Balkan Bikers »

  • The end of the road

    August 2, 2008 @ 7:22 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    Sremska Mitrovica to Munich, over two days, via Banja Luka – 1,078 kms

    Srem. Mitrovica, to give the version in common usage, turns out to be a lovely place. It’s much more than mere gateway to the Gulag Plaza, three star retro commie hotel plonked in the middle of a prison complex.

    Srem. Mitrovica was once something in its own right. It is on the banks of the Sava and has several pretty open places with grass, trees and cafes. There are some fine imposing 19th century buildings but the window frames are all peeling and the stucco is cracked and fallen off in patches.

    All Srem. Mitrovica just needs is a little tlc to come into its own again.

    Onwards and westwards down the motorway and a quick left to Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, an entirely incident-free border crossing from Serbia back into Bosnia. They must be getting used to us…

    On the Michelin map, the road out of Banja Luka is marked green indicating natural beauty. And they weren’t kidding. The road passes through a steep sided gorge, sweeping this way and that – fantastic biking country.

    One side of the valley is tree covered and rises steeply to some 1,300 meters. The other is an escarpment, bare vertical rock, in places overhanging the road. The river in the gorge has that delicate pastel blue shade you often get in mountain waters.

    At the top of the valley before the descent deeper into Bosnia and, out of the Serbian self-government part and into the Muslim Croat federation, we find Motel Lav and bed down for the night, fortified by yet another feed of Serbian meat and Montenegran wine.

    The next day, Tony gets all excited about an old Yugoslav army generator sitting in the garage and instructs me to take five hundred million photographs of it. Today’s riding is going to be a long, hard grind. We aim to make Austria is one dash – a good 10 hours riding at least. The main event turns out to be a spell of off-road biking – only it’s on the road, the main road a little southeast of Bihac.

    There’s road works and traffic is redirected to what eventually turns into a very narrow, winding gravel dirt track through farm land. The track is bone dry and cars and trucks, none of which slow down very much, churn up the dust until soon we’re riding through a chocking fog. We’ve got street riding tires on, not the nobly ones for off-road biking, and at the slightest excuse the bikes slither all over the place.

    Articulated lorries, petrol tankers, cars with trailers, cars without – they’re all hurtling along, passing each other out at will even though you can barely see 20 feet ahead. I’m back in Mad Max land and it lasts for an incredible 20 kms…

    And then its out of Bosnia, spluttering and wheezing, quickly across Croatia and on into Slovenia, the Alps beckoning.

    It’s been a blast. The whole thing. And I know I’m on a hiding to nothing if I try to say that it was work, that I was up every day at 6, writing till 9 and then out on the road again. So I’ll just give in now and take the hit…

    The bikes were brilliant – Stergios the Munich Moto Greek did us proud. I just love these BMW enduro machines. We saw some incredible scenery: central Bosnia is for sure one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever seen and you must go there. And while some of the stories you will hear from the wars are heartbreaking, the people are warm and welcoming, their hospitality genuine.

    None more so than Avdo, Emina and Adina, the grown up children of Abdulah Purkovic whose family run hotel and restaurant, the Misirlije, is in Srebrenica and whom I mentioned in my final report for the Command and Anlysis pages.

    We turned pretty much the whole of their eating area into a press room for three days last week. There was Tony and me; Kalle Holmberg from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter; Stefan Bos, a Dutch journalist, and his wife Ukrainian-born wife Agnes, also a journalist; and a photographer from AFP who glories ion the name Elvis Barukcic. (Kalle seized the moment to utter the must-be-made comment as Elvis was departing…)

    The front of the restaurant became a newsroom and radio studio. There were laptops and cable and cameras everywhere. Stefan and Agnes run a newsagency in Budapest, BosNewsLife, and were multi-tasking to a variety of outlets – writing quick news reports, lengthy more reflective material, editing pictures and broadcasting radio reports over the internet to three different countries in five different languages… pretty much all at the same time.

    And amid all this babble and confusion, Avdo, Emina and Adina cheerfully provided for our every whim and sat up talking late into the night.

    Srebrenica isn’t Auschwitz and what happened in both places shouldn’t be confused. But genocide did happen in Srebrenica because of what people are capable of doing to each other when the veneer of civilization is stripped away and because the rest of the world didn’t stop it happening when it could have.

    So I think people should visit Srebrenica and stand for a while among the graves. Show solidarity with the dead and those who loved them and live on, and show the people who did this that it was wrong. Some of them are living nearby…

    And when you’re in Srebrenmica, there’s only one place to stay… (bikers welcome!)

    “Where to next year,” says Tony, before answering himself. “Chad,” he announces.
    “North Cape via the Arctic Circle,” I say. “I’m pining for the fjords.”

    But this shouldn’t have to end now. We shouldn’t have top stop just ’cus Motogreek Stergios wants his bikes back. I mean, how completely unreasonable is that?

    A final look at one of those stunning panoramas high in the Alps, the rest of the world spread out below, all the little Austrians and their cellars, before we descend to Munich.

    This blog, this great wheeze, should just go on and on for ever.

    “Have you ever seen Thelma and Louise?”

  • A night in the Gulag Plaza

    August 1, 2008 @ 12:34 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    Pristina to Sremska Mitrovica – 480 kms: There’s a ginormous queue at the border crossing from Kosovo to Serbia which we join for the 2.5 seconds it takes us to work out that if we stay where we are, it will take us at least an hour to get through. And then there’s the Serbian side…

    Tony says he’ll keep our place in the queue if I move forward slowly down the outside lane and see what happens.

    This I do. The queue is perhaps 20 cars and trucks long and nobody’s going anywhere in a hurry. It’s boiling hot. People have opened doors and windows or have got out of their vehicles and are trying to stay cool. And here’s me queue jumping…

    A couple of border guards see me and start jumping up and down, arms flailing.

  • It’s Mad Max territory

    July 30, 2008 @ 4:41 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    Ok. Memo to bikers: On balance lads, I’d say avoid this place. A few random thoughts and observations…

    We spend the night in the Palace Hotel in Mitrovica. Which is grand: good, clean room for half nothing (€30 if I remember right after a half-for-nothing steak to die for and a moderately decent bottle of red…) But, like, next morning as the dawn rises, we see that we spent the night on the side of Scrap Yard Highway: gateway to Pristina. Every other lot on the side of the road out of this place is a yard selling lumps of junk – bits of car doors, roofs, wheels, tyres, bumpers, exhausts. Whatever. And the bits that can’t be recycled come back on to the road as part of a clapped out rust and dust hulk hurtling towards you on the wrong side of the road on the brow of a hill…

    Someone tells us a day later that scrap metal is Kosovo’s most important export (by which I assume is meant the largest provider of foreign cash). Amazing but not totally surprising…


  • Border crossings

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:34 am | by Peter Murtagh

    murtaghpole1.jpgSrebrenica to Mitrovica in Kosovo – 328 kms: The Bosnian border guard at the crossing into Serbia is really friendly and wants to know all about the bikes. He and Tony and I chat as he waves other vehicles through with little more than a cursory check.

    The bridge over the Drina river, the far side of which is Serbia, is straight out of Cold War central casting. Two graceful arches of steel girders span the river and hold the bridge up. It hasn’t been painted for years. The road over it is made of small uneven, small square granite cobbles.

    In the spy film, this is where the hand-over prisoner exchange takes place on a dull, damp and foggy night…

  • Worlds apart

    July 27, 2008 @ 11:40 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    Sarajevo to Srebrenica, via Pale – 220 klms: Pale was the Serb capital during the siege of Sarajevo – the stronghold of Radovan Karadzic and his army general Ratko Mladic. The road out of the city rises towards it steeply up the mountains. Pale is around 20 kilometres away.

    It’s odd, really. One is travelling between two sets of people who have radically differing views of themselves and of each other. But the landscape is the same, the trees in either place look the same, so does the soil, so does the general topography. But Pale and Sarajevo are worlds apart.

  • An invite to ‘The Pudding Hall’

    July 25, 2008 @ 12:59 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    Inside Sarajevo: A taxi ride to the UN Police Mission HQ produces an interesting aside. Amer (the driver) is a chatty bloke with decent English.

    We go through the usual “where you from?” conversation.

    “Ireland!” he exclaims. “My uncle live in Dublin.” (more…)

  • Skidding along in the wake of the Karadzic arrest

    @ 10:52 am | by Peter Murtagh

    Hrvace to Sarajevo – 267 Kms:  This is a day or three behind because, like, there is a certain amount of conventional hacking pressure this end… So bear with me, eh?

    Woke Tuesday morning to a txt message from insomniac Cousin Derek to effect that Radovan Karadzic had been arrested in Belgrade. Jaz*s!

    At this stage, Tony and I are in the middle of Croatia and a fair distance from
    Sarajevo where there’ll be a good reaction story to file to the paper. “Dancing in streets” says teeth grindingly helpful txt from the brother (more…)

  • Musical interlude in Kijevo

    July 24, 2008 @ 11:33 am | by Peter Murtagh

    Sveti Rok to Hrvace – 130 Kms: The town of Knin sits on a plain in the middle of the mountains southwest of the Dinara range that separate Croatia and Bosnia. It’s a substantial place with a population of about 11,000.

    Before the war that followed Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991, some 80 per cent of the people who lived there were ethnically Serb. Today Serbs account for about 10 per cent.

    Three Croatian soldiers in uniform are sitting in the shade of a canopy outside a café smoking (as everyone seems to in the Balkans) and drinking beer. One, a handsome officer in formal uniform as opposed the military fatigues, speaks good English but is a man of few words. (more…)

  • Why would you want to go there?

    July 23, 2008 @ 11:24 am | by Peter Murtagh

    bikers.jpgKremsbrücke to Sveti Rok – 464 kms: “Why you want go there?” the waiter in the quay-side café asked with a mixture of indifference and contempt for our plans. “Everything you want is here. There’s nothing up there. Nothing.”

    The Adriatic along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is certainly pretty. In places immediately south of Rijeka however, it is pock-marked with high rise monstrosities from Yugoslavia’s communist era – poorly constructed tower blocks with rust stained facades and bits of concrete falling off. They look like slums.

    We arrived on the Croatian coast speedily after crossing from Austria into Slovenia. The mountains that separate the two countries are breached by a 7.8klm long tunnel. We whooshed through it on the bikes and, crossing the river Sava, were in the little country that escaped unscathed from the horrors of former Yugoslavia.

  • On the road again – this time to the Balkans

    July 22, 2008 @ 5:02 pm | by Peter Murtagh

    murtagh.jpgMunich to Kremsbrücke – 268 klms: This is the start of a journey that emerged out of a bike ride last summer from Vezeley in France to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Then my biking mate, Tony Sullivan, and I rode two BMW 1200 Adventures weaving in and out of the medieval pilgrim route and I wrote a diary for The Irish Times*.

    “What are we going to do next year,” asked Tony at the end of that caper.

    And so the thought began…

    I have been fascinated by the Balkans, or rather what happened there in the 1990s, since, working for another newspaper (The Guardian in London) I helped direct their coverage of the wars that attended the break-up of what used to be Yugoslavia. What was the place like now? Was there any reconciliation between the ethnic factions that ripped themselves apart so brutally back then? And what was the international community, Ireland included, doing to try to make it all better again?

    And so here we are – Tony and I – on the blue bus to Dublin airport at 3.30am feeling, well, bloody awful actually: gritty eyes and half dead for the lack of sleep. We are off to Munich to see a bloke named Stergios, who comes from Greece but whom we came across via a California website.

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