Our first impression of Slovenia is kind of dreary. The high mountain pass we've chosen in order to see something a little more unusual (as well as to avoid the high cost of the toll road) deposits us in a narrow valley with dark old farms and barns and houses which seem a shabbier imitation of the chalets of Austria. The sky is dark and the hills covered with less abundant shrubs. A few older people are out tilling small patches of ground. Few flowers are evident. We continue on to ugly Jelenice, still in a narrow valley, with our first view of classic drab Communist apartment blocks and a sprawl of industrial structures.
Fortunately this is not our destination. We ride on to Bled, and Slovenia is immediately redeemed by the charming vision of its lake surrounded by high snowy mountains. A castle perches high above the waters and a small church sits beckoning tourists to a little island near the shore. A small corner of the lake has been built up with hotels but overall the mood is peaceful and low-key.
We find a great campsite where the receptionist gives us a quick lesson in Slovenian. Dinner is a large portion of tasty weiner schnitzel at a local pub recommended by our guidebook. Though we came equipped with a general guide to Eastern Europe we are lucky to befriend Alan and Ellen (visiting from London). They are on their way out of the country and give us their book on Slovenia. We are able to pawn off our campground guide to Western Europe in return.
Erika is just delighted to be able to walk around the lake in the morning, as she has been going through withdrawal of her morning saunter around Lake Merritt in Oakland since leaving California. In the afternoon we take a ride to Lake Bohinj and walk up its 500 steps to the top of a waterfall.
After a few vacation-like days in Bled (yes, this is all just one big vacation--but some places convey a holiday atmosphere better than others) we are off to Ljubljana, the capitol city of Slovenia.
Dave navigates bravely through the sprawl of its not-particularly-charming outskirts and we eventually locate the campsite. Compared to the immaculate marble bathrooms of the Bled campground, this one ranks low as its plumbing is being repaired and the tent sites are muddy. There is a Chinese restaurant nearby, however, which promises to appease us somewhat with its lure of something to eat other than bread and cheese. We have been so spoiled by the abundance of eating options in San Francisco.
Old town Ljubljana turns out to be a delight, with a canal running through art-deco and 19th century facaded cafes on both sides.
Many trendy-jeans-clad-under-20-somethings bear evidence to the fact that this is a college town. We learn later that one in six residents of the town is a college student. Dave tries to upload some photos onto the photo CD and is horrified moments later to find that his entire stash of Europe pictures has somehow been erased from his allegedly non-rewriteable CD-R. The young-and-slightly-bored cafe manager is of little help. Pictureless, we drive across town to seek out an internet cafe with someone more knowledgeable.
Like magic, Dale shows up. We are in a little dead-end street at the address the book promised would hold an internet cafe, no internet cafe in sight. "Need some help?" someone says. As soon as we explain our predicament, he says, "Come on up! You can use my internet! I have a phone where you can call the U.S. for free! Make yourselves at home!" It is too good to be true. Dale is from Southern California and has lived in Ljubljana for 8 years doing ministry work with college students. He has also lived in a lot of other places and shares all kinds of interesting and useful information with us.
We end up spending 3 nights at Dale's spacious apartment, enjoying home-cooked Mexican food, delicious Bulgarian wine, and great company. Dale's generosity is wonderful and we are sorry to leave (but figure that ultimately he would probably prefer not to have 2 new permanent housemates). Thanks for everything Dale! (note: sadly, Dave was never able to retrieve his pictures).
On a day trip from the capitol we head east through rolling hills and pleasant villages along the glossy Krka river.
Zuzemberk Castle sits intriguingly by the side of the road so we pull over but realize we can't get a good view unless we walk down the hill to the river. There are fly fisherman casting in the river and we stop to watch.
A wirey, sunbaked old man gestures to us in that timeworn mime, cupping his hand and pretending to toss back a drink. We step into his home on the river where he pours us one shotglass after another of "mineral water". It is fairly firey and plenty tasty. For the next hours we attempt to convey our trip by drawing little pictures of motorcycles and world maps and he attempts to tell us stories of, perhaps, the collapse of Yugoslavia and how he got the large scar on his stomach. He shows us the contents of a small treasure box which includes a few large bullets and proclaims "Tito, Tito" proudly as he bestows Dave with a small red communist star to pin on his shirt. We have to move on before Dave gets so plastered he can't drive straight. It has been a rewarding if indecipherable cultural experience.
It is an unusually hot day and we pull over by the river to cool off and eat Slovenia's gas station's finest gourmet treat, a can of tuna with bread sticks. Continuing on the road we are surprised to see a flock of ostriches.
The final destination is a castle which Erika thinks is the foremost tourist attraction of Slovenia and turns out to be just another guest hotel with golf course. Okay, fine, so that tourist desitnation was some OTHER castle. You can't be right about EVERYTHING.
After bidding farewell to Dale, we arrive at Piran. This corner of Slovenia is on the coast right next to Italy and looks nothing like anything we have seen so far. It is a Venetian-style town on a harbor with very steep narrow streets on which Dave gets his first lesson on the difficulty of getting a grip on the bike on cobblestones. He is able to maneuver out of the dead-end we find ourselves in and get us back onto the scenic highway. We find another great campsite with a restaurant overlooking the coastline where we relax with a drink before dinner at a rustic Italian place nearby.
A rainy day is a good day to check out caves. So seeing as how the next day is once again wet and frigid we venture underground to the Skocjan Caves. This is a UNESCO heritage site and impresses us greatly with its VAST gaping slanted caverns and thundering underground river. Erika is tempted to join the evil photo-takers who are defying the guide and gathering memorable mementos right and left, but Dave does not want her reprimanded by the guide of the pack of school children behind us who snaps at someone in our group that "my kids are better behaved than you people". After the cave, we explore a few rainy towns (Piran, Koper, Izola) before returning back to camp and preparing for our next day's journey on to Croatia.
We'd heard of the beauty of the Croatian coast as well as the trauma of the war. Not sure what to expect, we cross the border. Opatija is our first stop. Set, as are so many coastal towns, on a curved bay with houses nestled along streets winding down the hillside, it is extraordinary for its ornate mansions and hotels left over from the glory days of Austria/Hungary in WWII. It was apparently the playground for the wealthy in that era, a strange concept when you consider who the wealthy of the era were. At this point it is a festive and inviting environment. The promenade is bustling with young people eating ice creams and sipping coffees by the seaside. We cruise through town, impressed by the architecture and the striking setting.
As evening approaches we are ready to find a place to stay. We aren't sure about camping in Croatia but have heard that signs proclaiming "sobe" are rooms available to tourists for a cheap price (make that an "inexpensive" price--we learn that the word "cheap" must have some inappropriate connotations when asking a potential landlady for a cheap room. Friendly to that point, she sourly snaps, "I know NOTHING about CHEAP people. Leave and go elsewhere for CHEAP.") As camping itself has been anything but cheap OR inexpensive, we decide to stop at a little agency in the town of Senj to see what is available.
We state that we are able to spend 15 euros, not really expecting to find anything available at that price. But the agency assistant makes a few calls, and within minutes a woman in her 30s comes to meet us and escorts us to her home up a zigzagging road just outside the center of town. We are flabbergasted to be shown an entire apartment, with kitchen, living area, and bedroom, and an astonishing view over the balcony of the deep blue sea. The camping gear twitches plaintively in its waterproof bags, sensing imminent neglect.
We've heard about a national park that allegedly boasts a multitude of clear flat lakes cascading into a multitude of waterfalls, from one pool into the next. The route to Plitvicka Jezera Park takes us through what initially appears to be quiet small towns and peaceful farmland. Sitting at a bench near an overgrown town square, we notice that the faded yellow building looking something like a community hall is riddled with bullet holes.
Back on the bike, we begin to notice that a number of homes show the same facade. Old stone buildings seem to our initial cursory glance to be quaintly crumbled by the toll of time. But soon we notice that far too many have boarded doors and windows, and the caved in roofs are not victim to age but more intentional damage.
A stillness pervades the countryside that is more malevolent than bucolic. There is no sign of human habitation save an occasional structure showing bright red brick, sign of some brave and lonely soul who has returned to rebuild amidst the graveyard-like reminders of neighbors' homes fled under siege. We are riding through the Krajina region, which we learn later was the site of intense fighting between Serbs and Croats during the war.
Amidst this haunted countryside we arrive at Plitvicka. Incongruously we hop on a tourist trolley which takes us, along with a swarm of others seeking respite from whatever ghosts may haunt them or maybe merely enjoying a sunny Sunday, into the idyllic water-world cascading through the park.
We stroll over boardwalks which take us through kilometers of tree-lined terraced lakes, culminating in an extraordinary spray from the highest fall.
We return hours later to the bike to find a note tucked into the map compartment of the motorcycle tank bag from Dani, a biker who has recognized the "Horizons Unlimited" sticker on the sidecases. We meet Dani shortly after and enjoy learning about his travels. Dani has been travelling long-term and has many contacts in Eastern Europe, both through his adventures and his family who is based in Romania. We appreciate all the information he passes along to us and look forward to the possibility of meeting up with his friends and family.
It is cloudy and cold the next day. We continue to ride through the ravaged region. Many more destroyed houses line the road. We want to learn what happened but don't know about the appropriateness of broaching conversation about politics with the people we meet. We sense it is not going to be an easy topic and try to read as much as we can along the way. It seems likely that the abandoned homes belong to Serbs who had attempted to seize the region for their own and who were eventually banished. The complexities of the war defy easy categorization of who has wronged and who has been wronged. Later conversations we will have en route will continue to present us with opinions as diverse as those who have experienced the tragedies.
As tourists it is easy to escape the scarred reminders of war. Our host Dale from Ljubljana has highly recommended the island of Hvar, and with motorcycle in tow we board a ferry the next day. Ferries leave from the town of Split, which invites clever puns about its personality as one side reveals itself as a huge ridge of ugly communist-era apartment blocks (Dave's favorite) while the older part of town redeems itself graciously with a large and well-preserved old town on the harbor. There isn't much time to explore but we have a good view of the huge cloud-covered mountains backing the town as we drift away on the boat to Hvar.
The light around 4:30 is magical as we set out to explore the island. There are vines! There are pines! There are beautiful old villages! Neatly planted fields of grapes glow lime green in contrast with the rich red earth. A ridge of mountains looms to the right, with picture-perfect church steeples dotting the hills.
We head off the road to see the little harbor town of Jelsa then get back on the road to check out the quiet side of the island, where Dale has recommended we stay instead of the main tourist town of Hvar.
Up up up winds the one-lane road. Something dark and cave-like looms in the mountain up ahead, with a sign proclaiming something like "1.5 kilometers". No problem, we can do that. Seconds later we are in a SCARY SCARY TUNNEL. It is pitch black. The circumference seems barely big enough to hold one car. The motorcycle starts to skid on slick ground that is wet and not smooth and highly invisible. It seems endless. Erika's heart is pounding and the tunnel must be pretty scary indeed as even Dave admits later that his own heart was kinda pumping a little harder than usual as well. About 1/4 mile in Dave turns around, preferring not to face the possibility of being turned to something two dimensional by a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. So much for the other side of Hvar.
Back in the fresh air, the one-lane road winding over the highest ridge of Hvar seems like a vast and modern superhighway.
There is a complex grid of stone walls running down the mountainsides which, we speculate, might have been formed over many years by farmers of the rocky region trying to create some space to plant things.
We descend into Hvar town but don't really like it as we are given an extremely aggressive sell on a room by a woman who doesn't seem too savory, and it seems too developed anyway. Back to Jelsa we find another fabulous apartment for 15 Euros run by a lovely 50-something woman named Vesna who seems to find Dave quite charming even though he is getting her to do his laundry. She has a son somewhere around our age and mothers us nicely during our stay. We have a relaxing time the next day strolling around the beautiful coves nearby and eating delicious seafood at an excellent restaurant we'd like to take with us on the rest of our trip. We are not able to arrange this.
We're soon back on the mainland, checking out Dubrovnik. The view of the large old town is spectacular. We are afraid that prices to stay in Dubrovnik will also be spectacular. Dani has handed over a contact of the owner at the Biker's Cafe, a friendly guy who can only however offer us a room we aren't too impressed with at price twice what we'd like. The angel of good lodgings continues to look over us when a young woman at the cafe takes us up (and up and up and up) the 316 steep stairs leading to a huge apartment below the one where she lives with her parents. The view is outstanding and the exercise invaluable.
We descend into the old town as the sun is setting and are charmed by the pink glow on the polished marble streets of town and the whirl of swallows taking their nightly flight.
From our apartment, you can't see just how many tourists are swarming through old Dubrovnik in the daytime. For that you have to descend into old Dubrovnik in the daytime. A walk on the walled ramparts exposes us to views of bright new shingled roofs which were replaced after Dubrovnik was bombed by Yugoslavia.
We are told that 160 people, mostly young, died in this bombing.
We are also exposed to the sunburned shoulders and varicose-veined legs of boatloads of package tourists. It's a really pretty town but we are glad that most of our travels so far have been before the summer onslaught of visitors or else too far off the beaten track to run into many similar crowds.
We escape for a few hours into a small gallery which has an exhibit of war photos and videos. Some are graphic and some more subtle in their portrayal of the anguish created by war. Most captions relay stories of Albanian refugees, Bosnian Muslims or Croatians mourning shattered lives. We watch a video of reactions by the Serbian community to the opening of the original exhibit in Novi Sad, Serbia. Many Serbians express outrage that the photos are biased, inaccurate, and unfair. The original show allowed viewers to write their opinions on paper posted next to the photos, and a book in the Dubrovnik gallery has translations of what was written. It is kind of appalling to read the comments against the show, some of which are reminiscent of Nazi sentiments against Jews and yet also speak of crimes against the Serbs which are not alluded to in the show. There is a lot to think about as we pack up and prepare to continue on to Montenegro.
There is something about border towns. Perhaps if you ran into them in the middle of the country they would seem less disquieting, more common. Perhaps it is only one's heightened anticipation of change, one's alertness to potential of the unfamiliar, that creates a perception that there is different light and shadows.
Herceg Novi is the first town we pass through in Montenegro. While it sits on a wide bay, a hazy sky colors the water gray. Apartments which from a distance look clean and fine appear shabby and dishevelled closer up. A huge, strange, industrial or hotel complex looms, either darkened or abandoned--we pass too quickly to be able to confirm whether the large sign above really did say "MILOSEVIC INSTITUTE". Coming into a country still connected to Serbia, whose awful ex-leader perpetrated many of the crimes of which we've learned in Croatia, we wonder what it will be like. There is an old part of Herceg Novi, but after a guy in a swanky car aggressively and dangerously cuts us off while pulling out of a driveway, we decide to get out of town.
The road hugs the Bay of Kotor and becomes more scenic though the sky is still hazy.
The bay is the largest fjord in Southern Europe and another UNESCO heritage site. Our ride along the water ends in the town of Kotor, with its walled old city and the crumbling, barely-visible walls of an old fort snaking up the steep hills above town.
We find a mediocre room on the noisy main road whose owner points us towards a more scenic area along the water nearby. A string of cafes beckon with menus of pizza and pivo (beer). Before giving in to their allure, we must climb up to the top of the fort. It's a totally worthwhile if sweaty endeavor that rewards us with spectacular views of the town and bay.
Of course we deserve and claim our second reward, the pizza and pivo.
The next day we stop in the very well preserved old town of Budva, one of the most popular beach resort areas in Montenegro. Unlike Dubrovnik, all the tourists seem to be locals. The center of town itself isn't enticing, so it's on to Cetinje, the old capitol of Montenegro. Along the way we pass though what will be the first of many unlit tunnels, dark and wet with non-existent lane markings. At least they are wider and taller than The Scary Scary Tunnel in Hvar. The secret to successfully navigating these tunnels is to let your eyes adjust to the absolute darkness while slowing way, way down.
We head to the summit of Lovcen Mountain to view the mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic Njegos, a revered Montenegran leader of the past. The ride is intriguing, rising up above Cetinje through farmland (which has not been common so far) and rugged limestone hills. There is snow at the top, so we must park below and hike up.
The mausoleum is stark and striking, with a huge marble sculpture of Petar II with a symbolic eagle behind.
We head inland and the weather heats up about 20 degrees. Montenegro is another mountainous country, though the sharp ranges are mostly lush green instead of snow covered in this area.
Earlier we received warnings of very large snakes and are finally exposed to a number of these creatures slithering across the road (some alive, many squashed.) The small wind-y road drops down into a bend in a wide river, dappled with vast lacy sheets of lilypads and backed with triangular islands posed mistily in the mouth of the channel. It is the wrong road, but it sure is scenic.
Back up we go, and finally we are at Lake Skadar. This is an ecological haven for birdwatchers and nature lovers.
The main town of Virpasar seems to have about twelve houses and one hotel, the Pelikan. We would like to pay less than the rather high going rate and are met by a burst of (snide) laughter from the lady hereby referred to as "Mama". Surprisingly Mama agrees to lower her price to ours, though she continues to glare at us during the rest of our 2 day stay. We eat at the Pelikan Restaurant, which has been referred to in our guide book as "one of the best in Montenegro". It is fine, but not really special. Maybe Mama told the kitchen to keep the fancy stuff away from the cheap motorcycle tourists.
We take a long day ride the next day. A steep one lane road hugs cliffs above Skadar Lake's south side.
The road is narrow and barely wide enough for one car. Guardrails do not exist and the drop along the roadside looks intimidating. Luckily being on the motorcycle gives up some extra breathing room, so Erika's mother does not need to have nightmares. Fortunately, the cars approaching in the opposite direction seem to be accustomed to the hazards of this type of driving. The road is a bit rough with several potholes and gravel patches, which the Transalp handles with ease.
The panoramic vistas are tantalizing but somewhat brief as the road cuts inland. There is more farmland to discover, which seems more remote and inhabited by elderly folk tending to their land in the rugged canyons.
Eventually we descend to the coast and the town of Ulcinje, close to the Albanian border. There is, relative to the paucity of merchandise in Cetinje, an abundance of stores selling a vast array of expensive kitchy stuff. Mansions which would look showy in California are sprouting up everywhere. This feels like a different side of Montenegro. Speculation from others is that money springs up along the border thanks to smuggling and a variety of other illegal activities.
The route back to Virpasar from the coast entails climbing back over the mountain range. Erika is struck by an immense rock formation that looms over a small town. She wonders how the inhabitants feel about their constant surveillance by The Big Spider.
Enough of the coast. The next day it's back towards the mountains. We take a detour towards Ostrog Monastery, which is built into a steep stone cliff.
At the beginning of the turnoff a taxi driver beckons holding a bag of bread and other food, gesturing to the monastery and requesting something. It seems that we are to be the bearers of lunch for the monks. Feeling rather proud, we take the bag up the 10 kilometers of switchbacks. Almost there, another taxi driver sees us and pulls us over. We have been the proud bearers of lunch for the second taxi driver.
The monastery is impressive. While visiting, we talk with a young man studying to be a priest in the Serbian Orthodox church. He speaks of his need to find a wife after finishing his studies as S.O. priests must marry. We wonder later if the church will help arrange a match as it is unlikely he has been doing a lot of dating while cloistered in his studies.
Our last stop before heading to Bosnia will be Durmitor National Park, in the northeast corner of Montenegro. This is very different countryside, with those familiar dark clouds. More small roads but rounder, higher, colder, sparser mountains. This reminds Erika of Finland or Nova Scotia (neither of which she has obviously ever been to as they are probably nothing alike). Houses are square and plain with high peaked roofs, anticipating that abundant bad weather. It is windy and cold. Villages feel remote.
Grass is yellowed from its recent release from a thick snowy cover. Shallow lakes live briefly over dips in the meadow that will only hold them til the sun comes out. The main ski town is Zabljak. It is small and looks dreary in the weak light. At the small travel agency we once again luck out with an entire apartment for 10 Euros a night. It is cold as a refrigerator and the bathroom floor is perspiring water, but that's nothing that a space heater and a few dozen towels can't fix.
Zabljak hosts us for 3 nights as we continue to wait for the weather to improve. It's a time for extra sleep and email while the town stays shrouded in fog and rain. Erika finally reads her book, "The Kite Runner", in two days. We manage one walk to the lake nearby; but though it is pretty, the ring of mountains that make it a vacation destination remain under clouds.
We only talk with one local person, Aleksandra, who works for one of the tourist hotels. Her opinion is that people have money to invest but the government makes it almost impossible. She is comfortable with her permanent, stable job and the income she receives and feels that those who want Montenegro to separate from Serbia are wrong because the people of those countries are one and the same. She alludes vaguely to Serbians feeling victimized but does not delve into any of that country's involvement in war crimes. She prints out an article for us with a perspective she feels we should understand. We like talking to her but neither of us makes it through the article, which is dense and philosophical and in thickly translated academic English. Another interaction, another viewpoint.....
Border crossings have been simple. Typically, documents are shown to personnel at the semi-official looking station of the country you are leaving, whereupon you sit around for a few minutes while they retreat into some small dark cubicle to perform mysterious rituals and incantations before returning your documents; then you continue down the road for a few minutes before stopping at the semi-official station of the country you are entering, whereupon the process is repeated. We have encountered no problems or delays in particular.
Entering Bosnia the procedure is no different, but the setting is. We've taken a more-or-less-one-lane road from a relatively unknown, obscure (yet fascinating) part of Montenegro into a relatively unknown, obscure (yet fascinating) part of Bosnia. The road has meandered through rolling farmland, with continued evidence, in the form of damaged and abandoned structures, of the region's conflict. But this looks less like a border crossing than like a farmer's backyard. A small valley encircles a crumbling country house, blooming fruit trees, sprouting vegetable fields, and rickety tables with stools and empty shot glasses. It looks like a stage set for an imaginary scenic off-the-beaten-track bucolic border crossing. The driver of a huge logging truck speaks English and helps us through the gate, the wooden fence into Bosnia.
Bosnia looks like Switzerland here in the mountains. From a distance. Up closer the houses are poor relations to chalets. The town hall of the first village we pass through has its roof blown off entirely and walls half turned to rubble. Despite this, the small main street is bustling with activity. People look at us in a not-unfriendly, curious way. Children wave. There is an energy here that feels more alive than just across the border. More small markets, more people outside at the cafes. More cafes.
The road descends from its heights at the border and the trees and countryside change accordingly. However, the periodic appearance of gutted homes remains consistent. Goradze is the first large town we enter, with its beautiful turquoise river. Goradze was the site of a declared "safe area" for Muslims during the war, a term not respected by Serb forces who killed many people there. Now, international flags deck a bridge not crossable by motorcycle as it has been turned into a pleasant pedestrian walkway. More cafes, and that feeling of bustle, life, energy.
Minutes later we get our own surge of energy when lights flash from behind. Cops, pulling the bike over. No speeding has transpired, so we wait patiently to see what will happen. Two cops with big grins step out, asking questions about the Transalp. How big is the engine? What year is it? The older cop proudly proclaims that he rides a BMW. That seems to be that--we're back on our way. Not much later, Erika spots some cops up ahead as Dave starts to overtake a slow moving truck. "Cops", she shouts, but it's too late. Sure enough, they pull us over again. All that seems necessary are a few apologetic gestures, and we're on our way once more. There will be many, many more police patrolling the roads but we will have no further personal interactions. Fortunately, the high level of traffic enforcement seems to keep the other drivers under control.
Sarajevo is amazing. Most people probably enter town via the long approach from the airport, which we will see later, with its drab wide streets lined with endless gray sniper scarred apartment blocks. But we are approaching from the mountains at the other end and get a very different impression.
We are directly propelled into a bustling melange of visual and emotional stimulation. First the river; across, a range of high hills with houses cascading down, stopping only to surround two large patches of what look like endless white matchsticks--the graveyards. Then a dense burst of traffic and people, a huge mosque, smoky gray 19th century classic European style buildings, tram lines, cobbled streets, more hills, church steeples, Turkish bazaars, women in headscarves, women in tube tops.
A guy with a long ponytail on a motorcycle pulls up and asks if we need any help. He identifies himself as "Bacardi--it's my band name" and has us follow him through a lawless roundabout to a very nice hotel--too nice for us. Another lead comes from a tourist agency and again we follow Bacardi up a steep cobbled street that loops around another large cemetary. The Transalp has little traction on the slippery stones and Erika has to disembark so that Dave can manoeuver it up the hill. We find our room near a small park with a striking view of the city.
It is unnerving to walk past the graveyard back to our place the first night, but the sight quickly becomes familiar. Most of the tombstones show dates of death as 1993.
Kids walk past, coming home from school, giggling like kids coming home from school; elderly people hobble back from the grocery store like elderly people hobbling back from the grocery store. Life has gone on with the tombstones as common as the tasks of the day. What horrors did the schoolkids miss...what horrors did the elderly see... Occasionally as we walk along the city streets, we notice the deceptively pretty "Sarajevo Roses"-- flower-like formations in the sidewalk filled in with colorful paint. The "roses" are actually bomb craters filled in to commemorate where 5 or more civilians were killed by bombs.
One evening it is a full moon and as we walk past the illuminated marble spires, the Moslem call for prayer echoes over the city. Singers send out their wavering melodies from mosques throughout town, which bounce off the mountains in a sequence almost harmonious yet rather staggered so they hover just off key like some rondo gone awry. The wailing chants, the silent headstones, and the shining moon create a haunting moment.
Two mornings at our room in the home of the Hasibahs we are invited up for coffee, traditional Moslem hospitality.
They speak no English but their nephew Salim is fluent. He was raised in Algeria and is currently working as a translator while finishing his degree in chemical engineering. He was not in Sarajevo during the war but tells of his aunt and uncle living in one room beneath the stairs of their home, the only place in the house fortified with sandbags against sniper fire. Salim helps translate one day when Dave needs to find an auto/metal shop to straighten out a bent rack on his bike. His uncle knows just the place. An hour and a half, four lemonades and $10 later everything is back in order. Most everyone we meet in Sarajevo is warm and helpful.
Dave has made contact with Pietro through the Horizons Unlimited website, which contains information on international motorcyclists interested in meeting other travellers. Pietro is Italian but lives in Sarajevo, working for an international aid organization. His wife Marta and 4 month old baby Ludovico are visiting from their home base in Italy. We all meet for lunch in the atmospheric Turkish Quarter and eat cevapcici (meatballs stuffed in bread pockets.)
Walking around town, we stroll past the busy cafes and notice impeccably dressed and made-up Moslem women and their western counterparts, big old Austro-Hungarian schools and libraries, beautiful mosque spires, and a multitude of cell phone shops and boutiques.
Later Pietro drives us through the other end of town, past the airport, to the War Museum Tunnel.
We watch a video of wartime TV broadcasts of buildings in flames and re-enactments of people using the tunnel to move food and artillery between inside and outside of the beseiged city.
This was the only link to the city from the outside as Serbs surrounded most of the city; in addition, United Nations forces controlled the airport and apparently would not let any Sarajevan leave as, they strangely rationalized, this would be a contribution to the Serbs' goal of "ethnic cleansing".
On the way back Pietro drives us through the communist-highrise part of town where more evidence of the siege is apparent.
Pietro and Marta have done extensive motorcycle travel before Ludovico was born and tell us of their travels. Though we have still had some hope of going through Iran as opposed to entering Pakistan via "the 'Stans" (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan), their experience in the first 2 "stans" affirms what we've heard from others--that these countries have been highlights of their travels. Marta was uncomfortable in Iran in full chador (covering head to toe) plus motorcycle gear in 95+ degree heat. If we could even get a visa, unlikely at this point as Americans, we would be in the Iranian desert in the even higher temperatures of August. This prospect, plus gear and chador, does not thrill Erika. Though we've also heard great things about the hospitality of the Iranian people and the fascination of that country, we decide to head eventually for the Stans. It's been really helpful to hear Pietro and Marta's experiences, which inspire us and help solidify our future travel route. And Ludovico is adorable! Thanks Pietro and Marta.
The road from Sarajevo to Mostar descends further through green valleys. The sky is gray again but this doesn't darken the beauty of this scenery. A good portion of the road flanks a wide clear river which opens up into a lake surrounded by small homes and villages. We'll need to backtrack later on this same road to go north; though "backtrack" is usually an evil word in Erika's vocabulary, she is happy to return to this scenic area.
Closer to Mostar the terrain is drier, rockier and more spread out.
We can't figure out how to get to the old part of town and circle the suburban outskirts. Eventually we find the town center with its typical apartment blocks. The main street of town is the most concentrated example of devastation we've seen. Huge carcasses of large buildings crumble in a series down the street.
Mostar is currently divided by its beautiful river into two areas, Croats on the west side, Moslems on the east. During the war apparently both had been united against the Serbian forces but at some point the Croats turned against the Moslems. No opportunity will present itself to talk to any local people, to understand how people coexist or feel about each other now, more than ten years later.
Finally we locate the old town and a cozy "pensione" within it. We cross Stari Most, the incredibly picturesque 16th Century bridge which had been bombed in 1993 and was only rebuilt a few years ago.
Both banks of the river host lovely restaurants where we will eat two meals in possibly the nicest settings we've seen.
Our pensione on the Croat side of the river looks like it has been recently built to replace the remains of a home no longer standing. On the Moslem side are more destroyed buildings coexisting with new or repaired homes, shops, and restaurants. There is a "Diving Club" right next to the bridge and we watch a young man dive proudly off the top.
We visit a traditional Turkish home on the river
and the Karadzoz-Bey Mosque.
Later, we have coffee and greasy meat burek (how we will miss burek) at one of the many cafes in the newer downtown.
Then two days are up and it's time to head north towards Serbia. Bosnia-Hercegovina is divided into Bosnia, where Sarajevo and most of the rest of the country is located; and Hercegovina, where Mostar and a smaller portion of the country is located. To further confuse us, Bosnia-Hercegovina is divided into the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska, neither of which is particularly fond of each other. In a few more days when we enter Serbia, we will talk with a man who tells us that while the people of the Republika Srpska identify as Serbian and feel above the Bosnian Croats and Muslims, the Serbians look down upon anyone not a SERBIAN Serb, including the Bosnian Serbs.
Before crossing into Serbia, we will spend just one day in the border town of Zvornik, in the Republika Srpska. Dave will later read in his book "To End A War", by Richard Holbrooke (on the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the Bosnian conflict), that a mass grave was discovered near Zvornik.
Hotels in town are pricey, so we ask a taxi driver if he knows of any rooms. He leads us to a place right next to the river where chaos immediately ensues as the driver, his friend, an old guy, another guy, a 17 year old girl, and a German speaking couple all bumble around. It is totally unclear whose house it actually is or whether they even understand that we're looking for a room. Nada, the 17 year old, turns out to speak a litle English and Mihajlo, the other guy, turns out to be the owner of the place. After further confusion we are settled into a small room for not a cheap price, but it would seem impossible to back down now...
We are under the surveillance of Mihajlo from this point on. He sits us down at the table and proceeds to offer Dave multiple shots of his own homemade firewater while Erika bonds with Nada cutting cucumbers in the kitchen.
Soon preserved meats, smoked cheese, veggie salad and bread is brought out and we are joined by Nada's mother, brother, mother's friend, her son, and Nada's friend. Some hours later Mihajlo comes out of the kitchen with a flourish and a platter of potatoes boiled with onions, carrots, much salt and a large amount of lardy meat. Breakfast the next day will also be included, consisting of bread and huge portion of fried eggs with the aforementioned lardy meat. Mihajlo passes on the bread and eggs and sticks with lardy meat, salt, green onions and firewater.
Mihajlo offers to let us stay a second night for free, but though we've enjoyed his boisterous hospitality it is time to take our calorie-laden bellies over the border to spend a few days in Belgrade, Serbia.
It is HOT. Boring countryside. Flat. Hot. Homes are newer-looking -- as if built by someone who had some money to build a nice new home, not as if re-built by someone whose home had been trashed in some war. The road is long and straight and flat. It is, by the way, hot. This is an agricultural area, enhanced by some dried-up industrial looking stuff. It's like being back on parts of glorious Interstate 5 in California.
We've decided to check out Belgrade, the capital, but don't plan on spending more than a few days in Serbia. It seems fitting to see at least some small part of that infamous place, so intertwined with the painful recent history of the other ex-Yugoslavian countries we've visited. Not that you can make a fair assessment of a place after visiting for a few days. Not that you can make a fair assessment of a place after visiting for a week and a half. Not that you can judge individual people for the history of their country. It's all random impressions based on who you happen to meet, what road you happen to take. Next door you might have come across someone much friendlier or ruder; one road over might have led to some sparkling lake instead of the outskirts of some scruffy impoverished town. Our impression of Serbia will be culled of heat and plains and one big huge city.
So we roll onto the first toll road in many weeks, figuring the countryside is so dull that nothing will be missed by taking the highway. That speeds things along and next thing you know a grand vista spreads off to the left -- the city of Belgrade, standing proudly and imposingly on what looks like (but isn't) an island, ringed by a river, spanned by 3 bridges, crowned by an old fort, studded with modern towers sprouting to the end of the world all around.
As with many ex-communist cities we see, outskirts sprawl charmlessly with huge characterless apartment blocks, cubbyhole stores at their bases, laundry draping small featureless balconies, a stray tree or two, and people here and there waiting for a bus or going to the market or doing whatever it is people do.
Closer in are the hyper-modern glass corporate buildings. Then suddenly it's the heart of Belgrade and it's still HOT, and there is of course traffic, and some really huge buildings have some really huge bomb craters in them from when NATO bombed the city in 1999 to finally stop the war in Kosovo.
Then they're gone, and there's more big European-style government buildings, and trees, and people, and this is a REALLY BIG CITY. It's the first REALLY BIG CITY, hustle-bustle-semi-western-European-style, we've seen since, well, western Europe.
It's too hot and the city's too big to cruise around in on the bike to get our bearings. We pull into a travel agency where there is air conditioning and helpful young people who proceed to call every hotel in town, passing along blow-by-blow news that each place is either 1) way too expensive 2) way too far away, or 3) full. We are enjoying the air conditioning too much to stop them from continuing to call every possible place in Serbia. Eventually we thank them and head towards the train station to utilize The Dave McMillan Method of Room-Finding: Ask A Taxi Driver. Before resorting to that, Erika spots the cheapest hotel in the book, which we were previously told was full. It isn't, of course, full. We happily fall into our dark, not-quite-dank, somewhat-clean, almost-cool room with its stinky-yet...existing toilet across the hall.
Belgrade is kinda fun, with all its big-city bustle.
There's a pedestrian walkway in the old part of town that's been capitalized into a treasure trove for teen shoppers with Puma and Benetton stores galore.
People flock around a six-spigotted marble water fountain where you can drink potable water -- we'll pass by here, sweaty and dehydrated, a dozen times to fill up the water bottle.
Big wide boulevards sport largely communist-style architecture, but smaller neighborhoods with chic little bar/cafes create a shady break from the concrete. A glass enclosure updates an old theater in style.
One night we have a drink across from some classic statues at a small place that the waiter claims is one of the 3 oldest in Belgrade, having existed for 23 years. Not much of a history for bar-cafes, yet they seem to be flourishing now.
Cafes are far easier to find than restaurants -- probably because with salaries so low ($250/mo in Belgrade, $50/mo in Serbia overall) and unemployment so high (conservative estimate 25%), who could afford to eat out? With a teeny tiny coffee costing $1.50, we wonder how anyone can even go out for coffee.
Danny, our waiter at one nice cafe, is also the manager. He says he makes about $500/mo, working way more than full time. He speaks English like any young twenty-something American dude and plans to leave Belgrade in September to work on a cruise ship in Florida. Danny became a Moslem a year ago after growing up in the Serbian Orthodox church.
He speaks of the harsh life for Moslems in Belgrade -- out of 200+ mosques, just one remains. He gets by OK, he says, since he was born and raised there and knows his way around. But he feels Serbians, though friendly to foreigners, are deeply racist even against Serbians from other countries.
Danny is smart, cool, and savvy and will doubtless make it overseas just fine. It seems he's managed to get himself set up in a way that would be unmanageable for most of his countrypeople. It would be great if our friend Mel in Montenegro had such an opportunity.
At Hotel Centar, our home base, there is a large, shabby yet apparently quite popular restaurant where 2 nights in a row big groups of elderly Serbians dance circle dances to live raucous overamplified folk music. We're hesitant to eat there after one breakfast (skipped after our initial dining experience, a game called "Fishing Fried Egg Pieces Out Of Grease Puddles"). However late one night we're somehow unable to find a place to eat in the vast vast world of Belgrade and must resort to our..."resort". The desk guy, a little mustachio'd 50ish fellow with a few words of English, takes pity on our lack of Cyrillic-reading and orders us a meal. It is wiener schnitzel and sausages and quite good, after all that.
There's the old fort that requires exploring near the old town. It contains some antique-looking tanks and artillery and some not-that-photogenic views over the river, but not too much else.
The guidebook says there are barges stationed along the banks which are the hot spots for nightlife, so figuring they might be an appealing morning coffee spot, Erika drags Dave across the bridge in the sweltering heat. The barges, however, must be spending the day getting over their hangovers, and the walk alongside is pretty much weed-sotted and concrete-ridden. Still, there is a land cafe or two where we can have miniature coffee (rather, Erika can order 2 coffees and drink them both). Dave is ultimately more than compensated for his efforts by discovering that the roar of engines which sound like they're headed straight for our table are the sound of......YUGO RACES!
Yes, dozens of decal-emblazoned Yugos, the Ford-Pinto-like clunker of Yugoslavia which to the horror of many Americans was imported into the U.S. for a few years, are competing for doubtlessly esteemed yet uncertain prizes. Probably the highlight, for Dave, of this brief stay in Belgrade. The Yugo remains a very popular car in Serbia, with many still terrorizing the roads.
Before leaving the next day, there must be one more search through the city for a lock to secure the tank bag to the bike and for that unobtainable holy grail, a tire iron. The motorcycle store says to go to the tool store; the tool store says to go to the bicycle stores; the bicycle store says to go to the motorcycle store--but at least they have a lock for the tank bag.
Heading across the river outside of Belgrade, there's a sort of interesting town with a few cobbled streets and riverside cafes just past the characterless apartment blocks; so when we figure out 45 minutes later that the road to Romania is across the OTHER river, it hasn't been a complete waste of time. Merely an hour or so back through heat and downtown traffic and we're back on track, on the RIGHT part of "Interstate 5"....
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