April 14, 2016: Day One of the Epic Balkan Road Trip

We woke up this morning to a gorgeous day in Timisoara, Romania.  We are all very excited as our first new country lies just about an hour away to the south.  It is Thursday and we really have only the loosest of plans which is exactly how a good road trip should be.  It has been a long time since we did anything like this.  We did a small trip this past weekend, but a weekend trip is nothing like this.  Lots of people do weekends trips, maybe not at as much of a drop of a hat as we do, but they do them.  But we are doing more countries in a week than most people do in a lifetime.  So, this is a little bit crazy.

We did pretty well this morning, having very little to do.  None of us had a tonne of sleep having gotten in so late last night but we were dressed and out the door and on the road before ten, maybe even around nine, which gave us nice morning sunlight for our drive.

The land to the south of Timisoara (we started this morning south of the city) and towards Serbia is very flat.  Romania, on this morning’s drive, was golden fields in full bloom.  Some of the biggest, yellowist endless fields stretching out to the horizon.  Very stunning.  We were surprised at how different it looks here than anywhere in Romania that we have been thus far.

It was still late morning when we arrived at the Serbian border.  The border crossing was painless.  We went through a Romanian exit control that looked at our car papers and such but was very easy.  Then went through the Serbian border with nothing more than a quick glance at our passports by a border agent who was engrossed in a conversation on his cell phone so we were not going to get the third degree for sure as he just wanted to make sure we were legal and move us along, which he did.  And we are into Serbia!

We were shocked to discovered that for the first half of an hour at least, in Serbia, we encountered no one.  Just, no one.  It was an empty, but beautiful, place.  No cars, no people, no houses.   Just flat, nicely maintained fields.  The lack of people crossing the largest Romanian – Serbian border crossing point (the point that connects Serbia’s capital and largest city with its nearest Romanian counterpart and one of Romania’s largest cities) had zero traffic in either direction.  No one was at the border crossing with us, either, of course.  At least on the Romanian side of the border there was local traffic so people were everywhere, right up to the crossing.  But in Serbia, it was a hinterland, to say the least.

Eventually we spotted a neat Serbian village along the base of a small mountain off in the distance to the left which would be roughly south west and then, in not too long, we came upon a small city that we drove right through.  The city was nice, poorly market as far as where the road went through it, but the city itself was pretty and pleasant and appeared to be quite a nice place.  Lots of nice houses.

Every country has its own style, of course, and Serbia heavily resembles the village and city structure of Romania but with a slightly different architectural flair and an odd mix of Romanianesque houses mixed with giant in-village Serbian McMansions that are rather surprising to discover.  We find that discovering these unique differences in countries and regions to be endlessly entertaining.  You can really identify where you are by the houses and village structure if you are used to different area.

We did not stop in northern Serbia and sped right on to the capital, Belgrade (Beograd), the White City.  I sent a message to a friend (from Spiceworks) who lives in Belgrade but we were unable to make connections before we had passed through the city.   We knew that our time was short so we are not stopping in Belgrade on this trip but we did want to pass through it and get to see it.  Belgrade is such an important city that we did not want to miss it, but Serbia is not a major destination on this grand tour , plus we plan to be back in Serbia in a week’s time, anyway.  So who knows where we might be staying at that point or what we might get to see.

We only got the drive-through of Belgrade but what we saw was very nice and the downtown area was really impressive.  Belgrade is the old Yugoslavian capital and has the infrastructure that you would imagine from that history; and it remains the capital of Serbia which is the largest of the countries to be derived from the old conglomeration.  It is a large, well maintained and impressive city with giant buildings and good roads.  We hope to get a chance to return and explore it more thoroughly some day.

Leaving Belgrade we drove past the airport and stopped for gas and some chips and such from the gas station so that we could eat in the car.  The girls were getting hungry but we did not want to stop in Belgrade itself because that would have been complex with parking and finding a good place.  So our deal was that we were going to look for a restaurant to stop at once we were past the city and then we could get a late lunch and a break from the car.

Oddly, we actually ended up crossing the entire country without finding a place to eat.  We started seeing some in the west, but because of the time of day none appeared to be open!  That is the problem with travelling in Europe, you often hit different regions where things are all closed at certain times of the day; then you go on to another region when everything is closed at another time and soon nothing is open for you at all.

So without intending to, we flew through Serbia with blinding speed and within a few hours found ourselves driving along the river looking at Bosnia on the other side and then went right past our nearly inivisible border crossing and had to turn around and go back.  Serbia was a very pretty country and seems really nice, and we got to see all of it from edge to edge including seeing the capital and largest city as well as the touristy western area where the flat plains start to turn into mountains.

It was late afternoon when we turned into the Bosnian border crossing and got our first issue of the trip – our green card does not cover Bosnia (nor Macedonia or Kosovo, it turns out) and we have an insurance problem.  Bosnia was also not exactly impressed that our green card was a copy and not the original.

So we got pulled over and stuck in border control.  Dominica had to stay with the girls in the car and I was sent off on foot to look for insurance.  I did not understand the instructions that I was given too clearly and did a bit of walking around without being able to find the insurance place and then had to go back to the border without the insurance.

Border control was laughing at me when I returned because they were able to see me walking all around being lost.  They gave me new directions and I was able to figure to go this time and I managed to get three days of Bosnian insurance for twenty one Euros, got my paperwork and was able to present it to Bosnian border control and they let us into the country.  They were very friendly and helpful and clearly interesting in putting on a good experience for people entering the country.

Finally in Bosnia, this is while we were stuck in the traffic jam

The moment we crossed into Bosnia we were presented with amazing views of the mountains across the river in the low sunlight.  The road that we were taking turned to the south and ran down along the river hugging the river as mountains spilled down to the river so there were a lot of tunnels and winding parts.

After about twenty minutes into Bosnia we ended up in stopped traffic. There had been an accident in a tunnel somewhere in front of us and we were stuck. No one was going anywhere.  I got out of the car to investigate since the whole road was people out of their cars.  It looked like we were going to be there for hours.  So we turned around and drove back up, all of the way to the border crossing and went another way, the long way around which took us up into the hills on smaller roads.  Not ideal and we lost a lot of time, but at least we were moving.

Eventually we got out onto something of a highway and in the late afternoon we managed to find a truck stop motel that seemed nice.  Luciana had a bathroom pit stop emergency so we had to ask for a bathroom and it turned out to be in the first floor restaurant and since we were already up there Liesl and I looked at a menu and we decided that since we had missed all of the meals all day and we were already here that this is where we should eat.  It was a big complex along the highway but we were the only people in the rather large restaurant.

We got pizzas, two of them in fact, plus a big bowl of pasta, four coffees (the girls did not drink coffee but Dominica and I each had two) and then we wrapped up the meal with a traditional Bosnian dessert and we were amazing to discover that the Bosnian Konvertable Marke (KM) is two to the Euro and the entire meal came out to a whopping fourteen dollars!  That is making the trip very cheap, very quickly if that is all that things cost in Bosnia.  This is awesome.

We tried a traditional Bosnia dessert called hurmašica which was quite good.

Hurmašica. Traditional Bosnian dessert.

All of the drive in Bosnia was stunning.  The landscape lacks anything resembling the concept of flat.  Bosnia is, in would appear, the anti-flat country.  We knew that Bosnia was the mountainous centre of the old Yugoslavia and that what made it Bosnia was the mountain culture that had developed there, so we were not entirely surprised by this.  But the degree to which Bosnia is mountains is a bit extreme.  The part that we saw was entirely mountains, from edge to edge.  Nothing but mountains.  And mostly really high mountains, too.

We got to see a lot of really stunning Bosnian terrain before the sun went down.  Our goal for tonight is to get to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.  It is one of our “must see” Bosnian destinations.

It was turning to darkness as we climbed into the really high Bosnian mountains.  Much of what we saw, especially as it was getting dark, was what appeared a lot like a combination of slightly modified Swiss chalets mixed in with mosques, mosques everywhere.  A lot of churches, too, but so many mosques.  Minarets dot the skyline much like you expect steeples in a New England painting.

The drive through the mountains was a bit much for Dominica who felt awful from her motion sickness for much of the drive. We did go through some incredibly beautiful (at least at night) small cities up in the mountains.

It was something like nine in the evening when we came into Sarajevo.  We were surprised to find that it looked a lot like Ithaca, New York, but ten times the size.  It has a similar “downtown in the valley, houses on the hills” feeling that Ithaca does.  It’s a very vertical city.  When you are dowtown you don’t see stars above you, you see more of the city up in the sky.  Driving along one of the ridges you got lots of light coming at you from the side from the wall of the city rising on the opposite ridge.  I love cities like this, it is like you can see all of the city from anywhere in the city.  It really gives you a feeling of being in the place and feeling connected to everyone else because you can see so much more of the city than you normally can.

We drove around a lot trying to figure out where our apartment for the night is.  Dominica got one of the “Genius Deals” tonight which got us what appeared to be an amazing apartment right in the old city (stari grad) for just seventeen dollars American which seems impossible.

Sarajevo has terrible driving.  Tight, steep streets, twisting and turning all over the place.  It is impossible to navigate and nearly impossible to drive.  Very stressful and the city is full of people who know their way around and think that you are in the way.  Not fun driving at all.

The apartment owners were not able to coordinate someone to get us into the apartment for about half an hour after we arrived so we found a quiet spot to park and sat for a little while which I really appreciated since I was exhausted from having driven the entire day (other than the hiking around that I had done looking to get us Bosnian car insurance) and this last bit of driving was fatiguing me very quickly.  So this was a good break before having to do it again.

We met up with Mohammad showing us the apartment at a quarter till ten.  The apartment is actually down on a main street, so easy to deal with, but hard to get to and from.  We were told that there would be simple on site parking but when we got there Mohammad discovered someone parked in his garage so he had to find us street parking up in the twisting hillside streets.  Ugh.

We found a back street and he helped us park on a sidewalk up against a building.  What a way to have to deal with your car here.  He loaded us up in his car and drove us back to the apartment with our luggage.  Who knows how we will deal with the luggage tomorrow.  The car is way up the hill and we won’t have a chauffeur to get us up to it in the morning.

We got into the apartment which was totally gorgeous.  Very cool place in an ancient building right next to the country’s oldest mosque and the city’s big library which itself is a bit of a landmark.  The apartment has one entrance on to the main street and the back entrance goes straight into the old town!  Very neat.  The apartment itself was quite comfortable with a big living room with a convertible couch for the girls and a bedroom for Dominica and me.

Once Mohammad was done getting us settled in, he took off.  Then I went for a walk up the hill to make sure that I knew how to find the car again and how to drive the car back to the apartment because any wrong turn tomorrow could result in my getting lost and being unable to get back to the apartment which would be a major problem.

It was a bit of a walk, mostly because of the steep incline and crazy back streets.  But I found the car without too much effort.  On the way back to the house I went past the nation’s oldest Orthodox church, took a picture of it while I was there, and then came upon a late night bakery that was still open!  By this time it was actually after midnight, we lost a lot of time dealing with the logistics of getting into the apartment, and I stopped in to see what they had because we had not managed to get any food today except for the late lunch stop at the truck stop.  The girls were looking for food but we had just not had any reasonable opportunity to tackle that until this point.

I got a load of different pastries.  There are a lot of pastries that seem to be common to the entire Balkan region as much of it is the same as far down in Greece.  I got several different things hoping that the girls would like something.

I got back to the apartment and we set up the food in the living room and ate.  The surprise find was that both girls liked the potato filled filo pastries.  We all ate and then got the girls tucked into bed.

Our night did not stop there, however.  We quickly found that our toilet broke and would not stop running nor would it flush.  Something in the flushing mechanism was stuck but we could not fix it nor even get it open to look at.  One of the dangers of being in a new region is that simple things like toilets are often wildly different than you have ever seen before and you have no context for working on them.  Fixes that might be simple to someone local might seem impossible.  These toilets are fairly American-like in style except that they flush with a start/stop button and this one got jammed into the start position and there was no way to push the stop (nor could it stop on its own like it is supposed to.)  The idea that you can stop it short is very handy, until it breaks.

So we contacted the owner of the apartment, but he did not know how it worked either and we spent a lot of time trying to explain what was wrong and trying to explain that we were not stupid Americans that could not figure out how to press the stop button.  While we were trying to figure that out, we discovered that the hot water was not working either.  Not that it wasn’t hot, there was none.  If you put a faucet into the hot position no water would flow.  It is going to be a long night.

Dominica and I put in a lot of time doing plumbing troubleshooting.  We might have been at it, talking to the owner via WhatsApp, for nearly an hour.  We checked all of the plumbing everywhere, drained the hot water tank (it had less than a cup of water in it), took the wall plate off to see if there was something wrong back there and more.  Finally I managed to get the toilet taken apart, found the part that was stuck and managed to get the thing flushing manually, so at least we had some way to use the bathroom, now.

So it was nearly two when we turned in to go to bed.  Tomorrow we have a lot of driving to be doing as well, so we want to get some sleep but still get up early enough to visit the city of Sarajevo in the daylight before getting into the car to drive south to Mostar and Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We are working hard to get all of the big driving done right up front so that we can spend time exploring the lesser known portions of the Adriatic coast.

Today represented two more countries for the Miller family.  For Dominica and me that was countries twenty three and twenty four.  Liesl and Luciana are now up to twenty two.  According to Lonely Planet, we have now been to ten percent of all of the world’s countries.

We were very tired when we finally fell asleep in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  We did notice that on this trip we crossed back from Eastern European time, that we have been on since the first of January to Central European time.  So we gained an hour on our drive which was nice this direction but will not be nice going back.  We are one hour closer to back home, now.