Aaron Heinrich (author of Asphalt and Dirt: Life on Two Wheels) flew from his home in the States to explore a part of the world he’d only ever read about in adventure books… and the Balkans didn’t disappoint.
I’m sitting at a gas station by a spectacular lake in Macedonia a day and a half after a three-hour drive from the capital Skopje, a flight from Istanbul and a 13-hour crossing from San Francisco.
As I sit gazing at the breathtaking views of Lake Ohrid I realise I haven’t had much sleep, but I’m ready to ride and probably in better shape than several of my travel companions, three of whom are nearing 80. This should be fun.
For the next 10 days we’ll be riding through Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – me on a Triumph Tiger 800 XC – with stop-offs planned for Sarandë on the Albanian Riviera and Prizren in Kosovo.
Let’s get the initial impressions out of the way right off.
Tourism These are countries yet to feel the heavy brunt of tourism, although the resort cities of Ohrid and Sarandë definitely had their share of tourists, most from Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Few, if any, were from the US.
Graffiti It was everywhere and in every country we rode in. It can be on blank walls, stone bridges or signposts. It resembles the kind of gang tagging you’d see in the US and UK, but our driver in Skopje assured us it wasn’t gang-related. It’s considered art. In Kosovo, later, it would seem to be more political statement, although we did occasionally see graffiti that had more of an artistic bent.
Rubbish Scattered along beautiful mountain roads, piled along a riverbank, even strewn in the trees, maybe a result of earlier spring flooding. At one point, a friend of mine and I had stopped to get our bearings and take a drink overlooking a rather rugged-looking river in Albania. An old woman emerged from behind a small gated home, barely gave us a look, walked across the road with a plastic rubbish bag in hand and tossed it over the side of the bank. We took a quick look after she went back inside and realised she had either been doing this for years or the entire small enclave of neighbours had taken her lead.
Stray dogs and cats More in populated areas, but we also saw them wandering the side of the road. They never appeared feral, and the dogs were smart enough to know when to stop with humans at a busy intersection and cross when they did. In Lake Ohrid they looked particularly well-fed and clean. Turns out some woman who’d visited there several years earlier had donated $100 a month to the town to pay for their care.
Money Everything is pretty inexpensive. You could eat fairly well on about $15 to $20 and gas seemed to vary around the equivalent of about USD $2 a gallon, except in Serbia where it was closer to $3.
Food Salads were always made with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Lamb, trout and seafood were typical choices.
Language Not much of an issue. Almost everyone in the hotels, restaurants and even gas stations knew enough English to understand what we wanted. Restaurants typically had bilingual menus, except in small towns. When faced with a menu entirely in Serbian at one point, we simply asked for soup and Coke. We weren’t disappointed.
On our way
The first day of riding from Ohrid in Macedonia to Gjirokastër in Albania was a mixed bag offering nearly every conceivable type of road conditions, from well-paved country roads to rutted single lanes through small towns, to narrow dirt and chewed-up asphalt in the mountains. Since most of our riding to Gjirokastër was over mountains, there were rough roads with a good mix of up and downhill hairpins for eight hours in 90-degree heat.
The short ride from Gjirokastër to Sarandë on the coast the next afternoon was a bit anticlimactic, but it meant those of us who wanted to could visit the old fortress above the town next morning before heading out. Worth the delayed start.
I would have preferred not to have had a rest day so soon in Sarandë since we still arrived by early afternoon, but the nearby ruins at Butrint and the seaside people-watching were decent ways to fill the time. My only regret was that I didn’t take the afternoon to ride into Greece since it was so close.
On the way to Tirana, the capital of Albania, we kept mostly to the coast on a beautiful newer road, with sweeping vistas of the Adriatic Sea and a great opportunity to really dig into some twisties without fear of potholes or a goat herd around the bend.
Albanian drivers: a warning
A note about Albanian drivers. It almost feel as though the majority haven’t been driving long. They somehow make the ‘rules-of-the-road-be-damned’ approach work, but you need to be on extra-high alert all the time; especially in towns and cities of any size.
An overnight stay in Tirana included an unexpected early wakeup via a call to prayer where nearly 20,000 people filled the nearby square – starting at 5.30am!
From Tirana, we headed inland and crossed over into Kosovo and stayed in Prizren. The majority of the way was on a beautiful new four-lane freeway that was virtually traffic-free and allowed us to open up the bikes.
Another rest day in Prizren meant a couple of us decided to do some local riding rather than hang out in the town. We took a loop east along the Lepenac river valley and then headed north through Urosevac (Ferizaj) to Shtime and back to Prizren. We got hung up in the town of Urosevac with a blocked roundabout, but eventually our GPS and common sense got us back to Prizren before lunch.
Note: there’s virtually no sign in Kosovo that there was a major war there less than a couple of decades ago.
Cooling down by the Canyon
From Prizren, we headed north and west into the mountains on the way to Zabljak, Montenegro. A big chunk of this road took us through the Tara River Canyon, the second longest canyon in the world next to the Grand Canyon in the United States. Lush, green forests, higher elevation and a bit of rain were a welcome relief after more than a week of riding in 90-degree heat.
The town of Zabljak is a small mountain community that resembles Switzerland in architecture and to some extent scenery. The Durmitor mountain range sits to the north and west of town and there’s a small ski area nearby. Overnight temperatures were in the high 30s and I wished we could have had a rest day there instead of Prizren.
The next morning, we headed to Mokra Gora, Serbia, and the ethno-themed village of Drvengrad, built by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica to either mimic or pay homage to traditional Serbian-style wooden houses.
Goodbye to Belgrade
A day and a long morning there then we were on our way to Belgrade. The road was rough and corrugated as it headed through the hills and didn’t smooth out until after lunch when we started hitting stop-and-go traffic for two hours all the way into Belgrade. I just loved breathing diesel fumes from the old cars, tour buses and logging trucks.
Once at the hotel in Belgrade, we turned in the bikes and had one more rest day before heading back to the US; enough time to visit the old fortress overlooking the merging of the Sava and Danube rivers and enjoying the incredible city centre of Belgrade.
As for the septuagenarians who started the ride, they finished with no problems. As for their bikes, well, that’s another story.