The one place you don't want to drop your bike is the top of a mountain. More specifically, on the edge of the top of a mountain, where there's nothing but a foot or so of gravelly parking area and another foot of steeply sloping scrubby undergrowth between you and a 200ft drop. As my left foot slipped on the loose stones and I felt gravity grab the full weight of my Honda CrossTourer, my heart skipped a beat. I half-heaved, half-hopped in the other direction, managed to get a better footing with my right boot and steadied the bike. Deep breath. Sidestand down... and relax. I climbed off the bike and took a shaky picture.
At least it was sunny. After leaving Norfolk in a hesitant drizzle, I'd hit real rain just before the Eurotunnel and been blasted with intermittent soakings on my way south on the French side. Sitting on the A26 to Saint Quentin, I could see clouds like giant jellyfish on either side of the motorway: fat grey bodies trailing tentacles of rain across the land below.
The next two days were a frustrating mix of sharp showers and steaming sunny spells. When the clouds filled the sky above the Black Forest, it was so dark beneath the trees I could barely see through the black visor on my Shark. After a warm run across western Austria, the temperature dropped as I climbed Timmelsjoch and by the time I was crossing Passo Fedaia and Passo di Giau in the Dolomites, the downpour was relentless. Filling up outside Cortina d'Ampezzo, the raindrops were bouncing a foot off the tarmac. Half an hour later I was remembering that fondly: it was much better than being hit with hailstones the size of cherry pits.
That night I stopped in Maniago and reviewed my plans. The weather forecast for the east was looking dreadful. I decided to head south instead, where sun was predicted. Also, it gave me a chance to colour in another corner of the map, heading through Koper in Slovenia towards Pula in Croatia, before hugging the coast to Rijeka. I didn't join the coast road there, as I'd ridden it earlier in the year and wanted to test some of the inland alternatives... but I couldn't resist the lure of this amazing road completely. When the fabulous D23 dropped me down to the coast at Senj, I joined the D8 / E65 for the fantastic stretch to Karlobag.
At first I thought I'd made a hideous mistake – but it was really useful. This was a Sunday and, as well as the standard selfish motorhome drivers, collecting columns of cars with never a thought of pulling over on this crazy twisty road to let anyone who can do more than 35mph get past, every local idiot with a sportsbike was out. It was like someone had given the novice group of a trackday too much sugar and tipped them out on the road.
I waved them past: it was safer to have them nowhere near me. Watching the overtakes into blind bends and head-on towards oncoming traffic was like watching people writing their suicide notes. I admit I have a pretty flexible approach to speed limits outside towns and villages, but I'll never cross a solid white line. It seems the fashion down there is to only overtake on solid whites...
But with the death-wish gang gone, once I'd got clear of the traffic, I had a blissfully empty road in front of me and had a fantastic ride. After filling up in Karlobag I headed inland. Stopping to take a pic, I got chatting with a fascinating German chap who'd ridden the world on his GS, but I had to keep going as there was a long way still to go to my overnight stop back on the coast south of Split.
That night I had a well-deserved beer and reviewed my plans. It should have been straightforward: through Bosnia and into Serbia, tracing a vague S-shape on the map, heading slowly but steadily north. The weatherman suggested this might not be the best idea, but next day I decided to give it a go all the same.
I can admit now that this was not my smartest decision. The weather turned quite quickly – almost as if it was waiting for me to get over the border to turn cold and wet again. True, not the biting cold and icy rain I'd had in the Alps, but grey and chill, sucking the colour from the landscape and making the polished roads unpleasantly slippery. I didn't even get as far as Sarajevo before knocking Plan A on the head.
Plan B was just to cut the trip short, heading back to Slovenia where the weather looked set to hold fair for another few days. As on my last trip, I'd barely crossed the border and the sun started burning brightly in the sky for the final miles of the day. Next morning I had a fabulous ride from Postojna to Bled, over Vrsic Pass and up to Mangart saddle, Slovenia's highest road, where I managed not to throw the bike off a cliff...
I stopped that night in Lienz in Austria, ready for a frantic final run through the Alps. I made the one-way-at-a-time Staller Pass with three minutes on the green countdown clock... four minutes later and I'd have been sat beneath the clouds for 45mins until I could cross. I tried a new route across southern Germany, which was great apart from the dark clouds gathering above me as I rode north. Next day I genuinely thought I should be building an ark rather than riding a bike as I made my way to my final night's stop at AE Aventures in Belgium.
It was a tough trip, more than 2500 miles in nine days – brilliant and frustrating in equal measure. On the plus side, I got to add more depth to my road-collecting in Croatia and Slovenia, but I still haven't managed to get to Serbia. Another trip will have to follow...