Time flies when you’re having fun and since my last blog I have travelled more than 4500 kilometres and passed 10 frontiers.
While I am writing this, I realise that I have been travelling for about 1.5 years by now. Altogether, Piggy has taken me 40.000 km. over good and bad roads through 26 countries. The average world traveller might take one year to go around the world, but I hope that this enterprise will keep me busy for many years to come.
I could, for example, be on a boat between Australia and North America now, if I had zigzagged a little less.
At this moment, though, I am in Thessaloniki, Greece, parked right next to the airport. Not exactly the most idyllic place to camp, but on the site of this camper rental, service and sales company I don’t have to pay anything for a spot between the other campers, with free electricity and a good WiFi connection thrown in.So, an excellent spot for me to work on the many photo’s I have been taking and, of course, this blog.
My last blog ends in Foca, Bosnia, Herzegovina.
The road along the Drina river in the direction of Serbia is unforgettable. It follows the curves of the river through a beautiful landscape. Every few hundred metres a tunnel has been hacked out of the rock, no lights, pitch-dark, especially before the eyes have adjusted from sunshine to night. And narrow. Very scary, even more so when oncoming traffic fails to dim its lights. At one point I see a cyclist, no lights, just a reflecting safety vest, and it is only with the greatest difficulty that I am able to avoid him. I wish I could take him aboard to help him through this dangerous section of the road, but there is nowhere to stop. I hope he survived the ordeal!
Fairly quickly I pass through the southern part of Serbia. I visit this part of the country on the advice of the owner of the camping in Belgrade, but I can’t say it impresses me. The attractions of Zlatibor are for 60% of the funfair variety. When one has grown tired of them, there is a great and varied choice of pavement cafés and souvenir shops.
By way of the Serbian Orthodox Studenica monastery, with beautiful fresco’s which unfortunately one is forbidden to photograph, I accidentally reach the border with Kosovo. Visiting this part of Kosovo is not encouraged because of the political instability, so I turn Piggy around and put off visiting Kosovo for now.
I find a lovely camping spot at the edge of Vlasina Lake in eastern Serbia and am treated to an idyllic sundown across a mirrorlike watersurface.
Next morning the park-keepers tell me I have to leave: no camping allowed.
In Bulgaria I go to a few places that I visited in 2004 on a skitouring trip, like the great Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia. New for me is the important Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains. Unfortunately the weather rather hides its imposing character, it is raining cats and dogs. Shit happens sometimes.
A little further south I find myself in the Pirin mountains I do not recognise the ski-centre of Bansko from 13 years ago, but in the Rozhen monastery memories come to the surface again. The area is characterized by its limestone rocks. Pirin has a mild climate and the wines from Melnik are worth drinking, which is one of the reasons I stay camped in the vineyards for several days. It is also a great place for taking walks and I am lucky enough to visit the monastery on September 8 to be present at the celebration of the Anniversary of Mothor Maria, who is more important in the orthodox church than Jesus. After telling me all about this happening, the young priest invites me to join some other people for a meal together in a separate dining room.
The priests have a table of their own. I am guided to an open place, where people are waiting for the soup. It is a pity that no one speaks any French, German of English, so I do not get to find out who they are. All I can do is wait and see what will happen. Enormous pans of soup are put on the table, accompanied by bread, cheese, salads, carafes of water and red and white wine. We are in for a feast! It is a thick vegetable soup and everybody pours some wine in his or her glass, mostly red.. But I prefer white and, glug glug, fill mine with the pale liquid, as everybody else does with the red. The moment I decide to take a good swig, my neighbour catches my attention and makes it clear to me that I have “problems”.
I don’t think so and swallow a mouthful, which immediately gives me “PROBLEMS’”.. The white wine, in fact, is raki, 45% alcohol. My esophagus is aflame, my stomach shrivels and tears roll down my cheeks. I try to keep a straight face and remark that this wine is very strong indeed, but nobody understands me. Raki, everybody tells me. At the end a lovely piece of cake is served for dessert, very good for the throat.
But now the “feast” is really starting. The liturgy is supposed to last all night long. In the small church with the beautiful fresco’s I follow the start of the ritual. Several priests take turns in reading out loud verses from their holy book, interspersed with monotonous singing by a group of singers. I discover that my erstwhile table-companions have remarkable supple vocal cords. Candles are lit and now and then a priest walks around with an incense-burner. Dozens of villagers arrive to take part, but after an hour I get tired and slope off to Piggy. The next morning, however, when I get back at 9.30, the end of the liturgy is near. The priests appear and carry the icon of Mary with Jesus in her arms in a short procession around the church, after which the bishop with a gold-coloured crown and tunic gives people his blessings.
It takes me back to religious gatherings in Lalibela, Ethiopia, where people are blessed after having kissed the holy cross.
Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the Balkans, but Macedonia is a close second. In the countryside time has stood still. Houses look poor and badly kept up and one sees many farmers with horse and carriage. The east of the country consists mostly of vast plains surrounded by mountain-ranges. The population is very friendly and I can camp anywhere I like. In the western part the scenery changes fairly abruptly to high mountains with fir and deciduous trees. Lake Ohrid has definitely been discovered by tour operators, offering cheap flights. I am surprised by the amount of tourists, especially Dutch ones, who treat themselves to a week at the beaches by the lake. Which is understandable, for it is really beautiful here. In the meantime, local people are working hard picking grapes (Macedonia produces great wines) and fully loaded trucks bring the harvest to Albania, where it will be processed.
I also see tobacco plantations. In many villages in western and central Macedonia it is the main source of income. On the walls of the houses long garlands of leaves hang out to dry in the sun. The leaves are smaller than, for example, the ones in Cuba. I also see plastic hothouses for drying tobacco-leaves.
The capital, Skopje, is rather special. After a disastrous earthquake in 1963, it has been rebuilt completely and there is still a lot of building activity going on. And on a grand scale! Only a small part of the historical centre has been preserved or restored to its former glory, but the real modern centre is an example of megalomania and, in my eyes, wrongly spent money in this poor country. The city is a grotesque showcase of misspent opulence and, when you look closer, of kitsch in particular. Everywhere is a profusion of statues, large and small, fountains and imposing white marble buildings with lots of pillars. A kind of Las Vegas in Macedonia. Over a length of 500 metres the river is spanned by no less than three bridges full of statues and a fourth is being built. Totally useless, as far as I can see. Observed from a distance, it all looks magnificent, but close up there is no refinement, synthetic casts with a layer of copper paint. Still, the all over view is impressive.
Also, there are many statues of Mother Theresa (Skopje 1910 – Calcutta 1997), as well as plaques with her motto’s, like “Everything that is not given is lost”.
I am too matter of fact a person for these sort of one-liners, but I do greatly admire what she did.
For me, Macedonia is one of the top three countries as far as the scenery and the friendliness of the population is concerned.
And next I will be visiting Kosovo. In this country my green card is not valid, so I have to buy a special insurance for Piggy. The official at the border shows me a list of prices, that terrify me. The prices are determined by weight, which in Piggy’s case is 12 tonnes. So…….. But the official shows a bit of compassion: “I make special price for you” and looks at me as if to say: “Don’t worry”. And then I only have to pay 15 Euro, the price for a camper and not for a truck. I am given an official document, which I carefully put away as I will need it when leaving the country.
The capital, Pristina, has little of interest to offer. One sees KFOR troops everywhere, guaranteeing peace and safety. It is quiet here now and I feel completely at ease. In the North, where many Serbians live, near the border with Serbia, the situation is said to be less stable, for the Serbians do not recognise the young state of Kosovo. This in contrast to other areas, where the Albanians are in the majority.
A little outside Prizren I find a place to camp alongside a small river. As it is the weekend and the weather is beautiful, this means a lot of day-trippers, having barbecues by the riverside. What a pity that they make such a mess, leaving behind lots of plastic bags, tins and other rubbish. And next weekend the mess will grow, for nobody seems to mind.
Prizren is a nice place to have a meal and a beer, as the whole population seems to be doing on a nice summernight.
In Pec I visit the Serbian orthodox Patriarchate of Pec monastery, a very holy place for the Serbians, kept safe by a unit of Italian, Moldovian and Slovenian soldiers. In the past there have been attacks by Albanese citizens of Pec, who do not tolerate any Serbian presence in their city.
Here again a beautiful interior with many fresco’s, which again one is forbidden to photograph. When the monks leave the monastery to pay a visit elsewhere, they don civilian clothes, but their beard and ponytail must still make them conspicuous, I think. After the visit I strike up a conversation with the Slovenian KFOR soldiers, who say they are very bored, nothing happens here. But the good salary is a great bonus.
The people from Kosovo also are very friendly and hospitable, but traffic-wise they are the worst and most dangerous drivers in the whole of the Balkans. The pushiest and most audacious one gets/takes precedence. Even Piggy does not impress them. Roundabouts are especially dangerous.
Second place in the top 3 of friendly countries is for Montenegro, a magnificent country with mountains covered with extensive woods. The roads are fairly good and it looks more prosperous than Bulgaria, Kosovo or Macedonia.
I hurry a bit through the northern part of the country, for I have to be in Dubrovnik by September 24 to meet my old cycling mate Sjoukje, who will accompany me through Montenegro and Albania for three weeks.
It is quite rainy at the moment, with low-hanging clouds over the mountains and slippery roads. At a curve in the road near a bridge an agitated man motions me to stop. He has taken the bend in the road over the bridge with a bit too much speed, with the result that his car is now buried with its nose in the mud three metres below the road, almost in the river. He is lucky to be unhurt. Seeing Piggy’s impressive winch makes him very happy: I will be his saviour! And for me it will be the first rescue operation with Piggy. Unfortunately, after making all the necessary preparations, the winch won’t work. I cannot get the cable to pull the car out. A disillusion for the victim and a disappointment for me. But we do not give up that easily. With some cables and Piggy’s pulling power the car is dragged back onto the road. It makes me think of the macho Marlborough publicity spots, in which a bunch of guys pat each other on the back and light a cigarette after successfully completing a difficult task. If I am honest, I have to confess feeling slightly heroic, though without the cigarette.
(P.S, today, a month after the above, I have discovered that the winch will only work after switching on not 1 but 2 particular switches on the dashboard. Good to know for the next rescue operation!)
When I spend a night in the Durmitor National Park, the rooftent is covered with a thin layer of ice in the morning and the grass is frosted over. A magnificent sight! The bare rocks on the horizon are covered in white “powder sugar”. But the sunshine the rest of the day and a walk by the Black Lake quickly makes the cold disappear.
The last leg to Dubrovnik takes me for a short stretch through Bosnia – Herzegovina, where I can fill up all the tanks with cheap diesel.
In Dubrovnik I meet Sjoukje as planned. She has been island hopping from Pula in Istria and it has taken her 700 kilometres and 7 ferries to get here.
It is good to see each other again and she will be travelling with me for the next three weeks through Montenegro and Albania.
Once in Montenegro, we quickly reach Bay of Kotor, one of the main attractions of the country. The sky is radiantly blue, the sea is radiantly blue and there is no wind at all. We feel as if we are driving along Lake Garda, with all the terraces everywhere. In Perast the water almost reaches the promenade, there is hardly any difference between high and low tide here, and it looks more like a lake than the sea.
After spending the night on a big parking place in Kotor we drive up into the “Black Mountains”, the area that has given Montenegro its name. We stop regularly to enjoy the fabulous panorama’s across the bay. The Queen Victoria, an enormous cruise-ship we saw yesterday in the harbour of Kotor, is now just a speck in the vast landscape. On top of the Lovcen we visit the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović Njegoš, or Njegos for short, prince-bishop of Montenegro, a much loved ruler who lived in the first half of the 19th century. I have to admit, there is no better place for a mausoleum than here, in good weather one can see all of the country from the tomb.
At the end of the day we find a good place to spend the night, overlooking the city of Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, where we spend a few agreeable hours the next morning.
Next on our list is Budva, a small fortified town on the azure coast, that we can see far below as we drive down from the mountains. We are a bit late in arriving, due to some road-constructions that hold us up for an hour, It is difficult to find a parking spot for Piggy and in the end we spend 5 Euro per hour for an official parking place, West-European prices. But the old fortified part of the town is quite small and easy to visit in an hour. It is an interesting place, but nobody lives there anymore, there are just hundreds of tourists and tourist shops.
A disused camping a few kilometres to the south presents us with an excellent place to spend the night.
The Lake Skadar Lake is divided between Montenegro and Albania. We make a boat trip and meet Pim, a Dutch colleague campertruck-world traveler. Together with wife and 2 children they have about the same plans as me. They too want to hibernate in Greece and then move on to Central Asia. Possibly we meet again somewhere.
In the mountains of Biogradska Gora National Park we are immediately confronted with autumn. A large part of the trees have taken their autumn colors and decorate the slopes with a color palette of green, yellow, brown and red. An excellent moment for a brisk walk.
The moment we want to cross the border of Albania, we realize that we first have to go back to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. We do not really like that idea. We are fortunate to hear from a local tourist office that a new road has been opened close to our location since several weeks now. Arriving at this new border, an official tells me that the road is okay but that the first bridges have not yet been adapted for heavy traffic. He estimates that Piggy may or may not cross it. He says that Piggy is possibly too heavy. That will be exciting. We will venture it anyway. The first bridge does not look really trustworthy. In terms of width it is not a problem, but whether it can carry the 12 tons of Piggy is uncertain. After minutes of inspection and assessment, I dare to make the crossing. The bridge will not just break off. At least bending. The depth under the bridge does give some worries. At least 10 meters. Just before the bridge I stop, collect all courage, make a vow, say goodbye to loved ones and give plenty of gas. The roar of Piggy drowns out the clatter of the planks. Pfff! Is this all? Piece of cake, … I say to Sjoukje who crossed the bridge on foot. The rest of the route runs through a beautiful, but also raw environment. The autumn colors give an extra nice dimension to this area.
Number one of the friendliness ladder is Albania. It is a shame that mostly we know the stories of the Albanian mafia who settled in Western Europe, but the sweet and kind people stayed behind in Albania. Everywhere cordiality, honesty and free help when needed. It seems that money is not important here. When you need some minor help, people are ready with their mobile phones to offer help and advice through their extensive social network. People, come to Albania. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the Balkans, cheap and you are amazed by their hospitality. But be quick, because the big tourism is approaching.
From Pim we heard that the route to ThethTheth could not be done by big truck, but with the discovery of this new road we are going to try it anyway. 10 km before Theth the road suddenly changes into unpaved terrain with pits. In itself not bad, but the road now runs along a kilometer deep abyss and the width is not much wider than Piggy itself. And we must not meet oncoming traffic !! It is already half past five and it will be a long time before we reach Theth. You should not be here when it is dark. Fortunately I find a place to turn and return to a large empty campsite nearby. The next day we can ride to Theth with a passing landrover. The weather is not very promising. Low hanging clouds and chance of rain. The moment we have just started with the hike from Theth to Valbone it starts to rain. It’s a shame, but it does have something special. The fog patches move between the mountains and occasionally allow a nice view of the surroundings. After 7 hours we reach our terminus in Valbone. A tough trip. Although it is already late, we try to hitchhike to Fierze where a ferry leaves for Koman tomorrow. Even before we raise our hands, a car stops already. He goes to a village something before Fierze, but the man directly calls his son and arranges that he will take us further to Fierze. In the son’s car he calls again to inquire whether there is any hotel in Fierze at all. In the dark we arrive in Fierze, still numb from the rain, where we get a room in a “hotel”. Although it is all very basic, we are very happy with it. There is no restaurant in the village. So for this night our dinner will not be more than some left overs of our lunch.
The next day, in the rain, we take the ferry over the Komani reservoir. We are the only passengers. It is the end of the season, says the young skipper. The boat trip leads through narrow passages with towering rocks on both sides. Boy, what a beautiful area this is. After 5 hours we arrive in Koman. The skipper, Armando, invites us to eat a warm bite together with the 2 sailors. Within a short time a number of fatty sausages, salad, and bread are consumed, after which I treat a round of raki. Armando gives us a lift to the much more southerly Shkodar where he drops us at a small hotel. The next day we spend by driving back to Piggy with a local van so that we can drive back to Shkodar later in the afternoon and find a campsite there. Snow has fallen high in the mountains. Brr. Winter is coming. Piggy is covered with a layer of snow. It was a beautiful trip that we have traveled within a record time. On my own I would have spend a bit longer time.
We only stay briefly in Tirana, but I do a special discovery there. There are mice scurrying around in my camper. Both in the living area and in the front cabin, which are not connected to each other. Food has been eaten. In the cupboard a hole in a sheet has been gnawed. The chips are scattered. There are even gnawing marks in the wood. Feces in different places. How do they get in the camper? That’s the big question. I find a “veterinary pharmacy” in the neighborhood and ask for mouse traps, which they unfortunately do not have. It seems that this pharmacy has many poisonous products in the assortment, because he recommends me different types of rat / mouse poison. I do not really like this, but I decide to buy a bag of attractive poison packages. The next day these packets appear to be eaten but I notice that eaten dates are in a different place. Now, 2 weeks later, after replacing my water filter, I discover that in this compartment the mice had made a nice nest. Fortunately, the mice are now gone. No bodies were found. So they probably came in through the exhaust of the heating system, but then they must have used a ladder. But the mice in the front cabin used a secret route for me. In any case, I get rid of the mice for the time being.
The rest of Albania we do in high speed: The archaeological sites in Apollonia and Byllis, (where I once again pull out an electricity cable) and the coastal region of the south, the Albanian Riviera, where it is wonderful to swim.
Eventually we end up in Butrint, an ancient Greek town with an archaeological site. A beautiful and interesting place, but I’m a bit disappointed because the expected mass of migratory birds in this wetland area is not visible at the moment.
Here I say goodbye to Sjoukje who is traveling back to Tirana by public transport, where she will take the plane back to the Netherlands.
From now on I am alone again. I decide to slow down a bit, stay in Butrint for a few days and then head east towards Korca. Here also a beautiful mountain environment and a beautiful, but bad road.
I am getting closer and closer to a wintering place. For the time being I think of the Peloponnese, but I still have to find the real right spot.
Having arrived in Greece, I travel to Thessaloniki via the ancient Macedonian capital Pella, where a lot of archaeological material has been found and has an excellent museum. As I told you at the beginning, I am now on this camper place. My neighbor has been the Dutch Dion for 2 days and he also wants to hibernate in Greece and a Spanish couple has just arrived who will also spend the winter in the Peloponnese and then head for Central Asia. That will be fun !!
Before I leave here, Piggy needs to be repaired again. A broken support frame must be replaced. Somewhere outside the city I have found a garage that actually has several old, rusted Steyrs in its yard. He has many parts in stock. So I feel like a child in a candy store. After the weekend the case will be repaired ……
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