Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia

Skopje, Macedonia
June, 2013

Because Montenegro sided with Serbia as Serbia’s only ally in the 1990s Yugoslav wars, Montenegro is still regarded with some suspicion around the Balkans.  Trying to get Montenegrins to open up about their role in the war usually gets just a shrug and some variation of “That was a long time ago.  We’re trying to move on.”  And in fact they have been clearly distancing themselves politically from Serbia, their former patrons in the region, over the past ten years.  It was interesting to contrast that reaction with those of average Croatians, who still want no part of Serbia or Montenegro.  The hot-button issue that still infuriates the Croatians was the joint Serbian-Montenegrin shelling of the Old Town section of Dubrovnik in 1994, an outrage that seems so unbelievable today.

Beyond politics and the bitter memories, Montenegro has opened up and is once more the beach-and-sun playground of hundreds of thousands of Europeans every summer, mostly from the Balkans but a growing number also from Italy, Germany and the U.K.  It’s a beautiful country inland as well and I had more fabulous riding along the coast and into the mountains of Montenegro.

A real highlight of this part of the trip was the ride around the Bay of Kotor, ending up in the ancient town of Kotor, its roots going back to the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.  The ride to the top of Mt. Lovcen was a bit hairy (25 switchback turns) but well-worth the effort.  Check out the high-altitude views of the Bay of Kotor, it was spectacular from up there.  Here are a few photos of the ride from Dubrovnik, around Bay of Kotor, and then the Old Town section of Kotor.

 

Leaving Montenegro, I lucked out with perfect riding weather as I rode through the scenic and peaceful Dinaric Alps of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.  People along the way were incredibly friendly, helpful and alway curious as they rarely see outsiders in this part of the Balkans.  Here are a few of my favorite shots from that memorable eight-day ride.

 

THE MADMAN OF MANCHESTER

Cavtat, Croatia
June, 2013

“Hey, I was in Podgorica last week, what do you need to know?”

Robert, a tall, fidgety English guy in his late thirties, came over to introduce himself and join our conversation.  I was trying with little luck to get information from the non-English speaking owner of our guest cottage about the capital of Montenegro.

“What’s it like?” I asked. “Is it worth stopping for?”

“No, mate,” he answered, “there’s really nothing there.  If you’re heading for Albania, you’re better off going straight to Shkoder. The border crossing’s pretty easy at Hani i Hotit.”

“How are you traveling?”  I asked.

“Right there, mate.” He gestured toward a weary-looking mountain bike parked on his little porch. “I’ve travelled 25,000 kilometers on that bloke.  Want to see it?”

“Absolutely” I said.

He pointed out all his improvised fixes and added features, including a small solar charger.

“What’s the charger for?” I asked.

“My cell-phone.” he replied.

“What’s the cell-phone for?” I asked.

“Well, every now and then I like to call my wife and son back in Manchester to check in occasionally.” he replied matter-of-factly.

“You have a wife and kid and you’re riding around like this for two or three months?” I asked, a little surprised.

“I need to do it, mate.” he said as he constantly moved and fidgeted, puffing impulsively on his hand-rolled cigarette.

“Why?” I asked.

“I just love travelling, mate, I do it for the energy.” he laughed as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I do this every year.  I don’t really have a job back in the U.K. so I have some freedom.”

He reached under the small patio table and lifted up a large, plastic bag and set it on the floor in front of me.

“I also make some money doing this.”

I immediately thought he was dealing in hashish or something. I opened the bag and saw a tightly compacted mass of tobacco, about the size of a beach ball. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous sight of it.

“In the UK, cigarettes have become very expensive and I have a list of friends and customers who buy all the cigarettes I can roll.” he laughed as he picked up his cigarette roller.  “Here, watch this.”

He carefully laid out a small patch of tobacco in the little tray, closed the tray, pushed a lever and out came a brand new cigarette, complete with filter.

“I paid 50 euros for this bag and I can make about 2,000 euros when I re-sell it all.”

“Pretty good markup!”  I said.

As he puffed and fidgeted, he started telling me about some of his travels, frequently tapping me nervously on the side of my shoulder as if to assure himself I was giving him my full attention.

“But doesn’t the long travelling get expensive?” I asked.

“I’ve been gone two months”, he said, “and this is the first night I’ve slept with a roof over my head.  You see that up there?” he said as he pointed up to the top of a high mountain in the distance. “That’s where I slept two nights ago. I have a hammock and every night I just pull off into the woods, find a couple nice trees, and string it up. It’s actually pretty comfortable.  When I ride through a little village, people always gather round to look at my kit and someone always offers me something to eat. I’ll tell you something, mate, people everywhere are amazing. They are always kind, always helpful. I don’t go out begging but I never go hungry.”

I looked again at Robert’s tired mountain bike, then back at him. “What do you know about northern Albania?” I asked. “Have you heard about the blood feuds in the mountains up there?”

Albanian blood feuds are a peculiar tradition in that region, dating back to the 15th century.  Some powerful chieftain in the area instituted a detailed code, called the kanun, of about 1200 rules covering everything from marital relations to finances and village disputes. The highest virtues, it proclaims, are honor and hospitality. If a man murders another man, the victim’s male family members are bound by honor to kill the murderer or any other adult male member of the murderer’s family. If there are none, he must go to the extended family to find some adult male to kill in order to preserve the family’s honor.  In other words, if you kill someone, you put a lot of people at risk.  The accused murderer is entitled to protection at a “safe house”, usually his own home.  As long as he stays inside, he’s protected by the kanun.  But if he steps foot outside his house, he becomes fair game.  There are instances where the victim’s family members have moved and live within eyesight of the safe house.  They keep vigil so they can shoot the man if he dares to step outside. This terrifying stalemate can go on for years.

“That’s amazing you mentioned that, mate.  You know, I met this guy at a cafe in Prizren [Kosovo] who said he actually killed a man because of that.  He said “I had no choice.  If I didn’t do it, my entire family would be humiliated.  My family would be ruined.  I had no choice.”

“Jesus”, I said, “how did he do it?”

“With a knife, man!” he blurted out, still unable to believe it himself.

“Jesus”, I repeated.  I dropped the subject.  I didn’t want to hear any more details.

Robert regaled me for another hour or so with lots of great travel stories.  At one point, he said “Hey, mate, I’ve got a favor to ask you.”  He walked over to one of his bags and pulled out a large, rolled-up, heavily-creased piece of cardboard.  As he carefully unrolled it on the table he said “You know, my sister in the UK just had a baby and she told me ‘Robert, you just better be back before he’s born.’  Well, I didn’t make it back so I made this.  I really wanted to make something special for the lad.  His name is Sebastian.”

It was an over-sized greeting card filled with about a hundred different written messages from people he had met along the way.

“Look”, he said, here’s one from South Africa, here’s one from Turkey, one from Algeria” as he carefully pointed each one out.  The card was a mess from all the re-rolling and packing and the cover had a pointless picture of a bunch of yellow ducklings.

“What’s with the ducks?” I asked.

“I don’t know, mate”, he laughed, “It was the cheapest, biggest card I could find.”

As I read the messages to Sebastian, I began to realize that this was indeed Robert’s gift.  Robert’s world was chance encounters with random strangers, reaching out to anyone who would listen to him, living for those moments of joyful communication wherever he might find them.  He keeps his memories but little else.  These spontaneous encounters are Robert’s stock-in-trade.  They’re his currency.  I kept reading and found myself suddenly moved at the warmth of some of the messages and at Robert’s determination to make Sebastian a real gift.  In fact, he was giving Sebastian everything he had.

I looked up at Robert, fidgeting and smoking.  He was waiting for my reaction to his card.  “Robert”, I said, ” this is the best birthday gift I’ve ever seen”.  And I meant it.  “This one’s right from the heart, isn’t it?”  I said, feeling a little emotional abouth the whole thing myself.

He said quietly “I just hope he likes it.  I hope my sister forgives me.”

Before I wrote my own message, I read aloud one from Maki in Nigeria:   “Dear Sebastian, I don’t know you yet, but I’m glad you are here.”

I don’t know you yet, but I’m glad you are here.  There’s something profound there.  I just wish I could put my finger on it.

Roman Ruins, Gorgeous Coastline – Spectacular Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia
June, 2013

After meandering for a month down the length of coastal Croatia, the scenery just keeps getting better.  The layers of history going back to Julius Caesar and Diocletian, through Constantine and the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman empire under Suleiman, the Habsburgs, the Venetians, always against a backdrop of religious rivalries – Croatia has had more than its share of rich and interesting history.  Add to that the friendly optimism of the Croatian people and it’s easy to see why Europeans flood into Croatia for vacation time.  Here are a few highlights.

 

ZADAR

Zadar’s Old Town, laid out by the Romans in the 2nd century, is set on the tip of a scenic peninsula about one-third the way down the Adriatic coast.  It’s completely pedestrian and the solid two- and three-story buildings, many dating from Medieval and Renaissance times, continue in use today as apartments, pensions and store-front shops.  The big attraction is the Byzantine Church of St. Donat, who supervised its construction in the 9th century.  There are also a number of medieval churches still being used today.  Look for the photo of a tiny harbor – on the right you can see the huge
Roman walls built to defend the prosperous sea-port.  More pics from Zadar.

 

TROGIR

Trogir is a real jewel of a town set on a small island connected to the mainland  by a short bridge.  It was first settled by Greeks from the island of Issa in 380 B.C.  The impressive Cathedral of St. Lovran was completed in 1240 A.D. on the site of one destroyed by the Saracens.  Remember them?  They were the ones always stirring up trouble in Kirk Douglas movies. It was so pleasant here I ended up staying for five days to use as a base for exploring the Roman ruins in Salona and Diocletian’s palace in Split.  Look for the 13th-century fortress guarding the entrance to the harbor.

 

SALONA

These photos show the ruins an entire Roman city that served as the capital of the province of Dalmatia.  The site, just three miles inland from Split, is huge and walking through it you can really get a sense of how it all fit together in daily life.  The remarkable amphitheater, which could seat 20,000 people, was the earliest documented site where Christians were executed for public amusement.  One photo shows the burial crypts of some of these victims.  Diocletian was born here and was one of the real instigators of Christian persecution.  Ironically, it was only a short time later that his successor, Constantine, turned the entire Roman empire into a Christian one.  More pics from Salona.

 

SPLIT

The entire Old Town of Split is completely contained within the walls of Diocletian’s enormous retirement estate.  He was also one of the very few Roman emperors who actually retired peacefully from emperor-ship to live out his days more or less normally.  More irony here – most of the surviving buildings inside the walls were converted for Christian use, including his own mausoleum (see photo).  The fact that so many of the ancient buildings are being used to peddle the ubiquitous souvenir schlock is the bad news.  The good news is that Diocletian probably had no idea his retirement home could be pulling in rent some two thousand years down the road.  More pics from Split.

 

DALMATIAN COAST RIDE

Here are a few photos of the non-stop beauty along the Dalmatian coast.  I rode the entire length of it on the twisty coastal road and at every turn there was a new spectacular view.  Clear, turquiose water and impossibly pretty small towns dot the entire coastline.  Morfe pics from the coast ride.

 

MOSTAR, HERZEGOVINA

When my brother Renny and I collected stamps in the 1950s. we always knew there was a “Herzegovina” somewhere but it seemed too exotic and far-away to be a real place.  We thought it as part of one word – “Bosnia and Herzegovina”.  Well, I finally found it.  It’s the southern one-fifth of Bosnia and Herzegovina and I made a special 60-mile detour inland to check out the ancient Ottoman capital of Herzegovina – Mostar.
Mostar is set in a pretty valley along the Neretva River and is generally regarded as the most-damaged city of the tragic Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. IIn talking with many local residents, it’s pretty clear they’re putting up a brave show of religious tolerance but the resentment is still there.  Especially depressing is the pointless Serb-Croatian destruction of the seven bridges crossing the Neretva, including the most famous one built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century (see photo of its reconstruction).  The Serbs and Croatians claimed they destroyed them because they were “Muslim bridges”, as clear a proclamation of the stupidity of war as one can imagine.  More pics from Mostar and Herzegovina.

 

DUBROVNIK

An amazing city in an amazing and gorgeous setting.  It was originally founded by Roman refugees in the 7th centuryfrom nearby Cavtat, where I stayed for five days.  The enormous and well-preserved city walls completely enclose the Old Town, all of which is still in active use today.  Even the thousands of tourists disgorged from three cruise ships on my last day there couldn’t mar the incredible experience.  More pics from Dubrovnik.