The Balkans 2014

  • May 6, 2014 – Umag, Croatia

    On this side of the harbor are mostly working boats. On the far side are the toys. In between, a little bit of everything. Mark Alpen could find work here instantly. At 6PM as I write this it seems to be clouding up a bit. It is cooler now than when we arrived at 3:30.

    Vintage tour boats in Umag, Croatia

    Vintage tour boats in Umag, Croatia

    We left Venice at the crack of 9:30 this morning and followed SS14 all the way to Trieste. We took at short break in Portogruaro where two cappuccini and two cookies was 4 Euros. It is good to have prices back to normal.

    The land was very flat and agricultural until we got near Malfalcone. Fine looking farm land. Riding along the coast into Trieste was very scenic. But the best riding was out of Trieste into Slovenia for a few minutes and then into Croatia. Great pavement and there are hills and curves and everything a motorcyclist desires. This was the first time we really got to tilt the horizon in a few days and it was fine.

    We both commented on how red the dirt is in this area. Bright red piles all along the construction areas.

    My GPS did pretty well today. I have it avoiding toll roads so every now and then it works pretty hard to get me somewhere without it costing anything. This afternoon was one of those times. We rode about 20 miles to avoid a 3 mile stretch of toll road. But I don’t know if there actually was a toll because we were forced to get on the “toll road” after the GPS wanted me to go down a one-way road the wrong way. The only way around was the freeway and there was not a toll booth in sight. Just before that we came to a Slovenia border check and they stamped our books with hardly a glance. We spent more time at the border station than in the rest of the country!

    I hope Debb’s GPS survives. It died in the deluge the other day. When we put it back on the bike this morning, it was really fogged up inside. Well, it used to be waterproof. I may be to blame since I took it apart earlier this year to fix something. I tried to be very careful with the seals but I may have messed up. Debb had some of those moisture absorbent packages so she put them and the GPS in a Ziploc bag for the night. The GPS still works but the screen shows a lot of moisture.

    A couple of parting notes about Venice. I think I heard Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ three or four times a day. We decided it must be the Venice theme song. If I ever return, I will bring a small handheld GPS. There are just too many alleys and bridges to get lost in! And I wish, with all the old buildings and amazing history in a place like this, that there could be some areas off limits to street vendors. There must be tens of thousands of places to buy anything and everything you could possibly want. Do they really think having the plazas covered in imitation purses and stupid plastic toys adds to the experience? I think the reason Venice is sinking is the weight of the money left there by the visitors. Anyway, I wish they would back off a bit.

    A Slovenian vineyard overlooking Trieste

    A Slovenian vineyard overlooking Trieste

    Our zimmer in Umag

    Our zimmer in Umag

    I have no idea

    I have no idea

    On the waterfront

    On the waterfront

    The Umag graphics are very well done

    The Umag graphics are very well done

     

  • May 7, 2014 – Dramalj, Croatia

    This last 24 hours has been about the food. Perfectly good food, very nice food, and really excellent food. And some nice roads, too.

    day0602

    Dinner last night was over on the back side of Umag. Several very nice restaurants along the water, all empty. This is the slow season. I might call it the stop season. We picked one and enjoyed scallops. I ordered Queen scallops and Debb the regular ones. Mine were excellent and Debb’s were very nice but the best part was the sauce they were both served in. Very rich and tasty. We enjoyed every drop of it.

    They also served us local Istria olive oil. A very distinctive taste and it looks a bit lighter and more yellow to my very unpractised eye. Good stuff.

    Yesterday when we arrived, Debb reminded me she had not yet been served lunch so that was our first order of business. We walked up the waterfront and picked the first place that looked busy. Our waitress spoke just enough English to make ordering easy. She kept referring to Debb as ‘lady’. “Thank you, Lady.” “You enjoy now, Lady.” We ordered sausages of a beef and pork mixture served with french fries. Reminded me a little of kebab meat. Very good when hot, only so-so when they have cooled. Debb ordered a mixed seafood plate that was excellent.

    Our bill was 76.00. Instant panic – until I realized the bill was in the local currency, the Kuna. 5.22 Kuna to the dollar, so lunch was within reason. Two beers and a dessert included.

    I bought gas today off the beaten path. Before I started filling the tanks I walked over to the shack and asked if I could use my credit card. He said, “As long as you have some money in the bank it shouldn’t be a problem.” Yes, they take credit cards. He has a bike but his dream is to come to America, buy a HD Wide Glide and ride Route 66. But he is building a house just now, so not right away. A fun character.

    Our first stop after gas was the Limski Zaljev.  A long fiord that extends 7 or 8 miles inland from the Adriatic. We stopped for coffee and noticed several posters from movies that have been made there, including two or three swashbucklers from the 50s. Richard Widmark was in one of them. We had coffee in a huge place that would seat 200 comfortably. There were 5 of us. Definitely, the off season.

    Our next stop was Pula/Pola, which is how it is listed on every sign. Debb’s sister’s name is Pola so we stopped to look around and see if we could find a t-shirt with Pola on it. No joy.

    We parked at the end of a long line of scooters. A nice young lady in uniform with a bright vest walked over and told us we would have to move. Just then a well-dressed man came up to us and said “I’m a biker, no problem.” He said to go to the next light where there was lots of parking for bikes and scooters. Apparently, the young lady didn’t know about that spot and they got in a bit of an argument about it. While we were getting back on the bikes and waited for traffic, she walked down to where he indicated and directed us around the corner to lots of parking. By the time we got off the bikes and un-geared, she was back to her original corner. I got a picture of her with Debb. She was happy we weren’t upset. She’s a cutey.

    One thing we like here in Croatia; the coffee drinks are hot and strong. I have had a couple espressos after lunch or dinner and boy do I get a buzz. I need just a bit of sugar with it. I’m turning into a native!

    Lunch was the biggest Calzone I have ever seen. Easily 15″ across. It was all I could do to eat half. Debb got an omelet, also good.

    After lunch we followed the coastline to Opatija. A very fun road that I’m sure would earn SSJoanne and Catfish’s Seal of Approval. There were some very dramatic coastlines, but never a place to turn out. I did manage a couple of pictures.

    Our stop tonight is the Hotel Vali. If you find yourself here in the off-season by all means get a room. Easily the best hotel we’ve stayed at in Europe. (BTW, if you’re not using booking.com you are doing it wrong.) Anyway, this room is excellent, the wifi is fast and the room is high tech. Wave the room key in front of the reader panel and the door clicks open. The AC won’t come on if a window or door is open. One odd touch; there are two chairs with padded backs. The inside of the room door is also padded to match. Odd. A great bathroom, but no bidets in Croatia, so far.

    We had dinner here at the hotel. All ala-carte, but we shared a sampling and it was very nice food. There was a big table full of Russians nearby. One man, 40 something and 9 women that I would say vary from 20 something to 60 something, plus two 9 year old girls. He talked the most but they were all loud. And they had to discuss everything they ordered in detail. Everythng. In detail.

    Dubrovnik is our goal tomorrow.

    A lovely fiord that needs an overlook

    A lovely fiord that needs an overlook

    Debb and Officer Friendly

    Debb and Officer Friendly

    On the coast northeast of Pula/Pola

    On the coast northeast of Pula/Pola

    The largest calzone in captivity

    The largest calzone in captivity

     

  • May 9, 2014 – Dubrovnik, Croatia

    What a lovely town! Forty thousand folks all hanging on to the hillsides above the sea. Very modern, very clean, and everyone speaks English. Of course, the place is full of folks from England. A lot of this town was damaged heavily in 1991, so a lot of it is new. Money is buyer’s choice here; Kuna or Euro both work everywhere.

    Sailing on the Adriatic Sea

    Sailing on the Adriatic Sea

    The ride here yesterday was a good one. Nice to have the clock and turn signals working again. We took the coastal road to Senj, then turned inland and rode over the mountain to the toll road. A very fine and twisty mountain road that took us up to 2300 feet. The road was very wet so our lap times were embarrassing, but we had fun.

    The toll road follows a valley south between two rocky ridges. The whole country is rocky and it very much reminds me of Southern California between Temecula and Escondido. I don’t think you could find a bucketful of topsoil in an acre but I think you could break your ankle looking for it. This is a hard country. There isn’t even sand on the beach, just smaller rocks. Avocados might do well here.

    Near the southern end of the toll road it makes a big sweeping turn toward the ocean and goes through the mountain in a 5600m long tunnel. Cool and damp in the mountains, hot and breezy near the coast. Then it was an adventurous ride down the two lane road to Dubrovnik. Truckers are truckers everywhere. Very scenic along the coast.

    A short stretch of our ride was in Bosna i Hercegovina (BiH from now on). The passport guys didn’t even look at us, just waved us through.

    Today we explored Grad, the old fortress town at the edge of the sea. Think Venice in the minor leagues. No canals but lots of steps up and down the hillsides. We stopped for a refreshment and I ordered orange juice and Debb an iced coffee. I got the best orange juice ever! Debb’s coffee was an iced mocha with whip cream and chocolate sauce. Sugar overload!

    We talked to a young couple from Leeds, Debb chatted with two ladies from Clearwater, FL and we had dinner tonight with 3 couples from England and three folks from Upsala, Sweden.

    I wore a short-sleeved shirt this morning on the bike, It was probably 80 degrees here today. Even this evening it was warm enough for just a shirt riding back to our room.

    We decided to forego hotels for a bit. We are staying in a house today and have booked an apartment for tomorrow. Wonderfully inexpensive.

    We are headed south again tomorrow. Naval museums and monasteries. Stay tuned.

    Lots of steps in the old city of Dubrovnik

    Lots of steps in the old city of Dubrovnik

    Wanda, your restaurant is ready

    Wanda, your restaurant is ready

    Looking up in the old city

    Looking up in the old city

    Debb and the ladies from Clearwater, FL

    Debb and the ladies from Clearwater, FL

    Tourist girl with scarf and cell phone

    Tourist girl with scarf and cell phone

     

  • May 10, 2014 – Kotor, Montenegro

    The roads we were on today were a delight. The first 15 minutes out of Dubrovnik are right on the side of the hill and offer some fantastic views of the city and the offshore islands. They need more turn-offs but they would have to spend millions to build them on that hillside.

    Looking down on the old city Grad from the highway

    Looking down on the old city Grad from the highway

    We went through a customs checkpoint leaving Croatia. It was the first that asked us for our bike paperwork and insurance. Our papers were in order. We were waiting in line with two Italian fellows on GS bikes. No English for them and very little Italian for us but they gave us a thumbs-up “for America!” and rolled on. Washington plates get some unusual reactions,
    sometimes.

    A mile or so later we arrived at the Montenegro checkpoint. It took us nearly 45 minutes to get to the officer and then we had to go across the parking lot to buy insurance since ours didn’t cover this country. Ten Euros each for 15 days.

    The real fun on the road today was in Montenegro. This is a small country of only 620K population with a GDP that is probably not equal to Apple’s on a good weekend. Definitely a more third world look to the place. More dirt and sand in the gutters, not much in the way of sidewalks, that sort of thing.

    We took the ferry across the narrows and then rode around the north side of the land to Kotor. That road from the ferry is barely one lane wide in most places and oncoming traffic was tight. We rode so close past people’s front doors I could have knocked. On the other side were the docks. Not much margin for error.

    But as scenic a ride as you could hope for. The villages across the water at the base of the huge stone mountains were just lovely. We are looking forward to more of those in the coming days.

    There is a well-regarded maritime museum here in the old town so that is on our list.

    If you point Google Maps at Kotor and zoom in a bit you will see lots of switchback roads out of here. Those are also on our list.

    We are staying in a small apartment for the next couple nights. It has a kitchen so we walked over to the grocery store and bought things for dinner and breakfast. Then across the street to the bakery for warm bread and breakfast pastry. Four or five meals for the price of one in a restaurant. Food is quite inexpensive here.

    There is an excellent dock here and there are some fine boats tied up. A few with American registry. Not 1% fine but very nice indeed.

    The old harbor at Dobrovnik

    The old harbor at Dobrovnik

    I don't believe I have ever seen a Peugeot motorcycle

    I don’t believe I have ever seen a Peugeot motorcycle

    Life is always good on a ferry

    Life is always good on a ferry

    The sizes and perspectives here are astounding

    The sizes and perspectives here are astounding

    This ride was 2 Euros each

    This ride was 2 Euros each

    Part of the old city wall from our apartment

    Part of the old city wall from our apartment

     

  • May 11, 2014 – Kotor, Day Two

    Lets go riding! Switchbacks, mountain passes, the Montenegro version of Mulholland Drive, girls in swimsuits, flat tracking the Wee two-up, and free pizza. Today we had it all. Today I needed a GoPro.

    Looking down on Kotor as we begin our climb

    Looking down on Kotor as we begin our climb

    After our breakfast of bad instant coffee+milk+chocolate and a very nice breakfast pastry we hopped on the Wee and headed up the hill. And what a hill it is, sea-level at the start, 3,100 feet at the top. Just point Google Maps to Kotor and look for the switchbacks south of town that lead up to the national park. We skirted around the park and ended up in Cetinje. The stupid GPs kept us in town for about 20 minutes until Debb had the bright idea to find a big hotel where someone probably speaks English. First place we stopped a nice young lady gave me perfect directions and we were on our way again.

    We headed south and then west down the big hill to the coast and Budva. There were some sport bikes heading up that big hill with a full head of steam. Budva is one of the main beach attractions of Montenegro. Lots of hotels, lots of beach, and today lots and lots of young ladies in swimsuits heading to those beaches. Further observations and comments are redacted due to my marital status. Lots and lots.

    We stopped for lunch. Debb ordered the wrapped kebabs and I ordered a hamburger. I got a spicy piece of ground beef and something that was 8 inches across and 1/2 inch thick. Fries, chopped onions, tomatoes and hot local pita-like bread. Sort of a super-size do-it-yourself hamburger. Excellent and I should not have eaten as much as I did. I took my time eating because there were lots and lots.

    We took the easy way back to Kotor which is a tunnel through the mountain rather than the switchbacks over the mountain. One little section of switchbacks at the beginning almost got us. Maybe I was too early on the throttle or maybe the right side of the tire just wasn’t warmed up enough or maybe the surface changed and I didn’t notice. The back end almost beat us around the corner. But I saved it! Marquez who?!

    So we got back and decided to do some washing. There is a machine here in the apartment. We sort of figured out how to work it but not without some bad words and wet clothes all over. Finally the wash finished and we hung it out on the porch to dry. Should be good by morning.

    We went to the store again for a few more dinner goodies, stopped for a coffee and came back. We were sitting here looking at maps when there was a knock on our door. The owner was bringing us a pizza his wife made for us! Too cool.

    This morning when I went down to tell him we were staying a couple more days, he invited us to sit and brought out a big jug of his brother’s homemade brandy. It was clear and he said it was “natural”, so I thought, oh boy, I’m about to have some white lightning at 8:30 in the morning. Not at all. It was very smooth and very drinkable. If we weren’t going riding I would have had seconds. So we are showing him our map and he is telling us about the roads and we finish our drinks and he runs inside and brings out a big bottle of his brothers brandy and gives it to us! You can’t possibly say no, but I have no earthly idea how I will carry it. (Update: two plastic coke bottles with screw-on caps solved the problem.)

    Montenegro is a fine country!

    Twenty six was the final count. Fun!

    Twenty six was the final count. Fun!

    From 3000 feet. Kotor in the bottom right corner, the Adriatic on the top left

    From 3000 feet. Kotor in the bottom right corner, the Adriatic on the top left

    The small village at the top. Kotor just over the gap

    The small village at the top. Kotor just over the gap

    Stone terraced fields out in the middle of nowhere

    Stone terraced fields out in the middle of nowhere

    Phil's lunch

    Phil’s lunch

    Debb's lunch

    Debb’s lunch

    Hot bread!

    Hot bread!

     

  • May 14, 2014 – Durres, Albania

    There is an area of low pressure sitting over the Balkans. It swirls around but has been stationary for several days. The weather models say it will be here for another week. Sarajevo was 41 degrees this morning with sleet. So we made a decision to head south, where if it does rain, it might be warmer. We are aiming for Greece tomorrow and plan to stay on the west coast, weather permitting. When we entered Montenegro we had to buy insurance for the bikes. The policies are good for 15 days so we need to be back through there by the 24th. Assuming we come back that way.

    Our room with a view - Durres, Albania

    Our room with a view – Durres, Albania

    Catching up a bit. We spent our last day in Kotor looking through the maritime museum and getting some laundry done. Kotor is a stunning place and it was a treat to spend some time there.

    Yesterday we headed north to Niksic. We picked that town because it is fairly close to the Ostrog Monastery and we thought we would drop one bike off before we went. We ended up taking them both and by the time we got back down to the highway Debb was torn between divorce and murder. Switchbacks are not her favorite and we did lots of them yesterday, including a final, very tight set to get to the upper parking area of the monastery. There was one stretch with 4 corners back-to-back with no straight section between them. Tight and steep.

    Ostrog was a bit of a let down. There really isn’t a lot to see or do other than climb up 6 floors to the top of the bell tower and look out over the valley. There is a lot of remodeling going on so the climb through a construction zone. We did not see one sign or hear one word in English. The big gift shop was full of junk, except for one room that was stocked with nice books. There was one alter room that you could light the candles you bought. Outside the door to the alter room were 6 huge transparent plastic bags of the used candles. Disney, it ain’t. I would have been pleased to donate a few Euros for a short talk about the history and inhabitants of the place.

    On the way down we stopped for lunch. It was the first truly bad meal of this trip. The second was dinner last night in Niksic. It was just a local grill but we didn’t finish either of our meals. Today we got coffee and a map at the first gas station past the border and the coffee was excellent. Our lunch today in Lezhe was at a local fast food kebab place and was pretty good. They like to drown stuff in mayo and ketchup but otherwise tasty. Two sandwiches and two waters was 400 Lek, about $4.

    Niksic is the real Montenegro, I think. The town is full of soviet era concrete apartment blocks. Some have been fixed up (privatized, maybe) some look like you’d expect after 50 years of renters. Today, as we traveled south to the capital of Podgorica we saw lots more of those blocks. And here in Albania in the capital city Tirane there was mile after mile of them. All connected together, all looked pretty rough.

    OTOH, some of the nicest looking gas stations I have ever seen are in Montenegro and Albania. Huge facilities with cafe bar, restaurant and some have rooms to rent. Some were an acre in size, new and shiny. Most gas seems to be priced in Euros here in Albania and is not as cheap as in Montenegro. You can smoke anywhere and the cafe bar is a bar. Toss back a vodka and hit the road.

    I was surprised we didn’t have to buy insurance when we entered Albania. I think the customs officer looking over my green form thought we needed to buy some, but another officer in the booth pointed at something and the first nodded his head and handed me my paperwork. Off we went.

    Well, actually we rolled about fifteen feet past the booth and waited for the deluge to pass. Reminds me of Southern California rain. Buckets for 10 minutes then a few clouds and sun. We survived three or four short cloud bursts today.

    You have probably read about driving in Albania. It is all true. It is every driver for themselves and most of the roads would make even a highway engineer from Baja shake his head. One positive note: There is a stretch labeled Autostrata just north of Tirane. It does have a well-made center divider. It does have three lanes of asphalt on each side. It does have speeds that are typical of Western Europe. It does not have any lane markings. It does not have any restrictions on getting on and off. There are folks driving the wrong direction on the outside edge. It is an adventure.

    We are here in a nice hotel in Durres overlooking the ocean, and the blustery winds making the surf churn. Our hotel clerk, his attractive assistant and the porter all speak very passable English. As did our waiter, who waits tables at night and goes to law school during the day. Nice kid.

     

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