I usually do a bit of research on the WWW. and add a few sentences here about the history of the area we have been biking through. A bit of background helps us appreciate what we are looking at. I have been trying to understand the Balkans. Truth is, here you need to read a book or two. ” It’s complicated “, that is what we are told when we ask what this is or that was and why; very complicated.
We ride a few kilometres out of Shkoder to have a bit of a rest in a quiet campground ( our first this year! ) and save the king’s ransom that is the hotel rates in the town. Back on the roads of Albania for one last day. There is a wall of mountains ahead and no obvious way around. You do what we always do and search the slopes for signs of the road ahead, hoping it is not bad news and a big climb.
At the very last minute our road does a ‘ dog leg ‘, and finds enough flat land to tuck around the end of the lake. The border for Montenegro is a couple of stiff, but short climbs away. Country 27, and this border is absolute chaos, with trucks backing up, drivers sitting on the floor in the shade of their cabs and no sign what so ever of any system. We do what we always do, and weave to the front smiling. It works once again.
A Montenegro Cuckoo and it is June 27th. In Cuckoo terms that is late. Beyond the border there is a obviouse change and it looks as though Albania got to pick first. The land here is harder, dryer, with scruffy fields of unhappy corn. What does look very good though, is the wine. Our road continues with the usual parade of top end Audi, BMW and Merc. Almost all are black and most would find it difficult to find the original receipt. The driving style here is assertive. The road edges are crumbling with storm drains almost a metre out from the side. We need to get off the main roads before we end our days here.
We skirt the capital Podgorica and pick up a river using the gps. I can see what we hope will be a minor road running along next to it. We catch a coffee and a bit of passive smoking in the last place in town ( if you were wondering if smoking was dying out. On the evidence of this trip, then not one bit – from Asia to northern Europe. ) I have found a very quick and visual way of showing the difference in where we come from to where we are. ” Scotland ” I say, and lift the hem of my Rapha shorts to reveal pale, almost white flesh. The day ends with the most perfect of wild camps in the edge of a field just harvested for hay.
A few ‘ dry coughs ‘ of thunder to make us put the fly on, but the night is perfect and we are up early. To aid this, I have kept my watch set to Greek time. My world is one hour ahead, and bedtime just after 9. Hoopee were the stars of our Europe ride last year. They are impossibly exotic birds, and the good news is they are back with us here. The village of Danilovgrad and we stop before the usual 30 km first coffee minimum distance.
We pick up a stunning little back road that runs next to an emerald green river. There are fig trees lining the road and patchwork small fields that are being sythed and worked for hay. Vegetable plots with rows of fine cabbage and potatoes and strings of beans. I can not help thinking this all looks like a good life being lived. To add to our mellow feeling of contentment, the main road can be quite clearly seen. It is busy and has several short hard climbs. If you were looking for a definition of ‘ smug ‘, this comes quite close.
Our perfect valley ends abruptly with a wall of rock and a lot of smugness is lost. The road is forced into a concertina of Z’s to make the grades acceptable. At the top, we are at an altitude of 700m, and keep most of it as we do a small drop onto a plane, and into the town of Kličevo, near Nikčis, for ice cream. A short day, but so what. A campground with the promise of hot showers and cold beer.
Problem is that the showers are also cold. I stand naked with a hand under the water that is coming from the shower head. If anything it is getting colder. Sod it and thrice sod it. But wait a minute. If life on the road has taught me anything, and after all, that was part of the reason for doing this. It has taught me that many plumbers are colour blind or possessing of a strange sort of humor. You will be amazed at the number of times when red is cold and blue hot, and so it is once more. That may save your holiday sometime and you will thank me.
Esther wakes with a problem ” I have Rhinestone Cowboy in my head “. This is worryingly early in the day to have an ‘ earworm ‘ and I try to calm her. ” That is a classic by Glen Campbell, It could be worse, it could be opera”. She is not a fan of country music and actually looks to be in some pain. This has been our first sleep under apple trees and as usual, we have slept well.
It is just 17’c, which is a joy beyond measure. We start the day at 650m and it is ever upward from then on. 700m, 800m and at 950m the road drops down and all that work is lost. I can see a line in the trees, a gash where the road goes back up the mountain. Esther asks me if I want to know how much we have to climb to, ” Is it a good number. Javorak Pass is not a good number. By great good fortune, a bar comes along and we deserve a coffee. The number of local beers we have drunk on our trip must now run into the hundreds. At the next table a group who will be driving and using firearms quite shortly has settled in for the ‘ full Montenegro breakfast ‘. Another cuckoo, will they ever stop?
Now, as we climb higher, it is thundering. The high mountains give it a rumble and menacing resonance as the sound is bounced around. It is just 15’c, and at just shy of 1,200m we are at the top. Rain starts to fall and for all the world it looks like new snow could fall on the peaks around us. Thick woodland, grey in the cold light, it could not be more like home.
We stop for food. There is a fire lit, ” A fire in July! “, the locals are huddled around it. GOULASH it is there on the menu. This is the first and furthest south goulash in Europe and I point this out to the owner. It is a marketing angle he is unaware of till now.
We ride on through a highland landscape. Just off the road is a monastery and we take a look. It looks almost brand new. Clean, dressed stone and perfectly pointed. It is too perfect. I guess we are used to our monuments with the signs of age. This one has been tarted up and I am not sure I like what they have done. Inside, and it is another world and you can not believe it is held in this building.
I don’t know when you can define something as a gorge rather than a valley, but within a few kilometres there is little doubt that we are now in a gorge. Tree cover is now so dense it gives no sign of where one tree stops and he next begins. The air is full of birdsong. The walls of what is now quite defiantly a gorge, become even steeper. This area has the two deepest gorges in Europe and we are in one of them now. The tunnels start. It is the only way to get a road through. The river now looks like a thread of blue wool laid out way down below us.
At one point, after what could be 40 tunnels, the road drops steeply. We can see where we are aiming for and it is a frighteningly long way down. We drop like a ball in a ‘ pin ball machine’, diving through archways and short tunnels. We can not stop, from the moment we started the gorge there has been little room even to pull over. We are forced on and do much further than we intended. It is breathtaking, quite one of the trip highlights, but we are spat out just a few hundred metres from the Bosnian border, and now it is starting to rain.
We sit down at one of the cluster of cafes and rafting centres. Now it really starts to rain, and we upgrade from camping in a flooded car park to a cheap bed. 1,140m of climbing today and yet it has been such a perfect day. Rain hits the roof above our heads. It sounds like a car being driven up a gravel driveway, from the point of view of someone trapped in the boot.
The clouds are piling into the border town of Sčepan Polje, hanging low, and are now depositing all the water that they have picked up in the plains to the south. Rafting will be fun, but technical in the morning. We eat a bar of Milka chocolate, an apple and it is washed down with holy water that we put in our bottles back at Piva monastery. Desert is taken in the Roman way, supine in bed.
Within 10 minutes of starting, we have done border formalities and are riding in Bosnia. We had been warned about our safety in Bosnia back when we rode into Kosovo. Do not go there, was the advice from the border guard, not safe for English and German. Cyclists riding the other way have been offered similar advice in Bosnia by no less than the US attaché. ” Do not go to Kosovo “, was the advice. Oh, it is so complicated. The bottom line is, this is a wonderful area with people who wave and say hello and are friendly and giving to travelers.
Homes are dug into the sides of the mountains at unlikely heights and angles. ‘ How the heck do they get there? ‘ We are now in apple country, and the bees are loving the warmth of the day. We enter the small town of Foča. It is Sunday and the old women are dressed in somber clothing. Two sit on a bench under a tree and another National Geographic cover is wasted as the camera stays in the bag.
We stop at a cafe, check emails and have a look at Google map on the WWW. We have lost track of where we are in the world and need to check. Monaco, Florence in Italy are about level with us and we are higher than Toulouse in France. We are further up Europe than I thought. Hurrah for us. We ride on through the largest area of broadleaf natural forest in Europe. There are bear and wolf still here and today it looks and smells wonderful. The day ends at the “Bavarian Hotel” and a pitch overlooking the river and again under an apple tree.
Cold in the morning, very single digit cold until the sun climbs over the brim of the valley. We have one pass between us and Sarajevo. By 750m it is hot and I am wondering where all the cool of the morning went. I keep my helmet on and try to stay on the bike until 800m. It is a mind game, I know I will cheat and go beyond 800m if I can. I need to know I can have break after this effort. Then the road cheats, it goes down and I watch the altimeter fall.
It pitches up again and I am cursing its foul play. I am thinking of the bar of soap in my bag that we have just bought. It weighs the same as a jacket potato for two, and is the same shape. It is being cursed and so is the recent purchase of a bag of sugar. I play the same games all the way to the 1,000m point. I am also dwelling on the fact that at the last town I did not have my glasses on and have taken out two months average salary worth in Bosnian Marks by accident.
It is July the 1st and the latest Cuckoo is Bosnian and we reach the pass at 1172m. The descent is perfect. Perfect surface, perfect landscape and most perfectly it is not raining. We stop at a bar for coffee and enter a fug of blue smoke. A dozen of the hardest men you could ever meet sit with beers in one hand and cigaretts in the other. They greet us and we sit and take in the world. They are shaped by wind and heat and hard lives. I could guess their ages but could be out by twenty years. None would be first choice if I was looking for a baby sitter. To a man they have the deepest gravel voices I have ever heard.
We drop down almost without turning a pedal towards Sarajevo. The first Mosques and then on the outskirts of the city there are tower blocks. I am stunned by he amount of shell damage and bullet holes. We enter the city and everywhere your eye rests there are bullet holes. The city is beautiful and vibrant now, full of busy bars and cafes. You know that if you are looking at anyone over the age of 18, who lived here during the siege, then there lives have been extraordinary. They have been through times beyond reason, and have witnessed things unimaginable. They were captive here for longer than we have been on this trip and riding these bikes. It is an impossible thought. Almost 3 1/2 years captive here and under fire from snipers and shelling from the hills surrounding the city. It takes a lot of understanding this area of the world.