A Motorcycle Tour of Eastern Europe: “Combat Touring” in the Balkans

For our 35th wedding anniversary, my wife, Rochelle, and I spent June in Europe and rode two different motorcycle tours.  The first tour, offered by Adriatic MotoTours  headquartered in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was the Intriguing Southeast Europe tour. We started in Belgrade, Serbia and then rode through Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosov, Bosnia-Herzegovina, returning to Belgrade 14 days later.

Adriatic MotoTours Intriguing Southeast Europe Tour Map

Adriatic MotoTours Intriguing Southeast Europe Tour Map

Then we take a river boat cruise on the Danube from Budapest, Hungary to Nuremberg, Germany.  Next we fly to Barcelona and go on a motorcycle tour of the Pyrenees.  Hey, we only get one 35th anniversary, so let’s pull out all the stops and spend five weeks seeing sights we never dreamed we would see. In retrospect, I would classify the southeast Europe tour as “Combat Touring”.  It can be loosely defined as, “Touring on street bikes where roads and surfaces vary from high speed divided highways to short stretches of unpaved gravel or dirt “roads”.  Those who do Combat Touring should have flexibility and resourcefulness and a willingness to go with the flow as plans can change at anytime. That’s all part of the Combat Touring adventure 🙂

Day 1: Getting There

As we departed from Denver, Colorado, I took a picture of window next to our boarding gate with a quote from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, which proved prophetic, particularly the “Don’t Panic” part.

Fitting Advice For Travelers "Don't Panic"

Fitting Advice For Travelers “Don’t Panic”

We arrived in Belgrade about 24 hours after we got out of bed to start our trip and only had a few hours after we arrived before the initial rider briefing at the start of the tour. There were 18 people on the tour; three couples from the US, three from New Zealand, and a couple each from Canada, Australia and South Africa. We would have 10 tour bikes, (my wife and I road our own bikes but all the others were going two-up), a lead guide and tail-end guide on bikes, and a chase van carrying luggage, parts, tires and a spare bike. The briefing covered rules of the road in each country, the tour company rules, what to do if you got lost, currency exchange (each country has its own currency) and set expectations for food and lodging.

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First Tour Briefing From Metej

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Late Night Logistics Before The Ride

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Our First Supper in Belgrade

Day 1: Getting There

 

Day 2: First Day Riding and Biffing in Bulgaria

Today is the longest riding day (at least in terms of miles) of the tour going from Belgrade, Serbia to Belogradchik, Bulgaria.  Rochelle and I got some rest, but we both were still a bit strung out by the 8 hour time difference.  Nonetheless, the rush of starting a tour kept us energized as we got breakfast, attended the first start-of-day ride briefing and then mounted up on our bikes for the first time.  We both were riding BMW F700-GS bikes.  My license plate included a wistful message, “UR-14”, if only 😉

Brook's "Wistful Wish" License Plate

Brook’s “Wistful Wish” License Plate

The day went well with morning coffee stop at the Smederovo Fortress along the Danube river with a rich history, including explosion of an ammunition train next to it in WW II.  We had lunch at a nice restaurant along the Danube and afterwards we road right through the Golubac Fortress on our way to the Bulgaria boarder. Late in the afternoon, we made our first border crossing into Bulgaria.  I took a picture and immediately attracted the attention of the officials, who scowling, made it very clear that taking a picture of the border is not welcomed.

Smederevo Fortress & Train

Smederevo Fortress & Train Where WWII Ammo Train Exploded

Smederevo Fortress & Danube River

Smederevo Fortress & Danube River

Illegal Picture of Entering Bulgaria

“Illegal Picture” of Entering Bulgaria

After everyone crossed the boarder, which took about 30 minutes or so, we continued on our way in the late afternoon toward our first stay in Belogradchik, Bulgaria.  The road was a nice stretch of winding asphalt through trees and meadows.

Biffing in Bulgaria

Biff: Noun: a Blow or Punch
Biffing: Verb. To be struck or hit hard by something.

Then, as I leaned into a corner, the couple in front of me went down. As I was look past them to the apex of the corner I suddenly notice the back end of their bike is sliding out and realize they are going down.  The next thing I know there are two people and a bike spinning in front of me.

I slow down, straighten up and move into the on-coming lane to avoid running over them, but at that point their bike start to spin along a trajectory that kept it right in front of mine. In the end, it knocked my front wheel out from under me and I go down. I recall thinking I was going to be able to stop but the ABS cut in and I wasn’t able to avoid their bike.

A very hard and reverberating THUMP echoed through my body as I came to a stop at the side of the road. My bike and I had parted company and it was resting on top of theirs.  I got up and went over to try and lift my bike up and quickly realized my left shoulder was hurt. I felt it and there was a very large hump along my collar bone. “Damn, it’s broken”, I said to myself.

At this point the tour guide at the end, Dušan, and some of the others in the group are attending to the couple who are sprawled in the middle of the road.  I walk over and tell Dušan I am pretty sure I had broken my collar bone and was going to lie down as shock was setting in.

Long story shortened, an hour and a half later, I’m in an ambulance riding to the emergency room at the hospital in Vidin, Bulgaria.  At one point, the driver hit a pothole so hard, the gurney and I are airborne, so I had to brace myself with my feet against the back door of the ambulance and hoped they had latched the doors tightly. 🙂

After the attending doctor, who spoke English well, admitted me, I got x-rays, twice. The couple were also getting x-rays, he for his ribs and she for her knee.  Then, they called the “specialist”. He came in about 10:30 pm and there was a long discussion in Bulgarian.  I was convinced my collar bone was broken: why else would the radiologist take another set of x-rays after she took the first one and then the attending call in a specialist.

After several minutes of animated dialog between the attending and the specialist, the attending pronounced the verdicts: “You”, he pointed to the man, “no broken ribs, just bruised”.  “She is okay too, knee not broken, just bruised and swollen. We will try to drain fluid from it.”

Okay, now it’s my turn. I guess they saved the worst for last. “But you, you not very good” he said looking at me.  “Lots of damage to your shoulder.”  I nodded as my heart sank. Even though I figured my collar bone was broken, there was a distant hope it wasn’t.  I nodded my head and told him I had dislocated my left shoulder 40 years ago and now this had happened to my left collar bone.  Bad luck on my part. He looked at me quizzically and then said “How old are you”. I told him wondering why that mattered at all.

Then, the two of them resumed an animated discussion in Bulgarian as they pointed and gestured at my three x-rays. I thought to myself, “Yeah, they are deciding how big they have to make the cast and if I have to stay overnight.”

Finally, they turned away from the x-rays and the attending said, “Ok. Shoulder not broken.  But, you need to have it checked when you get home.”  He went on to say, “We will tape it and and put a strap to hold your arm up.  Keep it this way for three weeks.  You should be OK.  Be sure to see your Doctor when you get back to America.”

RAY OF SUNSHINE #1: I DON’T GET A CAST.   Immediately I thought to myself, “Maybe I can ride the Pyrenees which is five weeks away. Who knows!!! 🙂

Now, taping the shoulder involves pressing down on my column bone and applying adhesive tape in an X using several strips of tape. That got my attention. After that, they put a 1 inch wide piece of gauze around my neck and hung my wrist in it to hold up my arm.

Then I asked them about payment and handling that using insurance coverage. The attending looked at me quizzically again and I repeated my question slowly using different words.  His brow unfurled and he said, “No, it’s not need for you to pay. All treatment in Bulgaria is free to everyone, even if you not live here.”

RAY OF SUNSHINE #2: NO HASSLING WITH MY INSURANCE  COMPANY IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY 🙂

Then, one prescription is issued to the couple for pain and inflammation and another one to reduce the swelling in her knee.  But, I get nothing.  I ask if I can get a prescription too, and I’m told “No. Use theirs”.  I had to admit, that’s certainly easy for the hospital and cuts down on paper work.

By 12:30 am I get to the hotel in Belogradchik and am reunited with Rochelle.  The chase van driver, Matevž, came to the hospital earlier in the evening and stayed with us during the evaluation and then drove me back to the hotel while the couple took a cab to a pharmacy. On the way back he explained that they had looked at my bike and there was nothing wrong with it. They couldn’t find a scratch on it anywhere.  The other bike, well it got pretty banged up and the shift lever was broken off.

RAY OF SUNSHINE #3: I DON’T LOOSE MY DAMAGE DEPOSIT.

When I got to the room, I replaced the one inch wide piece of gauze for a sling with a triangle bandage from my motorcycle medical kit that I brought along “just in case”, and took this picture to commemorate my “Biff in Bulgaria”.  Then I took a pain and anti-inflammation pill I got from the couple and went to bed.

Result of Rider Crashing Ahead of Me & Bad Timing on My Part

Result of “Biffing in Bulgaria” on the 1st Day

Day 2 Photos

 

Day 3 & 4: On to Sophia and our First Rest Day

I slept pretty well that night. I borrowed some more pain and anti-inflammation pills and the “Universal Prescription” so I can get them filled when I find a pharmacy. When they got the prescription filled the night before the pharmacist let them keep it so they, or I, could refill it anytime, no worries.  How quaint compared to the US approach to prescription drugs.

Before we left Belogradchik, we visited the Belogradchik Fortress that was built into the rocks.  It has been used for centuries and most recently was used during the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.

Built into the Rocks

Belogradcik Fortress Built into the Rocks

I was going to ride in the chase van to Sophia with Matevž with the couples bike in the back. He rode my bike and she rode in the van with me as her knee wasn’t bending very well. As there were only two extra seats in the van, this allowed everyone to continue the tour.  Rochelle rode her bike with everyone else.  I waved good bye to her as they all rode off while Matevž finished loading up the bags in the van.

We were on old roads with many pot holes, lots of bumps, patches, sand, gravel and in several places, no road at all, just the sub-base of crushed rocks as the road crews worked on repairing the road.  We passed through several abandoned villages that have become ghost towns.  Most of the younger people left for Sophia, the capital, or western Europe to earn a living.

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Nearly Abandoned Town in Bulgaria

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Horse Cart Ride to Town

Only a few farmers, many elderly, are left. Local transportation includes walking while pushing a wheel barrow, riding a bicycle, horse or donkey cart, farm tractor, rototillers pulling a trailer, with a few prosperous ones driving scooters, cars and an occasional truck. Most of the farmers in the fields do not have any machinery; the labor is mostly manual as they cut and stack hay or weed the fields. No one waves back at you, smiles, or shows any sense of connection with you as you go by.  This part of Bulgaria is “dark” and my mood isn’t helped by the rain clouds and overcast skies and the throbbing in my shoulder when we hit the large pot holes.

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Walking the Cows On the Main Road

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Old Scooter

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Every Now & Then, Wealthy With Mercedes

I feel a bit bruised and sore by the end of the day when we arrive at the hotel in Sophia after all the bumping and jostling over the rough roads. But, the scenery is pristine and offsets the discomfort of the bumpy ride.

The Road to Sophia

The Road to Sophia

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The Road to Sophia

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The Road to Sophia

Sophia, Bulgaria is a modern city and tomorrow we get a rest day tomorrow.  That night we eat at Happy Village where they put on a floor show with dancing and music that ends in a conga line of all the patrons snaking around the dance floor.  Much fun and a welcome contrast to the darkness of abandoned villages from earlier in the day.

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Dinner at Happy Village

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Happy Village Entertainment

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Happy Village Entertainment

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Happy Village Entertainment – Customer Helping Pay For Her Meal 🙂

The next day Rochelle and I get my pills via the “Universal Prescription” and also locate a sling for my arm. Then we head out to take a walking tour of Sophia. The “Free Sophia Walking Tour” was conducted by a student, Vickie, who is studying to become a lawyer. Some notable sights include the former communist party headquarters building, the central bank “suicide balcony” (should the country default, the head of the central bank is expected to “do the right thing” 🙂 ) and a number of Roman ruins embedded in and below the city. Below are pictures of the remains of a Roman road from Constantinople to Sophia that’s now part of a shopping mall. You don’t see that in the United States.

Vicki, Tour Guide for Free Sophia Tours

Vicki, Tour Guide for Free Sophia Tours

Former Communist Party Headquarters in Sophia

Former Communist Party Headquarters in Sophia

Bulgarian Bag Pipes

Bulgarian Bag Pipes

Old Roman Road to Constantinople-Underground and Surrounded by Shops

Old Roman Road to Constantinople-Underground and Surrounded by Shops

Lower Level Shop & Roman Road

Lower Level Shop Uses Old Roman Road to Constantinople

Sculpture in Sophia Park-Human Condition?

Sculpture in Sophia Park-The Human Condition?

Day 3 Photos, Belogradcik to Sophia

 

Day 4 Photos, Sophia, Bulgaria

 

Day 5: Sophia, Bulgaria to Demir Kapija, Macedonia and Popova Kula Winery

Having gotten two days rest, and a decent sling, it’s time to get back in the saddle again, at least as a passenger.  We are up early leaving at 8:00 am. I ride on the back of Matej’s new R1200-GS water head bike.  I position my fanny pack on my left side and rest my arm on it while riding.  I keep the sling inside my jacket and put my arm in it at rest stops and when walking around.  I’m good to go. 🙂  Who knows, maybe I can ride again tomorrow. We stop at the Rila monastery, a World Heritage site, originally built in the 10th century in the mountains outside Sophia. It is in a spectacular setting with gorgeous frescoes.

Rila Monastery Entrance

Rila Monastery Entrance

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery-Fresco

Rila Monastery-Fresco

For lunch, we sat at a restaurant next to a swiftly flowing mountain stream and have “Shopska Salad” which is simple; tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh feta cheese with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We find this simple dish everywhere and it’s always excellent due to the garden fresh produce and fresh goat cheese that has real flavor, unlike the manufactured tomatoes and processed cheese we get in supermarkets in the US.

Shopska Salad :-)

Shopska Salad 🙂

In the afternoon we cross into Macedonia and find the mood is festive: people smile and wave at you as you go by and we end up in the middle of a wedding that has taken over the main street of a small town.

Wedding in Macedonia

Wedding in Macedonia-We are Invited

Around 6:00 pm we arrive at the Popova Kula winery in Demir Kapija, Macedonia on a hill side overlooking a valley of grape vineyards. While Rochelle is cleaning up, she discovers that the bathroom door locked when she closed it and she can’t open it.  After several attempts, the staff find a key that will work the lock and she is free.  Another day, another adventure.

The winery site provides beautiful vistas, offers excellent wine and cheese, and we enjoy an enormous dinner in the dinning room with wall sized openings framing the hills behind the winery as the sun sets.

Popava Kula Winery

Popova Kula Winery

Popava Kula Winery

View from Popova Kula Winery

Popava Kula Winery

Wine & Cheese in the Tower at Popova Kula Winery

Popava Kula Winery-Dinning Room View

Dinning Room at Popova Kula Winery

Day 5 Photos: Sophia to Demir Kapija

 

Day 6 & 7: To Ohrid, Macedonia and & Rest Day on Lake Ohrid

Today we ride to Ohrid, Macedonia on Lake Ohrid. I told Matej last night that I plan to ride today. I can lift my left arm above handlebar height and move it to either side without pain. I figure I can rest it on the fanny pack and ride with one hand when it gets sore or tired and I really don’t need the clutch as the gearbox on the F700GS lets to shift by just backing off the gas a bit and kicking the shift lever with my foot.  As we are checking out in the morning, the owner gives Rochelle a bottle of wine as an apology for the bathroom door locking on her last night.

Popava Kula Winery-I Ride My Bike Again :-)

Popava Kula Winery-I Ride My Bike Again 🙂

The moment of truth comes immediately for me as I have to ride down a gravel road from the winery to the paved road.  But, no worries, I negotiate the gravel fine with both hands on the handle bars and get no complaints from my shoulder. Instead of my arm being in a sling for three months, it’s only taken three days to get enough motion to ride again. Good Times 🙂

There is a long and a short route today and Rochelle and I decide to take the short route. Matej loaned us a spare GPS so we can find the hotel in Ohrid as the others are going to ride the longer route. Rochelle’s left wrist is getting very sore. She has had to do a lot of gear shifting and clutch pulling and this is aggravating her wrist which was giving her trouble before the trip.

Road from Bitola to Ohrid, Macedonia

Short Route from Bitola to Ohrid, Macedonia

We end up wandering down some narrow alleys in Ohrid but arrive at the Royal View hotel overlooking Lake Ohrid with Albania on the other side.  We get another rest day here so despite the fact my shoulder is a bit sore, I can rest it before continuing the trip.

View from Hotel with Albania on the Other Side of Lake Ohrid

View from Hotel with Albania on the Other Side of Lake Ohrid

The next day we walk to see the sights in the old city of Ohrid and relax a bit.  The old city has a Roman amphitheater and is very scenic with the surrounding lake and mountains in the background.  There is a statue to the two brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius, priests, who introduced Cyrillic writing to this region, We see the 11th century St. Sophia church, the 13th century St. Jovan Monastery, the 4th century St. Pantelejmon church and cruise down the modern shop filled streets of the new city. We enjoy a great meal at a small restaurant near one of the older churches.

Greek Orthodoxy Priests who Invented Cyrillic Alphabet-National Heros

Greek Orthodox Priests who Invented Cyrillic Alphabet-National Heros

Abandoned Next to New

Abandoned Next to New

Macedonian Mountains

Macedonian Mountains Above Lake Ohrid

St. Jovan Church-13th Century

St. Jovan Church-13th Century

St Pantelejmon Church-4th Century Mosaic

St Pantelejmon Church-4th Century Mosaic

Kitten & Mother-Lunch Time

Kitten & Mother-Lunch Time

Textile Shop, Ohrid

Textile Shop, Ohrid

Old Ural, Ohrid

Old Ural Motorcycle, Ohrid

Day 6 Pictures: Popova Kula Winery to Ohrid, Macedonia

 

Day 7 Pictures: Ohrid, Macedonia

 

Day 8: Riding on to Gjirokaster Albania

Albania is starting to move out of the sluggish shadow of occupation. The closer we get to the coast, the more investment in infrastructure, hotels and tourism there is. Today we ride around Lake Ohrid and cross the Albanian border. The weather in the morning is unsettled, and so is Albania which Matej calls the “Wild, Wild East” of Europe.

Entering Albania

Entering Albania

After we cross the boarder from Macedonia, and soon after stop in Korce, Albania  for a coffee break.  We find the traffic rules “entertaining” as anyone can go anywhere at anytime. Pedestrians will step off a curb and proceed across a street teaming with cars and trucks. Drivers go where ever they need to whenever they need to. Traffic lights do not exist in intersections. Welcome to Albania 🙂

As we are about to leave our coffee stop, a young boy with his baby sister in his arms approach us begging for small change. I don’t give him any and he becomes interested in the motorcycle.  I show him how to start it and let him try the throttle. There is a huge, ear-to-ear grin and then lots of questions in Albanian. I respond in English and we understand each other perfectly. This is the lights, that’s the brakes and over there is the kill switch, and when you twist this, it gets LOUD.  Cool Beans :-).  I think he was much happier with the hands-on experience than the small change.

Korce Coffee Stop & My New Friend & His Sister

Korce Coffee Stop & My New Friend & His Sister

Now the roads start getting interesting as this part of Albania is not benefiting much from infrastructure investments.

Albania Village

Albania Village

Trail Through the Woods

Trail Through the Woods

For lunch, we stop at a rustic”resort” in the woods that is a trout hatchery and rents cabins for vacationing Albanians and tourists. It’s charming and the proprietor’s daughter greets us with a few sentences in English. She steals everyone’s heart.  The highlight is fresh caught trout for lunch.  We watch our meal going into the net and then to the kitchen before being served to us al fresco on the outdoor patio.

Lunch Stop & "Hotel"

Lunch Stop & “Hotel”

Our Hostess

Our Hostess

Hotel Weight Machine

Hotel Weight Machine

Herding Trout

Herding Trout for Our Lunch

After lunch, the roads get more “interesting” as we wind up and down mountain sides and in and out of valleys on our way to Gjirokaster, Albania.  Rochelle’s wrist is really hurting by the end of the day after negotiating uncountable 180 degree hairpin turns, potholes, rocks, gravel and roaming live stock. We are pretty tired, but amazed at the gorgeous scenery.

Rochelle Heading toward Gjrokaster

Rochelle Heading toward Gjrokaster

Rochelle Riding the Mountains

Rochelle Riding the Mountains

Gramoz Mountains

Gramoz Mountains

The "Road"

The “Road” Through Gramoz Mountains

Gramoz Mountains near Leskovik, Albania

Gramoz Mountains near Leskovik, Albania

This day is day of contrasts including the occasional donkey walking on the wrong side of the road piled high with hay, unexpected sights of great wealth in the middle of no where, and several “sheep jams” along the way.

Donkey Loaded with Hay

Donkey Loaded with Hay

Valley in Gramoz Mountains

Valley in Gramoz Mountains

Home of a Wealth Albanian

Home of a Wealth Albanian

Sheep Traffic Jam

Sheep Traffic Jam

Indeed, this part of Albania has escaped Starbucks, MacDonald’s, shopping malls, bumper to bumper traffic jams, and tract housing developments.  The scenery is pristine and the riding is demanding of your attention.  Rochelle and I go slow and manage to balance our focus between the road’s challenges and the stunning views.

Rainbow After the Rain

Rainbow After the Rain

Gjirokaster, Sunset Over Gramoz Mountains

Gjirokaster, Sunset Over Gramoz Mountains

Day 8 Pictures: On the way to Gjirokaster, Albania

 

Day 9 & 10: Sarande, Albania on the Ionian Sea Coast

Today we ride to the Ionian sea coast to the resort town of Sarande, Albania and have a rest day there the following day.  But first, we walk to the Gjirokaster Fortress at the top of the hill overlooking the town.  Inside is a museum with WW II military equipment and a US fighter jet shot down during the Balkan war. There is also a huge outdoor arena with stage that is used for cultural events.

Our walk to the fortress takes us through narrow, cobblestone streets where cars sometimes have to backup to make a corner.  But, people are out, shops are open and you get a smile, a wave and engagement when you pass by on the sidewalk.

Gjirokaster, Morning Fog

Gjirokaster, Morning Fog

Gjirokaster Intersection

Gjirokaster Intersection

View From Gjirokaster Fortress Ramparts

View From Gjirokaster Fortress Ramparts

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WW II Weapon Exhibit Inside Fortress-It’s HUGE!

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Tour Group with Old & New Weapons

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Moorish Clock Tower Inside Fortress

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Picture of Brook Taking Pictures

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Impromptu Performance on the Stage inside the Fortress

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Rochelle Becomes a Teacher Again – Pay Attention, There’s a Quiz!!

Gjirokaster Stone Carver Shop

Gjirokaster Stone Carver Shop

Starting the Day in Gjirokaster

Starting the Day in Gjirokaster

We ride out about mid-morning heading to Blue Eye spring. The roads are better as we wind up and down the mountains. The spring is located up a rutted dirt road where tour buses can meet you going the other way. We stop and walk to the spring and then have a nice lunch at the restaurant at the entrance.

Blue Eye Spring

Blue Eye Spring

Picnic Group at Blue Eye Spring

Picnic Group at Blue Eye Spring

Dragon Fly, Blue Eye Spring

Dragon Fly, Blue Eye Spring

As I’m walking back from the spring, I manage to drop my camera into a thicket of raspberry bushes on a steep slope.  With some help from the others, we finally find it.  Although my riding boots are waterproof, but I found out that doesn’t apply if the water can come over the top of the boots as I ended up misjudging the depth of a stream on my way back to lunch. Yet another adventure 🙂

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Snipe Hunt? No, Hunitng for Brook’s Camera

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Water Proof Boots, But Not From the Top 🙂

After lunch we head to Sarande and the Ionian sea coast of Albania, or the Albanian Riviera. The roads got better, wider, faster and construction projects were going on building hotels and other infrastructure needed to attract tourist dollars. This part of Albania is engaged in transformation into western Europe. When we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Butrinti, in Sarande early in the afternoon where we are greeted by a beautiful panorama with the Greek island of Corfu in front of us and the deep blue of the Ionian sea.

Adratic & Korfu from Hotel Butrinti

Ionian sea &  Corfu from Hotel Butrinti

We checked into the hotel and then assembled for the short ride to Butrint, an historic site that has been inhabited from as far back as 3,000 BC, and has ruins from the Romans that quite extensive. But first, time for coffee and refreshments before we enter the site.

Butrint Coffee Stop

Butrint Coffee Stop

In front of us is a small car ferry to Greece. If we wish, we can ride into Greece tomorrow on our rest day.

Butrint View of Greece

Butrint View of Greece

We spend the afternoon walking through extensive ruins fascinated by the extent of the Roman investment in Butrint which clearly was a vacation spot for wealth Roman families. It’s easy to see why as the site is tranquil, soothing with the dark blue of the waters surrounding the site.

Butrint Ruins Are Extensive

Butrint Ruins Are Extensive

Butrint, Roman Ruins

Butrint, Roman Ruins

Butrint, Roman Amphitheater

Butrint, Roman Amphitheater

Butrint, Roman Ruins

Butrint, Roman Ruins

Butrint, Roman Mosaic

Butrint, Roman Mosaic

Butrint, View To 3,000 BC Settlements

Butrint, View To 3,000 BC Settlements

That evening, at dinner, we are treated to a beautiful sunset over the Ionian sea. Life is good and so is the food and the companionship.

Sarande at Twilight

Sarande at Twilight

Saranda, Albania View from Hotel

Saranda, Albania View from Hotel Room

Saranda, Albania Cruise Ship in Harbor

Saranda, Albania Cruise Ship in Harbor

Saranda, Albania Rochelle Adds Adriatic to Toe Dipping List

Saranda, Albania Rochelle Adds Ionian Sea to Toe Dipping List

The next day, Rochelle and I opt out of riding to take the car ferry to Greece.  It’s a rutted dirt road and we both are in need of some time out of the saddle.  Her wrist continues to be quite painful and my shoulder would appreciate a rest as well. We walk around the Sarande water front and visit the older sections of the town and then take a dip in the Ionian Sea so we can add that to our growing list of “bodies of water we’ve been in”. Sarande is the farthest point from our start in Belgrade and tomorrow we begin heading back.

Day 9 Pictures: Gjirokaster to Sarande, Albania

 

Day 10 Pictures: Sarande, Albania

 

Day 11: Getting to Tirana, Albania, The Big City

Today we ride up the Ionian sea coast of Albania to get to the capital, Tirana.  We cross a couple mountain ranges and get onto Autobahn quality roads for the first time that head from the coast to the capital.  We see many more Mercedes and find this part of the country much more western and modern in its infrastructure.

The view of the Ionian Sea along the coast is mesmerizing and the blue color of the water is stunning.

Adriatic Coast of Albania-Study in Blue

Ionian Coast of Albania-Study in Blue

Adriatic Coast of Albania

Ionian Coast of Albania

We visit the Ali Pasha’s Castle which was his summer home along the way borrowing the key to the front door from the owner of coffee shop across the road after we pay a nominal entrance fee.

Adriatic Coast of Albania -Pasha's Castle

Ionian Coast of Albania -Pasha’s Castle

Adriatic Coast of Albania, Pasha's Castle

Ionian Coast of Albania, Opening Front Door of Pasha’s Castle

Adriatic Coast of Albania, View from Pasha's Castle

Ionian Coast of Albania, View from Pasha’s Castle

Adriatic Coast of Albania, Pasha's Castle, Brook & Rochelle

Ionian Coast of Albania, Ali Pasha’s Castle, Brook & Rochelle

Then we head inland and climb up into the mountains until we reach Llogaraja pass where the wind is blowing and its 30 degrees cooler for our lunch stop.

Adriatic Coast of Albania

Ionian Coast of Albania

Adriatic Coast of Albania, Road To the Pass

Ionian Coast of Albania, Road To the Pass

Adriatic Coast of Albania, Seashore Jewel

Ionian Coast of Albania, Seashore Jewel

Adriatic Coast of Albania, Road to the Pass

Ionian Coast of Albania, Road to the Pass

As we get nearer to Tirana, we encouter a caravan of cars honking horns with folks waving Albaninan flags. We learn that Albania is playing a world cup soccer match that evening and everyone is celebrating in anticipation of a win. It’s college football madness, but it extends for 30 miles and gets even more boisterous as we enter Tirana. And, then, we encounter Albanian city traffic again.

The first rule of driving in a large city in Albania is there are no rules, at least in the way westerners understand them. Everyone does what they want, when they want and the first one to blink, hesitate or slow down yields the right of way. This simple system applies to horse carts, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, semis, and motorcycles. You just dive in and swim. To a person, we all made it to the hotel with no incidents. Truly amazing. Traffic in Tirana is the best example of a “self-organizing chaotic system” I can think of :-).

Tirana, Albania-Mosque with Minaret

Tirana, Albania-Mosque with Minaret

Tirana, Albania-Soccer Match Celebration

Tirana, Albania-Soccer Match Celebration

 Day 11 Pictures: From Sarande to Tirana, Albania

 

Day 12: Riding to Prizren, Kosovo

Today at breakfast, we sit with a lady from Canada who is a lawyer and had just finished attending a conference on the state of equality in eastern Europe.  We mention we were going to take a river boat cruise on the Danube after our motorcycle tour of Eastern Europe and she looked at us oddly. She pointed out that the Danube river was in full flood and there was a state of emergency in many parts of central Europe. Hmm, maybe we ought to try and reconnect with the electronic world. Sure enough, I found an Email from Viking River Cruises that they had cancelled our trip.  Well, another adventure.  We certainly are getting our fair share of them. We didn’t have time to worry about what to do with our free seven days, but we take some time to think about the options as we ride the rest of the tour.

We go to Kruja, Albania in the morning which was the capital at one time. The trip again required riding straight into a stream of traffic as we neared Kruja.  Every round-about is flooded with every kind of vehicle imaginable including tractor trailer trucks, cement trucks and people. We are starting to get the hang of the Albanian way of negotiating traffic.

Kruje, Albania

Kruje, Albania

Kruje, Albania Museum

Kruje, Albania Museum

Kruje, Albania-Girls Being Merry on Merry-go-round

Kruje, Albania-Girls Being Merry on Merry-go-round

Kruje, Albania-Little Girl at Coffee Shop

Kruje, Albania-Little Girl at Coffee Shop

Kruje, Albania-Rochelle's Street Seranade

Kruje, Albania-Rochelle’s Ready to Seranade

Kruje, Albania-Motorcycle Truck

Kruje, Albania-Motorcycle Truck

Kruje, Albania-Old Alleyway with Shops

Kruje, Albania-Old Alleyway with Shops

After we visit the monastery and shops, we return the way we came and swim through the traffic. Our reward was a modern highway that lead toward Prizren, Kosovo. Rochelle had a lot of fun opening up her F700 on the sweeping curves without worrying about gravel or potholes.

Albania, Heading to Prizren on Superslab

Albania, Heading to Prizren on Superslab

Kosov Border Crossing

Kosov Border Crossing

Once we cross the Kosovo border we make our way to our hotel, Hotel Theranda, in Prizren, Kosovo in the early afternoon. Kosovo is predominately a Muslim country created in the aftermath of the Balkan wars. We hear our fist “call to prayers”, but not the last as our hotel is about 100 yards from a minaret 🙂

The hotel is quite modern and has decent internet service, but the instructions are — quaint. I’m still not completely clear about the “Service” section. That said, no one would have understood anything I tried to translate into Serbian, let alone recognized it as Serbian 🙂

Prizren, Hotel Information in Engrish

Prizren, Hotel Information in Engrish

We go out and tour the town to see some of the sights. The Sinan Pasha Mosque, surrounded by western fast food outlets, shops with expensive western clothing and jewelry create quite a contrast, but do bring home the idea that Islam and a western society can peacefully co-exist.

Prizren, Sinan Pasah Mosque

Prizren, Sinan Pasah Mosque

Prizren, School Children at Ice Cream Stand

Prizren, School Children at Ice Cream Stand

Prizren, Upscale Stores

Prizren, Upscale Stores

Day 12 Pictures: Sarande, Albania to Prizren, Kosovo

 

Day 13: Back to Serbia via Montenegro

Well, we have a plan to replace the cancelled river boat cruise.  We will stay an extra day in Belgrade, Serbia, fly to Ljubljana, Slovenia (home of Adriatic Mototours) rent a car and see the sights. Then we can drive to Munich, spend a few days (and see the BMW Museum 🙂 ) and then drive to Nuremberg where we connect with the plane to Barcelona resuming the rest of our vacation plan.  Combat Touring requires “going with the flow” and adapting to whatever comes your way.  We had a lot of help from Matej, Dušan and Matevž who helped book the extra night for us in Belgrade, and provided airline suggestions for the flight to Ljubljana. We send a big thanks to Matevž who provided his personal contact information and even extended an invitation to go sailing on the weekend with some of his friends if we wanted to (which we politely declined as we wanted to see the sights).  You can’t ask for anything more professional from a tour company.

We ride from Kosovo, cross the border into Serbia, then cross the border into Montenegro, and back again into Serbia on our way to our accommodation at Drvengrad (Wooden Village), in Mokra Gora. This is mostly mountain roads, some with sharp curves and switch backs with beautiful vistas.

Kosov, Tight Corners Ahead

Kosov, Tight Corners Ahead

Kosov Mountains & Mosque

Kosov Mountains & Mosque

The mountains in Montenegro are spectacular and the roads are in good to very good condition.  It’s an enjoyable day riding, but the border crossings get old as each one includes a checkpoint to leave a country and another to enter. Each time it takes us 20 to 30 minutes to complete the process.

Montegegro Mountains

Montegegro Mountains

Rose Garden at Coffee Stop

Rose Garden at Coffee Stop

Montenegro, Boy at Coffee Stop

Montenegro, Boy at Coffee Stop

Montenegro, Cross Roads

Montenegro, Cross Roads

There is long and a short route. The long goes into Bosnia-Herzegovina to a 16th century stone bridge, Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic in Vizegrad across the Drina river. Rochelle takes the shorter trip due to her wrist and I opt for the longer route.

Bosnia Border

Bosnia Border

Boznia Mountains

Bosnia Mountains

Bosnia, Mountain Church

Bosnia, Mountain Church

Visegrad, Bosnia-Mehmed Pasah Sokolovic Bridge

Visegrad, Bosnia-Mehmed Pasah Sokolovic Bridge

However, just at the entrance to Drvengrad, Rochelle couldn’t negotiate a sudden, sharp uphill turn to the Hotel Mecavnik and drops her bike. It’s the second time it’s happened to her on the tour, both times at very low speed. But, there is no damage to the bike, only to her self-esteem.  I point out to her that compared to me, she’s ridden the entire tour on her own and hasn’t crashed hard enough to require a hospital visit. She’s doing much better than I so far. 🙂

The hotel/resort was built by Emir Kusturica, one of Serbia’s best known film directors and has hosted Johnny Depp and other celebrities. It’s a very interesting place with something unexpected around every corner.

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik Our Room

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik Our Room

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik Room Furniture

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik Room Furniture

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik View from Room

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik View from Room

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik, Brook's Friend

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik, Brook’s Friend

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik

Day 13 Pictures: Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia.

 

Day 14: End of the Ride in Belgrade, Serbia

Today is our last day on the tour and we return to our hotel in Belgrade. We take some group photos at Hotel Mecavnik before departing to our next stop at the Kadinjača Memorial which is a WWII war memorial to the defense of Serbia from the Nazi invasion. It was built during the communist era. A museum has been added with exhibits devoted to the WWII Nazi occupation and on the top floor to the 1990 Balkan war and the “NATO Invasion” of Serbia. It’s useful and interesting to see a modern era war from the other side of the lens, so to speak. I found the WWII memorial haunting and one of the best examples of how sculpture can abstractly capture human emotions and then reflect them back upon you with profound affect.

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik

The Ladies of the Tour

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik

The “Gents” of the Tour

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik

Drvengrad, Serbia-Hotel Mecavnik, Political Commentary?

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

Kadinjača Memorial, Serbia

The roads get rougher along the way and it gets hotter as we near Belgrade. Once again, we are in a big, modern city with new cars, trucks, buses and divided highway with dense traffic.  What a contrast to the back roads in Bulgaria, Macedonian and Albania of the past week.

River View on Road to Belgrade

River View on Road to Belgrade

As we pull into the hotel parking lot, all of us start honking our horns and as we pull up to the front door, we see a reception has been set up with champagne and strawberries courtesy of Adriatic Mototours. What a great way to say thank you to their customers 🙂

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party-Rochelle Cooling Off

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party Toast

End of the Ride Party

End of the Ride Party

After we check in and clean up, we go to dinner on the Danube river at a floating restaurant and toast our fellow travelers and new found friends at our “last supper”.

The Last Dinner

The Last Dinner

End of the Ride Dinner

The Last Dinner

End of the Ride Dinner

The Last Dinner

We collectively decide to provide a token of our appreciation to Matej, Dušan and Matevž. It’s decided by the “contingent from down under” that the “loud mouth American who is in Marketing” should say some appropriate words and make the presentation. 😉

After my remarks, Metej says a few words and points out that Rochelle is the first woman to ride this tour on her own and says she wins the “Courage Award”. Quite an accomplishment.

Onward to the next adventures, Slovenia and Germany, and then Spain and riding the Pyrenees.

Day 14 Pictures: Return to Belgrade and End of the Tour

5 thoughts on “A Motorcycle Tour of Eastern Europe: “Combat Touring” in the Balkans

  1. Pingback: 1973 R75/5 Rebuild: Progress Report #2 | Motorcycles & Other Musings

  2. Excellent ride report, sorry about your bad luck starting out. Indeed quite informal to use “universal prescription” to accommodate medication requirements. Wouldn’t happen here in Montreal.
    I did a solo moto tour of the Swiss and French Alps two summers ago but not sure I would try an Eastern block tour on my own.
    If I may be so bold as to ask what your global budget was for these tours?
    Regards,
    Jim 1986 R80RT (naked)

    • Hi Jim,

      Although the tour operator, Adriatic Mototours provides self-guided tours, I greatly enjoyed the guides, the knowledge of the area, explanations of the food, sights and history, not to mention the significant assistance they provided me after my “Biff in Bulgaria”. I got my full money’s worth 🙂

      You can see the price of their tours, guided and unguided. To their price you need to add in the cost of “incidentals” such as gas, lunches, coffee stops, adult beverages, shopping and potentially getting there and back if frequent flyer miles are not available. For that particular tour, the incidentals for two riders was on the order of 60 Euro per day or about $90 (assume 1.5 exchange rate due to fees for changing money and credit card fees for foreign transactions). For other tours, the cost of incidentals can be higher, particularly if the tour visits western Europe.

      Best.
      Brook.

  3. I wish i have found your page sooner. As i am from macedonia and I am working on my police model r60/5 I would have been very happy to personaly meet you. Hope you had a good time in Macedonia as I have using your web page. Thanks a lot and next time around you have a place to stay

    Ljupco

    • Ljupco,

      Well, it’s a small world, but I’m not surprised to find BMW lovers everywhere.

      My wife and I enjoyed the riding in Macedonia and have fond memories of that tour.

      I’m happy that the material I posted on my BMW projects is helpful to you. That’s very satisfying.

      All the Best.
      Brook.

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