, “Sasha’s dacha”, are words I will never forget. “Саша имеет дачу в Сочи”. “One day”, I remember thinking, “ I’m gonna check out Sasha and his dacha in Sochi” for real.
Beach and Sunshine
Sochi is on the Russian coast of the Black Sea at no more than a few hour’s motorcycle ride from the city of Krasnodar. It thrives as a summer holiday resort for locals and, in Soviet times, was no doubt a prized retreat for the so called nomenklatura.
The town hits the headlines these days when it hosts the Russian Formula One Grand Prix, or when it’s the chosen location for an international convention of some kind. Sochi was also the venue for 2014 Winter Olympics and most recently was also part of the 2018 FIFA World Cup circuit.
My chance to visit Sochi came as I explored the Russian plains north of the Caucasus on my motorbike. Oncve there I also seized the opportunity to also visit the Russian coastline.
I rode the narrow Black Sea riviera road under the glare of a hot June sun. The road twisted its way around limestone outcrops and steep switchback inclines. I could caught occasional glimpses of the sea in the openings between the bushes and trees to the side of the road. It sparkled for a few short seconds before it vanished from sight for a mile or two before reappearing, glittering once more.
There were magnificent pine trees by the side of the road, just like the ones I knew from the Mediterranean with tall dark green canopies that offered shade and relief from the blistering heat.
The scenery however, was no Mediterranean landscape. The pine trees were not as dominant as they are along the coast of Italy, Spain and France. On the eastern coast of the Black Sea it was the ash and sycamore that claimed most of the space at the water’s edge. Also, the symphony of tireless cicadas that pace the hot summer days by the mediterranean were totally absent on the road to Sochi with no real “buzz” from insects in the foliage at all. It felt very still, a little eerie and different to what I expected.
Then, I caught a glimpse of the first beaches with sun bathers and holiday makers. I had hoped for brilliant white or grey sand but what I saw at the water’s edge were pebbles and rocks to lay down on. The water was dark, bluish and green, never quite as clear and inviting as the waters of island of Greece or of Spain.
Sochi greeted me with tall hotel blocks, traffic and busy shopping centres no different to most family resorts around the world. Young couples with children eating ice cream crowded the pavements while the elderly mostly sat on benches in the shade watching the world go by. Powerful German sports cars ploughed up and down the main strip and contended the road with American Harley’s, Italian and Japanese sports bikes. This was clearly a place to show affluence. Accommodation wasn’t cheap either and I struggled to find a room for less than fifty Euro a night.
There was definitely something about downtown Sochi that reeked of nostalgia. Most of the hotel architecture was frankly grim and … boring. It looked like lots of the construction work had been done hastily in the late sixties and seventies perhaps without much thought for design. Now the weathered cement was crumbling and many buildings looked in need of care.
The pebbly beaches in front of the hotel complexes were dull, narrow and cramped and walking bare foot was uninviting. However, family fun was everywhere to be seen with excited children playing in the water and watchful parents close by.
Water scooters for hire and floating “banana raft” rides were available as well. Russian dance music played loud from bars on the “Primorskaya Ulitsa” promenade where young girls roller bladed and boys gawked as they went by.
After dark I found the night life quite varied. Open air bars with lasers and DJs played Russian music. Young couples Danced on the dance floor, older ones also joined in. Small kids darted around causing mischief. Outstanding amounts of alcohol were consumed in a typical Russian way and I noticed that the dancing became more creative as the hours went by.
The Olympic Park
The Sochi Olympic Park was next on my list of highlights to check out. A huge construction project completed in 2014, just a few kilometres south of the old town.
The Olympic park contains the Fisht Olympic Stadium, the Bolshoi Ice dome, the Arena Skate Centre, the Sochi Autodrome (Russian Grand Prix) and more. There’s also a theme park for family and kids but perhaps most interesting of all is the Sochi Medal Plaza with its huge fountain. Every Saturday there’s a spectacular water and lights display here that never fails to draw a big crowd.
Wrapping it Up
Did I like Sochi? Yes and no. It’s a family resort for a family holiday. It’s expensive and frankly the beaches are disappointing. However, the atmosphere is relaxed and laid back and there’s entertainment and something for everyone.
Would I go back? Probably not, but then again I might do for a Russian Grand Prix or some other major sports event.
Did I find Sasha’s Dacha?
There were many beautiful houses and villas around Sochi. It occurred to me though, as I admired them, that I had no idea of what a real dacha was supposed to look like. I like to think that Sasha was there, somewhere and doing just fine.
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