• Thursday , 14 December 2017
Eastern Europe and the Balkans

Eastern Europe and the Balkans

A common theme for adventure motorcycle photos is a gnarly dirt road, far from civilization with dirty and sunbaked riders posing with their bikes. We are as guilty of doing these photos as the next rider, but, alas, Eastern Europe was about different things for us.

Paved, cheap, and fascinating is a better way to describe our sojourn through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, and Bulgaria. As a child of the 70s I was taught to “duck and cover” during a nuclear attack and I was indoctrinated to fear Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. I was an odd child who never really believed anything I was told, but the propaganda of my youth did give me a nervous tingle as we rolled into the big, bad Balkans.

Memorials dedicated to the victims of sudden death, often resulting from traffic accidents, are quite elaborate in Romania. These roadside alters are closely interlinked with Romanian religious practices and beliefs regarding the soul and the afterlife.

Memorials dedicated to the victims of sudden death, often resulting from traffic accidents, are quite elaborate in Romania. These roadside alters are closely interlinked with Romanian religious practices and beliefs regarding the soul and the afterlife.

I always thought Dutch wooden shoes were a relic from the past, until I met Hans in Romania, who wears them everyday. He loaned me a pair to try. I opted to keep my motorcycle boots instead, fewer slivers.

I always thought Dutch wooden shoes were a relic from the past, until I met Hans in Romania, who wears them everyday. He loaned me a pair to try. I opted to keep my motorcycle boots instead, fewer slivers.

The Biertan fortified church was founded by Transylvanian Saxons in the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. This fresco, or what remains of it, dates back to the 15th century. Together with the surrounding village, the church forms part of the villages with fortified churches in Transylvania. UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Biertan fortified church was founded by Transylvanian Saxons in the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. This fresco, or what remains of it, dates back to the 15th century. Together with the surrounding village, the church forms part of the villages with fortified churches in Transylvania. UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Make hay while the sun shines. Late August in Romania and we have seen enough hay cutting, raking, turning, piling, hauling, and storing to write a book on the matter.

Make hay while the sun shines. Late August in Romania and we have seen enough hay cutting, raking, turning, piling, hauling, and storing to write a book on the matter.

Rural Romania may look a little rough around the edges but it is a place of charm and friendly people.

Rural Romania may look a little rough around the edges but it is a place of charm and friendly people.

At a small farm pond near our campsite I tried my hand at carp fishing. I got skunked. Carpathian mountains, Romania.

At a small farm pond near our campsite I tried my hand at carp fishing. I got skunked. Carpathian mountains, Romania.

The owner of the farm pond let me struggle for an hour trying to catch a carp. Then, with a big toothy grin, he decided to show me how the Romanians do it. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

The owner of the farm pond let me struggle for an hour trying to catch a carp. Then, with a big toothy grin, he decided to show me how the Romanians do it. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Americans are a generally friendly and gregarious people (note: I said people not politics) and we often smile at strangers as a way of greeting. In Eastern Europe I quickly realized that they think you are mentally deficient when you do this. A smile does not necessarily mean friendliness or hostility in Eastern Europe as we discovered. Nearly everywhere we found kindness, generosity, and curiosity, only with sterner faces than we are used to back home.

The start of the Transfăgărășan. This famous road eventually climbs to an altitude of 2,042 metres (6,699 ft), making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania after the Transalpina. It is a winding road, dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents. It was a very beautiful ride and worth the effort but we liked the Transalpina better.

The start of the Transfăgărășan. This famous road eventually climbs to an altitude of 2,042 metres (6,699 ft), making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania after the Transalpina. It is a winding road, dotted with steep hairpin turns, long S-curves, and sharp descents. It was a very beautiful ride and worth the effort but we liked the Transalpina better.

1,480 steps to a remote mountaintop castle ruin in Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler lived here once long ago. Samples of Vlad's work welcome weary travelers once they reach the peak.

1,480 steps to a remote mountaintop castle ruin in Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler lived here once long ago. Samples of Vlad’s work welcome weary travelers once they reach the peak.

Our friend Clinton is riding in Eastern Europe as well. We met up with him and will ride together as far as Istanbul before he heads back to Europe and we make our way to Nepal. Three Suzuki DR650&#039s cause quite a stir in these parts, as they should. Transalpina, Romania.

Our friend Clinton is riding in Eastern Europe as well. We met up with him and will ride together as far as Istanbul before he heads back to Europe and we make our way to Nepal. Three Suzuki DR650s cause quite a stir in these parts, as they should. Transalpina, Romania.

Pit stop along the Transalpina, Romania.

Pit stop along the Transalpina, Romania.

After a late afternoon border crossing into Serbia we found the only campground in the region was closed. We started scouting dirt tracks off of the highway and discovered a quiet forested area on the Danube River where we safely wild camped for the night.

After a late afternoon border crossing into Serbia we found the only campground in the region was closed. We started scouting dirt tracks off of the highway and discovered a quiet forested area on the Danube River where we safely wild camped for the night.

Mountain spring water that is piped to the roadside, and safe to drink, is common in the Balkans.

Mountain spring water that is piped to the roadside, and safe to drink, is common in the Balkans.

Some other things we learned:

1) Transylvania is a region of Romania that is nothing like Bram Stokers’ Dracula. We found no evidence of vampires.

2) I am a pariah here because I don’t drink. When I tell people this they smile and offer me a beer. Beer consumption is not considered drinking. It is normal to be offered shots of raki with breakfast and many gas stations have a bar attached.

It is the same the world over, one guy fixes his bike and all his buddies stand around and give helpful pointers. I am changing a rear tire in this picture with plenty of help standing by. Belgrade, Serbia.

It is the same the world over, one guy fixes his bike and all his buddies stand around and give helpful pointers. I am changing a rear tire in this picture with plenty of help standing by. Belgrade, Serbia.

Our pals Ivan and Nikola are salt of the earth. They took us in as strangers, gave us shelter, food, and a place to work on the bikes and accepted nothing in return. We had so much fun with them we came back to Belgrade a second time to hang out some more. Belgrade, Serbia.

Our pals Ivan and Nikola are salt of the earth. They took us in as strangers, gave us shelter, food, and a place to work on the bikes and accepted nothing in return. We had so much fun with them we came back to Belgrade a second time to hang out some more. Belgrade, Serbia.

The Yugoslav Wars were ethnic conflicts fought from 1991 to 2001 inside the territory of the former Yugoslavia. These wars accompanied and/or facilitated the breakup of Yugoslavia, when its constituent republics declared independence. We saw evidence of the war throughout our travels in Croatia and Serbia.

The Yugoslav Wars were ethnic conflicts fought from 1991 to 2001 inside the territory of the former Yugoslavia. These wars accompanied and/or facilitated the breakup of Yugoslavia, when its constituent republics declared independence. We saw evidence of the war throughout our travels in Croatia and Serbia.

One of our first posts on the website for this trip is called "Fear and Loathing in Nevada". This post goes into detail describing my relationship with my spirit animal, the donkey. At a farm stay in Serbia we had visitors to our camp in the morning and I had to say hello. Throughout this trip donkeys have been my lucky talisman.

One of our first posts on the website for this trip is called “Fear and Loathing in Nevada”. This post goes into detail describing my relationship with my spirit animal, the donkey. At a farm stay in Serbia we had visitors to our camp in the morning and I had to say hello. Throughout this trip donkeys have been my lucky talisman.

3) There are a lot of wolves in Eastern Europe and we often hear them howling at sunset.

4) Gypsies are a real thing but interactions are few because this group of people distrusts outsiders and they live in a parallel universe to everyone else.

5) Montenegro and Serbia are full of trees, mountains, and clear trout streams and riding here feels very familiar, like being back in the Cascade Mountains of home.

The rain finally caught up with us in Montenegro. We ended up hiding out in the tent for 4 days waiting for the weather to break.

The rain finally caught up with us in Montenegro. We ended up hiding out in the tent for 4 days waiting for the weather to break.

The Tara River cuts the Tara River Canyon, the longest canyon in Montenegro and Europe and second longest in the world after Grand Canyon, at 78 kilometers in length and 1,300 meters at its deepest. There are plenty of trout in this pool but fishing was prohibited because it is a national park. Yes, breaking the rules did cross my mind.

The Tara River cuts the Tara River Canyon, the longest canyon in Montenegro and Europe and second longest in the world after Grand Canyon, at 78 kilometers in length and 1,300 meters at its deepest. There are plenty of trout in this pool but fishing was prohibited because it is a national park. Yes, breaking the rules did cross my mind.

This tiny mountain camp in Montenegro was the site of the 2016 Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting. We had a fantastic time swapping stories with the other bikers. Small and intimate, we highly recommend this meeting if you ever get the chance.

This tiny mountain camp in Montenegro was the site of the 2016 Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting. We had a fantastic time swapping stories with the other bikers. Small and intimate, we highly recommend this meeting if you ever get the chance.

2016 Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting, Montenegro.

2016 Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meeting, Montenegro.

You think the guy sleeping in this tent has any idea what that strange chewing sound is? HU Travelers Meeting, Montenegro.

You think the guy sleeping in this tent has any idea what that strange chewing sound is? HU Travelers Meeting, Montenegro.

Montenegro is a breathtaking country.

Montenegro is a breathtaking country.

My first speeding ticket of the trip was in Montenegro. The radar gun looked like an old cold war hand-me-down and for all I know it always read 74kph on the display. After some tense negotiation I left the scene 30 Euros lighter. Shannon and Clinton looked on from across the street without a fuss, even though they were going the same speed as me.

My first speeding ticket of the trip was in Montenegro. The radar gun looked like an old cold war hand-me-down and for all I know it always read 74kph on the display. After some tense negotiation I left the scene 30 Euros lighter. Shannon and Clinton looked on from across the street without a fuss, even though they were going the same speed as me.

Serbian wild camp just off the road. We were a little unsure of the gypsy kids who found us around sunset but they were friendly enough after I gave them some smboilerworks stickers. They eventually got bored and went over the bridge to the other side of the creek.

Serbian wild camp just off the road. We were a little unsure of the gypsy kids who found us around sunset but they were friendly enough after I gave them some smboilerworks stickers. They eventually got bored and went over the bridge to the other side of the creek.

6) Americans riding motorcycles are rarely seen in these parts. Our “Washington” license plates cause quite a stir. Once our identity as Americans is discovered we often get asked what is the deal with Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Just like at home this is a political minefield best avoided, especially with drunk Romanians around campfires.

7) We loved riding here and will come back again one day to explore further. If you have time and money for a motorcycle trip abroad you won’t be disappointed.

8) They still drive like shit here, no improvement over Western Europe.

The remains of an external fuel tank jettisoned by NATO aircraft during the Kosovo conflict. Border region, Kosovo/Serbia.

The remains of an external fuel tank jettisoned by NATO aircraft during the Kosovo conflict. Border region, Kosovo/Serbia.

Yeah, about the flying saucer on the hill....The Buzludzha Monument was built by the Bulgarian communist regime in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government the monument has fallen into vandalized disrepair. Exploring this modern ruin was as fun as the pictures look. Too bad we couldn't find a way inside, all the top-secret ways in had been recently welded shut.

Yeah, about the flying saucer on the hill….The Buzludzha Monument was built by the Bulgarian communist regime in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government the monument has fallen into vandalized disrepair. Exploring this modern ruin was as fun as the pictures look. Too bad we couldn’t find a way inside, all the top-secret ways in had been recently welded shut.

The Buzludzha Monument, Shipka Pass, Bulgaria.

The Buzludzha Monument, Shipka Pass, Bulgaria.

The Buzludzha Monument, Shipka Pass, Bulgaria.

The Buzludzha Monument, Shipka Pass, Bulgaria.

Just because we are dirty bikers that live outside doesn't mean we should look like it. Shannon has never cut my hair before but she dived right in and did a bang up job. Many thanks to Lesley and Yan at Stara Elena B&B for letting us trash the joint, we had a great time! Granitovo, Bulgaria.

Just because we are dirty bikers that live outside doesn’t mean we should look like it. Shannon has never cut my hair before but she dived right in and did a bang up job. Many thanks to Lesley and Yan at Stara Elena B&B for letting us trash the joint, we had a great time! Granitovo, Bulgaria.

I was fortunate enough to test drive the new Ripcut from Land Rover. This prototype luxury overland vehicle is hidden behind a veil of secrecy in Far East Bulgaria and this is the first public photo leaked to the outside world. Yes that is a working power saw on the front, and yes, my freshly clipped hair looks fantastic.

I was fortunate enough to test drive the new Ripcut from Land Rover. This prototype luxury overland vehicle is hidden behind a veil of secrecy in Far East Bulgaria and this is the first public photo leaked to the outside world. Yes that is a working power saw on the front, and yes, my freshly clipped hair looks fantastic.

9) To my American friends: The world is safer and kinder than you have been led to believe. Don’t let the fear of the unknown own your dreams. For every bad thing you hear about in the media a thousand good things will happen that you will never know about unless you go see for yourself.

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