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Old 10-13-2013, 12:55 PM   #1
pip_muenster OP
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Exploring the Balkans

With the summer almost gone heading south towards the Balkan seemed wise to find both dirt roads and great landscapes without freezing too much.



From time to the time the work caught up with me and I had to do some office work ...



... but on the other hand I found some great tracks.



Now that the trip is over the photos need to be sorted, so I thought I could as well start a report, if you don't mind.
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Old 10-13-2013, 03:24 PM   #2
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September 2013

It only stopped raining after we'd been riding through Germany and most of Austria and got off the autobahn near Villach. We decided not to camp, but to find a B&B or a hotel for the night, as it was already dark. Between the Garmin GPS and both our cell phone maps Maddin and I had about 30 to 40 alternatives to choose from. However, we were turned away everywhere. "No vacancies" and "we're fully booked" they told us. To save time, I decided to call them one by one: "Maddin, what's the country code for Austria?"

No luck. "It's because of the world championship, you know." - "What?!" - "Well, we've got the senior's world championship in tennis in town ..."

So we set up camp at night which isn't as bad if you have a head-lamp. The site was clean and right below a church. Then we walked into the village and convinced the inn keaper to re-open his kitchen for our dinner. A few beer and shots completed the day.




We were woken up around 7am by the church bell. I have no idea why, but it wouldn't stop. So I took the bike, pushed it down the hill to the front gate and asked someone for a bakery or supermarket. He gave me directions and I felt a bit stupid when finding it right next to the inn, and no more than maybe 500m from our tents.
Back at the camp our neighbour offered us a table and chairs to use, as his family was still asleep. Even the weather was good and we enjoyed the first sunshine in days.


The day before we had spent at Chris' home, one of Maddin's friends. Chris is an avit Tenere rider, and when he checked out my bike for some BMW-bashing, he immediately pointed out that my rear brake pads wouldn't last through the trip. That was strange as I clearly remembered checking the bike and both the front and rear brakes.
Anyway, he was right, and when we saw a bike dealership I motioned Maddin to stop, so I could check if they had brake pads in stock. The dealer did some phone calls and sent me to a parts store a few kilometers back to where we came from, and I bought pads for front and rear, just to be save. The old pads would still be ok for a while, meaning that I could just change them whenever I had the opportunity.
So what had happened with the pads? Expecting long asphalt stretches with occasional gravel roads here and there, I originally intended to ride a GS, and I may have checked that bike's brakes. The XC had been sitting in the garage most of the time since it's last service after the Morocco trip, so I basically took for granted that it would be up for the job. This made me thinking what else I should have checked prior to the trip ...

Maddin's GPS lead us onto nice secondary roads into Slovenia, where we stopped to draw some money from an ATM and have lunch. The restaurant had bear ragout on the menu, and I couldn't resist.
For some reason I had been reading an old book from my childhood, where at some point the main characters were enjoying bear meet, described as the best you could get. Granted, the author had never eaten bear when writing that book, but still, this was the chance for me to find out.

I've had better.




We had to detour due to road construction - leading us on even smaller roads - and found a nice small camp ground at the end of the day. It was basically just someone's back yard. With no other guests around, the offered us to camp in their garage to keep things dry and brought us some charcoal to use their BBQ. The place was really neat and tidy, highly recommended.
(KAMP VRHPOLJE, Vrhpolje 42, 5271 Vipava, Slovenija, at 45 51.85N, 13 57.67E)




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Old 10-13-2013, 03:38 PM   #3
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Maddin had been a little sceptical with the camp site, as it was again right next to a church, but this morning we weren't woken up by the bells.
Our destination for the day were the Plitvice Lakes in northern Croatia, UNESCO World Heritage, and home of a variety of both fauna and flora, including brown bears and wolves. They were also the location for a few Karl May movies (German-French-Yugoslav production) filmed in the 1960ies, including 'The Treasure of Silver Lake' - which was one of the reasons why I had been digging into my childhood books again.

It was another day of small roads, as also lots of trees and corners. Apart from that, I don't remember much. We didn't even had to stop at the border to Croatia. When the sun set, a supermarked provided food and beer for dinner. Finally we arrived at the lakes and had to set up tents again in the dark. Here's Maddin, firing up his stove:



The next morning we went into the park where you could spend days walking and exploring. There are some tourist 'busses' based on Unimogs with trailers which help getting around. Despite the noise I strongly recommend sitting in the truck itself as it has much better suspension than the trailers.



The tracks along the lakes are build of suspended wood, and barely wide enough for two people. It kind of reminds me on a short story by Ray Bradbury (A Sound of Thunder), where time travelers are using levitating paths to avoid disrupting the past.
An endless line of people moved along this path, making it a nightmare to take photos. Even when no one would photo-bomb your photo, you couldn't hold the camera steady as the wood was flexing under the trampling masses.






There was also a lot of fish in the lakes. At one point I put my camera into the clear water - these fish might be up to about 30cm (1ft) long.



It was already mid-afternoon when we left the park, so we decided to get going and head down route 1 towards Zadar. It would turn into a highway towards the end, but there was a nice twisty mountain pass which we could use instead, maybe even offering some gravel.
Our experience had teached us that it would become dark within minutes after sunset, and since we wouldn't be able to finish the pass in daylight, we stayed on the road instead and took a detour to avoid the highway.

So for once, we could set up tents without our flashlights, when we found a nice small camp site in Posedarje (44 12.8N 15 29.4E). We were the only guests, and had a nice talk with the owner. Again, the place was clean and in good shape. He said there wouldn't be space for even a tent in high season ...
Later we headed into town to find a supermarket and had fresh fish for dinner in a local restaurant. The day ended back at the camp site with its owner who invited us to this home-destilled liquor.

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Old 10-13-2013, 06:43 PM   #4
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Awesome scenery. Thanks for the report.
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Old 10-14-2013, 11:39 AM   #5
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We had discussed our options the night before and found out that the mountain pass I wanted to ride was crossing the mountain Mali Alan which again happened to be one of the locations for a Karl May movie (Winnetou). So the pass it was.



Leaving the road to look for the exact film locations didn't seemed that interesting anymore when we saw these signs. Being of strategical importance in the last war the pass had been a frontline and mined:



Nevertheless the landscape was beautiful.



Another traffic jam ...





From there we went to Khin and further on to the Perucko reservoir lake, which should have a nice gravel road with great views on the lake. We both had a Garmin GPS with the latest update of its Europe map on it, but for some reason there were often some smaller roads which wouldn't show up on either his or mine. Mine lead us through the middle of a small village before we found the road around the lake - it felt like riding through people's backyards, but nobody cared.



Tomorrow, Maddin would have to go back to Germany, so we found us a room in a small hotel to sort out our gear. From now on, I was on my own.
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Old 12-30-2013, 06:59 PM   #6
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Well, work had cought up with me and after flying 8 times across the Atlantic ocean within less than 2 months I had been in a constant state of jet lag. I'm also trying a new photo sharing service, so let me know if you experience problems with the photos.
Anyway, time to get the story going again ...

We discussed road options over breakfast and it was almost noon when we said goodbye and hit the road.



My plan was to head down the coast to Metkovnic, then aim towards Mostar, Gacko and Foca. This route was completely marked with a green sideline in my map, indicating its beauty.
The Adriatic Sea was as beautiful as I had it in mind. Traffic was not too bad and I could just roll along, occasionally overtaking a truck or car here and there.





Near Komin, the roads leaves the coast and follows the Neretva river. For a few kilometers, both sides of the street are flanked by booths selling fruits, vegetables and honey. The fact that everything was packed into the same type netting, with same color and size kind of repelled me. This looked more like an organized tourist scam, rather than farmers selling their crops themselves.
Following the river towards Mostar, I also noticed the first mosque on this trip.



Arriving at Mostar, my mood was immediately dampened by the traffic. I also had my first (and only!) encounter with a dude trying to force some money out of me, just because I used a parking lot to do a U-turn. I don't know if he was the attendant or just happened to sit under a tree there.
So I turned around and left the city. I learned later, that the old city is known to be quite nice with a famous bridge young people use as a jumping plattform - but back then, it was just a traffic jam for me.
Spending some time prior to the trip to learn about the countries you're about to see and possible routes and locations to visit does add a lot to any trip, and I know that. But most of the time I don't find the time or am just too lazy and end up missing a lot.
That's not as bad as it sounds, as I spend most of my vacation in Europe and visiting a place twice or more often is no problem. This was my second trip to this region and I'd love to a few more!

From Mostar my route lead past the Blagaj fort on top of a steep mountain after a few kilometers.





Then my GPS asked me to do a U-turn which seemed odd. I decided to go on and see what the road signs would say, or if the device would re-calculate. It did, and told me to turn left onto a small dirt track. I stopped, consulted the map and accepted that the GPS was right. So dirt track it was.





The GPS lead me through a network of these tracks, often including 90-degree turns here and there. At some point the track led up a small, but steep crest and consisted of solid rock here and there, covered in loose gravel and pebbles.
The rear wheel dug into it, but the TKC80 couldn't get enough grip. I pulled the brake and did some gymnastics to keep my right foot on the rear brake, but it didn't help. The bike and me were slipping back down the slope.
So here, on a simple dirt track, just hours after saying goodbye to Maddin, I hit the dirt. It wasn't really a crash as I'd been almost stationary, and the bike was leaning against the side of the rut it was sitting in, but technically it was my first off since buying the bike.
As often I forgot to take a photo of the incline and all I have is this one a few meters further after the pebbles turned back to ordinary gravel.



A bit later I had to stop to figure out where the track was continuing. According to the GPS, I had diverged from the track a few hundred meters back, but I knew that I hadn't past a crossing. The trail I was on led into a dried out river bed, only to lead up the over bank maybe 50m further down. Then, on the other side I just had to cross a field to reconnect with a larger road.
Zooming into Google Earth tells me that there is in fact a bridge worth seeing, build in the 16th century (43 14.57N / 18 13.90E). Well, next time.


(from here: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/94061303)

I got back on the road to Gacko and then towards Foca. The shadows got longer and the temperatures dropped as I followed a valley into the mountains. This was the Sutjeska national park, one of the last primeval forests in Europe, but declared as a park because of it being the site of a historic battle, acc. to Wiki.



All I cared for at this time was a little red triangle on my map, indicating a camp site and possibly some warm food and a hot shower. A few kilometers before Popov Most I saw a restaurant with a camping sign and went in to ask for a spot. The owner spoke almost perfectly English and a few words of German, too. He explained that there wasn't really a camp site, but I was welcome to set up my tent for free in his garden, where I would find electricity and water. With the help of my head lamp the tent was erected within minutes and shortly after I found myself sitting in his restaurant, enjoying the Bosnian hospitality and browsing through the menu. If you're interested, the restaurant is about here: 43 22.14N / 18 42.04E.
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Old 12-31-2013, 01:41 AM   #7
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Old 01-01-2014, 02:05 PM   #8
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I was up early the next day and rushed packing up to enjoy the morning hours. Getting up early is much easier if you're traveling alone ... so I had packed the bike and eaten breakfast in the nearby hotel before 8 o'clock.



It was quite foggy, but when the road climbed up from the sole of the valley I left the fog below and was greeted with sunshine. At a corner with an outlook over the valley I met another biker who had spent the night in a hotel in Foca.



We discussed road options and he explained he was aiming for the Sutjeska War Monument. As that would have meant going back through the fog to Tjentiste, I passed and continued my way north.


(from here)

I crossed the river near Foca and continued towards Montenegro. It was a great feeling, riding through the fresh morning air on the small empty mountain road with the fog down in the valley below me. The border guard asked for my passport and green (insurance) card, but waved me through when I indicated that it was under the seat.



I followed route 18 along the Drina river with more stunning views at every corner. The mountains, the fog and the tree silhouettes against the sunlight simply wowed me.







The road went over a reservoir dam where the cold air from the bottom of the valley was blown up across the road.



Then I turned east towards Mojkovac at probably the most scenic road junction I've ever seen, followed by a sequence of tunnels and switchbacks for the next few kilometers.



Apart from the occasional lonesome shepherd here and there I rarely met anyone up in the mountains.



But even here the people have found ways to enjoy live. Back in school my whole world turned around a basketball and I would have loved to take a shot or two. Anyone up for a 3-on-3 ADV tournament in the mountains - maybe next summer?






A bit later I spotted this perfect office near the road.



So I decided to stop and have a break to catch up with some emails & work ...



According to my map this was one of the most scenic routes in Montenegro and as if to prove this, I met more and more bikers on the road.





From Mojkovac I headed south, but left the main road at Kolasin now following a smaller side road to Podgorica.



As this road was barely wider than a car or truck I was reminded of an experience from an earlier trip to Montenegro in 2009: in no other Balkan country have I ever encountered so many cars racing around blind corners. Thus I always hugged my side of the street - and even then everytime someone was coming the other way, both vehicles had to break hard to avoid a crash.
At one time an unloaded 18-wheeler came around a corner so tight that there was no asphalt left for me and I had to swerve into the gravel on the side. Of course we both braked, but by the time he came to a stop I was already aside his rear axles.



A bit later I stopped to chat with to German bikers coming the other way. Their first question was if I'd met that crazy semi truck ...
Anyway, we exchanged road tips and admired each other's bikes. He was a KTM fan riding a nicely set up 990 and had even 'convinced' his wife to paint her 1150GS orange with matching 'Ready to Race' decals on her panniers. (I don't know if she actually had a say in that.)



The day ended in a small hotel in Sutomore as I wasn't in the mood for a tedious camp search. This also gave me the chance to use WiFi and do some research and planning for the next days.
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Old 01-01-2014, 04:13 PM   #9
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Thanks for the great ride report! I am planning to travel down your route coming spring.
Looking forward to read and see more!
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Old 01-02-2014, 01:33 AM   #10
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Yes , great RxR Pip

I too will be traveling some of your route in May/June next year on my round the Black Sea trip.

Great pics and info , looking forward to the next installment

Phil
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Old 01-02-2014, 01:59 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PHILinFRANCE View Post
I too will be traveling some of your route in May/June next year on my round the Black Sea trip.
Thanks Phil, ADV67, you'll enjoy your tour! I'd love to see Montenetro and Albania in late spring / early summer, but there's little chance for me to get time off ...
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Old 01-02-2014, 03:06 PM   #12
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On my first trip in 2010 I had missed the ferry along lake Koman which everybody had strongly recommended to me because of the scenery. So this ferry had become the only real checkpoint on my itinerary for this trip. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when my internet research brought up that the ferry had sunk in 2011. Rough translation from the German article: 'We were surprised by the water. The ferry sunk within 4 minutes.'

Today there are 1 or 2 smaller passenger ferries which may have enough space to take a few motorbikes on board as it can be seen on this photo from a tourist website:


But there were also a few reports and photos describing that bikes had almost been dropped while boarding. The overall picture was bad.
So I decided against it and planned to rush instead towards Kukes by road and take it slowly from there.


The coast of Montenegro is very different from the rest of the country. Traffic is terrible and hotels etc. are everywhere. The only benefit for me was that I could pay in Euro and that you could buy about everything. So I stopped at a small garage to have them change my rear brake pads which at this point were completely worn out. Of course I could have done that myself, but I guessed it would be faster using an actual punch and hammer than just a rock ...

The border crossing was eventless and soon I was on the highway to Kukes. From here I headed towards Peshkopi, a nice mountain route which had been fun in 2009 due to gravel and construction sections. By now, the construction had been completed and the whole stretch was a perfect asphalt race track for the taxis and minibusses connecting the numerous small villages in-between.
As long as you watched carefully for the occasional sand and debris in the corners from lorries or small landslides, this would have been extremely fun on a supermoto or even in a sportscar (No idea why Top Gear didn't take this one - I at least had more fun than on the Transfagarasan pass.

The thing I loved most about these small towns in Albania was that everybody waved friendly, especially all the children walking along the road back home from school.





Another road hazzard were bunches of crops laid down by the farmers to be threshed by the car tires.





My goal for today was lake Ohrid where I planned to enjoy the tasty trouts, and the direct route would lead me through Macedonia (FYROM). That however would be a problem as Macedonia was one of the few countries in Europe requiring a passport from EU citizens - and I had left mine at home.
So I picked a smaller route around which turned almost instantly into gravel.







I was a bit a anxious meeting these sheep as there were guard dogs, but no shepherd in sight, and I had basically to drive straight through them. That went ok, but the dogs really had fun chasing the strange biker.







The road condition changed here and there, but all in all this would have been possible even on a heavily loaded GS. I guess the freshly graded constructions sites would have been the largest problems.



I got back on asphalt near Librazhd and turned east towards lake Ohrid. From my last trip I new that there was a nice fish restaurant with a camp site near its southwest end.
Once at the lake I was shortly stopped by a road barricade. It seemed they were doing some construction work, maybe blasting away some rocks to widen the road. Since everybody would just ignore a blocking truck if there would be a way around, they had cleverly chosen a spot ontop a trench.
I rolled to the front, removed the helmet and eyeballed the trench. It wouldn't be much of a problem, but the truck driver indicated for me to wait as it would only take a few more minutes ...



Finding the restaurant was easy and I set up the tent almost exactly where I had camped 3 years ago (40 57.99N 20 38.57E). Then I celebrated the day with fresh trout and beer.



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Old 01-02-2014, 11:19 PM   #13
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Great RR. Beautiful country.
Thank you.
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Old 01-03-2014, 12:57 AM   #14
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Keepit coming great
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Old 01-03-2014, 09:53 AM   #15
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Both in 2010 and 2013 I had been reluctant to go to Albania: Travel guides, the foreign office - they all painted the picture of a dangerous place, where there is no law and everybody's on his own. So again, the plan I had made up the night before had me going through Albania in a day, head east towards Romania and then circle back to Germany somehow.

And just as 3 years ago, a single day in the country had changed my mind. I figured it would be much more fun to stick around a bit and skip the part through Romania etc.

My tent was staked next to a dream of an expedition vehicle based on a Landrover Defender. For breakfast I was invited for a coffee and some stories from their tours through Africa. More importantly, they described their previous day on a track coming from the west. As it was barely used, they had to clear fallen trees from the track and build ramps to cross erosion trenches. And after spending the night in the middle of nowhere it took them 6+ hours to cover the last 80km.
I was stoked, surely it would be much quicker on a bike, right? We transfered their GPS track to my Garmin and they also gave me a tip about a great website to look for similar routes around the world: wikiloc.com.

The track would start in Korca, about 40km to the south. I stopped at an ATM and a gas station as I was low on fuel. Most gas stations had MasterCard or VISA stickers on their pumps, so I thought I could stretch my cash a bit using a card.
However, none of them actually accepted credit cards, it was cash only. There was a gas station about every 3km along the road, and I made it a game to see if I could find a station accepting a card. Not surprisingly it took me a while to get to Korca. According to my GPS, I had stopped at 15 gas stations ... only to finally pay in cash.

Livestock market somewhere along the route:



I wonder if dressing up the goat with blue ribbons helped with the sale ... He sure seemed delighted about his 'catch'.



The track started near a gravel pit.



There were also a number of small villages, and the track was their only connectiion to the outside world.



I struggled a bit with this ascend, as I had picked a bad line and stopped right in its most slippery part to take a photo ...





Most of the time the track was easy with just a few pot holes here and there. Some were a bit deeper and I often tried to figure out the line the Defender had taken.







Everytime I saw branches or fallen trees I wondered if they'd been left by the Defender.



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