Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Slovenia
September 2008

 
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The border from Albania into Montenegro had the longest "no man's land" I have ever experienced. We went through the Albanian side and I thought, geesh, are we ever going to get to the check point for Montenegro?

We stopped in the town of Bar (I think) -- not a pretty city -- to eat at a tiny cafe that turned out to have great food. For once, the menu guide in the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe Phrasebook proved helpful; I had burek, a flaky pastry with layers of meat, and it was scrumptious. We headed to a gas station so I could have a pee break (the gas stations of Eastern Europe mostly had really great bathrooms). Almost as soon as we started heading North, before we had even left the town, I noticed something strange: suddenly, there was no trash on the side of the road. I mean no trash on the side of the road. Just large, brand new, mostly empty trash bins here and there. There was no trash up in the hills up from the side of the road either. And this trashless situation continued for miles, as the surroundings got more and more picturesque. I'm sure it was cleaned up the day or two before we were there. The number of stray dogs also dropped dramatically, compared to Northern Albania. It made entering the beautiful coastal towns of Montenegro all the more magical.

The Bay of Kotor is too beautiful for words. I wanted to spend three days there. The walled old town (Stari Grad) of Kotor is as charming and picturesque as a town can possibly be. It's a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets and its easy to get lost. I felt like I was floating through the old city, like I was in some city from a story book. The surreal moment came when the ad for Montenegro came on a wide screen TV in an outdoor cafe we were passing -- we're in Montenegro, watching an ad telling us to go to Montenegro! To stay in Kotor over night would have been incredibly romantic -- what a great city to do a candlelight tour of! It's a town I most definitely want to return to.

Montenegro was so incredibly charming, and riding around the Bay felt like being in a movie. The weather was perfect for motorcycle riding. But we had to push on. Plus, Madonna was playing a concert somewhere near by that night or the next, and we didn't want to deal with her nor her fans. We crossed into Croatia and went almost to Dubrovnik, stopping at Auto Camp Kupari (after passing on two others we had a look at). As we arrived, a group of RVs from Austria were packing up to leave. It was well passed 7 in the evening -- where were they going so late? We found out the next day they had felt the bathrooms weren't clean enough, and that the camp staff hadn't been appropriately responsive to their complaints. Compared to the bathrooms on the Black Sea coast in Romania, they were great, actually!

The camp site was quite empty, so we had no one next to our place. I put up the tent while Stefan went off to buy beer. A fat, happy kitten befriended me. She was very demanding for attention and very well-fed. We had a good time playing, and then when she saw a group of teen agers going back to their camp site, she took off running towards them -- I suspect they were spoiling her as badly as I was.

We cooked the last of our Ravioli, and wondered if this would be the last night we would camp. I was so happy to camp. But if the weather was too wet, we knew there would be no more camping after this. We crossed our fingers for at least a couple more dry days. It was cold that night, but I was oh-so-snug in my sleeping bag.

I woke up in a fantastic mood -- I was so happy to have camped, and I still had the beautiful scenes of coastal Montenegro in my head. Another kitten, older than the other but also well fed, came over to demand attention, and I dubbed him the Croatian Circus Kitty -- I put my arms straight out at a 90º angle to my body, and he walked back and forth from one hand to another, crossing over my upper back and sometimes trying to stand on my head. When it was time to go, I took him over to the big group of German teens that were camping, and he was oh-so-happy when I put him down -- he took off running towards them. I cannot believe the contrast in animals here versus Albania or Macedonia or Romania.

I started saying "Screw Italy" every time we got off the motorcycle for a break. Coastal Montenegro and Croatia are everything I wanted Italy to be but was not at all. I had a huge grin on my face as we went along the winding roads of Southern Croatia. It could not be more beautiful. I am definitely returning to this area some day, particularly since I only got to see Dubrovnik from the road above it -- we just didn't have time to stop. I'm thinking long weekend some year in early September. We passed more motorcycle travelers heading in the opposite direction; Stefan said they probably hadn't come from countries very far away, and wouldn't be traveling for long, given the time of year and how little they were carrying.

Then we crossed into Bosnia, and turned inland to head to the famous town of Mostar. The checkpoint was small, and I was startled to see an armored UNHCR SUV headed in the opposite direction -- I had forgotten for a moment that this is still a post-conflict zone, and that as lovely and normal as everything feels here as a tourist, conflict could erupt again. And it made me so sad, because Bosnia and Herzegovina is so beautiful. We passed a couple of old towns (Stari Grad) that, had we had more time, I would have loved to have stopped in.

We entered Mostar and were immediately "fished" by a local for a tour. And we decided to hire him -- Stefan had been to Mostar before, and I had already read everything about the city in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, so we thought this might really add to our experience. And it did, in that it was nice to be able to ask questions of a local. Our guide wasn't very good at providing much historical information about the city, but he did give us some insights into modern-day Mostar we never could have gotten otherwise. I was very sad to learn that all of the schools are segregated: Croatian Christians go to their own schools, and Bosnian Muslims go to their own schools. That means generations will have prejudice and separation ingrained in them from the very start of their lives. And no city can survive with that kind of prejudice and separation. It was yet another affirmation to support secular public education.

Old town Mostar is gorgeous, having been lovingly rebuilt exactly as it was by UNESCO and others, but the local people don't get to enjoy it; unless you are licensed to do business there or a tourist, you cannot go into the old town if you are a local. Our guide took us to Koski Mehmed Pasa Mosque, and gave us great insight into how Bosnian Muslims feel about being looked down upon by Middle Eastern Muslims, especially Muslims from Saudi Arabia. Just as Christianity is interpreted differently all over the world, Islam is interpreted in a number of ways by different people. Our guide also ran down the Saudis for not supporting Bosnian Muslims financially, while the USA and EU have poured money in, and he says all Bosnians are very aware of this. He said Serbs told tourists not to go to Mostar, because the Muslims would poison their food, and how much that still makes him angry. He also said that he passionately supports the building of a Jewish synagogue to be built on a former Jewish site in Mostar. "We welcome it! We want it!" Our guide was an interesting fellow: he was shot in the war, and still suffers from the wound. His father was killed in the war. He's very proud that his "woman" isn't skinny and doesn't cover her hair and face, and that his daughter takes karate class. His sister lives and works in St. Louis. He told us anyone you meet once you will meet again. So -- I guess we'll see him again some day!

Long after the trip, as I put together this travelogue, I found out about the Bruce Lee statue in Mostar, and was really disappointed our guide hadn't taken us to it! Why does Bosnia have a statue of Bruce Lee? The project was spearheaded by the youth group Mostar Urban Movement, who saw the statue as "an attempt to question symbols, old and new, by mixing up high grandeur with mass culture and kung fu." Bruce Lee was chosen as a symbol of the fight against ethnic divisions and a bridging of cultures. "One thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee." I think it's an awesome idea!

After our tour, we talked with some motorcycle tourists parked near us. They were from Slovakia, and were heading to Albania to do some off-road biking. Ofcourse, most roads in Albania are "off-road"... We headed out of town, marveling at all the bullet-ridden buildings everywhere.

We decided to go North, then turn onto a road that would lead us South West, eventually back to Croatia. We thought we might make it to Sarajevo the next day. Rough camping was out of the question, because of land mines still everywhere. And we suspected we would not be finding a formal camp site in Bosnia.

The ride was beautiful, but it started to get very cold, and then to rain. And it bites to ride in the cold and rain. We passed a lot of cemeteries -- I'm sure so many people are war dead. I like the little columns that are used to mark Muslim graves, like little Washington Monuments. We also saw that all of the road signs were very new, with city names written in both cyrillic (Serbian) and with Latin characters -- and the Serbian almost always meticulously spray-painted over with black paint.

We came to a town where everything had "Rama" in the title, but that wasn't the town's name. We stayed at the Hotel Rama. We got a good deal that included locked garage parking for Stefan's bike. The manager was oh-so-nice, and even though his German is even worse than mine, we managed to get checked in and, after unpacking, went down to the massive banquet room for local beer and local wine (yummy!). The TV was showing the local version of a trivia-based game show, and I was trying to answer the questions (since they were written out, I could sometimes figure out the questions). I decided having a game show on local TV is a development indicator. Other development indicators as defined by me are: local cooking shows on TV, local beer and wine production, local cola, local rock and roll and/or hip hop bands, goths, art colonies, and clubs for bicyclists and motorcyclists. Take that, UNDP! When we first sat down, we were alone in the huge room; by the time we left, there were probably 20 people. Clearly, we were in the town's hot spot.

The heat wasn't on in our room, and it was oh-so-cold. I should have gone downstairs and asked for the heat to be turned on, but I didn't. I breathed cold air all night long, and by morning, I was feeling sick, like something was alive in my lungs and the back of my throat. Stefan said that, in the morning, while I was dreaming, I said the word "German."

I remembered as I was writing my diary that morning that, at some point on this trip, we had passed a gas station called "Elvis gas." Just want to note that.

We had a yummy breakfast, and somehow communicated with the non-English, non-German speaking waiter that we wanted milk with our breakfast. As usual, everyone was as friendly and helpful as could be. It was raining and cold. Stefan loaded up the bike while I watched a woman bake large, round flat bread in what I guess is a traditional style in a massive charcoal pit in a building in the back.

It's sooooooo beautiful where we were among the mountains, but I was feeling worse and worse. It got colder and colder and just kept raining. Here come the aches. Here comes the runny nose. Here comes the shivers.

We went through a Serbian village, where all the signs were in cyrillic. We had long given up on getting to Sarajevo, and were focused on heading across Bosnia and back to Croatia. We stopped in a tiny village about 10 km from Bihac and the border. I was chilled to the bone. I felt awful, and looked even worse. The waiter strongly encouraged us to have soup, and he was RIGHT ON. It made me feel more than marginally better (it was cream of mushroom). The pizza was darn good as well. I ask for tea, and the waiter stared at me in confusion. Then I asked for "chi", and he brightened up immediately. How I knew "chi" was tea in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Afghanistan, I'll never know. I stared out the window at a house across the street, covered in shell holes. This area was so beautiful; it was easy to forget what it had been through just a few years before. There was an American flag on a shelf in the small restaurant. We had seen a smattering of USA flags here and there -- something you never see elsewhere in Europe.

Bihac is a nice little town, actually. We crossed back into over Croatia, and we saw lots of signs for camp sites, but it was cold, it was pouring down rain, and I was way sick. I felt awful. I wouldn't have minded sleeping in a tent, but the idea of having to put the tent up in the rain, and get up in the night to go to the bathroom and go outside in the cold and rain -- no, I needed my soon-to-be-feverish self in a bed with a bathroom just a few steps away.

In Karlovac, we stopped at a home that had a "zimmer frei" sign posted (there were many once we were back in Croatia), and once we had negotiated a price and unpacked, I took all of the covers out of the closet, piled them on the bed, and crawled under them, while Stefan went out for supplies. He came back and showed me a brochure from a site just down the street, the Museum of the Homeland War. Right now, it's only an outdoor museum, honoring Croatian fighters in the civil war. He had stopped there, knowing that I would still be too sick to stop there the next day.

I felt awful. I thought I would never get warm. Stefan had to get in bed with me and hold me as close as possible to get me warm. It took three hours altogether for the chill to finally go away. I wish I could have just laid there for the next two days.

The next day, we sat in the kitchen at the end of the hallway and watched The Searchers, on the only channel that worked on the ancient TV (at least it wasn't dubbed). I felt better, but knew I would get worse on the bike, out in the cold air. But there was nothing we could do -- we had to get back.

As we finished packing the bike, a young couple who lived in the house came out to look at the motorcycle. The young woman, who I think looked like Cher from the 1970s (and that's a compliment), spoke excellent English, and when I told her I was from Kentucky, she said excitedly, "Kentucky! Horses! Do you have a horse?!?" Her dream is to go to Kentucky and ride horses. It was so nice to hear someone abroad with a stereotype about my home state that I'm actually proud of! Their big Dalmatian was very happy to get so much attention from me.

I definitely want to do a vacation of only Croatia and Montenegro. And after going through Slovenia, I think I want to do a short vacation just there as well. Slovenia is beautiful! I know I keep saying that about every country but, really, it's all just so lovely. Slovenia was the most pristine, well-kept country we went through on the entire trip. Even their freakin' porto-lets at rest stops were pristine. But we couldn't stop to see anything in Slovenia; we had to push on so we could get home on Sunday.

We came into Austria, with no time to stop anywhere except for lunch. We had an good lunch at Sankt Jakob im Rosental, with great pizza and even better hot herbal tea. I know, I know -- pizza again?! Pizza is the universal food. I don't want pizza every day, but at this point in the trip, we ate where we came to -- we couldn't be picky. We stopped for gas before we got back on the autobahn, and a couple on a chopper pulled up. The guy said, in English and with a heavy accent, "Hello. You must help me please." But then he rattled off a huge long question in German. I asked him to wait for Stefan. It turned out they were trying to stay off the autobahn, and they wanted to know if the road by the gas station would get them where they wanted to go. They were from Hungary, and had a quarter of our luggage on the bike. They obviously weren't camping!

I hated it that, because I was sick, we wouldn't be able to camp, even though there were camp sites all around. I knew Stefan hated it too. Had I not gotten sick, we would have camped twice more on this trip. Had it not rained so much, we would have camped several more nights than we did. All-in-all, we hadn't camped most nights on the trip, and that bummed both of us out.

We drove through Austria in a relative blur. Usually, I hate freeways and autobahns, but the views in Austria are rather spectacular no matter what road you are on. The mountains just seem to go up and up forever. It was sooooooo cold, even when the sun would shine. I knew I was getting sicker, and at one point, I considered taking a train back, but the thought of sitting in cold train stations waiting for transfers, and trying to navigate train changes... no, I was better off on the back of the bike, barreling towards home as fast as we could.

We came to Bernau, at Lake Chiemsee. Almost everything was closed for the season. It was a challenge to find an open pension (bed & breakfast), let alone one that wasn't already fully booked, but we finally did. We unpacked, and I went up to the room, pulled a chair up to the heater, and laid on top of it as much as I could, in order to both warm up and actually breath warm air. Having warm air in my lungs felt amazing. I piled blankets on the bed, crawled in, and enjoyed the hot tea the landlady brought up to me out of pity at how awful I looked. I turned on the TV and got the awful news that Paul Newman had died... I was so upset, for reasons I wrote many of you about on my YahooGroup. Once again, we skipped dinner -- just ate out of the munchy bag and crashed.

The next day, I felt just as bad as I had the day before, and was dreading the drive. I was terrified that we wouldn't make it home by night. But, in fact, we made it back well before dark.

Albi was both happy and weirded out to see us -- a month is a very long time to be away, and she obviously thought we weren't coming back. I had to spend most of the month of October to get her back in her groove. Having Lis's dog Harly over for a week helped. As for me, it took a whole week after the trip and two days in bed for me to stop coughing.

Not a great way to end such an incredible trip, having to rush so much and being so sick. But c'est la vie -- the bad parts are as much a part of the trip as the good parts. And as I've written this, I've had this growing desire to get back out on the road. I love to travel. And this trip brought me in touch with so many places that I don't want to visit just want, that I'd like to get to know better.

So I've said both hello and, at least for now, goodbye to Eastern Europe. It is a beautiful part of the world, one where, more often than not, I felt very much at home in. Had I been able to find regular work here in Germany, I would have been happy to stay if it meant traveling to Eastern Europe regularly. When all is said and done, what stands out most from the trip: the kindness, with no expectation of anything in return. I have heard many things about Eastern Europe, but never about just how kind everyone would be. Couple that with amazing sights, and it's a fantastic travel destination.

This is my experience in Eastern Europe, in September 2008. It will not necessarily be yours. These have been personal blogs full of opinions -- these are not a series of newspaper articles. I make no claims to being accurate nor impartial. But I hope I come from a place of honesty and sincerity.

My goal in 2009 is to get my motorcycle license and my own motorcycle, so that the next time we take a trip that's this long, I can drive as well.

Pictures of this part of the adventure.

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