The Covid motorcycle diaries

Countries would open, close, lockdown and announce new quarantines with the surging insistency of revolving doors. Never had a holiday been such a gamble, says Jo Knowsley.

Should I stay or should I go…

A long-haul motorbike trip across Europe to Montenegro has been high on my bucket list for the past two years.

I’m only the pillion, but I find such rides beyond thrilling – truly adventurous even though I’m only perched on the backseat. Last year a terminally ill pussycat and a temperamental bike put paid to our plans. This year the Demon was Covid-19.

‘Let’s just go,’ said my boyfriend, a few weeks after buying the ultimate adventure bike, a R1200GS Adventure (the bike Ewan McGregor and Charlie Borman made famous on their round-the-world trip). ‘What now?’ I scoffed. ‘In July?’ For we fairweather bikers, who usually travel in cooler September, the trip would be hot, humid and testing. True France and Britain were to mutually agree to abandon the quarantine of tourists to each other’s countries but the unpredictable nature of Covid together with the fact we’d journey through eight countries in the 3,500-mile, month-long trip would complicate the journey. Even if we could get into these countries – newly opened to tourists in the euphoria of reduced Covid case numbers – would we have to quarantine when we got back?

The boyfriend was adamant. ‘Who knows what’ll happen in the next few months,’ he said. ‘We should escape while we can.’ His advice was pertinent. Over the next couple of months countries would open, close, lockdown and announce new quarantines with the surging insistency of revolving doors. Never had a holiday been such a gamble. It was also, it turned out, a fascinating example of the pick and mix ways different countries were responding to the global pandemic.

In France and Germany, both countries had social distancing in place, with mask-wearing obligatory at service stations, restaurants and hotels.

Even in the picturesque vineyard towns along the Mosel River and on the castle-strewn Romantische Strasse restaurants and bars all had sanitising handwash at the entrance and masked waiting staff, with half the number of tables made available for the usual peak-season crush.

If this was all a little odd, it also felt rather VIP – transforming what would have been a trip crammed with sightseers into a more leisurely experience. Instead of a red carpet we were greeted with red arrows, taped to the ground, indicating entrances and exits.

We were aware of all the Covid-related limitations, but they didn’t encroach on our riding. Social interactions were a little strained but against all my expectations this was huge fun.

In Austria, as we rode through the Alps and the Dolomites, it was we the Brits, who were the Dirty Men of Europe – only able to transit, not stop – though this freed up later, after we’d passed through.

Only at the border from Slovenia into Croatia did we encounter any traffic queues. The rigors imposed by Covid at airports and ferry terminals were little in evidence on the road.

As we journeyed the mercury rose, and in Croatia, and later Italy we found ourselves sweltering in nearly 40C degree heat. But as we peeled off our bike gear and collapsed beside pools and beaches, we congratulated ourselves on being able to make the trip when so many other countries – namely Australia and New Zealand – were in fresh lockdown hell.

In Croatia, which had that point experienced few Covid cases, things were more relaxed – so much so that we, emerging from our own British lockdown – felt slightly uncomfortable. Outside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, at night, young drinkers surged, shoulder-to-shoulder, in rammed bars. It unnerved me, and it was no surprise that Croatia later had a rash of new cases and ended up on the UK’s quarantine list.

But so far we had been lucky. Very lucky. It was rather like being chased by a storm but riding such a wave of good fortune that we never actually got wet.

There was one bump on the road, which highlighted just how quickly things can change in this chaotic Covid climate. We stopped short of travelling on to Kotor, staying put in Dubrovnik, after hearing that Montenegro was having a surge of cases and going back into lockdown. (It never fully did).

But our plan to take the ferry to Bari in the south of Italy was spiked by an overnight announcement from the Italians: no-one who’d been to Bosnia would be allowed to set foot in Italy. They gave less than 24-hours’ notice.

We had transited for 35 minutes – we never even got off the bike – along the stretch of Bosnian coast that bizarrely intersects Croatia just before Dubrovnik. But the Croatians refused to sell us a ferry ticket to Bari. ‘The Italians,’ they said, ‘will not let you in.’

Now I am not a natural law breaker, but I’m defiant when rules fly in the face of common sense. We hadn’t even fully breathed the air in Bosnia let alone come into contact with any human, beast or fowl.

By riding back to Split however we were able to take the ferry to Italy. Just a different port.

In Lucca, where we spent a few days, the Italians were relaxed – celebrating being over the worst – though social distancing was practised in bars and restaurants.

But in the mountains near Grenoble, where we stopped at a Bikers’ Campsite, the masked French woman who ran it shrank back when I stepped towards her – though still within 2 metres – snarling, SS-style: ‘keep your distance.’

Perhaps she had a crystal ball as cases within France were bubbling up again. Watching the news I was glad we were on the last leg home. Just two and a half weeks after we returned to London, France was again placed on the UK’s quarantine list.

Looking back, I will remember an extraordinary adventure in unprecedented times. A lovely, lucky experience in a period when so much is bleak. There’s only one lingering regret: that I still haven’t made it to Montenegro.

Photo credit: Jo Knowsley glamping it up in a tepee next to a river near Grenoble

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Jo Knowsley

Jo has held senior staff writing roles on some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, and is now a freelance writer. She has reported on major breaking stories around the world and has written for magazines and newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in publications as diverse as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Metro, Saga and Grazia. In the past she focused primarily on news-lead reports and interviews. Today she writes across a number of platforms on subjects ranging from property and travel to theatre and features. She grew up in New Zealand and has made her home and career in London since 1990.

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