Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, oh my!

Because Bumblebee is not actually a yacht (regardless of how much I wave around the pirate flag) we decided not to descend into the thickens of Greece. The myriad of islands could only be seen from shore or with a very expensive ferry ride. It’s been around for centuries, and we thought the Acropolis could wait another few years for a trip on an actual boat.

Instead we opted for driving headlong to Croatia with a few stops in between, and arriving in four days in Dubrovnik to meet up with friends Matt and Jenny.

Our drive basically took us from Gallipoli, Turkey, across northern Greece, spending our first night of the long drive on a beautiful and quiet beach (see previous video). In the morning we forged on, turning right to drive north through Greece’s northern hills, barren and wild, just some rocky outcrops and small scrub spotting the ridge line.By afternoon we had crossed into Macedonia, another country we knew very little about and that our 2005 Eastern European Lonely Planet guide would no doubt be outdated for, as things have been moving forward pretty swiftly in these parts of late.

Macedonia was quick to recover from Yugoslavia’s break up and while the currency conversion is befuddling, the rest was very pleasant. Our route took us through the bottom western corner of the country and towards Lake Ohrid by the Albanian border of which we’d cross the next day. The LP did promise us a stunning lake, but catching it on sunset, it was remarkably striking. Due to the lake’s extreme depth and its surrounding mountains, it can create a micro-climate that whips up the lake like a small sea.However on our time there we struck calm. A stroll around the lake front, with a boardwalk below the cliffs and over the water, took us beyond the new town and towards an old church high on the hill. On our way we were able to, by throwing a coin into the lake side, make a wish upon our star ‘sing’.After strolling around the small but dignified stone church and snapping obligatory sunset shots we began our walk back down the hill when a fine old sea (or lake) dog in a captain’s hat and aged but manicured beard asked if we’d like a boat ride back to town.

He (who’s name escapes me, but could have been Ernesto) shuttled us back at a low bubble so as not to break the serenity and described points of interest on the town’s hillside as we rode towards shore. I was probably too busy taking photos and video to appreciate the romance of it all, even if Ernesto reminded us. He pointed out museums and chapels and music halls before settling in to shore between some slow moving local swans.

The sky now a purpling black meant we should grab some dinner, so Liz got some money out but it seems in Macedonia they do things backwards, giving her the money and letting her walk away to leave the card. By the time we realised the error the card was long gone. I’ve been bank rolling the trip ever since, getting Dutch bank authorities to send us a new card turned out to be impossible. It would be okay, the money was secure, but just not accessible until we arrived back in Amsterdam.The next morning we drive towards a high mountain ridge pass that marked the border between Macedonia and Albania but before we do, we drive through Macedonia’s cash crop. We’re in apple country. Trees abound with so much bountiful red fruit that there’s hardly room for the leaves. We’re constantly slowed by tractors carrying large loads of appley goodness. We crossed over to Albania and immediately noticed the difference. Once paranoid bomb shelters dot the rocky outcrop of this post-communist country now feeling foolish, but have been adopted into family residences as house-extensions. Winds and bends turn the road in knots as we drop in altitude. Down the hill a bit further and it seems one good idea took the town by storm as dozens of car wash operators have tapped into a local stream and advertise their set up as the best, with the highest jet stream. However a wash would compromise Bumblebee’s technical security system of being as filthy as possible to ensure burglars there is nothing of worth inside (a system put to the test later in Nice).We had feared driving in Albania, not for banditos or draconian cops but for the potholes and careless drivers. Still very much a horse and cart country, Albania is still in its first generation of drivers… and roads. Our plan is to drive straight up the country in one day (it’s only small, we do it in three hours) and continue to Montenegro.

It was Saturday and the eager drivers are in numerous cavalcades as weddings are celebrated. We pass many convoys of reckless groomsmen hanging from windows. We give a congratulatory toot as we pass each party.Down from the windy hills we hit a fantastic stretch of road so fresh you can almost smell the tarmac – still no lanes are marked but we’re driving two abreast. With arid, dusty flat around the fresh road and small stalls of peasants on the edges it felt like we were driving into Baghdad or Felugia.We stopped into a beach town but it didn’t seem like much so we pushed on and it was about there that our trip came to a near-halt. The wide smooth highway, some of the smoothest we’ve had throughout Europe turned to loose rocky rubble with potholes that could sink a semi-trailer. And yet still the ruthless Albanians drove on. The country’s elite (those who could afford cars) seemed to stumble upon a glut of 80s Mercedes somewhere since the East German wall came down with a few dodgy agreements made. As we bumbled over the rough gravel the boxy old land yachts charge past us, like a scene from Three Kings, and now we’re really in Iraq minus the soldiers. Finally, after an hour and a half of driving a paltry 30kms, we reach the border and cross into Montenegro. The wide flat road gives way to thin winding roads as we rise towards the sun, beaming right into my vision. It’s just as sketchy but we’re soon onto a more open highway for smoother sailing. That night, book ended by nicer beach resorts we find a large vacant lot with just a few beach bars and touristy shops who seem to not mind if we park up for the night. A stroll along the boulevard marks the relaxing end of a long day driving.

The morning begins encouragingly with clear skies and air warm enough for a swim but an investigation of the beach shows a bizarre high-tide line of cigarette butts well above the normal high tide line. Beer cans and other litter scar the sandy beach. These are such lovely coastlines and clear water here it’s a shame to have to wade through such filth to enjoy them. In the end we jump in the van unbathed of shower or swim for a second day in a row. As we drive towards the Croatian border we cut through high mountains in tunnels and with a wrong turn, where we should have hopped on a small car ferry we instead stumble upon a huge fjord. From high barren hills, the Kotor Fjord plunges into deep blue waters. The steep hills only allow small villages to be two or three streets deep, spreading them thin along the lakeside.A narrow road follows around the meandering fjord making for a pleasant drive and what could be a great bicycle ride, stopping at the small villages for tea and scones, or a beer. Kotor is the main town at the end of the fjord with old ruins and a castle running up the hillside. It was quite busy the day we arrived – cruise ships and large yachts were moored. Two small islands adorn the first bay, one still has some rocky outcrops on it while the other one looks to have been completely flattened. We stopped for a morning coffee at a café right on the water a bit further around and watched a small punt boatsman push himself across the glassy calm waters.

The coffee was just the stimulant we needed to push on the couple of hours to Dubrovnik, with the promise of friends, accommodation, and the chance to sort out our showerless bodies.

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