The Balkan Region
Crossing the border for the Balkan country of Bosnia without any fuss, via Croatia, I stopped for a quick pee, only to catch a wheelbarrow toting farmer see me peeing on his fence. Well, we can’t win them all can we? The balkan adventure had begun.
Before long I was riding a curvacious twisty road into some beautiful canyons, covered in lush green trees. Following me the whole way was a clear river, gently flowing between the low balkan mountains. Time and again I crossed a nostalgic old railway with no barriers or lights, so if I hadn’t been looking down the rails, a train could’ve made a mess of me quick smart. Old railhouses stood abandoned, half torn down, full of mysterious character. It was a great introduction to Bosnia.
I got lost three times an hour or so into Bosnia. First, I went down a dirt road absolutely covered in puddles and potholes. Fun times were had until I got to a rise in the road when it became not ‘road’ anymore. It got steeper, messier, rockier and muddier. I had to eventually turn around and go back – I wasn’t about to spend my lunch period picking up my bike every 200 metres because I didn’t have trail tires on the old girl. So turning around and heading back 300 metres I found that five kilometres later, it was just as bad if not worse. How the hell were people crossing Bosnia to Sarajevo and not going offroad? Four other riders passed by, telling me it was a no go. What was going on in this curious Balkan country?
Trying a third road, I found a heavy gravel road, and definetly not the way to Sarajevo. Swearing my head off at the new digital GPS world, and road tires, I went with my gut and followed the asphalt road that wasn’t going towards Sarajevo. A half hour later, it turned out it was. Thank the gods of the road. I was almost out of fuel and didn’t speak the lingo around here. I refueled and legged it to Sarajevo, following a quick national road with lovely bends through mountains, farmland and more lush green balkan forest.
During the ride to Sarajevo, every 20 mins or so, I passed large queues of cars beeping their horns off. Covered in Bosnian flags, numberplates from Austria, France, Germany and Bosnia popped up. Wasn’t sure what the party was, but it seemed like the whole country was out, dressed in their best, partying and honking on the road. Along the way I met an awesome dutch dude on a pimped out harley, in a bright yellow suit. We had a nice chat at the next set of lights about riding and our separate journeys before waving goodbye at the next turn.
More pleasurable national roads ensued, just before I hit the highway to Sarajevo. At some point during that leg, I saw some real big angry fella, chasing after another little fella (on the highway of all places) that looked like he’d left his lunch in his pants. I plodded along at a steady 120 kmh in the darkening skies. Finally, the exit for Sarajevo appeared. Paying the few marks toll, I turned into Sarajevo with the sunset long gone. I had finally made it, and putting along the winding hilly streets, found my hostel and parked up for the night.
Locating an very basic, but awesome pizza joint, I ordered a family size pizza for 7 euros. Man, they meant business here. Not much english was spoken, but they knew how to make a pizza in their great woodfired oven. Smoked beef, with cheese and mushrooms screamed at my lathering tastebuds as I sought out a few cold beers. I was enjoying the balkan region thus far. Cheap food, cheap beer… Collecting my goods, and racing back to the hostel, I slammed down the pizza, washed down with some well deserved danish beers. It wasn’t long before I was snoring like a pig.
The next day, walking out into the rain, I was greeted by a quiet and calm Sarajevo. While the rain splattered down onto the river passing through Sarajevo, I did the tourist thing and snapped photos of the city. It was quite nice – mist had formed on the small mountains surrounding the city, and created a kind of romantic, mysterious atmosphere. Hunger annouced itself in the form of Cevapi (a sort of sausage) and pumpkin Burek (it’s sort of like a pastry layered pie but better).
On the way back to my humble accomodations, I managed to drop my camera onto some nice soft asphalt and break a camera lens. Not everything goes right does it? Still, I was fuming at myself, Fuji lenses don’t come cheap, nor are they cheap to fix. It didn’t leave me in the best of moods, and I was raging a little on the inside. I packed all my gear that night and left at 7AM the next morning for the next balkan region – Montenegro.
I took the road towards Mostar (a drama filled city during the war), which ended up being a terrific early morning ride. Winding through the mountains chased by the river, the views were great. Pulling up in Mostar, I wandered over the Stari Most, likely the most photographed bridge in Bosnia. Although it had been destroyed by retreating forces, it had been rebuilt. I enjoyed an orange juice and coffee while watching locals jump off the bridge into the fantastically clear blue river below.
After squirting out of Mostar, I got lost and ended up in some weird part of Bosnia where alot of pro something slogans were up, along with strange flags. Was I still in Bosnia, or had I crossed into old Yugoslavia? Taking a road that I thought was right, I stopped by a local roadworks scene after the road had turned in rock and gravel. I was pointed in the other direction, where I then asked another old gent, and then again another bloke wandering down the road. They both pointed me on. Well, I’d asked three times, they all had to be right… right?
Turns out the locals knew the low down. It wasn’t long before the border of Montenegro appeared. For the first time since leaving London, I was asked for my international drivers licence and my green card. Stamping my passport firmly, the guard gave me the go ahead and off I went up the crappy, bumpy, potholed road in Montenegro. Shortly after, I spotted some blackberry bushes and ate a few balkan blackberries. Tasted good to me even if the roadside was littered in all kinds of interesting, story filled rubbish. I’ll spare you the details.
The crappy road finally turned into good national highway and I spent the next hour overtaking cars. I had chosen the road to Kotor, more for the change of scenery to catch some of the adriatic sea more then anything. It was lovely when I got there at the start. Clear blue water displayed large fish swimming lazily about, while small boats rested off local marinas. Where’s a fishing line when a bloke wants one?
From there the traffic was… well it was total rubbish. Tourists everywhere having accidents and cruising along at half the speed limit. My patience was tested numerous times, and I spent more time in the opposite lane of traffic than the direct lane. This carried on all the way until I got outside of Budva. This was madness I thought, who in their right mind finds huge masses of crowds swamping every bit of land relaxing? I stopped for a nice view overlooking the adriatic outside Budva, and ate a small seafood dish lathered in sauce.
Eventually the traffic cleared off the road and I was riding the last lot of kilometres to the Albanian border. The border came around and i endured the next twenty five minutes being stormed at by a very angry Montenegran border guard, shaking his hairy finger at me and gesturing wildly at the bike. Not sure what was happening, I sat on Trumpet, patiently waiting for him to give me my passport and paperwork so I could be on my way. Giving up, he dashed my documents to another bloke, who got me through the balkan border quickly by comparison. Finally, into Albania!
My first thought was, oh, there’s alot of gypsy people living at the border. My second was ‘oh, there’s alot of wild dogs here too’. My third was ‘holy cow, I’m back in Morocco again’. Everything reminded me of the north african country – skeleton scooters that were somehow still running, a free for all derby on the roads, dogs left, right and centre. Come to think of it, I don’t know what I saw more of – squashed cats, squashed dogs or roadside gypsies having a laugh at the tourists.
Anyhow, I got into Shkoder that evening, finding my hostel, where I was greeted by a very friendly albanian family. I was given an in depth idea of where to go in the city as described by their young son Josef, as well as a plate of fruit and a room with air con to beat the grotty heat off. A good tip off Josef led me to Tradita, a traditional albanian restaurant hotel, where I tucked into some absolute killer lamb on the spit, fish casserole and goat cheese. The waiter even drove me back to my hostel without charge. Albanians are pretty alright if you ask me.
Early the next morning, I rode form the ferry to Kosovo. road to Kotor was fine until the last ten kilometres – lots of sharp rocks, gravel, goats, cows and blood seeking dogs. One hound was so excited he chased me up the road after passing his goat herd, after having a good biff with another crazy sheep dog. I was wondering if he was going to have a go at my legs…My legs in place I made it to the ferry, parked up old Trumpet and ate my breakfast roll (courtesy of Pemaj Hostel) with some kind of meaty thing, salty cheese and mayonnaise.
Views off the ferry to the east side of Albania were awesome. It was little Norway without a doubt. Glassy aqua waters were surrounded by grey mountains covered in trees and littered by the occasional fisherman. Only having 5 hours sleep, I was finding it difficult not to tell the screaming 5 yr olds onboard where they should go. There was a disney movie onboard, so I drifted in and out of sleep to that, amidst wandering outside to enjoy the luscious views of northern Albania.
Pulling off the ferry, I made for Kosovo. I didn’t really see much worth looking at except cows standing in the middle of the road, cows standing at the side of the road, cows crossing the road or cows just staring at me. At the border, I didn’t have any insurance, so I endeavoured to speak to the insurance guy in my really terrible German. 10 mins later, I was off into Kosovo and riding through some epic road after the city of Prizren. Before long, some cold rain was giving me an afternoon shower. Some nice bloke and his mum invited me into their garage to put on my waterproofs, while the neighbours came from across the road to stare at the bike. She’s a bloody good looker, old Trumpet.
It surprised me how small Kosovo was – before long I was already crossing into Macedonia, trying to convince an old man to ride my motorcycle just for kicks at the border control. It didn’t take long to get into Skopje, the Macedonian capital, which I call the city of huge statues. In the middle of the city was a huge dedication to Alexander, and behind that, riot police and chanting bunch of locals. Well this was a new experience.
The old bazaar inside Skopje’s old town was ok. Nothing spectacular, it did ring of old times, but here like Sarajevo, you could see the ottoman influence. Very authentic, and much less touristic then other balkan destinations such as Montenegro, I tucked into some beans and salad with yoghurt for breakfast. All filled up, it was time to head for Thessaloniki, Greece and the next part of the adventure. I’d be passportless for weeks with a broken motorcycle in hot as chilli Greece. Read about it all here next week.