This one is from Jen! Sorry for the slow updates – Internet can be tricky when you are moving through countries quite quickly and they all require a different SIM card!
Due to the much scorned Schengen Visa restrictions, Justin was not in possession of enough remaining days to allow us to visit Greece – a country that I’m sure would have been grateful for our tourist dollars!! Well done Schengen Masters!!!
So Bulgaria again, but this time we were armed with a waypoint from photographer Chris, who camped with us in Cappadocia, that became a must see after viewing his photos!
Buzludzha Monument is one of those communist hangovers that just beggars belief!
Built atop a peak of 1441mtrs at a cost in excess of 14,000,000 Bulgarian Lev, it was opened in 1981 and used as Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters. Clearly, and rather ironically, the architect must have had a thing for the Starship Enterprise, as the resemblance is striking!
Of course, when communism fell in the early ‘90s, the monument was abandoned for what it symbolised and fell into disrepair. Locals raided whatever lavish building materials could be salvaged and the government officially closed the site due to safety concerns. Creative graffiti now adorns the structure but there is a crawl hole that with a bit of bodily contortion allows access.
Inside is like a Pandora’s Box! Stepping over rubble, you climb the once marble paved staircase and enter the central amphitheatre whose circular walls are covered with the remains of a mosaic depiction of Communist history. The domed ceiling no longer prevents the elements from entering and the wind rattles the rusted rafters but a mosaic hammer and sickle still proudly looks down upon the decay. The outer plaza has more mosaic depictions and panoramic views although the chill wind penetrates the now absent windows. The before and after photos are staggering!
Not for the claustrophobic, acrophobic or scotophobic, our next challenge lay in climbing to the red star. Navigating through construction littered corridors, an underground passage and a prised open steel door; we found the steps that led 65mtrs to the top. Without torches we would have been in complete darkness as we ascended the extremely steep, rounded edge ladder stairs with questionable welding quality. Finally natural light penetrated the darkness, and we emerged onto the levels with the fractured glass red star. In its heyday, this was illuminated at night but now only sheds tears down the exterior concrete. Further up the ladders and out through a hatch, we were atop the tower.
Despite all the decay, this is without doubt one of the most incredible things I have seen. If the “Trekkies” of the world were to unite for a busy bee, this could be an amazing Star Trek Convention venue.
Bulgaria also provided a few other sights…
Croatia was ultimately our next destination, so we started to head through the former Yugoslav States. Trying to identify things to see in Macedonia was interesting and what was even more interesting was trying to find them. Google produced a few results on our path which led us to the stone town of Kuklica. Not the least bit as interesting as the description, driving around in circles to find it did provide us with a campsite for the night. Another attempt to find an archaeological site proved pointless.
The Republic of Kosovo deemed fit to not trust the European Green Card Insurance accepted by every other country in the region and insisted upon the purchase of a specific insurance policy at 15Euros for 2 weeks. 98 Kms and 1 ½ hours later we had transited Kosovo and entered Albania.
Always looking for the interesting drive rather than the motorway led us to the SH5 route through the top of Albania. Well worth the effort with great mountain switchback scenery although this was not to be unique to Albania as we would soon discover.
Montenegro’s transit led us to the Ostrog Monastery, built into a sheer cliff face. Switchback roads were beginning to be a quite common occurrence and I suppose the absence of such terrain at home makes this scenery all the more appealing.
Bosnia also presented some amazing scenery as soon as we crossed the border and it was whilst stopping to take it in that we met Aussie cyclist Ken. Not only was he from Australia but he had lived less than 5kms from us!
Bosnia was unique for us as it was the first country where we needed to consider the prospect of landmines when we were looking for a night’s camp. Not straying too far from the well worn track was the best strategy but signs did remind us of the danger!
Not far into Croatia and we were able to see the clear blue water and coastline the country is famous for. The walled “old town” of Dubrovnik appeared as we rounded a bend and that is probably the best that it looked. I say this because, once we eventually found parking and walked into the walled city, we discovered that there is little there that is not designed to withdraw cash from the tourist. Justin made the analogy that we are just walking ATM’s!! The tourist numbers were overwhelming as we shuffled along the polished pedestrian streets that reflected and magnified the midday heat. Souvenir shops, restaurants, every house with “rooms available” signs and “Game of Thrones” walking tours– it seems that UNESCO funds were used to rebuild historic Dubrovnik after the war into an upmarket tourist destination for the rich and trendy. No denying that the buildings and city were very attractive but it was difficult to appreciate it amongst the overt commercialism.
What we could appreciate however, was the beautiful Adriatic Sea. Camped just north of Dubrovnik, we were lucky to relocate to a just vacated site with uninterrupted panoramic views over the sea and islands so a one night stop turned into three! It is also where we met fellow Australian Jarrah and his Canadian girlfriend Danni and shared a few drinks and a meal together admiring the sunset. Croatia has strict rules against wild camping and although we would probably have got away with it, the threat of a 400Euro fine just wasn’t worth the bother. A short walk down the hill led to a small local pebble beach with some of the most crystal clear blue water. A daily swim was mandatory and there were even some small swim-through grottoes beneath the cliffs. Nature wins every time!
Loathe to leave, we headed north to the Peljesac Peninsula and the little town of Ston. Complete with its own version of the Great Wall, it was an interesting stop before once again we aimed for a beachside camp! Different from our previous camp, this beach had a white sand base and was only metres from our car!
Fortuitously, we ended up camped next to Nick and Ivanka from Brighton who, a few years previously, had completed the Pan American Drive from Alaska to Cape Horn. Given this is our intent for next year, we had lots to discuss. Pawing over maps with these guys is already on the agenda one evening once we return to the UK for winter!
The war in Bosnia has led to most people having heard of Sarajevo and it and Mostar were our next destinations. There is something quite sobering about seeing buildings with the obvious scars of a war that I can remember seeing on the news. Standing in places so recently war-torn but now recovered, stands in complete contrast to any life I could imagine.
Mostar, with its cobbled streets and rebuilt old bridge was lovely to walk around and the river clearly defines a line between Christianity and Islam.
The drive from Mostar passed through a spectacular river valley before arriving in Sarajevo and once again we were met with buildings with shrapnel damage and bullet holes.
Heading north, we were now aiming for Plitvice National Park back in Croatia but not before an overnight stopover at National Park Una in Bosnia.
Plitvice is way up there on the list of tourist destinations in Croatia and the numbers we saw there supported that! Tourist hoards are usually enough to put us off but we persevered through the line to get tickets and I’m so glad we did. The lakes and waterfalls in this park are surreal and good infrastructure connects them with lovely walking trails which serve to dissipate the crowds. Fortunately, the powers that be recognised the special nature of this place from early times and so it was preserved in its original state rather than being glitzed up with resorts, cafes and plunge pools!
The Istrian Peninsula was our last stop in Croatia having drawn us in with the promise of superb cuisine and hill top villages. We were not disappointed. Hum, touted as the smallest town in the world, saw us trying Biska – a locally produced mistletoe liqueur – and various truffle related products as Istria is famous for its truffle production.
Of course, this led on to having to partake in some sort of truffle dish for dinner and just outside the small village of Vizinada was an amazing local restaurant “Jadruhi”. I will preface this with the comment that any time I have ever had a truffle dish previously; it has only had small specs of actual truffle and mostly infused with truffle oil. Not here. With white truffle having only just come into season, we were fortunate to be able to order both black truffle pasta and white! Each pasta dish was laden with inch diameter slivers of the gastronomic delight and we savoured every mouthful. Soup entrée’s, crusty home baked bread, truffle pasta, a litre of house wine and complimentary petit fours and Biska to finish all for the extremely reasonable price of 44Euros!!! ($AUD70).
Tempting as it was to stay another night in order to partake in the delights of this restaurant yet again, we had other things to see and so re-entered the dreaded Schengen Zone by crossing into Slovenia.
With the clock running again, leisurely strolling about was less of an option and Slovenia was certainly a place that we could have spent a lot more time. Ljubljana was a lovely small city and the landscape to the north-west of the country was just so beautiful and scattered with walking trails that beckoned to be explored. Small mountain roads were stunningly picturesque and we started to get our first views of Alpine scenery.
Captain Jen – Out