We’ve been lucky enough to see and learn about cultures, customs, traditions and languages very different from our own. But this, more than anything else, is what travelling is about: discovering new things!
The story of the 7,145 km and eight countries we crossed on our way to the lesser known side of Europe will not be an easy one to tell.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Hi, my name is Federico. I’m 31 years old. I’m a lawyer, and I love to travel on my motorcycle. After roaming far and wide through the Alps, conquering the Pyrenees and completing the Austria Classic Tour, in 2018, I decided to raise the bar. Alone with my travelling companion, my VStorm 1000, I struck out for the North and arrived, my eyes filled with wonder, in a place which is magical for all motorcyclists, the North Cape!
At the end of the year, this time with Monica (sometimes you need the old lady for support!), we took the opposite direction: Africa, Tunisia, and the Sahara!
This spring, when we began planning our summer adventure, it was no easy task to choose a destination.
We had so many ideas… the Scottish coastline, the Emerald Isle of Ireland, Spain and Portugal, all intriguing, but it didn’t seem the right time for any of them.
Then, day by day, an idea began to emerge. There’s a side of Europe, not just in terms of the EU but as a continent, that we really knew nothing about, countries and people with a glorious past and rich relationships with central Europe, but whose twentieth-century history was completely different than ours.
Yes, this was the destination for us.
And so began our trip #toRussia.
Once we had chosen our destination, we had to map our route and get through the bureaucratic procedures for our visas.
We decided to stop off in the capital cities and most important towns of the various states, combining our motorcycle holiday with city breaks. This would inevitably mean having to cover a few extra kilometres on motorways or highways, but how could we fail to find the time to visit Prague, Krakow, Tallinn and the other amazing cities that awaited us?
Once we had linked up our stops, there was still the “problem” of getting into Russia and doing our research into getting an E visa for the motorcycle. Then came servicing and changing the tyres, obviously, choosing the most suitable top cases for transporting our luggage, helmets and clothing. In fact, once we left Italy, we would encounter a fairly mild climate, with rain as the only uncertain factor.
Our first port of call was supposed to be Salzburg, but we decided to set out a day early in order to enjoy an extra stop at the Reschen Pass.
Leaving the hills of Asti behind always tugs at the heartstrings as its UNESCO world heritage sites and landscapes gradually become smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirrors.
But then, the adrenaline and appetite for adventure took over. The ascent to Lake Reschen is breath taking, the asphalt perfect and the curves in the road fill you with an infinite joy. At the top, the view of the bell tower submerged in the water and the history behind it left us speechless. We stopped for the night in Pfunds, just a few kilometres over the Italian-Austrian border. After an excellent meal in true South Tyrolean tradition, it was time for us to rest!
On the second day, thanks to our wisely planned departure, only 280 km were left to go before our arrival in Salzburg and the beginning of the cultural part of our trip.
Driving through Austria is always a moving experience. Whether you are on a mountain pass, a country road or a motorway, the asphalt is always perfect, there are no shortage of curves in the road and your enjoyment is guaranteed. The only problem is the speed limits, which must be strictly adhered to, given the huge number of speed cameras. We arrived in the early afternoon and gave ourselves just enough time to change before hurrying to see all we could of Mozart’s home city.
The impregnable Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Domplatz and Mirabell Palace were all stunning, making us feel as though we had travelled back in time. But the most lasting impression for us was the omnipresence of classical music.
Prague and Warsaw
We chose Prague as our third stop, arriving through landscapes of lush countryside.
We arrived at the Old Town Square, the location of the Town Hall with its astronomical clock, just a few minutes before 4:00 p.m. and with people starting to gather beneath the tower.
3, 2, 1… the clock’s mechanism sprang into action and the show began, with the 12 apostles taking turns to greet the crowd from the windows of the clock tower.
Next, we plunged into the streets of the town centre and, after crossing the Charles Bridge, began the ascent of the hill to the castle perched atop to admire the view.
The next morning, we started out bright and early for Warsaw, a distance of 680 km. Once in Poland, we were astonished by the beauty of the countryside. Our eyes lost in the vast plains, we had arrived at our destination before we even knew it. Warsaw is a city unlike any other, living between its Memories, with a capital M, and a desire for rebirth.
The Baltic States
With Warsaw behind us, but still carrying the memory of World War II which would stay with us for the rest of the journey, we headed for Vilnius, the first of the capital cities of the Baltic States.
Our navigation device, however, decided to play a joke on us and guided us to the border with Belarus, where a visa is needed to enter. Luckily for us, every cloud has a silver lining, and this one led to our discovery of one of the most beautiful stretches of road we encountered throughout the whole holiday!
Kilometre after kilometre, a series of rural villages and curves varying in sharpness unfolded, until finally, we arrived on the shores of a lake where a group of young people entertained us with the sounds of their sax and trumpet music.
After a delightful tour of the streets of Vilnius and a wonderful meal, the sky was not boding well for us and, in the morning, we woke up to a downpour. The time had come to try out our GIVI CRS02EXY rain gear. Given the reduced visibility, the fluorescent jacket was just the thing for us!
The rain didn’t let up for an instant, inevitably lengthening the journey. But the historic centre of Riga and its Jauniela Street, in true art nouveau style, were worth the effort.
Our third day in the Baltic States brought us to Tallinn. In the midst of the rain, we had not noticed the roads becoming straighter and straighter, densely flanked by tall trees.
Then, suddenly spotting a dark blue blur on our left, we pulled over to find the Baltic Sea spread out in front of us.
Our visit to Tallinn was surprising. It is without a doubt the most beautiful of the Baltic capitals. The medieval historic centre is perfectly preserved, and we saw the first Orthodox church with the classic pointed domes.
Beyond the border
At 11:00 a.m., as scheduled, we turned up at the Narva checkpoint on the militarised border (be aware, if you need to cross the border between Estonia and Russia at Narva, remember to register and book on the official website. This will save you from queuing for hours!). Here, two fortresses on opposite banks of the river act as a reminder that time does not always change the souls of men. Having filled out the various forms and undergone four checks by four soldiers, we were finally free to go. We quickly got back on the motorcycle and passed through the final barrier.
Once in Russia, we headed straight for Saint Petersburg!
On the wide road that leads to the Venice of the North, little villages with wooden houses in various stages of dilapidation and fruit and vegetable stalls along the side of the road immediately made us aware that not all Russians enjoy lives of comfort. This awareness that became even stronger once we reached Saint Petersburg, a splendid, “European” city. Magnificent palaces, enormous gilded churches and an immense museum (the Hermitage) are testament to the splendour of the time of the Tzars.
After three days there as tourists, we set off again for Moscow, but not without first stopping at Peterhof, the palace built on the Gulf of Finland on the orders of Peter the Great.
The palaces, the gardens and the incredible fountains, which were partly destroyed during its occupation by Nazi soldiers during World War II, have been skilfully restored.
In Moscow, we immediately headed to see the beating heart of the capital, Red Square.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is, to put it simply, astonishing. The towers conjure up the image of bonfire flames leaping towards the sky, while the interior is a warren of halls and rooms rich in gilded iconography.
Our visit to the Kremlin, involving an exhausting queue for tickets, took more than half a day. Tickets for the Armoury are limited, and we were unfortunate enough to miss out and had to “make do” with visiting the Cathedral Square. Before we left, however, we decided to try our luck. I explained to the woman in the Armoury ticket office that we were leaving by motorcycle the following day and, incredibly — struck by our journey, perhaps — she stamped our tickets!
Finally, don’t miss a tour of the Moscow metro stations — some of them look more like museums!
Our final stop before returning to the European Union brought us to Velikiye Luki, travelling through another deluge for 350 km, but warmed by the sensational colours of the sunset for the last 100 km!
The way back
Having to re-cross the border was a source of considerable anxiety for me. We woke up early that morning, not having had the option to book an appointment for the checkpoint this time.
The road wasn’t bad, but the stress prevented me from enjoying it properly.
Approaching customs at Burachki, we encountered an endless queue of lorries stopped at the side of the road — large trucks cannot cross the border at the weekend!
After opening all our top cases and filling out the various forms, we got through first the Russian checks, then the Latvian ones… a reminder that the absence of customs between EU states is no small blessing!
That evening we stayed in Daugavpils, Latvia’s second largest city and a historic stronghold of the Teutonic Order.
On the next day, the thirteenth of our trip, came the moment which must inevitably be faced on any journey, a long-haul stretch of ground to be covered.
We had no specific stopping point in mind, just the intention to clock up as much mileage as possible while making the most of crossing time zones too.
We got through Latvia, Estonia and much of Poland, through forests and along a thoroughly pleasant road. At 8:00 p.m., we decided we had done enough, arriving in Radom after 742 km and 12 hours on the road.
We were rewarded well for our efforts, however, with just 196 km to travel the following morning before being able to admire the city of Krakow. The historic centre, spread out at the foot of the Wawel Royal Castle, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978 and deserves to be visited at a leisurely pace.
For dinner, we recommend you try the stalls behind the Market Square.
The decision to visit the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz was not an easy one. I struggled uneasily. What effect would visiting that place of sorrow have on me?
Fortunately, Monica insisted and after an early rise and an hour queuing in the cold, we managed to get tickets for an Italian-language tour with an instructor (rather than a mere guide).
We won’t tell you about what we saw, or what we felt; no words or comments would be sufficient.
All we will tell you is that, when you leave, you feel an agonising sense of emptiness and loss.
The 400 km towards Vienna were the longest of the journey.
Vienna was captivating to say the least. The museums at Hofburg palace, including one dedicated to Empress Elisabeth, Sisi, of Austria, the Volksgarten Park and the Sacher cake at the historic Demel pastry shop all had a part to play in a magical day for us.
The route we took to return to Italy was a stunning tour of the motorcyclist’s dream that is Austria, made even better by the Tarvisio mountain pass.
At Sella Nevea, in the Julian Alps, we treated ourselves to a luxurious spa as preparation for crossing the Po Valley the next day.
Before joining the motorway at Gemona, we enjoyed every curve and centimetre of our way into the valley. On 23 August, after 22 days away and crossing through eight countries, two customs posts and visiting seven capital cities, we found ourselves back at home once more.