Road trip with a manual transmission car means Billy Jac Shaw (ex Nascar driver – google Billy Jac Shaw) thinks that every car (competitor) and every mountain pass (road course) is a RACE!!! Thank goodness our car has not one but two “oh shit” handles for me to white knuckle. Where’s my helmet??
Divine coincidence found us in Calcutta learning by chance about the Mother House where Mother Teresa started her selfless missionary work with the poor. Growing up we were able to witness only on the television – pure joy to see it in person – her bedroom, place of work and resting place. Again – by chance, while walking in Skopje, Macedonia we learned that Mother Teresa was born there. Birth place to place of death. It means nothing but everything.
Started our 10 hour long road trip with a dead camera battery – the first time – the on button left on all night. Bummed.
If the border crossing process says anything about the government of these EU countries – they are in big trouble. Pure chaos – LONG lines – some upwards of 3 hours. They make the Mexican border crossing look like a greased wheel.
Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo (two times), Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro (worst borderline), Croatia (two times) and Bosnia Herzegovina were our stomping grounds so far. Tomorrow we hit Slovenia before returning the car back to Hungary.
Our pit stops – Skopje, Macedonia – Dubrovnik, Croatia – Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina and Split (just south), Croatia.
The race car driver talks to his fans…..
Dubrovnik old town must be the frosting on the cake (until we see more}. The town and port are made entirely of marble and white limestone – from ramparts to churches to substantial villas and hotels. It is like a movie lit up at night and crowded with fun/sun seekers. The advertisements claim that the Adriatic Sea is the only water which shows blue from satellites it certainly does from eye level.
Climbing about one km out of Dubrovnik we hit the Bosnia and Herzovina border and another landscape. It reminds me of Baja Sur in May or June, and particularly the road from La Paz to Buena Vista – dry, with the same white rock and wilted flowers and bushes – even the narrow patched road and rusted – through barriers that won’t stop a car from careening into space.
Almost as sudden, after an hour, we crest into Yosemite. No dirt can be seen – green begins at the edge of the pavement and continues to the sheer rock walls at 7000 ft. in the distance. Wildflowers tangle profusely up against meadows which run to forests and rivers. It’s quite a shock.
As pretty as it is, 3 or 4 hours is sufficient and we’re ready for Sarajevo. Hard to believe they held the Olympics here in 1984, we have dropped back down to 1550 feet.
After Prince Franz Joseph was assassinated here in 1914, lighting off World War One I think it was pretty quite until 1984, and then again until it’s famous one seige and bombing as Yugoslavia took nearly 20 years to come undone.
It still shows the signs of war, lots of buildings pock marked, shot up and burned. Then of course there are the cheap ugly replacements which down help dispel the tired and worn out look of the city. But the people still get out at night and fill the old center cafes adjacent to the quite dirty and stagnant river.
It was always referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe because of the co-existence of churches, mosques and synagogues —- but the mosques, old and new, win out now.
A similar trip out of the mountains back to Baja took us through Mostar, a historically and architecturally noteworthy city, but still recovering too. These places just don’t seem excited to wake up in the morning.
Then we experienced evidence of entry into the EU. The two lane road, always behind 30 kph trucks and busses gave way to a 4 or 6 lane divided autobahn straight along and through the mountains with a 130 kph “advisory” limit. So the EU loans the money, or guarantees it, some German company builds it, and some of the toll proceeds [steep] left after the local skim go to pay down the loans at too low a pace and we have the markings of a debt crisis!
Back near Split Croatia we are at a nice hotel on the Adriatic (we haven’t seen a ripple on the sea here in a week) and the navigator is programming the GPS for our assault on the final Balkan piece–Slovenia.
Another few days and we are back to the Western European capitals of Vienna and Prague—–which we KNOW will be overrun with turistas, hot humid and rainy-but we’re still looking forward to them.
So I was led on this string of thoughts while writing. The Balkan countries all have broad selections of home grown wines and we didn’t have a bad one. This made me think that they are all better than virtually all the wine I drank in Paris while attending a semester of law school 40 years ago (tearing into the Treaty of Rome, and wandering if this dream of a “European Union” would ever materialize,
and “Contract law with the Eastern Bloc countries” which has disappeared).
This led me to think just about doing this trip– and how many of our friends have preceded us – some for much longer and some much longer ago! At least Joe, Clark, Clint and Barb, Scott, Preston, Chloe, George (probably 3 years cumulatively), Rich, Steven, Shannon, Sally and Kayla have all lived and travelled in Europe for long periods of time. Quite a well – travelled group of friends we have.
We rented the car and got out of the city of some million with no trouble. Paige is a tough but fair navigator…..very tolerant of pilot error (you believe that)?
The toll road to the Serbian border was a piece of cake…….divided and well-maintained. It seems that most of these countries have a capital city with about 25% of the total population, maybe an industrial/business city, and the rest composed of villages, agriculture and a hundred year old lifestyle.
This certainly continued into Serbia, where the roads deteriorated and the evidence of more recents war is evident. The landscape was flat as a pancake to Belgrade, which has small hills aside the Danube.
Among some bombed and still un-repaired buildings we found the Orient Express Balkan Hotel…..build in grand style in 1936, about three years before Hitler’s war. I don’t think it has had much done since…..a real poor old grande dame, but if you squint your eyes in the restaurant and listen carefully…..the grand times can still be imagined.
People are happy and try, but even the 20 something desk clerk apologized for not being able to offer great “tourist sites” like other countries. However, the old quarter, castle and hundreds of outdoor restaurants were plenty for us. We also met an Australian tennis coach who was either teaching or poaching the next “Rafat”.
The countryside to Kosovo and Macedonia looked like great bird and duck hunting country. It just gets more pastoral and tranquil, even at harvest time. But the towns are unfortunately cheap new unimaginative stuff thrown up after the war, which may have been over in 1999 but I guess post-peace bombings continued for a few years, like in Iraq presently .
I recall Clint talking about going to Greece from Germany when he was there more than 40 years ago. I don’t know if Joe ever did. At any rate, half of Germany passed us speeding to Greece and the other half of Germany and Austria flew by us to Macedonia. At least that many Italians are driving to Croatia and Albania. The people, the immigration workers, and truckers are all frustrated.
Our zigging and zagging has taken us through four borders one day…and one was a three hour ordeal. Add to this a Cyrillic map and road signs, half a dozen currencies and the local wines really begin to go down well.
All of the ex-Yugoslav countries seem to have one foot in the Eu…but not both. Some take multiple currencies, some only their by law……authorities are fighting the grey economy in order to increase tax collections and reduce their debt. One guy told us every cash register in the country is connected to the capital, and if he doesn’t balance to a dinar they will close him down.
From Macedonia we went back through Kosovo and over the mountains to Albania. The teeny road passed lots of good trout fishing streams and rivers, and was adjoined by a number of war memorial/cemetery locations. We got through verdant forests to summit the tree line and head down to dry coastal Albania where it was 37.5 degrees and looked like central California with no water, except for the grape orchards.