Barreling through the Balkans

Posted on April 27, 2015


Turkey had been a fantastic place, but after weeks of riding through snowy mountain passes we were ready to move on. You might say that we were ready to quit cold Turkey.

We left the towering pillars of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in the distance, riding for the Bulgarian border. We didn’t quite make it before dark so we motored into the forest and found a spot to make our camp for the night and cook up some dinner.

Once into Bulgaria, we wound our way out to the Black Sea Coast along twisting mountain roads of poor asphalt with holes and lumpy patches. The scenery was gorgeous, so was the weather, and there was no traffic. We had a fantastic day riding and it felt like motorcycle adventuring is all about. We were headed out to a coastal town called Ahtopol, where I’d been told that there was a pointbreak and some surfers. They had a surf club and even had a national surf competition there. Alas, the Black Sea let us down again without a wave or a surfer to be found.

We blazed across Bulgaria without stopping for much. It was actually a shame that we didn’t have more time to spend, with accommodation and really good food abundant and very cheap in Bulgaria. But after all the time we spent in Turkey, we had just three weeks to get through the Balkan states and across Europe. Somewhere in the mountains of Bulgaria my fork seals blew out and oozed a lovely oily mess down onto the brake caliper. With no fork oil for dampening, we’d be pogoing our way across the Balkans. In addition, the lower chain roller had just about disintegrated and was making a low growling noise at certain rpm’s, and we had less than a millimeter of rubber on the rear tire.

Did I mention how nice the weather was? We tried to just enjoy the nice weather and ignore our poor girl falling to pieces beneath us. Just hang on for another thousand miles girl!

After a brief stop in Sophia, we rode on to Serbia, where spring had most discernibly sprung. Along every country road, farmers were out tilling their fields readying for the growing season. The roads followed the streams closely and it wasn’t hard to find a picnic spot for our usual on-road cuisine.

We continued south to Kosovo and ended up spending the night in the capital of Pristina. The funny thing about entering Kosovo is that since Serbia still doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, you never actually leave Serbia, but Kosovo stamps you in. It’s the youngest country in Europe and the capital city felt lively. The hostel we stayed at was packed with locals that came out to see a music show that night. The young guys who owned it had high hopes for the success of their place as European backpackers began to discover Kosovo.

On we rode into Macedonia and Lake Ohrin, a world heritage site for both the beauty of the natural landscape and the town itself.

We found quite a few more holes in the road as we crossed into Albania. It’s one of the poorest countries in Europe, but the people were warm and welcoming, and there were plenty of long twisting country roads and nice spots to camp.

The truth about adventure motorcycling with your girlfriend:

Scattered all over Albania in cities and tiny villages alike there are these concrete bunkers. During times of trouble, they are stocked with weapons and all of the men would be called to arms to defend their homeland.

Riding into Montenegro, rocky headlands of the Adriatic Sea were covered in beautiful houses and the harbors were crammed full of sailboats and yachts. When we looked up, we’d sometimes see a rocky gray ridge looming above with a castle perched at the top. The castle of Kotor sits above the ledge of an inlet to the Adriatic Sea that drops straight down from the shoreline so abruptly that a massive cruise ship could park right next to the village as though it was a bus pulling to up to a street curb.

The gorgeous coastal scenery continued as we rode north along the Adriatic into Croatia. There was no shortage of places to camp, which was good, since any other type of accommodation had quickly soared out of our range in this ritzy region. With the grass as our bed, we had the view of a 5 star hotel.

In the town of Dubrovnik, we found a suspiciously familiar looking Harbor.

If you’re a fan of the Game of Thrones series (like we are) you might recognize it as King’s Landing. These are the waters of Blackwater Bay, where Aegon the Conqueror first made landfall in Westros and Tyrion Lannister defended the city by destroying Stannis Baratheon’s fleet with a barrage of wildfire. It’s also a nice place to go kayaking.

Here’s the same spot Westerosi style:

Of course there is a rich history to city of Dubrovnik that really happened and actual cultural significance to all these buildings but who cares about that.  Anyone know the way to the Sept of Baelor? How about the Red Keep?

Loads of the Kings Landing stuff from the series was filmed in old city of Dubrovnik as well as just up the coast near the city of Split. The Klis Fortress sits on a huge rocky ridge high Split. It was here that Daenerys Targaryen showed up outside the gates of Meereen ready to break some chains.

We rode from the sites of fictional battles to the scenes of real battles in Bosnia and Hersegovina. The city of Sarajevo has been at the center of conflicts in the region throughout the 20th century. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenburg, in Sarajevo was the event that triggered the First World War. It happened just next to the Latin Bridge that crosses the River Milijacka in the heart of the city.

In high school I remember vaguely knowing about the conflict happening in Bosnia, but not having much idea what it was all about. With the breakup of the Republic of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence, plunging them into 3.5 years of war against Serbian and Croatian forces. Sarajevo was under siege from the Serbian forces from 1992-1996. During this time, the only way in or out of the city for people, food, or weapons was a tunnel built beneath the runway of the airport, which was the weakest point in the Serb forces. Think we went and crawled around in the tunnel? You know we did.

As we drove out to the airport, we stopped at an intersection where the taxi driver pointed the spot where a massive white sheet had been tensioned between two 8 story buildings with ropes to try hide people from snipers in the surrounding hills. Nearly everyone here has stories about that time. It sounded pretty rough. No water access, no power, and little food. Those with the skills made weapons by hand. It’s unimaginable thinking of a city persisting like this for 4 years.

We stopped at the Sarajevo Brewery to hoist one in tribute to all the brave souls who weathered the siege and fought to defend their home however they could.

Our next stop was the little town of Mostar, which also played a part in the war when Croat forces invaded and occupied the west bank of the River Neretva that flows through the town. They occupied the huge hill right next to the town and shelled the crap out of the place.

The beautiful footbridge that is a primary tourist attraction today, and during the war was the path to the front lines of the fighting. This is a fantastic BBC documentary about Mostar during the war and some totally heart wrenching stories. Here’s what the bridge looked like during the war, from the BBC:

Our taxi driver back in Sarajevo wasn’t optimistic about not seeing another war. “Every forty years or so, we have a war. It’s just the nature of the people here,” he said.   After getting to know the place and the people here, I hope he’s wrong.

We crossed back into Croatia leaving the big problems of the past behind and managed to find some small problems of our own. We were along the coast approaching the Palenica National Park when a screw found its way into the rear tire and quickly deflated the tube leaving us squirming along then breaking the bead off the rim.

No problem, I’ll just patch her up. But when I examined the tire, I found that it wouldn’t be quite so easy. Though our rubber was wearing thin I’d counted on making it to Munich, but my Kenda 761 had other ideas. The tire tread had separated from the steel belted carcass all around the tire and the side knobs were cracking off. Looking at the tire it seemed idiotic to go riding off onto the high-speed motorways of Europe on this thing hoping for the best.

So here we were in this tiny town with a shredded tire and I had no idea where to get another one. Oh, and there was a storm on the way. Luckily though, fortune sometimes favors the poorly prepared just as well as the bold. The tire had popped off the bead just 300 meters from the cheapest pension in town, so that I could just heave the fully loaded bike over to the parking lot. They had wifi so I got online and found reports of a dude in Zagreb, in the far north of Croatia who had helped some other bikers that had come this way. I was pretty shocked when he sent me an email back immediately and said that he would check first thing in the morning for tires in Zagreb. By 10 AM he had arranged a 17’’ Metzler Tourance to be delivered to a hotel just 1 km away from where we were holed up. Unbelievable. Now that is some global biker solidarity. Doobie, you’re a legend mate.  If your headed through the region, check out his bed and breakfast place in Zagreb, Croatia. It’s called Labagola.

And that was it for our quick blast through the Balkan states. There was natural beauty, famous battlegrounds, war, strife, hope, and another round of helpful strangers. Hard to imagine much more that you you can ask of a motorcycle trip.


What Others Are Saying

  1. Ryan April 29, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    Good call on that tire carrying 2 lives. It looks like fate agreed with you by getting your attention with a flat and serving up what was needed. I hope your good fortune continues. May there be many more castles, historical sites, churches, and good ole stories in your fortuitous travels.

  2. garnaro May 23, 2015 at 9:53 am

    @Ryan – yeah, in retrospect, I shouldn’t even have thought about trying to carry on as it was. As usual, Jamie was the voice of reason 😉

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