October/November 2011

23 Degrees of Separation

It’s a long, long way to Piccadilly

As you read at the end of our recent message on Bulgaria, we had begun to have problems with our wheels.  We didn’t want to dilute the pleasures of our adventures there, so here’s The Rest of the Story, or at least, All the News that’s Fit to Print.

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Early October, we left you at the Croatia/Montenegro border, with us preparing to explore yet another new country, followed by a return to Bulgaria for mail before crossing into Turkey.  As we entered Montenegro, at first it appeared merely an extension of the touristy development we’d seen along the Croatian coast, although quite pretty.  But after you get further south and moving inland, the area becomes more rural, very quiet, and charming.  

While trekking down the coast, we stopped in Perast, a little village, and enjoyed it a lot.  It was a real charmer, with tons of character and folks sitting along the waterfront enjoying the sunshine.  Perast is along the inlet that comprises the fjord that is the Bay of Kotor.  This area was stunningly beautiful.  Kotor, the biggest draw along the coast, was also quite pleasant, though very tourist oriented.  It’s smaller than Dubrovnik and Mostar and quite nice; a very good walking city.  There was an attractive naval ship in port, although we saw no sailors; just lots of flags waving.  Kotor should be on anyone’s list.

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We headed inland from Kotor, up a winding back road into Lovćen NP.  This road goes straight up into the mountains with no fooling around.  We spent the night in the park and it got down to 36 degrees overnight; we took a very brisk morning drive through the park – clear and cold and 43 degrees.  We need to get further south!

Our morning drive gave us splendid views of the Aegean down below, though.  This is one drive you don’t want to miss!  If you visit, be sure to take the torturous side road to the top of the mountain – the views are outstanding and it’s worth it.  This is an area of ancient battles; as you stand looking down, you have a real sense of history.

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On we went to the famous, rural Ostrog Monastery, set high into the mountain.  This is a major, major pilgrimage site; despite the cold and the time of the year, there were many people climbing up the steep road to the site.  The monastery itself is rather simple, but it is set into a cave.  When you are wandering around, you keep coming up against rough, bare stone.  How did they ever get it built way back then?

As we were getting ready to leave the parking lot at Ostrog, we discovered that the odd creaking noise we’d been hearing at low speed for a few days was coming from a cracked wheel.  Rick exchanged it for the spare as we discussed our options.  Our trip, as we knew it, had changed in but a moment.   We were going to need new wheels.  We felt right away that we needed to start heading west instead of east, but we already had the mail waiting for us in Bulgaria, where we’d planned to pick it up on the way into Turkey; Bah!

While we worked on how to deal with this new problem, we continued to see what we could of Montenegro.  We drove north up the really cool (and getting colder) Morača River canyon in very heavy winds; it was beautiful, and snowing at the top; it’s mid-October.  The mountains in northern Montenegro are quite nice; they start out rocky, but further north become mostly forest.  We are starting to see the black pine that’s so famous further west in Durmitor NP; it’s why the country is called Montenegro (black mountain – Crna Gora).  

This is a lovely area, mountains combined with pretty valleys; we skirted Biogradska Gora NP, home of Tara Canyon.  We spent a bit of time along the Tara River, a popular area for adventure holidays; it was too late in the season for kayaking, so we had the area to ourselves.  This is nice country, worth fighting for; no wonder Montenegro wanted to be on their own, and not part of Serbia (a simplistic version of the situation, of course).  

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We quickly crossed into Serbia and back through Kopaonik NP, where we’d spent a very rainy and windy night a month or so ago.  We were happy to be there in the daytime; there was snow all over the parking lot where we’d camped, and it was 20 degrees.  We dropped back down out of the mountains as we worked east.  The hamlets had one constant: in each there were people sitting beside the road, in this freezing weather, selling huge sacks of potatoes – food for the winter.  

And then, suddenly, we were back in Sofia, Bulgaria, and heading for our mail.  By the time we’d reached the campground, we did indeed have a new plan.  We had determined that we could not go on to Turkey with only four good wheels, but we figured we would probably be okay if, moving west, we went across Macedonia and Albania, and then down into Greece.  From there we could cross to Italy and slowly head toward England, keeping south (and therefore warmer) just as long as possible.  You see, the logistics were that replacement wheels would have to come from America and the company making them needed about eight weeks to fill a new order.  It seemed simple: order the wheels then meander in the warmest areas we could find before heading for England for new wheels.  Perfect.  Or so we thought.  

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New plan in hand, we left the SW corner of Bulgaria and crossed into Macedonia. We had been looking forward to this country for a long time.  It held a long list of places we wanted to visit, as well as having a very interesting geography.  We were quite happy to finally be here.  We entered through a small border crossing at Zlatarovo.  

We finally were in FYROM.  Say what?  Well, there was a huge brouhaha with Greece when Macedonia declared its independence.  Greece got in a snit about the name of this new country, since they claim large historic connections with the word Macedonia (there are 3 areas around here called Macedonia, actually: the new country we were now in; a large area of northern Greece; and a smaller area of Bulgaria).  So, to appease the Greeks, FYROM is the legal name that was decided upon – the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.  Can you believe it?  Dummies.  Needless to say, this acronym is not commonly used within Macedonia.

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Anyway, we were jazzed.  We soon arrived in a regional town, Strumica, where we got money and a quick street-lunch that confirmed for us that the meat we hadn’t liked so far was still pretty lousy.  But we keep trying.  While there we saw young fellows zipping around town in little 3-wheel machines that had saws attached to the front.  They were going from place to place and cutting up wood for folks.  Regretfully I was never able to get a picture of them; they were quite a sight.

We were headed for a couple of nearby monasteries that had been strongly recommended, in the outlying villages of Vodoča and Veljusa.  We never found Veljusa (that old signage problem), but the Vodoča monstery was unusual and very interesting.  Its origins were as a basilica founded in the 6th century; it was then built upon over the next 1300 years.  It has been stripped down to the bare bricks, and there is very little fresco work extant.  The very starkness of the surfaces allows the visitor to examine the structure closely, as well as to take pleasure in the changing patterns in the brick design over the centuries.  Archeological research continues at the site, and they continue to make new discoveries.  

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It was very exciting to visit Vodoča.  We left there late in the afternoon, following along a little road up the pretty Vardar River valley, past vineyards being put to bed for the winter, heading for some cool Roman ruins at Stobi.   The dry cornstalks were being harvested from the fields, and huge cabbages were still available along the road.  We found a lovely spot for the night, overlooking a pretty valley and vineyards.  The next morning Rick performed his now daily check of the wheels, making sure we were still doing all right.  Well, we weren’t.  We had a crack in a second wheel.  He decided that he would at least move the newly cracked wheel to the front where the weight is much less; oops.  Turns out that on close examination both front wheels had tiny cracks as well.  And that was the end of that.  We had firmly told each other that if a second wheel showed signs of trouble we would have to head directly toward England.  

So we put into action our backup plan.  We had a route in place that would put us on the motorways (which would be gentler on the wheels) and a destination that we could reach in about a week if we moved along smartly but not aggressively.

So, after giving ourselves a few minutes for regrets, off we went on this tiny road, toward the toll road up to Skopje, the capital.  We noted that the road was getting progressively worse.  It turned from pavement to gravel to dirt to mud.  The water got deeper.  We started having to gun it to get through the deep mud puddles.  Suddenly we really hit a big one, the dish cupboard came open for the first time in over 4 years and….the crockery hit the fan, so to speak.

Such a mess.  And we could almost see the motorway from where we sat, covered in pieces of this and that.  What a shame we hadn’t taken the motorway in the first place.  It also would have taken us straight to the Roman ruins (which we never did see).  There’s a quote from John Steinbeck: “People don’t take trips…the trip takes you.”  Even more true for us at this moment than usual.

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Our brief glimpse of Macedonia has certainly whetted our appetite for this country, and we will be back.  It is struggling with many of the problems we’ve seen in other poor, southern Balkan countries: a bad economy, too few trashcans, poor air quality, and a strong need for a burst of new energy.

However, every contact we had with the people was just great, including a fellow at the fuel station on the edge of Skopje.  We wanted to use up our money, but keep enough on hand to pay what tolls we would encounter before we entered Serbia, next in line.  He figured it all out for us, and used the rest to fill our tank.  Walking behind the truck, which is covered with stickers from various countries, he called out “You don’t have a Macedonia sticker!” and promptly took off to go find us one, which Rick immediately affixed to a prominent place.  My hero.  

So, first I’ll tell you how we got to England.  From Skopje we went north into Serbia (our fourth visit of the summer).  We turned west at Beograd and headed for the Croatian border (also fourth visit).  Beyond Zagreb we crossed into Slovenia (too many to count, recall our ins and outs from Italy in July).  West of Ljubljana, we stopped for the night in our beloved Skofja Loka, where the church bells charmed us once again.  It was October 31, our 10th anniversary on the road, and we found a nice spot for a celebratory dinner.  

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The next morning we turned north into Austria, where we enjoyed the most incredible 4 hours, passing through glorious fall color and even a castle beside the road as we traversed the mountains on what would turn out to be the sunniest day of the trip.  After threatening each other with death if we gave in, we managed to get all the way across the entire stretch of Austria without singing “The hills are alive…” Aren’t you proud!  However, Rick was heard quietly rehearsing the words to “Doe, a deer…”.  

And then to Germany.  We took a day off and visited friends who live near Stuttgart, then buzzed on through Luxembourg, Belgium and on to the French coast at Calais.  After spending the night at the docks, we caught the morning ferry to Dover.  It took us 7 travel days to cover 1600 miles, cost us $675 in fuel and  $110 in toll fees, plus $70 for the ferry.  All this just to get to England.   

And now we are here.  So Rick, tell the nice people why we came to England.  

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Well, certainly it would have been possible to handle things differently, but we felt we had some very good reasons for doing what we did.  First and foremost is the whole issue of shipping.  Having spent most of September negotiating the arrival of two boxes of parts being shipped to us in Bulgaria, we really had no interest in repeating that experience, let alone hanging around for weeks waiting for the wheels to arrive; it is getting cold in Bulgaria now.  We were very firmly warned by experienced European travelers not to even consider having them shipped to Turkey… “Never see ‘em again.” was pretty much the gist of the discussion.  As noted above we were thinking of heading toward Italy, so why not there?  We’d already lost a batch of mail that never reached us in Italy; we weren’t about to risk an expensive shipment of wheels and tires.  That’s the other thing: when shipped, wheels and tires are completely visible, protected only by a layer of cardboard along the sides.  Anybody could see what they were and immediately calculate how much they might be able to sell them for.  We wanted to be able to feel as comfortable as possible that they would arrive safely.

Secondly, if there were to be any hope of warranty reimbursement for the wheels that had failed, we would have to return to England for that, as they were purchased there.  Third, we had a fairly small but significant list of other things needing attention on the truck.  Nothing we couldn’t continue to get by with, but given the chance, we knew of both motorhome and American vehicle specialists in England where such things could be easily dealt with.  And lastly, let’s be honest here, we wanted to be able to sort out all these problems in a place where we could at least nominally speak the language… sort of… pretty much anyway… OK, enough to get by. (And did I mention the fish & chips?  And the cheddar cheese?)

We hope to be back on the road by about the end of the month.  We’ve decided to aim for Sicily, which is reportedly much warmer than London.  Wish us luck.

Oh, the title of this message?  Bulgaria is 23 degrees east of Greenwich.

Hugs, Rick and Kathy and the gang.  Limping some, but undaunted.

Oh, one last thought, raise a glass to Rick, who turns 65 while we’re in Jolly Old.

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018