Getting Started

Around the Word on a Motorcycle Part 3

In Around the World on a Motorcycle, Zoltán Sulkowsky documents a daring voyage made by two Hungarian globe-trotters starting in 1928, one of the first successful and surprisingly little-known circumnavigation attempts on motorbike. Zoltán Sulkowsky and his friend Gyula Bartha, two motorized Magellans, spent years discovering for themselves, and for future readers, our world during the deceptive lull between the two World Wars. To celebrate their accomplishments we are sharing excerpts of their story with our readers over the next few weeks.

In hindsight, I can’t even imagine what those few passers-by on the Bois de Boulogne would have thought on that sun-drenched morning had they suspected the extent of our travel plans. I can’t help but smile when I remember that the first short stretch of our trip was traveled by taxi and not by motorcycle at all. Our hotel was on Rue de Louvre, but we had left our bike outside the city, in a garage in Neuilly. Neuilly had been the scene of my first attempts at driving the bike, as well; I would never have braved Paris traffic on a bike.

Getting out of the taxi, we heaped all our supplies on a bench in the Bois, and I hurried off to get the motorcycle and parked it next to the bench.We finished our packing and got into the saddle of our three-wheeled “iron horse,” carefully avoiding Paris and making our way along the outskirts of the city to the road leading south. Everything went smoothly.

My driving was far from professional; however, I was all the more careful. The engine was running well in the brilliant sunshine, and the three of us were ecstatically happy to be on the way at last. We had not publicized our destination, so nobody knew of our daring plans. In reality, we weren’t very sure ourselves of the outcome of the journey. We were curious to know how far we would get, and if we didn’t get very far, we weren’t very keen on being laughed at. After a few days of traveling, we were approaching the French border.

The quality of the roads got progressively more varied, and we found ourselves being jolted along increasingly as we neared Italy. The quality of the road changed from one kilometer to the next; one moment, we may have been riding along asphalt, then we suddenly found ourselves on a smooth, gravel road, then concrete, then macadam, occasionally a stretch filled with potholes, and these variations followed one another in quick succession. After having made the acquaintance of numerous friendly and courteous Parisians, we encountered the opposite qualities in rural Frenchmen, whom we weren’t at all regretful to exchange for the friendly Italians we met in the Alps.

After crossing the Alps, we explored nearly every corner of Italy. Traveling down one side of the large boot-shaped peninsula, we arrived in Sicily via Milan, Bologna, Ancona, Bari, and Brindisi. This was a pleasant journey of exceptional beauty. Our bike was holding out splendidly, and all three of us were becoming progressively better drivers.

The weather was ideal, and I can honestly say, never before in our lives had we felt this free. All we needed was on the bike, and we could take the bike anywhere we wished. We were enchanted by the countless historical monuments and spent entire days within ancient walled cities, visiting every museum and gallery without ever being sated. And so we journeyed on! The roads were worst in the south but not even the bumpiest stretches could shake our enthusiasm. We grew to know the country better than any foreigner and the many-storied villages of South Italy no longer held any charm for us. They gave the impression of having been thrown together from scraps of stone left after a great battle.

Most of these villages were built on hilltops, and we were forced to exchange the mild, almost spring-like winter days for cold city night and the depths of winter. The smaller towns were absolutely filthy. Those who don’t believe our description are advised to visit Chienti, Serracapriole, Torremaggiore, where the conditions will shock even seasoned travelers familiar with the Balkans. In small shops, a wall of thin boards, no higher than a man, separates the counter commercial area from the shopkeeper’s bedroom, which is often located right next to the stables, the home of the ubiquitous donkey.  “Where do I empty the dirty water?” I asked the innkeeper’s wife after washing up. “Out the window, of course,” she answered, astonished at my question, and she hurried over, bucket in hand, to show me how it’s done.

A great advantage of country life was all the fresh milk. Cows, or in poorer families, goats, were driven home along the street every evening. Whoever needed milk simply stood at the side of the road, and the animals were milked as they passed by. The cow that ran out of milk was then taken home. We fell in love with the Italian people. They were good-hearted and altogether lovable.We marveled at the cleanliness and order in larger towns and admired their beautiful castles and churches.  Bibitas, sparkling in the various colors of the rainbow, quenched our thirst, and we were delighted by the magnificent fruits. Whenever we had worked up our appetite for sweet grapes or golden oranges, we simply stopped at the side of the road, and my friend, Gyuszi, cried in his deep bass voice,  “Un poco de frutta, Signore or  Signora!” Locals bearing the choicest fruits soon surrounded us, and only upon repeated urging would they agree to accept any money in return. After a while, we stopped being so adamant about paying for our fruit. We crossed to Messina at Reggio Calabria and circumnavigated the entire island of Sicily.

The roads were neglected; giant cacti and wild geraniums lined the stone fences. Making our way across veritable forests of olive, orange, and lemon trees, we finally arrived in Taormina, whose beauty surpassed that of any sight we had seen up to that moment. The blue of the sky and the blue of the sea, flowers of a thousand hues in between, the green of the palm trees lining countless tiny inlets between the cliffs jutting out to sea, harmonized in a symphony of color. It seemed to us like a fairy-tale world made all the more beautiful by the work of human hands in the form of magnificent hotels, whose terraces jutted out over the tremendous depths. The snowy peak of the Etna, looking very much like the head of an old man peacefully puffing at his pipe, presided over the whole scene. Of course, later we encountered landscapes that were much less attractive.

The mountains of Sicily aren’t always green; in fact, most of the time, they are bald and barren. It seemed to us that God himself had shaved those ugly peaks with a giant razor. It was in Palermo that we stopped to rest, after the “dangerous” adventure described at the beginning of the chapter. We visited the Hungarian consul, whose hospitality and kindness were notable, whose children, however, although born in Hungary of Hungarian parents, spoke little Hungarian. We were also struck by the consul’s ignorance of which parts of Transylvania our country lost as a result of the Trianon Peace Treaties. Following our stay in Palermo, we traveled up the opposite shore of the boot-shaped peninsula, making our way north. The geographic layout of Naples was grand, but we must note that the roads in Pompeii, surviving from the Roman times, were better paved than the streets of Naples.

The countless beauties of Rome left a permanent mark in our consciousness. It was in Rome that we realized how unique our travel plans were, because we were able to obtain a short audience with Il Duce without much ado. We only spent a few minutes in Mussolini’s presence; and he duly wished us a  “buon viaggio” after a few polite questions, but we did come away with a precious autograph, which is now one of the prize pieces in our collection. Our next few days were spent on the island of Sardinia, and we returned to France via the Riviera. A road lined with cities and landscapes of indescribable beauty led us through Menton, Nice, Cannes, and Toulon. We soaked in the charm of each city for a few days before entering Spain via Marseille. Entering Spain was no easy matter. We very quickly found out that all foreign vehicles were subject to fees of two pesetas per day.

Little did we know that we would make a second tour of Spain eight years later, towards the close of our odyssey. When we first entered Spain, however, the country was still ruled by Alfonso XIII and cut a vastly different picture from the one today. The best roads were in the northern regions of Spain. As we progressed towards the South, the roads got gradually worse. In some parts, huge construction projects made the going more difficult, but mostly, it was the numerous potholes that hindered our progress. Road repair meant filling the potholes with large stones and waiting for passing automobiles and time to wear them down to perfection. Even in places where the roads were acceptable, we were greeted by a veritable deluge of mud every time we left a town or village, and thus, making our way across any type of human settlement was a struggle. Occasionally, even the townspeople worked against us; to prevent cars from speeding, they would dig large holes themselves along the stretch of road that led through the town. We reached the southern lands in orange season.

The roads were filled with giant, two-wheeled carts brimming with ripe fruit. The wheels of the carts sank deep into the mud of the roads, leaving break-neck furrows behind them. Although the kind carters often filled our sidecar with free oranges, this did not help the road situation in the least. Our travels took us to the land of the Basks and Catalans, and on to Andalusia via Galicia. Cart and horse drivers did not observe any driving rules we could discern, so we were forced to be extra careful on the roads.

On the whole, Spain was an ugly land, with very little natural beauty. The cities, however, were splendid and well-kept. Almost every city and town was the site of ambitious building projects; the Spaniards were striving hard to catch up with the rest of Europe. New and old mixed in charming and unexpected ways; we were forced to smile upon entering an avant-garde café where old men wrapped in scarves perched on futuristic furniture, and chattered endlessly, occasionally turning to spit on the shiny floor without showing the least sign of remorse. A waiter was forced to stand guard in front of the new revolving doors to prevent hordes of street urchins from using it as a merry-go-round. The only hotels proper we found were located in the cities. In rural areas, the inn-like, but run-down  posada took the place of the urban hotel. Our nights in the  posadas were peppered by the sounds of horses and donkeys from underneath, but what really kept us awake was the overwhelming smell and, of course, the bedbugs.

The poverty of the people was especially remarkable in the southern regions. Most of the land was barren, and the landowners, who often ruled over territories the size of counties, used the entire area for raising bulls. Long lines of beggars filled the streets, grabbing every foreign-looking passer-by. We always had to make sure to stock up on gasoline while we were still in the big cities. Although many Spaniards owned automobiles, country roads were virtually empty of cars. The dearth of car traffic in rural areas made Madrid and Barcelona seem even more cosmopolitan. The largest cities were wealthy and crowded; the shops were filled with people, whose pockets were, in turn, weighed down with silver coins. Countless street vendors used amplifiers to lure customers and made very good money. Spanish people were, on the whole, honest, and contented despite their poverty and kind to strangers, although by no means subservient. They never allowed the arrival of foreigners to affect the rhythm of their daily lives.

The barber, while giving us a shave, ate two bananas, then proceeded to clean his teeth and smoke a cigarette. Spaniards woke late and went to bed late. Not a single store opened before ten in the morning, and most people ate dinner around 10 p.m. Shows at the cinema or in theaters often lasted until past midnight, occasionally ending at one-thirty in the morning. Coffeehouses brimmed with people all day long. Women, however, were a rare sight after a certain hour in the evenings; we saw very few walking about on the street and none at all in the cafes. Spanish men rarely took their families out in the evenings and often made remarks or joked around with women who happened to be walking by at a later hour.

It didn’t take us long to get used to our newfound popularity. We began to taste the sweetness of being “somebodies.” As the first newspaper articles detailing our plans appeared, our hotel rooms began to fill with journalists, and the curious crowd that greeted us every time we arrived in a new place grew progressively larger. Even though our bike did not yet stick out the way it would later in our journey, the foreign license plate and the layers of dust or mud made the extent of our plans clear. We were the center of attention especially when Mimmy drove the bike.  “Chico o chica?” people asked, boy or girl?

Our chica was just as happy with our progress thus far as we were. On the whole, we had no reason to complain; we had covered good ground and perfected our driving skills. Whenever something did go wrong with the bike, we quickly fixed it and were on our way before we knew it. We did have two significant incidents in Spain, however. The first occurred somewhere on the road between Alcoy and Alicante. Mimmy was driving and, after reaching the base of a sharp decline and encountering a sudden bend in the road, she completely lost her head. The sudden twist in the road happened to be on the sidecar side of the bike, so the entire vehicle tipped over in the other direction, and, within a split second, all three wheels were spinning in the direction of the sky. Mimmy had enough time to jump to the side, and I slid off the back passenger seat just in time, but poor Gyuszi flew out of the sidecar and traced a graceful arch all the way to the ground. To our great good luck, nobody was hurt, so we simply righted our vehicle and were soon on our way again. Only Mimmy’s pride was hurt, and so she had no inclination to drive for the next couple of days.

The second incident happened in a tiny village where we had stopped for lunch. The restaurant owner was demanding that we pay 25 pesetas for the three lunches, a sum we considered ridiculous. Meals were cheaper in Madrid’s finest hotels; at a place like this, we were expecting a sum of 6 to 8 pesetas at the very most. And so, I refused to pay. “Take me to the police!” I told the woman. “Let’s go!” she answered. The lieutenant wasn’t at the station, and so the single policeman present had to keep one of us under arrest until his boss arrived to make sure we didn’t get off without paying. That “one of us” was myself, and I sat under lock and key for an hour, meditating on my run-in with the law in my dirty, narrow little cell. I showed no remorse, however, and doggedly waited on for the lieutenant. The interrogation began as soon as he arrived.We were asked to show our passports and other personal documents, and the restaurant owner filed her complaint. Then I filed mine. “How much would you be willing to pay?” asked the lieutenant. “Two pesetas per person, at the most,” I responded. “What price did you have in mind?” he asked, turning to the woman. “Twelve pesetas, at the very least.” “Are you willing to give this woman what she is asking for?” he asked me. “Most certainly not,” I answered.  

This interchange was followed by a long argument, during which the lieutenant alternately painted a picture of the direst poverty for us and sharply rebuked the woman in a torrent of Spanish. In the end, we gave the woman ten pesetas, which seemed to satisfy both her and the police. After we left, I reflected on how unlikely it was that she got even half of the money after the policeman was through with her. She may even have been fined. The most beautiful region in all of Spain is Andalusia. We arrived at the time of the great festivals. There are festivals and holidays to be had all over Spain, as every little town and village has its own patron saint and all events in the Church calendar related to that saint are holidays. All the townspeople take part in the procession; the more religiously inclined drop to their knees on the street, even in large towns like Bilbao, everyone in the street, from passers-by to merchants, policemen, soldiers, all genuflect with reverence. Young people dance around the statue of the saint, peppering the celebration with salvo after salvo...


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