3 Islands – Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily

…At the start of our adventures the van odometer read 24800k….The engine lies still and I await the news of our final border control. My wits are severed and my brain is making bubbling noises like an overheating Volvo as I complete another set of nervous push-ups. Dylbags is being interrogated as to why we have entered Russia with only eight hours left on our visa…..The ferry is fully boarded, we are meters away and it may as well be on the other side of the Baltic! It is make,,, or shatter into a million pieces of nerve wrought cognitive dust…Head in the shed!!! Time: 20:35. 35 minutes after scheduled leaving time on an internationally bound ferry…1 hour 35 minutes after official boarding time closure! Odometer reading: an eerie 33333km!…

We wouldn’t have been in this mess if that Latvian numpty hadn’t meat headed his way through our van’s back window at 4am in a drunken brawl; consequently losing a day whilst trying to find a window replacement on a Sunday in Jacobpils…Yaaaakovvpiiilzzzz… Like Dyl had constantly stipulated; don’t rejoice until it is over! A frenetic month of chasing trails, coffee breaks, restaurants and hotels was almost at its zenith. Almost! And we had made the schoolboy error of celebrating the journey’s end. A pool table, a world cup semi and free flowing scotch were our ephemeral trophies of victory as we bumbled our way through a five am ruckus of Jacobpils cops and frumpy fighters. The real ending had just begun…

…. After a measly breakfast in the ‘boutique’ hotel, I wandered down to reception with the first instalment of bags to ask the concierge if she could print some docs for the border control. In doing so, I asked her if she had any information about the border crossing. Time 10:45 am….

The friendly staff member at the hotel informed me in the assured tones of an Estonian judge, that there was no chance of crossing the border at Narva, due to a sixteen hour wait!… sixteen hours?! What was she talking about! We had precisely seven hours and fifteen minutes until our boarding pass onto the Finnlandia express expired! I asked again what she meant and she flashed me the computer screen…chuchhaaa!!!!

I mounted the stairs in triplets and greeted Dylbags with a cursory…’we’re screwed m8!’ I informed him of the waiting time at the border; updated at 010 00 hours! I grabbed my bags and with panic already setting in flicked on the mission switch!

I railed the unsuspecting concierge with the a – z of border crossing possibilities! In short, our two options were: a) to drive four hours south to cross at a border control zone with a one hour wait; consequently making our outward bound journey five hours min, with a four hour return without stops or hiccups, or b) run the sixteen hour gauntlet and try our luck….We were duly informed that luck had nothing to do with it and that we would simply not be able to cross at Narva in much less than a day….What the bollox!!! We had come all the way from France, through German, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian borders without seeing a single checkpoint…It is 2014! We had rejoiced the unity of the EU and open borders. It just didn’t make sense that we now had a insurmountable road block ahead! PUTIIIIIINO!!!!

After consultation with a disbelieving Dyl, it was decided that we should attempt the border crossing with nothing more than our wits about us and our desire to reach that ferry; which would, if we made it, salvage our sanity and our sobriety! It was exactly five weeks since setting foot in Europe. Five weeks, @ sixteen hours a day, seven days a week!

In seven hours’ time, we needed – no we had to – be sitting on that truck ferry to transport us sixty hours across the Baltic to Germany. If not, we would have to race the clock and the authorities to flee Russia before the termination of our Visas; which would come to pass in exactly thirteen hours!

Before hitting the crossing, we needed a stamped vehicle pass from the checking station three km south. Dyl suggested ‘bugger it, let’s just hit the border’…so we hit it indeed, only to have our anxious hope rebounded like a bouncy ball fired at a steel curtain! Sitting, motionless, in a queue of even less mobile vehicles!!!

After watching the seconds tick by, about 3600 of them- not that I was counting- during which Dyls and I were separated, the notion that we needed a ticket was reinforced by a seriarse looking control agent:(… Ushered to one side, the Estonian border grunters motioned me to get my vehicle the hell outa there and get a bloody ticket like everyone else! I looked back at the growing queue – the first of many I would see that day- scouted the horizon for Dylbags and then chose the only option available: to flee ticket-ward and hope to get that Willy Wonka prize….What were we thinking! What a waste of nearly four tonnes worth of invaluable seconds…

Without sight or sound of Dyls, I spun the grey ghost back into the Narva jam to execute ticket retrieval. After negotiating a no entry highway, at which I did a swift u turn amongst bleating horns, I discovered my destination to be a home-centeresque  DYS location! After many a donut, I managed to winkle the exit location of our ticket base and made a horn blowing entry through the blind corner…

There I was met with impenetrable Estonian and a further time penalty of 900 seconds (and a fifteen hundred meter jog in broken Nike crocs), while I scrounged information as to how to glean a ticket into Russia! Upon accruing said ticket for the huge sum of one Euro, thirty cents but with yet a two hour wait to get the ticket authenticated by a friggin stamp, I made the decision to leave the queue and return to the border crossing base and source Dyls….

After an interminable traffic jam, which cost another 600 seconds, I threw the ghost onto the curb and sprinted to his gruffness at the control gate. Unable to get the guards attention, I strode off under the booms to where I thought Dylbags was charming his way into Estonian folk lore as the man who beat the Narva crossing queue. Unluckily for me, I had wandered witlessly into the no man zone (literally, no man is allowed to set foot on that strip of tarmac without a vehicle beneath them!), which incurred a stern bullocking from not one, but two of the border control agents who threatened in thunder clapping Estonian (a visceral form of Germanic shout that can verily make the gonads curdle!) to throw me into one of their concrete cells for breaking customs protocol. Way to make friends at the border Hofo!

As I bounded back into the safety of tangible Estonia I found a remarkably composed Dyls awaiting my return; ‘you abandoned me’ came the ubiquitous Cambridge drawl! We wasted another few hundred seconds discovering that Dyl had followed my route to the ticket office in a taxi, only to learn that I had just left with the ticket…I confirmed this at the van but as I started to explain that the ticket was not yet validated, Dyl was already off to reconcile with our friendless border guard. I held my tongue and thought it was worth a try, validated or no. Almost making the same mistake I had by ducking under the boom, Dyl was met by  a very unhappy gate keeper who took one look at the stamp less ticket, glared at us with his belligerent Estonian jaw set and shouted at us for the last time to get a proper ticket f”#$king!!!

With sinking hearts, we returned to our conundrumous car park, where we joined the queue once more and waited… for about three seconds, before Dyl jumped out wigth a ‘screw this’ and accosted the octogenarian ticket office man with his pleading Dalmatian sad eyes….watching the angry Russtonians clocking this brazen flouting of their queue lines, I surreptitiously started the engine as fleeing, with or without the ticket, now became a sobering reality….

To my disbelief, Dyl suddenly bolted back to the van and leapt aboard as I spun the wheels back onto the runway….I got the stamp he shouted as I jammed the accelerator down; just as the communal realization dawned on the sun frazzled queuers that we had somehow tripped the system wire! ‘Sorry folks but this is a friggin emergency’!!!

As the adrenaline booted in and we roared off, we had the first of the many peaks we would experience that day. Little did we know of the troughs that would inevitably follow as we raced the clock back to the Russian border….

Somehow, the old man at the ticket office had decided that saving Dyl’s skin for his brave manoeuvre was within his boundaries of limitation. We thus scooted off, without the mandatory car check and without wasting a single second more on protocolic adherence! We had that ticket stamped and we fairly hooted all the way back into the Narva queue. Daring not another jump, we impatiently waited our turn at the first check point, chewing a doughnut hamburger (what the hell was that incidently!!) and basked in the happy light of our first stroke of luck and ensuing calculations that told us that reaching that ferry was still a possibility.

Basking quickly became frazzling in the firestorm! Somehow, we had managed to hit the very no-mans-land from which I had been earlier ejected just as the lunchtime cross over point kicked in! Initially taking this as a lucky thing – as we would not have to deal with my ejectors – our lucky thoughts quickly evaporated as the temps inside the van hit the high thirty’s and we watched the seconds tick listlessly away with the beads of sweat from our dripping brows! ‘Come on u customs asses!’

A further 1200 seconds had been scratched from our power pack when we finally hit the shade of the control shed. Unfortunately for us, the bloke in charge of our exit application just happened to be that generic school thug who only had one tone of voice, a barking shout, and who knew only one facial guise, that of the abattoir slaughterman! Perhaps he had overheard our ass call, for he certainly graced that title with his finest twatian performance!

…After the second round of shouting, I got back into the van and let Dylbags take the heat, for the barking bum-hole was getting to the already heated corners of my frontal lobe and I started to feel my judgement falter! Driving a hire van was now the variable which usurped the grains in our rapidly turning hour glass. The school yard bully cum control tormentor motioned us back onto the boiling tarmac, where we suffered lamentably like two bullocks awaiting the yolk of steel.

In disbelief, we watched our seconds dripping away at a flow unstoppable. It was like being in a warped universe, where time – which usually would stand still under such circumstances – went rushing by in waves….Unable to step from our van, we sweltered at almost forty degrees, coming up with any number of punishments for our fart-mouthed, dimwitted control freak, as he left us sitting there for an unbearable 2400 seconds!!!!! We now knew that there was only the slimmest chance that we would get to the ferry and that a plan B, would possibly be the end of us!

The time was 2:40 pm and we were forty meters closer to our St Petersburg ferry; in a van with no original docs and with less than ten hours left on our Russian visas! The punishment for outstaying a Russian invitation to their E-blockian country was anything from an internship in their gaols to 50 odd solid birch branch lashings for every hour overstayed!… ‘Just don’t think about it’ we grimacingly agreed!

…Suddenly, our persecutor was back. We had already decided that should we miss our ferry, we would come back to find this peanut and elicit to the power of ten, every birch stroke we suffered. Our emotions soared, however, as he delivered his final assessment (about bloody time d%$#brain)…we were going through!… we scooted through the second boom gate and into the real no-mans-land towards Russia.

Our bubble of contentment was burst at high altitude as we rounded the bend onto the bridge between the two countries with only another one hundred meters on our kilometerage!….There before us was the real sixteen hour queue!!!! We pulled up in dismay as it dawned on us that our little adventure was over…now we really were knackered!!! By the time we got to the end of this line, not only would our ferry be half way across the Baltic, but our Visas would have expired and we would be some X 00 lashings in arrears!

A couple of moments to reflect and capture this agony on camera was broken by a waning positivity from Dylbags, who searchingly suggested that I run to the end of the bridge and plead clemency from this ball breaking queue. Realising that he had taken the last hit and succeeded, I knew I had to give it a go! As I neared the check station, I put on my most lamentable expression, gleaned a tear thinking of far -away loved ones and literally begged the female customs agent (who looked measurably fiercer then her male comparatives) for help. I showed her the ferry ticket and gesticulated to my watch-less wrist that if we did not somehow beat this beasty line we would not make it to our ferry….her ‘as if I give a shit sternness’ made my resolve crumble!

She looked at me like my kindergarten teacher used to, before one of my countless infant’s school reprimands. As I groped her soul for some humanity, she suddenly cracked (she obviously couldn’t take my big snout seriously) and the fierce lines turned into smiley ones:) She lifted her telephone and barked something in Russian down the line then pointed back down the bridge and the two way single lane truck path….Autooooo here!!!!. I could not believe it. I looked back down the bridge line of unbroken vehicles and followed it back with my finger pointing to my feet and repeating here?!!! She nodded and I sprinted…..

As I flew back to the car, a deflated Dylbags read my body speak but did not believe….I shouted our often repeated jibe ‘GET IN THE CAR!!’ and pulled out into the no go truck lane…As I did, Dyl shouted his concerns ‘are u sure we can do this,?’ ‘who knows’ I replied ‘but it’s worth a try cause we’re bolloked either way if we don’t!’

But work it did! We hit the boom and it rose into the air! We sailed past a queue for the second time that day. I really felt for those poor folk in line but what could we do. Ethereal clemency had smiled upon two destitute gypsies and had granted us passage; the sprint was now on!!! Screaming our thankyous to the first friendly border control agent we had met, we floated into the Russian controls zone. Game back on!

From that point, we rode lady luck through the next double entry check. We encountered the same problems with the Russian security because of the van passport papers but perhaps because we already had stamps from the Estonians, we were let through the first. At the second, we were met by a lovely woman whose Cameronesque features were like a salve after her Estonian counterparts’ Shrekness; she even wished Dylbags a happy birthday when she realized it corresponded with the day! Perhaps this distracted her from noticing that we only had eight hours in which to enjoy her fine country, which would surely have led to inevitable questions of espionage and the consequential birch branching administrations!…

Our sudden turn in fortunes elicited exuberant sounds as we hooted through the last boom gate and into Russia!!!! We had less than two hours before our ferry exit expired, some two hundred and forty km to go on the faltering sat nav and eight hours to leave Russia if it all went pear shaped and we missed that friggin boat….well we thought we did! As it turned out, the sat Nav was wrong! It was a miserly one hundred and sixty km to P’burg!

As we hit the E 20 with Ms Russian Diaz’s b’day wishes ringing in our ears, positivity came flooding back! ‘We can make this Dyl’! No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than we rounded a corner to see a snarling line of trucks and cars which crawled into the distance…shute!!! It was a gut wrenching thirteen hundred seconds before we exited the other side, now with the heart rendering knowledge that we could only hope the ferry would somehow extend its entrance times, for we were now outside of the outer limits on our ticket itinerary!

The ensuing ride was a blur of trucks and cars in a constant state of flux. Dylbags became Mad Max in Thunder dome as he copied the Russian drivers in utilising every inconceivable gap to pass and burn our way back into ferry contention! The seconds burnt away furiously and we hit the fifty km to go mark, still believing that we might just make it. It was then that disaster struck… As Dyl reached for his bookfacephone, it became slow motion as he groan-growled ‘NOOO!!!….WE ARE SCREWED!!!!!! He didn’t even have to tell me what he had seen, for in his words I heard the sincerity of doom and knew what had happened….heading due east, the automatic time adjuster had just updated and we had lost an hour!!! Bloody unbelievable! After all the ups and downs of this mission, we were being tucked up by a bleeding time zone change, fifty kms shy of our destination….

I sank into my seat speechless! Plan B was now a reality….What did it mean! After five weeks of non- stop missioning, we would have to turn around, race the clock back to the Russian border. Hope to somehow get out before our visas expired at midnight and then face the huge expanse of continental Europe by car!!!! We would have to drive day and night to get back to Geneva where we had to leave the van and get on our respective journeys home. Even with the sixty hour ferry journey, we would still have to drive the remaining third of the distance, still needing to cover the entire length of Germany and into Switzerland, some twelve hundred kms; but at least our travel weary minds and bodies would have had three nights and two days of recoup…The thought of continuing our octane fuelled journey by car was simply…well, impossible!!! In the state we were now in, the ferry had become a beacon of hope and happiness and the thought that we had now lost that chance of our first rest day/s in a month was steadily gnawing away at our cerebral conditions!

The bubble of hope that had slowly grown as the kms from the border to St P were inexorably chewed had been suddenly exploded by a tele-communicational update! Dylan’s expression mirrored my growing despair and the next few hundred seconds in the van were in a silent bubble of depression.

That now growing bubble of anxiety transmogrified into a physical, driving force! Dyl started lane surfing like a dodgem rally-car driver and I started jabbering away to the canal ferry port controllers begging for them to hold our ferry! Fat frigging chance!

To top it all off, our sat nav (which had faithfully served our cause for twenty eight days and had extricated us from many a scouting pickle) refused to locate the ferry terminal as we sped into the huge entrails of St Petersburg. It was like a sign; a very bad sign that belted the final filaments of hope from our hearts. The tool we had relied on most this whole journey from Paris to St P, was no longer our satelliting saviour! The feeling was somewhat akin to losing your pump in the middle of the Andes in the rain and pitch black with rabid dog-ghost sounds and indigenous wraith screams wailing at your heels , but that’s another binary story!

Boris, the friendly -but unfortunately impotent to help- port manager, munched through the phone credit by giving me Alpha readings for a street name! Did it work! Yeah, right! It worked as much as the mobile number he gave me to call as the office was now closing!!!…We were finding this place alone, or not at all!

Our clocks now said: 19:30 and we were grinding our way through a constant traffic jungle! At one major intersection, Dyl swung wildly into an off route checking station manned by a pair of very unimpressed looking Russian policemen. After shouting every name we knew for boat and ferry and gesticulating madly, we again sped off following the hope that the sergeants waving arm was telling us to go straight! puchhhhaaa! Why had we not made more of an attempt to internalise some of the Cyrillic alphabet. Or at least the word FERRY!!! Juust because the lingo looked like Hewbrew spat out backwards and up-side-down, shouldn’t have meant that they couldn’t draw a bleedin’ boat!

As we flew perilously through the city traffic, it dawned on us that our boat of salvation really could be bloody anywhere. We hit a red light and I jumped out of the van and desperately accosted a family car with the ferry ticket and a please help look plastered to my face! The lovely guy motioned us to pull out of the flow of traffic and he answered our call with the fanciest bookface phone I have ever seen….He switched it through the languages until a french voice asked for our destination…In jumped Dyls with his equine Françoise and suddenly it was there! The ferry port was only seven km’s away!!!

Jump started back into a state of clear thinking, Dyl had turned on his int’l roaming data and we were suddenly away; back into the roaring traffic following a little blue dot that would take us to the ferry… too late we may have been, but at least we would have made it; albeit to wave goodbye with tears as we about-turned to flee the birch branch lashings!

That’s when it all became like a real time movie scene. Dyl had the wheel on a string and we sluiced through rush time St P. We followed that blue dot like hounds after a fox, as we reckoned that we still had ten minutes before the ferry would actually leave port! Being internationally bound we knew we were positively screwed, even if the ferry was still at anchor, but the visual sensation of at least seeing the pelagic harbour was now a physical necessity; and while we had not yet been arrested for our slalom city driving, a glimmer of hope remained.

Five hundred meters from our destination the anxiety began to grow at a rapid pace…It’s not bloodywell here!!! Sure enough we had reached our blue dotted prize but neither ferry, nor ports were in sight!!! We asked a man on a bike who then pointed to what merely looked like a gate entrance to a street. That familiar nauseous wave of depression was floating down upon our heads once more, when suddenly we saw them,,,Walkie talkies and flouro….could this actually be it?!

Dyl bounded to the gate and started engaging the woman keeper with wild flappings and thrustings of our ticket. And then we saw it,,, our names on a piece of paper…This was it! We had made it!!!! So we thought. The sight of our names had given us such a boost, yet there were still passport controls and the right canal to find. We hoped beyond hope that we could still do it but our ferry would surely now have been pulling out of dock!

I had not had such a wild ride in a van, since the preceding minutes! Without cars or roads -or road rules for that matter – to worry about, we fairly careered through the myriad of storage containers and into dead end alleys; sighting smoke stacks and boats but never anything that looked like our ferry! This was the most horrible, ball shrivelling sort of lost I had ever experienced and I could see by the grit of Dyl’s  jaw that he felt the same! When we hit the end of a wharf with only water beyond, the tears nearly started to trickle! After scores of thousands of laboriously spent seconds under the belt, it was almost too much! Dyl pulled a hand-breakey and we were off again….Then we saw it….A Finnlandia ferry somewhere over the pallets. In our frenzied haste, we had missed the RO RO entrance which actually said PO Po….now we had been tucked up by a flipping typo! The ensuing one hundred and eighty second diversion could have been the straw that broke the proverbial back!

…How long has he been in there?! Twenty minutes!!! What the blinkin’ ‘eck!!! I smash out another set and tried to keep my brain from snapping…What was the last thing the ginormous ranga customs cop dressed in camo gear said?! He was joking surely!!!!.. ‘ What in red box?…guns? Machine guns? Bazookas!…ha ha ha’ yes, he definitely chuckled….Did he? Where the hell was Dylbags?!

…He was sitting in the interrogation room explaining the van papers all over again. On top of which, our big friendly, joking camo-guard had suddenly turned stone wall and was pinging Dyl on every aspect of our journey, particularly that of the last eight hours in which we apparently entered Russia with a bogus vehicle only to flee out the same day! Twice, while the three consuls were discussing our case, Dyl made the error of standing up and walking to the adjoining room (where our validity was being razored) to offer pieces of un-delivered info that might have helped our cause….SIT DOWN!!! Was all he got. Somehow his nerve endings remained united and he sweated out the ordeal that would decide our fate, silent and immobile.

The ferry was still there! No cars, but the thing was still joined to the dock…’Surely, we can get on. Let us go u pricks’! I was winding myself up into a right state when suddenly Dyl reappeared FINALLY!! ‘Want the good news or the bad news?’…The good news became apparent when, without another word, he kicked the motor over and drove straight on, into the bowels of the waiting ferry!!! I couldn’t believe it, we were on!!!!’So what the hell is the bad news I screamed, unable to hide my joy and relief… we were on the boat!!!

‘Don’t celebrate yet m8!’ ‘But we’re on the ferry Dyl!’, I couldn’t give a sh”#$t about anything now! Lets go and celebrate your b’day! Yiihaaaa.’ ‘Hold on m8, yes we’re on the ferry but that friggin big cop just interrogated me for half an hour over the dodgy van docs, the fact that we have entered their country for an eight hour stay and now they have confiscated our passports and are checking out my visa links with China, India and Vietnam! That’s why!’ Holy s”#$te!

Was this ordeal never going to end?! I had been on some crazy last minute missions to exit zones before but never one that was so long or intense! As we packed our kit from the van and headed up stairs, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. But Dyl was having none of it! The thinky police were bunkered down in his melon with visions of international espionage and birch whippings whirling around in abandon! After an unforgettable 10 hour mind bollocking, I could understand why! Our nerve endings were like my twenty eight day stubble and I started to get a dose of the thinkies again. The roller coaster of a day just wouldn’t stop!

But our anxieties were short lived; allayed upon first meeting our friendly ship attendant and former Swedish paint ball champion, Hampus! In ten short seconds, he had banished our fears with the admission that he was now in charge of our passports, which would be returned to us upon reaching Deutschland! Apparently we had passed the wits test; and having kept them about us through the gruelling interrogation and passport confiscation, we were deemed harmless and allowed to continue our homeward voyage unfettered!

Without another word, we hit the sauna, food bar and Jacuzzi with a bottle of Prosecco and some huge sighs of release! We toasted the successful ending to a scouting mission that had produced what will inevitably be, one of the greatest epic bicycle adventures ever created; Paris to Moscow – four thousand, four hundred km’s of ooh la la! We could finally celebrate the joys, thrills and spills of creating Napoleon, 2015 and Dyl’s 40th b’day and celebrate we did!

When we emerged from our bubbly salutations, we hit the top deck to view the Baltic and savour our victory over what – for our combined empirical resonances- had seemed to be unassailable odds! Instead of the Baltic expanses, we instead found that our view consisted of the same cranes and pallets and storage containers as the deck from which we had left! Only we hadn’t left! With beer in hand I turned to one of the Russian truck drivers and asked why we still hadn’t left port….’Because this boat run on German time…we three hours behind Russian time man!’

What the !!!!  !”#$%&! 🙂