Going Bonkers in the Balkans-Part 2

Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo & Albania

During the past weeks I have been on a not-so secret mission. No, it’s not to manage an entire week of off-roading without dropping my bike (this will soon come, surely) but it’s to find a Sarplaninac dog to cuddle. The Sarplaninac is one of the largest dog breeds in the world and is said to be a bear-like ball of fluff.  Known locally as the Bosnian Mountain Shepherd, his reputation as the best herder in the world is legendary in this neck of the woods; yet that’s probably because locals have never met an Australian Kelpie.

Here’s what the Sarplaninac looks like, according to Wiki (like this…but bigger)
sarplaninac-1

Anyway, as luck would have it, we meet one within an hour of crossing the border into Montenegro. We’d wanted to take a short cut in order to head straight into the reputedly amazing countryside, yet we soon realize that the map we have been using for a month, and reality, are having issues coming to some sort of agreement.

“The road we’re on is not on here…” Chris says as he studies the map and the endless plains before us. He turns it over and reads the fine print, before bursting out laughing.

“Blimey, it’s a wonder we even managed to get this far! This map was printed in 1981!”

Thirty years are a hell of a long time in any country, let alone in one ravaged by years of war! Villages have been razed and rebuild, or abandoned and left to decay, and roads have suffered the same fate.  No bloody wonder Chris’ latest attempts at ‘short-cutting it’ have seemed rather confusing.

Never mind, our little lost-in-the-woods moment sees us reach a small, far-out village made up of about half a dozen farmhouses. We decide to stop by one of the houses where we spot a woman in her garden hanging out clothes. Rather than simply backtrack for half an hour, we’ll ask for directions; perhaps there’s another shortcut we can take!

As we alight the bikes and take off our helmets, we notice a mountain of fur piled up against the fence. As soon as we start walking toward it, the fur mound moves, notices us and goes absolutely ballistic with excitement.  I recognize the colours immediately and just know I’ve finally found my Sarplaninac! Against my better judgement (which I don’t really possess) I stick my hands through the fence only to have them completely covered in an industrial-strength slobber within seconds. Now let me tell you this dog is BIG, yet still not the gargantuan beast I’d imagined. It’s only due to his crying and excitable behaviour that it becomes clear the reason he may not be that huge, is that he’s still a puppy.

buddy-6The commotion attracts the attention of the homeowner who, within minutes, invites us into her garden for a coffee and a delicious slice of coconut and chocolate cake. Superb!

buddy-1buddy-11

Our hostess is a retired school teacher and Buddy is her 10 month old Sarplaninac.

” Oh fantastic! I’ve been waiting weeks to meet a Bosnian Mountain Shepherd!” I exclaim.

“But dear…the Sarplaninac is a Montenegrin Mountain Shepherd!”

Here we go again…as it turns out, it’s not just languages that the ‘Balkans’ disagree on. Apparently, even their ‘native fauna’ are a hotly contested item. Don’t believe me? Then just read the comments below which I have copied and pasted from the most popular Sarplaninac video on Youtube.

In case you are sitting comfortably at home, and wondering how ‘ethnic’ tensions can so easily escalate into full-blown war…keep in mind that the following comments are about a video of a DOG.

ROFL: Albanian dog, Serbian Dog? Sar planina is in Macedonia!

Fizzy332 :Sharr, is Albanian word, not Macedonian or Serbian, this dogs may be regonzied as Serbian and Macedonian dog, but it’s diefienetly not, Albanians even used them before you did.

Caveman: your idiot go and learn geography sar mountains are in kosovo and macedonia and the part in macedonia is a albaninan province your pice of shit

Fizzy332:Beutiful Albanian Dog is just Amazing

kivanc6030: he is turkisch dog not serbien dog my friend

Fizzy332: Hhahahha it’s Albania my friend Kangal is turkish

promaja2: THIS IS A SERBIAN DOG!

Fizzy332: THIS IS ALBANIAN DOG YOU FUCKING IDIOT SHAR IS ALBANIAN MOUNTAIN TO MACCEDONIA AND HALF SIDE OF MACCEDONIA IS ALBANIA TILL(Shkopje)

promaja2: ITS NOT ALBANIAN DOG, THAT DOG WAS CREATED FROM SERBIAN PEOPLE WHO LIVED THERE!!!!!!

Fizzy332: So you are saying that Serbian created this dog fine by i mean you fuck dogs you disgusting people 🙂 This is Albanian dog Illyrian Sheepdoog the Macedonia isn’t a real country and half of it belongs to Albania you can hear the states sounds very much Albanian my friend and Kosovo to it’s just that you Serbs have fucked things up the most racial country in Balkan is YOU Racist scumbags that’s what you are”

Is it just me or does anyone else get the distinct and eerie impression that another war could well start on account of a video of some dog on the internet??? As scary and (sorry to say) funny as this back-and-forth banter goes, I can’t help but wonder just how stable an area can be, even 20 years after war has ended there. More importantly…what happens when a country ceases to exist?

What the Sarplaninac is, at the end of the day, is a Yugoslav breed. But that country no longer exists, so what happens to all the ‘stuff’? EVERYTHING changes denomination the moment you cross a border in the Balkans: the language, the coffee, the food, and now even the dog. What are we supposed to do? Double check our GPS to make sure we call it by the appropriately acceptable name depending which country we’re in? We don’t even have a GPS!

The Balkans continues to send me bonkers, but I decide to concentrate on the pleasantness and hospitality they all seem to share.  At least towards foreigners that is.

Fantastic hospitality is only one of the many reasons why Montenegro is revered by overlanders and bikers in particular. This country is simply stunning.  Void of any major tourist infrastructure, the breathtaking snow-capped mountains, glacial rivers, lakes and endless canyons are just the ideal playground for anyone equipped with a camper or fully loaded bike. You can get lost in this outstanding wilderness for days without running into anyone and, if you do, you’re likely to be invited in for coffee and food. Finding a spot to pitch a tent every night is ridiculously easy and we spend 10 relaxing days exploring the Durmitor National Park and its surrounding areas.

Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect to see when riding through Montenegrcrno-jezero-black-lake-201 dscf5981 dscf59611 gopr02321 plav-3 plav-monmtenegro-101

Kosovo is a starkly different story. When it came to divvying the natural treasures of former Yugoslavia, this is the one country which really got the short end of the stick. Kosovo may be framed by the striking mountain ranges of Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania, but the country itself is just one huge, bland, flatland. It has no major attractions (not of the ‘superlative’ kind anyway) and is still trying to form a brand new national identity.  The country has no major factories, no industry to speak of, nothing it exports and not much it produces. Go to any supermarket and the only products you’ll see with a ‘Made in Kosovo’ sticker are toilet paper and bottled water. How on earth does a country like this survive?

Oh, well that’s quite simple. Kosovo is the only country in Europe, except for the still contested island of Cyprus, still hosting a very healthy UN peacekeeping mission. Astonishingly, it’s also the only country I’ve ever heard of which is happy about the presence of the UN. And why not? They earn big and spend big and, at least in this country, they seem to be doing a good job in keeping a very high level of safety, although that has probably more to do with the fact that 98% of the population shares the same ethnicity. At first glance, Kosovo does not have much going for it and I even initially wonder why on earth they fought so hard for independence. A quick spot of research uncovers the fact that Kosovo is, apparently, awash with natural resources. Between lead, zinc, silver, copper and iron, it seems that most of the country’s assets are to be found underground. Not much fun for the tourist, I gather, but certainly very profitable for the country in the long run.

This is the relatively nice-looking town of Prizrenprizren-kosovo-3
Kosovo is also the first place where we notice an indecent amount of missing manholes, something we continue to encounter in Macedonia and Albania. What the…?

Missing manholes in the middle of the road are bad enough if you’re driving a car, but imagine the kind of supersonic flight I’d make if I were to ride over one at high speed with my Pixie! All who know me well would realize what a hazard this is for me, considering my limited attention span. Bugger! We’re soon told that the stealing of manholes (to be sold as scrap metal) is a chronic problem in these countries, so I’m left wishing the rest of the world would hurry up and recognize Kosovo’s independence so at least people could find jobs in mines instead of being forced to dig up the friggin roads. As if I’m not having enough problems staying vertical!

Following an offroad track to reach a sublime looking lake in Macedonia turns out to be a harder task than dodging holes in the tarmac. It’s steep and full of massive boulders and I end up slipping off Pixie a total of 3 times in a matter of minutes. This brings my total ‘fall’ count to 16. This may seem a lot to some, but as I near my 9,000th kilometre on the road and I think back at the first day on Pixie, I actually think I’m doing all right. No?? Hmm…you see, the problem is that I always tend to stop riding in my mind before the bike comes to a complete stop. All of my so-called-falls have been when I was (almost) at a complete stand still and in first gear. This is because, for as long as I can remember, my brain has been working approximately 10 to 15 seconds faster than my body. As I’m coming to a complete stop,  my brain is already off the bike, as I walk into a door (literally), my brain is already in the other room, and as I stub my toe on that big boulder at camp, my brain is already way past it. This is story of my life and the reason why I think I’ve always been so accident prone.

Here I am looking mighty happy about my 3rd fall in five minutes…
1-road-to-igoumenitsa-3
My mother was always convinced this is something I would simply ‘grow out of’, yet the fact that I’m still waiting for my brain & body to synchronize as I garner momentum towards my 40th birthday, leads me to believe otherwise.

Chris has a harder time dealing with this conundrum than I do. He’s so afraid that I will seriously hurt myself that he watches me like a hawk, always ensures I have all my protective gear on and continuously reminds me to “concentrate, legs of steel, concentrate, legs of steel!” He still remembers the first time he saw me ‘in action’. We’d been travelling together for a total of 3 days in Matilda, his old Land Rover, when I happened to fall out of it first thing in the morning.  I just went to step out, but somehow my legs thought nothing of the metre high gap between the back door and the ground, so I simply fell flat on my face. Yes, it was very funny, but at the time I was the only one laughing. Chris was sooooo concerned that I’d hurt myself, which made me laugh even louder. “Better get used to that darling!” I remember telling him, and even though he should be used to hearing the occasional ‘ouch’ now that we’re past our 4th anniversary, he’s still always on tether hooks whenever we go offroad.

I resolve to ‘concentrate’ even more from now on, I promise…and grow legs of steel.

We find a gorgeous seaside camp in Albania and decide to stay put for two weeks. Summer has finally arrived here and we’re just looking forward to catching up on Vitamin D, working and enjoying meeting the first lot of overlanders who are finally venturing out.
Making new friends is always a highlight of life on the road..

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Our days are relaxing, social and blissful. As we head towards the Greek border, we start encountering the first lot of camper convoys, the first sign yet that the tourist season is ready to begin.

After an adventure-filled winter on the road I’m more than ready to enjoy a superlative Mediterranean summer. I dream of spending endless days laying in the sun, frolicking in the water and visiting some of the world’s most mystical archaeological sites, although I must remember not to think about that as I ride.

See you all in Greece?? Ella re malaka!

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2 Responses to Going Bonkers in the Balkans-Part 2

  1. Stephen Arnerich says:

    Great stuff, Laura. That dog debate was hilarious!! But as a Croatian, I’m pretty damned sure that that dog is a Croatian Mountain Shepherd. The rest of those Slavic guys, they’re fucking nuts!

    Keep writing and stay upright.

    By the way, how have you fallen off 16 times and not hurt yourself?? I fell off my scooter once and bruised my rib and was off work for a week. What’s your secret?

    Cheers, Steve

    • laurapattara says:

      Steve…are you riding in your birthday suit again?????? We’ve spoken about that…;)
      No, seriously, I jarred my back a couple of times, but nothing major, just due to the fact that it seriously only ever happens when I’m manoeuvring at about 10km/hr. Mind you I have torn my pants once, so the gear def. helps! It’s more that I just drop my bike once I lose my centre of gravity, have never slid off at any substantial speed. Thank dog for that! Cheers to you mate :)))

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