I’m sitting at our dining table looking out over the Chao Praya River to Bangkok a light mist hangs over the city yet to be burnt off by the morning heat.
Belinda is with her family in scorching Perth and our trusty van is sitting, frozen, in a storage yard in Sofia. To say the least the month or so since crossing the border into Bulgaria have been an emotional roller coast, especially for Bea.
We continued tracing the coast past Burgas to the town of Sozopol where we found an almost open campsite. While we were proceeding with haste toward Georgia we were still keen to explore parts of the Bulgarian coast.
The next morning we dropped the Van at a local garage for a lube and oil change then went to explore the newer part of town... dead. An hour later we picked up our Van paid an extortionate amount of money for the service... which I am pretty certain they didn’t actually do..ripped off.. Bastards! I suppose we have been quite lucky in our travels and this was the first really dodgy act.
The weather improved the next morning but fog hung in the valleys as we drove to the Turkish border then onto Istanbul.
We stopped around lunch time at a small restaurant set up in truck stop. We may now be on our dash to Georgia, but we loved Turkey last time we were here, so were going to at least enjoy the food. A simple meal but really tasty of koftas in a tomato stew with bread and salad.
That night we stayed in a campsite just outside Istanbul and spent the late afternoon hunting down an ATM and a phone shop to buy a local sim.
Early the next morning we skirted around Istanbul and headed along the main east west hwy toward Samsun on the Black Sea coast where we found an open campsite. It was a nice site located just a short walk to a restaurant strip where after a look around decided to on pass on the donner kebab, I had promised myself I wasn’t leaving Turkey without having at least one, and had a very nice pide. The owner was super friendly and had a daughter in Sydney, of course.
(Parked next to us that night was a delivery van, it seemed out of place in a camping park!)
We had worked out that we would arrive at the border late evening, we weren’t keen on doing what could be quite a long crossing at night so the next night we camped in the car park of a rafting centre on the Firtina creek an hours drive from the border, it was pretty impressive for a creek!
We arrived at the border around 9.30 well we thought we had as the trucks were queued on the side of the road. It was actually another 10km to the border, ominous signs.
Bea had to walk through while I drove the van, besides the usual perusal of car documents and incessant checking of my licence (not sure many Aussies drive across the border) we breezed threw.
One thing you must do once you have entered Georgia is buy car insurance, it’s illegal to drive without it and no external companies cover Georgia. To assist travellers with this a rather robust and thriving market has set up within 100m of the crossing. Hawkers will assist you to park, arrange your insurance, arrange a SIM card, change your money and even flog you cheap booze.
By the time I drove out Bea had already selected our designated hawker and was well on her way to arranging our needs, without the cheap booze!
Successfully negotiating both the border and the shark pit we could now relax and enjoy Georgia. There were a few reasons we wanted to come to Georgia, not the least was this was, it is arguably the cradle of wine. They have been making it here for 8000 years so they should have got it right by now. It also has a great reputation for food, Russians seem to love Georgian cuisine, but this maybe more a reflection on Russian food. Despite this we knew very little about Georgia itself and were looking forward to learning.
Lesson number one- there is a reason that no company will insure cars in Georgia, they are truely maniacs, Thailand is a land of granny drivers in comparison.
After spending much of the day exploring Batumi we drove a little further up the coast where we wild camped at a lovely beach side parking area. A very pleasant, if a little cold, end to the day sipping G&T’s watching the sunset.
Lesson two most cars are missing at least one bumper and or fender, probably related to lesson one.
We headed inland through rural Georgia toward Tbilisi the Capital where we camped in courtyard of the Tbilisi Yard Hostel.
Also parked in the grounds of the Hostel was a Land Cruiser with a camper trailer with UK plates. We met the couple that owned it the next morning, they were Aussies, (obviously different border guy) who had left England a few months earlier on their Grand adventure. They had been staying here for a couple of weeks as they did some repairs and modifications to their trailer.
After a brief chat, we headed to the rail way station. I was over border crossings with the Van and the further east the less insured it was. The plan was to take the overnight train to Baku in Azerbaijan and return, then do a similar trip to Armenia. The lady at the ticket booth was both friendly and helpful and made the whole ticket purchase a breeze.
After a bit of a scout of the neighbourhood we returned to the hostel where we caught up with Mark and Sarah again and they suggested we join them for dinner which we gladly accepted, its always nice to share a dinner with new friends on the road. In the late afternoon Bea received a message from her sister, Her Mum had taken a turn while out of a day trip with her social group and had been admitted to hospital. It was routine and nothing to really worry about.
The four of us jumped in a cab and headed to a cheap and cheerful restaurant they had recently discovered, it was a great night, good food, well the pickled pigs feet may have been a little out there, lots of very drinkable Georgian red and fun conversations. It was almost midnight by the time we got back after being waylaid at another wine bar on the way back!
As we arrived back Bea got the next message, Things in Perth had deteriorated rapidly and the doctors were very concerned, Ruth was struggling to hold it together and Bea started to crumble.
We immediately threw the essentials into Bea’s daypack, grabbed a cab and headed to the airport. Luckily there were still a few agents still operating at that late hour and we searched for the quickest possible options to get to Perth. Bea could leave now but it would take two days and three stops, the fastest option ended up leaving the following night but was a one, brief stop, and she would be in Perth Thursday afternoon. We booked it and with nothing else we could do headed back to the Van.
The next morning with a little time and slightly clearer thinking we formulated our plan. The hostel was happy for us to leave the van in their carpark for a few weeks, which was helpful and allowed me to travel back with Bea. Once we understood the situation in Perth I would return to move the Van, via the Black Sea ferry, to Sofia where we had originally planed to store it.
The rest of the day was spent packing up the van and getting our gear together, there was no real appetite for sightseeing!
Mid-morning Bea face-timed with her mum and though quite sedated was able to say hi and Bea was able to send her her love. an emotional but therapeutic moment for Bea.
The Qatar airways flight left Tbilisi around 9.30pm. 17 hours and one short stop later we touchdown in Perth. Bea was Anxious but trying to remain calm as we left the aircraft, after boarder control Bea headed for the exit and I went to collect the baggage. If the bags were taking too long she would go with her sister to the hospital and i would find my way there ASAP.
Finally our bags came out and I was rushed through the VIP lane and out into the waiting area where I immediately saw Bea and Ruth embarrassed and I realised we were too late.
Trying to pull it together myself we greeted and made our way, in idle chat ‘nice weather’ to the car and to the hospital where the nephews were waiting.
These times are tough, but you reflect on the good times, It was unfortunate that Bea didn’t quite make it, but technology had allowed her to say what needed to be said while June could understand. It puts travel and distance in perspective, wandering means missing family, but again its what we need to do and the world is so small you can get from one outpost to another in 24 hours, that’s incredible.
(Note. On my return to Tbilisi, parked up in the hostel was the delivery van we saw in Turkey and the Land Cruiser was still there. That Night Mark, Sarah,, the @Kingluie guys and I went for dinner, it amazing the people you meet and the friendships you make on the road)
A few days have past since I started writing this blog. It is now Xmas day and Bea is sharing it in Perth with her Family and I am in Melbourne with mine.
We’ll take a break from our adventure for a few more weeks but will be back on the road in march.
Merry Xmas & Happy New year
We crossed the the mighty Danube and, after a couple of strange questions from the border officer like where are you going... Bucharest, do you have a hotel reservation..... arghh we are in a campervan!! We entered Romania.
Romania is a pretty big country so we planned to see the west and north of the country on a return visit, that would include Hungry, Ukraine etc. For now it was Bucharest and the south east corner on the way to the Black Sea.
We headed straight for Bucharest and, not having a hotel reservation, we found a campsite about 30minutes out of town, it was quite new and basic but had electricity, and hot showers. A group of Irish families we met had been staying there for 5 weeks! It was peaceful sitting by the lake having dinner, that was until the band started up at the function centre next door, belting out Romanian hits until about 2.00am!!
Being a Sunday I decided to treat Bea to a bacon and egg breaky (reality was we had eggs, bacon and mushrooms left over from other meals and they needed using up, just don’t tell her)
It was 20kms into town so we took an Uber (first time in taxi for 9 months, well since the 280km ride to Lake Baikal) super cheap, and convenient.
After visiting a local market on the fringes of the CBD, where we scored a lovely marinated lamb belly for the BBQ, we headed to Primăverii Palace, the palace of the former communist dictator Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu.
Funny how quickly the hero’s of the workers become the people they revolted against, funnier still is they were surprised when the working class revolted again!
The BBQ lamb dinner was nice despite it being little cold and a little drizzly, but at least no loud band!
As I noted the plan was to head south east to the Black Sea, so the next morning we turned West! Bea had just realised we were close to Transylvania and wasn’t going to wait a year to do a Dracula road trip. Now obviously Drac never actually existed however Bram Stoker is said to have based his character on this legendary 15th century Voivide of Wallachai, Vlad the Impaler, so we did the same. It is noted at several locations that Vlad the Impaler wasn’t all that legendary, and in fact wasn’t all that brutal for the time, he actually only gained infamy through Mr Stoker. We first visited Curtea de Arges, saw the cathedral that Vlad may have seen, walked down some streets that he may have walked and bought a pastry at a shop that, I’m certain he didn’t.
The final destination was the town of Bran whose castle and (one of) its notorious(ish) inhabitants had first inspired Bram Stoker Dracula’s. As night fell we wound our way, in the dark, up over a treacherous pass in the Carpathian Mountains and into Transylvania. We reached Bran well after dark Bea would just have to wait until the morning!
The castle didn’t open until 9.00 so we had a coffee and perused the souvenir stalls out the front, Vlad may have only lived in the castle for a few years and it was actually an Irish writer who put it on the map, but that wasn’t going to stop the locals wringing out every last Lev from it!!
The castle is unusual in that it is still privately owned by the kin of the last queen of Romania, who actually lived in the castle until 1922
We now finally turned east again climbing through the dramatic Carpathian Mountains and down onto the fertile open plains of rural Romania. This was the Romania of my imagination, undulating farmlands, rustic villages of half built houses, horses and carts and lots of very large cabbages. And I mean lots, truck loads for sale every few hundred metres. Nona’s carrying several back for supper, they must know a few more cabbage recipes than me!
We stayed that night, close to the border, in a hotel car park, (haven’t slept in a hotel parking lot for a long time... sober!) The hotel had good internet, so we went into the bar for a drink and catch up on several things - including our Turkish visas which we had let slip. You have to allow 3 days for processing and we were cutting it fine.
Our plans changed slightly. Initially we intended to catch the ferry across the Black Sea from Varna in Bulgaria to Poti in Georgia. However we found out that the ferry was going to cost nearly $1,500 - ouch! And given the time of year wasn’t leaving until the 24th. We checked the map, if we drove to Georgia it would take 3 days and we could leave a week earlier. So we were now driving around the Black Sea, through Bulgaria and Turkey, to Georgia. Spending some time in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan then slowly back through Turkey. With the plan agreed, the next morning we once again crossed the Danube, this time by ferry, and on to Bulgaria.
It was early evening and dark by the time we finally crossed the border so we parked for the night in a guarded truckie stop behind a service station. It was cold, we were tired, we couldn't be bothered cooking and there was a restaurant attached to the service station. The place was run by a young husband and wife who made such an effort to make us feel welcome. They hardly spoke English and the menu was in Bulgarian yet with a little help from google translate we managed ordered, the food was actually, pretty good. He, the cook, came out to make sure we were happy and was super pleased when we attempted to say delicious . They even gave us a glass of the local ‘grappa’ on the house.
The next morning, we happily went back into the restaurant for a coffee and to use the internet to upload our latest blog. There was nothing breakfasty on the menu, well nothing western, that we could decipher (bit of a Shirley Valentine moment, sorry), in broken English they offered to make us some sort of ham and cheese dish on toast, it was simple and delicious. We were liking the welcoming vibe of Bulgaria already!
Obviously, he had done this before! He was super helpful and offered a lot of advice on what to see.
Like ground hog day... we visited the old market hall, bought lunch which we ate in a park over the road. The park was right alongside an old mosque that was built as part of an ancient baths complex.
Our fridge had been playing up for some time and was now barely working. Unfortunately the place that was able to fix it also sold a great range of ‘camping goodies’. It was a costly stop... mm a gas bottle that you can just fill up at any auto gas pump need one of those..,.. argh a winter windscreen cover, yep its getting cold... look how dirty the bikes are getting , we really should get one of those covers.... it took most of the morning but the fridge was fixed and the shop was bare!
The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila is the apparently the holiest and most famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria. Located in the south west of the Rila Mountains, a beautiful 2 hour drive through a national parks thick with trees in autumn colours, from Sofia, the Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by the hermit St Ivan of Rila. St Ivan lived in a cave without any material possessions not far from the complex which was built by his students who came to the mountains to receive an education and is still in use today.
Leaving the monastery the next morning we stopped at Stob to visit the stone pyramids. To view them, was a steep 2km hike up a hill.
We continued south to the area of Rupite which is actually a crater of an extinct volcano, known for its thermal hot springs and the prophetess Baba Vanga. What a place, hot baths at our doorstep! A couple of other campers were already parked up and there was a steady stream cars coming and going as locals came to enjoy a leisurely soak in the mineral enriched thermal springs.
Baba Vanga was a mystic and clairvoyant who spent the last years of her life in a house very close to the springs. She who lost her eyesight at a young age, supposedly unlocking her powers of clairvoyance. Many believe she predicated the 9/11 terror attack, Brexit and the 2004 Thailand tsunami.
The ruins of the Thracian-Roman town - Heraclea Sintica are also located near the springs. Recently two cities have been uncovered, one built on top of the other. We were looking at city was occupied for 800 years. The ruins had been partially recovered to protect them until there was enough finances to protect them properly
The resort area of town was a mass of hotels and looking at the ski map we struggled to see how all these skiers could fit on the mountain. The old town on the other hand is fairly small but really interesting, winding cobblestoned roads and compact houses and shops occupied by the locals. It was still a community as opposed to attracting tourism.
That night we ate at a local restaurant. The guy hawking for business promised great steaks, sounded too good to pass up - yep suckers! To be honest, it actually turned out to be a really good restaurant, It was rustic pub style, cosy, typical ski village restaurant. The fire was lit and the big TV was showing ski and snowboard aerials, we were very happy. The hawker wasn’t lying either, We ordered a plate of foie gras as an entree to share... yes you read that right - this restaurant did an amazingly good foie gras, perfectly lightly seared with a balsamic glaze and blueberries and apple and served with home made bread. This was fine dining food not expected in a resort restaurant in the off season. For mains I ordered beef with champagne and mushrooms and Pete couldn't resist the local slow cooked lamb dish that was incredibly large. Needless to say most of that came home with us.
On our way out of town the next morning we called past the laundrette to pick up our, very large, load of washing which we had dropped off the previous day. It had been quite a while since we had been able to do a proper wash and it was certainly nice to have everything fresh and clean again.
Sadly it didn’t last long the road opened up onto a broad valley, we were back on the long stretches of highway cum potholed road.
We reached the town of Plovdiv, an ancient city built around 7 hills and the second largest city in Bulgaria. It has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years making it, arguably, the oldest continuously settled cities in the world. We camped up adjacent to a fresh market, about 5kms from the centre. Needing the exercise we walked into town wandering through leafy suburbs and streets lined with fresh vegetable stalls. The town centre streets, like most towns, were cobbled but these cobbles were massive and very uneven, the roads had subsided a little making it even more difficult to walk on. Im glad we were walking, there was no way the van would have survived!
The next morning we were on the road heading towards Bucharest, it was going to be a long day driving, but we were not in a hurry. The roads here keep surprising us -highways can be bumpy and poorly maintained and byroads can be smooth and pleasant. It just keeps you guessing. At one point the road became congested and cars were parked along both sides, it was some sort of market happening..in the middle of nowhere. Being suckers for markets, and in need of a break, we stopped to have a nosey. It was a Saturday flee market with almost anything secondhand for sale, though nothing from the 21st century! Old phones, computers, even skis and I swear Pete’s Dad’s tool shed was out there for sale! Pete managed to pick up a few odd things for the van and i managed to pick up a pancake stuffed with feta style cheese!
Back in the van and on our way. I had a date with the Count - Romania here we come. Bulgaria, we shall return in a few days..
Lake Ohrid lies between Albania and North Macedonia and is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. The annoying thing about the change in border crossing is that we were now on the lakes’ western side rather than its eastern shore, which we had intended to follow through the Galichitsa National Park stopping along the way to camp for the night. Okay suck it up, things change, we will drive up the west side and into the main city of Ohrid, it was after dark anyway.
We drove to recommended camping park, a large restaurant carpark, very close to the city, where a unfriendly waitress curtly informed me that there was no parking during winter, weird! We drove to another spot but it had a ‘bad vibe’ and Pete’s gut instinct was to move on. We drove back into town to buy a local SIM and do some further research. It is amazing how reassuring it feels when you have internet again, such 21st century problems!! When we first travelled through Europe all we had was a thick Lonely Planet, a dodgy map and a public phone box to find your accommodation! How easy has life become?
There was a 24 hour car park right in the centre, guarded, expensive, but really convenient. We would head there later but first dinner, at an Irish pub! The day had been a little stressful, we were cold and we deserved a good comforting pub meal! We returned to the van to find a flyer under the windscreen for a Campsite only 4kms away, it appeared to be pretty good. We drove to the campsite and were met by the friendly owner who had ridden down to open the gates for us. It was way cheaper than the 24 hr car park and had toilets, showers, electricity and wifi. SCORE! We parked up and hit the sack. We woke to find we were in a lovely setting right by the lake, amongst the beautiful autumn trees. A nice find. (It turned out that the parking guard in town was the owners mate and rang him saying there was a van looking for somewhere to camp so he came in and dropped the flyer on our windshield, now that is direct, proactive marketing, he is now on Park4nights!)
We visited a beautiful old church, the Svetja Sofja (St Sofia), I was a little disappointed that they didn’t allow photos as the interior was covered with amazing old frescoes they were only half restored so they didn’t feel reproduced.
We walked to Plaosnik an old archeological site and to the Amphitheater, built in 200 BC and the only Hellenistic-type theatre in the country. It too was quite impressive and still in use today, it would be delightful to see a live concert or production there. We also hiked up to Samuel’s Fortress but its nothing special... just the outer wall was still in tact, good view of the city though.
That afternoon we bumped and shook our way along the potholed and patched ‘highway’ north before turning off onto a smoother, albeit single lane, road that climbed steadily through the autumn forests into the fog of the Mavrovo National Park.I do love autumn but I prefer it when I can see! 3.30pm, dusk and thick fog - not nice!
Eventually we descended, out of the fog, to Mavrovo Lake and Mavrovo town (known for its ski area) where we bought provisions for a hearty casserole dinner before turning down a small track to the lake edge. There was one camper van already there and another small van followed us down the track. Time to settle in for the night.
Our next destination was Matka Canyon. Road closures and detours along the way sent us through narrow village streets - making the drive more interesting. We were initially surprised to see how busy the Canyon was, especially in the off season however being less than hour from Skopje it made a nice Saturday out for the locals. It was a beautiful area, grey jagged mountains, blanketed in autumn trees, dropped dramatically to the river.
We had intended to stay the night in the canyon yet it was still so early so we decided to head into Skopje, the capital, only about 45 minutes away.
Driving the through the outskirts of Skopje, it wasn’t charming either of us, it wasn’t doing much for me at all. We found a car park close to the river, where we intended to stay the night and then headed into the city area to explore a bit more.
Heading out of the square toward the old bazaar, the city started to get more interesting, a city that had evolved through time reflecting the needs and desires of its population. Never judge too soon, right?
We found their only micro brewery and had an afternoon beer which I have to admit were pretty good. The sun was setting, it was getting bloody cold quickly, so we hoofed it back to the van for dinner, via the fresh market to buy ingredients for a veggie curry. There were a few more vans parked for the night, including the small van that had followed us down the track at the lake.
We wandered back into the city to continue our sightseeing and buy provisions at the markets, however we bumped into Adam, a young Australian / Iranian / Italian guy (a long and colourful story about his ethnicity, but no time here) that we had met a few weeks back in Kotor - it is so freaky how that happens. He is a super friendly, vivacious, guy who set out on a two week trip and nine months later is still travelling. The three of us ended up hanging out for a few hours, catching up over morning coffee, a market trip and an early lunch. Parting ways we headed back to the van minus half the provisions we meant to buy and hit the road.
We had intended on camping the night but given we had seen everything there was to see we decided to head for the border. Bulgaria here we come!
Leaving Ksamil we, in fact, headed just a little further south along the coast to one of the most important and largest archeological sites in Albania.
We sat outside for a predinner drink and snacks, but with winter coming and the clocks now forward it was getting dark and cold very quickly. It was so cold, I was in my tracksuit pants, hoodie and even my beanie! Wasn’t I swimming at the beach only a day or two ago?
The next morning we continued to Gjirokaster famous for its castle and well preserved Ottoman era town. At a small campsite about 2km from the centre we were greeted by the friendly owner, who assisted us with dumping our grey water and chemical toilet, having been free camping recently they were pretty full and getting a bit on the nose. We set up camp then wandered into town, stopping at a small hole in the wall bakery for a delicious meat filled filo pastry Byrek .
It is now a rather informative museum that not only tells its long history, it was still being used as a prison by the communists until 1968, but also houses a small military museum including canons, tanks and even American plane (that has 2 stories of how it got there, depending which side tells it).
She explained local customs of that era, especially in relation to men and women being segregated in the house, the newly wedded couple who get their own room until another family member gets married and how the house has summer and winter areas.
After the tour we zig zagged our way down to the bottom of the hill and the new town. We had seen a butcher on our way up the hill that had some great lamb chops and promised to come back to him before he closed at 3pm. We suddenly realised the time... it was 10 minutes to 3... so we ran! We got to the store and he had already closed - no way! It wasn’t 3pm yet! We called a phone number on the door, the owner answered and said he would be right down, he actually lived above the store. Unfortunately the chops he had on display were all sold out so after some sign language and google picks he happily carved 6 lovely chops from the whole carcass he had hanging behind him!
Over the road from the campsite was a local taverna specialising in lamb. We had seen the whole lamb slowly cooking on the spit as we headed into town, it was too hard to pass up for dinner. It was a great local restaurant, the waiter spoke a little English and was very keen for us to try several of the local foods. Obviously we knew we had ordered way too much food, but most of it would make good for leftovers! As it turned out we took away enough food for breakfast, lunch and part of dinner the next day! We ordered a spinach and egg pastry that was a side dish (also made a great breakfast); plate of the slow cooked lamb (leftovers used for lamb sandwiches at lunch); grilled mixed vegetables (leftovers in sandwiches and used for dinner); local sausages (leftovers for lunch and snacks) washed down with a carafe of house wine. The meal was so cheap and we got 3.5 meals out of it! Bonus. Waddled back across the road to bed.
We noticed a first floor window with a whole lot of loaves on its sill so I went up the stairs and greeted by an absolutely heavenly smell of baking bread and lovely Albanian Nona selling bread through a hatch in her door, Super cool! With a warm crusty loaf in our possession we were on our way but finding a nice location to eat it proved more difficult, by late afternoon we gave up and just stopped in a lay-by for lunch.
We camped that night in an NGO carpark / turned campsite on the edge of Korce. This company looks after homeless and those in crisis. They opened the grounds of their building to campers to get a bit of extra funding. We were happy with that. It was cheap and the money went to a good cause. The showers were hot and toilets were clean. Dinner that night were the fresh lamb chops we had bought in Gjirokaster.
Korce was an interesting town, not quaint, not classically picturesque but an eclectic mix of dilapidated communist era hosing, restored medieval neighborhoods and little to try hard modern glass and aluminum corporate buildings. It also had a couple of buildings by renowned architects Bolles & Wilson. It had a take us or leave us vibe that was nice.
In the local parks groups of older men gathered playing dominos or deep in debate and coffee shops were filled with young guys.. okay where are the females in this town!?
During our ambling we stumbled across a museum dedicated to the Photography of Gjon Mili, who was born in Korce. It was free to enter and the manager was super friendly and passionate about Mili, his photography and style. He was keen to share information about both the photographer and life in Korce and Albania. Many world famous photos were taken by this photographer. He was famous for his use of light and was the first photographer to explore strobe flash photography. He also took a pictures of Picasso using a method called “painting with light”, for a small price, you could try your hand at this style and have it printed. I gave it a go, keen to understand how it was done. It was pretty cool to be able to move about in front of the camera making light shapes but in the final print you aren’t blurred!
We drove for about an hour to the border following Lake Ohrid where people on the side of the road were waving fish at us, strange, I think they were trying to sell us the local trout!
We arrived at the border for North Macedonian, and, as we had done at about 10 borders so far, handed over all the required documentation - both passports, the car registration papers and the “green card” which is the insurance for the car showing coverage in European countries. The officer started to scrutinise the green paper and obviously he felt there was a problem. He took it to the officer inside the building and we were called for questioning. It appeared that there was a problem with the green card and the lady said we could not enter. She said it was not completed properly and we could not enter. Pete tried to explain we had already crossed many borders with it, and no issues. But she playing by the book and would not let us enter. She suggested we go around to the other side of the lake to the other border crossing where we could ‘purchase’ separate insurance.
As night fell we entered North Macedonia a little later than expected and headed to Ohrid...on lake Ohrid!
We crossed the border into Albania late afternoon, the sun was low in the sky and we were bolting to Tirana. The van was booked into Citroen at 7.30am the next morning and we had no tail lights. The setting sun, potholes and winding roads were dashing our hopes of getting there before nightfall. Being a campervan we already were a good target for the police, we didn’t want to attract any more attention. Decision, drive without tail lights at night or early morning. We choose the morning figuring the coppers would be in bed and we could try and explain we were on the way to the repair shop if they weren’t.
We found a proper campsite across the border at Greenland Hotel. They had turned their grounds into a camping spot and had recently built an ablution block fitted out with hotel quality fixtures, rather upmarket. The lawns were immaculate. It was a lovely spot. We decided to dine in the hotel that night. What a surprise, the food was great.
As dawn broke the next morning, we headed off, my red head torch and our safety triangle tapped to the bikes as makeshift tail lights. About 5 minutes into the journey we realised we needn’t have worried, we had more operational lights that most vehicles in Albania!!
The guy at Citroen checked out the car and found a cut wire which neither we nor the guy in Ulcinj had seen!
Thankful that we now had an almost fully operational van (the rear camera still isn’t connected) We could relax and discover Albania.
The first thing you notice driving in Albania is the sheer number of petrol stations and car washers there are literally one or two every kilometre, as ‘Ausworldroamers’ noted its hard to see how they all stay in business, the second thing you notice is the lack of panel beater shops, given the way they drive I would have thought that it would be a thriving business, they are maniacs, even worse than Bangkok!
An ethnographic museum was located within the castle grounds. It was really very interesting. It was set out within an old restored family house, the lady who managed it would keep coming into each room where we were to explain the use of the room, the objects on display and a little bit of history. Very informative, very friendly, laid back and enjoyable. All the doorways were quite low, constructed on purpose, to force the person entering to bow as a mark of respect. I can tell you, for me, I payed a lot of respect in the houses I visited in Albania! After looking around the rest of the castle, the town area and bazaar, we headed into the centre of Tirana to find our camp spot for the night.
According to our ‘app’ there was an overnight carpark for busses which allowed campervans. It was walking distance to the city centre, perfect for a city visit. It was a big carpark but the only spot available for us was right by a junction of a busy road and a fun fair. Never mind, it was cheap and extremely convenient. Sometimes we choose beauty others times convenience.
In the afternoon we walked into the city centre via the city’s Grand Park that was over the road from our camp site. The park surrounded a large man made lake and was very popular with the locals, running, exercising, drinking coffee or just generally hanging out.
‘House of Leaves’ so named not only for its lush vine coverage but also because it was full of “leaves”’ as in pages in files...on people. The house itself was built in 1931 as a medical clinic, during WWII it was under German occupation used by the Gestapo. Between 1944 and 1991 the the Stalinist communist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha developed an elaborate surveillance network as it became increasingly isolationist and paranoid. Thousands of Albanians and foreigners they felt had ill intent against the regime were spied on tracked then often charged. The museum is a show case of the lengths they would go to to gather information, the horrors that were performed on those found guilty and even the propaganda films that were made to show how the perfect communist life would be destroyed by these imperialist sympathizers! Very interesting and intriguing place - but in reality, what is so different today? We are all being monitored, just in a more high-tech fashion and we are complicit in it I suppose.
We found a campsite at Green House Restaurant. A family run business who had a large car parking area out the back which he set up for campers. It had a toilet and shower block, electricity and a beautiful view - so I was happy.
We came across a group of construction workers were repairing the river retaining wall. It was great to watch. A small front end loader was parked, at a precarious angle in the river, the shovel being used to hoist men and stones up to the hole while buckets of cement were being lowered from above. A group inside were carefully rebuilding the wall stone by stone. Both the craftsmanship and lack of health and safety wouldn’t be seen in Australia!
We headed back to the coast of southwest Albania and the town of Vlora situated in front of the Karaburun peninsula and Sazan island. It is the starting point of the Albanian riviera and surrounded by sandy beaches and rocky shores. We found a cheap camp spot in a marina car park. Quiet, with a 24 hour guard and a view of the marina pier where several locals fishing.
Sarande is the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera where we overnighted in the grounds of the Mediterranean Hotel. Here at least we had electricity, showers and a toilet. The town centre was a short walk down the hill. So really quite convenient. After setting up camp, we wandered into the town centre. It is a nice town but is now almost exclusively aimed at the summer tourists as it is also a main port for the ferries to and from Italy. We decided to have dinner in town, cheap and cheerful gyros! A local speciality - and they were good.
We had booked a scuba dive with a local company, so the next morning after a lovely and appreciative birthday phone call from Pete’s family, we walked to the dive centre. The diving along the Adriatic coast is reported to be pretty amazing due to the visibility, the waters are crystal clear. I was looking forward to this! Our dive was on the wreck of the Italian hospital ship MV Probitas that was sunk during WWII. It was only a couple of hundred metres from the shore in the port area which made it easily accessible the visibility wasn’t as good as it would have been further out. However, saying that the dive was pretty cool. The ship was pretty much in tact and we could do a few swim throughs into the cargo holds where medicine bottles were still laying around. The ship is 150m long, with the top of the ship at 10m and sitting on the bottom at 20m. Fish life unfortunately wasn't that plentiful again due to its port location. Overall though it was an interesting dive and we both enjoyed it.
We had booked into a restaurant nearby that had a reputation for quality local seafood, was little more upmarket and sounded good for a birthday dinner. As we were about to head to the head to the restaurant the whole town had lost power! It was pitch black! Hopefully the restaurant was on gas, but how would the chefs see... Luckily the restaurant’s grid was fully functional and they were still open for business.
The restaurant lost power a couple of times making for a spasmodically romantic candlelight dinner! The food was great, we shared a local spicy meatball dish for entree and then a large platter of grilled seafood, washed down with a couple of glasses of bubbly.
Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro has had a turbulent recent past, Modern Montenegro is only 13 years old after seceding from Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 yet it history dates back thousands of years.
The plan, as it stood, was to work our way down the coast of Montenegro toward Albania then visit its hinterland as we returned north in a couple of months. Our first destination was Kotor a small medieval town we had recently read about on Culturetrip (one of our go to websites when it comes to researching our next destination)
Leaving the ferry we hugged the inner western coastline along a single lane, two way road, that Bea assures me was spectacular, I was busy avoiding oncoming traffic haring around the hairpins as if it were their own private F1 circuit!
From the island the boat took us to explore Perast a Venetian era town on the lake shore before taking us back to Kotor past 2 more cruise liners that had arrived overnight, time to head out of town!
I was busy avoiding oncoming traffic haring around the hairpins as if it were their own private WRC stage! This road made the trollstigen in Norway feel like a cruise on the A1. At one point I had to reverse the van back 150+m around the turns to a pull off to allow a bus past, the car behind the bus actually clapped my performance, Bea just sat there frozen forgetting to even film it!!
Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans lies across the border between Montenegro and Albania and is an important fishing resource with abundant carp, bleak and eel. After winding our way down from the final pass we followed its northern shoreline through its national park to a campsite that sounded interesting.. and open! The site was in the front yard of a fishing family’s home. They had decided to use their spare land to generate a little additional income and were in the process of building 6 small chalets and a new toilet block. They were really hospitable and apologised that the facilities weren’t fully operational. They offered to cook us a fish dinner which we happily accepted at which point they escorted us to the rivers edge to select our fish from their live holding net. They were lake carp so I was a little dubious about the meal. I needn’t have been, simply seasoned, shallow fried whole and served with fried potatoes, fresh salad and a mug of local red wine, the fish was delicious, as was the entire meal, rustic goodness.
We were finally on our way to Split, the scenery along this stretch of coast is spectacular. Lush terraced hill sides end abruptly as sheer cliff faces that drop dramatically into the crystal clear aquamarine waters of the Adriatic
We arrived in Split in the late afternoon and, as Croatia does not permit free camping, we had to find a designated campsite. We found a nice place right on the foreshore in Stobrec a few km’s from Split.
The next morning we rode into Split. Pete told me it was only about 8.5km, which was fine... he failed to mention we had to go up and over a massive headland!! OMG it was a tough ride, but admittedly worth it.
We took an evening stroll along waterfront and checked out the campsite, the camp site was huge! We walked past a very impressive expedition vehicle, major van envy. While we were admiring it, we noticed that although it had Ukraine number plates, there was an Aussie sticker on it! The lady heard us speaking... and said OMG are you Aussies? They hadn’t yet come across many Aussie campers.
Thanks Liz and Wayne of “WorldRoamers” (“AusWorldRoamers”) for your time and advice. After taking too much of their time, we left to go back to our “cozy” home for dinner. I stopped enroute at the wellness centre in the campsite for a much needed jacuzzi to sooth the sore knees after the ride ;-) (sometimes paid campsites pay off).
Woke early, planned for a run but decided to do that the next morning and go take photos instead. Definitely worth getting up for. The sunrise was lovely, peaceful and hardly anyone around.
The towie was struggling to find a service centre willing to assist, eventually he found a place and dropped us and the van off. Unfortunately these people weren't that helpful, they just wanted to get us going rather than solve the problem. They assumed it was the new rear camera as it was the last thing we had done. We had them talk to the guys who installed it but couldn’t agree on the problem or a solution. We were now in Dalmatia and they were blaming the “Istrians” who installed it. The Istrian’s were saying ‘lazy Dalmatians’ cant be bothered looking for the real problem!!
The service centre proceeded to disconnect the camera but would need to keep the car overnight to charge and test. We found a cheap apartment 500m away so we booked that. It wasn’t that close to Split town centre, but unfortunately, or fortunately, Pete wasn’t that well so he had no desire to go into town, a much needed afternoon and evening on the couch was called for.
The next morning we collected the van. It appeared that the battery was perfectly ok. We could hit the road again minus a rear camera (maybe it was that after all??), and now a blown tail light, bugger, but not a problem Pete could fix that next stop.
We stayed a little outside Dubrovnik the first night, near the airport, as we had a early morning booking to get the camera fixed and now the tail light. As it turned out they checked out the battery 100% ok, but didn’t check the camera or the tail light!! When Pete asked why, they shrugged, looked at their watch, and said no time! Thanks for that waste time. Sick of wasting time, we headed back to Dubrovnik to continue our adventure.
We found a small campsite in the grounds of a family home. Good location, over the road from a shopping centre, 10 minutes walk to the beach and 5 minutes walk to the bus stop.
The sight of Dubrovnik from the coast road is pretty spectacular, teasing you and building anticipation. The old town sits on a headland jutting into the Adriatic Sea and encircled with massive 16th century stone walls. Pretty impressive.
The new town itself doesn’t have as much to offer, but of course we sort out the local market and managed to pick up some lovely marinated white anchovies at a very cheap price. We also were in need of a coffee one morning so we popped into the University, as according to its sign out the front ‘made the best coffee in town’... admittedly it was pretty good, and our reasoning was it was a university so surely it had to be cheaper than the main tourist area - we were right.
Dubrovnik is also a very popular destination for cruise ships. Fortunately for us, only 1 ship was in during our stay so it wasn’t too crowded. In summer the place is heaving with tourists off the ships, making it hot and unpleasant to walk around. We were certainly very fortunate. In fact when we heard there was another ship or 2 due in the following day, we decided to book a boat trip to the islands in the Elafiti archipelago as that was probably the last thing these tourists would do
Overall, the day was a great day a nice day out on the boat which included a grilled local fish lunch, which was very simple but delicious and included a bottle of white wine - not a bad day out.
Another filming fact... did you know that Star Wars VIII was also filmed in Dubrovnik?
We crossed back into Croatia mid afternoon and headed to the campsite where we stayed a few days before- bugger closed for the season! We headed up the coast to find an alternative, camp 2- closed, camp 3- closed. We eventually found a small but immaculate site right by the ocean that was open all year, it had a couple of pitches left so we took one. By late afternoon it was full, they had vans in the parking lot and were turning people away!
In the afternoon we drove a little further down the coast to Porec, where the craft beer festival would kick off tomorrow.
We found a camping-platz within walking distance of town, a large parking area next to a funeral home and cemetery, but very convenient.
The next evening the beer festival properly kicked off so we spent the morning exploring Porec and it’s 2,000 years of history... and it’s picturesque harbour, cute narrow streets, medieval architecture, blah blah and its cafes.
The Istrian Truffle festival is held in the small town of Livade over about 10 weekends in Autumn, white truffle season. So that’s where we headed the next morning.
The festival is actually organized by Zigante, the major company in the Istrian Truffle business who manufacture a surprisingly diverse range of truffle products. From fresh white truffle to truffle chips and truffle chocolate!
Motovun is not only a charming medieval hilltop town 270m above sea level, but also the birth town of Mario Andretti who was a bit of a motor racing idle of mine in my youth, though I was certain he was born in Italy! It turns out that in 1940 when he was born, this area was actually part of Italy, it then became part of Yugoslavia after WWII and is now Croatian. It still staggers me how much change has taken place in Central Europe in the recent past. Apparently Mario got the passion for racing haring down the towns steep streets in home made billy carts. Funny how my brother first started in racing the same way and, like Mario, he made it all the way to F1 albeit as a designer rather than a driver.
That night we headed back up to the old town for dinner in the Kaštel Hotel, where we dined beside the cosey fireplace, couldn’t believe we had been swimming less than a week ago!
Between 1902 and 1935 the Parenzana Railway served as a crucial lifeline through Istria, providing producers in the hinterland with easier access the larger market towns and ports. The rail fell into disrepair after its closure but was revitalised from the the middle of the 2000’s as a 116km long walking and mountain bike trail from Trieste in Italy, through coastal Slovenia to Porec, Croatia. The stretch adjacent to Livade is regarded as one of the most picturesque sections and includes several tunnels and viaducts.
In the afternoon we headed back to Opatija, just outside Rijeka where the van was booked in for its makeover in a couple of days time and we needed to give it a thorough clean, including the roof that had 10 years of road grime and mould that needed removing- Tuesday’s chore!
Wednesday we left early, dropped the car off at the salon, then headed into central Rijeka where we had rented a small studio apartment for a couple of days.
We went to head off the next morning but the battery was completely dead! ‘Travelswithmycocker’ tried to give us a jump start but no luck. A few hours later the roadside assist guy came, changed the 10 year old battery and we were on our way, drove an hour or so to a camp that was closed, went to reverse out.. no camera.. bollocks, phone call, a meeting with Autosac in a truck stop, then back to @#v$% Opatija again
The guys at Autosac met us at 8.00am the next morning and got the camera working. Problem appeared to be with the wiring for the original camera that was in the van when we bought it. Fixed and on our way... to Split.
When telling friends of our proposed route and our plan to pop into Slovenia for dinner, some thought we were mad, those who knew us well, didn’t think twice! (Probably still thought it, just politely didn’t verbalise it)
Now she and her restaurant have won many awards, including Worlds Best Female Chef 2017. We were fortunate enough to hear Ana speak last year at the ‘Women in Gastronomy’ event in Bangkok (arranged by the same foodie friend), she came across even more passionate and caring than on Netflix. We got the chance to speak to her at a post event cocktail party where we discussed Slovenia (and ice hockey) and our hope, one day, to visit her restaurant. I’m sure she’s heard it a thousand times, how people would love to get to her restaurant... but we finally did!
Okay, only 5 more hours until our reservation, we drove along the valley taking in the gorgeous views and cute tiny towns as we passed through. Mid afternoon we realised we were right alongside the Italian border so at the next roundabout we took the third exit rather than the second and a minute later we were Italy - time for a coffee - as you do!
We tried to park, but many of the roads were blocked off. We eventually found a spot to park the van and walked back into the town area. It seemed they were setting up for some kind of festival. We sat and had a coffee - yes great coffee, worth the trip all the way to Italy. We took a walk around the town and stopped to talk to one of the vendors setting up. The lady spoke good English and explained to us it was a food festival starting tonight (Thursday) and going until midnight on Sunday. Okay, yes, of course we were going to come back this way!
On the road again we continued our pilgrimage to the restaurant. We came to a nice car park, overlooking a river only about 40 minutes from the restaurant and decided to stop and have a couple of hours rest before changing into our dining attire. (Not that special given it was made up of stuff from our back packs).
If anyone is planning a trip to Slovenia (and you should), you definitely need to make the effort and treat yourselves to dinner at Hisa Franko. They also have rooms were you can stay the night - worth the splurge! https://www.hisafranko.com/en/
The next morning we woke to a beautiful scene of green farmlands and rolling hills over which a light mist had settled. We went inside, had a coffee and said our goodbyes before making our way toward Ljubljana. The drive was truly spectacular. The scenery was breathtaking, large hills and valleys, winding rivers, fly fishermen and cute towns. We fell in love with Slovenia.
We arrived in Ljubljana mid morning, found a campsite about 20 minutes walk from the centre. It was basically a gravel parking area across the road from the restaurant who owned it. They charged 10 euros to stay or free if we had a meal at the restaurant. So we had lunch there then walked into town.
The next morning was AFL Grand Final day. Unfortunately for us, the game started at 6.30AM... needless to say, despite best intentions, we didn’t get to see much of the pre-game entertainment. We laid in bed watching the start of the game with a coffee, then at half time Pete made some pretty damn good breakfast burgers - of course we had to have some form of “footy food”. Just before three quarter time, our data ran out on the SIM card!! No Wifi in this camping spot either. Too basic for that! We made a quick dash outside to see what wifi we could get, we knew the restaurant over the road had free wifi but it was too early for them to be open. We found that, if we sat in a certain spot, we could get the City Free Wifi but only strong enough to use on the phone. So we sat on the sidewalk by the restaurant and watched the last quarter of the game on the phone. A memorable experience I suppose! In the end the Tigers flogged GWS so it wasn’t really a great game.
Time to head back to Italy for the food festival.
We crossed the border, with just a short interruption while the Italian border police checked out our papers. From our previous visit we knew it would be difficult to find a place to park, we eventually managed to find a car parking spot in a very large car park near the border crossing.
Every year for the past 16 years, the town of Gorizia in Italy has held the “Gusti Di Frontiera” food festival. For 4 nights and 3 days, from 10am to 3am, the majority of the streets of the old town are all shut down and divided into 20 distinct geographical villages. Over 400 stands representing 50 countries.
We walked to the start of the festival area. OMG it was massive. There were so many streets lined with food and drink stalls. Every turn brought another full street, everywhere as far as the eye could see lines of stalls and heaving with people, we had died and gone to foodie heaven!
Whilst walking around we found the tourist bureau and asked about a campsite, as we intended to come back to the festival in the evening and wanted somewhere close that we could walk home to. The staff were apologetic saying during the festival time it was almost impossible to get parking. The only place they knew of was a very large car park near the border. Score!! That was where we had parked the van. We could continue our food adventure.
We walked a bit more surveying the stalls thinking about what to have that night. We came across the Great Britain section and stopped at the Rugby tent to check whether they were telecasting the Australian game the next day. The couple who ran the stall were super friendly and spoke good English. They told us about a county touch Rugby event happening just down the street so we headed to the ground to watch before heading back to the van to rest recharge before tackling the festival in the evening.
By 11pm we were stuffed so decided to call it quits stopping for a night cap on the way out, there was a funky, jazz band playing then a DJ, so a couple of night caps later we were still there. A group of locals about our age, were partying at the end of our table, the girls were dancing on the street, the guys were standing around chatting. One of the guys bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and presented us with a glass - well who are we to be rude and not accept! I ended up joining the girls dancing on the street, whilst Pete chatted to the guys (one operated a hotel). Just after 1am we stumbled back to our van. Leaving the girls to dance the night (morning) away.
We woke to find our car park was still dotted with the cars of those who didn’t make the drive home. We planned to visit some sites, grab some lunch at the festival and head off. We walked into the festival area as the cleanup continued and the stalls were re-firing and the hunks of meat were already on the grills.
We sat down for a coffee, picked up a pastry at the “French” section of the festival then headed up the hill to visit the castle. During the festival the council had waived the entry fee for the tourist attractions. The castle is accessed by a steep walk up the hill. You are greeted by a wonderful view of the town and the hills across to Slovenia.
It was time to say goodbye to the festival... ok, one last bite.... a cannoli. We couldn’t leave Italy without trying one of these traditional deserts could we? It was so good, crispy, freshly filled with a vanilla custard cream and dusted with pistachios.
Schengen, days were ticking down, time to head back to Croatia.