Balkans weblog #1

fiat doblo

are travelogue fiction which pretty much started out as blog posts. But I did say this weblog would become ‘old skool’ for the duration of our Balkans trip, and so that is how it will begin.
DAY ONE: The drive to Harwich and the ferry to the Hook of Holland were simplicity itself. TomTom and the crew did all the hard work. I simply drove and slept.
DAY TWO: We made the mistake of thinking it would be easy enough to drive through the Netherlands to Germany and the Mosel region of France, stopping on the way, as we rumbled down to the Austria/Slovenia border. Hah! Getting out through the motorway system which makes up the middle-west of that country is a nightmare – almost as bad as the escape route from LA’s Hollywood Hills out to the 10 we made in a frightening thunderstorm after a Todd Rundgren gig a couple of winters ago.
In the end, we opted for the original route, cutting across to the A61, going south down past Koblenz and Heidelberg, hitting the good southern sunshine en route.
By the end of Day Two we were sitting in a layby twenty kilometres short of Munich, eating vegetarian chilli and drinking a couple of bottles of German beer. Sleep was vaguely disturbed by the sound from a refridgerated lorry parked alongside, but utterly refreshing all the same.
DAY THREE: starts with coffee and a bowl of cereal before continuing south beyond Munich and into Slovenia by way of the Austrian Alps (replete with a sing-a-long rendition of remembered songs from the ‘Sound of Music’).
In Bled we were directed to a campsite full of Dutch and German oldies in their coach-built campervans (plus a good smattering of Brits) and although we disliked the smugly suburban feel of the place – stayed; dog-tired. After sleep we traversed the lake, purchased poor Slovenian beer and sauerkraut, but ate okay – and put up the bed…
DAY FOUR: Head for Novo Mesto on the good, EU-funded dual-carriageway. We found a lovely, old castle which is now a hotel set on an island in the river Krka, but didn’t feel like paying top-dollar to camp in a field next to a privately-owned leisure complex. All of which, perhaps, sums up modern-day, post-Communist Slovenia.
That meant searching for another place to sleep, which we did in a dozy campground by the river Kupa.
DAY FIVE: I get attacked by a dog as I make my way back from the washhouse. Completely minding my own business, toilet bag and towel in hand, thoughts elsewhere, I feel a set of sharp teeth snapping into my football shorts and digging into my thigh. The collie growls and bites for no apparent reason as I start hitting out and shouting. The owner runs up, looking horrified, and pulls the mad beast away.
‘Were you walking slowly?’ the owner asks.
‘Normal,’ I reply.
Anne and I placate the dog-owner but I am seething as he offers me money. Later, he comes over with a bottle of wine as compensation and an offer of good will, which I refuse, but he leaves behind anyway. I don’t want his money or wine but to be left alone as I walk along the path to my old campervan. I let him know about this, but he is at a loss about how to make amends. So we let the matter go. I apply antiseptic to the wound, pack the van, and we leave the campsite, as arranged.
A forty-five minute journey down into Croatia then turns into a six-hour, sometimes frightening, odyssey. First, TomTom gets us hopelessly lost in the alien Slovenian countryside until we, at length, stumble unexpectedly upon a Croatian border crossing where two very unsmiling officers let us through, and we enter their country by way of an old bridge surrounded with razor-wire. Immediately, you are reminded this area was a war zone less than 30 years earlier. On the Croatian side, the houses look more dilapidated and are built from wood, not rendered brick. We locate the motorway to Karlovac – the last sort of driving we want to undertake – and, by chance, have sufficient Croatian change (given to us by someone on the last campsite) and pass through the toll station.
Already forlorn, rather than drive into the town centre, we head for a site previously marked out on our road atlas. And again TomTom gets us completely lost. We drive to and fro, spooked out, along summer country lanes dotted with abandoned white-washed dwellings still showing the bullet holes from the previous conflict in their remaining walls. Using our most basic idiot-Slavic, we ask a labourer gathering hay, how to reach our destination. He points up a non-laid track which TomTom had already pointed to and I had rejected. The hay-gatherer assures me the route is safe: “Bezopastnii”. Okay. Except a kilometre in as it begins to rise sharply the surface becomes horribly rutted – fine for tractors – and I am fearful we will lose the car’s exhaust system. Near panic results in our managing to turn around and reversing the route back to the asphalt road. The friendly hay-maker is still smiling at us as we explain our decision to go all the way back to Karlovac. At least to a junction where we can head south east to the small town of Voijic where we know a friendly campsite awaits …
Except …
Having bought provisions, and obtained directions in the centre, can we find the trail “past the timber yard”? No, we cannot. We drive and we drive and we drive, and we look and we look and we look, and we ask and we ask and we ask, but still we can’t find it. TomTom is useless. Worse than useless – it can not only get us lost in unknown territory but it can take us along routes that threaten the safety of the vehicle, and thereby us, its inhabitants. At length, we find a signal and a tiny blue dot on Google Maps leads us to our cunningly concealed destination, high up in the north Croatian hills. Our host is welcoming and leads us to a spot in the woods near her house.
And then the thunder begins to rumble amongst the surrounding hills and valleys as the grey clouds gather. Forked lightning appears in the darkening sky many miles away. We erect the makeshift cover of a tarp over the van’s rear doors I had assembled but not tried out before leaving, in order to cook and eat our dinner in the dry.
As we clear away, the wind picks up, the tarp flaps wildly, we tie down the strings more tightly around the pegs already driven into the ground. A piece of ice falls out of the sky near my feet, spooking Anne. But then we climb inside the van and feel romantic as the thunder roars and lightning flashes all around us. Then the hail begins, big lumps of ice the size of ping-pong balls ricocheting noisily off the van roof. The lightning is blinding, literally. We have to look away. The wind howls in the trees and the thunder roars across the skies, Wotan in all his fury. I slam the rear doors shut, but water seeps in. Damn. Some material got caught in the hinge. I remove it. The door lock has been damaged, but it does at least pull up as the rain falls thicker than the curtains. Lightning flashes but we cannot see more than a yard beyond the van’s windows. I am panicking inwardly (not for the for the first time today) and can see us being frazzled by a bolt of electricity hitting our metallic vehicle, can feel the jolt of electricity passing through me as I am about to die in the car, or at least be chronically disabled and lying in a hospital bed for several months, all bandaged up like the Invisible Man, wondering what on earth Anne and I were thinking of as we sat in our comfortable, five-bedroom townhouse making plans for our year-long getaway from the safety and mundanity of everyday lives…posted from the Cric Cric Gril bar on the road to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina


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