Driving to Macedonia
In the summer of 1987 my partner Laura & I took an impromptu holiday, driving across Europe from my home in London to Macedonia in the south of what was then Yugoslavia. As I was digitising the pictures from the trip a whole host of memories came flooding back, here are some of them.
The decision to drive to drive to Macedonia was laughably casual - we were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and discussing our shared love of Macedonian folk dance (which is a story in itself). When the idea of going there came up my response was "Why not?" and as I owned a sporty little Peugeot 205 GTI it seemed that the easiest way to get there was to just load it up & set off. Ah, the impetuosity of youth.
Planning & preparation were similarly basic. I bought a set of headlamp stickers for driving on the right, a GB plate, a map book (this was pre-Internet, and pre-mobile phone for that matter), and a tourist guide to Yugoslavia. Yugoslav dinars could only be purchased at the border so I withdrew a stack of UK money to convert there but apart from a small stash of French francs (this was pre-Euro too) I was hoping to get by with my credit cards. When the day came we loaded up, drove to Dover, and queued for a space on the ferry.
First stop was Paris. Driving in the French capital was notoriously perilous and this was my first ever motoring experience outside of the UK, luckily it was August when (we were assured) all the Parisians leave for their holidays. It turned out to be no worse than London traffic which was a relief, and encouraging for the rest of the trip as I was the only name on the insurance and would be doing all the driving. My self-confidence did take a slight dent when I drew up at a set of lights, Laura turned to me and pointed out that although I was doing very, very well I should, technically, be on the other side of the road.
We'd decided to go through the Alps (why not?) which meant crossing into Switzerland. As we approached the motorway we found that we needed a pass to use it, and the only option was for a year's access. It didn't cost that much but as our time on the Swiss motorway system could be counted in hours (we took a very different route home) it was probably the most expensive motoring permit I've ever bought. At the last minute we decided against the tunnel and took the surprisingly narrow road up & over the St Bernard Pass. Some wonderful Alpine views, especially those with the road ahead weaving down the valley towards Italy.
After an overnight stay in northern Italy we arrived at the Yugoslavian border. A few cars were being very thoroughly searched but these seemed mostly to be Yugoslav nationals, as tourists our documents were examined closely but there were no checks of our luggage. It was a little imposing - this was still the time of the Soviet Union & Comintern - but clearly the (mostly German) tourists were well-known and welcomed visitors. I changed my pounds into dinar and was handed a form to record my purchases as, I was informed, I would need to show where the money had gone before I left the country again. I lost track of the form and nobody asked for it at any point.
After a brief stay in Ljubljana (which was delightful) we headed for Zagreb in Croatia. At one point, late in the evening while searching for our hotel, I realised that all of the headlights facing me on a street were white and I might have turned the wrong way down a one-way street. A quick reverse into a driveway took us out of danger and revealed that one of the oncoming vehicles was a tram and would not have swerved to avoid us.
Our guide book said that 'the best vegetarian restaurant in the country' was in Zagreb so we set out and tracked it down. We were the only diners and the experience was very Soviet - the menu was enormous but nearly every dish turned out to be 'not available'. Eventually we persuaded the waitress to point out what was actually 'on' and we ordered most of them. From memory the food was fine.
As we were checking out of the hotel the radio started playing 'Lay your head on my shoulder' (the Paul Anka song). The receptionist turned to us and, in faltering English, asked "What is 'shoulder'?". We mimed the action and his face broke out in a huge smile, a great mystery revealed.
While driving South through Croatia we found that the car windows would no longer open and close, a fairly serious problem as one was stuck fully open. It looked to me like a fuse had blown but despite closely following the manual I couldn't find how to open the fusebox, something I'd never had to do before. I stopped at the first petrol station and was given directions to the village mechanic, who turned out to be the local tractor repairman. His eyes sparkled at the prospect of working on this shiny little foreign hatchback and soon he was (very carefully) removing sections of dashboard. His daughter, who spoke excellent English, turned out to be part of a performing folk dance group and we chatted with her while her father dug deeper into the car's interior.
After seeing more of my car's insides than I ever expected to I suddenly had an insight. Although a right hand drive model the 205 was a French design and maybe the internals hadn't been swapped over along with the steering wheel & other controls? I had a poke around in the glove compartment and the fuse box dropped into view, along with a row of spare fuses. A quick substitution and the windows were working fine again. The tractor mechanic responded with a burst of Serbo-Croat that his daughter attempted to translate, "He says you are..." she started but then hesitated over completing the sentence. "An idiot?" I suggested. "Yes" she replied with a beaming smile.
Another guide book recommendedation was the Plitviče Lakes National Park so we made that the next stop. This gave us our introduction to the Yugoslav accommodation system - after going to the local tourist office and filling out a form with the beds and number of days you required you were handed the address of the resident who would provide a bed (I don't remember ever getting breakfast) for your stay. It always felt like we were staying in the family's main bedroom that had been swiftly vacated for the tourists rather than an actual spare room.
The lakes were wonderful, crystal clear waters with petrified tree branches just below the surface. We walked along wooden causeways just above them while wild hills rose around us to an unbroken blue sky above.
As the day stretched into evening we walked to the visitors centre, the only place for food & entertainment in the whole park. It was a big wooden building where we were led to a wide round table and presented with a carafe of the local wine. As I recall there wasn't much of a menu so we went for the 'local dish' and decided to accompany it with the (recommended) slivovitz, a potent plum brandy served in little glass thimbles. A traditional band wandered the floor, playing at individual tables but swiftly moving on once they'd been tipped - I suspect we'd misunderstood the protocol and this was taken as a dismissal. The convivial atmosphere encouraged us to order more slivovitz refills and chase them down with the wine, which meant that we were decidedly uncertain on our feet as we departed into the pitch blank night and tried to find our way 'home'. Luckily Laura could just about make out the pathways and I could just about remember the route and together we managed to retrace our steps.
We were heading for Split when we drew up to a queue of stationary traffic. Red clouds hung low ahead of us and we could make out aircraft flying above them and dropping what looked like cascades of water from huge drums suspended underneath. A policemen explained that there was a forest fire and the road would be closed for quite some time so we consulted our map & guide book, turned to the west, and soon found ourselves in Šibenik on the Adriatic coast. The town was beautiful, old stone buildings lining the harbour with a wide promenade for taking the evening air.
From here we headed south towards Montenegro. There were very few, very small beaches along the coast and these always seemed to be densely occupied so instead we would find a sheltered spot, gingerly traverse the sharp rocks, and skinny dip in the warm, blue Adriatic water.
The next stage of the journey saw us heading inland again towards Kosovo. The road climbed high into the mountains and it felt like we were driving back through time as the modernity of the coast fell away and was replaced by more traditional dress, horse drawn carts, and a more ramshackle building style. It wasn't that the land was primitive, more that it was a bit more comfortable with a mix of old & new. It became fairly common to have children wave to us as we drove past and I smiled at the thought of being a strange, futuristic incursion into their lives.
I'd been stuck behind a small Zastava (a Yugoslavian made Fiat car) for what felt like many miles when the road opened out and I took the opportunity to ostentatiously overtake it. A few miles further on it reappeared in my mirrors before pulling alongside, the passenger side window wound down and a small, official-looking sign saying STOP was extended out. After pulling over four burly men got out (which was quite an achievement from such a small vehicle), two of whom were revealed to be uniformed policemen. After they'd had a short discussion and made copious notes in a small notebook, I was informed in broken English that I had committed a whole list of traffic offences (speeding, overtaking on a bend, overtaking without indicating, there were more) and 'would have to be fined'. This was, to say the least, alarming, especially when it came to the amount - the officer knew the English word for the first number but didn't know how to indicate the number of following zeroes. He wrote it down and, after some quick mental arithmetic, it turned out that the penalty would be around two pounds. With huge relief I offered to pay straight away which made us all great friends, I was presented with an official receipt and asked where we were heading next. When I told them Peč they responded with "Good luck" which I took to be a quirk of translation rather than an ominous warning.
It turned out that the police could well have been warning us about the route ahead - the road to Peč was by far the scariest driving experience of our time in Yugoslavia. The quality of the tarmac had been markedly deteriorating since we'd left the coastal routes, sometimes requiring us to slowly pick our way around the ruts & potholes, and by the time we began the long descent down the mountainside there were huge gaps in the road surface with, a couple of hairpin turns further on, matching piles of rockfall debris marked with memorial flowers & crucifixes. We made our way down in the dead of night with the lights of the town visible way, way below us, indicating just how far we still had to go.
We toasted our safe arrival with some of the excellent local beer and next morning, on our way out of town, we went searching for the Peč Brewery to buy a memorial case. Although there were signs to the brewery they petered out before we found it, and so it remains a memory of a perfect brew.
I had one further interaction with the Yugoslavian traffic police that had a similar happy ending. We'd parked near the centre of a fairly large town and had returned to find an official looking parking ticket tucked under the wiper. Inside it contained a handwritten note (in very good English) politely explaining that we should not have left the car there and detailing where tickets could be purchased in future. No fine, not even a warning. It was as if we were seen as honoured guests and excused our ignorance, which felt decidedly welcoming.
With the more touristy parts of the country behind us we often found ourselves having to rustle up our own daytime meals (we were usually in a town by evening). This normally meant the local fare - a fresh loaf of bread, round and low, with a hunk of pale cheese and a can of sardines. Never the same twice, even the fish came in a variety of sauces and as we moved into areas using the Cyrillic alphabet the labels sometimes gave no clear idea of what we'd find inside - apart from the inevitably pictured silver fish. The bakeries displayed their wares through open shutters, rarely paned with glass.
The change in alphabet brought a real sense of being in a strange land when we passed a road sign that consisted of an exclamation mark with an undecipherable Cyrillic word underneath. Growing up in Europe brings a sort of generalised recognition of most foreign words (especially those likely to appear on road signs) so to have not the faintest idea of what it might be warning us about was a bit disquieting. Luckily no unexpected hazards presented themselves.
Our first real stop in Macedonia came on the shore of Lake Ohrid (I think it was Ohrid itself but it could have been Struga). The lake stretched out into the distance and it was strange to think of Albania, still communist and rigidly anti-Western, lying just over the water. The occasional gunfire off in the distance was probably hunters but it did give a subtle feeling of menace.
This was underlined when we set off to find a recommended local restaurant. The (admittedly rather vague) directions sent us down a small road that quickly shrank to little more than a dirt track through dark woods before a huge sign appeared in the car headlights. It's message was repeated in several languages and about halfway down we found the English version which stated that we were about to reach the Albanian border and trespassers would be shot. It may have been a quirk of translation but it definitely felt more like a promise than a threat. I performed a careful but hasty three point turn and we ended up dining in town.
We found ourselves in a large market (again I cannot remember in which town - Ohrid? Bitola?) where among the stalls we found a carpet seller. As we completed the bargaining for a kilim (which I still possess!) the owners asked where we were from, on hearing we'd come from Britain they chorused "Margaret Thatcher!". Sigh!
Finally we arrived at Skopje, our ultimate destination. A more modern city than the towns we'd gotten used to while driving through Montenegro, Kosovo, & southern Macedonia but with enough small differences - Cyrillic signs, emptier streets, the occasional communist mural - to remind us that we were definitely no longer in Kansas.
With no timetable or schedule to keep to the days had blurred into one another so it came as a bit of a shock when we worked out it was Saturday morning and I was due at my desk for work on Monday. We loaded up the car and decided on the quickest route home - via Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France before taking the ferry back to Blighty. It would be a fleeting tour of Europe's motorway systems but with the gods on our side we could just about make it back in time.
And so we did. Along the way I indulged my inner boy racer on a (speed) limitless German autobahn, topping 120mph before realising that although the car was capable of more I was most definitely not. We spent the night in a German truck stop but otherwise we stopped only for toilets, petrol, and food we could eat in the car.
There was a progressive relaxation of border formalities as we drove back (this was before the Schengen Convention did away with most European border controls). Going from Yugoslavia to Austria involved parking, getting out, and presenting our papers to be examined. Austria to Germany involved stopping the car and then handing our passports out the window to be checked. Germany to Belgium merely required us to slow down and show our passports as we, er, passed. The epitome was reached at the Belgian / French border where we started slowing down at the (already raised) barrier before a hand appeared at the booth's window and lazily waved us through.
We reached the northern coast of France in time to catch a late ferry and complete the last few miles home. Memories of exactly when we made it back and how much sleep I managed to grab escape me but I'm pretty sure I was there at work on Monday morning. An epic journey.
Looking back with the perspective of over 30 years I'm astounded by how many memories these old holiday snaps evoke. This younger version of myself - blithely setting off into the unknown (although failing to make much effort to reduce how unknown it would be), casually confident of dealing with whatever came up, soaking up life's wonders while moving effortlessly on to the next one - seems like a vastly different person and yet somehow still recognisable & familiar. With my recent adventures in South East Asia maybe this is a facet of myself that is once again rising to prominence in the maelstrom of my personality. Could be fun times ahead!