CAMPING at the STAFFELSEE with the WENDLS’

Werner and Brian and their Fat Rhino beers

It seems our good friends the Wendls seem to go on vacation whenever we decide to visit.  A coincidence, or do we just have bad timing?

But this time they are camping at the Staffelsee which happens to be right on our way coming from Austria, and we are looking forward joining them there for a couple of days, before heading to their quiet and empty lovely home so we can do a little maintenance on Hermione.

The Staffelsea is a lake in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen district of Bavaria, in southern Germany and is just the place to be with the heat wave that Europe is experiencing right now.

Werner giving us a push off, we look like pros!
Gisela and Lea getting the paddle board ready
Felix
Leonie
and she’s up!

We kayak around the lake and over to one of the seven islands, while Gisela, Leonie, Felix, and Lea have a paddle on a SUP.  

We made it !

THE EAGLES NEST- Berchtesgaden-Germany

The Kehlsteinhaus or Eagles Nest is a third Reich-era building erected atop the summit of the Kehlstein. Built for Adolf Hitler by mostly slave labour, and was used exclusively by Nazi Party members to make decisions regarding war and mass murder.  It was also Hitler’s planned refuge of last resort.

Early in his career as a wannabe tyrant, Adolf Hitler checked into an alpine hut in this dramatic corner of Bavaria, nearly encircled by Austria to finish his manifesto, Mein Kampf.  It was here he claimed to be inspired and where he laid out vision for the Third Reich.

You start by driving up a very steep hill out of Berchtesgaden to the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre a vast museum with an underground bunker system.  From the parking lot you catch specially designed buses that take you on a 20 minute journey around hair pin bends and up the steepest terrain you wouldn’t think a bus could manoeuvre. But remember these are German designed buses.

You’re dropped at the entrance to a 120m long barely lit tunnel that leads you an elevator shaft buried in the heart of the mountain for the final 124m step to reach the Eagle’s Nest.  This same dazzling brass lined elevator that you know Hitler, Himmler, Eva Braun and other high ranking Nazi Party members used to reach the Eagles Nest.

With the weather co-operating for us the panorama was incredible, you are eye level with the Alps at 1834m.

The Eagle’s Nest wasn’t damaged during the war, so the actual building outside still looks the same.  Much of the original furniture was removed by the occupying forces, but the red marble fireplace that Mussolini gave to Hitler is still there, minus some pieces chipped off by souvenir hunters.  The stone walls and ceiling beams are the original ones as well as some light fixtures, and you can sit on the glassed in sun porch where Hitler was known to spend time looking at his beloved mountains.

Hitler on the sun porch
sun porch now

The Eagle’s Nest is now a restaurant.

AUSTRIA

People always ask us what is our favourite country we have visited on our travels.   Well I can safely say that this year it has to be Austria, for me anyway.

Think of Austria and you will probably think of something like the opening scene to The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews singing and skipping across the countryside.  (More on this later).

Well Austria will not disappoint with endless rolling hills and more natural beauty that you can shake a stick at. You will find amazing scenery, mountain ranges, soaring peaks, remote woodlands and any other type of breath-taking scenery you can imagine.                                                                                                                                

The clean mountain air and diverse climate is great if you love the outdoors from extreme winter sports and mountain biking the ski trails to gentle summer strolls.  Head in to an alpine village, steeped in history with traditional timber framed buildings draped in beautiful flowers and little coffee shops that serve the most delicious strudel.

This is also the country where Mozart was born and Strauss taught the world to waltz.                                 

The picturesque and intoxicating city of Salzburg, and Mozart’s birthplace is where we are spending the next few days.

The city and surrounding area was ruled for centuries by a series of independent prince-archbishops, and the pomp and wealth of their court is still very evident in the Baroque Altstadt (oldtown)                                                    

Salzburg straddles the River Salzach and is squeezed between two dramatic mountains –Monchsberg to it’s west and Kapuzinerberg the east, all overlooked by the very well preserved, 900 year old medieval Hohensalzburg fortress high above. 

But it was the Domquartier of Salzburg which encompasses museums, the bulbous copper-domed, twin-spired cathedral, monuments and beautiful baroque residences complete with furniture and paintings where we spend most of our first day in Salzburg.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC

No visit to Salzburg for me would be complete without a visit to a few of the movie locations

The original Trapp Family

I’m sure most people our age have seen The Sound of Music at least once, and probably like me danced around the house singing ‘Do-Rei-Me’ or ‘The Hills are Alive’.  There is a full day ‘Sound of Music Tour’ but I thought that would be a bit much for Brian, so we compromised with a visit to it’s museum/kitschy shop, and a few of the filming locations for me, and a stop afterwards in the beer garden around the corner for Brian. 

A few of the filming locations are possible to visit without a tour, like the Mirabell gardens, the convent at Nonnberg where a few Benedictine nuns still live in a closed community, and of course the famous gazebo where the “Sixteen going on Seventeen’ song was filmed.  The gazebo is now locked though as an elderly American women was running around the benches, slipped, fell and broke her hip.  In fact at most of the locations the main accent I heard was ‘American’, there was even one woman singing Eidelweiss the shower at campsite which I thought amusing.

Gazebo

And it was in the Domquartier that the family sang, ‘So long farewell’ before they fled the Nazi’s.

The original von Trapp villa where the family lived until they fled to the USA in 1938 is in the suburb of Aigen, and right around the corner from our campsite, which was about a 10 minute bus ride from the city.  It’s now a guest house, and not on the tour route.

After all that excitement in Salzburg it was time to take a couple more gondola rides up to see some more mountains and to visit the Hellbrunn Schloss with it’s main attraction, the impressive comical fountains and watery gimmicks built to amuse the decadent 17th century Archbishop of Salzburg, Marcus Sitticus, and his guests.  He must have had a wicked sense of humour.

if you look very closely you can see sheep on the moutainside
another selfie
Hellbrunn

Again taking the roads less travelled we look for a scenic route through the mountain passes which brings us to the Mallnitz-Obervellach autoschleuse Tauernbahn, or for my non German speaking readers a train that you drive onto that takes you through a mountain.

we have to sit in the train up front
we just fit
Brian squeezing out of the side door
waiting to board

Austria is full of road tunnels so when checking out the route I couldn’t quite figure out what this Tauerbahn was.  Bahn is a train but on the map it looked like a tunnel, so when our GPS Trevor told us to turn right and board the ferry, he really meant board this train.   I have to say it was a bit exciting and worth the 17euro for the 30 mins of entertainment it gave us, plus there was no other way to get around this particular mountain to Bad Gastein (these names still make us giggle).

So as I said Austria has been the highlight for me so far this year, but we still have many more places to visit on our Hijinks in a Hymer.

SLOVENIA

Slovenia is a small country, surface area of just over 20,000 sq kms and with a population of only 2 million, but good things come in small packages, and that is certainly true of Slovenia.

The country managed to avoid much of the strife that plagued other nations during the disintegration of the Yugoslav Republic, and has integrated quickly with Western Europe, joining the EU in 2007. But it has also managed to absorb much of the former German speaking Habsburg culture, while retaining their ethnic identity through their Slavic language.

Slovenia has a sophisticated feel and a stable and prosperous economy. It’s also where you hike or bike on a sunny morning, and go for a walk in the snow up on the mountain in the afternoon.

Ljubljana the capital city has a lovely old centre, but we arrived on a Sunday and everything was closed, so we moved on towards Soca Valley with it’s beautiful turquoise river of the same name and the Julian Alps in the distance. (named of course by Julius Caesar after himself).

Ljubljana

The Triglav National Park includes most of the Slovenian alps, including it’s triple peaked, Mt Triglav at 2864m. We rode a cable car to the top and enjoyed the cool air, escaping briefly from the surprising humidity near the lake, which most days brings a huge downpour of rain, thunder and sometimes lightning, reminiscent of our Sunny Coast weather.

Bled although lovely had too many tourists there for us so we escaped to Lake Bohinj, only 26kms from Bled but felt like a world away. It more wild with evergreen woods that run right down to the waters edge that is ringed with mountains.

the church on the island at Lake Bled

Slovenia also has it’s fair share of vineyards, very similar to the Hungarians with small vineyards and their own little mill houses. We found a nice white that’s perfect in this hot and humid weather.

One small village where we stayed still had the Linden tree where the village elders came to meet to discuss important matters concerning the local area. The sixteen stones that surround the tree are the original seats for the landowners. It’s now preserved and stands as a symbol of peace and peoples rights.

And we do have to thank the Slovenian road service that came to our rescue when our jack wasn’t big enough to lift Hermione so Brian could change our flat tire. They arrived within 10mins of my call, and didn’t charge us a cent!

HUNGARY

Hungary’s scenery is more gentle than striking, more pretty than stunning.   But architecturally speaking Hungary is a treasure trove of everything from Roman ruins and medieval houses to baroque churches and art nouveau bath houses.

And this is not just in the major cities like Budapest, Sopron has a gorgeous medieval centre with more than 240 listed buildings.                                                                                                                        

We opt to take the road less travelled usually and head down the country lanes and through the valley passes, winding through the very picturesque countryside filled with green fields spotted with wild red poppies, wheat, corn and barley.  We even find a town called Abrahamhegy, I’m sure after our ‘famous’ neighbours Kelly and Craig Abraham.

The rivers are close to bursting their banks after all the rain that fell in the spring and the accumulated snow melt from the winter.  Rivers are the back garden for many families that live in the small wooden river houses, some are on stilts but others are so close they must flood in the spring. 

The air is sticky and humid but that doesn’t stop us ‘taking the waters’ and the Thermal Springs at Heviz in the Lake Balaton region, and which has the largest thermal lake that is filled with water lilies, but mostly old people floating around on inner tubes.   

It’s an astonishing sight with a surface area of 4.5 hectares, and surrounded by parkland.  The source is a spring sprouting from a crater some 40m below the ground that releases up to 80 million litres of hot water a day, renewing itself every 48 hours.  The surface temp averages around 33 C and never drops below 22C, even in winter. 

I ventured briefly into the mud bath, way to squishy for me (and I did think about how often that mud gets changed) and also into another pool that I didn’t realize had those little flesh eating fish they use to remove the dead skin on your feet, except here you are up to your neck in the water with those fish! Didn’t stay there very long either.   Mostly we spent our 3 hours in the lake outside with the lilies and in the super smelly hot water in part of the lovely art nouveau pavilion.  (I had the sulphur smell in my nose for days after)

While in Greece we met Judit and Ian and they had invited us to visit if ever in their area of Balaton. So never missing an opportunity to hear first-hand knowledge from the locals, and to taste Judit’s delicious traditional Hungarian cooking, we take them up on their offer and spend a couple of lovely days with them, even visiting the famous Herend Porcelain factory where we watched items being hand painted and crafted. Some beautiful pieces but out of our budget.  Kate and William received a full Herend dinner set as a wedding gift, so you have a bit of an idea of the quality and prices.

Hungary also has a large wine growing area, producing very good dry white wines from the volcanic soil around Balaton, and those tannin rich reds we enjoy so much.  We were surprised at the number small hillside vineyards with their own wine press house, and Judit told us that her family has always had one as well.

Our Christmas gift from Laura and Nick was a brilliant set of binoculars which we put to good use watching the huge white storks nesting atop chimneys and street lamp poles.  Every so often we could even spot a couple of their chicks waiting for Mum or Dad to bring them back some food. 

The bird life was actually amazing, apart from the storks, we saw herons, little bee eaters and heard loads of cuckoos. Swans and ducks are plentiful on the Balaton Sea.  In the hills we spotted some birds of prey I’m not positive, but think they were eagles.  

lab swimming with the swans
baby swans

And look at the horns on these cattle!

Fishing seems to be the ‘national sport’ with keen anglers arriving early in the morning to stake out their places along the shore.  They arrive equipped with half a dozen fishing rods, a special rack to hold the above mentioned rods, a small tent so they can nap I suppose, as they don’t have to hold the fishing rods, and a huge Esky.  It seems more social than competitive though which is nice.

We have been seeing loads of scooters since arriving in Hungary and one morning see a group of 8 or so guys with Vespa’s with Belgian plates stopped at the same café as us, so me being curious ask if they are on a road trip.  No they say, we’re here for Vespa World Days, where apparently 10,000 Vespa riders from all over are expected.  The meet is only down the road from where we are so of course head in that direction to check out the happenings. On the same weekend the Harley Davison Open Road Fest was on about 5kms from the Vespa meet, it was amusing to watch the two different riders pass each other on the street and checking out the other’s bike/scooter

the guys that told us about the Vespa meet
thatched roof houses
old ceramic heater
working on my selfies

THE BALKANS-CROATIA

Croatia’s serpentine Adriatic coastline with over 1000 islands, many that sit just off it’s sapphire coastline is breathtakingly beautiful.

Add in ancient walled towns, and just it’s sheer natural beauty with National Parks, huge mountains, lakes and waterfalls and that makes it just about the perfect place for us to visit next.

It also happens to border Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro to it’s southeast so in the right direction for us as well.

Our drive from Mostar in BiH takes us through four border crossings. First into Croatia, then after about 10kms we cross back out and into Bosnia for around 5kms, then back into Croatia again, so lots of waiting in lines, but also a couple more country stamps that day.

Needing a little break from travelling, (yes even we need that occasionally), we head towards to the slim peninsula of Peljesac, and to Orebic for a few days. We stay at a great terraced camp site with beautiful views across to the islands of Mljet and Korcula that’s hard to drag ourselves away from to do the regular mundane things like, laundry and a good clean up.

The next day with chores all completed we head to the dock to catch the passenger ferry to Korcula. Thirty minutes later we arrive into the medieval old town, that also happens to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. The old walled town is ribbed by narrow alleys once likely homes to fisherman, but now they have been transformed into restaurants or small private hotels. Some are also shops, so you can still see the solid curved arches of the ceilings and the beautiful intact brickwork.

Rather than drive back down the same road on the the Peljesac peninsula, we take a small car ferry back over to the mainland arriving into Ploce after a pleasant one hour boat ride.

Croatia has very strict free camping rules, it’s totally forbidden and if you’re caught there are very steep fines. So it’s another camp site, not as posh as our Orebic one, but right on the water at Gradac with views across to Hvar Island, hangout of the rich and famous, their million dollar yachts anchored off it’s jagged coves.

This Adriatic coastline is jaw-dropping stunning! The dun coloured mountains are so close to the coast at times the tiny villages are only three or four streets wide. The road snakes along the coastline and it’s really hard to keep your eyes on the road ahead, when there is so much to see all around.

We somehow missed this part of the coastline in 2009, there is a motorway that runs parallel that takes most of the traffic, so must have taken that, not like us at all, maybe we were in a hurry to get to Trojir, but not this time, slow and steady we go.

I’m also surprised at the number of vineyards along this coastline, some with really healthy looking old vines that must be at least 50 years old. Our quite extensive supply of Italian Chianti and Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is holding in well, but I think we will definitely stop soon to try the Croatian wines.

THE DALMATIAN COAST

Medieval towns, tiny islands, grizzled karst landscapes and the cleanest and clearest sparking blue water you have ever seen.

The crumbling old town is Split, has been lived in continuously since Roman times.  Houses built against the fortified walls are now AirBnB type accommodation though, and there are tourist boats double parked at the marina.   So much busier than 10 years ago when we were here.

The Diocletian’s palace built by the Roman Emperor of the same name in 305 AD is still spectacular though, like the whole town, it is built from gleaming white limestone, you need your sunglasses on to look at it.

But the coast is just too busy for us now so we need to take a break from the ‘touristic towns’ and head inland a touch to Krka National Park to see it’s fantastic waterfalls.  It’s also home to golden eagles, peregrine falcons and owls that I hope we will have a chance to see. (we didn’t by the way)

The weather is still unpredictable, one day sunny, the next we’re back into winter clothes.  Everyone tells us ‘the weather is never like this’, seems we have been hearing this for the past 6 months.

Another peninsula leads us to Zadar and then Nin where we just happen to arrive on the towns feast day. I love a good local celebration, but this one didn’t have any dancing sadly.

Continuing along the peninsula we find the cutest little fishing village of Mandre that’s still untouched by tourism.  Our ‘tourism’ gauge is usually the price of coffee, cheap coffee-low tourism, expensive-we don’t need to be there!   Mandre’s coffee was cheap and good, the only problem with bars and cafés in Croatia is smoking, both inside and out, sometimes it’s like walking into the fog.

Pag/Mandre to our free camping at Prus Winery

It all started this morning when tired of paying for camping every-night, and the rainy weather we thought a move of country/destination might be the way to go.

But where?

So we headed to the little car ferry to take us back to the mainland, then all we had to do was turn right and follow the road to the motorway and be in Zagreb by this afternoon.  From there across into Serbia and finally Romania sometime next week

Brian turned left instead, I wonder what adventures are install for us today?                                                                                                                      

This is such a dramatic coastline, it looks a little like a moonscape, barely any vegetation grows in the stony Karst landscape.  The hills are covered with white limestone that farmers build the most beautiful dry stone walls from to pen in their sheep.  Somehow the sheep must manage find enough greenery between the stones as they all look really fat and healthy.

Again because of our thrift conscious budget I checked a couple of apps we use for free camping and found a nice spot beside a church where we wouldn’t hopefully be moved on.   The parking lot was OK, high up on a hill and good for a lunch stop but not really where we wanted to spend the afternoon.  Checking our trusty app once more I see a winery, and they are always a good stopover for us.  The only thing that I failed to notice was this winery was right on the border of Croatia and Slovenia, in fact about 300m from the border, but on the Slovenian side.

So we thought no problem, were good at borders, done lots lately we can do this.   I have our doc all out and ready and the Police at the border tell us that this is only a border for the locals and we must turn around and go back about 10km to the International crossing, easy peasy as Jamie O says, we can do that.

We find the right border crossing complete with a really grumpy border policeman, who asks Brian a question.  Brian answers France, thinking he asked where we bought our camper, and asking for the registration papers, but no he asked our place of ‘residence’. He then asks for our identity cards and we realize our mistake, oops!  No we are Australian we both say at once. Why did you say French, he asks?  Now he thinks we’re lying.                                                                                                                                             

Away go all our documents to the office to be triple checked.  Five nail biting minutes later he comes back with our stamped passports and lets us through.                                                                                            

Remember this is all for a free parking spot at a winery!

we’re not in yet!

In Slovenia you need a vignette to drive on the motorways, (300 euro fine if your caught without one) so we need to get one of those as well, 15 euro for seven days, this free nights parking is starting to get expensive.   

Finally on the road to the winery, with our vignette, and officially stamped passports we think nothing else can go wrong.   Hahah!                                                                                                       

We pass through the cute little towns near the winery and see our stop up ahead, just about there, I can almost taste the wine. 

Brian had noticed a car that has been following us and wondered why he hadn’t overtaken us, as most do.   As we pulled into the drive of the winery a very scary armed Police officer from Slovenia and a member of the armed forces from Croatia in battle fatigues (also with a gun)  in that car pulled behind us a blocked the exit, then rushed over to us wanting to know who we are, where we are going, and why?   His friend was likely the grumpy guy at the border, and got them to follow us as we looked a little suspect

After checking we had no illegals in Hermoine they seemed happy with our answers and left.  Talk about an exciting day.                                                                                                                                   

We find out later from the owner of the winery and only the night before, one of his delivery vans was stolen, and the Police using road spiky things, stingers I think they are called, caught them about 100kms up the road, with 12 illegals onboard.   That was why the extra caution we presume.

Apparently they are having huge trouble with illegal immigrants from Algeria trying to get into Slovenia as it’s part of the EU, and once in they can travel wherever.         

Anyway our night at the winery was quiet, we had a great tour with tastings, so it all worked out fine-except I still had a bunch of Croatian stamped postcards and too much Kuna, so back across the border to Croatia, (a nice guard this time and more stamps in our passports) found a post office and supermarket then head north towards Zagreb and to Varadinske Toplice, a little town with some big old Roman Baths and some sort of water festival/ celebration happening over the weekend, so we will just have to stay and check it all out. What a great place to spend our last nights in Croatia.

Romans soldiers marching, toga clad women and a concert by harpist accompanied by a rap artist…..it’s all going on here in Varadinske Toplice but we have made a decision, finally. Keeping to our northerly direction and going to HUNGARY!    Hope the weather is better there.

Apologies if this blog post is a little different looking. To cut a long story short we were broken into while at Mostar and we had our electronics stolen. Our tablets that we used as our readers and my Surface Pro that I had all my pics on, and used to write my blog posts. So until I can find an inexpensive device to continue the blog, the format may be a little different.

War Childhood Museum- Sarajevo

This museum opened in 2017, based on the crowd funded book ‘War Childhoods’

We watched video testimonies of everyday life as a child growing up in a war zone and where the participants talked about the everyday things like housing and the lack of food and water. Schooling, playing in the park or outside their homes, but with sniper fire all around, friends and their own significant losses during wartime. All which make us realize how fortunate we are to never have had to experience anything like this in our lifetime.

It was heart wretching.

This independent museum has garnered recognition as the world’s only museum focused exclusively on childhoods that have been affected by war, and giving them the opportunity to confront the traumas of their recent past, without reinforcing ethnic boundaries.

The story shared about this chalkboard was that shrapnel from a grenade pierced the board, but also sadly killed her brother who was only only a few days old that was laying in his crib close by.

The rubber duck helped amuse this child’s younger sister, for hours on end.

This ball was found by the young boy’s older brother and it soon became the most precious item he had. He talked about playing dodge ball in the hall with friends for hours when they couldn’t go outside. His older brother was killed a year later.

Personal belongings included such ordinary things for us, a chocolate wrapper collection, a hand drawn game similar to snakes and ladders and a few toys, but all of which were so important and valuable to the children of war torn Sarajevo, and have their own personal stories.

THE BALKANS-BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA

We were last in Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 2009. If you really want you could check out my blog post at travelsinat25.blogspot.com. Then even though the Bosnian War had finished in 1995 the country was still very war damaged, bullet holes and mortar shells in buildings, abandoned houses and danger signs about un-exploded mines on the sides of the roads.

some buildings are still damaged

Now in 2019, nearly 10 years later there is a definite difference in the look and feel to this country. New building going on is always a good sight.

new builds
nice homes with no bullet holes

From 1992 to 1996 Bosnia was the Syria of it’s day. Some 100,000 people died, more than 2 million displaced, in the three way war between the countries communities, it’s Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, it’s Catholic Bosnian Croatians, and it’s Muslims or Bosniaks as they are sometimes referred.

Sarajevo was one of the worst hit cities, with the Serb led Yugoslav army made a near unbroken ring from the hills around the city, thereby laying siege to the Bosnian capital. For close to four years tanks and machine guns shelled major buildings.

On average more than 300 artillery and mortar shells landed in the non Serbian areas and on the worst days, it was 3000 shells. No place was spared, schools, hospitals, markets, playgrounds, libraries and government buildings all were targeted. While years of litter and garbage lay rotting in the streets, snipers positioned in high rises or on the hills and shot civilians dead on their way to work and school.

my pic 2009
bullet scared town hall taken by me 2009
now it’s beautiful again
rebuilt and opened 2019

In 2009 we visited the famous tunnel that was hand dug under the airport runway that was used to take badly injured out and bring in much needed food and water.

Western forces finally stepped in after a particularly bad mortar attack on a marketplace in Sarajevo, resulting in 68 dead and 200 wounded civilian men, woman and children, finally after a series of bombing attacks on Belgrade Serbia, the Serbian troops started to pull back.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success, war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. However the political system that was imposed after the peace deal, with believe it or not three Presidents that rotate seats every eight months. That’s one president from each main ethnic group, Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Orthodox Serbs and the Croatians, and three official languages, ten Cantons all with their own local government officials even three separate Police forces, it’s complex and expensive to say the least.

A local we spoke to said “Most countries just have one idiot in charge, but we have three”

But I don’t want you think it’s all doom and gloom here. The countryside is beautiful with lush green hills, deep gorges that flow with ice cold, turquoise coloured snow melt, spectacular waterfalls. There are ancient hill forts, old Ottoman tombs and monasteries to visit, and the ever present, five times a day call to prayer from the mosques spiky minarets, which I particularly like.

Mostar bridge
this man handmade the copper coffee pot I bought here

Tour buses have found Mostar and it’s lovely bridge, where years ago when we were there it was deserted, now you can barely move. But these tourists all help the economy by hopefully spending money, even if it’s just lunch or an ice cream, it all helps.

Us in 2009 on the famous Latin Bridge
and a couple of days ago, different bridge 2019
I have to learn how to take better selfies
Hermione

THE BALKANS – MONTENEGRO

You can see and feel the difference as soon as you cross the border from Albania into Montenegro.

There is the towering mountains which give the country it’s name – Crna Gora in Montenegrin or Monte Negro in Venetian/Italian, meaning Black Mountain.

It doesn’t feel so repressed and it’s people not so downtrodden looking, homes and gardens are better maintained or perhaps it is that most Montenegrins actually have a home.

LOCATION

This stunning Balkan country lies on the Adriatic Sea nestled in between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo.

The landscape is dramatic with high mountains that dip their toes into the clear azure blue sea, many National Parks for hiking, canyoning, rafting, climbing etc., and quaint little old seaside fisherman villages.   They even have what they call ’Air Resorts’ where you can go and stay in a wood cabin, relax and just breath the fresh mountain air.

Our first night was in Ulcinj, where we parked high on a hill, overlooking the harbour and opposite the Stari Grad or old town, that at night it looked like fairyland sparkling with lights.  

We slowly worked our way up the coast via Budva, apparently the ‘party capital’ with beach bars and the Sea Dance music festival in July, right on the beach, which is part of the EXIT festivals. 

Budva

Too many Kontiki type tour buses there for us so we left the coast to drive over the mountain to Cetinje, the old capital city. The President of Montenegro has his residence there, and I had my hair washed, cut and blow-dried for 7 euro, and I’m really happy with it!

Cetinje
we stayed about 250m from the President’s residence, and no guards

KOTOR was the only place I had heard about in Montenegro, and the next place we visited.

Wedged dramatically between it’s 1,000m, nearly vertical cliffs, and at the end of the Bay of Kotor is it’s charming Old Town, with old city walls that run up the steep mountainside. It’s Middle Ages maze like cobbled streets once home to fisherman, is now filled with museums, churches, touristic gift shops, and café strewn squares, it’s bit like a mini Dubrovnik.

and lots of cats

Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of touristy stuff every now and then, but when three massive cruise ships are all taking advantage of the deep Bay of Kotor on the same day, it makes these tiny towns very busy.

But location wise you have to say it’s pretty impressive, especially when to get there from our previous couple of day’s stop at Cetinje, you have to cross over a mountain range, then descend through the clouds and around thirty odd switchbacks, with most of the road barely wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone 2.3m wide Hermione. 

There were a few white-knuckle moments when either us or the on-coming car had to squeeze by, and we always seemed to be on the drop off the mountain side when this happened.

see that gap in the wall, well the drop is straight down
getting closer

There wasn’t a lot of choice with parking at Kotor, but eventually we found a space large enough in an overpriced lot, and went for a wander, got thrown out of the museum grounds for eating our lunch on it’s stone steps, looked at all the overpriced tourist trash, then drove a few km’s down the road to the lovely little village of Perast.

it was a nice lunch spot, until they made us leave

Despite having only one main street, the tiny town old of Perast has so much charm.  With it’s grand old palazzo’s many of which are now exclusive hotels or beautifully renovated private homes, all with the perfect positioning sitting at the apex of the inner bay, looking straight down the narrow channel leading eventually to the sea.                                                                                                             

Perast

It’s most famous landmarks aren’t on land at all, but two small islands with equally peculiar histories.  I negotiated a great overnight parking spot, on the hilltop overlooking those islands for 10 euro which included a return boat trip each to see Our Lady of the Rock.

creepy island

Our Lady of the Rock Island, which was artificially created in 1452 around a rock where the image of the Madonna was found.  I quietly joined in with a tour group (Brian was looking at boats) and listened to the history of the island and in the church saw an embroidered cloth icon of the Madonna that was made with human hair, a little creepy.  Every year on the anniversary of the finding of the image, the locals row over with stones to continue the building task.

embroidery with human hair

The other island, called Sveti Djordje (St George’s Island) rises from a natural reef. It has a Benedictine monastery and a cemetery that is said to be cursed.  For obvious reasons we didn’t go there.

The weather is calling for rain for the next week, so now it’s the big decision to head north into Croatia, or NE to Bosnia and Herzegovina, you will just have to wait for the next blog post to see where we ended up.

The ships are going, now it’s time for our aperitif

THE BALKANS-ALBANIA

You may wonder why we decided to visit Albania, and truthfully over the past couple of weeks we have often thought the same thing. 

Especially the day in Tirana when Brian was verbally and physically assaulted after being accused of being German.  Brian was more surprised, and not hurt at all by the push to his shoulder. Later on we saw the same deranged guy with a bloody nose, so he obviously has serious mental or drinking/drug problems.

Albania is poor, very poor and it’s not un-common to see family’s, Mum, Dad and a couple of children going through the dumpsters looking for anything they can use or sell.  It’s terribly sad to see.

SOME HISTORY

The Balkans have been inhabited since the 12th century B.C, originally by the Illyrians, then the Romans, Byzantines and Turks, and this only brings us to the 15th century A.D.

World Wars 1 and 11 and it saw occupation again, becoming a battleground for the Germans and the Allied Forces.

But it was the Stalinist regime in the mid 1940’s under which it really struggled.   For more than forty years Albania was isolated as the then leader Hoxha, was unable to establish partnerships with the Soviet Union, China or Yugoslavia.                                                                               Albania was under one of the most repressive communist totalitarian regimes in history.                                                                                                                                                    It was nearly impossible to travel to or from Albania. Religion was forbidden, and in 1976 the country officially declared itself agnostic.  I think that North Korea probably has more trade partners and diplomacy than Albania did 30 years ago.

typical communist building with statue

Finally, in 1992 it emerged from the shackles of totalitarianism, and while the country has fought hard to catch up, sadly it still has a fair way to go.

the car wash

GETTING AROUND

It is only during the past 10- 15 years that people learnt to drive here, (though I must say they are scary drivers), as under communist rule you needed an official permit to own a car. We were told that in a span of 45 years only two permits were given to non-party members.  Because there weren’t many cars the government didn’t see the need for new or better roads, so most are in dismal condition.  Poor Hermione has bumped around potholes as big as swimming pools, and over some of the worst roads we have seen since Sicily.

Only the very rich, and or urban mafia have cars, usually German makes, Mercedes, Audi and VW.  Many others still use a horse and cart, or a bicycle, some are fortunate to have an old motor bike or scooter to get around.

So, to get around most locals use the Furgons, a small private people mover about the size of a Ford Transit van, some with windows, some not.  You just stand by the side of the road and wait until one goes by, and if he has a spare seat he stops, if not you wait a little longer.

It’s not un-common to see an older man or woman standing in the nice long grass by the roadside while their milk cow or the family horse or donkey has a feed.  Or the council worker with his shovel strapped to his bicycle on his way to fill a pothole or tidy the garbage by the roadside.

FOOD & DRINK

Byrek are my favourite snack/lunch here, they are a meat, feta and or spinach filled flatbread, but not made with filo pastry like their Greek cousin.

Brian tried a couple of local beers, but none took his fancy.  They do make a traditional Raki from either grapes or a variety of fruit, it’s very strong, and not as good as Ouzo in my opinion.

THE BIG QUESTION, SHOULD YOU VISIT ALBANIA?

Albania does have natural beauty and that would have to be it’s greatest drawcard. 

church

Rugged mountains, even one mountain range called the ‘Accursed Mountains’ if you dare to hike or climb them. Lakes and rivers, villages where time seems to have stood still, a few archaeological sites, even fewer places to stay in your motorhome.                                                                                                                  

We stayed in everything from parking garages and lots, to a small campground by a lake, which was really just some extra space in the parking lot of a restaurant.

parking for the night, it was the best we could do

Tirana, it’s capital has an interesting 3,000 sq metre Cold War bunker, built under the main square in the 1970’s for the cities political elite, and with concealed entrances from some it’s government buildings.  It remained a secret for much of it’s existence, and now is a fascinating museum about living under the regime, torture and spies.

On the hillsides, beaches and sometimes in the middle of a farmers field you will see small concrete domes, often with rectangular slits.  Tens of thousands of these bunkers were built from 1950 to 1985, constructed from around 5 tonnes of concrete each and almost possible to destroy, built specifically to withstand a full tank assault and to repel enemy invasion most are still here. Hoxha actually had the architect stand inside the prototype bunker and had a tank fire at it to test the strength and design, the architect emerged with shell shock but no other injuries, so the OK was given to go ahead with the bunkers.

It’s also very inexpensive, a huge loaf of bread costs about .80 cents, and my byrek’s only .50 cents each. A waiter in a café told us his wage for working 8 hrs a day, 6 days a week was less than 1,000 euro a month, or approximately $1500 Australian dollars, a month!.    People can barely afford to live, let alone have a vacation.                                                                                                                              

So probably unless you wanted a direct driving route from Northern Greece to Montenegro, I’d probably say give it few more years, or go through Bosnia and Herzegovina.                                                      

Albania is trying hard to catch up, and maybe with help from the UN or admittance to the EU someday, the way of life here wouldn’t be so hard for it’s people.

building site
happy bookseller

One of the best things about travel is getting to know more about places you have only heard about. 

We knew little about Albania, and now you know a little more, and we can say we do as well, and we also have a couple of new stamps in our passports.