Thursday, August 7, 2008

Geography lessons, Balkan style

I have to admit, I had only a fairly general familiarity with the geographic details of the countries of the former Yugoslavia before coming on this trip. Now though, I've actually had a chance to visit just about all of them and what have we learned? Well, I don't know how exactly the new states agreed to carve up what used to be Yugoslavia, but I suspect it went something like this: everybody got into a big room and had a few drinks. Except that the Croatia representative didn't drink as much as everyone else, so Croatia got just about the entire coastline between Italy and Albania, and the rest was carved in every way imaginable.

Ok, there are also good historical reasons for why things turned out the way they did, but I've got to say Croatia did quite well for itself in terms of scenery! Bosnia got about a 15km stretch of Coastline on the way from Split to Dubrovnik (so when you're on the highway, you first enter the Dubrovnik administrative area, then go into Bosnia, then back into Croatia, and finally get to Dubrovnik itself). Serbia and Montenegro got about a 100km chunk of coastline just north of Albania, except that Montenegro then decided to split off and took the entire coastline with them, so Serbia was now land-locked...

Well, with all this as a backdrop on our maps, we set off from Dubrovnik, aiming to get to Serres, Greece. That's about 600km, and five border crossings away, so off we went. Just for reference, I've traveled a fair amount recently, and I'm pretty sure the most countries I'd done in 24 hours previously was just 3 (UK, France, Belgium; Netherlands, Belgium, France; and Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia). So,

7:00AM: my alarm goes off... after some internal struggle, it is indeed time to get up
8:15AM: we're on the road, heading for Montenegro, 2nd newest country in the world (I believe East Timor is the 3rd, and I just missed that when I went to Bali)

We drove right along the shore of the Adriatic Sea, of course

And the Adriatic is certainly beautiful

10:30AM: we've entered Montenegro! This is a really small country, 100km across at most, should be able to get through quickly. Entry costs 10 Euro per car for the Environmental Protection tax, and an extra 15 Euro for Cyrus because he doesn't actually have insurance...

On the opposite side from the sea are the mountains

12:00PM: hmm, still in Montenegro. That 100km is what we call 'as the bird flies'. As the mini drives is a much more twisty road, with lots of other cars and the occasional road construction

But the scenery on the way, around which we are having to drive, is quite spectacular

3:00PM: this is all taking longer than I'd hoped/planned. Reached the depressingly Soviet-looking capital city of Podgorica. On thr bright side, Montenegro is on the Euro, so able to get some Euros out of the ATM in the city. Aside from this, I can't really think of any other reasons to leave the coast and come into this bland-looking city.

5:00PM: Approach Albanian border. The road has completely deteriorated into a line on aging pavement twisting its way SouthEast. The border is first announced by goats grazing on and near the 'highway.' There are no other cars heading into Albania, there's a few coming from Albania though, and they are all Mercedeses!?

6:00PM: We've crossed over into Albania. This is undoubtedly the poorest nation in Europe and I have no idea if they are even thinking of joining the EU, but I'd put their chances of joining in the next, say, 20 years at slim to none. The roadside scenerey is punctuated by run-down shacks, cows, farming equipment, and unappealing housing blocks in the cities. After some debate, decide to take a shortcut through the mountains and cross Serbia to get to Macedonia instead of going further South and getting directly to the Macedonian border. The locals point out which road we're to take, even though there's some uncertainy about Serbia. We head up - the road twists and turns through the mountains offering beautiful scenery, and, in parts, a fun drive (those would be the parts that are actually decently paved). The Mercedeses, however, continue. I cannot explain it, but somehow this is the most popular car on the roads here, and it's not a new development either - there's plenty of older Mercedeses on the road as well.

We're in Albania!

Twisty montain roads in Albania

Where we're going, we don't need roads!

11:00PM: I pass a very American looking school bus on the side of the road. Odd? The school bus apparently signals the beginning of road construction, which so far has included plenty of road destruction, and in another 5 years or so may have some construction coming too. Depends on how much money the EU gives, I suppose. Oddly enough, there's no shortage of tourist buses going across this non-existent road in the opposite direction. I can see how a beach-front vacation in cheap Albania would be a cost-effective, if not necessarily attractive option, but I don't know about putting up with these roads. This would also seem to suggest that the border will be open, pushing on...

midnight: we've reached the border, after about 50km of the autrocious 'under construction' roads. At one point, I had to actually ask a police check point which way the road went. To our great surprise, however, we have not arrived in Serbia. Instead, we've reached Kosovo. Visiting the newest country in the world seems exciting, there's a catch however - since they are so new, none of the European insurance policies cover them, so visitors must purchase a 14-day minimum policy for 50 Euro! Or we can go back to Albania, the ever-so-helpful border guard points out. Then the border loses power... Under the feeble light of the generator, we're still told that we have to buy insurance, so after 30 minutes of arguing, we've donated 100 Euro (two cars) to Kosovo for the privelege of spending about 3 hours in their country. Don't think I'll be coming back for a repeat visit - in fact, it might time to avoid any more of these brand new countries...

1:30AM: the mini has a birthday as I hit 100,000 km!

About 30 minutes later, after passing a few tank speed limit signs on the highway(!), the peace-keepers in the country decide to join in the birthday celebrations as I get pulled over by a serious millitery check point, with an armored personnel carrier, a jeep (with Polish plates?), and a guy with a machine guy in the middle of the road. They are all very formal and polite though, and speak excellent English. My only regret really was not asking for a picture! I suppose, I deserved this as I had previously driven through at least a couple of rather feeble attempts by police in Montenegro and Albania to get me to stop for an inspection, but considering that the most they did was meekly wave at me and proceeded to completely lose interest once I'd driven by, I felt perfectly justified in not stopping.

3:00AM: We are in Macedonia. I wish I had something to say about Macedonia - we had been planning to stop for dinner in the capital city of Skopje, but things are going a bit slower than we had expected. Instead we simply drive through the city as it lies still and quiet in the middle of the night and head off towards Greece.

4:00AM: Cyrus is leading our little convoy, Liz is asleep in the passeneget seat. He first swerves a bit to the right... and corrects it. Then he swerves to the left lane, I honk my horn, he corrects again... Soon we pull over and agree that we need a break for a bit of a nap.

7:00AM: back on the road, sun's coming up, feeling anxious to get to Greece!

9:00AM: We are at the Greek border. And this is 9:00AM Greek time, so only 8:00 in Croatia, so still under 24 hours. The border crossing is trivial, and we're into our sixth country in under 24 hours! I think this should be the next adventurists challenge - see how many countries people can visit in a 24 hour period. Bonus points for anyone who comes within 3 countries of the winner, but doesn't use the Balkans!

9:30AM: To celebrate our arrival in Greece, we stop at a roadside cafe for a bit of breakfast. As the conversation turns to just how bad the tea is, Cyrus accidentally tips the table and spills two cups of scaling hot tea on Liz' lap. A long string of expletives, some ice, and a water hose later, we're on the way to the nearest town to have a clinic get a proper look at the burn.

Liz seems fairly upbeat for someone who just had some extremely hot tea spilt in her lap

The clinic determines it is, in fact, a first degree burn, but since we got here quickly, they can clean and treat it, and there shouldn't be any scaring. This all takes place in Polykastro, a cute little town, which seems fairly excited just to have visitors. Apparently the recent conflict in Kosovo had rather discouraged tourism in Northern Greece.

3:00PM: Feeling rather tired after the lengthy drive we arrive in Serres, where we meet up with Cyrus' friends, and I run into Jimi, the classic mini fan + mechanic extraordinaire by a completely stroke of luck. He and I spend roughly the next 8 hours making the mini more amazing than it's been in a long, long time!

PS. In case anybody is wondering, the fact that I'm posting stories of our adventures in Yugoslavia from 10 days ago does not mean that I've moved on past the whole incorrect VIN number debacle, or released any of the anger and frustration I've accumulated on the issue (in fact, another post coming on all that soon). It just means I'm stuck in Paris, waiting for the paperwork to be processed in London and returned here, with nothing more to do than hang out at a McDonald's and take full advantage of their free internet facilities. The car's feeling lonely sitting at the Bratislava airport parking lot. ETA on rejoining the car is currently unavailable. Normally, I'm being told, they'd have the documents back from London by Tuesday. I've been insisting, in every way and language possible, on speeding up the process, so maybe we'll get something tomorrow, but nobody seems particularly bothered to be in a hurry...

1 comment:

b mathew said...

Ack, hope Liz is feeling better. Where are you staying in Paris? Do they still have the royale with cheese :)