14. Apr, 2016

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WEDNESAY 6-5-15

We awoke at 0700 and after scrubbing up had breakfast.

As we'd completed about half to two thirds of our journey to the coast yesterday I was hopeful we could complete it today thus shaving a day off my guesstimate. How wrong can you be?

These places and routes look fine on a map but that's where it ends. I once drove back from Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland to our home in the UK non-stop, a journey of 742 miles. I hadn't planned it that way, and I won't do it again, but that's just how it turned out - that was my longest driving day. Today was my worst.

We hit the road before 08:00 heading for Skopje-Pristina-Podgorica, stopping off at Budva and Kotor in Montenegro on the Adriatic coast on the way to Dubrovnik, in Croatia.

Today was our 'Tour of the Balkans'. I have concluded that when God made the world He put a huge Shanks white porcelain shitter right over the Balkans, I bet it can even been seen from space. I have no idea how many miles we have travelled today, only that I would never travel any one of them ever again. Of the total journey we probably had 20% of the time on half decent road surfaces; the rest of the day was spent on appalling road surfaces. For many of the miles we were down to just 30mph because of it.

We arrived at the Macedonia-Kosovo border to be told that our vehicle insurance green card did not cover Kosovo. We would have to park to one side and then buy some from the office. Special deal for us you understand, just €20 for fifteen days cover, that's about £400 a year. All I wanted was fifteen hours cover, just enough to get me to civilisation. Once purchased we were across the border and then on to even worse roads. Whenever we went through towns, there were walls built with second hand washing machines, about six-high everywhere, and if it wasn't that it was scrap cars side by side, parked like a car lot. It looked to me that rather than selling bits off them for spares they were waiting for buyers who would buy them ’as seen’, take them away, and then add the missing bits and put them back on the road. I think these people are to be the forefathers of the Sand People in 'Star Wars'.

The Chef had even noticed how many local words started with the letters 'Shit'. 'How apt' I thought.

I'm convinced that if there was a demand, these people could produce a 'cut and shut' vehicle consisting of the back end of a donkey cart and the front of a Lada Yugo.

We spent about 80-100 miles on their mountain roads, narrow, twisting, potholed things. I had to keep one eye on the road to dodge the worst of them and the other on my wing mirrors ready for the next loon who wanted to overtake us on a blind bend. To top it all we were flagged down by a couple of traffic cops parked by the side of the road. I was trying to establish the problem, using gestures etc, they kept asking questions in Kosovan or whatever it is they speak here, but in the end we all had to concede that not one of us had a clue what the other was saying, and so they waved us off. Now come Christmas I wouldn't mind playing 'Charades' with the pair of them for money.

When we got to the Kosovo-Montenegro border having had our passports and documentation checked for the umpteenth time today I was so pleased to be told I could go through, that I offered the Border Guard a sweet (I had started the trip with quite a large selection to munch en-route, but 'Er Indoors' had polished off the remaining chocolate limes, and the American Hard Gums were so good they didn't make it out of the top of our road back home), he looks at the bag, sticks his hand in and comes out with half a hand-full, cheeky sod, still it was worth it to be almost out of Kosovo. I say almost because we then had to be searched again for donkeys, aliens, motorbikes and alcohol, or maybe this time they thought we may be trying to smuggle out one of their highly prized used washing machines.

Into Montenegro again, nice scenery as long as you looked up at the snow capped mountains, pine forests and blue sky. Look down and you see the state of the road and all the fly -tipping piled up next to, and sliding down, the side of the mountains. Lay-by seems to mean public fly tipping point. I mean, being buried under an avalanche of snow whilst off-piste skiing would be sad, but to be out hiking here and get buried under an avalanche of old rubber tyres, household waste, furniture and disposable nappies would be a tragedy.

At one point we were going up a fairly steep mountain road which was single carriageway with a crawler lane; we were in the crawler lane even though there was nothing coming up behind us. There was almost a sheer drop on both sides of the road. We were approaching a couple of small shops and, with two wheels up on the pavement outside of them was a parked Mercedes saloon. The next thing the car has pulled out in front of me. I now had a choice. I must yield by braking heavily thus losing most of my forward momentum, making it difficult for me to get going again, or I must attempt to overtake it. Well two things were working against this driver. Firstly they were up against a Ford Transit with an incredible 2.2 diesel engine, and secondly it was being driven by somebody who used to get paid a pittance to drive them rather fast, and had some experience of coming across idiots on the road. Game on! I changed lanes and down the box I went, foot to the floor and the motor responded brilliantly. Clearly the driver of the car had expected, having pulled out in front of me, to pick up speed and away. Well we were quickly up beside the car, we were neck and neck and both accelerating, ahead was the end of the crawler lane. Still neck and neck and that lane was about to disappear, somebody had to yield. In the end the car blinked first and braked very heavily to get in behind me at the last moment. I kid you not if it had stayed there another second it would have been airborne, it would have been like the end scene in 'Thelma & Louise', or the launching of an aircraft off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Having gone airborne all that was awaiting it at the bottom was yet more fly tipping, which would have softened its landing just a little, but not nearly enough. I have tried to save the file on my Dashcam but am not sure if I pressed the right button.

Time was getting on, we'd had lunch at 12:30, and we needed to stretch our legs. We pulled in to what could loosely be described as a lay by, much to the interest of the locals who probably don't see too many motorhomes or camping cars as I think the call them over here.  After stretching our legs and having a cool drink (the temperature by now was 32.5°C) we were back on the road.

By late afternoon I was getting tired as the driving had required total concentration on my part, and I felt for the poor vehicle every time we hit 'the roughs'. It was proving very difficult to find somewhere to pull in to for the night. We were still in the mountains but I wanted to stop. We pulled in to a restaurant with a few HGV's in its car park and Rosina popped in and asked to park for the night and that we were prepared to pay. She was met with a firm 'No' and I have to say in all of our travels both here and over in America that has only ever happened to us twice, and both have been on this trip.

Onward we went until the boss of a small garage with some parking behind it agreed to allow us to stay the night. Behind the vehicle is about 40 yards of rough grass and then there is a deep ravine with a white-water river running through it. The problem is there's so much rubbish in the grass I decided not to take a closer look. Above us on the side of the mountain is the obligatory railway line, we then heard the non-stop barking of a dog, and the traffic passing by was quite noisy. Having ticked all the boxes we were satisfied this was the right place to be for the night.

Whilst walking around the vehicle as a final check before turning in, I spotted that we had lost the front left wheel trim. Now that was annoying. The Chef said that it was on there when we were stopped for a leg stretch and drink, which means that we'd lost it in the final hour and a half of driving. So now that's probably a set of four that have to be bought.

I did announce to the Chef quite firmly that there would be no more days like today - ever. If these peasants can't maintain their roads then we're off north on toll roads until we reach better roads. Fortunately she agreed entirely. Today had been pure bloody hard work for both me and the vehicle with The Chef having to put up with it all. There hadn't been one scrap of pleasure in the whole day.

Another scary experience has been when we’ve gone through tunnels. Now I know we're down a bit at the back, but there's a little wheel I can rotate to adjust the headlights to compensate for this. However nearly all tunnels and certainly all in Kosovo, are hacked out of the rock, and that's what you get, no smooth concrete lining on the walls and no lighting inside whatsoever. Now when we go through them, for some unknown reason, we can't see a damned thing, not even on full beam, I have no idea where the light goes, it's not on the ground, it's not on the walls either side, and not even on the ceiling, all I get is a very faint halo of light around me, close to the vehicle, it's a mystery. Now these tunnels have bends in them, and it's ok if the tunnels are short, but in long ones I'm blind, and when an HGV comes the other way I have to pick a line that will not tear off the nearside on the very jagged rock of the tunnel, yet not trash the offside on the HGV. I mention that now only because we've put that part of the journey behind us.

To add insult to injury my original plan had been to drive north from Greece through Albania. It was only because I knew The Chef wasn't keen to do so having read bad reports about it somewhere, and Reece and his wife, who came to Istanbul that way said that the roads were bad, poverty terrible and dead animals everywhere that I changed my mind. Having come this way I can't believe Albania would have been much worse, and it was a much shorter route. In fact if the dogs had laid down in the pot-holes and died it could have been a fairly smooth journey.

Thinking about it this evening I've no idea what the death rate is on the roads here, but so often along the route there have been very small cemeteries, about 10-20 graves, right next to the road, not even near a village. Do they create them at accident black spots and following a fatal accident just take them to the nearest mini-cemetery and plant them, rather than take them down the mountain or is it something to do with the Balkans War? It was most odd.

There were also floral tributes everywhere, all the way up and down the mountains on both sides of the road, in fact there were so many I'm convinced the E65/80 could easily win the 'Balkans in Bloom' competition should it decide to enter.