Eastern Europe Part 3

Monday 17 October 2022

There was a clear blue sky as I headed out of Tirana, with the misty haze in the distance. There were some nice buildings along the way, plus what looked like a large gas processing plant up on the hill. Albania has gas and oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. The road was quite good and two lanes each way; often people stood on the side of the motorway like they were waiting for a bus. One thing I have noticed in this part of the world are a large number of dogs wandering the streets and roads; one had been run over recently. The road made its way alongside a river with some nice houses alongside. As we headed up into the hills the road had been cut into the hard rock. Eventually it turned into a toll road with a five euro fee at the gate. Eventually the motorway headed alongside the huge Black Drin Lake, which has a power station at the lower end and was covered in mist. The motorway had a gap in it at one point, where a bit is still under construction with a massive steel structure set up as part of the construction. The motorway cut through rock and, rising through the hills, carried on up to the Kosovo border, where the crossing was easy. The whole trip on this road I had not seen one truck.

Entering Kosovo the road dropped down into a large basin, which was almost like a different world, having a wealthy feel about it with nice houses and green fields, despite there being lots of small, old tractors around.

Speed, as in how fast one should be going, is a bit hard to work out here especially as google maps doesn’t show the speed. At one point I was cruising down a double lane highway at 120 kph and must have missed a 60kph sign. Heading over a hill under an overpass and bugger, there were two cops there with their radar gun. Pulling over, they showed me the speed 121kph. Their English was just better than my French. I said ‘that’s only 1km over the limit; they explained that this was a 60kph area and you lose your licence for 6 months for going twice the speed limit. They asked where I was from and where I was going and why. I explained that I was from NZ and just swanning around checking out their nice country. I gave them each one of our little ‘going places’ cards. They told me that Kosovo people are very nice and friendly. I can vouch for that as they sent me on my way with a smile and not even a fine.

As I headed towards the hills of Montenegro, I stopped at a cafe attached to a petrol station for a coffee. The guy behind the counter had not a word of english, then out of nowhere a kid of about 8 appeared and did the interpretation. He had been sitting outside with his father. More friendly Kosovo people.

There were lots of stalls selling stones in this area. As I headed through the village there were lots of little tractors about. The road then wound its way up the hill on a switchback road to the border checkpoint, where the friendly guy said the Montenegro border is 8kms further on. I presume the bit in between is no-man’s land. There were good views back over Kosovo, blurred by the mist or smog.

The crossing at the border was easy and the winding road headed down into a valley, then wound through valleys with lots of small villages then up over hills. It is a pretty country with lots of rocky hills and colourful bush. Here and there are lots of little tractors and in places bigger machines were parked up in people’s front yards. In several places there was a guy with a wheelbarrow clearing out the gutters on the roadside; no cones just some high vis gear.

I stopped for a bite to eat at a roadside restaurant on a cliff above a river. The woman got out a gas burner to brew my coffee and make me an omelet. Despite the lack of facilities, there were quite a few people sitting around outside, drinking beer. Just about every town has cops with speed detectors pulling drivers over. People were in the fields hand raking cut grass to stack to feed stock in the winter. In spite of it looking like a place of subsistence farming, the houses are nice and it looks like the people have a good standard of living. A couple of towns had old abandoned factories but I never saw any evidence of manufacturing. There were more colourful beehives on display in front of houses. The road wound up a valley alongside a railway line, then up a hill. Driving through a medium sized village, I arrived at the Bianca Resort, which is a rustic type hotel with side by sides for hire and lots of old stuff on display. After enjoying a wine, I headed to the restaurant, where laid out on a large table was one of the best smorgasbord meals I have ever seen. At 130.00 NZD for the night, including breakfast it is good value.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

There is ice on the car windows as I reach the carpark ready to set off on today’s journey. Heading back down the valley, visibility is impaired by thick mist. Heading up a hill takes me above it for a while, then it is back down into the gorges as the road cut into the rock winds its way up to the border with Serbia.

The border crossing is easy and the road winds its way down the gully into a narrow valley. As the road headed alongside the river I stopped for a coffee at a log-house place alongside the river. The rather gruff guy sent me around the back after I had explained what sort of coffee I wanted. Around the back there were a few tables with a couple of women sitting at one of them. I said hello and they asked me to join them. Kristina and her daughter Mia were on their way to an event Kristina, an event organiser, was running. Mia, an architect student, was tagging along for the three day event. We chatted about the economy in Montenegro; I had said how the parts I had seen looked like they were quite well off. Kristina explained that all the people in the country basically make most of their living off the land in an almost subsistence farming manner, selling off the little they can produce, a lot of it on the roadside. Kristina said they were going to stop at a 13th century monastery about 20 mins off the main road and invited me to join them. I said yes and followed along arriving at this beautiful complex; apparently people can come and stay there a bit like a hotel. We entered the chapel with the white angel, which is quite renown in this area, painted on one wall. After the chapel, we looked around the grounds, then to the gift shop, where they brought me some gifts for Sylvia. After that we headed on our respective journeys.

A railway line ran along the rocky face above the road, with many tunnels punching out through the rock. There was a water point on the side of the road; in other places I have often seen people queueing to get water at these. The road took me along a valley to a hydro-power plant then on to the town of Priboj, with what was once the largest truck factory in Yugoslavia, employing 8,000 people. Not sure what it is making now but from what I can gather it is struggling. From there, the road continued to the Bosnian Border.

Crossing the border, the road wound up a valley with farm houses spread through it. Heading over the top it was down another valley. This went on for a while until finally the land opened out into a plain with fenced paddocks and stock in the fields. I love the way everyone in this part of the world stacks their firewood; some people were even working on log splitters, splitting and stacking the recently delivered logs. The last stretch towards Sarajevo was through a gorge with lots of tunnels cut through the rock. Over the past week I have seen many steel nets draped over the rocky cliffs with concrete weights at the bottom, I presume to stop them lifting in the wind.

Arriving in the town I managed to park the car and find the not-too-flash Old Sarajevo Hotel, with poor wifi but a very helpful receptionist. A wander around the town revealed a large area dedicated to tourists with lots of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. People sat in many bars puffing on sheesha, men and woman included. There are quite a few woman here in the full faced niqaab. I enjoyed a good streak at a local restaurant and sampled some local wine, which was quite nice.

Some friends of mine were here during the war in the late 90’s; one described the place as basically a bomb-hole, with terrible coffee. There is now no obvious sign that a war took place as it has all been rebuilt. Something the poor people of eastern Ukraine will have to undergo some time in the future.

Bianca Resort Montenegro to Sarajevo

Wednesday 19 October 2022

The traffic was light as I left Sarajevo; the city is quite spread out with farmland, commercial buildings, houses and apartments intermingled.

I hit a mist covered motorway, which ran for around 100kms north, at a town with what looked like a large coal-powered electrical generation plant and some other factories. The road then led through various valleys with the new motorway still under construction. There is lots of farming here similar to the other countries in this part of the world.

Then finally it was onto another motorway and then to a small town and through some back streets to the border. The crossing into Croatia was uneventful and a secondary road lead to the motorway that ran all the way to the Slovenian border. There, there were hundreds of trucks queueing up, stretching out over 2 plus kilometres. The motorway continued right through Slovenia with the turn off only 3 kms from my destination.

Checking into the Hotel Centre in the town of Postojna I took a stroll down to Costilna Pizzeria, where I enjoyed a great pizza and a couple of glasses of the local wine. Strolling back to the hotel afterwards, I saw a barber shop still open and popped in to see if I could get a bit unscruffy. The guy said he was finishing after the customer he had, could I come back in the morning. I said no and then he said Ava (a young woman there) could do the job but does not speak english. I said ok and Ava got a haircut underway, plus I was offered a glass of whiskey, which was a new experience during a haircut. Luca explained that this was the oldest barber shop in Slovenia, having opened in 1926. They were friendly and nice people and as I was leaving he showed me the little museum out the back, displaying the history of the shop.

Sarajevo to Postojna Solivena

Thursday 20 October 2022

After breakfast I headed out to take a look at the Predjama Castle, which is about 10kms from the town. The knees not liking stairs very much just now, I just had a look from the outside. This place has been there for around 800 years. In the maze of tunnels behind the castle, Knight Earzem of Predjama used to store his plunder, uplifted from raids he carried out from the castle. In a cave under the castle is a colony of bats.

Heading back to town I joined the tour of the Predjama caves. People queued up by signs with the language they wanted the tour done in: English, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovak and a few more. We were then lead through to the station. Yep! they run trains into the caves. In 1868 Thomas Cook, while visiting the caves, said they were big enough to have rail tracks laid in them. Four years later 1500m of railway tracks were laid with 2 seater carriages called pheatons, being pushed along by the cave guides. Back then, the cave was lit by some 17,000 candles – the richest man in town was the local candle maker. During WWI Russian POWs were used to do work in the caves, including building a bridge between two different caves. Italian miners also dug various connecting tunnels through the rock and limestone. In 1925 the tracks were redone and a gasoline engine was used to tow the carriages. Over the years more modifications have been done. The English group was eventually called forward and we headed to the rail platform and mounted the many carriages, now powered by a battery-powered loco. The place is double tracked as as we journeyed the 3.7km into the cave. The sights were really spectacular with thousands of stalactites, stalacmites and columns above us and to the left and right. Eventually we stopped at a platform, then followed the guide up a 40m concrete path incline. He stopped every now and then and took a microphone from a stainless steel post and gave us a run down on the caves. There are 3 layers that the Pivka river has carved out over millions of years. We are on the second layer and the current third layer is where the river now runs. The river pops out of the ground by the cave entrance and eventually becomes the Sava river that runs through Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia), through Croatia Bosnia and Serbia, where it then joins the Danube, which eventually flows through Ukraine into the Black Sea.

The tour took us on a 1.5km walk through caverns and tunnels, across a bridge, then through more caverns with lots of different formations, some looking like blinds others like spaghetti. Then we got to see some salamander housed in a kind of fish tank; there are a few thousand of these living in the caves. Finally we got to a big cavern that has an amazing echo. We then hopped on another train and were driven out of the caves.

After a sandwich and a coffee at one of the many cafe’s around the cave entrance, I hit the road to Turin. Joining a motorway not far from the caves I basically stayed on the same road for the next 500 plus kms. There is no hard border between Slovenia and Italy, just a road toll gate. There were two tolls on this stretch of road totalling about 60 euros. For the whole journey I averaged 108kph, never exceeding the speed limit of 130kph I hope.

It was dark when I arrived into Turin and checked into the Hotel Gran Mogol in the old city. Parking was a bit of a problem so I parked in a driveway and went to the reception, who said their parking was full and sent me to a private carpark just down the road, where a very friendly chap took the car and stored it overnight for me. Having checked into the hotel I found a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a nice Italian steak dinner.

Predjama Slovenia to Turin Italy

Friday 21 October 2022

I woke up at 0100 hrs sweating to discover the air conditioning was not going. Playing around with the switches, I could not get it to spark up. After breakfast I asked about it at reception and was told it is the law here now – they are not allowed to use it unless it gets over 25 degrees. Bloody Putin!!!

I took a stroll around the old town on a rather grey morning and was impressed by the size of the buildings and the covered footpaths with huge columns holding up the building above. Even in the rain you could walk all around the city without getting wet. Everything is huge and chunky in this town and with the normal statues, museums, university and government administrations buildings. Large squares are full of tables and chairs serviced by the local cafes and restaurants as are the many tables and chairs in the streets. The Po river runs around the edge of the old city making its way across the top of Italy into the Adriatic Sea. With a population of around 900,000 I was surprised at how light the traffic was as I exited the city. Even out towards the edge of town they have maintained the same style of buildings.

On the drive home I struck really heavy rain most of the way. Most of the journey was on toll roads with the traffic only slowing a little under the 130 kpm speed limit in spite of the rain. Arriving home, I checked the odometer to find since leaving Cassis, nearly 3 weeks ago, the car had traveled 8,125 kilometres with a driving time of 110 hours. It has been a really interesting trip, checking out what was once part of the USSR and to see how the countries in the north and west of Europe are definitely better off than those in the southeast. In saying that though, they all look like they are making progress with new roads and infrastructure underway. The drive through the former Yugoslavia gave a good appreciation of how countries can recover and rebuild after a devastating conflict like the one there just over 20 years ago. Katrina and her daughter, who I met in Serbia, told me how their borders in Montenegro were closed for more than 10 years during the conflict. All the way through the journey the people were nice and friendly and full marks go to the two cops from Kosovo who let me off what could have been a very difficult speeding ticket.

Turin to Home in France
the old Yugoslavia
Eastern Europe trip

4 thoughts on “Eastern Europe Part 3

  1. Marie carmen et Remi says:

    whaow un voyage incroyable à toute vitesse, une grotte monumentale et quelques vestiges de l’union soviétique témoins d’une autre époque!
    Une autre facette de l’europe de l’est et d’empires disparus.
    merci pour ce reportage.

  2. Lou says:

    You can join my Proper Wood Stacking Appreciation Society (ProWood SAS) if you like. Dry, seasoned wood is essential to maximising combustion efficiency and minimising air pollution.
    Great photos, the caves sound amazing.

  3. Rosie says:

    You certainly must have the ‘gift of the gab’ Roger. Everybody seems to want to help you out, no matter what difficulties you get into. An amazing trip in such a short time, and all without sharing the driving. Great photos again. Thank you.

  4. Trevor says:

    Sorry but couldn’t read anymore after you got away with double the speed. Who else could pull that off.
    Tears of laughter just thinking about those poor cops.
    I’m sure you left an impression and they’ll have a great story about the crazy Kiwi Bloke.
    Well done!

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