Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Dubrovnik, Croatia – Konitsa, Greece, Day 223-230, 13-20 November, 2008

Dubrovnik, Croatia – Konitsa, Greece

Day 223-230

13-20 November, 2008

890km

Total: 24,403km

Soundtrack:

‘Down By the Sea’ – The Dubrovniks

‘Common People’ – Paul Young

‘Old Yellow Bricks’ – Arctic Monkeys

‘Jewels and Bullets’ – You Am I

‘Headlights On’ – The Dirtbombs

‘Mercedes Benz’ – Janis Joplin

‘Bunker Soldiers’ – OMD

‘Holy Mountains’ – System of a Down

‘Mighty Ruler’ – Roy Panton

‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ – Irene Dunn, Nat ‘King’ Cole, The Platters, et al

‘When the War is Over’ – Cold Chisel

“Most inhabitants in this area speak other international languages, expecialy english (sic).” – local tourist brochure, Dubrovnik.

The drive into Dubrovnik was, as we had suspected, nothing short of breathtaking. A meandering two-lane highway took us past small villages and along calm azure seas in blazing sunshine. Out to sea were some small and large islands that, during the summer months, would host hoards of twenty-somethings in search of a good time. We past the turn-off to Mostar and Sarajevo and considered how quickly things had picked up in Croatia since its recent wars.

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(Pic: Driving into Dubrovnik, Croatia)

We spent some five days in the historic confines of Dubrovnik – one day longer than originally planned as Sandy had succumbed to the lurgy that had been thoughtfully incubated by the children – and spent all of that time in the old city. We rented a comfy apartment and our host, Andrija, provided friendship and advice – and a few other goodies – to make our stay, and Sandy’s recuperation, pleasant.

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(Pic: Entering the old city, Dubrovnik)

The old city has essentially remained unchanged since it was built some eight centuries ago. It functions as Dubrovnik’s commercial, cultural and social centre and houses a steadfast community of residents in its small homes and apartments located along narrow streets and alleys. Cars are unable to traverse the bulk of the old city, save for the main drag and that is only open to maintenance vehicles. Like Venice, we spent our time not dodging automobiles and scooters but tour groups of overstuffed middle-aged Chinese and Americans.

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(Pic: Dubrovnik rooftops)

Regardless of the realities and particular prejudices concerning the war in 1991 to 1992 and the various protagonists, it is unfathomable that any individual, army or band of ragtag ne’er-do-wells would consider it advantageous to attempt to blow the bejesus out of a small city so intricate, historical and downright pretty. But it seems that’s exactly what happened, and although the city has mostly been restored, buildings still show the battle scars of mortar and bullet wounds.

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(Pic: Dubrovnik)

We explored the alleys and lanes and spent the best part of a day strolling along the top of the city wall that provided endless vistas of the city and surrounds. At one point, though, while peering through some small openings in the wall to the outside world that had recently been restored, I noticed that some of the newer stone had Hebrew inscriptions on them. Sandy and I surmised that they were old gravestones that had been looted for whatever reason, whenever that was, but now provided some of the upper structure of the wall. We were disappointed that inasmuch as the city has now been returned to its former glory, perhaps this was at the expense of other culturally significant areas that remain neglected.

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(Pic: Old gravestones used to repair the old city walls, Dubrovnik)

Still, Dubrovnik provided no end of happy moments and no shortage of cafés and bars. The city that George Bernard Shaw called the “jewel of the Adriatic” is indeed a gem, and Maddy announced that “we must be the luckiest family in the world.” Profound words.

One thing, though: while Dubrovnik radio wasn’t all that flash, it’s surprising how some songs or artists seem to follow you around. Locals seemed to have an almost insatiable obsession with 80s English popster Paul Young. Why? Couldn’t tell you. But there he was, blasting out of every second hifi system in shops and cafes across the town. Maybe he needs to get on board the nostalgia tour circuit and play Croatia for months on end. Thankfully we found respite in Marco’s ‘Troubadur Hard Jazz Café’ – a place that could comfortably seat about five people inside and that was before a band fired up. Signed photos of famous performers dotted the walls demonstrating Marco’s as the place to be for many years.

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(Pic: Sandy admires Dubrovnik from atop the city walls)

SK: Dubrovnik also provided us with some much needed ‘down time’. Having given ourselves a number of days in the city, we were able to hang out in our apartment, catch up on school-work, read, recuperate and just mooch around. It felt like a weekend. Mornings were leisurely, and after doing some old-city meandering, afternoons were spent sipping coffee, or sampling local beers (or, in the case of the kids, taste-testing their way through the local ice-cream parlours).

Also in this part of the country we had the opportunity to look closely at the models of Renault 4 which are everywhere. This car is so hardy and appealing, that I fantasised about buying one, pulling it apart, flat packing it à la Ikea, and sending it home. Slight logistical issues put a dent in my plan. Won’t go into it here.

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(Pic: Dubrovnik)

DB: Our drive south from Dubrovnik immediately picked up from where we left off – a glorious coastline and an almost deserted gently winding road that had quite recently been resurfaced. The road took us variously past and through some small, old fishing villages and up through mountain passes. And before we knew it we approached the Montenegrin border.

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(Pic: Into Montenegro)

The border crossing was almost incidental. Just a few people going through the motions, and then we were away. We had approached the border with a degree of trepidation: Montenegro was, for us, the beginning of what we had been led to believe was remnants of the ‘old world’. That is, things were going to get harder, less straightforward and possibly dangerous. We had preconceptions of Montenegro being an isolated and poor place, and hence we had not planned to spend any time here on our way to Albania. How wrong we were.

Its coastline glittered in the bright sunshine, with villages and Roman ruins interrupting a rather fine two-lane highway. A long climb into the mountains that seemed to never end finally gave way to enormous and breathtaking views of what seemed like the entire Montenegrin seafront. Sandy and I thought of Rex Stout’s favourite crime-fiction character Nero Wolfe, a Montenegrin native, and his trusty off-sider Archie Goodwin, and considered our albeit brief interlude in Montenegro quite “satisfactory”.

SK: We stopped for lunch at the seaside town of Budva, replete with palm trees waving in the balmy breeze. Montenegro is part of the European Union, so we were back to Euros, but the prices of a coffee was noticeably cheaper than the western part of the EU – much better for our budget.

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(Pic: Through Montenegro)

DB: After detouring slightly off the highway and back again through ancient towns dotted with significant evidence of ancient Roman conquest we again approached a new border. On the other side was Albania.

It was only 3.30pm but the sun was getting low. We waited in a queue at the Montenegrin border checkpoint beside Lake Shkodra and handed over our passports. And waited.

And waited some more.

The queue behind us was getting longer and the sun lower. One border official spent almost the entire time we were there tending to a couple of stray puppies in the dust and dirt beside the road, while another came to apologise for the computer system being down. I had hoped that we could locate our hotel in Shkodra before nightfall, but this was looking unlikely.

Finally, our passports were returned and we ventured forth, only to be held back further a few metres up the road at the entrance to Albania. Here, we were required to get passports stamped again and purchase some sort of visa. There was little indication of what the money was for, who got it or what we got in return, but we paid. Time dragged on until we were finally away as the sun was almost set.

Only metres after officially entering Albania (aka Shqiperia – who knew?) we found ourselves on a track that can be only loosely described as haphazardly paved and single lane, which provided the spectacle of strange people emerging from the scrub beside the lake. These were the ones who were entering or re-entering Albania without going through the official checkpoint. Not so strange, it seemed, as cars were pulling up at seemingly deserted locations only for people to emerge from the bushes and jump into the back seats.

Our map indicated that this road is officially designated as The National Road, yet, as there were no road signs at all, Sandy and I became increasingly concerned that this track was the long way to wrongsville. There was no shortage of traffic each way, but surely this could not be a major thoroughfare from one country to another and towards a major town.

Well, of course, it was.

We followed a slow-moving truck along this snail-trail while allowing it to act as a pathfinder and buffer in the face of other vehicles coming towards us. At times we hugged the edge of the road, all the while ensuring we didn’t plunge into the lake and sundry swampland while cars and trucks hurtled past the other way. Sometimes the road became so narrow we had to almost pirouette on a precipice to allow a truck through the other way. My jaw was starting to hurt.

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(Pic: Into Albania – the National Road?)

And then it was dark.

The road became progressively worse. Potholes the size of jacuzzis, miscellaneous wildlife, domestic animals, stray dogs, slothful scooters and farm machinery, and certifiable car and truck drivers became cause for serious concern. There were no streetlights, even in villages, and contraptions of various mechanised natures insisted on driving way too fast, and passing on way too treacherous corners. I couldn’t care less about the nutsos overtaking me in the darkness around blind turns heading uphill (well, no, I fretted); it was the ones heading towards us that made me rather edgy.

This would become an unofficial welcome to driving in Albania for the next two days.

SK: In order to ensure we were actually heading in the right direction, I pulled out the compass (which stayed resolutely in my hand the whole way through the country). Navigating in the dark, in the glow of Danny’s white knuckles, was nerve wracking. Towns would come and go, with some only some identified. In the gloom, on the side of the road, we would see solitary figures. Just standing there. Extreme stillness and extreme motion seemed to be the counterpoints of this country. Eventually we saw the lights of a city, and drove into what we guessed was our destination.

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(Pic: The ‘Five Heroes of Vig’ who fought valiantly in defence of Albanian communism (ahem) in the ’roundabout of death’, Shkodra)

DB: We limped into Shkodra and by fluke Sandy caught sight of our hotel. I double-parked, Sandy and Raffy went in to confirm our booking and I pried my hands off the wheel. The final part of the drive from the border had been nothing short of hellish, and at final count the 238 kilometres from Dubrovnik had taken us six-and-a-half hours.

Parking at the hotel was at the rear of the property along a driveway of about twenty metres in length situated just behind us. The traffic around us was bedlam; there was nothing regular or orderly about it. So, instead of attempting to reverse a few metres back along the road to turn into the driveway I headed forwards, around the large roundabout where, evidently, there were again no rules, no rhyme and no reason, just a phalanx of machines this way and that, including negotiating the roundabout the wrong way (is variety really the spice of life?), and back to the driveway where I encountered a large, late-model, silver Mercedes attempting to reverse up it. And attempting again. Repeat.

And so, Maddy and I found ourselves with apparently a superfluous indicator flashing, planted in the middle of the main thoroughfare of what seemed like a large, dusty and hectic frontier Albanian town with no end of hoons screaming around us, and with, as Maddy noted, “some dufus” attempting to reverse a car up a driveway – a task that would normally be covered in “So, you want to drive an automobile” – the expurgated version.

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(Pic: The more things change…Shkodra, Albania)

It seemed to take hours. The driver took out a couple of rubbish bins, moved forward again, reversed, scraped a wall, had another go. Maddy suggested I just go and do it for him but I was getting some kind of perverse pleasure from watching the sideshow before us. Schadenfreude, Albanian style.

Finally Merc Man gave up and shoved the car up the side of a wall, leaving us enough room to get in. We finally unpacked and hit the town in search of dinner.

I had read that Albanians were obsessed with Mercedes Benz automobiles. And sure enough, it became glaringly apparent that almost every car on the road was a Merc. And not old crusty ones either, but often flashy current-model C-class rumblers. It turns out that they are all second-hand imports from western Europe and it seems they come in by the truck-load. Still, we wondered where the money came from, given that poverty was immediately evident when we crossed the border. The priorities here seemed to be flash cars, mobile phones and flat-screen TVs, not public transport, sanitation and public services. Collectivism to individualism in one step.

In our search for a meal what also became rather obvious was that the food of choice was not Albanian, whatever that is, because we never found it, or even American, as we never saw a well-know western fast-food chain or variant thereof. It was Italian. Everywhere we looked was pizza and pasta.

And, for some bizarre reason that would remain unexplained, all the pizza and pasta in Albania could be accompanied by a rare and exotic ale called Foster’s. It was on tap everywhere with complementary outdoor market umbrella. Whoever the Albanian sales-rep is for the fabled (yet somewhat unavailable at home) Australian larger should be given a medal – it’s a commercial invasion of mammoth proportions. Someone say ‘cultural imperialism’?

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(Pic: G’day Albania!)

We were also encouraged at one recommended place by new ‘No Smoking’ signs that were plastered about the place, but after entering we noticed that they were difficult to see for all the cigarette smoke. Perhaps there was a non-smoking area? The waiter said “no problem” and directed us to a table that was in the same area as the rest. Sandy and I remembered that once all cafes, pubs and restaurants at home were like this until not so long ago, yet this was rather an affront to the senses. Still, we didn’t have much of a choice – it was this or similar, or a bag of chips in our hotel room.

We enjoyed our pizza and pasta, sans Foster’s, and headed back to the hotel for a much-needed rest. It would seem that we would be faced with more road chaos in the morning.

SK: In contrast to the rudeness on the roads, the staff in the hotel couldn’t have been more accommodating. It was a relief to get out of the car and be warmly welcomed, and have a clean room and off street parking as an overnight haven.

DB: Chaos is a term that is somewhat overused, yet I think it is an apt description of Albanian road traffic. Some roads had speed limit signs, but they were resolutely and robustly ignored. Cars screamed past 40 km/h signs at light speed. They would overtake in the most obvious face of oncoming traffic, in a game of chicken that, as roadside evidence would suggest, didn’t always go so well. Aside from roadside shrines to those departed in what most likely was the pandemonium of torn metal and disfigured bodies, the roads were lined with the twisted debris of cars of yore in large rusting graveyards. One would think that between supposed road rules, flowers and photographs taped to fence posts and vast seas of busted cars, local drivers might take heed. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I thought about the notion of bullet-proof bravado experienced by men behind steering wheels (and all the drivers were blokes) and how we often think that it won’t happen to me. It seems it happens a lot to them.

We decided to head off earlier than usual to ensure we didn’t experience the same gloomy arrival at our next stop, and hoping that we might be able to get past our planned stop and head further on into southern Albania.

The nationwide obsession with cars is also represented by the plethora of car-wash services dotted along the road. Every few minutes a handwritten ‘Lavash’ (‘wash?’) sign would direct motorists to a couple of kids with a high-pressure water machine. The roads were littered with them, in between new gaudy petrol stations and piles of twisted metal that were artists formally known as cars. There seemed to be little else.

We made it to Durres by lunchtime and parked on the beach for a coffee. No, not at the beach, actually on the sand. The drive had been relatively uneventful and Durres gave us hope that southern Albania was to provide us with more than just grimy, dusty cities long forgotten by Communist despots. The town had quite a beach resort feel to it and some pride in the place. It was tempting to stay put for the night but we decided to push on.

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(Pic: Coffee on the beach, Durres, Albania)

Of course driving became hard going again. Mad Merc men going hammer and tongs, overtaking at every opportunity. I became familiar with the traditional manoeuvre of overtaking a car and then squeezing in front of the next, regardless if there is room or not. At one stage, in the fading light, a mad Merc man pushed past us on a blind turn, only to be confronted with a truck hurtling towards him on the other side. His only option was to move back in, in front of our truck, hoping that I would hit the brakes to make room.

I braked violently, he swerved in, I used words I promised my children wouldn’t hear.

I didn’t even get a wave. Sheesh.

The Russian Roulette of Albanian road travel was distracting us from some of the magnificent scenery around us. This was still a newly emerging nation that had much going for it, but road travel was not one of the positives on the travel agent’s agenda.

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(Pic: The lonesome highway, Albania)

The Albanian countryside is littered with little concrete mushrooms, or, as Sandy pointed out, Dalek heads, about the size of beach umbrellas. These are bunkers deployed by the since-departed megalomaniac Communist leader Enver Hoxha in the hope that average Albanian men (again, always men) would come to their country’s defence in the event of attack or invasion.

Despite the fact that, it seems, nobody was remotely interested in occupying Albania, some 700,000 of these things litter the entire countryside. They are literally bomb proof and extremely difficult to dismantle or remove. And they are a constant reminder of the paranoia of a despotic regime that spent more time and energy shoring up its own power than considering the needs of its people. No surprise that it only took months before Hoxha and the remnants of a long, dark and depraved history were all but forgotten when he carked it.

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(Pic: “Exterminate, exterminate!” Bunkers in Albania)

On our way to Vlores we detoured through Apollonia, a Roman bastion that was, by all accounts, enormous, prosperous and famous. More than 2000 years ago this city rivalled many, yet it only took a few twentieth century decades for it to fall foul of common greed and disregard. Between military conquest and common pillaging, the Apollonia ruins are, well, ruined. Proud columns, plinths, statues and an amphitheatre stood unmolested for millennia until local yahoos pillaged the lot and treated it as a quarry. Some of it has been saved, but most, as we saw, was disappearing before our eyes.

Again, we found ourselves plying horrifying roads and psychotic drivers as we headed towards Vlores. And before we knew it we were in town.

It took us by surprise as the roads into the city were dirt, potholed and akin to a dirtbike track in the bush. What became also noticeable was that household rubbish was generally dumped by the side of the road and once in a while someone put a match to it. We wondered for how long the concept of refuse had existed, since, assumingly, until recently there was not pre-packaged anything, and everything else was recycled. So, between the lunar landscape track and the acrid smoke we weren’t sure if we were headed into one of Albania’s peaceful main cities or into a war zone.

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(Pic: Extraordinary vistas from the National Road, Albania)

We had not booked a room but knew the names of a couple of hotels. Sandy spotted one and pretty soon we were camped in a rather new, spacious and clean abode. We were to discover during the night, however, that the hot water should have been renamed ‘tepid’, the fridge in the kids’ room sounded like a locomotive and the bath leaked.

Again, we settled for Italian for dinner. We desperately tried to find a traditional Albanian restaurant but it seems the cool and groovy eat-out crowd could get that at home. We were also again tiring of not being able to cook for ourselves – especially when the pasta you pay for is significantly worse than the one you could do yourself – and we hit the hay reasonably early. Downtown Vlores didn’t really offer much more other than sitting in a café or bar, faced with more No Smoking signs emerging from the haze.

We did attempt to eat at the Britannia restaurant that was only a few metres from the hotel. Replete with waving Union Jack, we initially thought it might be a bit of incongruous fun to have a slap up English meal in Albania, but it turned out to serve – you guessed it – Italian. But then again, things weren’t so simple. We were provided with menus but, when it came time to order, it seemed nothing we actually wanted was available. This may have been a reflection of a country that doesn’t necessarily have access to everything all of the time, or that the staff were far more interested in the soccer game on the big-screen telly. No pasta, only pizza. Oh, and not that pizza either. Maybe you would consider this one? Ah, no, not that one either. As we left in search of more amenable hosts, Maddy wondered if they perhaps would recommend bread and butter as a suitable repast, only then for us to be told that they were right out of butter. And bread.

We eventually tracked down a passable meal, and tried to block out the overbearing tones of appalling eastern European house music. There is something about a nation recently emerging from the confines of a dictatorial regime where they adopt all of the very worst of western culture. Bad fashions, bad telly (Albanian Big Brother demonstrated that the concept could in fact get a lot worse than we knew it) and bad music. Cafes, restaurants, bars and the radio were up to their collective neck-bling in it. That, and every food or drink venue providing what seemed to be the must-have feature of the service industry – a dirty big TV. We remain unsure if Albanian clientele by and large have nothing to talk about and instead need to fix their eyes on one of two poorly transmitted broadcast stations, including what seemed to be an almost constant telecast of their national parliament, complete with a plethora of men in ill-fitting suits and heads that just screamed ‘head-kicker’, but it was inescapable. If only, our children commented, they showed the Simpsons instead.

We did notice a throwback to our great southern land in Vlores when we wandered past a row of eucalyptus trees. We had seen dozens of them on the road in but weren’t sure if they were just a remarkable facsimile of the humble gum tree or the real deal. To our surprise, after giving some leaves a rub, the reminiscent scent came back to us. We remain none the wiser as to why gum trees line the streets of southern Albania.

We spent the next morning following the coastline and then eventually heading into the mountains. Unlike the previous days, the mountain road, while narrow, and at times providing useful four-wheel-drive practice, was essentially deserted. There was little sign of mad Merc men, or anyone else. Only smatterings of stray cows, sheep and goats and the odd timber cart being pulled along by a tired and reluctant donkey. We wondered about the speed in which the common Albanian proletariat moved from mule power to Merc power; from gossiping over backgammon and strong coffee to using flash mobile phones, and whether the pace of change was somehow detrimental to social cohesion. Some were up with the times and succeeding and many, no doubt, were being left behind to sell their meagre produce by the road side.

In parts, the road widened and was very newly paved with asphalt. Some signs indicated support from Italy for the redevelopment of the roads, but it seemed this only extended to roads in between towns and villages, where roads remained perilous, perhaps indicating to the villages’ inhabitants that they needed to find some Leke to pay for it themselves. It seems even in Albania money talks.

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(Pic: Into Greece, dodging the snow again)

Still, we would often approach a village, clunk through potholes and swerve around ravines only to be confronted with a fork in the road. Road signs were virtually non-existent and more than once Sandy referred to our trusty compass to ensure we were vaguely heading in the right direction. All the while, we passed cattle, sheep and even turkey herders, men standing around with hands in pockets and elderly Babushkas emerging from scrub, dressed head to toe in black and carrying bundles of firewood on their backs. All this was interspersed by groups of people tending to and harvesting from seemingly ancient olive trees by use of blankets, rakes and bags for transportation. Things in rural Albania haven’t changed much lately.

From Vlores we headed east and inland towards Greece. In a flash we had left the disastrous potholed and overpopulated tracks behind us and suddenly we were tootling along a newly paved road without a soul around us. The road took us high into the extraordinary Dinaric Alps and we seemed to climb forever. Tight hairpin turns and sweeping bends seemed to take us to the top of the world. We eventually paused at a lookout and discovered that we had essentially climbed the face of a cliff, with the sea lapping the shore way below us.

SK: This drive was worth all the previous potholes. It was like being on top of the world, with the rocky land undulating down to the water. The sea shone with myriad blues. The sun streamed through the clouds with rays so biblical they would have made Cecil B De Mille weep with envy.

We swooped down this road, passing an army barracks hugging the cliff, and then turned back inland. Away from the sea, the road deteriorated again, and we rumbled through small villages and past curious children, who waved at our burgundy behemoth. Back down to the coast, where we rewarded ourselves for making it this far with morning tea in the pretty fishing village of Himara. Again, the people were welcoming to tourists, friendly, and politely understanding of our pointing and gesticulating when ordering and paying. 

DB: Around a bend as we approached the Greek border we came across a late-model Mercedes Benz stopped in the middle of the road. Not parked to the side, but slap bang in the middle. As we got closer we noticed poking out of the driver’s side window was the business end of a rifle. Out of the passenger side window was a hand holding what we believe to be a recently deceased bird. It turns out this is hunting season in the hills. We pulled up behind the Merc and waited for something to happen. There was no way I was willing to pass it on its driver’s side, less we get between the contents of the rifle and the unsuspecting wildlife on the other side of the road. I eventually negotiated the truck on the inside and we high-tailed it out of there.

The deserted Greek border loomed and soon enough we were back in the official European Union, and then the mountain village of Konitsa. Immediately our surrounds were profoundly different. We were once again in a land of relative plenty and the abundant fields, shops and tavernas were its testimony. We had also encountered persistent rain again, and the approaching snow-capped mountains of Farangi Vikou made us a little edgy, despite their beauty. We pulled into the Grand Hotel and before we could say “Yassou” hosts Ioannis and Katerina had provided undercover parking, a cosy room, an open fire and directions 100 metres up the road to their taverna, where we devoured scrumptious traditional home-cooked delights. We felt safe, secure and sated.

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5 Comments»

  Wally wrote @

Hi D S M R > I have just finished reading your latest blog, and I know you are doing a lot of ks but I have one ? where do you get your fuel for the truck and how long does a tank last. Also how much?In your commentry, Maddy gets a mention. What about Raffy any comments from him about your travels. I would also like to hear or read some of their opinions.Any way I love reading all your comments and I check every night for updates.Love from Wally and Eleanor.

  David Taylor wrote @

Hi Guys, just read this blog. My God, Albania sound like a nightmare. But at least you are experiencing just about every situation imaginable. Still, great reading, & photos. Glad you’re all well again,
LUv, & Peace, David.

  迷你倉 wrote @

Nice trip & nice pictures.
Thanks
Tony.
荔枝角卓越迷你倉
香港仔時昌迷你倉

  Hilary wrote @

i’ve been slack i keeping up to date with your peregrinations, and look what i’ve been missing – albania! which does sound as missable as dubrovnik was not. i imagine at least some of your conversations must visit the question of would we come here again. guess you’re well into the home stretch now – what are you looking forward to here?
hilaryx

  Brogan Fischer wrote @

I mentioned your blog post to my associate and she truly thanked me. Thank you for the share!


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