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Greece to the UK 2010 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

A 2,200-MILE JOURNEY FROM GREECE TO THE UK VIA THE BALKANS

Margaret and Barry Williamson
April 2010

This will be a fully illustrated and linked account of our 2,200-mile (3,520-km) road journey from Greece to the UK via Albania, Montenegro,Sprint_(14).jpg Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Holland and Belgium in April 2010.

This is the return leg of a 4-month, 8,500-mile (13,600-km), 17-country, 70-stage, 12-ferry journey, started in late December 2009. We went out to Tunisia via Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Greece, southern Italy, Sicily (with a side trip to Malta) and a ferry to Tunis.

We returned to northern Greece via a ferry from Tunis to Civitivecchia and a ferry from Bari to Igoumenitsa where this journey begins. (See the map below).

Relevant links so far include:

A summary of the whole journey UK-Tunisia-UK
Images of Belinzona in the Swiss-Italian Alps at Christmas 2009
The journey from Greece to Sicily and a ferry to Malta
Our Malta Experience in February 2010
From Flair to Sprinter - how we came to be travelling in a White Van
Images and a description of our Fleetwood Flair motorhome
Images and a description of our Paul Hewitt touring bicycles

Images of Igoumenitsa
Images of the Ferry Crossing to Corfu
Images of Ancient Butrint in Albania

Images of Albania on the Road
Images of Montenegro's Mountains and Gorges

Images of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Republic of Srpska
Images of Slovenia's Lake Bled and the Bohinj Valley
Images of the Journey through Austria
Images of the Journey through Germany


Europe[1].jpg




(Follow red line going north-west)

NORTHERN GREECE

Easter at Igoumenitsa – Hotel Oscar

We arrived at Igoumenitsa's splendid harbour on Easter Saturday morning, after an overnight voyage on a Ventouris Lines ferry from Bari. This was a mistake! Many ferries currently sail from Bari in Italy to Durres in Albania, but only Ventouris (now combined with Agoudimos) or Superfast cross to Greece. Superfast costs twice as much but, with hindsight, is worth the extra. We've lost count of how many crossings we've made from Greece to Ancona, Bari or Brindisi, but this was the worst.

Our Ventouris ferry also called at Corfu, an hour before Igoumenitsa, but those 'caIgoumenitsa_(19).JPGmping on board' with a motorhome or caravan could not disembark  in Corfu, as the exit ramp from the upper open deck was blocked by trucks. The elderly boat was loaded to the limit, toilet provision was inadequate, the one room of Pullman seats (which cost extra) was crowded, with seats not numbered and tickets not checked. The inevitable Good Friday biblical epic (Ben Hur) might have entertained us, had our fellow passengers wanted to listen. Worst of all, parked on the open deck we were placed right by the engine exhausts, whose deafening noise prevented any chance of sleeping in the van!

Landing at 8.30 am (Greek time, an hour ahead of Italy), we found that both the Tourist Information places were closed until after Easter, as were many of the shops and (surprisingly) some of the hotels. Luckily the bakeries and supermarkets were open, at least on this Saturday morning.

The best accommodation deal was at the Oscar Hotel, where we took a room (without the optional breaIgoumenitsa_(17).JPGkfast) at the front, watching the local Corfu ferries ply to and fro. The hotel dining room was closed until Easter Monday (while the chef went back to his village for the weekend) and Goodys fast food restaurant, next to the Oscar, was also closed for 24 hours. Greek Easter is a serious business! We strolled along the waterfront later on the Saturday evening, finding nothing to eat except a toasted sandwich.

On Easter Sunday we had a bicycle ride, taking advantage of the quiet roads after the chaos of the day before. Corfu is a particularly popular destination for Greeks at Easter, with endless lines of traffic pouring in and out of Igoumenitsa for the ferries. International flights to/from Corfu do not begin until May (as with Kalamata airport in the Peloponnese). The weather was beautiful, figs were swelling on the trees, the hotel garden smelt of orange blossom, we saw butterflies and lizards and there was no wind. Perfect. 'Christos Anesti' (Christ is risen) was the greeting on everyone's lips.

Our cycleIgoumenitsa_(13).JPG ride took us north (partly on a separate cycle path) for 6 km to a large campsite by the shore, which was closed and rumoured to be for sale. From there we followed a minor road between the beach, where a few people were fishing or eating a picnic, and a lagoon, where a few white or grey herons did likewise.

We enjoyed a week in Igoumenitsa, catching up with some writing (Our Malta Experience; 'Lest we Forget' - Commonwealth War Graves in Italy and Tunisia; and an update for Lonely Planet's guide to Tunisia). The Oscar Hotel had no computer facilities - Greece is still behind Tunisia in terms Igoumenitsa_(23).JPGof internet access! The best place was the Sport Internet Caf้ with free wifi, terminals at €1.50 per hour and a printer. We also took time for reading and watching some of the many holiday TV films – Pirates of the Caribbean, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Rwanda Hotel – old favourites.

An excursion to Ioannina (95 miles round trip) confirmed that the magnificent toll-free 'Egnatia Odos' motorway is now fully open. The exit (after the one for Ancient Dodoni) deposits you on the old main road from Arta, 3 miles from Ioannina. Shopping here, we were aware of the rise in Greek VAT on food and fuel – just the start of the many austerity measures which are to meet with massive resistance.

On Margaret'sCorfu_(17).JPG birthday we had a day in Corfu (Kerkira), the main town/port giving its name to the island. Drive-on ferries of various sizes cross regularly from Igoumenitsa, taking 90 minutes. The passenger fare was €8.50 per person each way, bicycles free, and they also carried vehicles including motorhomes. SitCorfu_(21).JPGting on deck in the sunshine we watched the long wake lead back to Igoumenitsa and were reminded of the words of good friend John, aboard a ferry to Italy: 'a clew to follow home'. Birthday lunch was a splendid 'full English breakfast' served with fresh orange juice and coffee, though costing somewhat more than the one pound each we remember from our first visit in the early 1990's!

Enquiries about the Albanian border crossing, scarce 20 miles away, met with the usual ignorance. The hotel owner had never been, the bus station ran a bus as far as Sagiada near the border, and the Tourist Police seemed unsure if it was open to foreigners: 'Go and ask our colleagues at the frontier - and beware robbery!'

ALBANIA

Igoumenitsa, Greece to Butrint, Albania     Livia Hotel     64 miles

A mere 23 miles along the 'road less travelled' lay the Greek-Albanian frontier, at Mavromati–Konispoli. A brand new border post had been built on either side of the divide and we were soon across, after a check of passports and 'cars papers' and a quick look inside the van. No money was requested; no mention of insurance or 'green card'; it could hardly have been easier.

On the AlbanianAlbania_(10).JPG side, a splendid new road lasted for too few miles, then reverted to an unmade highway of stones and mud but – an important but – they really are working on it, with new bridges under construction and road widening underway. Once complete, it will make an easy route from coast to border. We headed north (the only choice) until it met a sealed road, where we turned left for Saranda. ThisAlbania_(11).JPG burgeoning resort, a short (45 minute) ferry ride from Corfu, looked like a huge building site, with more hotels than we'd seen in the whole of Tunisia and a large cruise ship at anchor offshore.

Our goal was Ancient Buthrotum in the Butrint National Park, about 12 miles south of Saranda along a narrow and partly unmade road – a route unsuitable for larger vehicles. On a previous visit we left our motorhome parked at the Hotel Britannia, on the southern outskirts of Saranda, and took a taxi but now, in a smaller van, we could drive down and explore the Park at leisure.

Near the Butrint_(25).JPGgates of the ancient ruins is a splendidly refurbished hotel/restaurant in the thick of the woods: Livia Hotel (see left), named after the wife of Emperor Augustus, one of the founders of the Roman city. The road beyond here involves crossing the river on a simple wooden raft, winched across free of charge by a pair of cables. It will carry a car orButrint_(15).JPG small van, though we wouldn't trust it with anything larger! We took it on foot, for a walk round the triangular castle over the water, discovering that the road on the far bank continues on a much shorter route to the Greek border, for those with a light vehicle. There is plenty of free parking space across from the ruins and hotel, good for an overnight stay if you can get here.

Next morning's visit to Buthrotum was as good as it gets, with the entire ancient site to ourselves apart from the bees buzzing among the wild spring flowers, while frogs and long-necked turtles swam in the ponds. We hadn't obtained any Albanian currency (Lek) but Euros were readily accepted: €4 (or 500 Lek) each for the site, plus €2 each for the hill-toButrint_(60).JPGp museum. The museum is well worth the extra: a gem, recently opened inside a Venetian castle up on the acropolis, it is well displayed, labelled in English and Albanian only. During the summer season there are boat trips on Lake Butrint (to see the ruins of Ali Pasha's Castle, or for bird watching or fishing); stalls sell local produce; cruise passengers on shore leave invade the Park … But in April, all is peace and tranquillity.

Greeks from Corfu built a Sanctuary to Asclepion (the Healer) at Butrint in the 6th centButrint_(37).JPGury BC and the money from its Treasury funded the construction of the 2,500-seat theatre and a fortified town with an acropolis. It flourished under the Romans, when Julius Caesar and Augustus founded a colony here, extending the settlement via a bridge and aqueduct across the channel to the plain beyond. There are the ruins of temples, fountains, baths and tombs, as well as later Paleo-Christian remains from the Byzantine baptistery and basilica.

The site was first excavated by an Italian mission (1928-1939), then much neglected after the War until 1993, when the Butrint Foundation (a UK charity) began working with the Albanian Institute of Archaeology to conserve and promote this microcosm of Mediterranean history. Visit www.butrint.com – and visit Butrint!

Butrint to Vlora, Albania    Grand Hotel     81 miles

Returning to Saranda along the half-made road, we continued north up Albania's splendid west coast road, now completed to Vlora. As this involves crossing the LlAlbania_(17).JPGogaraja Pass at 1027 m (3,390 ft), we were extremely impressed with the progress made. On our previous visit in December 2006, driving in the opposite direction, we had been forced to turn back in Dhermi (30 miles north of Saranda), so climbing the pass twice in one day in our faithful Four Winds motorhome!

Today we drove through the mountains on a wondAlbania_(31).JPGerfully smooth, brilliantly finished road, meeting the sea again at Lukove, and on to Dhermi, barely recognisable from the impassable mess of road works we once encountered. The landscape was one of olive groves, beehives and grazing sheep, with honey and olive oil on sale at the roadside near the villages. The new road was also opening the way to coastal development where it dipped near theAlbania_(34).JPG white beaches, before the steeply hair-pinning ascent of the Llogaraja Pass.

The descent to Vlora is gentler, more wooded, the slopes clad in 'Flag Pine' forest (the shape of the trees resembling the spread eagle on the Albanian flag), with hillside restaurants offering spit-roast local lamb. Once down, the road follows the Gulf of Vlora, where we found a good modern hotel by the beach about 7 miles before the town itself. We were the only guests, but were offered a choice of spaghetti bolognese or chicken & chips for supper. Breakfast (as at Butrint) consisted of a generous supply of fried eggs, feta cheese, toast, jam, butter and coffee.

Vlora to Shkodra, Albania    Argenti Hotel     158 miles

Driving into Vlora, we took the road that avoids the dreaded southbound tunnel, which caught usAlb1_(37).JPG out once before (see image on the right from our journey in 2006 and see the Wilsons' story). The bypass road is abominable – narrow, twisting and riddled with potholes – but at least it didn't have a low unlit roof! Maybe it will all be finished next time we come.

Parking outside a chance internet centre in Albania_(39).JPGVlora, we checked and sent emails. The very helpful young man spoke good English and would accept no money at all. In fact everyone we met seemed delighted to see British visitors, including a policeman who stopped us just to talk about his country's problems and his one visit to England!

Our route now ran inland, crossing the River Vjose at Novosele where a vast market spread along its banks. At Fier (a town suffering industrial disease) we joined the road from Girokaster and continued north on a new dual carriageway, which turned into a motorway to Rogozhine, bound for the country's major port and former capital: Durres. After driving 83 miles total, we reached the seafront, north of the port, and parked neaAlbania_2007_(24).JPGr the Venetian Castle Tower and Byzantine walls, though pouring rain and a cold wind kept us inside the van to eat our lunch.

The onward road north ran past Tirana Airport but thankfully bypassed the gridlocked capital city, which is something of an ordeal to drive through. We called to check out the international hotel near the airport, where we'd once spent a free motorhome night on the car park as restaurant customers (see image on right from 2007). It was offering de-luxe rooms, indoor pool, gym and wifi, all for €60 per couple, bed & breakfast – very reasonable by Italian standards, but double our budget, so we continued to Shkodra on good roads (mostly dual carriageway).

In the border town of Shkodra we made for the centre and found Hotel Kaduku (the only one recommended in our LP guide), next to the grim grey communist-era relic of Hotel Razafa. Sadly, the Kaduku's car park was inaccessible as a road-worker had parked his bulldozer across the entrance and gone home! But it will nice when it's finished, as we always say!

Returning to a humbler hotel, seen on the way into town, we found an adequate room and an excellent meal (pizza, salad and cr่me caramels). We're getting used to dining well for under €5 per head, so Western Europe will be a shock!

MONTENEGRO

Shkodra, Albania to Kolasin, Montenegro     Cile Hotel     130 miles

Just 2.5 miles south-west of Shkodra - one of the oldest cities in Europe, badly damaged by an earthquake in 1979 - is the old (and only)Albania_(42).JPG bridge across the river, by the Rozafa Fortress. Crossing the narrow, rickety, wooden structure with relief (a modern replacement is being built nearby), we turned west for 10 miles to the Montenegrin border.

Montenegro (or Crna Gora - both mean 'Black Mountain') was named by the Venetians: hence the use of Italian. This tiny fragment of the former Yugoslavia, with a total population of less than 700,000, has only been independent from Serbia since 2006. Despite not yet being an EU member, it uses the Euro currency and despite being largely of the Orthodox faith, it is changing from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet. A Mediterranean land with primeval forest, deep canyons and ski resorts – it's a beautiful anomaAlbania_(44).JPGly.

The Albanian-Montenegrin border crossing from Muriqan to Sukobin is the first joint crossing in the Western Balkans, opened by the EU in September 2009. Marvellous - just one frontier, without a no-man's-land between the two countries. The guards were an amiable gang, smiling as they checked our passports and took our money. It cost €8 to exit Albania (not sure why but it seemed a bargain), then €10 Environment Tax (complete with windscreen sticker) to enter Montenegro. Finally, in the absence of a Green Card, we had to pay €15 for 15 days' insurance (the minimum period).

The smooth tarmac MonteN_(29).JPGsurface of the narrow lane was an immediate improvement. Travelling through villages set among green hills, we saw more minarets than churches, as the population in this southern corner of Montenegro is largely of Albanian descent. At Krute, 7 miles from the border, we turned left for the seaside town of Ulcinj, which has several mosques. This road had a short low tunnel – not recommended for larger motorhomes, which should stay on the main road direct toMonteN_(30).JPG Bar.

Reaching Ulcinj 10 miles later, we parked by a small beach in the crowded resort. There was no shortage of hotels and apartments, suggesting an extremely busy summer season to come. It was easy to buy bread and supplies at the small supermarket, and fresh orange juices at a caf้, using more of our diminishing stock of Euros.

Continuing north up the coast for 25 miles to Bar, the country's main port (with ferries to Ancona or Bari in Italy), we noticed a large paying car park by the harbour. A little further north there is some free parking by the shore, where we ate lunch.

After about 5 miles, past Sutomore, we turned inland through a new 4-km-long tunnel (toll €5), leading north-east to the E60/80 for Virpazar. This is a much easier mountain traverse than the old road from the coast at Petrovac, scenic as that may be. From Virpazar, the route to Podgorica crosses the top of Lake Skadar on a causeway. This is the largest lake in the Balkans (one third of it lies in Albania), an important habitat for Dalmatian pelicans, and we might have stopped at the National Park Visitor Centre had it not been pouring with rain (see, for example, the Destination Montenegro website). The Pelikan Hotel/Restaurant by the lake organises boat tours.

Soon we were in theMonteN_(31).JPG thick of Podgorica (the capital city, formerly Titograd) with no ring road to avoid the traffic, though it was certainly more orderly than Albania's Tirana! We succeeded in finding diesel (€1.11 per litre) but had less luck with rooms, as the hotels were aimed at government or business officials on expenses. We'd only covered 85 miles and it was still raining, so we continued north, climbing up the gorgeous Moraca Gorge to the winter resort of Kolasin.

The excellent road involved a succession of short tunnels as it climbed to a pass at 1070 m or 3,500 ft. As the main road to Belgrade, it was surprisingly busy with trucks and we wondered about winter conditions. On the way up we passed the lovely little white Orthodox Moraca Monastery, famed for its medieval frescoes, sited by the river with a backdrop of snow-flecked peaks. Sadly, the MonteN_(33).JPGnearby motel was closed.

A few miles after the pass the roMonteN_(38).JPGad turned east to cross the Tara River and arrived at Kolasin, still high at 960 m or 3,170 ft: a ski resort just 5 miles from the slopes. With a good choice of accommodation, quiet at this time of year, we found a cosy little hotel with self-catering rooms, fully equipped with satellite TV (for BBC World news) and WiFi (for emails). What a treat!

Kolasin is surrounded by mountain massifs. To the north lies the Biogradska Gora National Park, one of Europe's only 2 primeval forests. The Belgrade–Bar railway line runs this way: as great a feat of engineering as the Adriatic road link that we are following.

Kolasin to Danilovgrad, Montenegro    Perjanik Hotel     164 miles

Driving 12 miles north from Kolasin, along the Tara River and still above 3,000 ft high, we came to the Biogradska National Park. The park is 80%MonteN_(34).JPG virgin woodland (oak, maple, beech and fir), with many trees over 500 years old - home to bears, wolves, deer, foxes and eagles. At its heart is Biogradska Lake, up at 1094 m (3,610 ft), with restaurant, rowing boat hire and simple campground. However, we saw none of this, as the barrier was firmly down and the ticket office (entry €2) closed!

Slightly disappointed, MonteN_(11).JPGwe followed the Tara, climbing high above it. At Mojkovac, both road and river turned north-west through stunning scenery above the steep gorge (the deepest in Europe, claiming to be only 200 m less than America's Grand Canyon). The Lonely Planet describes the wild beauty of these soaring peaks and dramatic canyons as 'the Full Monte'! After a total of 65 miles we reached Zabljak, at almost 5,000 ft. This is the country's main ski resort, busy from December to March, on the eastern edge of the Durmitor National Park. The town probably looks better under a few feet of snow!

Heading south on an extremely quiet minor road across treeless tundra, snow still nestled in the hollows, we kept above 4,000 ft through tiny hamlets, each with a little Orthodox church and cemetery. Sheep and hardy alpine cattle dotted the landscape; the lofty air was sharp as scissors. Gradually we descended to Savnik on the Komarnica River down at 2,865 ft, then hairpinned up again to a fork in the road – and a choice of route to Niksic.

Trying theMonteN_(47).JPG narrower more easterly road, leading to a high pass, we found it blocked (without warning) by a snow drift. Returning, we took the newer road which reached 4,900 ft after a short tunnel. At 101 miles we met the E762 (main road south to Niksic and Podgorica), turning left for Niksic, 10 miles further. The town offered no suitable accommodation. A Communist-era grimy grey horror of a place asked €66 for B&B and deafened anyone daring to enter with its Saturday night disco. The only alternative was a new luxury place that only had suites at over €80 per night.

We continued towards Podgorica for 20 rainy miles and luckily saw a new hotel/restaurant on the right, 2 miles before Danilovgrad, down at 350 ft: the Perjanik (the title of the bravest regiment of Montenegrin soldiers). The room was very reasonable, with free wifi and a friendly receptionist who gave us an excellent map of Montenegro, though the restaurant was a bit pretentious with a supercilious head waiter.

Danilovgrad to Ostrog Monastery and return, Montenegro    Perjanik Hotel     50 miles

As the sun now shone, we planned a 'rest day'. In the morning we would drive to the Ostrog Monastery, the country's most important site for Orthodox pilgrims, only about 10 miles away; after lunch, a cycle ride along the Zeta Valley.

The Ostrog Moni MonteN_(54).JPGwas signposted off the main road, 11 miles back towards Niksic, at Cerova - “Ostrog: 8 km”. The sign omitted to mention that the first 7 km, to the lower monastery, twists up a single track road with passing places, MonteN_(62).JPGno turning back, multiple hairpins and unguarded drops. Totally unsuitable for anything larger than a minibus, or for those of a nervous disposition where heights are concerned! The crazy road then continued for a further 3 km (for cars only) to the upper monastery, though many visitors walked this section on a footpath through the woods. Barry used all his nerve and skill, while his passenger tried not to look. We'd recommend motorhomers to take a taxi or an organised tour – and athletic cyclists to check their brakes and perhaps think again!

Safely arrived at the car park, restaurant and souvenir stalls by the lower monastery (a working convent and church dating from 1824, altitude 630 m or 2,033 ft) we were able to appreciate the magnificent view over the Zeta Valley nearly 2,000 ft below. There is a simple guest house above on the way to the upper monastery, which is still home to Serbian Orthodox monks.

The original MonteN_(73).JPGmonastery was formed inside two large caves in the cliff face in 1665, with later extensions and the addition of car park and toilets for visitors. Pilgrims can rest or camp outside, where sleeping mats are provided. Now at 841 m or 2,754 ft, the panorama was stunning. However did St Vasilije (Basil), a Bishop from Hercegovina,MonteN_(60).JPG and his monks find and construct this refuge when the Ottomans destroyed their monastery in Trebinje? Maybe they found the track of mountain goats, leading to a spring from the rocks. Inside one of the caves, a chapel painted with atmospheric frescos, the founding saint's bones lie in a draped coffin. We joined the short queue (it's Sunday) to file past under the watchful eye of a monk, ostensibly reading prayers while guarding the offertory plate. Cynical as we are, it was an affecting experience.

After the giddy descent and a picnic lunch, we returned to Danilovgrad and left the van in an empty car park at the brand new railway station. A lovely afternoon - sunny, with no wind – proved ideal for a 25 milMonteN_(79).JPGe cycle ride. We rode a quiet rural road northwards along the east bank of the Zeta River, through tiny hamlets with names like Slap. We turned back on reaching a hydroelectric dam at the head of the valley (after which the road began to zigzag steeply up the hillside to Cerova), retracing our route to Danilovgrad.

Back at the hotel we ate in our room, then turned the laptop on to use the wifi. Sadly, the trusty little Fujitsu, a good companion for over 5 years since we bought it in Malaysia, decided it had come to the end of its road. The screen slowly faded, leaving only a memory stick! Thank goodness (or Barry) that all the text and images are backed up. (Note: Once back in the UK, the Fujitsu was diagnosed as needing a new screen and hard drive and therefore not viable for repair. Eventually it was replaced with a shiny new HP Pavilion 13.5”.)

BOSNIA-HERCEGOVINA (BiH) including REPUBLIC OF SRPSKA (RS)

Danilovgrad, Montenegro to Kakanj, Bosnia-Hercegovina    Premium Hotel     183 miles

It rained heavily (and all day) as we drove north up the Zeta Valley for 20 miles, back to Niksic. Passing the turn for Ostrog Monastery, we realised that its access road would be impossible today, with zero visibility in heavy cloud and mist. How lucky we were with yesterday's perfect conditions.

Continuing north, past the turning for Savnik and Zabljak, we headed up the Piva River Valley, MonteN_(25).JPGaiming for the frontier with Bosnia-Hercegovina. The quiet road climbed gradually to a pass at 3,900 ft, passed the Pivska Monastery off to the right, then over a second lower col before the tourist town of Pluzine, where the Piva was dammed into a lake. A fill of diesel here was €1.11 per litre, a price that was fixed throughout Montenegro. Cards were not accepted.

From Pluzine, 10 mileMonteN_(23).JPGs of astounding road wound alongside the Piva River canyon. The water, still and deep after the spring snow-melt, perfectly reflected the towering crags, glimpsed between a series of short rock-hewn tunnels, until a dam wall broke the spell. Our route then continued high above the gorge and the ribbon of ice-blue water (popular for rafting), to the Bosnian border at Scepan Polje, up at 1,500 ft or 455 m. Here the Piva joins the Tara River to form the Drina.

We exited Montenegro without difficulty and approached the quiet frontier post over a rushing river oMonteN_(27).JPGn a wartime Bailey bridge. The unsmiling Bosnian police (all two of them) wanted to see a 'Green Card' but no insurance cover was on sale at this remote border. Nor did they speak any language known to us. Reaching a literal impasse, we consulted the map, deciding that we'd have to return through Montenegro to Croatia.

Our saviour arrived in the shape of an Austrian-registered car, driven by a local who also spoke German. Interpreting for us, he explained that an insurance man could be summoned from Foca (16 miles/26 km away) to arrange a policy. 'Wait here' – we had no choice, the police still had our passports! Parked by the river, we ate lunch and awaited the next act in the drama. An hour later we were on our way, complete with insurance for 3 days (at €10 per day, cash money). Ironically, it was not printed on green paper!

Entering Bosnia-MonteN_(13).JPGHercegovina at the village of Hum, where the tiny mosque had a new minaret, we were surprised to see a sign 'Welcome to the Republic of Srpska'! We were to learn that the population of Bosnia-Hercegovina consists of Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), Bosnian Croats (Roman Catholic) and Bosnians who are Muslims. The Bosnian Serbs live in a separate northern and eastern half of the country called the Republic of Srpska. Formed during the Bosnian wars of the 1990s, this Republic issued its own stamps, passports, currency and car number plates. More recently, however, economic pressure from the EU and USA has forced it to co-operate and merge with the rest of the country, where an uneasy peace prevails. Many of the inhabitants of Srpska are refugees pushed out of what is now Croatia. To learn more, visit: http://republicofsrpska.com/

A very narrow road twisted its way above the Drina River for 13 miles/21 km from Hum to BrodBosnia_(63).JPG. Here a road turned right for Foca, a world-class rafting centre on the River Drina, which cascades from Europe's deepest canyon (the Tara in Montenegro) to thunder over 21 rapids. However, our route was to cross the river and head north-west for the capital city of Sarajevo.

The scene along Bosnia_(67).JPGthe beautiful Bistrica gorge was of budding trees and banks of primrose, dazzling blossom and lush green meadows. The towns and villages may still be war-battered but the countryside is magnificent. At the top of a pass at 3,800 ft/1150 m, a monument to the Christian dead of the 1990s reminded us of past events.

Reaching Ilidza, we passed the airport for Sarajevo – silent, with all planes grounded this week by Iceland's volcanic ash. Not so the traffic, which was dense but orderly. In the parkland (with pools where Romans bathed) a mile west of Ilidza is a campsite, Autocamp Oaze (http://www.hoteliilidza.ba/site/oaza/kamp.html ), tucked behind the Hotel Izmit. We camped there in the spring of 2007 and it's well placed for visiting the capital – preferably by tram (number 3) or taxi, given the parking problems.

Turning eastBosnia_(20).JPGinto Sarajevo, the 5 miles of busy dual carriBosnia_(14).JPGageway with tram lines down the entre was formerly known as Sniper Alley. On the left we passed the Holiday Inn, from whose refuge embattled journalists like John Simpson and Kate Adie reported the 3-year siege of the city by Bosnian Serbs (1992-95). There are still many bullet and shell-ridden buildings, including blocks of flats, in and around the centre of the vibrant capital, but it's a fascinating place. With the cobbled streets of the old Turkish quarter, lively street cafes, some weighty Austro-Hungarian architecture and a range of museums (including one by the bridge over the Miljacka River, where the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 triggered the First World War), there is plenty to see.

Returning to Ilidza, we drove north along the River Bosna towards Zenica. The road eventually became a new motorway, with a small toll of 3 KM Bosnia_(10).JPG(convertible marks) or €1.60. At Visoko, once capital of medieval Bosnia, we turned off in search of accommodation but found nothing suitable. The Motel Piramida was not a motel at all – just some hotel rooms in the upper floors of a tower block, above a very noise caf้, with an underground car park whose entrance was too low for our 2.4 m van. The alternative Hotel Centar was what is known as a boutique hotel (ie overpriced).

Back on the motorway we continued to Kakanj, a mining town. A well renovated communist-era hotel, right by the exit, provided a good room with CNN on the satellite TV, an excellent chicken dinner (though we were the only guests) and the familiar omelette breakfast.

Kakanj to Jajce, Bosnia-Hercegovina    Stari Grad Hotel     99 miles

Before leaving, we phoned Transeuropa Ferries, now merged with LD Lines (visit www.transeuropaferries.com or www.ldlines.com), to book an Ostend-Ramsgate crossing in a week's time. The end of a 4-month tour is suddenly looming!

From Kakanj we drove north on the main road (not quite a motorway) to Zenica, where there Bosnia_(30).JPGwere parking meters near the centre (1 KM per hour). We walked round the busy pedestrianised shopping area and a huge indoor market selling all manner of food and clothing. It was a pleasant industrial city on the River Bosna, altitude over 1,000 ft.

Retracking a few miles south, we then turned west via Lavsa on the winding M5 (certainly not a motorway). After a lunch break in Travnik we walked up to the impressive medieval castle ruins in the 'Stari Grad' (Old Town). Entry was 2 KM or €1 per person, including a little museum and a wonderful view.

Continuing along the Lavsa Valley, past villagers with stalls selling Travnik Cheese or local honey ('Med'), the highway climbed a 3,000 ft pass at Komar. Horse-drawn carts and ploughs were seen on the road and in the fields. At Donji Vakuf we met the road from Mostar and turned north-west to Jajce.

Jajce is a UNESCO Bosnia_(47).JPGWorld Heritage candidate, with a medieval fortressBosnia_(46).JPG in the fortified 'Stari Grad', waterfalls at the confluence of the Vrbas/Pliva Rivers, and nearby lakes. We found a lovely little hotel inside the ramparts of the Old Town, with 9 rooms, free wifi and a good restaurant. It is built over the ruins of an Ottoman hammam (public baths, 1658) opposite the mosque. The hammam was destroyed by fire 200 years ago and only recently uncovered, during the demolition of war-damaged structures to build the hotel.

A large glass panel in the restaurant floor allowed a well-lit view of the remains (dubbed the 'Turkish Toilet' by our host), while we enjoyed plates of Spaghetti Bolognese. There are other hotels by the two Pliva Lakes (about 3 miles west of Jajce along the Jazero road) where there is also an Autokamp - a campsite with electricity, etc.  

Jajce to Bihac, Bosnia-Hercegovina    Sedra Hotel     176 miles

Exploring the 'Stari Grad' Bosnia_(55).JPG(old town) of Jajce, we found everything of interest just along from our hotel on St Luke Street. The eponymous church has gone but its 15th century bell tower remains, along with an 18th C schoolhouse and the solid round Bear Tower, forming part of the town walls. Opposite the Tower is the entrance to the catacombs (underground crypt) dating from 1400, burial site of a medieval ruler and Tito's alleged hiding place in 1943.

We didn't need toBosnia_(50).JPG get the key from the hairdresser's by the Tower (as instructed in Lonely Planet), since a school party was approaching and tickets were on sale at the crypt door. We had a very quick tour before the horde arrived, then escaped them by climbing up a steep path to the extensive ruins of a castle where Bosnia's kings were once crowned. A guardian magically appeared from a nearby house to unlock the sturdy gate and accept a Euro or two. The sweeping view over the town and river valley from this rocky knoll was well worth the effort.

Leaving Jajce, we drove north down the canyons and lakes of the Vrbas River for 45 miles to Banja Luka, the capital of the Orthodox Republic of Srpska formed in 1998. We had left the Republic after Sarajevo, re-entering it along the way this morning, but saw no signs. The road dropped 1,000 ft (down to 500 ft) as it wound its way along the gorge, past the site of the 'World Rafting Championships: summer 2009' at Krupa. Short stretches of river bank still had grandstands and floodlightsBosnia_(65).JPG above the rapids. The water level was very high, the overhanging tree branches clothed in debris from the swirling torrent.

Banja Luka itself, Europe's least-known 'capital', was surprisingly pleasant and spacious, with none of the grim high-rise apartment blocks of Sarajevo and Zenica. We drove through the centre, passing a 16th century fortress amidst green parkland by the river, but all the car parks (metered) were full.

Returning up tBosnia_(64).JPGhe Vrbas Gorge, we turned right at Crna Rijeka (= Black River) for a short cut on a minor mountain road to Mrkonjic Grad, bypassing Jajce. Regaining main road 5 (E761), we drove north-west over two passes, dropping to meet the River Una at Ripac close to the Croatian border. Along the Ripac Valley we came to Bihac and followed the river for a few miles to a signposted hotel.

The Sedra is a vast renovated Communist-era place, beautifully situated with riverside gardens. When we complained about the noise of a school party who arrived on our corridor, we were immediately upgraded to a time-warp of a suite on the other side of the hotel, complete with 2 bathrooms and an adjacent private dining room. We almost expected to see a notice 'Tito slept here'!  

CROATIA – SLOVENIA

Bihac, Bosnia-Hercegovina to Ribcev Laz, Lake Bohinj, Slovenia (via Croatia)     Penzion Rozic    220 miles

It was 24 miles to the Croat frontier at Izacic, up at 1,100 ft. After a passport check at the joint border post, we were soon on our way with nothing to pay. There are tolls on the motorways - and our vehicle insurance covers Croatia.

Driving north on E71, it was tempting to turn off and explore the Plitvice Lakes National Park, but with a deadline and a ferry to catch we had to postpone that for a future visit. Croatia's villages looked tidy and prosperous, its roads well shod. Had we needed accommodation, there was a good choice of campsites, guest houses and hotels. Through the brewing town of Karlovac (its beer featured on every bar sign), we came to the Slovenian border after 72 Croatian  miles, at Jurovski Brod down at 500 ft, with a separate checkpoint on each side of the river.

Entering Slovenia – and the EU and Euro currency zone - we were told to buy a vignette at the next petrol station, 2 miles further on in Metlika. This cost €15 for the minimum 7-day sticker, which is only for vehicles below 3.5 tons. In a heavier motorhome, tolls are payable along the motorways – as we know to our cost! Over a pass at 1,980 ft we reached Novo Mesto, then joined the Zagreb-Ljubljana motorway in the direction of the capital. The motorway service stations are very well equipped, complete with motorhome service points, and are suitable for overnight parking. Tiny Slovenia's mountain scenery and greenery compare with neighbouring Austria and it is dubbed 'the sunny side of the Alps'.

Skirting to the west of Ljubljana - a capital well worth a visit, with a good campsite at www.ljubljanaresort.si/eng – we kept north on the motorway past the international airport near Kranj. Now in the foothills of the Julian Alps, Slovenia's north-west frontier, named after Caesar Slovenia_(17).JPGhimself, we turned off at Lesce for Bled. Lake Bled is a beautiful and popular tourist destination, with its church on a tiny island and a castle clinging to a cliff face above. There are two campsites and very many hotels, though crowded and expensive in the season.

We decided to drive south-west from Bled up the lovely Bohinj Valley: a road which climbs gently for 20 miles to a larger and much less developed glacial lake at 2,260 ft, in the wooded Triglavski National Park. From the car parkSlovenia_(16).JPG at road's end, there is a 20-minute walk to a waterfall – or you can take a boat trip on the lake or a cable car up Mt Vogel. Mt Triglav, Slovenia's highest summit at 2864 m or 9,450 ft, is also visible from the lake, along with other snow-capped peaks.

Returning about 5 miles to the village of Ribcev Laz at the eastern end of the lake, we found a useful supermarket, tourist office with free internet, and a range of accommodation. In a chalet-style guest house ('Penzion') there, we had a spacious en-suite bedroom with heating, TV and mountain-view balcony for the bargain off-season price of €20. A tasty supper of beef goulash in the cosy restaurant rounded off the day. Tomorrow we reach Austria – or so we thought!   

Ribcev Laz, Lake Bohinj to Ljubljana and return, Slovenia     Penzion Rozic     71 miles   

Away nice and early, down the Bohinj Valley. The pastures, with quaint wooden double-hayricks and barns dating from the 18th century,Slovenia_(14).JPG are home to the alpine dairy cattle producing Bohinj cheeses. We saw a large campsite about 4 miles along at Bohinjska Bistrica, where there is a train station. The railway line from Bled was built by Russian prisoners of war during the First World War when this land, under Habsburg rule, was on the front line at the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Visit www.bohinj.si or www.bohinj-info.com.

Driving through Bled, Barry suddenly noticed a loss of power with the van's steering and brakes! We limped into Lesce and came to rest outside a Ford garage by the station, where a helpful mechanic took a quick look. He kindly diagnosed a problem with the water pump and checked his computer for the nearest Mercedes garage: in Ljubljana about 30 miles south. He thought it would cost €180 to be transported there.

However, a call to the wonderful RAC headquarters in Paris (a service covered by our insurance - well worth the extra charge) had a breakdown truck with us in less than an hour. It carried us and the van, free of charge, down the motorway and into the centre of Ljubljana, to the Mercedes service centre for commercial vehicles. Here the van was expertly repaired (replacing a pulley wheel for the water pump, a drive belt and belt tensioner) and ready for the road again by 3.30 pm. We settled the bill for parts and labour but RAC Breakdown would have arranged and paid Slovenia_(12).JPGfor accommodation (up to ฃ100 per night, with a maximum of ฃ500) had the van not been ready the same day.

Rather than heading into Austria late in the afternoon, we returned via Lesce (shopping in Aldi) and Bled to the Bohinj Valley, for a second night at our welcoming Penzion. After dinner we walked by the lake, where the little Church of St John the Baptist was closed for renovation of its 15th century frescoes. This is a place we will gladly return to some day – maybe for the Cow's Ball in September, when the herds are brought down from the higher pastures!

AUSTRIA - GERMANY

Ribcev Laz, Lake Bohinj, Slovenia to Bruchsal, Germany (via Austria)     Axxa Motel     434 miles (the longest day of the 4-month tour)

Down the Bohinj Valley and through Bled once more, to join motorway E61 for Jesenice and the Karawanken Tunnel. We entered theAustria_(11).JPG tunnel (toll €6.50), which leads from Slovenia into Austria below the Karawanken range, after 29 miles at 2,000 ft.

Emerging from the tunnel, we saw no information regardiAustria_(16).JPGng Austrian vignettes or 'Go Boxes' (the latter required for vehicles over 3.5 tons). Stopping at the first motorway services we came to, we bough a 10-day vignette (the minimum period) for €7.50. No countries appear to sell one-day transit passes!

Skirting Villach, we headed north and west across Austria on a wonderfully sunny morning reaching 4,400 ft,GoBox_1.jpg surrounded by snowy peaks under blue skies. There were several short tunnels and one longer one, with a toll of €9.50 (not covered by the vignette). So entering and crossing Austria by motorway cost a total of €23.50 for one morning. What a heavier vehicle would pay via its 'Go Box' we dread to think.

We reached the German border after 159 miles, to the west of Salzburg down at 1,600 ft. Free motorways, complete with a succession of free tunnels, led us swiftly towards Munich, pausing for lunch in a rest area right by the lovely little lake Chiemsee, where the ducks, geese, coots and gulls fought over our stale Balkan bread.

On Germany's warmest day this year (over 20บ C) we drove anticlockwise round Austria_(17).JPGhe Munich Ring and continued west, past Augsburg, Ulm and Stuttgart to Karlsruhe. Heading north from here on motorway A5, we turned off to a signed 'Autohof' near Bruchsal. These facilities, a short distance off the Autobahn and mainly used by trucks, are much larger than a normal service station and we have found them ideal for overnight motorhome parking. As usual, this one had a choice of restaurants (including Burger King) and a motel. Some even have an indoor swimming pool or motorhome hook-ups, both for a small charge.

The Axxa Motel rooms were excellent, with a choice of price (with or without shower, though all had en-suite WC and basin). Breakfast cost extra in the restaurant, so we made our own - as always, if not included!

NETHERLANDS - BELGIUM

Bruchsal, Germany to Middelkerke, Belgium (via Holland)     Isaura Hotel      363 miles

20 miles north of our motel, just after a fill of diesel at Hockenheim services and a view of the Grand Prix circuit, we crossed the mighty River Rhine on motorway A61 and headed north-west towards Koblenz and Bonn. Impossibly long barges plied the river Germany_(19)[1].jpgbelow us.

At 113 miles we crossed the Mosel, on its way to the confluence Germany_(13)[1][2].jpgat Koblenz, and immediately stopped at a rest area/caf้ with a viewpoint for the bridge. A footpath led under the bridge to a view of the astonishingly steep terraced vineyards lining the north bank. Equally impressive was the bridge itself, finished in 1972.

Continuing north-west, with a picnic in a warm sunny rest area, we briefly crossed the southern tip of Holland and crossed the Maas (or Meuse) River into Belgium, still on toll-free motorways. The Brussels Ring took us anticlockwise round the north of the capital, then onto the A10/E40 past Gent for Ostend.

In Middelkerke, a small resort about 7 miles west of Ostend, we returned to the little Isaura Hotel, where we had stayed on a very snowy night on our outward journey just before Christmas. On that occasion, the only guests, the included full buffet breakfast did not appear, as the member of staff concerned had a car accident on the way to work on the icy foggy road and was delayed in hospital. We had been promised a reduction if we returned and the proprietor was as good as his word, giving us an excellent room (and breakfast) for less than half price.

We ended the long day with a splendid 3-course set meal in the Isaura's restaurant and can highly recommend it (and Belgian food in general): soup, braised steak in a red wine sauce with more chips and vegetables than we could eat, and a sumptuous chocolate mousse.

The TV in the room was showing the snooker world championship from Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, which we know well. England looms!

Middelkerke, Belgium to Ramsgate, England on Transeuropa Ferries     17 miles

After a generousOstende_(22).JPG breakfast buffet we drove through Ostend past the Transeuropa terminal and on to Bredene, the next village, with more campsites than you can count, tucked behind the sand dunes. Sadly, the huge supermarket used previously for buying wine and Belgian chocolates was closed for refurbishment, so we had to settle for Aldi and Lidl!

Returning to the ferry terminal, we boarded the good ship 'Oleander', sailing promptly at 1.30 pm for Ramsgate. Transeuropa Ferries have now merged with LD Lines and offer competitive fares on several cross-channel routes. It was a smooth crossing, docking on time 4 hours later. We put our watches back an hour and reminded ourselves to drive on the left.