Through Ex-Yugoslavia
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  Posted June 14th, 2015 by Zdenko  in Cycling, Travel | No comments yet.

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By: Snežana Radojičić

Pedaling across the world: Burek, potato pie and brandy
After entering Serbia the first thing we established as a tradition and a certain morning ritual was to get some burek and yogurt. Regardless of where we spent the night, in the morning we would go to the first town to find a bakery, even if it meant that we will have to ride hungry for an hour or longer. Me as an old, and Bryan as a new burek-lover never even thought of getting any snack before then – it was either burek with yogurt or nothing!

However, after entering Bosnia, our favorite breakfast has gotten a serious competition – potato pie. We were having a hard time choosing between the two. We were not ready to give up on burek with cheese (Bryan) and burek with no filling (me), while at the same time the Bosnian pie was luring us too. After a day or two we found a Solomonic solution: burek is our breakfast, while we buy potato pie for a snack. It was really cold, so we needed at least double the energy we usually consumed to continue driving anyways.

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Due to the cold that penetrated our bones whenever we stopped – especially when we worked up a sweat during a climb – we introduced the custom of drinking local brandy – a few sips on an empty stomach and just before going to bed and getting into our fat feathery sleeping bags, as we were now wearing a few layers of clothing for the first time since our tour started. The winter was seriously taking its hold.

Up until only a month or two ago it looked like it would never get cold and the days would never be this short. I was wondering what would we do when it started getting dark around 5pm? I was learning that, regardless of how much we sleep and eat, it is never enough. And if you are living outside and are under great physical strain, as was the case with us, you need much more strength and sleep in the winter, because most of our energy is spent on maintaining body warmth – this is what Bryan was teaching me. It looked like burek, potato pie and brandy were not enough.

It was in 1983 that I visited Sarajevo for the first and only time. I was part of the volunteering group that was working on the construction of the Olympics town. This same year is when Bryan first heard of Yugoslavia and the Balkans, also thanks to the Olympic Games, as the winter ones in Sarajevo preceded the summer games in Los Angeles, where he lived at the time. This coincidence was the main reason that we decided to pedal through the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Turkey?  Nope.  Ba¨?ar¨ija, Sarajevo

As we entered the town from the north-east through Vratnik, we were almost immediately at Barščaršija. Shiny, cobbled, narrow streets with ground floor shops that exhibited their goods in front of the entrance – scarves and kilims with oriental motifs, džezvas (coffee pots), fildžans (coffee cups), nargilas, minarets that stand up from behind the stone walls and wooden fences, the smell of brewed coffee and aromatic oils, men on comfortable pillows at low tables and benches, covered women… Aaaaah, eeeeeh, uuuuuuh! Sigh after sigh comes out of me as the Turkish gene is awakened while Bryan is enchanted with the irresistible charm of the East.

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From multiethnic town with the most entertaining folks in the world, Sarajevo grew into an international town where you can hear the English language in the street more often than any other south-Slavic language, at least in the center of the city. This is how it is possible that Vojtek, an Australian of Polish origin hosts us in the middle of Bosnia. He is on his one-year long motorcycle journey around the world and he made a stop here for the winter, until February, when he will embark on the expedition throughout Africa, but in a car.

We spend two days at his place, and since his flat is close to Baščaršija, we keep going back to it whenever we go out. Only after we say our farewells and start pedaling towards the Metkovic border crossing do we discover how spread out Sarajevo is – it takes us more than an hour to leave the town.

Around the border
Border police of the Bosnian Federation discovered our camp near the Neretva River on the same evening we set it up. Although we did not try to hide it, we still didn’t have an impression that any of the locals had noticed us. But border police has its ears and eyes everywhere, which is something we experienced more than once.

At the Polish-Ukraine border zone we were stopped and ID-ed twice in one day, and when they came back to our tent in the evening, they went through the whole interrogation and document checking procedure all over again. A similar thing happened after we crossed the Hungarian-Serbian border in Tekija, where we had camped on the beach.

This is why we were not too surprised when in the evening, after we were tucked into our sleeping bags; we heard some vehicles stop by the river, just a few meters away from our tent. The driver was stepping on the gas while breaking, drove backwards, tried out the brakes on the small gravel plateau, and then directed the car lights towards our tent. We did not even peak out, but pretended we were already asleep, so he decided not to disturb us. However, around 5 o’clock in the morning, there he was again: the same car sound and the same brake squeaks. We opened our tent and noticed two border guards getting out of a police car.

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The young guard and I were talking in Serbian, and he had a thousand questions: who are we, where we come from, why we were travelling, where we were going to, how long would we be staying here, how long there… Maybe due to my writing vocation, or maybe due to some fear, I was giving him epic answers, describing our plan (which unfortunately did not work in the end) to cross over to Pelješac on a ferry from Ploče, and then on to Korčula and Hvar before we come back to the coast a bit north of Ploče and continue south. However, we did not know if the ferry is in operation, and how much the ticket costs? I was looking at the border guide inquisitively, but he just shrugged his shoulders. Then he returned our passports, as by now it was clear to him that we were not dangerous, even if we were a bit weird.

While the rain falls…
After the rain started in the Neretva valley that afternoon, we raised the tent on one orange plantage and went to bed. The next morning the rain was still falling. We went to bed again, and when we got up – unsure of which day it actually is – it was falling even stronger. Maybe new a new deluge had started without us being aware? “In our case, it does not make any difference”, Bryan joked as we resigned to our fate and went to bed again.

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In the morning it was still raining. I went to pick up oranges from the ground, as it was obvious that nobody was picking them up here. We made some juice, boiled some coffee and prepared sandwiches. Then we just rested a bit and read some books we had picked up in Belgrade.

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Later we prepared dinner: rice with sardines and sweet corn. Then I went to get some more oranges that we peeled and arranged on a plate to enjoy them while playing yatze. After my tight win by 13 points, we read some more, talked a bit, relaxed, kissed and surrendered to passion, and then repeated everything all over again – while the rain was relentlessly falling on our tent.

“Dubrovnik is on the list of ten towns one should visit before one dies”, said Bryan. And adds that it is probably the only town in the Balkans that almost all Americans had heard of.

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It is interesting to compare our associations. His begin and mostly end with that one fact, with the addition about the barbaric Serbian-Montenegrin army that, following the orders of a disturbed mind, relentlessly bombarded the old town. Bryan remembers the top news in all major newspapers and his own disbelief. “The world was shocked”, he says.

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“We were too”, I say. I remember the history lessons: even Napoleon was restraining from bombarding the old Dubrovnik. The Nazis also spared it. And then, exactly twenty years ago, almost half of the town was destroyed.

My feelings oscillate from discomfort and guilt to the nostalgic pride for everything that used to be ours, Serbian. Vivid memories of bloody years, of TV and newspaper coverage (it was bombarded – no it wasn’t, its lies, its CIA propaganda) would constitute a great parody if they were not a tragic testimony of the true nightmare of the times, as opposed to the slightly faded knowledge of history and literature of the Dubrovnik Republic.

“The one that was on the top, goes down” – an unforgettable verse that came into being here, and the wisdom that ended up being the curse of those that committed the crimes. They are no more; the town has been reconstructed and is shining in all of its glory.

“Relax”, says Bryan. “You have nothing to do with it.”

Next day we came back to the old town and walked through it up and down. We climbed up to Peline, watched a basketball training session in front of the Minčeta fortress, peeked into the town harbor and then got back in, walked about and strolled down Stradun, watched the kids pick up coins from the Small Onofrio Fountain, climbed up to the cathedral and sat in it for a while for the prayer of one woman, visited the home of Marin Držić, trembled before the guillotine close to the Naval museum, found the ruins of a few more houses that are waiting to be restored almost from the ground up… We were noticing the everyday life scenes: cats in front of every door behind which the fish is being prepared, accidental street exhibits of ordinary brooms and towels that almost look like pieces of art here, mini-gardens on the steps that go up towards the narrow bands of light…

And we peaked everywhere and visited everything in almost complete silence, as if we were some kind of pilgrims. When you fit a cathedral, a synagogue, an orthodox temple and a mosque behind the same walls, that place is more sacred than any of the spaces holding just one of those sanctuaries.

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But Dubrovnik is not just the old town.
When we were approaching it from the direction of Neum, from the Bosnian-Croatian border, it looked huge, much bigger and wider than we imagined it. The new bridge that connects Mokošica and Gruž and shortens the distance to and from the city by some ten kilometers looks impressive, but completely clashes with the background landscape, so it feels like a grafted, foreign element. From the Lapad peninsula, where we secretly camped in the auto camp that is closed during the winter, and where the two of us would need to pay twenty-five Euros for one tent during the summer, we had an excellent view of the bridge during the night, as it is lit up so that it shines from afar.

And after the old town, Lapad was a big revelation for us. For two days we strolled down the walking zone and visited the beach at Lapad lagoon. The general impression is that south Dalmatia, and especially Dubrovnik constitutes an elite gathering place, and this was confirmed to us on every corner: fancy cars, fancy wardrobe, fancy stories that I overheard while passing people by. I turned Bryan’s attention to one randomly chosen little girl whose young, super-modern parents brought here for a weekend, and I was ready to bet that the clothing on her costs more than everything we both had on us.

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The next impression was that everybody is very polite, that waiters and shop-workers speak good English, and that nobody even blinked when I say I am from Serbia. My fear was unfounded.

“Relax”, says Bryan again. “You are only a tourist here.”

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And I listen to him, deciding to simply enjoy the sun, the sea, and the smells of Dubrovnik – the pearl of Mediterranean.

The Montenegrin coast
After the uplift of Dalmatia and all of the islands and peninsulas that we had watched only from afar because ferry tickets were too expensive for us to try and visit them, it was hard to imagine that the Montenegrin coast, which has fewer islands, might be any sort of a competition for it. But, right after the southernmost Croatian peninsula of Oštri Rt that rises from the deep Adriatic blue as some sort of a giant captain, anchored in is the impressionable Bay of Boka Kotorska.

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We rolled down into it from Kobila at the Prevlaka border crossing at a speed of over forty kilometers an hour. We flew into Igalo and continued pedaling at almost the same speed as we were racing the fast setting Sun over the mountain. The days are so short in December – it is already dark at 4:30 pm – and we are yet to find a place to camp. We went through Igalo, then Herceg Novi, and there was no free space even to put a needle in. That is how tightly houses are placed next to each other. Finally in Kupari, at the very exit of the settlement, we find a patch of the beach that is sheltered away from the pedestrian street and houses by some walls, and we stop there. Here we spend a peaceful night, unless we count the group of local teenagers that were on their night out, and the curious inhabitants that had to peek in and see who had anchored in their place.

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The next day we embark on a ride through the Bay of Boka Kotorska. On the right side is the sea, on the left the mountains – just like in California, but prettier, Bryan claims. Their mountains are not this high, and these towns that come one right after the other seem completely unreal. If there were no road signs with the names of the places that we are entering, we would not know that we had exited Baošići and entered Bijela, or that Kotor begins right where Dobrota ends.

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We remember the bicycle rider from Canada who we had met right before the border. As he was racing against time, in a hurry to make it to Belgium before Catholic Christmas as he had some relatives there, he crossed from Tivat to Herceg Novi by ferry, and therefore missed the most beautiful part of the Montenegrin coast.

It is unthinkable that a cyclo traveler who is pedaling for pure pleasure did not see Perast, the oldest and, by most accounts, the cutest town of the Bay of Boka Kotorska. And that he did not get a chance to marvel and wonder at the two islands that are just big enough house a church on each of them.

The islands off Perast

And what are we to say about the missed visit to the old town of Kotor, the Montenegrin version of Dubrovnik? Although it is not as big and not as orderly built, its cobblestone streets, stone houses and narrow thoroughfares unmistakably transport us to some old times that are depicted in the movies about knights, their military expeditions and romantic adventures.

One does not need to climb to the top of the fortress. It is enough to get to the point of St. Rok, which is what we did, and one can see the whole town just as its medieval guards and defenders saw it. And then one can continue pedaling along the coast, being just half a meter above and away from the sea, and on some patches even less than that. This is what makes the ride a bit scary, especially when you don’t have even a symbolic fence between the road and the water. Just one involuntary twitch of the handlebars to the right, and the careless rider might end up in the waves.

We manage to reach the end of the bay in one piece, and we joyfully discover that the temperature and the amount of light change considerably once you are at the “opened” coast. However, the road before us – to Tivat and then Budva – constitutes a real nightmare due to the traffic and relentless speed with which the vehicles are passing us by. This is why we give up on the idea to pedal to Budva during the late afternoon hours, when it is already dark outside. So we raise camp at the roadside, in a building that used to be or should become a fishing shop.

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Next morning we enter Budva where, thanks to two of my friends, we use an apartment in the very center of the city for free: kitchen, bathroom with hot water, bedroom, and a huge balcony on which the Sun shines the whole day long. And nobody is bothering us, nobody is visiting us, nobody is expecting us to spend some time with them. However, due to some weird irony, almost every time that we have accommodation we can enjoy and rest in, we seem to be suffering from something – injuries, colds, infections… This time I am the one suffering from a stomach virus. However, between the frequent visits to the toilet and a lot of naps that help me get my strength back, we do manage to visit the old town and walk down the Budva beach more than once. These are actually the only things that are worth seeing in this town that the Russians almost took over. Oh, and huge yachts are anchored at the entrance of the old town, as big as football fields. Just as we managed to see all that was worth seeing, and I healed a bit, it was time to move on.

Unfortunately, the day that we picked for leaving was the first rainy day after weeks and weeks of no rain. But at least the temperature stayed the same – between fifteen and twenty degrees Celsius. If the bicycle ride along the Montenegrin coast can be described as a constant uphill-downhill experience, then the part from Budva to Bar constitutes a super-downhill one, or at least that is how it seemed to us under the spell of Montenegrin spirit. And in that part – Miločer, St. Stefan, then Petrovac… one place always more beautiful than the other. 

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We arrive at Bar soaking wet, and after much shopping (fourth or fifth middle leg for my bike, Albanian and Greek dictionaries, food, medicine), after declining the invitation of one Montenegrin to camp on his land, as it did not suit us and following his advice we drove towards the harbor and set a tent in a park that we had noticed when we had entered the town. Less than ten minutes after we set the second layer of our “roof”, the gates of heaven opened and the tempest started. Compared to this, Belgrade’s košava wind is just a breeze. And it continued like that throughout the whole night. In the morning the wind slowed down a bit, but the rain didn’t, so up until noon we were sitting in the tent and learning our first words of the Albanian language.

Finally, after we got fed up with it, we packed our things despite the rain that obviously intended to continue falling the whole day long. We pedaled uphill on the narrow road towards the Vladimir crossing, stopping each time that the rain temporarily slows down to admire the colors of the sea and the horizon. 

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That night we spent in the field of Pečurica village. We listened to the thunder and kept calculating how far away from us the lighting is striking. Although we are not the highest point in the area, we are not at ease, especially as we vividly remember the story we heard from Danijel from Borka in Romania about the guy who was struck by the lighting on the very spot we were camping at just a day before.

To forget about the fears, we start joking about the longest possible way to leave Montenegro – as this was the third day we were attempting to do it. Bryan is teasing me that I am to blame because I know that this is the last country in which I can hear my native language, so I am doing my best to prolong our stay in it. And he is not completely wrong.

However, the next day there is no more delay, and despite the fact we stopped a few times to change our brakes and chains, and to take some photos, we somehow manage to make it to the border.

Farewell my ex. Yugoslavia. Merdita, Albania.

Snežana Radojičić

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I’m pedaling somewhere; I’m turning the wheels of this bike of mine in a great adventure hoping to draw at least one circle around the world with it.

Have a good and healthy season.

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