BALKAN May to July 2013
Europe’s powder keg – no longer
We reunited with Dipli in Aachen, Germany on 5 May 2013. Some clothes were damp and mould formed a green “window box” on a window slide... Jan installed a repaired speedometer, air filters, battery charger, front shock absorbers; mounted new chevron and tried to seal leak in roof. The chevron remained pristine for a month (until a pole jumped in the way behind us.) Fresh bread was from a nearby dispenser at the push of a button.
Zurich church window:
Diesel was cheaper in Luxembourg and even less in Samnaun. (And cheapest in Macedonia).
The direction was south-east and we entered the Balkan from Italy. Yugoslavia is now 7 countries. Fortunately the Schengen visa got us into most and the time does not come off the Schengen allowance!
In the capital city, Ljubljana’s free camper parking was at a workshop. Once the accelerator cable broke, conveniently, in front of the camping.
The Postojna caves were impressive. The tour (partly by train) was 3km into chambers and passages of rock formations. The next day Jan noticed that Dipli had a break in the right rear chassis. We drove the 100km carefully back to the workshop in Ljubljana. Wheel, water tank and spring out. Thank goodness for expert welding. During the 3 days Leone found a river-walk and cappuccinos with wifi and ’potica’; rolled cake with walnuts.
Where do the Lipizzaner horses come from? From Slovenia – Lipica, pronounced ’Lipitsa’. The original stud farm dating from 1580 bred horses from the local karst horse for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in Vienna. The white Arab horse was introduced much later. From the horses with the right temperament, grace, obedience and mobility; 16 mares and 8 stallions were selected and all Lipizzaners around the world stem from them. We saw some of the 300 horses in stables and on the green fields with their dark-coloured foals. A musical performance by the trained horses was unforgettable!
This is a country with a 1778km-long coast. At the end of May we still had dull rainy weather.
However, later in bright sun we saw the picturesque Adriatic coast with its hidden coves, many islands and sapphirine waters set against lime-stone mountains. At a wild camp there were countless different spring flowers. Legally camping wild is not allowed.
Dipli, Jan and the gps ventured right into the middle of Zadar. The memorable sight (and sound), was the Sea Organ where a system of pipes into the sea exudes wistful sounds when the waves push air through the pipes.
Split. Our most expensive parking ever, enabled us to wonder about inside the Roman Diocletian's Palace, from 305 A.D. The ancient walls, colonnades and labyrinthine streets are now filled with people, shops, residences and restaurants, like ‘Jupiter’s’ where we enjoyed fresh tuna and calamari.
Dubrovnik. From the 5-star campground we went by bus to the awesome beauty of the old town. The marble streets and baroque buildings have been restored after the shelling of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav army in 1991.
The 13-16th century walls, the finest in the world, surround the city. A 2km walk around afford views of the terra cotta roofs, monasteries, palaces and churches.
When we reached Zagreb, capital of Croatia we were suffering from impression- overload and ignored the usual sights. Instead we wondered around the old park-like Mirogoj graveyard; ‘One of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe’; set under old trees and surrounded by imposing walls with arches and cupolas.
BOSNIA i HERCEGOVINA
At the border a customs official arrogantly pulled us over to ask for the green card (liability insurance); which we had!
We crossed the fertile delta of the Neretva river where loads of cherries and strawberries were for sale. Heading north along and winding over, the deep green river to Mostar.
We had to see the famous rebuilt historic stone bridge. (Destroyed in 1993, together with 25 of the 26 mosques). Near the Ottoman quarter, streets were vehicle-jammed and the GPS had no info on BiH. A frustrated driver in road rage plucked Jan’s door open, and after some Bosnian abuse flung the door closed.
Sarajevo. At a supermarket we bought some expensive beef. When suppertime came, we realized that he had switched it for off cuts at the high price! After hours of trimming and cooking we had a late-night goulash.
We returned down to the coast on a twisting road in the dramatic canyon of the milky-turquoise Sutjeska River. (World-famous for rafting)
Diesel was cheap. At the filling station a woman kept chirping in some English and the attendant reset the pump before Jan could check it. After paying Jan did a consumption calculation and realised that he had been overcharged by €38. He demanded a refund, which he got!
CRNA GORA (MONTENEGRO)
A hair raising single-lane road around the stunning Bay of Kotor just ended at road works. We drove back to the dramatically beautiful Y-shaped old walled city of Kotor, wedged between mountains and the bay.
From a beach, we ascended again to Lake Skadar National Park. The lake has a rare carnivorous plant, a type of Bladderwort. The small yellow flowers are fed by small fauna caught in specialized bubbles.
Podgorica. Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks surround the city. We stocked up with local Vranac wine and the typical dried smoked meats. Fruit and vegetables were weighed in thick plastic carrier bags. At the check-out there was a packer. We went out with our small trolley with goods in 18 plastic shopping bags!
Biogradska Gora National Park has one of only 3 primeval forests in Europe. We hiked around the deep blue lake and camped next to trees over 350 years old. We were in the mountains again and it was cold. Around the campfire we reunited with a family we had met in Wales, who had been travelling for 8 months with their daughters of 11, 9, 7 and 5
There were KFOR army vehicles at the border. (The last bombing had been in 1999)
At a shop and a restaurant and at one of the countless filling stations we found the people particularly friendly. The flag (light blue with stars and the outline of the country) of this new state was proudly displayed everywhere.
Our guide book stated that Kosovo has the weakest economy in Europe.
However, in the capital city Prishtina, retail business was flourishing. (Aid money?) Vehicles and shoppers congested the streets. We tried to leave (get the hell out). We had to join the horrific throng around a traffic circle; dodging the cars revving; their brakes screeching, as vehicles, four lanes deep, tried to shove their way through the battlefield.
The first thing we noticed was scores of old Mercedes cars. Albania was closed to tourists for many years.
Concrete bunkers still line the roads; from paranoid times. Not used to tourist vehicles, people often waved. After 45 years of Communism, money is being poured into construction projects. A new 6-lane highway took us to the sea south of Durres. A family-run campground provides parking right on the beach. The dark sand that coloured the surf and the countless hotels around did not make bathing enticing. The sunset views over the ocean compensated though.
Around Tirana soulless grey Soviet-style apartment blocks have been dollied up with coloured stripes and circles. In the city centre handsome buildings line wide boulevards where the Red Army used to march. The trendy district buzzes with nouvelle bourgeoisie zipping between boutiques. Just where the money comes from in this economically deprived nation no one knows.
A congested road with many Mercs, led past ghostly black abandoned factories to beautiful Lake Ohrid. On the western shore the camping site has a restaurant surrounded by roses and honeysuckle. On the terrace there were scores of frilly umbrellas and deck chairs to match. Fresh trout hatched on the property is the popular fare. Lake frogs made a peculiar quacking sound all night.
We could refresh our Cyrillic alphabet as place names were in Cyrillic and Roman letters. Macedonia has the Eastern shore of Lake Ohrid
A reconstructed wooden fishing village (Museum on the Water) shows how people from the Stone Age lived in houses on stilts. Wooden frame looms were used to weave reeds for fishing baskets and door hangings.
The city of Ohrid is situated on the water and has a lengthy boulevard and pebbly beach along the clear water. Near Bitola we saw a Roman amphitheatre and floor mosaics.
Macedonia’ national hero is Alexander the Great. In the capital, Skopje, as we were trying to photograph the colossal golden equestrian statue of Alex, we had a flat tyre.
Jan changed the wheel in the 38° heat. We then left Dipli and solar panels in the sun at a shopping centre, with air-conditioning for us. The food court was typical of the Balkan with kebabs and burek (phylo pastry pie), yogurt-salads and a kiosk selling only baklava.
We changed Euros for Leva and stotinki. Bulgaria’s famous Rila monastery emerges abruptly out of a forested valley. All the exterior walls of the church are covered with brightly coloured frescoes of sinners being punished and saints. Inside the great domes the iconostasis is of carved wood with gold.
After a thunder storm muddy water obscured the deep pot holes and Dipli hit one with a thump. Days later Jan discovered that Dipli had a broken front spring main blade and 2 sheared shackle bolts. After 10 hours of heavy, greasy toil, we could continue.
We reached the overdeveloped Black Sea. Our guide book directed us to a lovely white sandy beach at Kitten. The camping was full but we squeezed into a space with a view.
Unfortunately strong currents and life savers forbade swimming.
Thracians thrived for 6 millennia in Bulgaria. The thrill of Thracian treasures in Bulgaria was unexpected! These exquisite gold and silver items (adornments, vessels, horse trappings etc.) are still being found in tombs. The oldest worked gold jewellery in the world found there, is 6500 years old. There are exhibits of finds. in cities like Plovdiv, Kazanlak and Sofia. We saw the photo of a valuable gold mask stolen from the museum in a ‘’gun rubbery’’.
Bulgaria produces 60% of the world’s rose oil. At “The Museum of Rose’’ (with a really scruffy rose garden) we learned that the pink Rosa Damascena is mostly used for distilling. It takes 3000kg of petals to produce one kg of rose oil.
The Immigration officer checked our Serbian visa carefully.
The border town Pirot still has a kilim carpet weaving industry (Turkish influence). Like other ex Yugoslavian cities it has a defunct concrete hotel monstrosity next to the town square lined with new banks and cafés.
Large fields of wheat were being harvested. The wads of sunflowers and maize would be next, then the grapes.
The capital, Belgrade, was also the ex Yugoslavian capital, from where the socialistic Tito ruled. We went to the Nikola Tesla museum. (An inventor who lived: 1856-1943). In the U.S.A. he invented the AC electric motor, neon light tube, to transmit electricity over long distances, remote control and began radio astronomy. He was twice tricked out of the Nobel Prize: by Edison for the light bulb and Marconi for radio. He died alone and almost forgotten in a NY hotel. In 1960 the Tesla (symbol T), the SI derived unit of magnetic-field strength, was defined in honour of Nikola Tesla, making him, together with Marie Curie, the only scientists of the 20th century to have units named after them.
Outside Belgrade we celebrated Jan’s birthday on a barge moored on the full fast-flowing Danube River.
This journey up to June 2013:
Time on the road (excluding home visits): 7 years
Kilometres driven: 283 000 Countries visited: 104 (with Dipli). US States: 49