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Exploring the Balkans

Friday, October 5, 2018 | Paul Kustermann | Europe

Here's the Plan - roughly 6000 KM along the Carpathian mountains: leaving Germany, through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the High Tatras, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and back to Germany. Four weeks without a care in the world.

Week 1 - Getting A Feel For Being On The road

After weeks of dreaming and preparation, it's finally time to hit the road. Two bikes. Two riders, and plenty of time! First destination: Berlin to Görlitz.
The Park Hotel in Görlitz. Top location for a discount price.
The famous Oder-Neiße border between Germany and Poland. This trip will make a lot of European history more tangible for us.
Beautiful Görlitz...

Day 2: We finally made it to the Czech Republic. A bit of drizzle and some drops, but beautiful riding none the less. Forests and rivers and lakes in the highlands along the Polish border. 

Our first of many picnics. In the middle of the UNESCO protected area Krkonošský Národni Park we found a special "dark area" which has so little ambient light that one can see thousands of stars on a clear night. And as you can see... my wife ;0)
This convent at Henice is one of the most renowned pilgrimage sites in Bohemia
First night in the Czech Republic. NACHOD
... and some of that famous Czech pivo! Even the Germans, who are arguably the champions of great beer, acknowledge the legendary quality of Czech Pivo.
Great meal. The Bohemian cuisine is famous for its hearty savory dishes and being an inspiration to Austrian cooking.
Good night Nachod...

Days 3 to 5 - Getting to Romania

The day started off with rain, so not a lot of pictures, but most notable was a near collision because I was looking for a stopping place to get out of the rain -- which might have been the hospital if I hadn't had my guardian angel looking out for me. Golden rule: keep your eyes on the road. And you always get a warning. That may have been the stellar moment of the trip as far as our safety goes. Thank God for Angels.
Lunch break at a local brewery. They had a no-alcohol draft which blew our socks off!
How do you comment on a picture like this? The whole side of a grain silo celebrating the glories of sausage.
Down for the night in the town of OLOMOUC. An historically rich and important trade center. Still vibrant today, the impressive monuments of past glory are still visible: cathedral, court house, beer cellar!

Day 4 had more rain in store for us. Actually a deluge. But as luck would have it, we got to a shelter just in time!!!

Sad sight... the bikes hunkered down under a barely adequate cover till the rain passes by. But then...! We were rewarded by a stunning castle ruin perched high on a peak just as we begin to enter the western Tatras.
Starýhrad Castle near Silien. Like a crazy stoney piece of coral it seems to have grown right out of the stone, when actually it is the product of a 1000 years of decay.
Actually this would be the ultimate Slovakia tour... castles castles castles... A biker's heaven it is not! Too many regulations, too much micro-management of the traffic flow... a posted speed reduction at every curve. But for a leisurely stroll from one castle to another - perfect.
A scenic little bit of elegent 18th century charm in the pedestrian zone of RUZOMBEROIO
The beginning of the Carpathian mountains in the distance.
Rain again! This time at the first drops hit we were just at an exit ramp to a gas station where motorcycles were already lining up for the bit of shelter there was.
A quaint and lovely end to an eventful day. PAPRAD at the foot of the High Tatra mountain range Europe's smallest "Hochgebirge" with over 20 peaks above 2000 meters.

Day 5 begins with a loop of the Tatra mountains, then on top the famous city of KOSIČE which will be our last stop before entering UKRAiNE. Here a glance at our happy bikes which were allowed to spend the night on the porch. 

Nice little place run by a former Slovakian national mogul skier. He made us the best scrambled eggs we have ever eaten... !
Then it's off to the High Tatras... SLOVAKIA'S claim to Alpine fame...
Not just mountains, also here the rich have staked their claim. St. MORITZ in mini-format.

Being the smallest high alpine region of Europe was not an overstatement. Hardly were we in, we were out again, and further on our way to KOŠICE.

Along the way a cozy little hamlet with a unique church and a lovely garden.

From the road we spotted another interesting looking little settlement and went to have a look. From a distance it could have been Tuscany... a cluster of red tiled roofs with church spires and towers from the city hall rising above the skyline. It turned out LEVOĆA is one of the many starting points of the vast European network of pilgrimage trails leading to Santiago de Compostella. Accordingly, there is a very significant Cathedral here containing the world's largest all wood carved baroque altar. Very impressive!

Map of the European network of pilgrimage trails to Santiago de Compostella
Approaching our intended highlight of the day (and probable picnic site) SPIŠSKÉ POD HARDIE. The castle ruin on the hill looks haunting and ominous.

Spending a relaxing hour in the cool shade of a little waterside shack,  gazing upon the ruins of this impressive fortress, will definitely be remembered as one of our most pleasurable moments of the trip...

Here's the lodging that wasn't in my Garmin...
Here's the one that booking.com found for us.
Believe it or not, in KOŠICE we actually were allowed to park our bikes IN the hotel ;0) First time that ever happened to me.
Little stroll on the town...
A water fountain that is synchronized to music.

To cap the night, a wonderful dinner of goulash, crèpes, roasted duck with red cabbage and salad. Tomorrow should be the day we reach the UKRAINE. The first time I will have set foot or bike into a (former) Soviet country. We don't know what to expect. 

Day 6 and 7 Ukrania

First getting oriented...
Then first impressions
Then managing the challenging pavement....
Our first lodging. After hours of torturous roads, impoverished settlements, incredulous contrasts between meagre nearly 3rd world living conditions and opulent dedication to religious edification, we literally stumbled upon an oasis of civilization. Out of nowhere a flourishing health spa center with some 20 luxury hotels. Cost factor: 4 - star two person suite with breakfast and bike parking in the wood shed... €23
Day 7 started out with a bang. The remaining bits of pavement actually more of a hindrance than a help. Or first two hours of riding reminded me of skiing moguls in Telluride in the springtime... dodging rocks and divets, trying to find the smoothest path.
Some lovely scenery and typical slices of daily life...
Some wild contrasts, like this massive modern luxury hotel where there are no tourists or guests to fill it....
Churches old and new and large and small...
A special challenge: 5 km of unpaved road ending in a short stretch of knuckle-deep gravel which Susanne managed miraculously well with her street cruiser, while I with my enduro bike nearly bailed out.
A monument to the soldiers who died in Afghanistan...
And to end the day with an appropriate symbol of our very own personal heroism, this statue of a valiant local hero.
All's well that ends well.

The Ukraine was a challenge to our bodies and minds. We met wonderfully friendly people, many however living in conditions that seemed hundreds of years behind the times, juxtaposed to building projects that were hedging on a prosperous future which seemed iconoclastic to the surroundings. One explanation is also a sad reminder of the ignominious nature of man to be a immoral opportunist; just minutes before the border we were boonwaggled twice by police on bogus driving violations (which we settled in cash of course) to the tune of €220! More than double of what we spent on food and lodging and gas for the two days. We would have gladly donated that to a laudable cause that would boost the infrastructure here, but unfortunately it only went into the pockets of corrupt officials. Unfortunately a scenario you see being played out everywhere there is such pitious poverty.

Document of a conspiracy... Here the drawing from the second police trap, warning me of the third trap awaiting us. An ominous intersection where, if you follow your navigation device and instinct and turn left before the little island, you will be entering an unmarked one way 20 meter section of road the wrong way. Big fine. Insidious tap. But we were spared the trouble with this little sketch.

Week 2 - The Carpathian Mountain Range

Week 2 - Romania

A very friendly border crossing bodes well for the week to come. Day 8 starts off with a good omen and good weather.
...and very different feeling: fresh, clean, prosperous. It's as if this European town is trying to make a statement to its "east block" neighbor that joining the union pays off.
If that's not a sign of luck, then I don't know what is...
Still the most common and efficient service vehicle in the region! Horses will go where a truck can't and you don't have to buy fuel for them.
Down for the night in BORSA, smack dab in the Carpathian Mountains.

Day 9 will take us from BORSA to PIATRA NEAMT (also known as Kreuzburg an der Bistritz). The following day we will continue through a famous gorge to another of the formerly German named Romanian cities -SCHÄSSBURG - which is actually Sighisoara to the locals.

From outward appearances an utterly funky arrangement for our lodging tonight! In booking.com it was highly recommended. The elevator seemed like a chamber of horrors, but when we got in the room, everything was lovely...
And the food that night was exceptional! I had wild boar in a delicious mushroom sauce and Susanne's goulash was also stupendous - not to mention the exceptional local beer. Looks like we will be eating well in Romania.

Transylvania

Day 10 from PIATRA NEAMT to SIGHISOARA will take us through the famous Bicaz Gorge (a chance to be "inside the mountain" as opposed to driving around and past it) then on to the region TRANSYLVANIA - literally "beyond the forest". Known in German speaking regions as SIEBENBÜRGEN, this remote region became internationally renouned as the fictional home of Count Dracula and the land of the vampires. It's remoteness, being snuggled in among the Carpathian mountains makes it a handy target for myths and legends, just as another region of Romania further south, WALLACHEI, is synonimous in German with "the end of the world".

450 years Transylvania, land of religious freedom

Day 11 will take us through BRASOV - one of Romania's biggest cities with a beautiful old center - then on to the infamous castle in Bran which is purported to have been the model for Bram Stokers monumental tale of dracula We will sleep at the foot of the legendary mountain road TRANSFAGARASAN.

Along the way a fitting symbol for this anachronistic mix of old and new. Here an advert for an auto body shop with the old burg ruin in the background.
The fortress in RUPEA (exemplary relic of 14th century defense and military architecture)
Approaching BRAŞOV...
Today a sprawling city, the old town is one of the chiquest and hippest in Romania. Great cafes, lots of young people and, of course, plenty of tourists (like ourselves).
What tourists do here... selfie themselves with the Hollywood like sign in the hills above Braşov in the background.
Braşov by night....
Approaching the BRAN CASTLE. Highly marketed but for the wrong purposes. Perhaps less spectacular than the fortress in Rupia, but much closer to our romantic image of medieval castle living. Late 14th century, It is apparently the only structure of its kind resembling the description of Dracula's burg in Bram Stoker's novel. Whether he ever even saw it is questionable. And yes there really was a Count named Dracula, but he didn't reside in Bran.

An eventful day that ended peacefully at the foot of the TRANSFAGARASAN which we will conquer tomorrow.

The town of ARGISH at the foot of the TRANSFAGARASAN.

Day 12 TRANSFAGARASAN

There are names of places in the world of motorcycling that conjure up wild emotions. These places are legendary. They are must-do's in one's life and a reason in-and-of itself to drive carefully enough to live to do the next one. And since we started planning this trip, everyone we mentioned Romania to uttered immediately this magical word: the TRANSFAGARASAN. Well today's the day we do it...

"eschis" means: OPEN! Yeah!

Day 13 we will allow ourselves a little break in the beautiful city of SIGHISOARA - also known as Schässburg - before mounting the "other" infamous TRANS ALPINA route heading south to the border of Serbia.

The day begins with a friendly greeting from a local...
Then a precipitous climb to the top of the city's ancient cathedral...
Some magical views of the old town built on a hill...
An ornate orthodox church..
A cozy little corner for a cool drink..
And a relaxing closing round of "people watching" in the park.

Day 14. A new dawn, and new horizons... The famous Trans Alpina route.

Not what we expected. Thickly wooded, gently rolling landscape. Not spectacularly mountainous like the Transfagarasan. But challenging at speeds around 70 kmh. We're met two nice Bavarians along the way on BMW's and had a coffee with them. Then a grim reminder of how quickly joy can turn to tragedy. A fatal accident along the way, between a motorcyclist and a local driver in a car made vivid that every moment is a gift and in an instant that can change dramatically. One needs a system for managing risk, and respect for the unexpected. This is also part of what taking on adventure is about. 

A moment of peace near a placid lake helps us soothe our nerves and rest our soul.

Week 3 - Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia

Crossing the border into an unknown adventure

Serbia was a completely unknown entity for us. We are curious and perhaps just a little bit anxious... having really only recent memories of conflict in this area in recent history. Point of entry: the famous IRON GATE. We don't know why "iron" but "gate" is clear... this is where the mighty Danube narrows to just 150 meters between soaring rocky cliffs. 

Hallmark of the results of war. A cemetery - one of many. In fact, when searching my Garmim for points of interest, 7 of 10 are cemeteries. A sad reminder of the history and heritage of this troubled region.

Day 15 was a thrilling surprise. Great roads, no traffic, good weather and vast landscapes distantly reminiscent of north western Montana. Serbia is a treasure for the wandering spirit. 

Enjoying the tranquility of a little shade before the day comes to a close.
Greetings to Monsanto. Here there still live bugs! A vital sign of nature still at work.
In Prokuplje we found a wonderful inn with an enchanting court in hacienda style with lots of shade. (Sorry no picture) The proprietor was very friendly and gave us a complimentary bottle of local wine as welcome gift, and in the teeming little downtown area we found a wonderful "slow food" restaurant.
The food was so scrumptious that I nearly forgot to document it. Here a parting shot off the last bite of a sinfully good desert.
And a beautiful breakfast to start the new day.

Day 16 - continuing in Serbia is a true reward for the initiative it took to undertake this adventure. Perhaps the most stunning riding of the trip! And vistas that are just not done justice in a photograph. But here a few impressions anyway. 

Maintenance is also part of touring. With nearly 4000 km behind us, we took the opportunity to wash the bikes, check oil and tires and chains and rear up for the next 2000.
Highlight of the day was the medieval monastery STUDENICA between the towns of Roska and Ivanjica. Built in the 12th century, it is one of several in a select network of early romanesque architecture. Below is a map of these UNESCO recognized sites. A very tranquil and beautiful place. In the chapel we lit a candle for the woman who lost her life yesterday on the Trans-Alpina.

Shortly after the town of Ivanjica our most harrowing moment of the trip transpired... Susanne missed a turn-off because I had placed myself too inconspicuously. A failed search and rescue effort ended in us taking separate routes to our destination for the night. It was nightfall before we re-connected in NOVA VAROŠ! What a relief. And then some searching to find our lodging... but in the end it all turned out. 

Approaching Nova Varoš with a lovely view of the valley and its magnificent lake resulting from the dam just south of the city.

Day 17 - leaving Serbia on the way to Montenegro

A fresh start with sunny clear skys and a brisk fall chill in the air.
Heading into the mountains a first glimpse of strip mining facilities...
Some old deserted mining seltlements...
Then on to spectacular vistas!
Beautiful riding and stunning views! Montenegro is a veritable paradise for motorcyclists (but also the country where we encountered the most speed traps of our trip - 2 in half a day. Luckily we were not too fast.... this time.)
...right up to and eventually entering the vast and indescribable DURMITOR NATIONAL PARK
This is just a glimpse of one of the most remarkable landscapes in all of Europe. To do it justice, I have devoted an entire section to it... see below.

Durmitor National Park

Montenegro's indescribable Durmitor National Park

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Panorama from top of Durmitor National Park

Getting to the Bosnian border...

Descending into the DRINA Canyon... one of the deepest and longest gorges in Europe. This area is a bonanza not just for motorcyclists - but also for hikers, climbers, bicyclists, kayakers, river rafters and Co. - a veritable paradise.
The DRINA
The border crossing is a funky wooden bridge that is quite questionable in the best of conditions. If wet it could be a nightmare.
At once the road was a disaster. With my enduro bike it was easier riding the gravel shoulder than risking the road. Susanne, however, had to rough it.
Arriving at our lodging for the night was a great relief. The AUTO CAMP DRINA is beautifully situated, very clean, great facilities and the proprietors extremely friendly. Looking back we should have stayed here another day to rest our bones and soak in some Bosnian hospitality.

... to be continued

On tour we are always a few days behind with processing the pictures. Look back in every now and then to see the latest fotos. And we are always thrilled to receive a comment on the Blog. Thanks.

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Add a comment Rate this post
Judi
Tuesday, October 9, 2018 at 17:04

This seems like quite an adventurous tour! The photos are just amazing. My husband and I are very interested in motorcycling through the Balkans with Edelweiss. Looks like only two riders on this tour?
Susanne Berg
Wednesday, September 12, 2018 at 08:36

Lovely pictures again! Blut keep your eyes on the road, Paul!!!
Wim
Tuesday, August 28, 2018 at 11:09

Hey Paul!

Got to love it how the route simply says "Berlin to Berlin". Easy enough! Just, you know, the long way round

Is that scouting for a future tour?

Safe travels!
Wim

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