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Dear Diary:

21st August 2007  -  A Lap of the Balkans

Having lost a considerable amount of time getting my car repaired, my original plan of visiting every country in the Balkans was not looking very good at all. So I set out from Slovenia with the rough goal of visiting perhaps Zagreb in Croatia and then drive down through Bosnia & Herzegovina then back up The Croatian Coast to Slovenia.

I made good time to Zagreb and wandered the street for a few hours taking in the sights. While I was checking out the lovely downtown part of Zagreb, I had a quick look at the old map and noted that Belgrade in Serbia was in fact not that much out of the way if I was on my way to Bosnia & Herzegovina. So mid afternoon, I headed in the direction of the Croatian/Serbian border and Belgrade.

I pulled into Belgrade just as the sun was setting and headed straight downtown to see if I could firstly find a place that would be able to sell me the Serbian flag. As luck would have it, I found the information place still open and got top directions to a shop that sorted me out in no time at all! So it was a double day for collection National flags once againÖ

I then decided to wander the streets and take in the city in the evening. I reckon itís a lovely city despite the guide I had giving it a less than glowing description. It was scary walking past the old government buildings that were bombed by the yanks a decade ago, but the main fortress overlooking the meeting point of the Danube and Sava rivers is fantastic.

While wandering the fortress, I cam across an outdoor display of some amazing photographs. It was strange to come across so many photos of Australia and all manner of places so far away from the Balkans.

After a few hours of wandering, I found myself back in the car looking at the map. In all I figured I only had about 4 days to get back to Slovenia. I then made a snap decision that my trip for the next 4 days would be a mission! What mission? To visit every country in the Balkans except for Bucharest in Romania as it was just that extra few hundred kilometers away. As you may a guessed from the map on the front page, it was quite a loop.

I drove out of Belgrade south in the direction of Macedonia. About 200km south I pulled up the motorway and slept in the car at a petrol station Ė the main motorways of Croatia and Serbia are all very modern and no different from most Western Motorways where I had traveled up to this point in time.

Early the next day I fueled up on Coca-Cola and continued south to the turnoff for Bulgaria. Once off the main North-South motorway, the roads started to lessen in quality as did the small villages I passed. It was here I noticed that probably one in three cars heading north was a Dutch car! I then looked at the map and noticed that the road I was on would be the primary one used to drive into Turkey and thatís why so many Western Cars were on the road. I guess they were all going back for a holiday. It was good to have this little bit of the west sharing the road with me.

It was a relatively painless crossing from Serbia to Bulgaria and about mid morning I found myself driving on the very busy streets of the capital of Sophia. Again I hit the problem of the street signs being in Cyrillic. But I was fortunate to stumble on one of the primary down town sights and using my guide books map, I zeroed in on my position.

I parked the old girl and set about finding the Tourist Information Office. It was a bit of a mission despite me parking only about 300m away, but once I was there the lovely girls hooked me up with some good maps and directions to a Museum that would be able to sell me my National flag.

With my flag in my hot little hand it was time to wander around a bit to take in the sights very quickly and then hit the road again in the direction of Skopje, Macedonia. For the second time in a say I had a nice and easy border crossing. I canít remember if it was before or after the crossing, but I noticed the guys doing the line marking and took a picture. The guy smile and gestured that I should perhaps pay him for the shot. I though why the heel not and pull up next to him and handed over some local money I had on the dash board. I was probably only a few euros, but he smiled and waved goodbye as I overtook and headed off.

I arrived in Skopje around 5pm or so. To be honest given I was on a mission and the place was looking average, I was very keen to score my fourth national flag in 2 days and head on. So I hit the one place the Lonely Planet listed as an information source Ė a travel agent Ė to attempt to find my flag.

There was one person still in the office who spoke a little English. He advised me of a store in the big complex I was currently in that would perhaps be able to supply the national flag, but he was of the opinion that it would certainty be closed for the day already. I thanked him and raced off.

As luck would have it the little shop was still open and I scored my flag! This was great as it meant I could now spend a few relaxing hours checking out the city then start heading in the direction of Lake Ohrid and Albania.

It took a few hours, but I pulled into the town of Ohrid on the banks of Lake Ohrid not long after sunset. For some where will off the beaten path, it was very busy with local tourist and sadly Mc Donnalds has made it here. Despite that, if your ever in this part of the world itís a must see.

I wandered up to the main castle and evening in the dark, itís amazing. There was an outdoor concert happening that I also check out and all in all my few hours here were enjoyable.

I was planning on staying in Ohrid for the evening and a number of accommodation touts made some good offers, but I was keen to get moving again. So rather late in the evening, I set out for the Macedonian/Albanian border.

I got a bit lost, but eventually cross again with little trouble and entered the country with the worst roads and drivers in Europe! I did read some where that while the communist ran this little part of the world, only two non party members were ever issued driver licenses. So that more or less means that the whole country has only learnt to drive over the past decade or so Ö and it shows!

It took a good few hours on the windy roads, but I pulled into the capital Tirana at about 2am. The good news about being here was the street signs were no longer in Cyrillic! I crashed in the car till the first very noisy trucks rumbled past and then set about the task of finding my national flag. In the end, it was easy to get once the shops opened so I once again spent a few good hours wandering the downtown section.

My next stop was Montenegro. It took some time on Albanian roads to reach the border checkpoint. It was also about 40 degrees Celsius, so putting up with rubbish roads and drivers did not help my disposition much, but the fantastic view at the boarder certainly did.

I arrived in Podgorica around lunch time and made a quick stop to get my flag Ė Montenegro had just voted to separate from Serbia. With the help of a local, I found the post office and got my flag not a drama. I paid the guy a few euros and also paid his son a few for watching my car and off I headed in the direction of Sarajevo.

To get there, I headed to the north as I wanted to check out the Monastery of Ostrog. The monastery is one of the most popular places in Montenegro. It was founded by the Metropolitan Bishop of Herzegovina in the 17th century and it must have been bloody hard to build way back then!

From the main road to the Monastery is about 10km up a very very winding road as you can see. Itís not for the faint hearted, thatís for sure! Iím very glad I made the stop, as the view from the top is fantastic!

From here it was time to figure out my way into Bosnia & Herzegovina and Sarajevo. The drive to the border was amazing. Its not somewhere I had ever heard of till I consulted my map and the few sparse Lonely Planet pages written in my book, but I can say I am very glad to say I have seen some amazing geography in Montenegro.

Once again, the border crossing was painless and I was on my way to Sarajevo. Of course I had entered the part of Bosnia & Herzegovina that uses Cyrillic, so thank goodness that the last half of Sarajevo (Сарајево) kinda looks the same!

I pulled into the capital early in the evening with the sun still up. The tourist information was closed, so given I was in desperate need of a bed having slept in the car the past few evenings, I scoped out the local hostels. Annoyingly, the Sarajevo Film Festival was in town and I could not score any thing. Well ok, I only tried the three main backpackers, but I was so stuffed, I just decided another night in the car would not kill me. So I found a nice petrol station just out side of the center of town and had another rubbish nightís sleep in the old VW Golf.

The next day I headed back into town to check things out. Once the information Office was open, I had little difficulty in tracking down my national flag, so it was 7 flags in 4 days! Never again!

I spent the better half of the morning just wandering the city talking it all in. All with in a few hundred meters you will find Mosques, Synagogues and Churches. Of course perhaps the saddest thing you will find is bullet holes in just about every building! I have seen many a documentary on the war here in the 90s and the bullet holes make it a bit easier to imagine what the locals when through.

Having got a fab barber shave, I hit the road. Annoyingly it took a good hour to get out of town due to an road accident. No once was injured, but I have a feeling the whole of the city was ultimately affected as the police took there good time dealing with just about everything!

The final part of my lap of the Balkans would take me south from Sarajevo to the Croatian coast and then up to the city of Split. I guess with the decision to do a lap, I thought it best t save this coast for another visit as from all that I have herd, itís just fantastic. Based on the 100km I drove of the coast, I have every reason to believe all I have heard and look forward to seeing it at length some day.

Any way, from Split it was a fantastic motorway that rivals any in the world the last few hundred kilometers back to Zagreb and the Slovenian border and then a very needed beer back at Bogdanís!

If you ever get the urge to do a lap of the Balkans in just a handful of days, I can confirm its possible, but for meÖ NEVER AGAIN!

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