Rocky beaches and seafood

Day 61 – Saturday 24th of August – Omis (0km)

We got up very late, happy not to have to wake up to sound of the alarm clock at 7 am for another day of riding, and spent the day doing what I had come to Croatia to do – nothing.

We took the sleeping mats and our books and headed down to the beach. We were in an area just two kilometers from Omis, with a lot of apartments, and we were a bit afraid that the beach might be too crowded, as beaches are somewhat hard to find in Croatia, most of the coast are just jagged rocks where it is very hard to take a swim, but it was a very nice surprise to find that there was a lot less people than we had feared and the atmosphere was very quiet and relaxed. We laid down our mats and spent the whole day sunbathing, reading and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea.

In the evening we rode to the center to find a place to have a seafood dinner. I had spent one of the best holidays of my life in Croatia years back, and one of the things I remembered most fondly was having such a meal in Omis.

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We found a nice restaurant in a narrow street in the old town, and enjoyed a huge platter of fresh seafood and fish. After that we bought a couple of ice creams and then walked up a steep narrow path cut into the rock to the town’s fortress, where a concert was just finishing. It was already dark and there was a beautiful view of the city from the top.

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Riding back to the apartment, I remembered how, when I was preparing the trip and seeing that I had no budget left for a pair of extra spotlights for the motorbike, I had told myself that I would not ride at night, and here I was, not only riding at night, but riding in shorts, flip-flops, a short-sleeved shirt and a passenger. After so many days of stifling heat and freezing cold in the bulky riding suit, feeling the warm sea breeze on my arms and legs was a wonderful sensation.

The Mostar Bridge

Day 60 – Friday 23rd of August – Sarajevo to Omis (290km)

It was not a long way to Croatia, but we set off early because we wanted to stop and visit Mostar and its famous bridge and also because we had not booked anywhere to stay in Croatia, the plan was to get to the coast and then ride north until we found a place we liked and try to find an apartment or a room there, as there is a lot of offer and it should not be difficult to find something.

Riding out of Sarajevo we discovered that it is a much bigger city than we had imagined when we were visiting the center, it extended to the south before turning into suburbs and industrial areas and then the hills closed around us again and we were on twisty roads, enjoying the nice weather. After a while the road wound its way into a canyon following a river that further down flowed under the bridge in Mostar. The scenery was amazing, a winding road along an emerald river with majestic grey-white cliffs on both sides. When the canyon finally opened into a wider valley we found the town, or rather city. It was bigger than I thought, in fact it is the fifht biggest city in the country, and as usual, we rode through some uninteresting suburbs before finding the old town. We rode down a cobbled street following the signs that pointed towards the Stari Most until we came to a point where we could not ride any further. I was turning the bike around to go back up the street and find a place to park when a boy gestured me to ride onto a bar’s terrace where there were already four motorbikes parked. It seems the owner of the bar, seeing the country was a popular destination for riders, had smelled business and decided to use the terrace as parking space. We left the bike in the shade and under the eye of the barman for a couple of Euros (that price was for the whole day if we had wanted to stay) and walked a few meters down the street to find the bridge.

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The first impression was that it was a very crowded tourist spot, there were a lot of people standing on the bridge, so many in fact that it was difficult to make our way onto it, but then we saw the reason so many people had congregated at the same time on the bridge itself and on both banks – a young man in swimming trunks was getting ready to jump off into the ice cold river below. He dosed himself with cold water from a hose to get ready, stepped over the railings, clapped his hands a few times to get everybody cheering and flexed his legs as silence fell over the crowd watching. Then he jumped up and forward, spreading his arms like wings and arching his back as he stood in the air for a fraction of a second before plunging into the river more than 20 meters below. It seems that it is traditional for young men to dive from the bridge into the river, there are formal competitions organized every summer, a diving club in a house by the bridge, and it dates all the way back to the bridge’s construction, in the 16th century.

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We visited the rest of the old town, including an exhibition with photographs of the city before, during and after the war, and a video of the destruction of the bridge. During the Bosnian war, the town saw fighting between the army of Bosnia I Herzegovina and the Croatian army on one side, and the Yugoslav’s People Army. The Croatian army bombed and destroyed the bridge claiming that it was of strategic importance, although the action is mostly considered to be an act against Bosnian cultural heritage. After the war it was reconstructed and it stands as a symbol of the union between cultures in the country.

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We left the town under the intense summer heat and stopped one last time before crossing the border to spend what we had left of Bosnian money on petrol and a bottle of water; we had some lunch sitting in the shade of some trees by the petrol station and then rode to the border. The crossing was the easiest one I had done outside the EU – I handed the guard the passports, and the moment she saw they were EU passports she waved us through. After a short ride we finally saw the sea, and started making our way up the coast. We had decided to skip Dubrovnik, as it meant riding almost 90km south and then back up again, I had already seen the city and it was swarming with tourists this time of the year, as all Mediterranean cruises call on its port. Instead, we decided to try and get as close as possible to Split. By late afternoon we had made it to Omis, a beautiful fishing town a few kilometers from Split and once a pirate haven, where we tried to find accommodation. The idea was to try and rent a room in the center, so we could walk back to bed if we went out for dinner or for a beer, but all the places where we asked were out of our budget. In the end we rode for just a couple of kilometers out of town and found an apartment with a view to the sea, two minutes away from the beach on foot and with internet connection at a very reasonable price, so we took it for four nights.

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Sarajevo

Day 59 – Thursday 22st of August – Sarajevo (0km)

The previous day we got to Sarajevo late, tired and cold, and I had resigned myself to not having time to visit the city, even though I really wanted to, so it was not very difficult to come to the decision of staying for an extra day while we were having dinner.

The following morning we told the woman who ran the guest house where we were staying and she said there was no problem. We went to visit the city I so much wanted to see and I was not disappointed; the good first impressions I had got the day before and I quickly fell in love with the place – the looks, the history, the people, the atmosphere… it worked its magic on me in a matter of minutes and I was hooked and determined to go back some day in the future and spend a holiday discovering the country.

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We visited the Old Town, a permanent exhibition about the Srebenica massacre, the Martyr’s Memorial Cementery, some of the bridges over the Milijacka river…

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Seeing how lively the city was, it was hard to imagine that not that long ago, between 1992 and 1995, the city had suffered the longest siege in modern war history, a siege that put its inhabitants under constant fear for their lives, living day in, day out under artillery and sniper’s fire from the Serbian troops in the hills surrounding the city. There are still scars if you look for them, virtually all buildings in the city suffered damaged during that period and the repairs are visible on some of them, while other still wear the scars left by the siege clearly on their walls.

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The woman who owned the guest house where we were staying, Nadia, told us she had lost seven members of her family during the siege, but that previous to the war, all cultures had peacefully coexisted in city for ages and, according to her, all the hatred that sparked the war was caused solely by politicians.

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In the afternoon we walked up a hill to see the city in the evening light, and found a viewing point in an old fortress overlooking the city where several locals had gathered to see the sunset. We spent some time there and on the way down, a kitten coming out from a nearby house drew our attention. I stopped and it came straight to me, which is unusual for most cats. It was one of those very rare cats that behave more like a dog, and it let us pick it up and stroke her, for it was a her.

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We took her for a walk with us, and she was as happy as a kitten can be, purring loudly all the time. We called here Sara, for Sarajevo, and even toyed with the idea of staying in the city an extra day to get the proper paperwork done and take her with us back to Barcelona, but she was clean and well taken care of, it was clear that she lived in the house she had jumped out of, so in the end we let her go back to her owner.

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We had dinner out that night too, and after that we went for a beer and sat down at a place with shisha pipes, where we spent a long time laughing and thinking about the last ride the following day, after which we would finally stop and rest for a few days.

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What a difference a day makes

Day 58 – Wednesday 21st of August – Belgrade to Sarajevo (388km)

388 kilometers. It is not that much when compared to other days. I had been riding long enough and found roads that were bad enough to know that I could not afford to be too optimistic when calculating distance and time, but I was confident that we could make it to Sarajevo in good time to visit the city. It is a place with a history that is harrowing yet strangely fascinating at the same time, and I was very much looking forward to see with my own eyes a city I had read so much about. Alas, it was not to be.

I had already mentioned that among the things that we got stolen in Tallinn were the chargers for the camera. I had three batteries and along the trip had discovered that they lasted much, much longer than I thought, but the previous day the last of them was running low, so I was about to be left without a camera for one of the most interesting parts of the trip. After checking out we tried to get to a part of the center where the guy who ran the hostel had told us we might find a shop that sold what we needed, but as it was to be expected, it was impossible on the bike. We gave up and decided to leave as it was already getting late. Right after crossing the bridge, we saw the shopping center the girl at reception had mentioned the day before, so we decided to stop and have one last go at finding a charger. There was only one electronics shop and I was told that the only two things I could do was to try and Google the Serbian distributor for Canon or go to a shop in the center where I could… wait for it… get a charger made. Resigned to not having a camera for the time being, and seeing that it was almost midday, I decided to leave.

Getting out of Belgrade turned out to be as much of a nightmare as getting in, and we lost a lot of time. Once on the open road, things were not much better, there was not a lot of traffic, but Serbians take things very easy behind the wheel, and nobody was in much of a hurry to overtake the trucks, so we made slow progress for the first 150km, until we got to a crossroads where I stopped for fuel and then, following the petrol station staff’s advice on which route had less traffic, took a smaller road to the border. We went to several small cities and villages that looked more as if they belonged in Siberia than in Europe, and the only interesting bit of road came when we finally got to the kind of hills I had been expecting to find in this country, already near the border. I had a bit fun there, but the day was cloudy and I was too cold and tired to really enjoy it, and Nat was freezing. To make things worse, a few kilometers from the border we missed a turning that was not as obvious as it should have been for a road leading to a major international border crossing, since I was concentrating on safely passing an idiot on a silver Polo that had been slowing down a line of ten cars and as we got to an uphill section with a passing lane, had suddenly decided he wanted to drive much faster. As a result of that, we drove for several kilometers the wrong way before finding a place to stop, check the paper map against the GPS, find out where we were and ride back to the crossroads.

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By the time we got to the border it was already late, we had more than 150km to get to Sarajevo and we were both cold and tired. However, just as crossing from Hungary into Serbia the vibes I got from the new country changed, things changed again riding into Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this time for the better, despite the looks of the border on the Bosnian side, which was nothing more than a few metal sheds.

We met a couple of Germans riding on a GS650 and chatted to them while waiting to cross the border, which always makes you feel better on the road, then the sun came out and the Bosnian border guard came back with our passports, gave us a friendly smile and waved us past the boom and into a gorgeous landscape. The road from the border was simply amazing – it followed a canyon on the river Drina and I immediately fell in love with the place. After a while we got away from the river and climbed into a landscape of rolling hills. This was the last new country I was going to visit in this trip, and it went to the top of my Most Beautiful European Countries together with Romania. We stopped one last time for petrol and when Nat went to pay and buy a country sticker she was greeted with lots of friendly questions about the trip, the guys at the petrol station had seen all the other stickers on the panniers and wanted to know if she had been to all those countries. I rode to Sarajevo in the sunset, waving back at little kids in small villages that made gestures for us to rev up the bike. A gentle twist of the throttle provoked wide smiles.

We got to Sarajevo as it was getting dark, and I was pleased to see that it was a lot more relaxed than Belgrade regarding traffic. While the streets were busy with traffic, drivers did not seem to be at all stressed, and there were cars and bikes parked everywhere and not a single traffic cop in sight. I immediately found the looks of the city fascinating, it had a mix of Muslim and Western cultures I had not seen anywhere else in Europe, and I had not been stopped for more than five minutes before people offered help with directions. Nat went to check us in at the hostel and then came back with a woman who barely spoke any English at all, who gestured me to follow her on the bike and then set off with Nat on foot at a very brisk pace. I turned the motorbike around on the pavement, started it and rode the wrong way down the street, which did not seem to bother anybody else, not pedestrians nor drivers. I followed her across a small square, a couple of streets and a bridge, while she stopped the traffic with more determination than many traffic wardens I have seen. We eventually got to a small house and she gestured me to ride around the back, where I found a garage door that she opened from the inside to allow me to ride me ride the bike into a backyard and park it right under the window of what was going to be our bedroom for the night.

It had been quite a day, and Nat was exhausted and so cold that she just collapsed on the carpet and covered herself in several blankets while I went out to find some take away food that I could take back to the hostel to have for dinner before going to bed. The hostel was by the river in the old town, so I just walked out the door, crossed the river and found a pedestrian street that was so lively with cafés, restaurants and bars that the only thing I could do was go back to the hostel, get Nat up from the carpet and go out for dinner.

Heat, misery and grime

Day 57 – Tuesday 20th of August – Budapest to Belgrade (379km)

It was a long way from Budapest to Belgrade, so we had decided to take the motorway. I had ridden most of that road on my way to Romania, and since it was about 500km to Ighiu and I wanted to take mountain roads once on the Romanian side, I had also taken the motorway and paid for a matrika, the vignette that allows you to use it. As this time we were trying to save as much money as possible, I decided to risk it and not pay for it. In any case, we had come all the way across Poland and the northern part of Hungary without getting one and nobody had stopped us (motorbikes were exempt from road tax in Slovakia). The ride to the border was quick and uneventful, at a point there were a few drops of rain, but seeing that it was sunny ahead I did not stop to put the rain gear on, and in a couple of hours we were at the border.

I had crossed 9 borders without stopping since leaving Russia and was getting used to the convenience of travelling within the EU, so I had almost forgotten the hassle of waiting for your passport and the bike’s documents to be checked while sitting in the sun in full riding gear. Fortunately, it did not take long, and we were handed back the stamped passports and a leaflet warning about police corruption with a hotline number to call in case we were stopped and had problems with the local police. Nice welcome.

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I had learned to trust first impressions when crossing into a new country based on lots of factors – landscape, border guards, drivers’ behavior, and gut feeling in general, and I got the impression that Serbia was a country that I was not going to enjoy much. We stopped for petrol and a couple of coffees at the first service station we found, and a man driving a BMW came over to say hello. He was from Liverpool, and was travelling to Bulgaria for the holiday with his wife, who was from there, and his mother-in-law. He was very enthusiastic about our trip and wished us the best of luck. For most of the ride to Belgrade, the landscape were flat, dull, sun-scorched fields, and the boredom was only momentarily broken by the occasional bit of road under maintenance. We stopped for one last break in another service station, where I bought a country sticker and had a chat with three boys who worked there, who also asked about the trip and said half jokingly half seriously that it would not be a good idea to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia with a Serbian sticker on the bike.

By the time we got to Belgrade the sun was a dull shade of gray, and it was unbearably hot, which did not help much with the first impression I got from the city. Things got a lot worse when, right after crossing a bridge over the Danube, the GPS said that we were only a few meters from the hostel. We were on a five-lane street, three lanes going up and two going down, with very narrow sidewalks, lined with tall buildings covered in thick dark grey soot from the traffic fumes, with absolutely nowhere to stop and no way of taking a U-turn to reach the hostel front door, which was on the opposite side of the street. The only thing I could do was to ride on and look for a place to turn around.

If you are planning to visit Belgrade by car or motorbike, don’t. Seriously. It is much worse than anything I saw in Russia or Ukraine. At least there, you could get around the traffic and pretty much do anything you needed to do to get to your destination – U-turns, riding on the pavement, parking anywhere – but Belgrade was full of traffic, there were traffic cops everywhere handing out fines to drivers who stopped anywhere that was not allowed, and it was not allowed virtually everywhere in the center. To make matters worse, there was no logic at all to the streets layout, and it was impossible to navigate your way back to a certain point once you had ridden past it, everything was no way, no turning, no stopping, no parking, no entrance, pedestrian area, dead ends… It was a nightmare. It took us a very long time to find a way to get back to the hostel street the right way, and when we managed to do it, I just put the motorbike on the pavement, effectively blocking people’s way and only inches away from speeding buses. Nat when to check we had got the correct address – in true Soviet style, there was no sign anywhere indicating there was a hostel there – and I prayed that no cop would decide to fine me in the meantime. She came back with bad news – there was nowhere to park the motorbike nearby. There was a shopping center, but it was on the other side of the river, and the girl at reception had no idea whether we could leave the bike there overnight. Hot, irritated and tired, I unloaded the bike while the buses charged down the street and then programmed the GPS to find the nearest car park. At that point I did not care how much it might cost to leave the bike there for the night. It indicated that there was one on the street just behind the building, but it took me a long time again to find a way to access that street. I finally made it to a multi-storey car park which did not seem to have much in the way of surveillance, made sure everything lockable was locked and chained it to a column. I got back to the hostel sweaty, tired, and with a deep dislike for the city. After a cold shower we went out for the rest of the afternoon and evening to visit the city, but I came to the conclusion that it had nothing to offer that justified the misery of riding or driving into it. And that is the first time on this trip I have felt this way.

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A well deserved break

Day 56 – Monday 19th of August – Budapest (0km)

I had already visited Budapest at the beginning of my trip, so now that I was back in the city there was only one thing I wanted to do, one thing I had not had time to do on my previous stay in the city – go to one of the city’s bath, and spend the day doing nothing but relaxing.

Well, there were in fact a couple of other things I wanted to do, but in the end only managed to do one of them. I needed to replace the rear brake pads and to tighten the chain, and I had been waiting to get to BikerCamp to do so, as there is space to work and you can borrow tools (which I no longer had after Tallinn…). Sleeping in a tent means that you wake up with the sun, so I was up early and had time to do that in the morning.

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The second thing I wanted to do was find a motorbike shop to buy a kidney belt, as my back was starting to feel the time on the road and I could no longer ride +200km non-stop, but this proved to be impossible. It was a national holiday and there was also a folk festival going on in the city, so everything but a few supermarkets was closed. Instead of going shopping we went for a walk in the city, but we could not go up to the citadelle, as there was the folk festival going on and we had to buy a ticket.

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It was a bit of a relief, mind you, as it was way to hot to walk all the way up. We had lunch and then splashed out on a wonderful frapuccino before heading for the baths.

There were several places to chose from, and in the end we settled for the Gellert baths, which were popular, in a very interesting building and had been recommended by a friend. The place was enormous, with several indoor and outdoor swimming and bathing pools, and after being kicked out from the indoor swimming pool for not wearing a cap, we went to the outdoor thermal bathing pool. The water was at a very pleasant 36ºC and there were water jets where I could massage my sore back, so we spent the rest of the day there, just relaxing, until it was closing time.

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By the time we left the place it was already dark, and the air was cool, so we decided to walk back to the camp instead of taking the metro. It had been one of the best days of the whole trip.

We did some shopping on our way and after dinner we found a hostel for our next destination – Belgrade. I was very excited about the following day, we were going to be out of the EU again and into a part of Europe that I had never seen before.

A ride-through country

Day 55 – Sunday 18th of August – Krakow to Budapest (393km)

Poor Slovakia. It is a beautiful country, with some of the best roads and landscapes I have seen on this trip, but it only gets a few lines and some pictures that do not do it any justice at all.

Our next stop was Budapest, which meant that we were going to cross Slovakia from north to south to get there but we would not spend a night in the country, so everything we saw was from the road. It made a great impression, the road was really enjoyable and there was very little traffic, so we had a great time riding through it.

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Also, I would like to congratulate the driver of a dark gray Suzuki Gran Vitara for his excellent driving manners. I was going to say ’99.9% of drivers…’ and most people who know me would think I am exaggerating, as I usually do, but if you take into account that I have been driving or riding for 15 years and have only seen two drivers behave like this, maybe even 99.9% is too low a figure. Anyway, 99.9% of drivers can drive fast on a straight line, any idiot can drive a modern car fast in  straight line – they just have to put their foot down and the car goes, not much more to it. However, the moment they see a corner approaching, they slow down to an irritating crawl, apparently thinking that their 60.000-thousand euro Audis equipped with a whole alphabet of safety acronyms are going to suddenly decide to fly off the road and send them and their beloved families through the gates of hell engulfed in a fire ball if they take the corner at anything other than walking pace. These are the most annoying people you can find on the road, as you are trapped behind them, suffering their total lack of driving skills, but the moment the road becomes straight and you have a chance to overtake them, the very limited part of their brains related to driving that controls their right foot makes the connection ‘straight line – safe’ and they floor it and disappear until they find the next corner. There is an extremely rare type of driver, however, that is aware that there are other people using the road, people who might want to travel faster than them on corners, and who tries to be as little of an annoyance as possible, This driver will go around corners at a reasonable speed in order not to make much of a nuisance of himself, but come a straight bit of road, he will slow down to let you pass. So thanks very much whoever was driving that Suzuki, and if there were more drivers like you in the world, the roads would be a much nicer place.

We stopped a few times in Slovakia for petrol, some food, an ice-cream, the country sticker, etc. and made it to Budapest in the early evening. We went back to that wonderful place that is BikerCamp, and before putting up the tent or even thinking about doing some shopping for dinner, I had a shower and we sat down to chat with some Italian bikers and enjoy a few beers.

Unfortunately, this meant that by the time we thought about the shopping, the supermarket was closed, so we had to go to one of those 24h grocery stores that always seem to have a few dodgy characters at the door drinking beer 24/7. Once we had filled the basket and were going to pay, they told us that they did not accept credit cards, and we did not have any local currency, so we had to leave the food there, find an ATM and then go back, all with an empty stomach and five beers affecting our reasoning ability.

In the end we managed to cook a meal that properly restored our energy (bacon, lots of bacon), and then went back to the beer and the interesting conversation.