Day 137 – 140: The Balkans: Part 1

12 Oct

We’ve spent so long riding across vast lands like Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey that it’s now very strange to be travelling through countries more akin to New Zealand in size. Everything is a completely different scale on the map. What used to be 1000km on our GPS screen is now more like 200km. It takes a while to adjust to working out how long it will take us to traverse these small nations.

The moto-camp gang

Fuuzal is ready to go

Shalom and the replacement bearings.

On Wednesday, we had a fond farewell at the moto-camp. Most of the expats we’d met came by to say goodbye to Michael, Tamara and Team Battle Panda. We then followed Michael and Tamara toward the western border near Sofia, where we would cross into Serbia. The orange and white sidecar turns heads everywhere – its highly amusing to follow behind and watch people stop dead in their tracks as this unusual machine and its cargo of people and dogs whizzes by.

It’s also a great tactic for avoiding the attention of border officers and roadside police – all the attention is directed at the KTM. We’re just not that interesting by comparison.

We crossed into Serbia late in the afternoon. We were a little worried that our ‘green card’ insurance cover may not cover us in Serbia. ‘Green card’ third party insurance is compulsory throughout Europe. We’d bought one month of coverage at the border when we crossed Bulgaria, but had since discovered that there are different types of insurance that cover different countries. Upon close inspection, it appears that ours does not cover Montenegro, disputed territory in Serbia, Albania and maybe not Croatia – although we will argue that as an EU member nation, Croatia should be included as a matter of course. We will buy if we have to, but from most accounts it doesn’t give you much in the way of cover anyway so it’s largely a bureaucratic formality.

At the Serbian border the official simply took our passports and stamped them – and added that Igor was a good Yugoslavian name – and waved us through. No questions, no bike documents, no insurance.

I was a little nervous about travelling through Serbia, as all I knew about the country was headlines from the bitter war in the 90s. But from all we saw, it seems those days are far behind. Sure, there’s places where the legacy of destruction is visible, but for the most part it’s just like every other developing economy we’ve seen on our travels.

Serbian countryside


Michael rescues a caterpillar

Back to the Future – we’ve arrived in the European timezone

We rode in convoy to Nis, a city about 100km from the border, where we found a hotel for the night. I was surprised that travelling with dogs and taking them into hotels hasn’t been an issue for Michael and Tamara so far – I’m pretty sure in New Zealand there’d be no way you could take two dogs into your hotel room, no matter how small, clean and quiet they are.

In the morning, we visited Skull Tower – a gruesome reminder of past tensions between the ruling Turks and Serbian people striving for independence. 952 Serbian soldiers were killed in an unsuccessful uprising, and the Turks constructed a tower from their heads as a gesture of their power.

As if the place wasn’t eerie enough, it was enhanced greatly by the creepy lady who ‘guided’ us through. “Don’t close the door.” she said, as we entered. She then rattled off the story of the tower, in a robotic Slavic tone that we had to strain to understand. “You can take picture now”. Then about 3 minutes later, *cough cough*. Time for us to move on, I guess.

Creepy skulls

Getting up close with Yorick

I think this is when we decided that the situation could very easily be the opening scene from a horror film.

At the border entering Serbia we’d decided to bypass purchasing a permit to use the motorways, and had only converted a minimal amount of Euros into the local currency of Dinah. That meant that we had to use the secondary roads, and we had only enough money on us for breakfast – so we had to ride on to Montenegro that same day. We were pretty sure our insurance wouldn’t cover us for Kosovo, so we steered clear of that area too. Our indirect route took us through small villages and lesser used roads. It was only 250km, but it took most of the day.

By 5pm we were in Montenegro. We again followed the Germans across the border and again just slid through without our paperwork being checked. The dogs provide a fantastic distraction and we’ve discovered that border guards like to autograph our bike too, so we gladly obliged.

Montenegro is a very small nation – so small in fact that it doesn’t have its own currency, but uses Euro despite not being an EU member. Our brains have become well practiced at converting local currency to Euro and then to New Zealand dollars, but working with Euro just makes things so much easier!

It turns out dogs are not so welcome in hotels in Montenegro as they are in other countries. Michael and Tamara made their case, but the hotel manager wasn’t convinced. Fortunately, another hotel guest came by – she’s Croatian and also travelling by bike – and convinced him to allow the dogs in. It cost an extra E12 and a block of chocolate.

We found Montenegro to be a real gem of a country – friendly people, lots of interesting roads, plenty of nature to be explored, and pretty cheap accommodation and food. Autumn is stunning here – trees are every shade of gold and red.

Avoiding the highway across the country, we took some beautiful mountain roads, winding up past farm houses and places where traditional farmers once grazed their stock over the summer months, setting up camp in the mountains.

Looking out across the farmland

Beautiful autumnal scenery

Here comes the KTM (you hear it about two minutes before you see it… it often sets off car alarms!)

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Montenegro, we crossed into Albania. The border guard in Montenegro pointed out that our insurance wasn’t valid, to which we responded in naive suprise. On the Albanian side, they just stamped our passports, checked our bike registration document and waved us through. No need for insurance…

Michael and Tamara are spending the winter at a monastery in Schkoder, in Northern Albania. They visited on their way through to Bulgaria, and felt a real affinity with the work being done here. After spending so long in Bulgaria, they’v decided to park up for the winter and resume their travel in spring. So for the next five months they’ll work here in exchange for board. We’ve joined them for a couple of nights, before we say goodbye and head north for Croatia.

The two nuns, Sister Cristina and Sister Michaela, run a kindergarten and drop-in/emergency medical clinic as well as caring for two disabled children. With their training as a vet and a physiotherapist, Michael and Tamara bring much appreciated experience and skill to the clinic. The nuns are so far from the stereotypical image – they are animated speakers (even though we don’t understand Swiss German), Sr Cristina has a Swiss Army knife in the pocket of her habit, and they make many jokes at the dinner table. They’ve welcomed us into their home, despite our heathen ways.

We’ve learned many disturbing things about the current state of affairs in Albania, ranging from ‘blood revenge’ family feuds that span generations to systematic abuse of women to a woefully corrupt medical system and a political structure that insists on playing ostrich and focuses instead on wooing the EU. There’s even a published book of the kanun, the common law that governs how all crime and retribution should be dealt with.

I’m constantly reminded that there’s so much more beneath the surface, and you just don’t see it if you pass through a country and check into hotels in the cities on a brief overnight stop. Ideally, we’d spend much more time getting under the skin of the Balkan nations, but we are up against deteriorating weather and a bank balance that looks no better, so we need to press on to our end-destination.


One Response to “Day 137 – 140: The Balkans: Part 1”

  1. Judi October 12, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    I look forward to hearing about Croatia as it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time. The dog story brought back memories of our time in Europe. People take their dogs everywhere they go, but don’t seem to have to clean up after them. In Paris, avoiding dog poo became an art. Dogs on buses, in shops, in cafes, in handbags, and we found it strange. Now we have Rosie we think it’s wonderful; 🙂

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