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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 3

Dubrovnik to Plovdiv – Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria – About 1000 miles

3rd Map

10 June

Dubrovnik to Mostar then Sarajevo. Croatia, Bosnia. 182 miles.

First day (we think) with absolutely no rain!!! It was nice and hot so we ended up taking all of the interior linings out of our suits.

We retraced some of our steps up the coast, back through Bosnia’s 16 miles of coastline and then turned off towards Mostar. As soon as we moved off the coast road the country started to change, definitely becoming more rural – they use a lot of polythene to protect the crops so it’s not all pretty. We crossed once again into Bosnia, this time through a proper border crossing and were able to get the 3rd party insurance required (another 20 Euros for 14 days).

Eventually we arrived in Mostar which is a place we have seen documentaries on before, during and after the war and didn’t ever dream we’d be here on a bike. Now we were here we had trouble finding the famous bridge. We missed one of the signposts and then, of course, there weren’t any more! There was much more evidence here of the war – lots of buildings at the side of the road with no windows or roof and trees growing inside. It was really quite sad to see.

Mostar House

There are quite a few houses like this in Mostar

Eventually we got our bearings and found our way to a small side road where a parking attendant took us to a small cafe and told us to park there. He also arranged with the waitress for us to leave our bike gear there while we went for a walk.

The old town of Mostar is lovely. Most of it has been carefully restored but there are still quite a few buildings that have not been (yet?). The bridge is very white and still looks brand new. It seemed to be a very long way down to the water – no wonder the locals charge 300 Euros if you want them to dive in! The old town, round the river, seems to be one huge bazaar selling tourist items. It has a very Turkish feel about the place.

Mostar Bridge

Mostar Bridge, with some souvenirs

After a couple of hours mooching round we returned to the bike and travelled on towards Sarajevo where we had accommodation booked. The road was stunning – running alongside a river most of the way at the bottom of a huge gorge. The mountains weren’t that tall, at least they didn’t have any snow on them, but were very imposing none the less.

In Sarajevo we managed to turn right instead of left on the main road and then, when we got towards the centre of the town, we were completely lost as Mrs. Nav didn’t have the street we needed. In fact, the mapping for this whole area is sparse, to say the least. I asked at a garage and they didn’t know where it was and suggested going downtown and then asking. We stopped at a police station and the guy there wafted his arm in a general direction but we still couldn’t find it.

Sarajevo

Approaching Sarajevo

I asked a nice young couple but they weren’t able to help me either and suggested asking at the bank. No joy there either, nor did the taxi driver I asked. I was beginning to think the place didn’t exist! (It didn’t help that we had the wrong phone number as well). Kevin rode us to the Holiday Inn (which is very yellow) and said ‘Either ask those taxi drivers where it is or book us in here, I don’t care which!’. Luckily the drivers did know where it was so I got in a cab and Kevin followed. We’d been very close to it but it is a very small street. Best 5 Euros spent all day!

The hotel is nice and the owners are very friendly. Somehow we managed to communicate with them – their English is not very robust and my ‘whatever they speak here’ is non-existent – and they pointed us in the right direction for sightseeing and food. We wandered down to the city – a walk of about 20 minutes – and were amazed at how busy and vibrant it was. Even though it was getting dark there were hundreds of people out – typical of the hot countries, things seem to come back to life in the evenings. It was a really nice atmosphere and it took a short while for us to work out why that was – all ages and types of people were out walking the streets and that just felt really comfortable.

Sarajevo

Vibrant city

We found a likely looking cafe and had a hamburger. It was a bit of a shock to Kevin as it came with Pitta bread but he tried it and liked it. Tomorrow I’m going to try him with a kebab!

There are quite a lot of motorbikes here, all ridden by immortal riders – at least that’s what they must think they are as they ride like complete lunatics – weaving in and out of the traffic at speed – and most of them don’t have a helmet, gloves or any sort of protective gear unless you count flip-flops and shorts as protective! Perhaps we’re just getting old. The drivers are similar too – overtaking on blind bends – and many don’t look before zooming out to overtake, usually with a mobile phone firmly fixed in their ear!

11 June

Sarajevo

We wandered into Sarajevo again – it was even busier than last night. Spent some time planning our next few days and sorting out a parcel to send home – clothes we’ve decided we can do without (they’re on their way to your address Jane, hope that’s OK) . It’s always a bit of a challenge dealing with people like the post office when you can’t speak their language! Anyway, fingers crossed that the right papers were filled in. Interestingly the ‘Posta’ was the only place we found that wouldn’t take Euros.

Chess

Chess with an audience. No pressure there then!

We found a great steakhouse tonight so the Kebab will have to wait until we get to Turkey but I was amazed to see Kevin trying soft cheese, whatever next! For those of you who don’t know Kevin very well he has, er, somewhat ‘conservative’ taste when it comes to food (Who? Me? Kevin).

Sarajevo food

Wasn’t so bad after all!

12 June

Sarajevo to Despotovac. Bosnia, Serbia, 294 miles

Travelled across country to the nearest Bosnia/Serbia border, but were sent to another one about 20 miles away to get a Green Card as they weren’t set up to sell them. This cost us a couple of hours with the detour and the wait for someone to come out of town with the paperwork. 80 Euros this time – luckily this is (probably) the last country we’ll need to buy extra insurance for. We had a long day, 11.5 hours altogether and we had very few stops – the roads are such that it’s difficult to ‘get a move on’ for any length of time.

First impressions of Serbia are that it is a very depressing place. The towns are run down and look more like I would expect Eastern Europe to look. Lots of concrete blocks of flats and large, often closed, factories. The roads are noticeably worse here too, the bike is certainly earning its keep! Serbia seems to be the scrap heap capital of the world – there are numerous scrap car places, some of them have loads of doors all lined up and colour coded! The car of choice seems to be VW – lots of Golfs and Polos, and then anything that looks like one of them; many of them look like they should be in the scrap yard!

On the other hand, the countryside looks lovely – in fact at one point I said to Kevin that I thought it could have been the Home Counties – it looks very Chilternesque, with rolling hills and valleys. The roads are interesting, some are nice and bendy. The drivers are, on the whole, the best we have seen in the Balkans. They have lane discipline, use their indicators before overtaking and many of them obviously hold back to allow us to pass. The lorry drivers seem to have a 15mph limit going up hills and a 10mph downhill limit. There are often large queues on the hills because it is so difficult to overtake.

Serbia road

A nice road in Serbia

Our hotel for the next 2 nights feels very East European too – the bed has a really heavy furry blanket on it. Luckily it’s not cold but we did have a wet day. Does it rain in the Balkans all of the time?

13 June

Despotovac. 55 miles

We spent the day on the bike touring round and sightseeing. That was after it stopped raining. We were lucky, it rained quite heavily just before we had breakfast, then the sun came out and it was lovely all day. Our first port of call was the Manasija Monastery, famous for being enclosed within a fortress. This was supposed to save it from the Turks but the plan failed on several occasions. Inside the church were some lovely old frescos but they had been mostly destroyed by the Turks. We fought our way past hoards of school children, most of whom seemed very interested in the bike. In fact we, or rather we assume the bike, seemed to be an object of curiosity throughout Serbia; perhaps they don’t get many big bikes coming through there. (In fact, I don’t think I recall seeing any other big bikes all the time we were there).

Mansija

Mansija Monastery – there’s a lot of work being done on the fabric of the building, you can see the stone cladding in the foreground

We then took a side road to the Veliki waterfalls. We subsequently saw a picture of the main waterfall and we hadn’t found it but we did see some of the smaller waterfalls. We then took about an hour and a half riding on a very gravelly, extremely picturesque, road through the mountains. It went on forever and the only signs of civilisation were a couple of logging lorries, a few houses and a man sitting by the side of the road repairing something. We eventually encountered an old man and a boy and asked if we should go on or back. Unfortunately neither of us spoke each other’s language, but he indicated that we needed to turn round as the road petered out. This was what we were beginning to think so, having already seen the sights, we made faster progress on the way back.

Off road

Wandering in the forest (and this was a good piece of road!)

Next stop was the Resave Cave – this was a fantastic experience as the caves have had very little damage to them, unlike Cheddar. We were also lucky to have a guide and the caves to ourselves. The caves were only discovered in the ’60’s and opened to the public 10 years or so later. They are still exploring and planning on opening up a lower level once they can sort out the flooding.

Cave

Inside the cave

14 June

Despotovac to Plovdiv. Serbia, Bulgaria. 415 miles.

We knew this was going to be a long day so to save time we planned to use the motorway to the border, turn right at Sofia to visit a monastery at Rila then go across country to Plovdiv. The sat nav didn’t have the town Rila but it did have the monastery as a place to visit. Despite it being a Saturday, Sofia seemed to be in the middle of a rush hour – and ‘rush’ was the word of the moment, everyone seemed in a hurry to get wherever. Kevin got into the swing of things and we made good time through the city, where the roads were very pot-holed.

Rila monastery was one of the high points of our trip so far, words can’t describe it. We parked up and took some photos of the outside paintings, then walked through the gate and ‘wow!’ – we were completely unprepared for the sight we saw. The photos just don’t do it justice. The monastery has been there since 1030 and is still active (although I believe there have been periods when the monks were banished). We went into the church and witnessed the monks having a service (not sure if that’s the correct term). It was very different to any other religious ceremony I’ve ever seen; the monks are either wearing vestments or totally covered in black (like the Muslim women’s garb but without the face covering). They all have beards and long hair.

Rila

Rila Monastery

I think so far the Bulgarian roads have been the worst. After the monastery we had a long ride to the hotel and were on a road where huge pieces of the top level of tarmac were just missing. There were times on this journey when Kevin began to loathe Bulgaria.

Potholes

Road or river?

It wasn’t the general state of the road nor the rivers of mud and gravel flowing across the road and the huge puddles (it took turns raining very heavily on us or just in front of us), it wasn’t the fact that most signs are in Cyrillic (it’s their alphabet and we learned to recognise the place we were aiming for) it wasn’t even the wild swerves other drivers, particularly in trucks, did that meant they were often heading straight for us as they tried to avoid potholes. It was the clear sign to our destination that was present as we entered large towns then the complete lack of signage once we got into the towns resulting in us having to make several U-turns and getting lost on more than one occasion.

Rainbow

Rain does have a good side!

Nevertheless, we had some fantastic scenery as we rode on. One of our most memorable moments was approaching the city in torrential rain, with loud rock music pounding in our ears, seeing lightning flashing across the mountains, and knowing that we were nearly there. About 30 minutes out of Plovdiv Kevin’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow came in the shape of a Macdonald’s (yes, he knows he’s a Philistine!).

McD

Pot of Gold!

The hotel was expensive but had a really comfy bed, which we gratefully fell into, and we’re worth it! Unfortunately we didn’t realise that we’d crossed a time zone so we were an hour too late for breakfast!

15 June

Plovdiv

We spent some time walking round Plovdiv which, to be honest, was a little disappointing. The old town is interesting but it’s covered in graffiti, skips, dustbins and just generally dirty and unkempt. I know people have to live there but people also live in Dubrovnik and Kotor both of which are very clean. Some of it was nice though. There are several old houses that have been restored and there is a medieval feel to the old town. There is also a partially restored Roman theatre where they hold concerts now. There are quite a few antique shops which felt just like our shops at home but with different items such as wooden finger protectors for crop picking and I saw an old photo of some of those monks, all dressed up in their regalia, sitting straight like a Victorian photo. We were thinking of spending an extra day here as the book had lots of items to see, but we think we’ve seen most of it and will move on to Turkey tomorrow.

Some parts of Plovdiv remind me of Sandwich (if I have my squinty eyes in!) – but there’s more grafitti and squallor.

Plovdiv

Plovdiv aka Sandwich

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