Updated: Aug 5, 2019
I mentioned in the last post that I shot through Azerbaijan and most of Georgia, staying at the seaside city of Batumi. I thought I’d just mention the gorgeous mountain area about 50 miles to the East, called the Lesser Caucasian Mountains. This is a wine growing area too (Georgia is thought to be one of the first countries to produce wine). It’s very green with a winding road through it. There are lines of stalls by the side of the road with locals trying to sell produce, honey, crafts and all sorts. Very beautiful. Georgia itself seems a happy place, relatively wealthy and an entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in Batumi. It had changed a bit since I was last there – loads of tourists (mostly Russian) and very buzzy. Fun for a long weekend break.
The journey from Georgia across Turkey was long. There were the usual border checks and queues just to delay things a little more. There were also loads of speed camaras. As I had an electronic windscreen motorway ‘tag’, I was a bit concerned I’d have an enormous set of fines to pay on exiting Turkey.
The Black Sea coastline is very dramatic, though slightly spoiled by rather ugly concrete buildings in the towns along the way. Up higher in the hills, they grow tea, the prized Rize chai is grown in vast plantations nearby.
My Turkman wingman and I drove to Samsun to the tiniest of hotels only the internet could have found. It wasn’t the grandest of places at all but it was clean and they found us secure parking, even though we arrived at 11pm. We continued the next day to Istanbul. Friend Mark had arrived the day before and was ensconced in a rather handy hotel on the Asia side on one of the main arterial roads to the city.
There were a few navigational issues on the journey. Garmin and Maps.me just cannot keep up with the speed of roadbuilding in Turkey. It was often better to spot a new looking road sign and follow that because, sure enough, after a few miles, a brand new, fast motorway would appear.
Istanbul is a vast city with a population about twice that of London. Its suburbs spread for miles. As does it notorious traffic.
I met Mark at the very smart hotel he’d booked. All facilities and, shock, everything worked. We ate dinner there and, in the morning set off for a few hours at the Grand Bazaar. It really is a fascinating, bustling place where you can buy anything from a precious stone to a parrot. I think Mark got the Istanbul bug (not literallly!) and I suspect it’s on his list of future trips.
I had wanted to go on to visit Sarajevo but the route involved quite a few more borders and I was beginning to tire of them!
We pressed on to the border with Bulgaria. Usual delays and unsmiling officials. But we weren’t checked. The queues were enormous, particularly southbound where I’d guess trucks would be waiting 2-3 days and cars perhaps 12 hours. This was something of a contrast with when I passed here some 6 weeks ago. Now it was like a Eurovision gathering – cars registered from almost every country in the EU. Brixiteers please take note – this might be the future at every border!
The motorway was in good condition and straight for most of the way. Mountains lay at either side and then, a section of rocky ravines before the border with Serbia.
We stayed in Plovdiv, Bulgaria for our first night ‘on the road’. It looked entirely uninspiring on its approach roads, full of disused, decaying ex-soviet factories. Our hotel was decidedly strange.
A large hotel of some 14 floors, and newly refurbished, it had the usual OTT kitsch lobby but the air freshener cocktail of josh stick and Lynx was somewhat arresting. Up the in bedrooms, it was like a scene from Miami Vice in the 1980s, a Bruce Lee Kung Fu film or perhaps the set off a porno film. Red and black tables, venetian ‘goddess’ sconces peered from every corner, the bathroom suite was black, chaises longues in black with red dragons. Not exactly restful.
With suitably low expectations, we set of to town for dinner. We entered an area called the Artists Quarter, where there were some very clever murals. It was all cobbled and a rather ‘happening’ sort of place. We had a simple kebab at a recommended restaurant. It was fine, what we wanted and very cheap. The area was something of a revelation. It has been awarded City of Culture this year, so there must be something to it.
Next morning, we set off to drive through Serbia and into Croatia and thus the EU. From then on in, the borders should be virtually non-existent. The landscape was fairly flat again, with distant hills on either side. It was a long drive to the small village of Garešnica, where we’d booked our overnight accommodation.
OK, it was cheap. It was full of Albanian and Kosovan builders, refurbishing a local school. They looked a bit rough and ready but were polite and helpful. The owner wore underpants/shorts with a white sleeveless vest. An unusual stopover!
He gave us a dinner of sausages between massive, sort of drop scones and chips. And he put on a National Geographic channel on the TV because it was in English. A tiny bit of German and some sign language got us through. The rooms were odd but spotlessly clean. He and his wife (who dressed rather more professionally!) had 6 Pekinese dogs. I checked after dinner and there were still 6!
Next morning we made our way out of Croatia and into Slovenia. The amount of traffic (but nothing more than a look at the outside of our passports) made it a slow crossing. I can’t say much about Slovenia. We didn’t stop. It looked very green and mountainous. Blink and we were into Austria. It is almost unbelievably pretty. It’s clean, and you just can’t help humming Sound of Music songs. We stayed at a lovely, typical Austrian house. The owner was an elderly lady who was everso slightly eccentric, grabbing my arm and then Mark’s to lead us to our accommodation before lots of blowing of kisses. For me, it was a world away from where I’d been just a week before. Here was a woman talking to me me for a start.
There’s a slightly old-fashioned word in German/Bavarian/Austrian, gemütlich, which means cosy. That afternoon, sitting in the biergarten, supping a cold one, I must say, I felt very gemütlich.
We had dinner in an old Gasthaus where the locals were paying cards. The church bells rang out, the sun dropped beneath the mountain peaks. It was pretty damn perfect.