Eastern Europe

maced1This adventure was from May – September 2013. Together with New Zealand friends Stephen and Annette, we flew to Tirana, Albania and from there began our journey. We travelled together until south-west Serbia when I decided to go my own direction.
 
My adventure eventually ended in Prague, Czech Republic. An adventure of some 4700kms over four months! During that time I travelled through Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
 
Below are my observations and random jottings ‘from the road’. They were originally emails, written spasmodically, as inspiration, energy and time allowed during the four month odyssey.
 
The photos from Albania and Macedonia are courtesy of fellow traveller Stephen Thoms, as many of my Albania photos were accidentally destroyed.
 
Just click on any image to get a larger photo.
 
Enjoy the read…
 

Albania – first impressions

Flying across Albania from Athens, Greece was a beautiful picture. Lots of hills, with twisting and winding river valleys, lakes and it is just so so green, just like NZ. The land was highly cultivated with colorful houses sprinkled across the rich green carpet.

This afternoon we hit the city of Tirana, the capital! What a vibrant and lively place this is. It was positively buzzing. While much remains from the Hoxha communist dictatorship of some 40 years, these people have quickly grasped the market economy as the city is fast moving forward.

Tirana city picture

Communist high rise apartment blocks dominate almost everywhere as do the ubiquitous yellow Mercedes taxis. The brightly coloured apartment blocks that were wildly painted post-communism (after 2000) have faded somewhat leaving the place a bit grim. A multi-mix of building styles are to be seen, from modern to century’s earlier. Lots of trees along the streets serve to hide many of the tiring blocks. The large green leafy trees create a softening and relaxed feel.

Food, it was easy to spend 2000+ Lek for a big meal. That was for 3 x 500ml beers and 3 main courses. About NZ$20, that was all! So cheap here!

The local people have been wonderful, ever helpful, friendly and offering to show us around. Even the taxi drivers do not try to rip you off. Refreshing!

There is also much Italian influence – the coffee, pizza and driving(!) to the style of the clothes, especially the women, who are generally very smartly dressed and usually on high heels. It is great people watching!!!!

And so that was some of the ordinary stuff from today! 🙂

Albania – some observations

alb1In Albania, driving is an art… maybe a science….. ah, not really. It is actually a sport, well if seems like a sport at times! Albania is blessed with many roads that are one continual series of potholes. In order to negotiate your way along the road, you just weave in and out in order to minimise the number of potholes you have to hit. Consequently cars and trucks coming toward you can sometimes be on your side of the road! However just before the coming together of opposing vehicles, they make room and pass, while the drivers just wave. Really, this does happen regularly. We have got used to it now. We had to!!! Like a local, we also now weave in and out along the road in exactly the same fashion to miss the worst of the potholes too. Makes for interesting riding!

It appears that Albanian drivers are born with a gene that means they have to pass the car or truck in front wherever possible. So they have developed a driving style whereby 3 cars can happily fit into 2 lanes of the road. Yes, really! We have got used to this practice also and having an oncoming car that is passing while coming towards you occurs from time to time. It is normal!

Roundabouts are ‘fun’. They use the French interpretation whereby the vehicle on the roundabout has to give way to the vehicle entering the roundabout, unlike in NZ. Needless to say we are very cautious at roundabouts trying to work out who has right of way. Also we are driving on the wrong (right) side of the road which just adds to the confusion, oops I mean ‘fun’, of roundabouts in Albania!

So maybe driving here is a science (their appears to be some sort of methodology), it is very artful (to say the least) and just a tad of sport maybe. Relaxed driving, maybe not, but what an adrenaline rush at times as you never know what is going to happen next!!!!!

The drivers are courteous to cyclists and toot when they are about to pass, which is really helpful for us.

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The shop that we have seen the most of here is bridal dress shops. The can be multiple in most villages. Are weddings that big here? Or is the divorce rate even higher? Answers on email please if you know why.

The second most common business is car washes. Like every few kilometres at the most. It costs NZD$3 to get your car washed with a power washer. Not for me thanks.

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While their cars may be clean, the same cannot be said about the amount of rubbish strewn in streams and along roadsides. It is a disgusting mess and detracts from the lush green countryside.

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The language here is very difficult to understand let alone pronounce. It is not Latin based, but similar to Turkish. We are having more than our share of laughs with the locals as we try to chat with them… A few examples: thank you is faleminderit, but is pronounced as fali-meen-deri, with the emphasis on the last syllable. Please is ju lutem, but is pronounced as yoo-loo–tem, with the emphasis on the middle syllable. Bathroom is banje, but pronounced as ba-nyuh, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Try as we might to pronounce this simple word, we cannot get it right. By the time we get the intonation and pronunciation correct, we will crossing the border to the next country, and a whole lot more pronunciation problems to contend with in a new language!!!!

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Meanwhile, the Albanian people continue to be so friendly and helpful and all interactions with them are a treat.

Today we are in Fier and going to the ruins at Apollonia tomorrow.

Traveller’s Tales

Albania has been an interesting country in which to travel. There is a lot that we are learning from our local interactions. After leaving Tirana, we headed southwest to the coast. We were shocked by the awful highrise hotel blocks that dot the Ionian coast south of Durres. They are jammed in, painted in garish colours and often needing serious TLC. We camped at one of these ‘hotels’ and used their facilities to shower etc. A real throw back to the old communist days. The proprietor smoked in your face – yuk.

On down the coast we tested our first local language skills in the market in Kavaje. Big fail! We have got less bad since then!

The costs here are so cheap that we have usually stayed in hotels. Three star single room with ensuite, dinner and breakfast are about NZ$20 per night. So camping has been minimal to date.

Ardenice monestary 2We visited a beautiful monastery (Ardenica) that only dates from the 17th century, comparatively young in this part of the world! We were the only visitors. The frescoes were original, even though the communists had tried to destroy them. They have decided not to restore them in order to serve as a reminder of what the communists did, or tried to do. This Greek Orthodox monastery was being used as a hotel by the communists before being returned to the Greek Orthodox community in the early 1990s. Five monks still live on site. A very special site that has not been flashed up for the tourists.

Apollonia 3Further south we visited the ancient ruins of Illyrian Apollonia. This site was populated 750 – 230 BC. There was a population of 70000 people. It is an enormous site and very little has been excavated. Even less is actually known by the experts, just making educated guesses at best.

This site used to be on the coast thousands of years ago. Today it is about 50 kms inland, due to an earthquake which changed the direction of a river which silted up the harbour and surrounding land near the coast. This land is now fabulously fertile and heavily cultivated.

We left the coast and ventured inland across the ranges to Berat, a very old Ottoman town. The old town is still lived in. The houses Berat houses2appear to be stacked one on top of each other up the hillside. The castle that is above the old town is a complete walled town. There are houses, churches and more within the walls. Somewhat disappointing as a place as it appears that the inhabitants do not care much as rubbish and beggars, unfortunately, are to be found. Sad.

Leaving Berat we went cross country via tiny and tough back country roads via Perondi, Kucove and Gostime to eventually arrive in Elbasan. This valley is quite remote, but quiet and beautiful. We came across a cold war airfield, complete with Chinese made fighters parked up. Interesting. In Kucove we stopped for a photo and ended up being invited for coffee by two elderly men (67 and 80 yrs). They were fun and we conversed through hand signs and smiles. I even took a step-through scooter for a short for a ride. All good fun. We also found an excellent bakery, with great spinach pie and cheese byrek. If you did not know already, sticky bun shops are my specialty!

Dragging ourselves away from this hospitality, we travelled through this very quiet valley, past many oil wells to eventually arrive in Elbasan.

Today there have been more adventures but that will have to wait for the next instalment as I am looking forward to a long sleep.

Drifting east

As you travel eastwards in Albania, eventually you must come to a border. For us that border read Macedonia.

However, let me go back a bit.

In Elbasan, we met with an Albanian acquaintance that we had made a week earlier in Tirana. Arber is a 27 year old local who spoke very good English. He was able to explain the politics and economics of Albania. Very interesting, especially with the run up to the election next month.

Elbasan is not a city generally visited by tourists. It is a passing gateway between the countries to the east (Turkey, Greece, Macedonia) and Tirana, Albania’s capital. Yes, it is on the main road. In centuries past, it was on the main trading route from central Asia to western Europe.

Elbasan castle1There is a magnificent walled castle in the centre of the city. Today it has been revived and is full of restaurants and bars. Like the castle at Berat, it too has many houses within the castle walls with streets and more. It is illegal to drive the streets within the castle, but everyone does and the police do nothing. Unfortunately there is no protection of heritage and it is perfectly legal to buy a centuries old house within the castle, knock it down and build brand new! We saw many new buildings. The walled castle area is a beauty, but for how much longer I wonder?

We wandered through the area in the late evening and it was just teeming with young people along the closed roads. Very European!

The continuing richly cultivated farmland continued through this river valley. The earth grew darker in colour and was near enough to cabernet wine red colour. It was stunning.

Due to all the hills that abound in the eastern part of the country, free water pipes are splurging fresh cold water at the side of the road. Bliss for the cyclist on the very hot days.

The road east eventually brought us closer to the border but not before a 5km switch-back climb in the searing late afternoon sun. Gradients over 10 percent at times. It was good to get to the top.

And so we are camped in Macedonia, a mere 20 metres from Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest lakes in the world (approx 4 million years old).

More about Macedonia another time after we have got a bit of a feel for the country, but it sure is different to Albania!

Today is our first day off, time to do some domestics and allow the body some recovery from this heat and cycling!

Comparisons…

As you leave one country and enter the next, the comparisons begin, not to NZ, but to the country that you have just departed.

Even though Macedonia and Albania are just separated by a mountain range, there are many divergences:

The houses in Macedonia are generally completed, unlike in Albania where many are in various states of build, primarily due to the lack of easy credit, so building happens slowly as cash becomes available, often over many years.

The roads of Macedonia do not have the potholes of Albania. Instead they have been patched, but at times, like a slightly lumpy quilt!

Macedonia has visible rubbish bins and less of the stuff strewn along the roadside. Shock horror, we even saw rubbish trucks on the streets!

The food in Macedonia is really tasty compared to the more basic Albanian style. Their goulash is superb.

Macedonian people seem far more reserved. We do not get the waves and hellos that were so common in Albania. However, when engaged, the Macedonian people are quite chatty, only you have to initiate the first contact.

The Macedonian language is based on the cryllic script, similar to Greek. Nigh on impossible to speak, let alone read! At least we can make sense of the road signs in Albania, being a latin based language!

A distinct lack of wedding shops in Macedonia, well compared to the numerous in every region of Albania!

The cemeteries in Macedonia appear to be more low key than Albania. In Albania, they are obviously very important as the graves are grand affairs with large tombs/mausoleums surrounded by bright plastic flowers and well kept. In Macedonia, cemeteries appear to be just that, cemeteries.

Car wash facilities are few and far between in Macedonia. In Albania, one can be found every kilometre or so.

Yes, both countries are quite different and their uniqueness is what makes them what they are individually.

Always fun to compare though!

Rolling On

We had a day off (well stayed in the same place for two nights), on the shores of Lake Ohrid, it gave time for domestics and to relax a bit.

Lake Ohrid is one of the OLDEST lakes of this world (oldest in Europe) with a surface area of approximately 350 km². Objects found in and around the lake have been dated back between 4-10 million years. It contains approximately 300 known species of fish, with the Lake Ohrid trout being the most precious. While the trout is a protected and an endangered species, it is not supposed to be fished Unfortunately the locals ignore this and still help themselves. Sad. The water is beautifully clear and just standing at the edge of the lake allows you to view dozens and dozens of small fish.

Lake Ohrid is the only significant easily acccessable water area within Macedonia. The border with Albania runs through the centre of the lake. To Macedonians, Ohrid is the summer holiday place. Thank goodness, we were visiting out of season!

Unfortunately I did not visit Ohrid, the town, as I had been suffering with a dry throat etc for over a week and when the little bugs moved south to my chest, I decided it best to rest up and sleep the day away in my tent, given the mountains that would be upon us with the next week or two of riding. Stephen and Annette enjoyed the town and especially the food, which was superb compared to Albania.

In Macedonia we appear to have ‘lost our touch’, as the warm friendly waves and invites that were common in Albania have ceased! Maybe Macedonians are just more reserved? The areas of Macedonia where we were along the western border has a significant Albanian population, but they were different to those Albanians just over that dividing mountain range in Albania. Interesting. The good news though was Albanian was still spoken which helped enormously as Macedonian is hear to impossible to speak (or understand!!)

Macedonia river 1The western edge of Macedonia that we saw is sort of similar to NZ. It is so lush and green, with lakes and rivers. They too have hydro-electric power which has created these beautiful lakes. We followed the Black Drin river from Struga all the way to the Albanian border. It is an extremely pretty road with houses and small villages perched on the opposite riverbank dotted in amongst the forest of vegetation. The only access to these villages is by way of a small boat across the river.

As you near the hydro dams (which have been there for 40-50 years), there are signs for no photos etc. We laughed when the camera displayed on the ‘no photo’ sign was one of those old bellows-type cameras. Mmmm, must be a really old sign! I think that there were two or possibly three hydro dams on the Black Drin.

The few days that we were in Macedonia, we did not find it easy or that relaxing as a country. Something did not quite gel. Maybe I am being unkind to Macedonia or has Albania spoilt us?

As we neared the border back to Albania, we had to spend our remaining Macedonian denars. So in the last town we ate lashings of goulash, bread and drank coffee. The prices were so cheaps that we still had denars remaining, so it was into the market for nuts, fruit and wine to add to the weight on the bike!

Crossing the border back to Albania was a breeze and we were pleased to be back in a ‘familiar’ country

A Different Feeling…

Arriving in north-eastern Albania was quite a change from the south. The first small village we came to we were slightly hassled by the kids standing on the road, some shouting ‘tourista’ while others tried to touch our bikes as we rode through. It was a bit unnerving as they were more aggressive than anything we have experienced previously. We were only 15kms from the Kosovo border.

We rode on to Kukes to find accommodation. The town had a very different feel to it. The overt friendliness was not there. The kids were almost aggressive and in your face. We were cautious and watchful. Was this still Albania?

The town itself has those awful grey multi-story apartment blocks of the communist era. Ugly, decaying, laundry hanging out, kids playing in the dirt areas nearby. Unfinished paths everywhere and the usual numbers of potholed roads. A rather grim picture all round.

On further investigation, Kukes has quite some history that may explain some of the above.

In 1962 a hydro dam was built nearby that created a massive lake, with old Kukes being flooded and left underwater. A new town was built on a peninsula within the lake. There are three bridges to get access to the town now.

During the latest Balkan conflict, 450000 Kosovo people escaped over the mountains to Kukes for several months in mid-1999, and were housed as refugees. Given how relatively small Kukes is, this must have been a huge imposition and problem. I wonder if some from Kosovo have stayed hence the very different feeling to this town? I wonder if the conflict that the parents endured is reflected into the kids of today? For us to try and find out more was difficult due to the underlying conflicts that we did not want to disturb.

In recognition of what happened with the refugees in 1999, Kukes was the first town ever nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2000. However they were not the winner of a Nobel.

It was a town where we never felt comfortable. Leaving was easy.

On a Rollercoaster

We always knew Albania would be tough riding as the mountains ranges tend to run north to south and we would be crossing the country east to west and also west to east. Yes, gluttons for punishment!

valley road 13Leaving Peshkopi, we had been told to take the new road then shown the appropriate road on the map, or so we thought. So we dutifully followed. When we got to the road so described, it was not exactly new! It was large river stones in amongst sections of gravel and many potholes full of water. Mmm, delightfully slow, very slow riding. Some of the worst riding I have ever encountered. A full suspension mountain bike would have been right at home!

The road was seriously hard riding. Sections of hard packed lumpy stones, many potholes, some muddy sections and more. And then to top it off, there was the uphill and downhill sections to contend with as we crossed the various ranges. The longest climb we had was about 9km and took over 2.5 hours. The gradients are not too bad as the roads wind back and forwards across the hills via a series of switch-backs.

Sounds not too bad you may think, but this road was 65km, and when you are averaging only 5 – 6 km/hr, it is a long long way and very good concentration is required in order not to fall off the sheer cliff faces of the single lane track (more like a goat track at times)!

The valley itself is spectacular, dotted with a few houses and cultivation wherever there is any flat ground.

However remote we thought the valley was, it was not really as kids in the middle of the wops were standing on the side of the road asking for money and calling out ‘tourista’. Sad to see.

I have never been so pleased to get to the end of this road. It had a very real potential to be a ‘bike breaker’. Luckily we all came through with no bike problems, but instead we were seriously caked in mud and grime, both bike and the person.

Washing the bikes after arriving in Kukes took several hours to remove the mud and grit.

A few days later we departed Kukes heading across country (again!) to Skhoder. More ranges to  cross! Initially we were on a beautiful 4 lane motorway before we turned off to head west towards Skhoder. This time the road was sealed, thank goodness! We wound our way up and over the initial hills via a gentle gradient of switch-backs. Huge drops off the edge of the road had concrete barriers at regular intervals, but not all the way. Brilliant country, very few people, green vegetation that appeared to be mainly some form of stunted tree. A lot of rocky ground, with not much soil. Arid, tough and an extremely harsh environment.

We did find one large business in the wops, a water bottling plant for natural spring water from high up in the mountains. Through a series of circumstances, we slept overnight in the factory (see my other email for details).

This road is brilliant riding and would be even better driving in a car. The initial 70km is a winding series of switch-backs as you traverse up and over each set of ranges. Fabulous stuff. The longest climb was 14kms. The subsequent downhill to the next bridge across the river was 9km, then we headed back uphill to the next pass some 10kms away.

We rolled our way across the country, up many hills and then down. It all seems so easy in hindsight!

Finally we have made it out of the mountains, back down to flatter ground for a few days. Time for a rest and recharge (and eat some more food to top up the energy supply in preparation for what is ahead.)

Interactions at their best

Hospitality and helpfulness has been wonderful in Albania.

Crossing the border from Macedonia back into northern Albania, it was darkly overcast with thunderstorms in the air. We tried to take shelter in another unfinished house when the neighbour waved us over and then invited us into his home for coffee. Our first time in an Albanian family home. In the room where we were seated it was very basic with large sofa type furniture around the walls, a tv and stove (not connected). In the house lived Mum, Dad, (both 53) and daughter (21), her husband and their 10 month old. We sort of conversed via Google Translate and a few words in Italian.

The house was two levels, with four rooms (one at each corner) and a bathroom on each floor at the centre rear. The parents lived on the lower floor and the daughter, husband and baby upstairs. Each room, excepting daughter Eneda’s bedroom, seemed to have similar sofa type furniture. All very multi-functional.

In one downstairs room also were kitchen things. A small movable bench, a portable three burner gas burner, a cupboard with a few pots and plates etc and fridge. They did not appear to have hot running water. Water had to be heated.

The room we stayed in upstairs had a kitchen installed on one wall, but no appliances. The toilets were western style upstairs, but squat style downstairs. The shower was installed but was not functional. People slowly build houses as cash allows.

They had about 1/4+ acre of land, chickens, two dogs, two cows (kept in a small shed). They grew grapes, potatoes, maize, peppers, beans, tomatoes and more. There was also a larger fallow area behind the barn.

It was an excellent evening. We did not eat with the family and in the morning had coffee (Turkish style), gave the family some small NZ gifts and then on the road. What an experience for us! We wondered as we rode away what they thought of us?

The next night we were in a remote valley near Zall-Dardhe when we stopped hoping to find accommodation. Asking some locals if we could sleep at the school, it was locked. They then suggested the foyer of the closed medical centre. Just then one of the young men said we could stay at his house. Yippee! Following him out of the village a few minutes later, we turned onto his driveway which was uphill, loose gravel and his house was at the very top, about 1 km of pushing the bikes, fully loaded. This house better be worth it, I alb2thought. We finally arrived to be greeted by the whole family – Mama (Hatya), two sons (Hamit and Esat) and their wives (Kuytime and Alketa), their combined four children (Fatmir, Erge, Hatea and ?) and a couple of other children that were not part of the family. We had coffee, raki and lots of socialising. It was so much fun. At first things the women were quite reserved and the men were to the fore. However then Mama enjoyed looking at various photos and she really warmed up, laughing and enjoying the interactions. We involved the wives too, with much hilarity. We never went outside the one room where we had coffee, ate and slept.

The younger wife (Alketa, 26) went off to prepare dinner which was cooked on a wood range that was outside the house, in the open. We ate fresh baked bread, bean type soup followed by grilled beef on dried noodles, together with peppers in a yoghurt sauce. Delightful. We, the guests, ate with the men and boys. We never saw the women eat, but presumably they ate after all others had finished, (as per Muslim tradition) and in the kitchen room, which was bare – no chairs or tables.

Not long after eating the power failed (common in Albania) and we went off to a peaceful sleep. A brilliant night and one that I will not forget.

Three nights later while traversing the valley between Kukes and Puke, we were getting drenched in teeming rain and it was very cold when we stopped at a factory to get a brief respite under cover. The rain got heavier and heavier, so I asked the factory manager if we could camp in the loading dock. He said yes, then changed his mind! He wanted us to stay inside the factory! When discussing our tents etc, he said he had beds! Bonus! So we were to sleep in a water bottle filling factory. We had the grand tour and enjoyed chatting to the factory staff. There were full facilities and more. Best of all it was warm and dry.

Annette and I have to have a second breakfast on the road, which is usually a byrek. The equivalent in NZ would be a pie. It is a filo pastry filled with either cheese, mince meat or spinach. They are yummy, but we have real problems finding the right shop. We now know you get them from a ‘fast food’ place, which are usually hidden away down some side street. So we always have to go and ask and this can lead to more hysterics as locals take your arm and lead you across town to wherever the shop is, help you buy and then lead you back to where it all started. Meanwhile other locals are calling out and chatting in the local lingo, with much laughter – not that we understand any of it! This tends to happen on a regular basis.

Trying to find a restaurant can also be difficult sometimes. There are loads of bars/cafes, but they only sell alcohol or tea and coffee – no food and being cyclists, food is high on the agenda most of the time. Restaurants are definitely a minority compared to bars and again we have to ask until we finally find one. Then of course, the next problem is understanding the menu, but that is a story for another time!

Our Albanian is getting less bad with these interactions. But they take so much time as once you begin talking to one local, more gather around, so a quick question can be several minutes or more. All good fun!

Again we cannot get over the Albanian hospitality, and we still have about a week to go travelling in this country.

So long, ’til next time.

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Farewell to a friend

Albania, you welcomed me with open arms and warm smiles.

I have been embraced, indulged and treated like royalty.

You have so little, yet you give so much.

My life has been enriched and my mind broadened.

You humility and warmth has endeared me to you where you remain deep within my heart.

The values of your great Albanian daughter, Nene Thereza (Mother Theresa) remain strong.

Passionate to the last, you are your people.

Faleminderit e mirupafshim!

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Another border

A few days ago we crossed into Montenegro, country number three on this trip.

monte1Montenegro is very different geographically and geologically to Albania. Montenegro means ‘black mountain’. Everywhere that we have seen over the past few days is characterised by a landscape of massive dark grey/black rocks with small green trees growing amongst them. Impossible country to cultivate. The roads somehow have been blasted through this tough terrain. There are areas of flat ground (few) where houses have been built and crops are growing on whatever area of flat ground that surrounds the house. After the widely cultivated rich and fertile land of Albania, it is quite a shock.

The roads are fantastic (just one or two potholes so far!) However this means that the traffic travels at much higher speeds and they are not used to slower traffic, like bikes, pedestrians or horse and cart, as in Albania. The cars are also much newer and cover almost every type of current brand and model available in any western country. Definitely more affluent than Albania!!

We visited Podgorica, the capital city. Oh, how sad. It did not appear to have any heart and no architectural merit that we saw. The city was destroyed by the Germans in the second world war (Serbia/Montenegro were with the Allies) and it has since been rebuilt, but nothing special. It has been through numerous renames over the years and was once known as Titograd, amongst others. Even the guide books say it is not worth visiting.

DSC00419On the other hand we visited Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro, which is only 35 kms away from Podgorica. What a beautiful place. It was first inhabited in 1482 and was the capital from sometime in the 19th century (under the Petrovic dynasty) right through until 1918, when Serbia annexed it after World War 1. Montenegro only regained its independence from Serbia in 2006, so it is a very young sovereign state in the modern world.

Montenegro was first recognised as an independent state in 1878. During the mid-late 19th and 20th centuries, large residential buildings were built in which embassies of countries from throughout Europe were housed. These buildings are from the period of late Classicism and are in wonderful order and are living buildings, some as museums, some as homes and some as commercial properties. The centre of the town is car free with big pedestrian plazas and lots of bars and cafes! A very pleasant place.

Cetinje was not destroyed during the second world war as the Queen of Italy from centuries prior was the daughter of the King and Queen of Montenegro, having been born and raised in Cetinje, so the Italians did not destroy Centinje – strange but true.

The place is a real gem, not overdone tourist-wise, but recognising its past with most buildings having plaques about their individual history. It sure would have been a very glamorous place in the late 1800s being the centre of government and diplomatic posts.

The people of Montenegro are more reserved, not unfriendly, just not as outgoing as the people of Albania. We are slowly adjusting.

We understand that Russian interests have purchased much land in Montenegro (40+%), especially on the coast where we have been told there are many casinos. A number of locals have told us not to bother visiting the coast as it is not the real Montenegro.

Lego town!

When you arrive breathlessly at the top of another hour plus climb through the Lovcen National Park, the agony of the climb is soon overcome by the thought of the following downhill.

Grabbing your water bottle, you gasp for air while trying to drink the cool refreshing water within.

Having gathered yourself post climb, you glance around looking forward to the downhill, when a teeny weeny glimpse of deep blue/green colour catches your eye. This is no ordinary downhill! This is the downhill to the Bay of Kotor! Woo hoo!

Tucked away down in the valley far far below is what looks like miniature buildings. Yes, the buildings are that small from our viewpoint at approximately 1100 metres above sea level.

We marvel at the tiny, Lego-town villages strung out along the shores of the Bay of Kotor. Surely these aren’t real buildings? It all seemed so still and frozen, like a painted backdrop.

We were further amazed to see Kotor signposted as being 20km away! Could this be correct? There it was, just down the hillside!

The first couple of kilometres suggested that this was not going to be a very fast descent. Every switch-back brought new views that led to wowing, photographing and head-shaking amazement. We wanted to enjoy every minute of this constantly changing and amazing view. Eventually we did manage to get into the flow of things and enjoy the exhiliration of sweeping backwards and forwards across the face of the mountain via the 28 switch-backs.

I cannot think of a more impressive setting for a town and the magnificent entrance down this sweeping mountain hillside. It was that spectacular, yes really really spectacular.

Finally reaching Kotor town and sea level, we relaxed our fingers from the constant braking. The town was busy with tourists from the cruise ship that was in port.

Kotor is a Venetian inspired town. It dates from the 14th century and has much history that is far too involved to try and explain via email.

The main attractions are the walled old town and the associated castle. Extremely impressive are both with the old castle walls extending far up the hills above the town (like 1200m and 1350 walking steps) to reach St John’s fort high on the mountain above.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Bay of Kotor sometime, do it!

An update on our group travels: I have been suffering from a sore throat and associated head cold etc for several weeks now. I thought I had beaten it last week but it has come back again, so I have decided to take a fews day off the bike to rest to try and beat it once and for all before heading into more mountains in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So I am staying in Herceg Novi, on the Montenegro coast for the next 2, 3 or 4 days, however long it takes to get to fully fit again. Stephen and Annette have continued on into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will be staying in contact and look forward to riding together again before the end of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The divide of ethnicity…..

I recently had the opportunity to meet a local Serbian man and over a few days, and while drinking numerous coffees, we discussed the political situation of the Balkans. Here is his story, and his view of political and ethnic matters:

He was born in Sarajevo but brought up and educated in Belgrade, Serbia, including university, before returning to Montenegro and Herceg Novi, the home of his family for more than 500 years.

The Serbs consider themselves as having been driven out of their homeland and/or dispossessed by the many conflicts.

They consider themselves as being portrayed by the western media as the aggressor. The more he talks, the more his passion and dislike for the Muslims comes to the fore.

His talk is that the Serbs are an underclass – they are targeted by the majority Muslim police, their houses sell for less than others, jobs are harder to get etc. I have no way of refuting his statements.

Montenegro is a mix but Herceg Novi is all Serb, whereas Centinje and Podgorica are Muslim dominated, so the Serbs suffer.

The Serb view is that the USA has tried to hold this tentative peace via division by countries, which if the peacekeepers left, the Serbs would go to war again to try and regain what they say is “theirs”.

Serbia and Kosovo is their main homeland area.

He seemed to have a very strong ‘let us kill the Muslims before they kill us’ and he is only 35 years old.

He has referred me to a film on YouTube called ‘The Weight of Chains’ to try and help my understanding. The film maker is an Aussie, but born in the old Yugoslavia.

I am lucky to have someone who is willing to talk so openly.

It is all extremely confusing and I think I would need to live here for several generations to even try to get even a notional understanding.

I believe the hate, not just dislike, runs deeper than we westerners imagine.

Wars are often fought in the media today and according to my Serb friend, the 1990s conflict was no different.

Obviously it would be good to talk so openly with a Muslim but I think my chances are slim.

On the road again

After three days of doing very little while my head cold finally reduced, I left Herceg Novi, Montenegro, and headed towards Stephen and Annette, who by this stage were some 180 kms ahead at Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Even though I had wanted to visit Mostar, a significant battle area in the Balkans 1990s war, I was torn as I wanted to see the high mountains of the Bosnia/Montenegro border area also. The mountains won, so I was to be on a different route to Sarajevo.

Leaving Herceg Novi at 8:45am, it was already 26 degrees, and with no wind. The first part of the route was an 8km climb, then it flattened for a few kilometres before another series of uphills for 6 km. It was very warm and I was fast getting through the 2 litres of drinking water that I was carrying.

Thank goodness, the Montenegro border post was at the top of the final hill, however with no water! It was then about 5km of no man’s land to cross before reaching the Bosnia and Herzegovina border. It is a long time since I have seen two countries that have a no man’s land between them!

Coasting downhill into Bosnia and Herzegovina was a very pleasant and fast downhill – yeehaa. A quick stop at a local village restaurant resolved my water shortage.

Bosnia and Herzegovina stretched out ahead down a beautiful GREEN valley. What a sight after all the dark rocky terrain of Montenegro.

All too soon I rolled into the town of Trebinje, found a cafe, ordered a cay (pronounced as chai), which is tea. Cafes also usually have free WiFi, so I quickly checked my emails, sent a few to let folks know where I was headed, drank up and was gone, on the way to Belica, some 30 km away and hopefully my overnight stop.

bos1Bosnia has an unknown number of undetected landmines, so you are told never to leave the road, not even for a loo stop, so wild camping is a big no, unless a local tells you that an area is completely safe. Never ever go into uncut long grass or bush in Bosnia!

Leaving Trebinje, I had another climb, this time about 10 km before I was treated with a flat and then downhill for about 15km. It was picturesque as I was riding high above a lake all this time.

Very few cars, and no potholes on a delightful sealed road, apart from the loud claps from the thunderstorms just off to my left over the hills.

Arriving in Belica, I was unsure about accommodation, but I did find a hotel. Hmmm, that means expensive, I thought. However I was surprised to be advised the cost was 12 euros (about $18 NZ) for dinner, bed and breakfast. Concerned that my understanding was not perfect (and not wanting an unexpected bill in the morning), the next 20 minutes was spent using Google Translate to talk between Serbian and English with the hotel staff together with much hand signs and laughing! I did understand correctly. Gee, I am getting the hang of this language, well a little bit anyway!

Overnight I thought about the distance ahead, some 175km to Sarajevo. I had thought about missing Sarajevo, but that is the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina and not something I really wanted to miss. So I decided the best thing to do would be to get a bus to Sarajevo.

The bus was a local, stop everywhere type bus. First up I had to find the bus stop – they are not signposted in this country! A bos2challenge! Asking a little old man on the street, he walked me the several hundred metres to the stop. When he then found that I did not have a ticket, he went away to get the ticket seller who was in the local cafe. The old man stayed with me over the next 20 minutes or so to ensure that I got on the bus, but more importantly that my bike was safely loaded first. He was so helpful.

Safe on the bus, I headed away on what was to be a very interesting journey through the mountains with a cast of characters as passengers.

The bus trip!

Leaving Belica, BiH, the 20 seat bus was only about half full. I had grabbed myself a single seat. On board was a mixture of folks, but the chatter was huge. Everyone almost seemed to know everyone else, or if they did not, they were included in the conversation anyway, myself included! Sometimes I understood a word or two, but still managed to smile, mostly at the right times!

It was very much a local bus, stopping anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it would stop at the roadside to uplift a plastic bag of goods from a lady and then later on it would drop off same bag to another person at the roadside further on the journey.

Locals had by now realised that I was a tourist and were keen to make it obvious when there was something special where I should take a photo. Again, hand gestures and pointing were the communication methods.

Down the back of the bus were two policeman, both sleeping. Never being quite sure about the police, you try to minimise interactions as in some countries they are corrupt and can lead to unexpected happenings. Anyway one of the policemen slipped across the bus in a sharp corner and rolled against me. Trying to be nice, I said sorry in english (automatic reaction!) He then replied in english, much to my surprise! Edena had reasonable english and for next hour or so, we chatted and he pointed out the countryside we were passing through. He was a policeman of the Serbian (Srpska) area of BiH. A really nice guy and he said that police in BiH are well paid and not corrupt. Nice to know!

The road from Belica to Sarajevo goes via Avtovac and Foca. Initially it’s gently rolling countryside, although much land appears to be just long grass. Houses regularly dot the landscape. On the map Avtovac is a tiny place, but in reality it had much new housing and is much larger. There is what appears to be a big cooling tower for a power station and also other industry about. Quite impressive, when I was only expecting about a dozen houses and a few animals!

The road from Avtovac to Foca is one fantastic scenic journey through a national park. There are high mountains to your right as you travel, still with some snow on the tops. These are the Tara mountains and are the border between BiH and Montenegro. They virtually go straight up from the valley floor and are extremely impressive. The road meanwhile winds around the cliff faces, back and forth, until finally getting to the pass and then back down to the next valley before it begins its journey up to the next pass. It must have been a huge engineering feat to first complete this road. The road, being through this mountainous region, is exposed to land slippage due to rain and/or snow in winter. At one point on the journey, passengers became animated and wanted me to get ready for another photo – it was of a massive washout where the road had been washed hundreds of metres down the hillside. So we turned onto a tiny gravel track that had been carved through the bushy hillside. Only two or three km long, but all first gear for the small bus as bush pressed against the sides as we passed! Further down we eventually came to the new road that has been several years in the making. Enormous subsidence avoidance engineering was in evidence, but as Edena told me, some of these had been washed away last winter. It is a big challenge to keep this road open.

It would have been a fantastic road to cycle, albeit with many challenging climbs. Spectacular scenery, yes and on a bright sunny day, there would be nothing better. However, the bus was the best option if I was to get to Sarajevo to catch Stephen and Annette, (and have time to visit the city).

Just another experience on this eastern European adventure!

A confusing history

As a state, Bosnia and Herzegovina has expanded and contracted its borders many times over the past thousand years or more. To begin to understand a little bit of the conflicts that have devastated the Balkans since time began, hopefully this will help your knowledge…..

Originally BiH (abbreviation for Bosnia and Herzegovina) was an enormous state a thousand years ago that comprised of most of the Balkan countries, as we know them today, but as a single entity. This was during the time of the Byzantine empire.

It was in the mid 12th century that the first independent Serbian kingdom was created.

In the late 14th century, as the Byzantine empire was weakening militarily, the Ottoman empire continued to extend its territories in the north and by 1500, they had conquered almost the entire region, all the way to Vienna in the north. Huge.

It was the Ottomans that first built the city of Sarajevo. The Ottoman rule over BiH then occurred for the next 400 years.

By 1700, the Ottoman empire was lagging in comparison to the other great European powers. The Austrians pushed south and conquered Croatia. They also began wanting other territories, including BiH. The Ottoman empire had not adjusted to the changed global economy – they were basically still an agricultural fiefdom. Growing unrest amongst its people led to a major revolt and the Ottomans were crushingly defeated. The European powers then carved up what had been the Ottoman empire’s European territories via the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, but with no regard for ethnolinguistic differences.

BiH came under the military governance of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1878, as a counter to Russia’s control of Bulgaria in the south. This governance only lasted 40 years. However during this time, they brought many ideas from western Europe which enhanced Sarajevo greatly. It was the first city in Europe to have electric power (it was the guinea pig!) and also wonderful architecture designed by a Czech architect. These buildings are still to be seen today. The Austrian influence is to be seen all throughout the old parts of Sarajevo, together with the earlier Ottoman architecture.

During the period prior to WW1, ethnic nationalism grew across the region with fighting between the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Macedonians occurring on several occasions with the Serbs ultimately extending their areas into what is now known as Kosovo.

When Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie, who were to be the next rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, were assassinated in 1914 near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, it is said that this led to World War 1. Austria then attacked Serbia. The governance of the Austro-Hungarian empire also weakened substantially and by the end of WW1 it held little influence in the Balkans.

During WW1, the Serb state was weakened substantially leading to Serbia joining the Slovene-Croat grouping and becoming the first iteration of a ‘united’ Yugoslavia in 1929.

This alliance worked reasonably well until WW2 occurred and Germany invaded Yugoslavia. It is then that patriotism came to the fore and the partisans, led by Tito, and the Chetniks fought the Germans on many fronts. This then ended in civil war between the partisans and the chetniks with Tito’s partisans the victor. Ultimately Tito’s partisans drove the Germans out and on 6 April 1945 the partisans entered Sarajevo as victors and freed the city.

The next stage was a new ‘united’ Yugoslavia, iteration two, led by Tito. All went well as a semi-democrat communist state (private enterprise was encouraged and people could travel outside of Yugoslavia) for the next 35 years, until Tito’s death in 1980, which left a power vacuum as there was no leader in waiting.

The federal presidency was then shared between the eight regions, not altogether successfully. As democracy swept through western Europe, pressure grew from within to break up Yugoslavia. In 1991, Slovenia became independent soon to be followed by Croatia and Macedonia. BiH had a vote and 64 percent of the voting population voted for separation (99 percent agreed). The Serbs did not participate as they disagreed strongly.

A violent civil war erupted almost immediately between the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, costing more than 200000 lives between 1992 and 1995. Sarajevo, being in a valley was under seige for 2.5 years, with the Serbs up on the surrounding hill tops continually firing on the people of the city.

There is a museum dedicated just to the seige years. Graphic stories and photos together with examples of how people survived and died. Very very sobering to know that this happened just over 20 years ago. So very sad.

Under the Dayton agreement, signed in 1995, that ended the fighting, BiH was divided into two federations, the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovinia (the central and western part) and the federation of Sprska (the north and eastern part of the country). Even though they are governed from Sarajevo, each has its own federation capital. Each federation has its own police force, there are two education systems (with different versions of history) etc. This is still a country hugely divided, even though it is ‘one’ country.

There are now three Presidents, one for each ethnicity and the presidency is on a rotating basis. However it is almost impossible to get anything done as the opposing presidents veto other presidents suggested changes.

An incredible country with so much history, so much sadness, but with so much potential.

Please forgive me if my understanding of some of what I have written is incorrect. I have listened, read and chatted with locals to try and learn, but there are so many versions.

I hope that you have learned, just as I have.

Deeper inland

Sarajevo is an interesting city. Set deep in a valley with a river running through the centre, it is ringed by hills. These are the same hills that were the venues for the winter Olympics in the 1980s.

A delightful ‘old town’ is now extremely touristy and crammed with cafes and restaurants.

However, the remnants of the 1992 – 1995 Balkan war are never far away. The city has been largely rebuilt and signs of visible war scarring from the 2.5 year siege of the city are not that evident.

There is an excellent museum if you want to learn more about the siege of the city. However many other museums are closed due to financial pressures. The cemeteries are sad with so many deaths in the 1992 – 1995 era. Simple upright white marble posts have been erected for all who died in the recent war and make a graphic picture when seen from afar.

We also had a wonderful guided walking tour for over three hours and it was really worth it.

We travelled further east through the hills to overnight at Gorazde, where we stayed with the elderly parents of our Sarajevo hostel owner. A special evening communicating via Google Translate, Italian, German and the usual hand gestures. A friendly Aussie (left Goradze over 40 years ago) who was on his annual holiday back home, explained and showed us the town. Goradze was a sad place in the 1990s war with 1300+ locals being killed in the fighting, but they proudly held the Serbs out. Visible war damage is everywhere.

bos4Further east to Visegrad, a major Serb centre during the war. It has a magnificent bridge over the Drina River that was built in, I think, 1577. It is absolutely original and used only for walking or cycling. Read the book ‘bridge over the drina’ for more info.

Many overseas donations by individual countries have built some new facilities (mosque, library, riverfront, hotel etc), but this easy money is also leading to lazy people as they just wait for the next donation to keep them going, and this is happening in many areas of BiH.

This town was the scene of major attrocities and massacres during the recent Balkans war. It does not have a great ‘feel’ to it.

I have been deeply saddened by what I have learnt and seen in BiH. I have had great difficulty understanding and rationalising how this all happened only some 20 years ago. Depressing, no, but very very moving. I hope generational change will help their future.

And that was Bosnia and Herzegovina. A country still largely divided, ethnic differences are still to the fore. They have a national anthem, but without any words (only music), as the different ethnicities cannot agree. That is how deep feelings run.

Unemployment is somewhere in the region of 45 – 60 percent, depending on who you talk to.

Many of the older people (45+) long for the days of Tito again and the Yugoslavia that he created. Feelings run deep for the past, which is interesting.

As we travelled further east, there was another border, this time into Serbia.

Serbia is so far ahead of BiH. It has not been racked by wars like its neighbour. The houses are bigger and smarter, the land is highly cultivated and farmed, there are fences and modern agricultural machinery in use, there is industry, especially forestry. It is so green and has been the food bowl of the Balkans for many generations.

Some differences: there are no mosques whatsoever. The Muslims have been pushed out/ ethnically cleansed. Roads are in superb condition. Cars are modern. People appear to be actively working with very few in bars mid-morning drinking coffee or alcohol. A place that is far more settled, maybe a touch closer to western Europe rather than eastern Europe.

Now I am heading into northern Serbia.

Catch you again soon.

Serbia

Compared to the other countries that we have travelled, Serbia is very advanced, in the tourism sector. They have tourist information offices, although as we found, several of the pamphlets were aimed at locals wanting to setup tourist infrastructure, not necessarily information for the travelling tourist!

In the southwest, where we entered the country, it is a national park and wilderness area around Mokra Gora. A local film director has built a film-themed ethno village with traditional features incorporated. It is made entirely of wood and is known as Drvengrad. Many of the buildings had very strange building styles. On further investigation, it was originally built as a film set and is now entirely for tourism purposes.

Mokra Gora is also famous for the Sargan eight railway which forms a figure eight loop due to the steep gradient to be climbed. Originally built in 1925, it is 13.5kms and climbs 300+ metres. It is a narrow gauge (0.76m) railway that was restored in 1999 and is now a tourism venture. Unfortunately we were unaware of this railway when we travelled over the border into Serbia. It will have to wait until next time!

In this western area, there appears to be a lot of emphasis on forestry. After a month of only seeing brick or concrete buildings, we are now seeing a few wooden buildings, although mainly for sheds and the like. The main residential dwellings are still brick or concrete.

serb1It obviously gets cold in winter as everywhere there are large stacks of cut and split logs. Each log is about a metre long and would be about 200mm thick. The stacks, often on the roadside, would be about 1.2m high and 6-10m long. They are extremely tidy in their stacking! Given the size of the logs, do they have giant size fireplaces to burn the logs, or do they just further cut them after they have dried?

We stayed in an apartment of a local man in Uzice, an unremarkable, chaotic and somewhat ugly place. The apartment was in one of those old communist-built blocks, sixteen stories high, although we were only on the eleventh floor. A very small two bedroom, combined laundry/bathroom and combined lounge/dining with a tiny kitchen in an alcove. Right on the main shopping street, yes location, location, location. You would not want to live there! The owner smoked almost continually, so not too pleasant for us. But again a great opportunity to talk and try to understand his life. About 45, he was a journalist by trade, but could not get work, so worked in a bank for a while, now he is unemployed. He drives his father’s taxi in the afternoons, but even though it is  sign-written in company colours etc, he has stopped the agreement with the company so that he does not have to pay the 20 Euro monthly company fee! He was very worldly and had the chance to move to America, but his now ex-wife was against the move and having three children, he would not leave without his family, naturally. His hope for his twin 7 year old daughters is that they will get an education and he would like them to move overseas, away from the very poor economy and life that many Serbians live. He also wished for the old days of a Tito led country again. FYI, the apartment had been given to him after his grandmother’s death.

Travelling across country, one night we overnighted in Valjevo (pronounced VAI-le-VO), another name where no local could understand our pronunciation! It is definitely not on the tourist trail, but what a find. Originally it was on the trade route from Belgrade to Bosnia. It has a living old town area, called Tesnjar. Very pretty architecture throughout both the old and new town. Again the Austro-Hungarian influence very much to the fore. It must have been a town of some consequence as the buildings are substantial, almost similar to those we saw in Cetinje, the old capital of Montenegro. It had a really neat ‘feel’. Maybe the wide boulevards and plazas, so reminiscent of some cities in western Europe is why?

Going it alone

Just to let you know that I have gone my own way from Stephen and Annette. They are heading more directly north while I will be wandering around northern Serbia, into Croatia, Slovenia and on etc. I have a month longer on the road, so I can explore more. They have been good to travel with but I know that it is time I went my own way.

I am currently in Ub having chamomile tea and using the free Wi-Fi.

Time to go – to Belgrade for the next few nights, it is only 60km away.

…………… a few days later ……………

I am now in Belgrade, among this heatwave that is currently across Europe. All you want to do is sit somewhere cool, and hopefully have a bit of breeze, although any breeze is warm also! Air conditioned shopping centres are quite attractive in this heat! Early afternoon today was 39 degrees celsius. The good news is that my washing drys in about one hour maximum.

Belgrade is very cosmopolitan and has many of the international companies: pharmaceuticals, accounting firms, food giants, fast food giants, clothing brands, computer giants etc etc.

Yes, a large and interesting city at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

It is beer o’clock, so ’til next time.

Expect the unexpected

Riding in this current heatwave is OK as long as you are moving. The problem is when you stop. Naturally you look for shade to try and hide from the sun for a few minutes. Arriving into another smaller town (Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) and wanting to orientate myself, I headed to the small amount of shade in front of a large shed that had multiple roller doors. A few minutes later, someone shouted at me from the window at the end. Needing more water, I wandered over. That is when I found that I had stopped outside the local fire station (no signs anywhere).

Well, what better place to get fresh cold water!

I was taken inside (to the air conditioned environment) and offered food, a shower and then a bed for the night. The Commander spoke a little English and with my poor Serbian, we managed to communicate, somehow! When the firemen found out I was single, they offered to find me a local lass for the evening! I politely declined their offer! Where is that fire alarm when you need one?

The Commander was very hospitable, but after checking with his boss by phone, bed for the night was a no as I was a civilian and not permitted to stay overnight on government property, including camping. He was very apologetic before getting on the phone to try and find me accommodation, which he did. The accommodation was a houseboat on the Sava River – bonus, and at no cost.

I then enjoyed a typical Serbian lunch (pork and bean casserole with bread) with the firemen, followed by Turkish style coffee. An excellent lunch.

The Commander then took me to the houseboat. It was full of young people having a relax at the riverside. Soon I was welcomed into the party, which was a celebration of the start of the summer holidays for these 16 year olds. Many of the girls spoke excellent English, so it was informative for all.

The houseboat was a bit like a basic two room bach with a huge deck, all this floating on the river, but moored. It had electricity and fresh water, so all basic necessities were met!

It was quite an unexpected afternoon but fun and very interesting discussions were had about the 16 year olds’ aspirations. From what they said, I believe that many will get a uni degree then head overseas to work and live. Most did not see a future in the poor economy of Serbia.

Just another day on the road 🙂

Northern Serbia

Northern Serbia is mainly a massive area of plains. The volume of crops being grown is somewhat similar to the Canterbury plains back home. While a 100km or so south of Belgrade, there is a lot of fruit being grown, with fresh raspberries and strawberries just everywhere in the fields and very tasty too!

As you get closer to Belgrade, the crops change to mainly wheat and maize. The farm equipment in use is also more aligned to massive cropping operations. Older combine harvesters can be seen in some farmer’s yards being prepared for the upcoming DSC00735season. North of Belgrade, there is still cropping but on a smaller scale. I think that this might be because of the undue influence of the Danube River, which when it floods, these smaller land holdings suffer. Also the area near the Danube is a large flood plain and may not possibly be conducive to the use of heavy farm equipment?

Belgrade is an older city and in the old ‘one Yugoslavia’ days was the centre for commerce and bureaucracy. Of more recent times, it has grown hugely with people moving from the country to the city and the major international organisations that have a presence. So much so, that on the opposite side of the Sava River they have created what is know as Neo Beograd (New Belgrade). This is where most of the new offices are etc.

With an increasing population, the greatest problem is traffic. Old ancient streets were never designed for motor vehicles like there are today. The centre of the city is ‘cutesy’ with the older part having been pedestrianised, but it really is nothing special. The city has a reputation for its nightclubs.

I visited the Nikola Tesla museum, the man who brought polyphase power via his electric ‘motor’ designs. Very very interesting and an absolutely world class engineer of his time. His knowledge helped lead to the harnessing of water for hydro-electric power.

Like all these river cities, there is a massive old fort overlooking the river. Now largely destroyed, it is a public park and widely used looking at the numbers of locals enjoying a shady spot. It also houses the military museum, with a huge array of 200 – 300 year old cannons through to modern military equipment. Impressive.

A few hours further up the road is the city of Novi Sad (in english, New Now). It is described as being like Belgrade was 25 years ago. Set on the Danube River, the location is spectacular. Quite compact, it has a really nice central pedestrianised area with, again, those magnificent buildings of Austro-Hungarian design. A very relaxing place that stole me away for three days. Across the river is the old military fort (Petrovardin) which originally was a walled 200 acres (if I remember correctly). It is built just above the old town and is still complete. Many of the old forts I have seen have largely been destroyed by various conquerors, but this a beauty. Today it is a mix of restaurants, an hotel, night clubs and various artists in residence in the subterranean areas. It is free entry and in beautiful condition. The clock above the fort is unique as the hands have been swapped, ie: the little hand points to minutes and the big hand points to the hours. The purpose of this was so that seafarers on the river far below could see the hour easily! Great to see a place like this live on without being externally changed.

This is also a city that was impacted by the late 1990s war in Kosovo with the bridges across the Danube all being bombed to prevent the movement of military equipment by road. The bridges have been rebuilt now. The war is still close in locals memories however. I even heard some talk of regrets about that war. Interesting

Eventually it was time to move on and I initially rode on the cycle trail beside the Danube until you are forced onto the road, due the the extensive flooding from the rain in northern Europe a few weeks back. The roads were bumpy and a bit broken due to them having been built across the Danube flood plain. More cropping amongst the plains, this time mainly wheat.

The north of Serbia is certainly different to the south, the people included. It is a large country and I only experienced a tiny amount, which I enjoyed.

Croatia awaits, so until next time.

Croatia and on

I rolled over the border from Serbia to Croatia at Backa Palanka / Ilok. So very quiet in Ilok, unbelievably so. This was a typical Sunday. It was pleasing to be amongst a few rolling hills again after the flat plains of northern Serbia. Always nice to give the legs a rest on downhills!

I had arranged a bed with a local in Vukovar via Warmshowers. Goran was an excellent host and we chatted into the evening. serb3Vukovar sustained extremely heavy damage from the 1990s Balkan war. Some of the extensive damage to houses and buildings still remains today and is the worst that I have seen on this journey. The massive town water tower, maybe 50m or more high, has enormous holes in the tank on top and the huge concrete supports. Yet it still stands. It is no longer usable but has been left as a reminder. Somewhat sobering.

From Vukovar, I continued to Osijek. What a superb and unexpected find this place was. A city that is beautiful and so relaxing. Again that quintessential wide European boulevards and pedestrianised centre. It is the regional centre and the only city in Croatia outside of Zagreb that has a regular and extensive tram network.

It is a university city, so throngs of students certainly help to keep things lively. There is an attractive riverfront with walkways, cycleways and many cafes!

A bit of history about Osijek: when the Habsburg armies (Austrian) kicked the Turks out in the late 1600s, they decided to make Osijek the regional military centre on the Drava River. So they built a fortified town as the regional command centre. The centre has survived all these passing years and is a tight area of old cobbled streets with plazas and beautiful old baroque buildings, the best ensemble in Croatia of its type. The walls and fortifications have long gone. It is lived in today and the normal commerce continues. It is no longer a military command post as that was moved to the fort at Novi Sad (Petrovaradin) at a later time.

The Austrians again brought their influence to bear with the buildings. They knocked down the previous buildings and then planned and built a completely new heart of Osijek over the next 35 years. The buildings are large, imposing structures that would not look out of place in most European cities.

As an example of 19th century architecture, European Avenue, a broad tree-lined boulevard that goes east from the centre plaza towards Tvra, the old town, is famed throughout Europe for harbouring one of the best-preserved groupings of Art Nouveau houses in this corner of Europe. Standing side by side on the north side of the avenue, they were commissioned by filthy-serb4rich industrialists and hot-shot lawyers in the years just before World War II. Twirly-haired goddesses and gargoyle-like faces on some of the houses give you an idea of the fanciful decorative tastes of the era.

The spectacular Catholic Church of St Michael takes pride of place and dominates the central plaza area. The Jesuit priests who arrived with the invading Habsburg army converted a mosque to become the Catholic church. It was rebuilt and redesigned over the years, with its interior now featuring an extravagantly-decorated baroque pulpit. Quite something!

Leaving Osijek, I headed off looking to ride smaller roads towards Zagreb. Alas, there are very few and as I found out, it is not much fun on the only road with trucks and buses flying past as you hang on as the slipstream buffets you. That night I had a rethink about my route and decided that Hungary appears to have lots of smaller roads, so a jump across the border was the decision! Hungary awaits.

Random things

CARS: In Albania there were many different makes. Despite the Top Gear program on TV a few weeks before I left showing Mercedes everywhere in Albania, that is not quite the true picture. There are a lot of older Mercedes, but the newer cars are all sorts, especially late model Audis. Just remember that prior to 1992, the only cars in Albania were of the communist elite and they were only Mercedes. There were no private motor vehicles, only horse and cart. In Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina, the VW Golf diesel is absolutely everywhere and often have done over 300000kms! Three reasons; they just do not break, parts are readily available due to there having been a local VW manufacturing factory in the past and lastly, during the last Balkans war, locals found that the Golf diesel was the only model of car that would run on almost any alternative when diesel could not be purchased! Further north, you get most of the makes of modern car to be found in NZ and more. To those MG people who are receiving this email, yes I have seen two 1990s MGFs. Both were in Tirana, Albania.

FUEL: The price per litre is about 10 percent lower than at home, so actually it is quite expensive for locals due to the comparatively low wages. Consequently, many people ride scooters, bicycles or in the rural areas horse and cart. A high percentage of cars are diesel powered and most are manual gearbox, unlike NZ where most are now automatic gearbox.

SUPERMARKETS: When you buy fruit or veg in Albania, Montenegro or Bosnia you pick the items you want and then wait while somebody weighs it and puts a price label on. This all happens separately at the fruit and veg area. In Serbia, there is a code above every fruit or veg and after you have selected your items, you put them on the scale, enter the code, the label prints and you place it in your bag. In Hungary, it is like as at home, fruit and veg is weighed at the checkout. Such simple things. It is like going back in time. However doing things the old way keeps people employed I guess?

MARKETING: whoever has the Stihl brand distributorship in Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia has done a wonderful marketing job. Just about everyone uses a weed eater. Just everywhere you hear them, even in the smallest village. Amazing penetration of the market and there appears to be no competitor product!

SUNDAY: A remarkable day as almost all shops are closed, except the odd bakery, supermarket, cafe and restaurant. It is a refreshing change from back home. Sunday obviously is family day as you see people gathered together enjoying good company. It is the day that I choose to ride into cities as there is so little traffic. It feels like what Xmas day is like at home. I like this quiet and relaxing Sundays! You just have to remember that the shops are closed from early Saturday afternoon to Monday morning!

NAVIGATION: When I was in Belgrade, I met a Polish cycle tourist and he introduced me to an application for the smartphone that is very good for navigating with GPS. It is called Locus and is free to download. Basically I just enter my start point and any places of interest along the way and my end point, select cycling roads and it computes a route on smaller country roads perfect for cycling. It has been brilliant. To check that I am on route, I enable GPS at times during the day and it displays exactly where I am. Once I doubted it had selected the correct route (27km versus a much shorter 9km) that I could see on the map. Deviating to the shorter road, I was to find that it was an expressway, banned to bikes, horses and tractors! Yes, it was correct, the 27km was it. The app, Locus, has led me along many very quiet back-country roads and cycle-paths. Just brilliant and it makes my route planning so easy, together with having GPS capability. No need for paper maps anymore!

CYCLING CULTURE: Now that I am into the plains and flatter lands, it is great to see so many people cycling, of all ages. Women going to the market, folks to church, the cafe, whatever. There are also a lot of road cyclists out on the weekends. It also means that car and truck drivers are more used to seeing bikes about, so it is safer for me also, unlike in some countries further south where there was no cycling culture.

There are many other observations as you travel, but remembering them later is the hard part!

South-west Hungary

Jumping across the border from Croatia (not literally!) was another change up. Immediately there was a tarmac cycle path, separated from the road, all the way to the first town, some 7 km hence. Bliss. This was a good start to a new country. The first town was more open, parks, trees, spacious wide streets.

However a big shock was the language. Hungarian is very different. My phrase book says it is something like Finnish. The book states ‘English has more in common with Russian than it does with Hungarian’. Says it all really. It is a one country only language. Word order is fairly free and for that reason the language is resistant to translation and why so much of the nation’s literary heritage is unavailable to English speakers. Hello in English is pronounced vi-zont-laa-taash-nok in Hungarian. Yes, true! Luckily most Hungarians just say hello, but pronounce it as ‘al-lo’, as in the TV program Allo Allo. I did learn the word for beer though (sor, written with two dots over the o), is pronounced sheur. The word for life saving liquid that every traveller needs to know! For the above reason of language difficulties, it has been very difficult to interact with the locals and learn more about the country.

Money is also very challenging as there are 177 Forints to one NZ dollar, so the bills are big numbers. My costs were averaging about 4000-5000 Forints a day. You just have to get your head around it, but money seems to go fast when you deal in large numbers for some reason!

On a scenic basis, southwest Hungary is mostly plains with crops on every last square inch. Farm machinery is large and very modern. The John Deere brand features prominently. Besides the usual maize and wheat, I have also seen the bright yellow rapeseed (grown for biofuels) and many hundreds of hectares of sunflowers. However I am a week too early as the flower heads were just only forming. They would be spectacular in full bloom.

I visited Pecs (pronounced Pettch), which is the place of the first university in Europe. It is known as the culture capital of Hungary. The historical city centre has the richest of Roman remains in all of central Europe and is another of the UNESCO world heritage sites.

One thing that Pecs is known for is the Zsolnay ceramics. The decorative architecture and coloured patterned roofs can be widely serb5seen on buildings and fountains throughout the city. While many of his designs were inspired by Chinese, far eastern and English designs of the time, it was the special clays that led to the beautiful Zsolnay porcelain. The one thing that is unique to Zsolnay was Eosin, a kind of reduction glaze, where after applying the metal glazes and firing, the vessel takes on an iridescent metallic lustre, almost a sort of gold-green, depending on the light. All I would say is that the colour of Eosin is an acquired taste. Zsolnay designs and coloured roof tiles can be found throughout Europe.

Amongst many special things in Pecs, the Catholic cathedral of Saint Peter is magnificent. This church has undergone many rebuilds over the past 1100 years. A church was originally built on this site in the 11th century. Today only the crypt remains of that church. Today it has developed into the four-towered neo-Romanesque form of today. Inside it is highly decorated – walls, ceilings, columns, pillars, floor etc. Very grand indeed for a Catholic church in this part of the world. Pecs was a relaxing and peaceful place, easy to stop and enjoy for a few days.

Southwest Hungary is also known for its spa towns, much like Hanmer Springs back home. Plenty of places to stop and sooth away any pain.

While I only crossed a tiny corner of southwest Hungary, I am going further west to Slovenia before returning towards Budapest at a later time.

So it is now away to Slovenia, a country that I have read so many positive reports about.

Better get on that bike and keep pedalling!

Slovenian surprises…

As I was now amongst EU countries, crossing the border into Slovenia was just a sign advising that I was now in Slovenia. No more passport stamps to be collected, ‘boo hoo’! I was riding on small roads, no traffic and just terrific scenery. I had read that Slovenia is very scenic and the initial introduction across the border reflected that this was correct. The roads were in beautiful condition. With the sun on my back and quiet roads, riding was easy!

Over the past week, Slovenia has exceeded my expectations. It was the first country to separate from the old Yugoslavia in 1991. You would not know it but it has come a long way and is very different to the other Balkan countries that I have seen. It has been ‘lucky’ in that it has not been subject to the extended ravages of war that neighbouring countries have endured. Instead it has prospered and it shows.

serb6Slovenia is similar to NZ in many ways. It is very green, has mountains, rivers, lakes and is just so picturesque. From the parts of Slovenia that I have travelled to date, it does deserve its reputation for its scenery. It is beautiful beyond words. Every bend in the road provides another painted backdrop. I am so looking forward to the beauty of the more alpine region of western Slovenia.

In the southeast corner is a wee settlement called Jerusalem. It supposedly got its name because the Knights Templar used to stop in this area when passing through eons ago. It is also one of the wine regions, bordered between Ormoz and Lutomer. Nice wines too!

Ptuj is the oldest city in Slovenia, having first been populated in 89AD. In the ensuing 2000+ years it has grown to what it is today. Again it was conquered many many times and rulers changed. Ptuj Castle, which remarkably, is quite complete is not quite what it seems. The original fortifications date from the 11th century. However as the various invading armies came and went, some destroyed what was there and built again while others just extended what was already there. Consequently it is a mish mash of eras and styles, quite easily seen when you look closely. You can see old exterior walls that are now interior walls from when it has been extended sometime in the past. However it has a superb museum of medieval war implements which have been arranged as they would have been kept thousands of years ago. The suits of armour, complete and in broken pieces are very impressive. Also the original Belgian made tapestries that completely cover whole room walls are so finely woven it is difficult to see the thread.

Ptuj, a city that was important in the past as it was at the crossroads of a major river trading route. Today tourism is the main attraction.

I headed to the second largest city in Slovenia, Maribor, as the annual Lent Festival was on for a week. Arriving in camp, I chatted to two Americans, Carolyn and Tyler. They had lived in Poland for four years (and written a guidebook to cycling Warsaw titled ‘iBike WAWA’). They were in Slovenia to research the writing of a guidebook to cycling Slovenia. Their website is http://www.twowheeltravelblog.com . Anyway to cut a long story short, they had been working via email and Skype with local tourism on their research. That evening we went to the Festival, a riverside venue with all types of performers – from opera, to mime, to bands, cultural groups and street theatre. Of course there was food and drink available too. What a fun night we had. A local tourism contact saw us and from them on we were treated with local wine and all at no expense to us. A very pleasurable and late night saw us missing the last bus home! Taxis were plentiful, thank goodness, as it would have been a long walk home….

I was privileged to be invited to join Carolyn and Tyler. A great experience. I will catch up with them further west in Slovenia in about a week’s time.

There’s more tales to be told but that will have to wait for another time as this email is already long enough! 🙂

Speechless

I have had a few distractions over the past week hence the lack of emails!

I am still wandering about Slovenia! Life has been good and this country has charmed me. While you may have thought I was over the top with my descriptions of its beauty in previous email, it is not! The more I travel through, the more I am just gobsmacked. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe what I am seeing.

The generosity of the people overwhelms at times. A few days ago I went to buy three oranges from a green grocer in Kobarid. Seeing me on a bike he started chatting and then being from NZ, he threw in three bananas for free. Today I went to get two bananas, knowing that I had some big hills ahead and he gave me four apples and more! I did not exactly need the extra weight with the hills ahead!

As I am travelling alone, I have been contacting people through an organisation called Warmshowers whose members are cyclists who offer a bed to fellow travelling cyclists at no cost. You are asked to reciprocate in your own country to other travelling cyclists in return. Anyways, I stayed with WS host Simon for a day in a small village about 45km south of Ljubljana. A lovely experience with Simon being a superb cook. That night he served turkey broth with spaghetti, followed by traditional slow-cooked vege stew with spicy pork loaf and salad followed by cherry strudel. All this was accompanied by homemade bread and nice wine made by his uncle near Celje. It was just beautiful! An excellent host and we chatted long into the night drinking wine. These opportunities to chat in depth with local people really gives so much more understanding about history, economy and life generally in a country.

Simon also arranged accommodation for me with a friend a few nights later and tomorrow he has organised accommodation for me with his 81 year old grandmother, who speaks no English. Should be an interesting night. This evening I have had another positive request for accommodation with another WS host next Sunday night, so life is good. And on Saturday I am catching up with Carolyn and Tyler, the American couple that I met in Maribor. Yes, a busy social life one has on the road!!!

Going back a bit, I had a few days in the capital city Ljubljana. Six years ago they banned motor vehicles from the old areas of the central city and pedestrianised it. Best thing to happen, but the place now is absolutely overrun with cafes absolutely everywhere. A bit overdone on my opinion. I met Johanna from Hamburg also who was travelling alone and we teamed up to enjoy a few days around the city, visiting the sites and enjoying a few drinks and eats.

Over near the Italian border are some areas of great history. Kobarid, Tolmin and the surrounding mountains were the centre of a four year campaign in WW1. The Italians who declared themselves initially as neutral, then changed and attacked Slovenia, who at that time was part of Austria. The ensuing four year long series of mountain battles cost near to one million lives of Italian, German, Austrian and other countries soldiers. Extremely well documented in the area and sensitively remembered through the museum displays and monuments.

Even closer to the Italian border is the Triglav National Park. This is serious alpine beauty with many peaks in excess of 2000m clustered together in this 82500 hectare park. The valleys are deep and the mountains rise almost vertically. Tramping and mountain bike tracks are widely utilised. This area is world renowned for paragliding and similar air sports. There are many rivers running through the park, but the most spectacular is the Soca River. It is a bright turquoise colour, so very different to any other river here. It is so clear that you can see the trout swimming in it. It is popular for kayaking and rafting. The Triglav Park totals almost 4 percent of Slovenia’s land. It was declared a national park in 1924.

DSC01111

I will be in Slovenia for a few days yet, but I am nearer the end of the journey through this paradise than the start.

Still wandering…

I am still in Slovenia, at the moment enjoying a deliciously cold beer, as it is afternoon here!

A week or so back I happened on a town called Idrija, just for an overnight stop I thought. But no, it was quite interesting. Entering the tourist info office, I was confronted by giant pulleys. Hmm, seems there may be more to this town after all. Upon further questions, I learn that the large pulleys were used in the mercury mine. What, mercury, yes that precious liquid mineral. Mercury was first discovered in Idrija, by accident, in 1490 and was mined for the next 500 years. I took a tour into the mine where you were taken 100m underground. There they had recreated things as it used to be when mining was still active. You entered through a simple house on the street, which is the original entry to the mine. Amazing. Some stats: it was the second largest mercury mine in the world; during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire, this mine produced 10 percent of the total revenue for the total empire; the town has the most bars of any town in Slovenia, not surprisingly given the mining population. Today the mine is closed for commercial mining but the town has reinvented itself as a tourism destination. There is loads of adventure tourism activities with the mountains and rivers nearby. I like finding these unexpected treasures on route!

I happened into Kobarid, a delightful town in the Soca valley and stayed for several days at a family-run campsite, Kamp Rut. A mere 500m from the town, it is set in lovely quiet rural setting.  The family were very friendly, and so helpful, making my stay a relaxed time. The body needed some rest before the roads ahead through the mountains being challenging with the Vrsic Pass included. Kobarid was a small but interesting town with several interesting places to visit, including the World War 1 history museum, the Italian Charnel House with the Church of St Anton built on top and the cheese museum amongst them. I enjoyed my stay in Kobarid.

A few days later, after following the beautiful turquoise-coloured Soca river for several days, I was confronted by the Vrsic Pass, my first alpine Pass. It comprises 50 switchback corners (up and down) and the top of the Pass is at 1611m. Sounds easy when it is written! A challenge, you bet.

Getting out of the tent and away at soon after 6am, I was ready to go. The campsite was at approximately 700m, so only 900m to climb vertically over the next 10km. The road initially continued to follow the river before swiftly turning right and there in front of me was a sign to advise that the gradient was 14 percent! I warmed up pretty quick and was soon gasping for air, with regular stops for water. Even though the air temperature was 8 degrees when I started and cooling as I climbed, I was sweating profusely with the climb. Every switchback had a sign with the corner number and the current altitude. The signs are somewhat demoralising at times as you seem to climb so slowly from corner to corner. Eventually after two hours, I reached the summit! It was cold and unfortunately the cloud had come down as well. I enjoyed some more breakfast that I had brought with me before piling on the clothing for the 12km descent. The descent was not that great as on every switch back corner the road was cobblestones, and very rough. The descent was slow! By 9am, I was sitting in Kranska Gora enjoying hot coffee and a few chocolate croissants! Life was good.

Recently I have had the opportunity to stay in private homes. Great, but the challenge is finding the house, especially in some towns. Take Spodnjde Bitnje as an example. Every street in the town is called Spodnje Bitnje! I kid you not! The houses are not numbered liked in NZ, where the streets are individually named and the numbers are even numbered on one side and odd on the other.  Instead numbers are completely random, depending on when the house is built. So, in this case, number 55 had number 105 on one side and number 17 on the other side. It is extremely confusing. When I stopped a local to ask where number 55 was, he asked who lived there, and as he did not know the person, he stopped a passing motorist, who also did not know, so the passing motorist phoned his sister, who went off to call someone else before phoning back. GPS coordinates, when known, are your friend when trying to find a house in these villages. It is interesting to come to a crossroads and all the roads are named the same! A great trialing trap for those MG Club people reading this email!!! Confusing however for this simple mind!

Now I am resting up for a few days as the legs have had a tough 440 km over the last five days, and recently into headwinds too.

All is well and great travelling.

Very rough commentary…

Travelling through the old Yugoslav countries, and Albania, it has been interesting to learn of costs, living, governments and more.

In Albania, there were elections in late June, where the ruling Democrats lost to a Progressive Socialist party. The now ex-Democrat leader was high up in the ruling communist party before ‘democracy’ occurred in the early 1990s. A throw back to the old days. One wonders if a leopard really changes its spots? The new Socialist leader is the previous Mayor of the capital city, Tirana. He did some good things in Tirana, but can he bring them to a national stage? His policies were not exactly of any sort of detail. I will be a willing watcher over the coming year or two.

Likewise, I understand that some of the Serbian politicians are from the old days also, so progress is difficult, let alone the ethnic divide and what that brings. Similarly with Bosnia Herzegovina and its divided and long-standing politicians from the 1990s.

Those countries that have changed to the Euro as their currency seem to have one thing in common: when the change of currency occurred, costs escalated, but not necessarily wages. As an example, Slovenia changed from the Mark to the Euro. Coffee previously cost ONE Mark, but when the Euro change happened, shopkeepers still charged ONE for the coffee, but now it was Euros, NOT Marks, and one Euro was worth about 2.5 Marks!! Now that is inflation. I have heard this story told in several countries. Ouch!

The coming of the European Union (EU) has brought mixed benefits. The EU money and supporting structures is always a plus, but the bureaucratic changes required to become part of the EU have made enormous changes and brought bureaucracy that is making life difficult to progress, especially in business. The infrastructure is necessary to become an EU member. The ‘good old days’ of just getting on and doing it have been somewhat restrained. Many times have I heard about this form, that form, too many hassles to get a simple change made. Yet there are more countries lining up to become a member of the EU. One sometimes wonders why? Obviously there are greater benefits to be had.

Hungary is a member of the EU but it has not changed to the Euro. So given what I have stated above, you might think they would be powering ahead. However for local people, life is expensive, with the average wage being about 400 Euro (NZD $700) per month. Costs are not cheap either. Some think that the costs are almost just like those of greater Europe. Or is it something that I do not understand that is holding Hungary back?

Slovenia is in a money crisis, with the banks needing a bailout, similar to that of Greece. The economy appears to be booming, but the shops are empty of shoppers, apart from tourists. Again living is expensive for local people. The government has decried the idea of a monetary bailout from the European Central Bank, as that comes with financial conditions, so they want to sort the financial problems internally. However, convincing the general population to agree is going to be far more difficult as the middle class is where it will hit hardest.

As a single entity that was the old Yugoslavia, and between all the various republics, they had most things in abundance and one very big market to sell to without having to go outside their own border. Now that the countries that made up the old Yugoslavia are largely separate entities, life is tougher as they are now fighting in a global marketplace. No longer do they have a ready market within their own border. As Yugoslavia, they all shared a coast, the Adriatic, but individually, several are now land-locked. They still have the great European rivers running through some of the countries, but they are not such a major trade route anymore, mainly tourism.

It really is an intriguing place to travel through. I have but only scratched the surface. In many ways, this trip has generated more questions than answers. Interesting questions though!

I will write a bit more about the real travel, and biking, next time.

More tales from the road

After a very roundabout tour through Slovenia, eventually you have to move on. For me, it took 17 days before I made for the exit gate of this small piece of magic. It never lost its lustre, even right to the border.

However, going back a few days….

Lake Bled is a tourist magnet. The church on the island in the centre of the lake is a spectacular setting. However the castle overlooking the town is right up there, apart from the steep hill to ride up! There was a wedding happening when we visited, semi-medieval costumes for the attendants, but all of the rest of the party were dressed normally.

I also met Carolyn and Tyler again and we enjoyed wandering at the castle and then riding the 5km circuit of the lake.

As it is now high season summer, the campground was busting at the seams, and it can take approximately 1100 people! We shared a site and enjoyed a meal together. The neighbouring campers, from Belgium, seeing that we as cyclists, did not have a table or chairs, offered us theirs as they headed to a restaurant for dinner. When it later started to rain as we were about to eat, another camper with motorhome, worried that we would get wet, invited us to join them under their awning! All very friendly.

A day or so later, I stayed at the home of Breda and Bozo at Kranj. After having trouble finding the house (see previous email for details), I arrived just as dinner was about to be served. Breda had prepared Slovenian specialties for me, being bean casserole, liver wrapped in bacon on toothpicks followed by several stuffed capsicums that had been baked. This was enjoyed with several glasses of Slovenian rose wine, fresh bread and good conversation. I slept very well!

Some people reading this may have noticed that I rarely comment about cycling! Well bicycle is how I travel, but the observations on the way are the parts that interest me. The bike has been good, so far. No great dramas, apart from the normal routine checks, it has got me uphill and down dale (if the rider puts in the effort!) Daily distances and average speeds etc are irrelevant as I have so many days off the bike, resting and doing other things.

In western Hungary, I met a Dutch guy in a bar where I stopped for a coffee. When he stated that he always comes to Hungary for his holidays, I asked why Hungary? Much to my surprise, he said to visit the old Russian military bases. Apparently they are all over Hungary. He invited me to join him and his son exploring one the following day, and of course I said yes. Over a few beers that night, I learnt about lots of these bases and what he had found. The base we went to the next day near Tapolca was a sprawling mess of about 5 hectares. When the Russians withdrew, they left everything. The Hungarians part destroyed things but much remains, equipment included. Pete had visited here previously and it goes five levels deep underground. Following his last visit he suffered health problems for many months. Thinking it was probably gas issues, he had brought gas masks for this visit. I declined to go underground due to these possible gas issues. However in the admin block are large reel movies, propaganda for the troops I expect, medical records, x-rays and more. Quite amazing. He has also found bases where nuclear weapons had been stored. He was after all these years still trying to find the missile silo bases, which were sited in Hungary also. A very interesting visit made possible by stopping for a coffee in a small town and chatting!

The interesting things that one finds on such a journey.

Slovakia

Leaving Hungary, I thought I was following a recognised cycle path, when it ceased and forced me back into the busy traffic. Seeing a sign that had a bike sign, some indistinguishable words in Hungarian and 700m, I assumed, naturally, that the bike path started again in 700m. How wrong I was. The next 11 km to the Slovakia border was on a road with signs regularly detailing NO bikes, horses or tractors. Needless to say I rode on, but then only just around a few corners was a Police checkpoint stopping vehicles. I put on my best wave, head down and just kept going! I was sure I could outrun the policeman at 15km/h! I heard no sirens and breathed a big sigh of relief (from the traffic), as I crossed into Slovakia.

The ride for the balance of the day of some 70km was all on cycle paths, yes real ones, alongside the Danube canal. Bliss, just relax and enjoy. However, I was initially a bit concerned as there were no other cyclists, until I eventually met a Japanese man riding eurovelo 6 to the Black Sea. The ride alongside this section of the Danube is very peaceful, dead flat with straight sections 5-10kms long. I would not want to ride it into any sort of headwind. Eventually there were other cyclists, but mainly locals training or going to the nearest swimming place, including a   large lake I passed which was obviously the local nudist beach! No, I did not stop! However, I did I stop at a local restaurant for lunch. A beautiful big plate full of chunky pork pieces stuffed crepes in a picante cream sauce. Absolute yum, and only about NZD$5. Great stuff.

This ride on the cycle path was the run into Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I eventually arrived mid-afternoon for a few days off the bike.

Bratislava is a relaxed, cosy and much smaller city than either Budapest or Prague. It only has a population of 400,000. It is in a pretty setting with the Danube running through it. Once upon a time it was the capital of what was, in the old days, Czechoslovakia. DSC01239Unfortunately the old town area has suffered and about 50 percent was demolished by the communists (Russians) in the early 1970s following the Russian invasion in 1968. At that time, the controlling Russians decided that Prague would be kept as the historical city and Bratislava would be modernised and industrialised. So tower blocks, motorways and more were built, carving up the historic central city area. Unfortunately, the historic Bratislava castle, which is very impressive, (largely rebuilt in the last 60 years), is now separated from the old town by a multi-lane motorway, which is also outside the front door of St Michael’s Cathedral. At least the cathedral survived.

However, one good thing the Russians did at the time was to build a new bridge over the Danube. It is still of modern design today and features a UFO restaurant on the top on the support stantions. Quite impressive.

The locals are very keen to inform you that the opposition to the Russian invasion of 1968 started in Bratislava, as photographs show, not Prague.

Bratislava has some great street art, in particular four bronze figures. The workman, the paparazzi photographer, the 1920s gent doffing his hat and the Napoleonic soldier relaxing over a bench. The most well known would be ‘the workman’, which shows a figure standing in a real manhole with head and shoulders out, just looking. Originally just a stunt, they have firmly become city favourites. Check them out via Google.

Bratislava also has two of the best examples of Art Nouveau (secession style) in western Europe. Designed by a Hungarian architect in the early 1900s, St Margaret’s Catholic Church is pale blue, from pews to roof. It looks like something out of Disneyland, or maybe a bouncy castle, but today is commonly called the ‘Smurf Church’. Across the road from the church is the other Art Nouveau building, a very grand school, but brown and cream in colour.

It is an interesting city, without the magnificent buildings of London or Budapest, but still full of history.

I am now further north in Slovakia, battling in the heatwave that Europe is currently enjoying/suffering.

Moving on in Slovakia

I am now in central Slovakia. The heatwave continues and today temperatures have topped 39 degrees, with no wind. It is almost unbearable. It was a day off as I met up with Steve and Annette, so no cycling thank goodness!

During today I have been reviewing my route to Prague over the next four weeks. I have sorted accommodation in Prague with a friend for a couple of nights from 27 August, will likely then visit friends in Munich for a few days via train, before returning to visit Prague for 5 days and prepare for the flight home in early September.

Due to the extreme heat, I am shortening my cycling days, which means that I am unlikely to cover quite as much ground as originally thought. There is little point in killing myself just to say ‘I did it!’ This is a holiday?

So southern Poland is unlikely to now be part of the route. I will still go into the Tatra mountain area on the Slovakia/Poland border, but unlikely to cross over the Tatras into Poland. Instead, my current thinking after the Tatras is likely to be into the Czech Republic from Slovakia.

So approximately another week in Slovakia, then two weeks getting across to Prague, visiting various places via a zigzag route and the final 10 days in Munich and Prague.

Something had to give and this has been a tough decision, especially as I have two invitations to stay in homes in Poland. Poland is a huge country and may have to wait for another time.

Maybe four months is just a bit too long? I have got to a state of almost saturation where you take less photos, oh yes, another castle, another church etc. Next time I would schedule a stop in an apartment somewhere for a week or two (or more) to relax, refresh and re-energise.

The heat absolutely takes it out of me, as I much prefer cooler weather. This is my first time in these sort of 30+ temperatures, day in, day out, for weeks on end and it is just draining. I did not realise just how much. Even sleeping is not comfortable in 20+ degree temperatures so tiredness also becomes a factor.

Enough from me for now….. I will send a happier email soon.

Slovakian wrap

I am unsure how to describe Slovakia overall, in terms of the areas that I have visited, Bratislava excepted.

Rural Slovakia is a real mix. Leaving Bratislava I was surprised how traffic busy the small roads were. Then you realize that satellite towns have been created away from Bratislava, with big new shopping centres but there appear to not be many houses to support such big shopping centres. Obviously part of a bigger masterplan. It was the first time that I had seen rush hour traffic jams going into Bratislava. The rural roading infrastructure will require quite some work yet.

Lower Slovakia is largely agricultural. Crops, especially wheat, maize and sunflower are everywhere. With this continuing dry hot weather, cropping its happening all over, creating a huge patchwork of fields. Very colourful, but hard to capture via photo from ground level.

On this trip I have often wondered where the cattle are? They are not seen in the fields as generally there are no fences. Finally, I know. They are kept in individual bales in barns and fed cut grass which has been dried. I saw this with my own eyes in Slovakia when I was taken in to a farm yard at a brief stop. Unfortunately I could not communicate well enough to ask the appropriate questions. I can understand the animals being inside in winter, but summer? Another unanswered question!

I met up with NZ friends Annette and Stephen in Bojnice for a couple of nights catch-up and to share stories. Unfortunately I caught a gastro bug and was laid low for 2+ days. However, this is the first problem I have had gastro wise, so pretty good really considering I have eaten the local food and drank local water everywhere. I am all good now after resting for a couple of days.

I then ventured further north towards the Tatra Ranges on the Polish border. I passed through many ‘spa’ towns with their so-called ‘wellness centres’. This certainly seems big business in Hungary and Slovakia.

The small roads in northern Slovakia that I was riding were so busy with cars, trucks and buses. And everyone seemed in such hurry. It was crazy. Adding in the heatwave, which has returned, it did not make for pleasant riding. The north of Slovakia is very industrial with many big industries based around timber, and given all the trees growing in the Tatras, trucks are never far from sight. The motorways which are so badly needed to get the bulk of the A to B traffic off the small roads are still being built, so it is not a cyclists paradise yet. Also as there are few roads that cross the mountains between Slovakia and Poland, this adds to the numbers of international freight trucks and tour buses on the few available cross-border roads and those roads that link to them.

I chose to take several trains instead to view the Tatra Ranges as best I could. They are significant mountains, but quite different to the grandeur of the peaks and rivers of eastern Slovenia. The highest peak is about 2600m, which you can reach the top of via a ride on a cableway! No need to walk!!! The best way to enjoy the Tatras is via hiking, or tramping, as it is called in NZ. Just be aware that there are bears and wolves in some areas in the mountains and to take the appropriate precautions if hiking/camping.

I then returned west by train, much preferring to relax a little off the road, even if it stressful trying to buy the correct train tickets for self and bicycle with limited Slovakian language skills!!!!

I am not sure whether I have really enjoyed Slovakia. At times, yes. At other times, less so. The people are generally friendly and helpful, there are some magic places, but perhaps it is a country best visited by car or train, picking the individual places to visit. For a cyclist, there are better places to enjoy cycling.

The Czech Republic beckons.

The little things…

I have now crossed into the Czech Republic. It was only in 1991 that what was previously known as Czechoslovakia was separated into the two countries of today, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Comparing the two on an initial level, the Czech Republic certainly got the cream. Altogether it appears to be wealthier, has better major infrastructure and more. Maybe not changing to the Euro currency has been a good move? Another unanswered question!

Leaving Slovakia, I had a Pass to climb of about two hours duration, being a bit over 15km. It was steady but not a killer in terms of effort. Again, I started very early and had it all completed by 8:30am. However, a kilometre or so before the top of the Pass, a group of road cyclists shot past me. As I had had an early start, I decided a second cooked breakfast would be the order of the day. Stopping at the restaurant at the top of the Pass, the road cyclists were in attendance also, no doubt stopping for a coffee, just like ACTA members do at home on rides. But no, this lot was drinking 500ml glasses of beer! Some even had a second, and this was just before 8:30am!!! Finishing their beers a while later, they jumped back on their bikes to return the way they had come, this time it being a 15km downhill. Hardy or stupid? Meanwhile I indulged myself with ham and eggs, toast and coffee for approximately NZ$5.00. No beer thank you!

The cycling infrastructure here is brilliant. Well signed and usually tarmac, crossing farm areas and alongside rivers, they make for pleasant and more relaxed riding.

Riding into the valley that passes through Leskove, Velke Karlovice to Vesetin is a dream for a cyclist. There is a 50km tarmac cycle path near the road. This is a huge ski area in winter (the chairlifts start at the side of the road in towns), with lots of forests, but in summer it is MTB heaven with many tracks sign-posted throughout the hills. Mountain bikers were everywhere and were very friendly, chatty and keen to learn what I was doing, all loaded up!

There are many people about on bikes, both young and not so young.

For the past week or so, I have been on the lookout for somewhere to get a haircut. Don’t laugh, what little hair I do have does grow! Anyway, here and in Slovakia you do not see the traditional hairdressing signs anywhere for men. Plenty of female beauty parlours etc. However, having tried a few, they were only for women. In one small town, the chemist I asked (as they often have rudimentary English for their work) directed me to a building and up the flights of stairs. Another female parlour, but she directed me down a level to the men’s place, but a locked door and a note that I could not read! Dam!

Another town later and as I rode in, a local man approached and started talking to me about the bike etc. Once I realised he spoke English, I asked about a hairdresser, and he turned to his wife and said, ‘I have no idea where to find one as my wife always cuts my hair’. Drat! Later at the local tourist info centre, they could not help either. At the campground, I got chatting to the receptionist and asked her, but she no idea for a male. However, she offered to accompany me to town later to try and help. Visiting a few female parlours, we struck a no until one lady told us of a lady who only cuts men’s hair. Katherina, the campground receptionist did not know of this place, so we went looking. Eventually after a few dead ends, there it was, down an alley, behind a local government office, up two flights of stairs beside a lawyer’s office. Explaining via Katherina that I wanted a number one cut, the lady said no. Not understanding why, through further questioning we worked out that she only has equipment down to a number three cut. Phew! OK, no bookings just line up. After a wait of an hour or so, I was in the chair. Twenty minutes later it was done. And the cost, a whole NZ$4! If a local does not know where to find the hairdresser, how is a visitor meant to know!

A really good thing here and in Slovakia and Hungary is a thing known as the daily lunch menu, but the equivalent in the local lingo. It is a fixed price meal and cost. It consists of two dishes, usually a soup and a main for about NZ$5. Really good value, served fast and the locals fill the restaurants. As an example, yesterday’s was either vegetable or chicken soup followed by beef risotto or cold pasta salad. It is only available Monday to Friday and each day has a different selection of items. A great way to get people through the door and have fresh food of the day. I think they make most of the money in the accompanying drinks that are ordered. I certainly enjoy these meals on a regular basis.

Travelling through North Moravia

In the last week or so, I have had excellent interactions with some local people. On my last nights in Slovakia, I met Otmar and DSC01255Anna and their two children. They are Czech, but Otmar’s work means that for the past 7+ years they have lived in Canada and more recently in Frankfurt, Germany. We caught up around a campfire dinner (cooking sausages on a stick), whilst for me learning lots about the Czech Republic. Anna has also travelled to many places and her ‘craft skills hobby’ has her attending congresses throughout the world. Next year she hopes to be in Sydney for a similar craft congress. Hopefully one day they will travel to NZ. During our chatting, they suggested many places that I should visit in the Czech Republic, and then the next morning as I prepared to depart, they gave me a road map of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, some snacks, including a round of sheep’s cheese that you literally unroll. Thank you so much, it was  all eaten before the end of the day!

A few days later when at a campsite in Frenstat, I met Milos and his two sons. We chatted and Milos invited me to contact him when I reached the city of Brno. When we caught up in Brno, Milos picked me up from the Penzion where I was staying and I enjoyed a meal with his wife Jana and their two sons at their home. It was a very relaxing evening with chatting about both the Czech Republic and New Zealand. Their eldest son, also named Milos, who is about 11 (I think) is musical and played piano for me, modern, classical and jazz styles. He can play by ear but is now having tuition as well to improve his classical music skills. He can also sing and is very good! A lovely evening and I look forward to staying in contact.

The cycle trails in the Czech Republic have been superb to date. However they do sometimes use smaller roads as well, so there can often be direction changes as you move from cycle path to road and vice versa. On one occasion, I passed a couple riding bikes who seemed to be on the same route as me because every time I stopped to check my direction on the GPS, they passed me! Eventually after this happening a few times, they stopped to chat. Now my Czech language skills are next to zero and their English skills were no better. Using the map, we communicated our respective destinations. They suggested I ride with them, so I did. When I said I wanted to find a pekarna (bakery), they understood and 6km later, we stopped at a local village pekarna for me to get some snacks. However, Carmeda would not let me pay, it was her treat. Thank you! When they reached their destination, they stopped at a bar and Jaroslav then shouted me a beer. He also had a beer. It was only 11:15am, but who am I to refuse hospitality!

These types of experiences are what I find really warm you to a country.

A week or two back I visited the Tatra Technical Museum. Tatra is a name that I have always associated with trucks and I thought they were of Russian origin. How wrong I was! They are Czech and are a lot more than just trucks. They are one of the oldest car makers in the world. They exhibited their first car in 1897. Over the following years, they have developed many cars, many displayed in the museum, together with many clay model designs that never made it to production. Some are ‘very out there’ DSC01279-cropdesigns. They have not only been involved with cars. During WW2, they were involved in the production of engines for the German fighter bombers. Like most motor vehicle manufacturers, they have had a rich heritage in motorsport. It was only in the 1950s that they began truck production. It was no ordinary truck that they first developed, but a massive 6WD beast that could climb a 45 percent gradient! Things have evolved and a Tatra truck won the first ever truck race division of the Paris – Dakar race. Whilst car production is no more, Tatra have dabbled in trains and boats. Today, trucks are what they are about, with there being a massive W16 prototype engine on display that produces 22000 horsepower. A very interesting museum.

Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic. The old town area is much much larger than I expected. Whilst only a small section in the centre near the main attractions and hotels has had the big makeover, you can walk 20-30 minutes in any direction and there is lots more. While the buildings are externally in poorer condition, they are still there and have not been knocked down in the name of progress. There are signs that they are beginning to be fixed up also. Brno’s Castle is actually known as Spillberk Castle and is in beautiful condition. Originally from the Roman times, it has been rebuilt in many styles over hundreds of years and today it is as it was rebuilt in the early 1800s. Spillberk Castle was the feared jail kept for the worst prisoners during the Habsburg Empire. Over the centuries it has been both a political and civilian prison. It was used by the German Gestapo for 16 months as a prison during the  early part of WW2 before being altered by the Germans to be a barracks for the rest of the war.

The churches and many other historic buildings in the centre are well preserved. In the crypt of the Cappuchin Monastery there are mummies that are extremely well preserved. Due to the way the crypt was built, air is introduced and the temperature regulated naturally meaning that only minimal decomposition has occurred. The bodies are lying open for all to view.

Also, Brno has an underground tunnel system that is from the Baroque era. They were used to store food, wine and more. A very interesting tour for me.

I enjoyed Brno, a very relaxing city, but with plenty to see and do. Given what I experienced, I cannot wait for Prague!

For the last couple of days, I have enjoyed the wines of the South Moravia region around Lednice and Valtice. There is so much to write that it will have to wait for the next email.

Decisions, decisions…..

In a country as large as the Czech Republic, there is only so much you can travel to within the time that one has. As I meet locals en route, they add their suggestion for places to visit. There are so many small roads, and even more cycle paths, the options as to which way next almost becomes endless.

The decision to visit the Lednice and Valtice area originally came from Anna and Otmar (see previous email). This area was also suggested by Stan Kavale, an ex-ACTA member now residing in Prague. The decision was not that difficult as South Moravia is also a large wine growing area, especially of white wines. So, heading south from Brno, it was only about 50kms away, flat roads and sunshine ahead.

However the logistics of wine tasting and riding a bike between wineries is not quite as easy in NZ.

Let me explain.

You pay for tasting wine, so they fill the glass (about the size of third/half a domestic NZ wine glass), which is a lot for a taste! When you then ‘taste’ two or three wines, you are having quite an amount of alcohol, and remember that this is not with a meal! Very few wineries had buckets where you could spit the wine out. Starting tasting BEFORE lunch means you seriously need a sleep by early afternoon, but you are 20+kms from your tent. I made sure to have a substantial lunch, but the warmth from the midday sun and the effects of wine made for an interesting afternoon! I did get safely back to camp, but the legs were definitely struggling on any slight incline. Day two of the wine tasting I was a bit wiser!

As far as the wines that were tasted, quite different to NZ, in that they were not as overly fruity. I especially enjoyed the mix they called a dry cuvee which was a blend of sauvignon and chardonnay grape. Slightly off-dry, not too cold, but very full on the mouth. Extremely drinkable. The other grape varieties were all unknown to me, but more than palatable, especially the Muller Thurgau.

DSC01332Lednice has an amazing chateau, set in massive gardens, as in many hectares. The chateau has been in many forms over the years, with the original building dating from the 13th century with only the stables building remaining from that time. Due to many changes, today the chateau is largely English Tudor neo-Gothic in appearance from a later rebuild. The major player in all this was the Lichenstein family who lived here until the end of WW2. As they acquired land in the area, the estate grew to a substantial size. They then had massive gardens designed to replicate an English garden estate. Not only this, but the trees and foliage on the estate are not just local varieties. They also planted many exotics. Some of the estate is in a wetland area which has attracted many types of birds and wildlife. Just down the road, a chateau had also been built at Valtice. This eventually became part of the greater Lichenstein estate. To connect the two chateau, a 7 kilometre long straight road was built between the two chateau and lined with lime trees. Whilst the road still exists, the lime trees have largely been overtaken by associated building and domestic vegetation.

UNESCO made this 200 square kilometre landscape a World Heritage Site in 1996 based on its cultural value, and also because it is a wonderful example of designed landscape from the time period.

The whole area is very popular with Czechs on holiday. Bike paths are everywhere and there are many families with tiny tots enjoying the tarmac paths as they wind across the countryside and through the wetland bush areas. Quite a special area and I am grateful to those who suggested that it was a ‘do not miss’.

An unexpected find….

When I travel, I try to learn a little about what is ahead; is it an area or place that is significant, is it historical, what is there to see etc.

Trebic was one of those places that exceeded my expectations. Rolling into the town, somehow it grabbed me. There was a large central square (rectangular actually) that was busy with the local fruit and vege market in full swing. The place was buzzing, people everywhere and very much alive, unlike many smaller towns and villages that I have passed through recently.

Regarding the town square, I later learnt that it is 2.2 hectares, one of the largest in the Czech Republic. It is surrounded by historic houses, including two special houses, the Black House and the Painted House. The Black House was built in the early 17th century and has what is known as a Sgraffito facade. The Sgraffito decoration on this house represents the individual human virtues (belief, mercy, hope, justice, wisdom and fame), hunting scenes and two Roman emperors, Vespasian and Titus. The Painted House was built at the end of the 16th century. It is in a Renaissance (Franciscan) painted style in similar Sgraffito decoration as the Black House.

There is an interesting Jewish quarter in Trebic. It is a unique complex of 123 historical buildings, there being two synagogues (both deconsecrated), a Rabbi’s house, almshouse, hospital and two schools. Today it is a bustling neighbourhood, but there is no Jewish community as in WW2 all the inhabitants were transferred to the walled transit town of Terezin, (north of Prague), before being transported to one of the death camps where they perished. Today much is being done to restore the Jewish quarter, but also retain its history. It is now a residential area but retains all the charm due to the closeness of buildings crammed up against each other with narrow passages and overlapping eaves.

On the hill above town is Wallenstein Castle, a former Benedictine Monastery. It originally dates from the 12th century and was only rebuilt as a castle, as it is seen today, in the 16th century. Today, it is a museum with the spectacular Basilica of St Procopius within the castle grounds.

A neat and unexpected find was Trebic, together with very friendly people, which made for a great day!

I wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Over the hills into South Bohemia

When riding the small roads, you often see local Czech cyclists, mainly on lightweight road bikes. Most just zoom past me as I meander along. However a few days ago, the following happened:

A young lady cyclist passed me going in the opposite direction. At few metres later I stopped at an intersection to check my route with GPS. As I started riding again, I checked for traffic behind me to notice a cyclist. As usual, I made room so that they could pass me. However, this cyclist pulled up alongside me and said Hi! This was how I met Lucy.

LucieLucy was the cyclist who had just passed me in the opposite direction but turned around to come and chat, as she said I was different to other cyclists, with all my loaded panniers.

Lucy is at university in Prague, but was staying with her family, who lived locally, for a few days. She is also a triathlete who had recently been in the Czech under-23 national championships. A very fit young lady!

Lucy had excellent English as her final year at high school was as a student in Canada. So chatting was easy.

When I introduced myself as being from NZ, I was surprised to learn that Lucy had travelled to NZ several times with her parents for extended holidays, and has travelled many places in NZ by campervan.

We chatted as we rode for the next hour or so, with Lucy generously maintaining my slow pace up the hills! Even though Lucy was riding in the ‘wrong’ direction for her, it was great to have company and the opportunity to learn more about the Czech Republic. We exchanged contact details and then parted company, with Lucy returning back the way we had just ridden. I hope to catch up with Lucy in Prague. Thanks Lucie, your company was great!
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Telc is a smaller town in the Vysocina region of the Czech Republic. Literally, Vysocina translates as rolling hills, and that is exactly what the countryside is. It is highly cultivated with golden coloured wheat crops, occasionally interrupted by dark green bush and lots of lakes. Very pretty. When I arrived into the square in Telc, it was alive with a historical festival. From my understanding, this was to commemorate the founders of the town or the square – I was told both versions, so unsure. Characters dressed in medieval costume, market activities and a busy stage, with puppet and juggling shows etc, mainly for children.

Telc is known for its building facades, especially in the Square. Apparently each house tried to outdo each other in terms of style, so today you have this amalgam of colours and facade styles. Most of the roofs behind each facade are your normal pitch of roof (sorry, I do not remember the technical term!) Some of the roofs even have what I would call a ‘cow lick’ style where the roof cladding rises to meet the specific angles of the facade. Check Google for pictures of the central square in Telc. it is almost fairytown-like in appearance.

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As I rode further west into the South Bohemia region, the smallest of towns all have at least one thing in common, a town pond, right in the centre. This seems unique to this area. I now understand that these were created as part of a bigger plan when the largely flat South Bohemia region was an unproductive marshland with peat bogs. In the 16th century, the noble family of Rozmberk decided to change things and started developing a network of fresh water fish ponds and associated canals in order to drain the marshland and make the land more productive. Sixty-four kilometres of artificial canals were created. The longest is known as the Golden Canal. The canals link the fish ponds and provide the continuity required to refresh the water. Following the creation of the canals, this region experienced massive growth during the 16th and early 17th century. Today, fresh water fish farming is still a large industry in South Bohemia.

There are several monuments to various individuals who created this grand scheme. These lakes and the associated canals are where the cycleways are alongside today, so it is very quiet and picturesque riding. The South Bohemia region has a huge cycling infrastructure and is extremely well used by recreational cyclists.
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In some of the smaller towns, there are loud speakers on the power poles. These, I was informed, date from the communist era when ‘information messages’ were played to the town’s inhabitants. I have been riding through towns where they are still being used today, but by supermarket companies as advertising mediums! Could you imagine having a loud speaker screaming adverts at you next to your house? There is no mute button like for TV adverts!!!!!
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( To the Czech recipients of this email, my apologies if anything I have written above is incorrect. I have endeavoured to have the facts. I would appreciate your correcting of my understanding if it is wrong – thanks. )

A tale of three villages

When you travel, there are all those ‘must see’ places that you read about on the internet, in guidebooks or learn of from other travellers.

Cesky Krumlov was one of those places. So I did. It is UNESCO heritage listed. But so many places in this part of the world are UNESCO listed. However, what you must also understand is that there are many categories in the UNESCO heritage listing criteria. Hmmmm.

Cesky Krumlov is a medium sized town where history has stood still in the old town since the 16th century, when it was largely rebuilt into the Renaissance and Baroque style that can be seen today.

At first view, the old town area appears to be built on an island as the Vltava River appears to flow around it, but in actuality it is joined to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. The streets are very narrow and the buildings are truly crammed in along the roughly cobbled streets. Over the past 25 years, many of the buildings, both commercial and residential, have been saved and restored, with excellent exterior period detail, through both central and local government contributions.

The magnificent Cesky Krumlov castle on the opposing bank of the Vltava River is a massive complex. It comprises of forty buildings and palaces, situated around five castle courts together with castle gardens covering an area of seven hectares.

It is erected on the rock promontory which has been sculpted by the Vltava river from the southern side and by the Polecnice stream from the northern side. The castle towers proudly above the refined Renaissance and Baroque burgher architecture of the town below.

The castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after the castle in Prague. While it originally dates from the 12th or 13th century, being of Roman origin, it was later rebuilt in the Baroque style and then again rebuilt in the 18th century in the Renaissance style that it is today.

An interesting point to note is that the moat around the castle contains no water. In the early 18th century, bears were moved to the moat where they are still kept today, although not the same bears from 300 years ago!

Meanwhile, the Latran quarter that sits directly below the castle, on the same side of the river as the castle, has finally been recognised for its contribution to the history of Cesky Krumlov and is currently being restored/rebuilt.

However, this town is very much on the tourist radar. When the tour buses roll in from Prague every morning, the place just becomes shoulder to shoulder tourists in the few small streets of the old town and the castle area. Just about every second building in the old town would either be a penzion (small private accommodation), restaurant or hotel. The food prices reflect this tourist trap with the daily lunch menu (that I so enjoy) being two or three times the prices that I have seen elsewhere. Likewise, a cup of coffee is double the usual price, being nearly NZ$4.50. Expensive, but they have a captive audience I guess. There are many holidaying Czechs staying in the local accommodation also.

Yes, it is an attractive town and well kept, but one wonders if it has not been oversold to tourists and tour companies as nearby there are other towns with many similar attractions.

Some 20km up the road is Ceske Budejovice. It is much larger, the river is nearby also, it has similar era buildings, but they are much grander and not quite as jammed on top of each other to the same extent. The central square, I understand, is the largest in the Czech Republic. The centre is very relaxed with normal commercial business going on. It has a nice feel, beautiful buildings in and within walking distance of the square and not many tourists. It is not UNESCO listed, so I guess most tourists do not visit this town. However I liked it for its low-key appeal, yet still very historic and attractive.

A little further east is another very attractive and somewhat underrated town in my opinion, Trebon.

Trebon was also rebuilt during the Renaissance period, it has an integral castle of mixed periods, (granted its castle is nowhere near as large as that at Cesky Krumlov). It does not have a river setting, but instead is set on one of the largest artificial lakes in South Bohemia. The old town is very compact, tidy and walled. Looking from above, it is set beautifully like an oval fortress – check it out on Google earth. It also had the oldest brewery, dating from the 1500s. The town itself is not currently UNESCO listed, but the biosphere surrounding the fish pond infrastructure is. The Golden Canal and some parts of the town are under consideration for UNESCO listing.

So maybe the UNESCO ‘attachment’ means a lot to the tourism industry. If Cesky Krumlov is an example, then yes, it does.

From talking to other travellers in the hostel at Cesky Krumlov, they were unaware of these other towns. Maybe I am lucky via my mode of travel, and with time, to have the opportunity to visit some of these lesser known, less touristic places. I certainly enjoyed them.

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I was informed by Jurah, an acquaintance living in Prague, of another castle that was near my proposed route and worth visiting. It was at Hluboka, just north of Ceske Budejovice. Again, it was a castle from 13th century that has had many owners through the past 700+ years. Originally it was built in the Gothic style. In the 18th century, its then owner rebuilt it in the Baroque style. It changed owners in the early 19th century and the wife of Prince Jan Adolf ll, Princess Eleonore, wanted it modernised. So over the following 31 years it was rebuilt again, from back to front, in the romantic neo-Gothic style that it is today. It is very grand, and very imposing on a cliff top site overlooking the Vtlava river. It is said that the rebuild style was based on Windsor Castle in England. On a tour that I took through the basement and kitchen areas, the kitchen almost perfectly resembles an English manor house kitchen. At the same time of this rebuild, the gardens were also transformed to be like an English country estate! See attached photo of the front of the castle. It is a long castle with it stretching back quite some distance. Again, check Google for more pictures.

Southern Czech Republic, especially Moravia and South Bohemia have been a revelation to me and a place I would recommend visiting, with or without a bike. There is much to see, the costs are very reasonable and local people friendly.

I now turn north and will be beginning the run to Prague, my final destination. Time has flown, the weather is definitely cooler (yay) and the night time temperatures are now good for cosy sleeping wrapped up in the sleeping bag.

Into Prague

The ride from the South Bohemian region to Prague was reasonably easy. Cycle paths abound and even more quiet backroads if cycle paths are not your thing.

I rolled into Prague a few days ago, with the rain just beginning on my last 5km as I headed to the home of Stan and Marketa Kavale, where I had an invitation. Stan was an ACTA member for two years in the mid 1990s when living in NZ, so some ACTA members reading this may remember Stan!

Stan and Marketa and their three teenagers, (two sons and one daughter), live on a no exit road in a delightful rural valley surrounded by lush bush. Just delightful, it is a few kilometres from downtown Prague, but a lovely spot where joggers and cyclists are the bulk of the passing traffic. I was made very welcome and soon relaxed.

The rain that had started on my arrival into Prague then continued for the next three days. What perfect timing from my perspective as this was the first rain that I had seen during daylight hours for more than two months!

Stan is an engineer in the wholesale power industry and also a consumate recreational cyclist. He not only rides regularly, but at home he has a workshop where he builds bikes for a hobby, including designing and manufacturing the frames, in steel. A good person to know if you are cycle touring in the Czech Republic!

During the next few days, I did not go into central Prague but did a few ‘domestics’ including cleaning my tent and bike in preparation for the flight home.

On one of the days, Stan and I went for a 55km ride around outer Prague through areas that are definitely not on the usual tourist radar. It was very interesting to see the ‘everyday’ Prague where locals live and work.

I have almost a week ahead to explore Prague and so I have moved closer to the city and today was my first day in the city. It is quite something.

There is a great subway through the city together with buses and trams for public transport, so getting anyway is quick and cheap. The subway, called the Metro locally, is continually growing. It was built in the 1970s when the then Czechoslovakia was under Russian control. In 2014 an extension to the airport is due to be implemented and further expansion to the subway is scheduled to be completed in 2016.

20130811_121236Prague is known as the city of spires, and yes there are a lot on the skyline with the many many churches. As the city is bisected by the Vltava River, to me it also seems to be the city of bridges.

The Charles Bridge is the most well known of the bridges in tourist circles. It was built during the time of Charles IV (mid-14th century). It is more than 500 metres long, with a cobbled surface, and is lined with sixteen Baroque statues of religious figures. Today its tourist popularity is displayed by the number of souvenir hawkers, portrait artists and very average musicians that line the bridge every day. It is now pedestrians only and extremely busy. It leads directly towards the historic Prague castle.

I will write more about Prague next time after I have further explored the city.

Being the tourist!

Having a few extra days in Prague has been great. While I had time to visit the popular sights, I also had time to investigate and visit some lesser known places.

Prague castle is, I understand, the largest castle in Europe. It is actually more like a complete town. It has multiple plazas, grand palaces, cathedrals and what once were residential dwellings. The venue is seriously popular and just swarming with tourists. One part that I really enjoyed was ‘Golden Lane’. It is a tiny tiny street created when a new outer wall was added to the existing Romanesque castle complex in the 16th century. Tiny dwellings were built between the new and old castle wall, on both sides of the lane, leaving a walking gap of less than one metre between the dwellings! Today, there are only dwellings on one side of the lane so as to enable access. Originally it was believed that goldsmiths lived in the lane, but there is some doubt and maybe it was soldiers from the castle. There are only eleven dwellings, but they are superbly presented today, together with excellent explanation sheets.

Some other places I found in Prague were quite different. The Museum of Communism is a private collection explaining communism in the Czech Republic from 1948 – 1989. Very interesting.

Another was the Technical Museum which documented the Czech history of motor cars, bicycles, trains, motorcycles and aircraft. Absolutely fascinating and very good explanations, all in english. Many of the motor vehicles were in original unrestored condition. They included, amongst others:

  • Bugatti type 13, from 1910
  • Audi 10/26, from 1911. It was dismantled in 1914 so that it would not be taken in WW I, and was located in an attic of a house in 1950. It is the oldest Audi (Auto Union?) in the world.
  • Velox 8/10 hp from 1908
  • Gardner Serpollet H from 1903 that was gifted in 1931.
  • Laurin & Klement 105 from 1924 which was the beginning of Skoda.
  • Jawa 750 from 1935. Made under license from DKW. Beautiful coupe styling.
  • SS Jaguar 3.5 from 1938, original, less than 40000 miles.
  • Benz 770 from 1939, but post war the communists had it rebodied so that you could not see its Benz origin
  • Benz W154 race car from 1938, very original, damaged panels still . Rudolf Caracciola drove this car to win 1939 German grand prix at Nurburgring.
  • Bugatti type 51 from 1931. Original, a bit battered from use, but unrestored.

Among other things was a Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk IXE from 1945 that the Czech air force brought home from WW II, still with bullet holes in the wings.

A really interesting museum, taking almost a half day for me. It is a little way from the centre, but if you are in Prague, I recommend a visit. Check on-line for pictures as photos were not permitted on the museum.

The Gastronomy Museum was an unexpected find, detailing Czech food, cooking, wine and beer through the centuries.

I took a day out of Prague and visited the town of Terezin, about 50km north. Its recent history all relates to WW II. However, it is much older than WWII. Originally it was built as a fortified town in the 1790s (took 10 years to build) in preparation for a possible Prussian invasion. However, the invasion never happened. The walls surrounding the town are massive, about 10 metres high and several metres thick. There is also a very deep moat that can be filled from the nearby river via a control gate. The ramparts/walls are still complete today. Originally a garrison town with a total population of 7000, it served its purpose.

Approximately 500 metres from the town is what is known as the Minor Fortress. It is similarly walled, but was used as a political prison by the Habsburg empire. When WW II occurred, Terezin was used by the German army to house Jewish people who had been transported from all over Europe. Supposedly, this was for their own ‘safety’, according to German propaganda of the time. They supposedly also ruled the town via their own Jewish council. The reality was slightly different. The town was cynically used for propaganda in both film and for the visiting Red Cross as an example of how the Germans ‘cared’ for the Jewish population. Terezin, with its massive walls was the perfect place, and so the Germans used Terezin to create a Jewish ghetto. Effectively it was a transit camp/staging post before transporting people to the death camps in Poland and Germany. In mid 1942, 58000 Jewish people were ‘accommodated’ in this town, where previously about 5000 had lived, so you can imagine the overcrowding. Overall, approximately 15000+ Jewish persons passed through this town during WWII.

The Minor Fortress is a very sad place. It was used to house serious and political prisoners during WWII. It was operated by the Gestapo. It is in the same condition today as when it was vacated in 1947 – the rough rooms, the dark and damp isolation cells, the wooden bunk beds where 600 men lived in a room that is only 20 metres X 16 metres, the gallows, and more. There are Guides who take you through the complex and explain it to you, and they are FREE. To read about these places or watch a program on TV seems unreal, but to visit and see it with your own eyes and listen to the commentary is something else. I was totally lost for words. Very humbling.
______

So I have a couple more days in Prague, with two acquaintances taking me to visit ‘their’ Prague. I am looking forward to it.

And so the weekend looms, a long flight back home and the end of this traveller’s experience through eastern and parts of central Europe. Some 4700km of riding from Tirana, Albania to Prague, Czech Republic over four months, but a lifetime of memories.

I hope you have enjoyed the trip (via email blog) as much as I have, together with the riding with Stephen and Annette for the first 1000+km.

I look forward to catching up sometime after getting home.

………………  To view photos from this adventure, select the PHOTOS tab at the top ………………

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