21 May 2017

Balkans I--May 6-May 14, 2017

After all of my riding and travelling, there is one part of Europe where I've spent almost no time and seen very little--the Balkans.  I spend a couple of days in Croatia and Bosnia a couple of years ago, and have been to Istanbul a couple of times, but that's it. I've always wanted to see Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, etc.

Last year I was too busy with the move to Berlin to go on any long trips, but this year I was determined to make it down to the Balkans.  So on May 6 I flew to Milan, picked up my bike, and headed to the ferry port in Ancona...

MAY 6, 2017
I flew to Milan and as usual had Mototouring drop the bike off at the airport.  The pickup went smoothly, the people at the parking place were really nice...one of the guys asked me where I was going--to Milan, Genoa, Florence?  When I told him I was going to Istanbul, his eyes got really big and he nodded his head and said something like "Complemente".  Kind of sad really, because it is only a few days ride away over paved roads, but I guess I'll take all the complements I can get.

So I set off towards Ancona, where I'd booked an overnight ferry to Split.  The ferry didn't leave until 22:00, so I had lots of time.  This ride kind of sucked for a couple of reasons:  first the only practicable way to get to Ancona from Milan is via the autostrada, because other than that there aren't any roads going in that direction.  Second, it was cold and raining.  So it was a pretty miserable ride down the highway in the cold rain, but I figured once I got to the ferry terminal I'd be able to warm up and go to one of the restaurants there.

I got to the ferry terminal by about 15:30 or so and found that it was basically a big unheated shell...none of the restaurants were working.  So I got to sit around the unheated ferry port for seven hours.  Really kinda sucked.  After a while some other bikers showed up and I spoke with them for awhile, a Croatian guy and a couple of Italians.

Finally about 21:30 they let us on the damn ferry, and I dropped my stuff in my stuffy cabin and went to one of the onboard restaurants for dinner.  It was actually a pretty good pizza, but the cabin was kind of a disaster--none of the lights worked so I had to stumble around to find my flashlight to get anything done.  Anyway, right after dinner I hit the bunk, at least it was warm!

Here is the day's route, and the ferry's course:

MAY 7, 2017
So the next morning I got up pretty early and went out on deck to check out the weather.  Once again cold and cloudy:
Oh well.  As I was waiting to get off the boat I got to talking to the Croatian guy, and we agreed to have breakfast after getting off the ferry.  He used to live in Split, so he led me to a nice little cafe right on the beach, where we had coffee and a leisurely breakfast.  Finally at about 11:00 we parted ways and I head off...I figured I would try to stay in Sarajevo this evening.

The ride to Sarajevo is beautiful, but since it was raining or threatening rain the whole time and I hadn't brought my waterproof camera setup, I didn't have a camera handy to took no pictures.  Anyway, I made it to Sarajevo without incident and went back to the same hotel where I stayed last time, the Europa or Europe or something.  It's in a great location, and has a secure parking lot, so it is a nice place to stay.  And this time I got a much nicer room than last time, with a balcony with an awesome view:
After checking in and taking a shower, I headed out for dinner and a beer and had a hard time choosing a place, because several places with a couple blocks of my hotel looked pretty great.  After a tasty dinner--like a chorizo sandwich--I went back to the hotel for some wine and a cigar, and an awesome night view:
Here is today's ride:

MAY 8, 2017
It rained almost all night--I could hear the rain pattering down on the balcony's roof--but had more or less stopped by the time I got up, although it was still cold and grey.  This hotel has an awesome breakfast buffet, so after a leisurely, filling breakfast I hit the road again, by which time it was raining again.

I wasn't totally sure where to go today, but figured I would head towards Pristina in Kosovo and see what happened.  The ride through Bosnia was pretty nice, have I mentioned that it is a beautiful country?  The only problem was as I got close to the Serbian border, there were lots of tunnels, all of them very dark, especially when you are wearing sunglasses.  And a lot of them are curved, too, so I almost ran into the wall in some of them. Back by the Serbian border, Bosnia is especially beautiful, with mountains, cliffs, and forest towering over the Drina River:

 Once again it was raining or threatening to rain the whole time, so my camera and phone were packed away, and I couldn't take any pictures without stopping the bike and upacking my phone from my bag.  Not handy...

I should mention that to chart the route from Sarajevo to Pristina, I just entered Pristina as the destination in my GPS and let it do the rest, so I was more or less just following the GPS.  At one point I stopped to check my paper map, but for some reason I couldn't find it so at that point didn't really have any choice but to follow the GPS.

So I kept going; I crossed a bridge into Serbia (at least there was a sign!), but there was no border post...after several kilometers there was a border post on a road heading off to the right, but it was for Montenegro, not Serbia...I finally found the Serbian border post a few kilometers down the road.  Lots of borders around here!

The bit of Serbia I rode through was really densely populated, which was kind of a drag after the natural beauty of Bosnia.  The scenery was OK, but nothing special:
But I was only in Serbia for a couple of of hours.  Pretty soon I came to a town called Novy Pazar, with lots of traffic and roads which confused the hell out of my GPS.  Finally it (and I) found the right road, however, and we headed off out of town towards Kosovo.

The road out of town was tiny, kind of a one and a half lane paved road heading up into the hills.  Soon it turned to gravel, and then dirt.  I was a bit nervous, because usually roads with this progression (pavement, gravel, dirt) only get worse, not better, especially when you are heading into the hills away from any cities...  But this road was kind of a weird one, and constantly alternated between decent pavement, then maybe some dirt, then gravel, then pavement, etc.   Anyway, the road was pretty good and despite all of the rain there was only one stretch of dirt road with a fair bit of mud.

Since I couldn't find my paper map, and since the border wasn't shown on my GPS, I had no idea where the Kosovan border was, and didn't really have any idea how far Pristina was from the border, either.  So I just kept going.  The scenery was pretty spectacular, but it was still raining on and off, so my camera was packed away, and no pictures.  It was after today's right that I swore not to ride again without a rugged camera handy.  The road was fairly easy, even the descent down from the hills was nothing complicated.

I finally came down in the valley on the far side of the hills, and still no border. I started following signs for Pristina through a long crappy stretch of road with "suburban sprawl"; lots of traffic in both directions so impossible to pass, lots of buildings, many of them half-built, for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer.  After maybe 45 minutes of this I pulled into Pristina, having never passed a border post, which I thought was weird, but who knows, maybe Kosovo joined Schengen or who knows what?  I selected the "Swiss Diamond" hotel (or something like) that on my GPS and pulled in shortly thereafter; this is one of the fanciest and most expenses places I've stayed in a while, whooda thunk in Pristina?

I walked around Pristina a bit, it is nice enough, but after a quick dinner went back to the hotel, where I found my paper map and realized that I'd come into Kosovo on a road without a border point, which meant that I was in the country illegally!  I was in a slight panic when I figured this out, and posted on a overland traveler website about what to do--go back the way I came and then back in via a different route?  To the closest border point and explain what happened, and throw myself on their mercy?  Or just keep going on to Macedonia to see what happens?  I was a bit concerned that if I chose incorrectly, I'd end up in a Kosovan detention cell!

I went to sleep, deciding that I would figure it all out in the morning.

Here is my route:

MAY 9, 2017
Next morning I had another nice breakfast and decided I would just head out to Macedonia to see what happened.  Once again the weather was cold and rainy.  Also, I didn't know where I would stay, maybe in Plovdiv in Bulgaria, but maybe somewhere closer, we'll see.

So riding out of Pristina was pretty much like riding in--shit--with lots of traffic and suburban sprawl.  Once I got closer to the Macedonian border it was a bit nicer, with some small mountains (and rain).  I pulled up to the Kosovan border post a bit nervously, handed them my passport, and was stamped and through in about a minute--success!  Then through the Macedonian border and I was on my way...

I decided not to go to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, but rather to turn east and head to the Bulgarian border.  I got there after a couple of hours--my second international border before lunch--crossed in pretty easily and then had to decide where to go.  It had just started raining again, and I was cold, so I decided I would head to Sofia, an easy ride of a couple of hundred kilometers.

When I got to Sofia, there was lots of traffic, and the two or three hotels I stopped at were all completely full (supposedly), so I decided to get the hell out of Dodge and keep going to Plovdiv.  Unfortunately the OSM maps that I installed on my GPS ran out just outside of Sofia, so I would be flying blind, but since it was a city on the major highway, I didn't anticipate any difficulties.

Sure enough I found Plovdiv easy enough, but I had a hard time finding a hotel...without a GPS I just sort of rode around the city until I happened to find a place.  No idea what it was called, it was pretty basic but OK and had a little restaurant and bar built in.

No pictures again, but here is the route:

MAY 10, 2017
Next morning the weather was shit again, but I was only a few hundred kilometers from Istanbul, my destination, down a major highway, so no biggy.  Today's ride was not that fun--all highway, a border, and then into Istanbul, with its insane traffic. Really kind of sucky.

I didn't have any intention of roaming around Istanbul trying to find a hotel, so did a bit of internet research about hotels and made sure that I had a map of Istanbul on my GPS as I set out in the morning.  I got down to the Turkish border quicly enough, and it was a total cluster--to there, to there, do this, do that, very confusing, but finally I got through it and roared down the highway to Istanbul.

The traffic on the highway coming into Istanbul was insane--they just don't give a shit, I was almost run off the road several times.  Finally got to the center and had great time as my GPS was totally overwhelmed by the city and sent me everywhere other than where I wanted to go.  I could see where the hotel where I wanted to stay (the Golden Horn Hotel) was, and by scooting down some pedestrian zones and riding down tram tracks, I finally reached it.  It was on a little park, a little oasis of calm right in the heart of Istanbul.  It is a nice hotel, here is my bike parked in front:
After a bit of pushing I got a room with a great view:

I started walking around the city, but first had found an intruder on my bike:
I hadn't been in Istanbul in almost ten years--it is an amazing city...

Here is the route (my tracker battery died, hence the long straightline, but I just rode down the highway, so use your imagination):

MAY 11, 2017
Spent an extra day in Istanbul...

MAY 12, 2017
This morning I got up early to leave Istanbul for Bulgaria, and saw one of my favorite sunrises ever; sorry for all of the pix, but I was really impressed (these pix are all un-Photoshopped!):

Thanks to the GPS, getting out of Istanbul was pretty easy, and traffic was much lighter.  About 100 kilometers outside of town I pulled into a cafe to load my GPS maps for Bulgaria, and there were about 20 Turkish riders, mainly on GS, heading to Sicily or somewhere.  Nice guys.

I wanted to ride up the Bulgarian coast, so shortly after the stop I turned off to the right.  When I got to the border post, it was much smaller than the one at Edirne where I came in, very easy.  The Bulgarian post was also easy, but had a definite Soviet vibe...after getting my passport stamped I pulled off by one of the buildings to fix something on my bike, and two border guys came up.  One was nice enough, but one started giving me the third degree, in Russian.  Where was I going, what was I doing in Istanbul, why did I speak Russian, etc. etc.  The guy finally lightened up a bit, and the other guy gave me some tips about where to stay along the coast, so in the end not so bad an encounter.

The ride up the coast was not as nice as I had hoped.  I had no idea where to stay, I figured that I would just ride along until I found a place that I liked.  But I kept riding and riding...everywhere was either a big city or there was nothing there...a couple of places looked totally deserted and shut down.  Finally I got to a place called "Golden Sands", one of the northernmost beaches, north of Varna.  I was sort of running out of road at this point, so wanted to stop already, and was relieved when I saw what looked like a nice hotel (the Admiral) right as I pulled into town.

This was a weird place--there was lots of tourist infrastructure, but it too was completely deserted:
 In the evening when I went for a stroll I found an ADV bike very similar to mine parked right next to me.  I left a note on the bike suggesting that we meet for some beers but the note was still there when I left, so I guess the rider didn't see it....
Anyway this whole place had a weird vibe; my hotel was full of geriatric Germans, and it was even more deserted at night:
There were a few restaurants open, and even a bar with some of the worst live music I've ever heard, but that was about it.  A guess you could call it a memorable evening, but not in the way that you would like.

In addition to the attractions below, this place had loads of trinket shops, a casino, and a bunch of clubs, but I guess the season didn't really get started until later in the year.  From what I could see, this town catered to German tourists, and most of the signs were in German.  I thought that the Russians also came to Bulgaria, but several people in this town either didn't speak Russian or would not speak it:

 Here is some kind of cheesy German party place, note the cheesy German DJs (or whatever they are) on the sign:
Generally not a great place, but from what I'd seen riding up, no where else would be better, including the motocamp, so I decided to stay here for two nights.

Here is my route:

MAY 13, 2017
Another day in paradise.

MAY 14, 2017
Today I had to drop my bike off at the famous Motocamp, run by rtwDoug and Polly, and then catch a flight out of Sofia, although my flight wasn't until late, so I didn't have to leave Motocamp until about 16:00, and I was only a couple of hours away, so I was not in a hurry.

rtwDoug is the guy that I rode to Magadan with, and Polly is his girlfriend who rode part of the way back from Magadan on my xChallenge.  I had always wanted to check out Motocamp, so this was probably my best chance.

It was a quick ride there, and then I parked the bike, had a couple of beers, and chatted with Polly (rtwDoug was in the US):
There is a kind of weird story about the town where Motocamp is located (I forget what it was called); rtwDoug and Polly opened it several years ago, and people (I guess mainly Brits) started coming by, liking the town, and buying property there.  Now there a couple of dozen non-Bulgarians living there.  Honestly, I didn't get the attraction, it is a nice enough town, but all the same a tiny Bulgarian town in the middle of nowhere, hours from the beach, etc.  I guess the cheap housing (~EUR 5000 for a house) was a major reason, but still...).

Anyway so then a two and a half hour ride to the Sofia airport with Peaches, one of the Brits living in town, and then back to Berlin.  I will go back to Motocamp in the fall at some point to continue the journey and ride back to Milan.

Here is my overall trip:

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