Adriatic countries are not a part of the union. Road conditions become less favorable, traffic more chaotic, and people live in less favorable conditions. However, in some aspects, these countries are much more interesting to experience then the ones in the union. People are more observant and welcoming. Contrast and variety is abundant. There are more things to discover. But it takes time to adjust.
Croatia has a very long and dynamic coastline with a new highway spanning along. Most of the usable land on the shore is somehow made available for tourism. The most popular and economic way of doing this is the “Auto-Camp” attracting the European RV’s. I was lucky to be there before the season began. It was easy to find a place to camp whenever I felt like stopping. There weren’t too many people so it was possible to relate with locals and other travelers. The few days I spent here were the closest I had to a “vacation”. But I had to move on.
For a nationalist Montenegrin or Serbian, there are two significant historical events. The Turkish conquest back in the 14th century, and the more recent bombings by U.S. airplanes. Being a Turk living in the states, I didn’t expect much sympathy. One of the border police confirmed my thoughts by the way he looked at me as he handed the documents back. The only reason I was allowed in their country was because I was a tourist. I placed the documents in the panniers, not to take them out again until I got out of the country.
I was going through one of the small seaside towns. I don’t know if it’s the salt from the sea, or the dust from all the construction going on, but the rear wheel slipped on one of the roundabouts. I had noticed the surface conditions earlier so I wasn’t going fast and the bike regained balance immediately. Still, my left foot got a small hit from the pannier. I pulled over to the side of the road and sat on the pavement . Thanks to the riding boots, there wasn’t any damage… I can see this happening more often in sandy roads. I need to do something about that “dangling feet” reflex. Panniers and feet don’t work well together.
I didn’t realize at first but the spot I pulled over, was a police check point. They were randomly stopping cars. One of them approached me and said “No control! You go!” Apparently, he thought I was stopping for them. I thanked him, instead of explaining, and moved on. Later on, I learned that the officers were instructed by their chief to leave the tourists alone. Tourism is really important here. It’s the only “ism” everybody accepts without any discussions.
The road turned inland, towards Podgorica, the capital. I didn’t have big plans for this country other than finding a place to stay for the night. It didn’t look like I’d be able to camp, so I started reading the signs on the side of the road, looking for a cheap hotel.
In an intersection, I noticed a rider on an Africa Twin. We saluted as most riders around the world do. A little later, on a red light, he approached me and introduced himself. Soon, Mladen and I were sitting in a cafe, talking about each others lives. He suggested that I stayed for the night so we could ride together around the country next day. He had a big list of things I had to see in Montenegro. We spent the night attending the bikes in his front yard. I helped him with the oil change of the Africa Twin. Mladen is married and has a three year old son. They live on a new flat built on his parents’ house. Lukka, the little guy, was amazed by my inability to speak their language but never gave up talking to me. I repeated what he was telling me in Serbian like a parrot and he knew to count from one to ten as well as saying “I love you”…
We took off in the morning. Montenegro is a mountainous country. Hence the name. We visited a river canyon with amazing views and the small village situated near the river. The monastery and then the mausoleum of an ancient king… The latter was built on top of a mountain. We climbed with the bikes as much as the road took us. There was even a pile of snow somewhere on the road. Then we had to climb 500 steps through a tunnel to the top. Climbing those steps is one thing, carving them through a mountain is another. Kings can get really picky with their requests… This one asked to be buried here.
The real highlight of the day was a result of pure coincidence. Coming down the mountain, we saw a dozen of cannons facing the city. Mladen blanked at first, but after talking to one of the soldiers, he remembered that it was the independence day. The soldiers were going to fire blanks while the orchestra played the national anthem. There were kids around wearing identical T-shirts with nationalist slogans on them. One of them was complaining because it wasn’t his size… Apparently, someone handed out these.
This turned out to be a very interesting event to observe. As a foreigner, watching a relatively small military celebration made me realize how similar these “shows” are regardless of their size or the amount of bang they make. The way the soldiers move, their gestures and tone of addressing is too familiar. It almost makes me think that there isn’t anything unique or national about this. This isn’t about the land and the people living and loving it. This stuff looks same everywhere. They don’t reflect the identity of people. They represent “power”! This is a tough representation problem because power is only visible through it’s application on something. People (soldiers) were standing in an order and responding in unity to commands given, cannons were fired simultaneously to create the loudest bang possible…
Mladen loves his country in a very intimate way. This feeling is not contaminated with nationalistic ideas or fanaticism. He loves the people living here, the mountains around Podgorica, the clean rivers and all the fish in it, the cheese in the morning, the scent of the air high up in the villages… He likes riding his bike on the roads of this land, the land he himself belongs to. Often times during that day, I found myself admiring him, more than the things he was trying to show me.
Next morning, he wanted to escort me to the Albanian border. Based on my limited demographic observations around Podgorica and Cetinje, half of the population was Mladen’s relatives and the other half were his neighbors, so I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he knew the border guard. He wanted to make sure I had no problems leaving Montenegro. It’s not very likely to have problems on departure, but I did not insist.
On the way to Albania, we saw two large trucks stuck in the middle of a small road. They were trying to maneuver through… Being a half-ass westerner my first reaction was to wait until the problem was resolved by the drivers. Mladen immediately parked his bike and helped. Again; these are his roads, and the drivers are his guests…
Albania has recently opened its borders. Most Albanians still don’t have the financial and official means to travel outside their country but there is an increasing number of tourists eager to visit this country and it’s amazing people… The road conditions and traffic is really bad. Actually it’s the worst I’ve seen so far. I had to stop and change the suspension settings on the bike. Bad roads are sometimes worse than off-road conditions, because riding on a paved surface, you expect some sort of consistency and adjust your speed accordingly. In Albania, this would be a mistake. You can easily fall into a huge pothole in the middle of the city. Locals know to avoid these obstacles, and there aren’t too many visitors so it’s not really a priority on the long list of improvements.
It’s hard to notice as a foreigner, but the country has gone through a big change and many things are fairly new. There are no historical buildings related to religion. All mosques and churches are new and ugly. Billboards and commercial messages absurdly contradict their surroundings. Modern rules and regulations appear trivial.
Elbasan is a developing city situated on a low plateau. The road from Tirane descends into the city as it curves along the hills surrounding it. There is a nice view of the area towards the end of the day. The light is low and the air is dense… I had to stop, to contemplate…
An old shepherd was watching me as I took off my helmet. He probably had sons, my age. He’s left alone to herd the sheep, so they must be working in the factory down below. Maybe that’s what made the air feel so dense… I walked to him, bowed slightly and kissed his hand. Dark, old and wrinkled; it felt like kissing the earth. He smiled. We couldn’t talk much but he pointed his stick into the air towards the city and said something in Albanian. I think I know what he said.
I followed the curves as they descended into the city. It felt like turning the pages of a book. Each one had something to say. An old white horse; a soldier talking to a scared woman; a little girl selling cherries; a transvestite dumped on the side of the road, a boy chasing a bicycle, a tired man walking back home, a pack of confident, stray dogs… Some pages are missing, others mixed up, but there is a story. Sometimes I feel like I can stop the bike and choose to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter where or who I am. I’m here and I’m human. That should do.
There is probably an increasing number of exceptions since this is a “developing” country, but the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard were enough to convince me that hospitality is a matter of pride for most Albanians. A young man approached me as I was waiting for some food in a restaurant. His name was Alban. A very straightforward name, I thought. He worked at Hotel Colombo and his family was running a place near the hot springs, 10 km from the hotel. Thinking that this was his way of attracting tourists to the family business, I saw no harm in paying a visit next morning before I hit the road. Alban sat on the back of the bike and guided me through the streets. The springs were not very impressive and didn’t look too clean. Nevertheless, I had a small breakfast and a short bath. I wanted to pay for it and get going, but they refused. It didn’t make sense. It’s not that they don’t need the money, and there isn’t an abundance of tourists. I had obviously misunderstood it all and had to leave with a big question mark floating above my helmet. Later on, I met three German riders. Their story wasn’t much different either. One of them had a fuel injection problem. They found a mechanic in a small village, who worked on the bike for 4 hours and successfully repaired it. But he wouldn’t accept any payment. The only way they could settle the situation was to invite him to dinner and drink it over.