Dual Tue 13 March 2018

Tour of the Balkans Second part

The first road signs I see as soon as I cross the border (fast and without trouble), make me chuckle: I can’t understand a thing because they are in Cyrillic. Thank God that the bigger city signs are also in Latin, a great help, but, just in case, I also have a map written in both alphabets. The route is easy, with good roads that get busier as I get closer to the coast. Though Varna, Obzor and Ahelov, up to the border with Turkey. It takes a bit longer to cross the border because this country is not part of the EU; I must go through the immigration office for myself and the import office for the bike. As soon as I collect the document that will allow me to exit the country, my luggage and the bike’s VIN number are checked. In about 40 minutes I’m on the roads of the Crescent country. I’m a bit affected by this, because this country is subject to terroristic attacks (Alberto, watch out), and because it’s not the first time I visit the country. Back in 1983 (34 years ago), I reached Istanbul from Grosseto in a poorly equipped van; this city fascinated and captured me with its wonders, starting from its mosques. And it’s for the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, that I decide to cross the border. On wide roads with little traffic I reach Kirklareli. The streets are full of chaos and signs in Arabic, but not dirty at all. I stop in front of different stores that sell Turkish jewelry, but a peddler selling mussels in the middle of the pedestrian street catches my eye, but I let it go fearing side effects. Most stores and stands sell food, especially kebabs, pastries and ice-cream. Women are dressed according to the Muslim code, and big and small Turkish flags as well as the in-office president’s pictures, are all over. While I walk through this maze, flanking a mosque with minaret, the call to prayer begins. Instead of the muezzin, there are loudspeakers delivering an obscure (at least for me) chant. Many people enter the various mosques, it’s time for prayer. In Italy, bells call worshippers to prayer, here the call is made verbally. I’d like to enter too but I think better of it and keep going.
On the outskirts of Edirne, I see cement bunkers with embrasures and soldier on full alert carrying machine-guns. This country, as others, has been struck by terrorism attacks and all of this is only to be expected, but I’m not used to it and it makes me slightly uncomfortable. Downtown, the sight literally takes my breath away: the Selimiye Mosque is to my right and dominates the square – congratulations to who decided its position. Before entering I study it from the outside. It is classically imposing: four minarets (the highest of Turkey) surround it, colors - especially blue majolica -  covered it. I enter a wide courtyard delimited by walls and columns; as in any other mosque, I leave my shoes at the entrance. I look at my motorcycle boots and smile: they really look good against everyday shoes. Upon entering, a security guard welcomes me with a great smile indicating me to a kid (his son) while explaining, I think, that I’m a biker for what I’m wearing. He wants to take a picture with me. Inside the mosque, I take in the enormous space, the carpets, the lamps hanging from the very high ceiling, the absence of any statues. Huge shields (I remember them from Istanbul) with inscriptions I don’t know the meaning of, are painted on the walls. There are many people praying, all keeling in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. I take pictures and videos, but I realize this is not welcomed. I imagine all the personalities who set foot on this floor, since the mosque dates back to 1568. Thank goodness, the last crusade occurred in 1302 so the mosque stands intact and unchanged, not like Haghia Sophia in Istanbul that change from Christian church to mosque more than once. I leave this place of prayer, thinking of how we consider Islam nowadays because of terrorist attacks and influx of immigrants. It’s a shame people of different cultures, especially religious, can’t fraternize and I’m including we Christians since we have something to do with it too, think of the Inquisition period for example!
Right near the Selimiye Mosque there is the little Cami Mosque, a petite jewel dating back to 1414. I enter but it is full of worshippers praying, maybe because it is so small; some grumbling accompanied by dirty looks tell me that I’m not welcome. I tip my hat and leave. I head for the Grand Bazaar, which disappoints me a bit (the memory of the one in Istanbul conditions me), a lot of stalls, with different goods, but nothing special.

I’m back on my bike heading for Bulgaria through Greece. I stop for lunch in a park and while I’m there a produce peddler approaches me handing me two tomatoes; how nice, I’m surprised, and I gladly accept, they will be my side dish. They are delicious. It’s my turn to thank him and, having seen him smoke, I give him one of my cigars which he happily accepts. A hug, a farewell, a selfie and I’m back on the road pleasantly remembering this episode which joins all my other memories of kind and friendly people. This is spiritual wealth.
The road is okay climbing in gentle curves to a height of about 600 m; before Ardino I stop for the night.
On my way to Sofia I discover a fantastic secondary road that runs through nature. Even if it’s wide, it is surrounded by beautiful landscapes (I climb to 1800 m) that I admire from above between soaring trees and with few signs of life. What a place! I then proceed to visit the Bachkovski monastery.
From there to the Shipka pass (1300 m) along a wide, nicely paved and winding road. At the pass I notice a big building higher up; intrigued I detour taking a rocky path. It is the monument/ossuary memorial to the 1877 battle between Russians and Ottomans, when only 6.000 men fighting for their Country’s independence (Bulgaria) repulsed the attack of 30.000 Muslims. On the top, slightly farther away, there is a gray concrete structure, an impressive obelisk that dominates the valley in memory of the creation of the Bulgarian social democratic party which later became the Communist party. No better place for ti? I’m perplexed! Night in Gabrovo.
The day after I reach Sofia coming from the hills near the capital, from where I enjoy the view of the city. A reddish haze slightly clouds the sky, and this reminds me of Rome and its pollution. Even if Sofia only has a population of about 1.300.000 persons, it probably suffers from pollution too. I had no idea. Janov and his wife arrive in the afternoon, as planned. Yep, my friend is my Bulgarian colleague-volleyball coach, who I met years ago during the season in the Volley Pescia team, he had moved to this town years before.  
He gives me the nickel tour of his house and a mini tour of the city by car. I love these opportunities, in countries one doesn’t know and with friends one rarely sees.
Early in the morning I go downtown Sofia and start my visit from the symbol of the capital: the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A wonderful view, isolated in the middle of an even bigger square, with all its domes chasing and supporting one another. I walk around it, enjoying the rays of sun that hit it diagonally, its sparkling golden roofs that make it unreal. I go inside and maybe I’m a bit disappointed; after the beauty outside the inside isn’t what I expected, even if it’s still something. I’m back on these wide arteries; next stop, in contrast to the enormousness of the cathedral, the tiny Russian church of St. Nicholas, a diamond nestled in this city. No disappointment outside or inside. Despite its smallness, it conveys great force. The inside is rich in details, and even if pictures are forbitten, I take 2. The wide roads of this capital transmit tranquility, cleanliness, serenity and quietness, even if its traffic and stores are those of a capital. Honestly, I didn’t expect it, I’m surprised by the environment. I admire the imposing Parliament, President’s and the Justice palaces, other little churches and I also a mosque. Sofia positively impresses me.

I leave Bulgaria for Serbia, rapidly crossing the border and reaching Nis on a road that switches from normal to highway and back (it hasn’t been finished yet). I meet with Stefania who shows the cathedral and a little of downtown, but we give up for the stifling heat and seek refuge in her house. In front of a good cup of coffee, we talk about motorbikes, trips and of our recent experience in South America.
The following day we visit what is left of the square tower, the 8-meter high, very unsual Skull Tower, built by the Ottomans back during the Balkans conquest: rebels skulls (up to 952!) were embedded in this tower to elicit terror among the Ottomans’ opponents. A concentration camp is next: Nazis used it to imprison Serbians, Jews, Slavs and partisans. The walls still bear the tally marks made by the prisoners. To visit these places and thinking of what happened gives me a sense of oppression. Human wickedness has no boundaries (even today).
The morning after, I say goodbye to Stefania, exquisite host and guide, and head towards the Danube. Through woods and hills, I get to Negotin, from which I take the road that flanks the Danube that marks the border between Serbia and Romania up to Ram. In Sip a hydroelectric dam restricts the flow of the Danube and acts as a bridge between the two borders. The road along the river is good and climbs the slops pf the mountains surrounding the river, curves and galleries alternating. And then, the Iron Gates. I’ve been curious about this place ever since my geography teacher back in school talked about this place along the Danube, and finally, after many years, I can satisfy my curiosity. It is a 3 km long channel, its width varying from 60 to 250 meters, a suggestive view. I pass through Veliki Gradiske and reach Belgrade the day after.
I enter Belgrade easily, but the buildings that welcome me are so ugly they can’t be looked at, cuboids with no sense, tall architectonical monsters. Saint Sava, one of the largest orthodox churches in the world (something like the St. Peter’s Basilica to us) is my first object. It sticks out from the trees surrounding it and has a nice pool with water features (there are many in the city) in front. It doesn’t have the impact of Sofia’s cathedral but it’s size is still considerable. After admiring it outside I go inside but I’m in for disappointment: since it’s being restored, it’s cordoned off. It’s a shame I can’t see the ceiling which has a diameter of 30 meters with an effigy of Christ. Desolated I am almost outside when I notice people coming and going from a door marked with “crypt” so I descend the stairs. Wow, call it “Crypt”. Since I’m used to ours that are rather dark and smallish, I’m taken aback: with all the gold and white marble it is so bright I need sunglasses. Even the chandelier is wonderful! Downtown there are historic buildings and wide open-spaces. Along the river there is the statue of Victory. I cross the recent Ada bridge and leave the city heading towards the Serbian/Bosnian border. Just for a change, once again a bridge marks the limit. Here too border crossing is swift. The road becomes less monotonous, the plain morphs into up to 800 meters high hills, and the air finally cools off a bit. I notice that there is a mosque in every town while there aren’t as many churches with the cross. This is a Muslim-majority territory. I reach Sarajevo descending a hill and realize that it is in a valley. After walking along the river for a bit, I plunge into the pedestrian street downtown. One immediately realizes the Islamization of Sarajevo, it’s like walking in an Arabic country. Yes, there are tourists, but the inhabitants strike me, especially the women with the chador or niqab, the burka is the only garment I didn’t see. I am stunned, young and old women are alike. I smile when I see women wearing the niqab and glasses because only the eyes are not covered, and glasses don’t fit very well. I try to discreetly take a few pictures, but they do not convey the situation. After the last wars and massacres, Islam rules. I admit that I’m not very comfortable. The day after leaving Sarajevo, I notice cemeteries with tiny white tombstones and I’m not near any towns or villages. I think they may be memorials to mass graves of the recent war. The road flanking a manmade lake is pleasant with high-mountain views because of its reflections. In Mostar I find a multitude of tourists. I walk to the bridge between two rows of souvenir stands and stores; as I get to it I stop, silently observing and thinking of when it was destroyed. This made the news worldwide, but few did something about it. We always talk about Hitler and his concentration camps but what about all these mass grave? Nobody is interested if there is nothing to gain (i.e. oil), not even the Vatican! Back on the road I head for the Bosnian/Croatian border, towards the sea. There is a long queue, but I avoid it and meet a Slovenian girl returning home on her Harley. Cool! In Bosnia the documents are ok, the Croatian customs is closed so I enter without being checked. I reach Ploce on the Adriatic coast and find a fantastic blue and crystal-clear sea. I came here 34 years ago (when it was still called Yugoslavia) but I didn’t remember it being so beautiful, with its climbs and descents that make you enjoy the little coves as well as the hugeness of the sea. Near noon I look for some shade since it is very hot. I find it and 2 meters away people are in the water. I wish I could dive in with my bike, even because my Red Ride is so hot I could cook a T-bone on its boxer! While I’m resting I meet another biker, Pippo from Lausanne, he too at the end of his tether. He rides a Harley 1460. We have lunch and chat about bikes and journeys. We exchange our numbers, maybe we’ll meet again, who knows. On my bike I arrive at Postrana.
The following day, due to the heat, I decide to return home all in one go. In Split I take the highway to Rijeka and cross the border with Slovenia, then Trieste and finally, at 07 pm and after 990 km, I’m back home just in time for dinner, surprising my Cristina who wasn’t expecting me! Big party.

It has been a nice 25-day, 8018 km long trip, an average of 330 km/day. Not too tiring, apart from the stifling heat that characterized the second part of my tour. Hotel rates ranged from 15 to 60 euro/night. The cost for fuel fell well below the budget, because in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Serbia the price for 1 liter was often cheaper than 1 euro. Apart from using 9 hg of oil, my Red Ride behaved very well, as usual. Metzeler’s Tourance tyres confirmed to be fantastic, grip- and consumption-wise. No bureaucratic nor health problem occurred. Even the interaction with the locals has been good, and by behaving correctly I encountered no problem. What can I say, a marvelous solo trip that enriched my knowledge of the world I live in, I feel very lucky I can enjoy all of this. I recommend this vacation to everybody.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventure and felt like you were riding with me and my Red Ride. LAMPS

Text and photos: Alberto Marconcini

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