We were both very apprehensive of 2021 on January 1st. Although the COVID pandemic seemed to be subsiding there were still many uncertainties. We both sensed that getting vaccinated was vital to us being able to continue traveling. However, the chances of two American citizens getting a vaccination in a foreign country looked bleak, especially in the regions of Europe that were struggling to get the vaccines for their own citizens.
Although our future of full-time travel seemed uncertain, we continued to press forward doing our best to keep rolling along and enjoying the relative freedom of the Balkan countries. With a bit of hope and a prayer in our hearts, we felt like things would somehow work out. Little did we know how well 2021 was going to be…
The New Year started for us in Budva, Montenegro – a country we both fell in love with because of the varied geography and natural beauty of the beaches, old Venetian and Mediterranean inspired villages, and rugged mountains. We decided to spoil ourselves for the New Year by renting a modern penthouse apartment overlooking the Adriatic Sea that included a patio jacuzzi, full kitchen, and super comfortable queen-sized bed. It was pure heaven and only 60 USD per night!
One of the highlights of January was booking a boat tour of Kotor Bay that included visiting the Lady of the Rock Church, Blue Cave, the massive mega-yachts of Porto Montenegro, and a former Yugoslavian submarine pen. We had the boat all to ourselves and the relative mild temperatures reminded us of the Southern California coast.
You can read more about our Montenegro adventures in ISSUE 59 of UPSHIFT.
February brought us into a country that surprised us – Albania. This was the first country in Europe where we felt like we were transported into another continent where we enjoyed a wide variety of natural beauty, remote dirt roads, and wonderfully generous people. A highlight for us was visiting the Castle of Kruja where we enjoyed a few days at a bed-and-breakfast within the walls of the old fortress. The castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been converted to a museum celebrating one of the most influential leaders of Albania – Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, or better know as just Skanderbeg.
Skanderbeg’s military victories over the Ottoman Empire of the 15 century were legendary and helped unite a large part of this region. Much of Albanian pride and history is focused on Skanderbeg. Even the countries flag, a black two headed eagle on a crimson red background, is a variant of the original coat of arms of Skanderbeg.
Our journey through Albania continued for nearly two months. We rode through most of the country, exploring the coastal marshes of the west, ancient Greek archeological sites of the south, the remote wilderness of the east, and the spectacular mountains of the north. We had hoped that we might be able to enter Greece by the end of March, but the borders remained closed to tourism. We decided that Greece would have to wait as we made our way north to enjoy more countries of the western Balkan region.
Read more about our two months in Albania in ISSUE 61 of UPSHIFT.
The winter snow of April was starting to dissipate, allowing us to venture a bit further from the coast and into the landlocked country of North Macedonia. We enjoyed some beautiful places around Lake Ohrid where we learned about the origins of the Cyrillic Alphabet and the influential leaders of the Orthodox Church. One of the most interesting sites was visiting the Makedonium in Krushevo where we walked inside the expansive monument and enjoyed the peacefulness and beauty of the stain-glassed windows, and abstract sculptures that depict the history of this country.
While in the capital city of Skopje, we enjoyed a relaxing week in a high-rise penthouse apartment overlooking the city, and found a motorcycle shop where we could get new tires for our mules. We’ve found that obtaining things like tires has been a bit more difficult due to the supply and shipment problems caused by COVID. Although we typically run a 50/50 (pavement/dirt) tire, we had to settle on a more road oriented tire – a set of Pirelli Scorpion STRs.
Read all about our time in North Macedonia in ISSUE 63 of UPSHIFT.
The end of the month brought us into the very interesting country of Kosovo. This partially recognized country suffered a war from 1990-1998 and the effects of the bloodshed and destruction are prevalent throughout the country. During this period, Albanian nationalists formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to fight against prosecution from Serbians. All throughout our travels we witnessed numerous memorials to KLA fighters and the entire destruction of Prekaz, where the KLA leader Adem Jashari was killed along with nearly 60 other family members.
Our final memory of Kosovo was visiting the newly constructed monument to remember the 440,000 war refugees who fled Kosovo and crossed over the border into the Bllaca Refugee Camp in Northern Macedonia.
While in Kosovo, we tried to get vaccinated at Camp Bondsteel, a US Army Base near Ferizaj, but the medical department was not issuing C-19 vaccinations to non-military US citizens. Plan B was to get vaccinated with Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) at the joint US/NATO base in Aviano, Italy. We just had to get there at a time when borders were still closed to tourism. We decided to keep on traveling and hope that Italy would be open sometime in May.
Our next country was Bosnia & Herzegovina. The border process was really easy and before long we were carving along windy mountain roads, enjoying the fresh green grass and colorful spring flowers. Highlights of our time in Bosnia & Herzegovina included visiting Tito’s nuclear bunker, the capital city of Sarajevo, and the abandoned sites of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
By the end of May, Italy had opened up and we were able to cross into Croatia, Slovenia, and get vaccinated in northern Italy. After a few days of recovery, we made our way along the south of the Alps and entered Switzerland. We had plans to explore the famous tourist sites of the Switzerland Alps, but May was still too early since much of the mountain passes were still closed due to seasonal snow. We decided to head north into Denmark, which had just started to open its borders.
June was an exciting month for us as we entered the gateway to Scandinavia – Denmark! We enjoyed a visit to the town of Billund – the birthplace of LEGO where The LEGO Group has its head office. We were surprised at how small the town was, especially considering that The LEGO Group is the largest toy manufacturer in the world. The LEGO House is situated just a block from the original 1932 factory where Ole Kirk Christiansen built his first wooden toys that have now grown into a multi-billion dollar business.
Another highlight of Denmark was finding the various wooden trolls designed by artist Thomas Dambo. These fun sculptures are created with recycled wood and are sprinkled throughout Denmark and around the Capital city of Copenhagen.
As the summer progressed we continued north in order to catch the midnight sun – a occurrence where the sun never sets from mid May to the end of July in the regions north of the Arctic Circle.
People warned us that riding through Sweden was going to be boring with the endless kilometers of forests and trees. We decided to break up the scenery by riding a large portion of the Trans Euro Trail (TET) through the country. The gravel and dirt roads of the TET were easily traveled by our G650GS adventure motorcycles and the backroads provided a bit of adventure to include numerous wild-camping spots, many encounters with wild reindeer herds, and even a small barge ferry where we had to hand-pull our motorcycles and us across a river.
The highlight of Sweden was the day we crossed the Arctic Circle, reached the midnights sun, and then spent a night in the magic of the ICEHOTEL. In 1990, the town of Jukkasjärvi became the location of the first hotel made entirely of ice. The nearby Torne River provides all the ice for the rooms, chairs, decorations, and bar which is built each year in November and lasts until April, before melting back into the river from which it came. In 2016, Icehotel 365 was opened, allowing guests to experience a night in the 23°F (-5°C) temperature controlled rooms all-year round. The ICEHOTEL was a truly memorable and magic moment.
By the end of the month, we had reached another famous landmark – North Cape! The weather was rather miserable with cold winds and rain. It wasn’t until 2 AM in the morning that the rain stopped enough for us to ride our mules to get some photographs of this iconic geographical extreme.
There is no doubt that Norway is an incredibly beautiful country with first-rate infrastructure, lots of backcountry to discover, historical sites to learn about, and stunning coastal views. In many ways it’s the perfect country to explore on two wheels except for the high cost of fuel (7.55 USD/gal) and the finicky weather which is often cloudy and rainy. Norway is also incredibly expensive – just second in the world behind Switzerland.
Throughout the month of August we traveled south along the coast using Norway’s system of excellent roadways, tunnels, and ferries. We thought the national speed limit of 80 kph (50 mph) was perfect for the kind of traveling we prefer on our loaded G650GS mules. We also felt that drivers in Norway were some of the most considerate we’ve come across in our travels of Europe. Take notes Albania!
As we neared the south of Norway we decided to partake in some adrenaline filled hikes that included Kjerag, Preikestolen and Trolltunga. Normally these popular tourists sites are packed with people visiting from all over the world, but with the combination of the C-19 pandemic and local schools starting the week before, we got to enjoy these places without the overcrowding. Although our feet were sore from hiking nearly everyday, the memories were definitely worth the effort.
As the end of the month creeped up on us, we had to get out of Schengen Europe, or risk violating the 90-day limit and possibly being fined. We quickly made our way to the UK passing through Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands in just a few days.
Although we had previously visited the UK and Ireland before in a 2018 trip, we didn’t have the time to properly enjoy the country of Wales, Scotland, and southwest England, so we were looking forward to exploring more of Great Britain. After boarding the ferry in the Netherlands to cross the English Channel, our first stop was to be presenters at The Overland Event in Oxford, England. We felt that if we shared our story of full-time motorcycle travel that others would be inspired to travel as well – despite the challenges of the C-19 pandemic. During the three-day event we got to meet up with other legendary motorcycle overlanders like Sam Manicom, Simon and Lisa Thomas, Steph Jeavons, Elspeth Beard, and many others.
After the Overland Event we were invited by Steph Jeavons to join her tour company Moto Junkies on their guided tour of Wales – apply called the Big Welsh Adventure. It was a fun filled four days of riding through some incredible landscapes and trails of this small but beautiful country. You can read more about Wales and our guided tour in ISSUE 64 of UPSHIFT.
For the rest of September we made our way north to enjoy the expansive beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Highlights included a night visit to the Kelpies, exploring all the sites of Orkney Island, and riding through the remote backcountry of the northern region. We even somehow managed to avoid the summer midges, and the gas-shortage that was a problem for much of the UK.
October brought us back south into England where Chantil and I split up for a few days. She attended a reunion with women that rode with her on a previous motorcycle trip to Everest Base Camp, while I attended a photo workshop hosted by Simon & Lisa Thomas. Once we were reunited, we visited John Small and his company Cool Covers, were he got us set up with two seat covers for our mules. John even offered to let us store our mules in his company garage while we took a train to visit London over the weekend. In London we visited the typical famous sites, discovered the wide variety of street artists, and even attended a musical of Back to the Future.
After returning from London, we rode along the southwest coast of England and enjoyed narrow cobblestone roads, seaside views, and English villages. During our final days in England we visited Land’s End, Beaulieu National Motor Museum, and then hopped on a ferry in Portsmouth to make the journey to northern Spain.
We rode off the ferry and into the grey clouds and rain of northern Spain. This wasn’t what I had imagined or hoped Spain would be like. We decided to stay in Bilbao during the rainy weekend and enjoy indoor activities like visiting the Guggenheim Museum. After the rain cleared we made our way south to ride portions of the Trans Euro Trail within Las Bardenas Reales. This natural park had lots of dirt roads to ride on and open land to camp in.
We were having a wonderful time in the deserts when I discovered that my mules radiator had started to leak. Fortunately the temperature wasn’t too hot so I was able to ride to a nearby BMW dealer where they overnighted a new radiator and I was able to replace it in their shop using their lift and our own tools.
The next couple weeks were spent riding through the brilliant autumn colors of reds, oranges, and yellows of northern Spain. We both felt very fortunate to be riding in late November when many others in Europe and North America were storing their motorcycles in garages for the winter months.
During the final week of November we made our way south towards Portugal and started riding the entire 776 miles (1250 km) of the Adventure Country Track from the northern town of Bragança to the southern coast of Tavira.
We continued south through Portugal while riding the Adventure Country Track along the eastern side of the country. The northern half of Portugal continued to impress us with the vibrant colors of autumn as we rode past small farming villages, medieval and ottoman castles, and even an abandoned ore mine that looked like something out of a Star Wars movie.
After reaching the southern coast, we continued into Spain and made it to the city of Cartagena, where we met up with our friend Maria and her family. She graciously agreed to let us store our mules in her garage while we returned home to the USA for the holiday season.
A Wonderful Year of Memories
In total we traveled 20,000 miles, visited 20 countries, took over 4,850 photographs, published 7 articles for UPSHIFT, wrote 26 blog posts, and created 33 YouTube videos. What a year!
Looking Forward to 2022
We’re excited to see what 2022 brings us. We’re confident that we will be able to enter Morocco in March, return to Europe to explore Italy and Greece in the spring, and then ride into eastern Europe and the Baltic countries in the summer. More adventure awaits…
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