The Road To Valbona pt1
Nine months was a long time to be on the mountain in Bosnia. We sheltered from the chaos that was going on around the world and our life there remained almost entirely the same. There was no COVID in our little space. Life was slow and purposeful, loud with the sound of silence and nature. Change is always constant though and eventually it was time to leave the sanctuary of Vukov Konak and ride out for new pastures. Feelings were mixed, we’d not long welcomed our hosts back from Finland and it was really nice to catch up and have other humans around, however we were also both itching for exploration. In with all this was mixed anxiety; would the borders be open when we got there, would we get stuck somewhere, would Bosnian border police pull us up for overstaying our visa? It was a great unknown. Scary and exciting. Time for adventure.
We made our departure in stages, first moving from Vukov Konak in the mountains to the city, Sarajevo. We were both looking forward to being around some more people and having a chance for some final gatherings with friends before leaving Bosnia. It was a real shock! So long in the woods and the city felt busy, hurried and impersonal and very very hot! Also here there was a very real presence of the COVID story. Neither of us knew how we should treat this story, swinging between feeling like we should be making an effort to wanting to just ignore the whole thing. It was all a lot to deal with all at the same time, on top of trying to get the few essential bits done before leaving on our bikes. I needed to a new back wheel, pretty important for carrying my 50kg. Rose needed her tooth taken out another fairly important thing unless I was to do a diy extraction on the road with homemade rakija. And lastly we had some things to send home which was proving difficult, the Bosnian post had said they were not sending anything to Ireland, god knows why, besides we were sending it to Northern Ireland, that’s U.K. isn’t it? Maybe we shouldn’t get into that!
So the essentials done; wheel, tooth, parcels and friends, time to finally bid farewell to Sarajevo and Bosnia (although it could be weeks before we actually cross the border, what with our speed of travel and the other unknowns in the equation). Typically we wake up the morning of our departure day to a torrential storm and the forecast said it could last a week! Seems no point in waiting then we must push on. This does however slow us down and make motivation a little harder to find. We don’t end up leaving until 3pm which even for us is pretty late in the day. On the upside by this point the rain has cleared, for now at least.
Our journey starts, as we always knew it would, with getting out of Sarajevo, a city in a valley surrounded by magnificent mountains, not so magnificent perhaps when trying to get your whole life to the top using only your own two feet. We actually came away relatively lightly on this occasion too, the hill was severe but didn’t last all that long and we were off. Riding after this point was very pleasant, alongside a river mainly flat with slight undulations. Setting off at 3pm your day is always going to be short but we made some progress and the rain held off. Time to discover our first camp spot of this trip, we were both really looking forward to being back in our little tent.
We pulled into a little restaurant to ask for water, they happily pointed to the bathroom and I filled up. Whilst filling my bottle the man started to ask me a little about what we were doing, his English was not very good and my Bosnian wasn’t either, but we managed a little conversation. He asked if we were camping and then offered us a place to pitch the tent in the garden of the house next door. This was great I thought. We set up camp and went to get some dinner in the restaurant, figuring it was nice to reciprocate their kindness. The mans brother was running the restaurant and he spoke a lot more English and explained that the lamb was the chefs special and was “nice and hot”. He in fact kept referring to this dish as “hot” and it was obvious this was what he wanted us to order so we did. The lamb was in fact lukewarm. Tasty but not hot. But we had a good fill with a very nice simple salad and some chips. He even threw in an extra plate of spaghetti with some lamb gravy sauce thing which he and his mother had been eating. Was very tasty. When it came to paying though it turned out there had been a bit of a mix up, I guess through the language barrier and my own ignorance I had thought he was just letting us camp in his garden, however it was actually a campsite and guesthouse, but what with the current state of the world and Bosnian borders this was a particularly fallow year for them. All things considered we didn’t even mention it to him, he had been very kind and generous in many ways and the amount he was asking for the camp spot was nominal plus they were obviously having a really tough time.
The next morning we stopped by the restaurant for “complimentary” coffees before heading off. This next day was fairly uneventful but we did have to start climbing for real which also meant some spectacular views, and a lovely hill top campspot. We burned juniper brush that night and it smelt amazing. During the night we had a great storm, of course I hadn’t secured our bikes properly against the rain, some stuff got wet!
I awoke early to a beautiful mist soaked morning. Everything was damp and it was a little hard to get going, not helped by the fact we had no food for breakfast so had to cycle 11km to the nearest town before we could eat. Thankfully it was overcast and the ride was relatively flat. We arrived in Kalinovik at breakfast time, perfect. It’s a nice little town with a surprising amount of small shops selling everything, it was hard to decide which one to pick. We stocked up on supplies and had some great baked treats for breakfast, this stuff tastes so good when you’ve done a little work for it! Sheltering beneath the overhang of a cafe, sitting on the floor eating pastries and bananas, we were approached by an old man who addressed us in German. We proceeded to have a very interesting little conversation using German, French, English and Bosnian. A real polyglot. He insisted we come to his house for coffee, we couldn’t really refuse. Upon arrival at the house he watched us both as we washed our hands thoroughly and then caught me completely by surprise with a sharp spray of rakija directly in my face(as disinfectant), I gave Rose a quick warning to close her eyes as he advanced on her. He proceeded to first spray her hands so she opened her eyes confused, then he went for the face so the rakija ended up in her eyes regardless. The multilingual conversation continued at his place with his wife joining too. They told us about the other “tourists” they had met or had to their hpisr. He wanted to show me pictures from his trip to Moscow and had some stories about Russian tzars. They were a really lovely couple. They plied us with fruit and nuts and chocolate and kept trying to give us food. Unfortunately we had just stuffed ourselves with pastries so had no appetite. Eventually we had to say goodbye, they wouldn’t let us leave until he had gone to the shop again and bought us some snacks for the road, they also insisted we both have a pair of hand knitted socks and a small religious icon, “for protection”. Such amazing generosity and kindness. This will certainly stick with us.
This day after having started so enjoyably was going to end in great pain. It was the start of our gravel road adventure over the Zelengora mountains. It would be two hard days of climbing, pushing the bikes the majority of the way, followed by a day of descent, which on this gravel was almost worse than the climb. On top of that there was no town for the next couple of days so we had to carry enough supplies with us. That will be an extra 5 kilos then. Super bumpy and unstable plus you have the breaks tensed almost permanently and you feel every jolt through your clenched wrist and forearm. It gets very sore. However we did have some amazing camp spots and some fantastic views. Bosnia is a truly beautiful country!
Whilst slowly bumping along the gravel road we had a lot of time to think. I was picking apart my frustrations with this road. On one hand I felt like I wished it could be a smooth tarmac road, then we would be able to move more quickly and with greater ease. On the other hand that would mean more infrastructure more machinery, less wildness, more people and it would require much more maintenance. On top of this we travel slowly for a reason, well many reasons really, but a big one is so we get to take in more of the places we pass, these mountains and this landscape definitely warrant slowing down even further just to soak it all up. As someone from a rich western country I easily fall into the trap of expecting infrastructure everywhere, despite the fact that I do actually appreciate it not being there. We have come to expect our lives to be made simple or easy so that we have more time for the important stuff, like going to work for 8 hours a day to earn enough money to maybe have some time in the future. Me I would happily choose to have a more challenging way of life if it gives me the opportunity to experience and witness the things that are actually happening in the moments I live.
In the early hours of the morning I heard a loud bang, like a distant gunshot, and then the sound of birds scattering. I assumed it was someone hunting in the forest and thought nothing more of it. Later when packing my stuff I discovered the kefir had blown its lid again, it hasn’t done this since we were packing our stuff on the floor of the departure terminal at Gatwick Airport…….. So this explains the bang. You have to keep an eye on these ferments if travelling with them, they can be pretty lively.
After a couple of days of cycling on tarmac again but in real sweltering heat we were closing in on Trebinje. We had decided we would rest here for a couple of days. Despite an earlier decision to avoid Airbnb it seemed like this might be the only real option here. It’s difficult booking anything though as we’re often unsure exactly when we will arrive so this means usually doing things the day before. The night before our arrival we picked out a few we liked the look of and put in a request for one place, then it’s the waiting game for them to accept of deny. We had no response from the first place so we tried another, an automatic accept, great news. Accommodation sorted! Two days to rest! Next time we stop I have an email from the host saying that unfortunately their place is booked out?!? How does this happen? How frustrating. So we put in another request and decide to leave it at that until we arrive in Trebinje. On top of this frustration the host is refusing to cancel our reservation and therefore refund us our payment! We arrive in Trebinje frazzled. It’s hot and busy, very busy. We find our way to a park and just collapse. It’s a while before I can even move let alone focus on food or a place to stay. Still no response from our request. Eventually Rose manages to persuade me it would be better to go somewhere where we can sit and eat, we find a nice looking little pizza place around the corner, it turns out to be a hole in the wall with a few seats on the pavement and space to dump the bikes, perfect! Now to try and sort a place to stay. Our request was denied, one last try is accepted automatically only to receive another message saying the accommodation is already booked. What on Earth is going on here? They also email us saying they don’t know how to cancel or refund us. What a bloody pain.
So we often find that one word we always end up learning in new languages is “slowly”, I guess the relevance is fairly obvious. In Bosnian this word is Polako. I came across a hostel in town called Hostel Polako, surely a sign. Turns out the hostel is closed due to COVID. What the hell is happening to us today, feels like someone really doesn’t want our life to be easy! Feeling really dejected I explain our troubles to the guys who run the hostel and they offer to rent us a downstairs room for a couple of days! How fantastic! Unfortunately the Airbnb fiasco went on for the next few days with two vastly different outcomes. One lady clearly was very new to the whole thing and was very apologetic, she came and met us to give our money back, which she even gave us in Euro’s as she knew we were crossing the border soon. A really kind and thoughtful person. The other host didn’t do this!
We had a lovely rest in the hostel, which is an amazing place by the way. We went by the famous green market in Trebinje and got some cheeses that are prepared in animal skin. So damn tasty. We also got tested for COVID and didn’t have it. Phew. Now hopefully Montenegro will let us in. Got to get to the border first! The day we left we didn’t get away very early and the weather was intensely hot, not a cloud in the sky, and we had a big climb ahead of us. It was a painful day. We both got heat rash very quickly. We managed to find a little shade on our way, huddling beneath small bushes on the arid mountainside. It took us 6hours to cycle 20 kilometres!
We arrived at the border, completely wrecked, almost too tired to be anxious about our overstayed visa. “It will be totally fine”, we had been told. In the end it wasn’t. Obviously the guy at the border did think it was an issue. He said we would have to pay a fine of 100 Bosnian marks, which we didn’t have. “In that case you will have to go to court and pay more. I will call a transport to take you there.” Oh no this is terrible. We were totally unprepared. He knew we weren’t being completely truthful but he listened to our story. Eventually he gave us our exit stamp, what a lovely guy. That was really stressful. No questions at the Montenegrin border and we’re off.
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