August 11-12 Ljubljana | August 12-15 Belgrade
We spent Friday evening, August 11th, in Ljubljana with Anya, Jaka, and their 2.5-year-old son. Ljubljana has a Friday food festival where restaurants, breweries, and other vendors from across Slovenia converge to serve up their dishes to the city. A heat wave had struck recently, the same one we had in Budapest, but it had broken earlier that Friday. Which would make this Friday particularly busy as people were taking in the celebration and nice weather.
Shell met Anya and Jaka when she summered in Europe five years ago when the three of them were in southern Italy. I had a great time meeting them, and learned Jaka had done a very similar drive to what Shell and I are doing, but 15 years ago. This gave me a needed confidence boost. That was not long after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and I’m certain infrastructure conditions were worse.
I had spent too much time online reading about which roads and paths to take, learning how driving would be in each country we were planning to cross. What the border crossings will be like, and so on. Enough that I was beginning to worry about being in the middle of nowhere Serbia or Bosnia after sun down on a one-lane, but two-way, mountainous road. My imagination was getting the best of me. One thing still stands though, it will be a harrowing experience in Montenegro. All reports online, from Jaka, and other first person accounts tell me we’ll be white knuckled by the end of it.
However, not one person said they wouldn’t do it again. Jaka put it this way. It is so beautiful, that you will want to stop at mile one, then you will travel one more mile and say we have to stop again, and then at the next mile … you get the picture, all the way from Montenegro up the Adriatic coast. I’ll play lost, maybe throw on my old wizard costume, and let the Montenegrins think I’m an old man tourist so they don’t play chicken with me on the sheer cliffs.
We left Ljubljana Saturday morning. Our agent at the car rental office was very thorough and supportive of our trip. Completely the opposite of everyone in Germany, who outright refused to let their cars travel where we are going. I’ll note, we rented a nearly new German car from a Germany company. One that refused us in Germany. Shrugs.
Anyway, the agent filled us in on border crossings, toll roads and payments, things that made us ready to go. We hit some spectacular thunderstorms after we left the mountains of Slovenia. Through Croatia we saw thick forests, some slashed, that would later give way to plains in Serbia. Through the plains, we could see the lightning strike from top to bottom, over and over. It was a magnificent drive.
Borders from Slovenia to Croatia were a breeze and did not delay us much. Moving from Croatia to Serbia was another matter. While it ended up being easy, there was much delay. Going the other way, looked like a four-hour wait. If it hadn’t been raining like a hurricane, people would have been getting their camping chairs out and smoke whatever packs they had left. I feel sorry for the border guards once those folks run out of smokes. There are still a lot of cigarettes on this continent.
We’ve been listening to Where the West Ends on the drive so far. The book’s author has provided a lot of color, history, and fun storytelling from his adventures in the Middle East and the Balkans. It has also helped remind me of the recent past in this region. I have a good friend who hung out the side of helicopters in this region just after high school. We spent so much time in Berlin thinking about how recent Germany’s history was, and now, nearly anyone on the street should be able to tell us a story.
We got to Belgrade, and spend three nights here. So far, everyone has been extraordinarily nice to us. Last night we went to the Church of Saint Sava and got a very private tour of the crypt. Calling it a tour isn’t really the best description. One of the renovators, or caretakers, of the church invited us down to the crypt which looked closed down for the night. Shell, me, and another family of three walk down the stairs and past the heavy green velvet curtain.
It’s been under construction on and off for more than a century. One of the largest church buildings in the world, at the site where the Ottoman Turks burned the Serbian Saint Sava. The inside is cavernous and covered in scaffolding as construction has once again started.
Once we pulled back that heavy curtain, it opened to a crypt full of ornate decoration. If the crypt is any clue to the finished church upstairs, it will be something else to see. The caretaker gave us the needed history lesson to understand and appreciate Saint Sava, and his importance to the Serbian people. This gentleman spent some time with us and is clearly devout. He then turned to us and asked us about the favorite saint in America. I had trouble coming up with a meaningful answer that I thought was fair. But I leaned on the story of my own name, and what it means to me and my family. I think he appreciated that, but he didn’t seem to know Saint Isidore. He pointed out each saint on the walls of the crypt that either spent time in America or died in America.
Today we got caught up on things like writing and planning, as well as some other responsibilities hanging over from our previous life. Later in the afternoon, we went on a walking tour of central Belgrade. We hit a lot of historical sights and took in some history. Contrasting some of Where the West Ends with our tour guide’s native Serbian perspective. He shared some of the national drink with us, Rakia, which is a plum brandy. Sometimes it maybe grape or something else, but a fellow tour guide’s grandfather makes it and we all had a shot. It’s one way to spawn audience participation. One man on the tour with us lives in Los Angeles and was on a ten country tour doing street art. He seems to do well for himself. I joked that we met Banksy.
We then ate at a Kafana, a distinct local bistro of the former Yugoslav countries. By the time we had finished there was a man playing old tunes on a violin and people were getting cheery. Our server was the nicest old man. Shell aptly commented, “I wish we could hear his story, there’s no way it’s simple.”
From here we head to southern Bosnia for some camping and river rafting for a few days. We’ll be disconnected for that time, but I hope to catch up on all the missing pieces there, even if it doesn’t involve much story telling. Budapest, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague.
After camping in Bosnia we head to:
- Budva/Kotor, Montenegro
- Utjeha-Bušat, Montenegro
- Dubrovnik, Croatia
- Mostar, Bosnia
- Sarajevo, Bosnia
- Split/Brac/Hvar, Croatia
- Dugi Otok Island, Croatia
- Krka, Croatia
And then we make our way back to Ljubljana to meet up with Minh and Paul for some more excursions in Slovenia and Croatia.
Thank you for reading