Welcome back to my Fifth Newsletter. I hope you are well since we last spoke in August.
I'm quite excited to share with you my first newsletter since being on the road. I'm trying a new format and would welcome some feedback if you have time please (length, style, content...).
This is being sent from Tirana, the capital of Albania, a country who has long been considered, under Enver Hoxha, and until very recently, as the North Korea of Europe.
Overall, I can positively say that this first month has been amazing and I know that more amazing things are yet to happen when I will leave the old continent, and when I will get my motorbike back on the road (more on that later).
When I look back, I've enjoyed so much the variety of landscapes: From the countless lakes in Northern Italy to the arid coastline of Croatia, or from the Black Forest in Germany to the mountainous Slovenia.
I've also really enjoyed learning about what happened in the Balkans during the Ottoman Empire, the Dictatorship of Tito and what happened after his death. I remember seeing images on the TV about the war in Kosovo and it was important for me to discover this country in order to understand better what happened there to the local people.
I feel each country has it's unique story and richness and even though the roads in Switzerland are better for my bike, I feel other countries compensate with their exceptional hospitality.
So overall, as you can see from this introduction, so far, this trip has been fascinating from a learning point of view but also for my own eyes. To share some of it with you, please click here and you will be directed to my first Facebook album.
Perception on the Bike
Even though the bike had been carefully reviewed by BMW back in London, and the previous owner told me it was ready to do the Dakar, the bike is now out of order and has been completely dissembled in a garage in Kosovo. A guy, my age, has been tasked to fix my bike ASAP, and it happens that a series of issues have created this bigger issue, which has made my bike immobile for the last 2 weeks. At a high level, the water pump was leaking which allowed the water to mix with the oil and some of the gaskets needed to be replaced. Also, the cylinder and the pistons were damaged. Even though, finding the causes of the problem was taken as a good news, I was then told that the new parts had to be imported from Germany and it would take a minimum of 2 weeks. It has now been 2 weeks and the parts have not yet been delivered. Going through this event, is in itself an adventure. As you can guess my Albanian is as good as my Russian and his English is as good as my Portuguese...so really bad. Talking mechanics or engine issues in English or French is already not my strongest topic but doing it with someone who doesn't really speak English makes it even harder. I am not complaining or criticising him because there is no expectation from his boss for him to speak English to do a good job for the locals. Interestingly, as I didn't really trust them at the beginning, I stayed 2 days in the garage to check what was going on and to see if they would start selling my motorbike parts to the Albanian Mafia.
Perception on the People
Talking about exceptional hospitality and people, the first example that comes to my mind is when a family of Syrian refugees hosted me in Istanbul for 5 days, through the famous concept of CouchSurfing. Even through they came to Turkey as refugees 5 years ago and are therefore not Turks, they took the time to do a tour of the city and provided some valuable comments while visiting places ranging from the story of Islam to the conflicts in the Arab world. I was also lucky enough to try out the local food as well as the traditional Syrian dishes. Trust me, my mouse was not used to these flavours but I liked all of what I tried!!
Another great example was in Serbia or Kosovo where 2 locals tried their best to help me when my motorbike started showing signs of weakness. We had to get in touch with a local garage but with no phone and with zero knowledge of the Serbian or Albanian language, and with zero contacts in these 2 countries, receiving some help was very much welcomed. The Serbian employee of a partially abandoned petrol stations in the Serbian mountains used his phone to find the nearest BMW garage. He then contacted them to see if they could help but they only dealt with cars. In Kosovo, one of the night shift employees from the Hotel called his network to find a garage who could fix my bike. I feel privileged to have met these people, and the motorbike is still being fixed in the garage he has found...but the bike is still there after 2 weeks...so was it a good idea? The future will tell ;)
Country Spotlights - Intro
Since Germany, Switzerland and Italy share a more similar culture and history that I am more familiar with, I will not spend a lot of time talking about them but I would still like to recommend some places I've really liked. Maybe it could help you shape your next trip?
So in Germany, I strongly recommend driving through the Black Forest and do the road of the “Ballon d'Alsace”. In Switzerland, you should aim to see the Lake Gerardmer, Lake Lugano, the Swiss Italian region and more importantly the road from Lake Constance to Willerzell near Euthal. In Italy, we've only been in the North but Lake Garda and Lake Como, which I had never seen before offer beautiful sceneries. However, I would suggest going to Lake Garda outstide the main holiday season to avoid all the annoying traffic.
Country Spotlights - Slovenia
I've really enjoyed my time in Slovenia and in the Balkans, people say that Slovenia is like the Switzerland of the Ex-Yugoslavia. Not from looking at the state of the roads at least ;). Again, I would really recommend the mountain route from Tolmin to Lake Bled. The scenery is very similar to the Alps, back in the days when there were no ski lifts (even though I wasn't born at that time) or similar to Canada. In other words, you will love it. The roads provide a simple paradise for bikers as there are in a Z shape so you can test your engine (when the bike decides to work). There are countless pine trees to protect you from the intense sun.
The geographic position of Slovenia, squeezed between the Alps and the Adriactic Sea has exposed this territory to the tides of history. It has always been a place of transition, a borderland and a crossroad which makes the country's history fascinating. I was travelling with my dad at the time and we chose not to visit too many sites but there are enough to keep you busy.
As we were driving through countless villages, it was noticeable that the population is ageing. This is a known issue and to tackle it, the government has implemented some important structural reforms around the pension system to make it more sustainable. The government has also increased the incentives for continued work of older people. But hopefully, the economy, mostly export driven will continue to grow strongly and the domestic demand will show signs of recovery soon.
Country Spotlights - Croatia
Because of some administrative complexities with my Iranian visa, our time in Croatia has been mixed with confusion and happiness. The confusion, or stress came from the fact that Iran has supposedly changed the law and the Consulate in Zagreb informed me that I would no longer be able to enter the country with my motorbike, so my visa would therefore be rejected. When I read this, while setting up the campsite with m y dad, I was very disappointed because if it is really the case, then my itinerary after Turkey needs to change, which I don't really want. Straight after receiving this message, I emailed my virtual friends from the various online overland communities, and all confirmed that this ban was wrong. I prefer not to challenge any state representatives of Iran at the moment (or never) and will decide in the very near future on whether or not try to go through the country.
The sources of happiness in this country not only came from the fact I had great fun with my dad and the weather was good for the tan, but the landscapes are worth a visit. I strongly recommend the coastal road from Murter to Zaostrog. If you prefer numbers, this represents 180 miles of roads alongside a blue water like you've never seen in the North Sea.
Croatia was the last country on our itinerary in the Balkans where we didn't see any mosque. Indeed, Catholics are the majority in the country but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. From a history point of view, even though Croatia was not the centre of the great empires of the past, it has a great number of sites under the protection of UNESCO. Actually, the locals proudly say that they have more than France. I'd like to challenge this. Either way, I recommend a visit in Dubrovnik, a jewel of Croatian cultural heritage. I feel that Croatia has something unique to offer, and I think it is a combination of the seascape, the beautiful coastline, the bays, the beaches with Pine Trees, the thousand islands or the picturesque coastal towns.
Moreover, Croatia is an interesting country because you can really feel they want to join the EU. According to a survey, 76% of Croats want to join but because of the bad relations with Bosnia and Serbia and the organised crime and corruption in public procurement, it is not yet possible. Maybe they could take the place of the UK ;)
Briefly, I will not forget my first ever swim in the Adriatic sea or my 10 hour drive from Sarajevo in Bosnia to Zagreb in Croatia to pick up my passport from the Iranian Consulate.
Country Spotlights - Bosnia
WOOW, as soon as you pass the border from Croatia, it feels as if you've entered a war zone, but thanks to my stay in this country and the quality of the guide in Sarajevo, I feel I now understand better this region. Even though Croatia and Slovenia are in the Balkans, they are much more developed than the rest and the wounds from the recent wars are not really noticeable.
From a journey point of view, I strongly recommend the route from Mostar to Sarajevo as you get to drive alongside the main river of the country. I would also recommend attending a Free Tour of the city of Sarajevo. The guides are passionate and speak English, better than my dad and I combined. For those who like nature, it is a beautiful country as forest covers 50% of the land and there are significant water resources.
Doing the Tour of Sarajevo is a must as they explain the recent war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs. The city is very wounded because the government doesn't have the money (or chose not to spend it in this field) to rebuild it and repair the damages from the war. You will see traces of bullets on all the buildings and streets. Walking through the streets of Sarajevo, one will evidence of a thousand years of foreign rule on every corner. As reminder, in 1914 was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, in 1918 it joined the Kingdom of Serbs, which then became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
What I've learnt is that Bosnia is a very complex country because it represents in a smaller scale all the different ethnic groups and religion of Yugoslavia. As a result of the biggest war in Europe after the WW2, the international community imposed a complicated federal structure, regulated by the Dayton Agreement, on Bosnia in order to create a balance in the inter-ethnic conflict in the country. The present political structure in Bosnia is one of the most complicated systems in the world, presenting a multi-layer political system that can be governed only if there is a clear will and a decision by the political elite to work together. However, it is not the case.
Earlier, I talked about the potential dynamism of Slovenia. When it comes to Bosnia, it is hard to understand how the country will develop if the political system in place doesn't change. In relation to the above, there are 14 governments and parliaments in this small country. This has resulted in a lack of unified economic space between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska, which may lead to a war in the coming years. Moreover, the agriculture is penalised because of the intense quantity of mine fields. Sad times for this country but help it by going for a visit ;)
I will not write about Serbia and Kosovo because I plan to going back once the motorbike is ready. With regards to Albania, I am still there so I prefer to talk about it in the next newsletter.
Country Spotlights - Turkey
I wasn't planning on going to Istanbul that early in the trip, but because I have to stay close to Kosovo until my bike gets fixed, I thought I would rather spend some quality time there without my motorbike. Because of the recent coup d'etat, the flights are super cheap so this is another destination where you might want to go.
My stay in Istanbul has been amazing because of my amazing hosts but also because I feel this city has so much to offer from a historical point of view and because of its dynamism. I really loved the vibe created by the Muezzins when they call for the prayer. Since there are so many mosques around, the sound is very loud but the echo is so beautiful.
Unlike in Morocco, the mosques there have the shapes of their Minarets influenced by the Ottoman Empire. The Blue Mosque, created by the brother of the architect who built Taj Mahal, was one of the mosques I visited. Luckily, it happened that I received a tour guide from my hosts, who are Muslims, when the Muezzin called for the prayer. I was therefore able to get in the mosque and see how they pray inside, which is apparently quite rare for non Muslims.
I feel it was a fascinating time to visit Istanbul for a number of reasons. Firstly, the city was empty so I didn't have to queue. Also, there was a huge military and police presence and what I noticed was Turkish flags on basically everything. Apparently, this wasn't the case before the Coup d'etat. Some could argue it is not a good sign.
I also find it very interesting to see such a diversity in a city. I know London is very diverse but the vibe there felt different. Also, some boroughs are very European and modern with international chains whilst in other areas, you can sense the survival of small enterprises which I find inspiring. There seems to be a street for everything, 1 for carpets, 1 for spare car parts, 1 for hair dressers....
The only downside of Istanbul is the lack of bridges and the traffic. I will come back when the motorbike will be fixed so please expect more on Turkey later.
Country Spotlights - Greece
I was very sad after my visit in Athens. Greece has been in the headlines for many years now but I had never been there. In the headlines, we talk about the IMF, the Greek banks, the Governments not agreeing on the next steps, but we rarely talk about the actual citizens. However, they are the ones who really suffer from all of this.
This was easily noticeable, which made my visit sad. Indeed, after visiting all the traditional “must see” in Athens, I went for a wonder in the boroughs where the actual locals live and I must say that I have been shocked by the number of abandoned houses, stores and assets. I stayed at a friend's place and she kindly invited me to a party with locals, where I was fortunate enough to speak to some of them about the consequences of the crisis. It feels as if Greece will not recover and that my generation will live in a precarious state if they don't move abroad. They are conscious about it.
Also, all the streets are not being looked after and this city feels much less developed than Tirana in Albania or Istanbul.
More on Greece soon as I will go back with the motorbike.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about my first month on the road. As I was about to click "send" I received an email from the garage in Kosovo stating that my bike may be ready on Friday. I will therefore continue my trip towards the capital of Kosovo by going through Macedonia.
From that I will go through Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and then go to Turkey.
Thank you for your interest and let's stay in touch!