(Emily) We rocked up at the Montenegran border trying to looked relaxed. Passports? Sure. Vehicle documents? Here you go. Green card? Ah. Would this be where the problems started? Would we have to go back into Croatia and sort out better insurance with the UK, where only one company issues green cards? Er, no actually – we just had to go to the little office by the offical’s window where the sign said ‘Green cards – upstairs’ and buy one!! Phew! To be fair, James had heard this was often the case; the problem really lies in how much different country borders charge for the privilege (essentially it’s a document giving you 3rd party liability insurance in their country so you’re not covered but whoever you hit or are hit by is). With Montenegro, we were lucky – just 10 euros each – but word on the street (or the Horizons Unlimited online forum) is that Serbia charges as much as 150 Euros each. Suffice to say, we’re not choosing that in our route across to Bulgaria and Turkey!
While James was up in the office, there was what sounded like a rumble of thunder and about twenty Harleys pulled up to the check point. I was slightly apprehensive as one by one they rode over to the car park where I was waiting for James, pretty much surrounding our bikes which looked teeny in comparison. They were proper old school bad-ass, with worn looking tents strapped over their handle bars, home-made leather panniers, neckscarves and shades. Gulp! But of course, they were lovely and, it turns out, they thought we were pretty bad-ass too!! It was a group from Holland who were riding down to Greece for a huge Harley meet. Like us, they’d been caught in the temperamental weather and had had rain pretty much the whole time. After a chat, James and I left but they soon caught up with us so, for a brief while, we were ‘leading’ a column of Hogs along the coastal road. Yes, we did feel pretty cool!!! (James: or it looked like they were chasing us – think Any Which Way But Loose, “Right turn Clyde!”)
All too soon, the Harleys peeled off in another direction and it was just the two of us. And of course the rain. We’d been telling ourselves it looked like it would pass but it just got heavier and heavier so we quickly pulled in to put covers on our non-waterproof bags. In the layby where we had pulled over there was another guy stopped to put on waterproof trousers and a jacket. Smiling and saying hi, James then realised he had no vehicle… just a metal cart which, on closer inspection, was covered in world stickers. “Travelling?” James asked. Well, check this out; he’s WALKING round the world!!!!!! We were stunned; the sheer scale of it is inconceivable. He’s a lovely, unassuming Japanese guy who started in Shanghai and has been on the road now for 1 year and 5 months already. Wow! His current destination is Lisbon which he estimates will take him another 6 months, but he said he’d also like to do the Americas. We just couldn’t get over it, and were gutted not to spend longer with him and find out more. Alas, he was on his way from Kotor, where we were heading, and the rain wasn’t conducive to a sit down for a chat, so we took pics of each other and exchanged details (turns out he had met Tiffany, a well known female adventure biker, when he was in Kazakhstan and had her sticker in his diary – we’d recently met her at a bike meet in London!) We rode off, shaking our heads in disbelief. What a guy!!
Arriving at Kotor, a place where the whole old town is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, we were dismayed yet not surprised to discover that no motorised vehicles were allowed in the old town within the city walls. Standing in the rain, pondering our options, I suggested the best bet was to ride a bit further on, find somewhere cheap to stay, then come back for a day trip. This was preferable to 1) lugging all our panniers and bags down the winding streets of the old town to the hostel and 2) leaving our bikes outside the city walls where they were already quite a few gypsies eying us up. James, ever the optimist, thought he’d just go in a suss out where exactly the hostel was to rule out the option and returned with good news: it was a nice place, there were rooms and, most importantly, we could leave our bikes in their courtyard… as long as we walked them in with our engines off through the labyrinth of tiny streets that is Kotor (Florence flashbacks, anyone?!) James, gentleman to the core, took his bike in (quite an effort when loaded up and over wet cobbles) then came back for mine, while I carried the helmets!!
(James) Having managed to park our bikes a sheltered corridor in the hostel, we lugged our gear up to the six bed dorm we’d been allocated (which turned out to be in another building a few streets away; meaning three trips back and forth in the rain to carry our stuff!) Having turned our part of the room into a bit of a Chinese laundry, we were quickly joined by three room-mates from Sweden; Sami, Sarang and Majed. They were really friendly from the off and soon we were sitting round putting the world to rights over their box of cheap white wine! As it happens, two of the three are currently based in Albania doing some research for a thesis so were able to give us loads of information about the country on the back of which we decided that we’d be stupid to leave it out of our itinerary, despite the range of horror stories that tend to float around the internet. Not only that, as two of the three were Iranian (the other being an Iraqi), we were able to talk about Iran and its many merits (which we still hope to experience, despite our first visa application being rejected…) Em and I then cooked dinner as they kept the flow of cheap wine coming!
We awoke to slightly thick heads in the morning (that’s cheap wine for you!) and found that the guys had left some breakfast for us while they went to climb the fortress walls on the hill above the town before heading off. We didn’t quite feel up to the challenge yet (and Jackson wasn’t there to drag us up regardless!!) so we took advantage of the hostel wireless to do some admin and generally laze around. On the way, we started hearing loads of drumming and football-style chanting from what sounded like a large crowd. I couldn’t quite work out what it could be for (it was clearly too early for a pre-football match, and they couldn’t be celebrating a result from that morning) so we followed the crowd, over 200 strong, as they marched through the town to the little square. Here, they came to a halt while the chanting continued, only to be joined by a guy with a trumpet from the window of one of the rooms above, getting the crowd into an even bigger frenzy! They were, it turned out, supporters of the town’s water polo team (no, we couldn’t believe it either!) who had just returned as runners up from an international tournament in Italy. Apparently, they go absolutely nuts for water polo and when the tournament was on, the whole town watched the matches on big screens in the piazza! Who’d have thought?!!
After getting lunch made for us by Steve, an Aussie we met in the hostel (Em: risotto, but no cheese, damnit!), we summoned the strength to tackle the town and the ramparts. The town is absolutely stunning and is set at the top of a series of inlets and bays that resemble Norwegian fjords. Despite its small size, it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of tiny streets and alleyways -again, one to see now and not at the peak of summer when it must be absolutely heaving! Having put it off long enough, we headed for the ramparts and began the long and, it has to be said, knackering climb up the mountain to the top of the fortifications. The climb itself took about an hour and the views as we ascended were so spectacular that they almost (but not quite) took our minds off the pain that results from climbing the 1450 uneven steps to the top (Jack, you would have been proud!), steps that always had a cobbled slope running alongside them which originally was used to drag cannons up to the top!!! The view over the bay and the town was absolutely stunning, which was just as well as we were shattered and needed a good twenty minutes sit down to recover. Although we were the only ones up there, I managed to get Em to stay up a little longer as I was convinced that there was going to be a break in the clouds and some sunshine might poke through which, eventually, it did; we were rewarded with some great photo opportunities and a sun-kissed descent.
By the time we got down, it was gone seven and we spotted a group of hostellers having a beer in the piazza so went to join them for a drink and eventually some excellent pizza. We went to bed, praying that the weather would continue to improve for our departure in the morning – entering Albania was not an appealing prospect given what we’d heard about the condition of the roads and standards of driving!
We woke to a beautiful clear morning (a rare thing given the weather in this part of the world recently!) and loaded the bikes before pushing them out through the nearest town gate and started off around the bay towards the coastal town of Budva. However the tiny (but very pretty and untouched) ‘roads’ meant that our progress was slow – we averaged 9mph! This indicated that our target destination of Tirana might be a tad ambitious and, not wanting to rush what was turning into a lovely ride, we decided just to amble along and see where the road took us that day. The views on the coastal road south were simply stunning, with tiny villages nestled into little coves and inlets along the crystal clear coastal waters. We were really surprised at how pretty it was, having expected more Soviet style buildings rather than the classic Mediterranean terracotta tile roofed villages we saw. Once past Budva, we stopped at the a little beach and had our picnic lunch (admittedly, the appeal of bread, cheese, tomato and cured meat sandwiches is starting to wane…) and made the decision to stop for the night in the town on Ulcinj, just before the Albanian border where the map indicated there was a campsite.
As we rode south that afternoon, we could definitely sense a real change in the towns and people we saw – the south is definitely more impoverished and as yet comparatively untouched by the new money pouring into the country. Towards late afternoon, we arrived at the outskirts of Ulcinj and started to discuss the potential difficulties we might, and usually do, have finding the tourist information office (with no satnav or guidebooks, we rely heavily on them for local town maps), so were shocked to see a Tourist Information office at the side of the road within a kilometre of passing the ‘Welcome to Ulcinj’ sign. We pulled over and were ushered in by the man who ran the office; a very friendly, German-speaking local whose staff seemed to comprise of his six year old son doing colouring at the desk. He quickly informed us that the campsite was closed and we asked about a cheap room said he could definitely help, before showing us some photos of a local, centrally located place with secure parking and quoting us €35 for the room and breakfast. He said we could pay him and that he’d then take us there to save us needing a map, which we promptly agreed to. We followed him in his car through the outskirts of the town and sure enough, turned in to a pretty house with a patio covered by grape vines and a couple of foreign registered Harleys parked on the grass (clearly on their way to the ‘Hog meet’ in Greece). Having gone into the main house, we assumed to get the owner, he came out with my change for the room and informed me that he was a couple of Euros short but assured me that he would make sure I got them at breakfast. I indicated my surprise at this ‘concierge’ level of personal service, to which he promptly replied, with a perfectly straight face, “It’s no problem, this is my house”!!!! Em and I laughed our arses off and initially felt like we were the victims of a scam, which in a way it was, and as we talked about it, we recalled that we’d both noticed that as we’d followed his car into town, we’d passed dozens of tourist information offices, clearly each one of which was owned by a local with rooms to rent!!! However, the fact is that the room was actually reasonable value for money and our bikes were nice and secure within the gated drive, we deduced that this is just the way it’s done down here and laughed at his entrepreneurial approach! He quickly drive off back to his ‘office’ (which throughout this period was being managed by his young son!) and soon after returned followed the rumble of more Harleys! In the end, there were eight bikes staying (everyone apart from us were Austrian). Following the owner’s advice, we took a walk down to explore the old town which was an experience that words and photos could never quite do justice… suffice to say, it’s a work in progress!!! Having quickly tired of the delights of Ulcinj (by now nicknamed Urchin by us), we headed back to the ‘villa’ for a make-shift dinner (surprise, surprise; bread, cheese, tomato and meat!) and met our fellow biker victims who, once again were bad-ass Harley types and all round nice guys. In between my make-shift German and their make-shift English, we were able to have a good laugh over a 3 litre coke bottle full of the owner’s own home-produced wine made from the vines we were sitting underneath as we heard the highly evocative sound of the call to evening prayer by the local mosques – a first for Em and our first real sense of ‘the east’. Meanwhile I pummelled Emily at cards (for once) before turning in!