Delayed thoughts on Macedonia 

I’ll be honest, I sit here writing this in a lovely hostel in Tbilisi (blog post to some shortly), some three weeks after we visited Macedonia. This is mainly due to laziness, and partly down to the first two weeks taking it out of me some what!

We spent a total of approximately 20 hours in this wonderful and welcoming country and the first thing I can say is that I intend to spend more time here in the future. We crossed the border after an equally brief and distinctly harrowing sojourn in Albania, which I think is discussed elsewhere, and tootled down from the heights of the mountains to what the map reliabley informed us was a big lake. We took this at face value as it was pitch black and we had mildly pressing concerns regarding the oil pressure light coming on. Which I then attempted to solve by snapping the oil temp sender off… Smooth work.

We drove through a very lively beach resort on the shores of lake Ohrid called Struga. This place was hectic so we made our way out of town and Kat and Tom spied a cheeky little slipway down to the beach- owing to our unerring draw towards bodies of water we pitched the beaut up here for the night. The morning greeted us with a breathtaking view of a pristine lake set in glorious mounitains,  and an equally breathtaking view of a dip stick with not even the slightly trace of oil on it. Turns out we had neglected to check the oil level for 2000 km- smooth work again.

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After the obligatory swim, engine faff and swan stalking we set off to try and find the local major town, Ohrid. After a short and bumpy ride on a delightful track running parallel to the actual road we made it into this lovely place. We stopped to buy food and ended up buying stack loads of mechanical spares from a great bloke called Yani whose English was perfect, as he had spent 3 years in Afghan cooking at Camp Bastion. We explored a little, saw some amazing backstreets and fell in love a bit; the atmosphere was so laid back as to be horizontal and the people were unbelievablely freindly. On two occasions we overpaid someone, and both times they either forced the extra money back into our hands, or made up the difference in peaches or onions!

Regrettably we left Ohrid and made our way across the tiny landlocked nation toward the Greek border. The driving in Macedonia is best described as ‘Pot Holey’, and very mountainous. After a little sunflower interlude we crossed (again, painlessly) into Greece and were greeted by empty towns and Tom choking on Pancetta. Next stop the Agean!

Jon

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10 Countries,10 Days

1) Britain – Westminster Bridge start line… even if we did fail to turn the tracking on until 5 miles down the road! Westgate and a send off breakfast, farewell to the full english, god we’re going to miss bacon.
2) France – Lac du Orient and the looks on the sunbathers faces when four brits spilled out of the landie and into the lake armed with soap and shampoo.
3) Italy – An afternoon getting lost in the streets of Venice, with pistachio gelato in beautiful sunshine.
4) Slovenia – UNESCO caves at Skocjan.
5) Croatia – Dubrovnik old town, possibly one of the most beautiful old cities on earth, it poured with rain but not even bringing the weather with us could have spoiled it.
6) Montenegro – a midnight ferry crossing – much like woolwich but far more picturesque.
7) Albania – Yet to discover the invention of the flat road and signposts. Locals are charming and yet very familiar with their car horns.
8) Macedonia – Woke up next to the most beautiful crystal clear lake, que a lazy morning of swimming and sunbathing (avoiding the inquisitive swans)
9) Greece – Mechanics and landrover upholstery on the beach. (the pink and green polka dots are no more) (dubious about the amount of sand in the engine!)
10) Turkey – So much to say about Turkey but submitting to immaturity this once, Cappodicia, land of the giant penii was a firm favourite. Although the hammam with sweaty Turkish masseuse/massuer (sadly masseuse for the girls, masseur for the lads) was fairly up there as life experiences go.

PS: Technically it should be 11. We briefly crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina whilst travelling down the Croatian coast, but perhaps its somewhat harsh to judge a country on 1 hour spend entirely in a traffic jam between border crossings!

Albania in a day

The evening before started with a mind blowing amount of seafood in Dubrovnik, followed by an evening drive to a slightly suspect ‘Autocamp’ in Montenegro (our first passport stamp), where Tom improved international relations with possibly inappropriate nudity in the very public showers.

The intention was to bash out a long driving day, through a chunk of Albania, attempt a slightly dubious border crossing with Kosovo, and into Macedonia. However, things didn’t quite pan out as planned.

Armed with some excellent stuffed croissants, brioche pizza, and fresh bread from a local bakery in a border town, we entered Albania with ease – so much ease in fact that, apart from a marked deterioration in road quality, we weren’t actually sure we’d crossed the border. It was in the town of Skhodar that we hit a fateful combination of heavy traffic accompanied by a complete lack of signposts. Two hours later, after many wrong turns, we finally asked for directions. Albanians, it turns out, are lovely, and were very willing to try and point us in the right direction. Apparently, the road we were looking for was ‘awful’ (loosely translated from sign language) and we were directed out of town towards Tirane, ironically, on the road with the heaviest traffic, and indeed one that we’d previously tried earlier in the day. Although delightful in general, all Albanians have a dark side that is reserved only for when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. As a result, Tirane was mental, although with slightly better signage (we only stopped for directions twice). The mountain road across Albania to Macedonia was marked on our map as 21% inclines in places, which was why we’d aimed to avoid it, and so we approached it with caution. However, Albania appears to be in the midst of a road building frenzy, and just as we started winding our way up an increasingly bumpy road, the presence of a fast moving HGV vehicle (well, faster that us anyway..) declared a brand new tunnel under the mountains very much open!

Coby negotiated the remaining hills with considerable skill and a lot of verbal encouragement *Come the f&*k on Bridget” and after some stunning views, we deployed the women for the first time at a border crossing with great success. 50 Euros later for some international insurance, we entered Macedodia, our 8th country so far!

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Going Deeper Underground…

Today, we went underground. Quite a long way underground, as it happens. After a pretty leisurely departure from the gorgeous Venice campsite (a leisurely morning that descended into beaut maintenance and water tank refitting) we found ourselves crossing our first slightly more unknown border, into Slovenia. It turns out that the Slovenians don’t really go in for officialdom at borders, and there was absolutely no interest in the Beaut or us.

As I was in the back, enjoying the comfort of the “Chaise Long” sofa arrangement, I thought I’d have a cheeky perusal of the only guide book we seem to have brought with us, that of Slovenia. Almost on first opening the book I was greeted with The author extolling the virtues of a certain UNESCO world heritage cave system, in the village (apologies to the beautiful country of Slovenia for the spelling) of “Skotjan”.  Not sure completely where this place was we then pootled gently in to the closest town off the Motorway looking for a bit of fuel and a supermarket. To our surprise we saw a sign for the caves, and after picking up the necessaries ( a mighty big sausage and some gherkins) we headed up the road.

We parked up just as everyone else was leaving and had, unsurprisingly, missed the last tour. We thought we’d best go and have a look at the viewpoint anyhow and, to be quite frank, we were blown away by the biggest (and eponymous) Doline in Europe. It’s a very large hole in the ground surrounded by glorious forest and sheer limestone cliffs, the Romans thought it the entrance to Hades and you can see why. After taking a million photos, one of which might have been decent, we went down the footpath to get a closer look. The walk in the cooler early evening was stunning and when we hit the locked gate half way down, we resolved to come back at 10am tomorrow morning for a tour.

The tour began with a short walk up the road to the artificial entrance to the Silent Chamber system, the most recently discovered. The guides spoke flawless English and gave us a great running commentary task we stepped into a subterranean world of irradiancent 5 m stalagmites and stalegtites, and a cavern which could have accomadated St Paul’s catherderal. Whilst desperately trying to take all this in, we were told this was the small bit…

The Water Mumering Chamber was the first bit of the system explored, back in 1904 by what appeared to be mostly one family. It is the largest underground canyon in Europe and is perhaps the most breathtaking subterranean feature I can imagine. As you descend down the very well made tourist trail, overhanging  the sheer cliff face, you are struck by how skilled and, well, ballsey the first explorers were. This is hammered home by the ridiculous 100+ yr old bridge across the top of the canyon which they constructed with a handful of pegs, some hob-nail boots and stack load of hard grit.
As you proceed along the trail 150 ft above the river Rijeka, flowing along its temporarily abyssal course, you are struck by the immensity of the time it has taken for the river to carve this ridiculous place. Then you hear the bats, and there’s quite a few of them ( Long Winged, Horseshoe and A.N Other). Rounding a corner you get a treat, about three stories of calcite pools with edges straighter than any on the Beaut.

When you finally return to the sun after a good 2 or so kilometres underground, you are met with the spectacular main entrance to the cave system at the bottom of the doling, and a beautiful walk back up to the top whilst gazing incredulously at the soaring limestone walls and various waterfalls you pass. All in all, it’s really a site worth seeing-  and even though we only spent that day in Slovenia, I can say with certainty that I’ll be going back to see what more this facinating country has to offer!
Jon

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Venice

As Kat has alluded to, our afternoon in Venice was approached differently by the two genders. It also seemed to be 100 degrees outside and 120 degrees inside the beaut. This did not aid the sitution. We found a campsite at Fusina and boarded a small ferry to Venice. The cooling wind helped to soothe our grumblings and we very treated to spectacular views of the city as we docked near the Campo Di Sant Agnese. Armed with gellato, we strolled down the smallest lanes and got happily lost. We enjoyed beer, pizza, wine and coffee on the dock side as the sun set.

Jon describes Venice as a glamorous dutchess who has rather let herself go. Dilapidated is the word Tom uses. This suggests she is not aging gracefully but I would disagree. I am a complete sucker for her small lanes opening up into magnificent squares, the graffiti on ancient walls, and the way canal and building are intermingled. But most of all I am a suckered for the quiet. Despite the hoards of tourists, the lack of cars give Venice a tranquility that is so unexpected in a city.

After dinner a mercifully breezy ferry took us back to a 35 degree, mosquito heavy campsite. With copious amounts of deet, persistent perspiration and exclamations of “you’re radiating heat, don’t touch me” any romance we had mustered died.

Coby Xx

The Bathing Lakes of France and Italy

It is merely then end of day three and so far we have managed to get a cheeky lake swim in 2/3 days! Needless to say we may now smell a little bit of pond but I’m sure there are worse things!

We are currently pitched up at a campsite which backs on to Lake Garda in Italy and its beautiful! A pre dinner swim did us all the world of good as it is (to use a mr shippen term) Redders! even at nine at night.

Yesterday (day 2) saw us take lunch at Lac Du Orient (yes we took lunch – well we chowed down on french bread, cheese and ham on the picnic blanket) a huge lake in the south of France with beaches and little copses on the shores.

Tomorrow we are headed for Venice and a well deserved afternoon off as we appear to be (touch wood) on schedule.

Quote of the day from Mr Helliwell “While we are in Venice, we should look for a motoring shop, we need more cable ties and were running low on Greece. – Romance ladies and gentlemen is officially dead!

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The Gendarnmerie

Well, with getting a wiggle on in mind (in order to get to Italy to eat our body weight in pasta) we hit the French A26.

It hadn’t been the plan to use the motorways; we didn’t want to pay the tolls, we were somewhat worried that we couldn’t hit the minimum speed limits (no beaut bashing comments please) and we have eight jerry cans strapped onto the Beaut which we’re not entirely sure is legal in Europe.

Getting pulled over in this thing was really only a matter of time.

And on Day 2 about 11 O’Clock we found the blue flashing light of the Gendarnmerie approaching from the rear. They seemed unsure about us, stopped to have a look, overtook us and generally oggled for a while before inevitably pulling us over.

We quickly strapped in (having been lounging in the back) and decided the friendly, not in a hurry facade would be the best approach. The policeman as it turned out, was really rather friendly himself and seemed quite delighted when Jon opened the doors to reveal two women in the back!

Their concern it transpired was with none of our worries above, but actually how saggy the Beauts backside is! Jon was driving, a huge stroke of luck as his French is far superior to the rest of us, however watching a group of four Brits try to translate the word ‘weigh-bridge’ could only have been very funny!

About 20 minutes later, Jon having painstakingly explained all of the vehicles loading weights and mimed something about axles, the Gendarnmerie had their final conflab… to our astonishment we were sent merrily on our way! With the (it must be said) rather attractive policeman stopping to ask where we were going and how long it would take. When told, he laughingly replied, “A few months? More like a few centuries!”

Here hoping he’s wrong but that all of our future police encounters end just as amicably!