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Ian Manzie in the Balkans 2012 PDF Printable Version E-mail


MOTORHOMING IN THE BALKANS

Ian Manzie
November 2011

Introduction

(NOTE our motorhome is registered/insured in France. As well as breakdown coverage, we also get a green card which includes all of Europe except parts of Serbia and Cyprus.)

Wanting to visit old friends in Osijek, Croatia, after spending time with our daughter south of Munich, we set about planning our route to Greece. Searching online (in French and German as well) and contacting some of the usual founts of knowledge produced little practical current information.

Originally we thought of crossing the north-eastern tip of Slovenia into Croatia but the road to Osijek didn't seem to offer many stopping places. As we don't like to do too many km each day, we opted to go via Hungary.

Austria

In the end we crossed into Austria from Germany near Passau, having spent a night by the River Inn on the German side at Neuhaus. We parked and enjoyed Linz (easy large overnight parking –easy walking to city centre).

After Linz we travelled along the Danube and detoured into the hills to a small Stellplatz at Waldhausen im Strudengau and then the next day arrived late in the day and parked at Stift Melk (abbey). They lock the gates but there was no problem remaining overnight before visiting the abbey and gardens the next day.

The next day we journeyed on, studiously avoiding the motorways, before parking at Wiener Neustadt for our last night in Austria.

Hungary

We crossed into Hungary and got online with free Wifi at the first McDonalds in Sopron, which has quite the bustle of a 'frontier' town. Then we drove on to Sarvar, passing many small restaurants that would have provided good overnight stops. At Sarvar a big market was taking place and we observed quite a few Czech, German, Austrian and Hungarian motorhomes but, as parking was difficult, we started to leave town and stopped at the local Tesco where we topped up and exchanged currency.

Next we drove to Lake Balaton and found a lovely spot by the lakeside. A passing policeman assured us that we could stay there the night and that such parking and sleeping would not be a problem in Hungary. Later that evening we were joined by 4 Italian motorhomes, which departed early next morning and proved to be the last we saw for a couple of months.

At the lakeside we saw an advert for Tesco, telling us that there was one lake but 11 Tesco's round the lake. So it is not only in parts of England where they dominate!

The next day we drove round part of the lake and then stopped in a very quiet spot on the south shore for a couple of nights. Again we were reassured by the police that there was no problem. Waking to a foggy day we drove towards Pecs, stopping for a night by another lake at Orfu with some beautiful evening sun.

The next day we arrived at Pecs and then took the road south to Harkany, intending to stop there overnight. Harkany was a grey cold with some lingering fog and this, combined with the legacy of the communist era, made it feel a bit depressing so we spent our final Hungarian forints on diesel and headed south for Croatia.

Croatia

Crossing out of the Schengen area into Croatia was easy: a quick check of passports and green card and a very warm welcome, with 'have a good time' followed by a cursory inspection of the motorhome. This was the only time crossing a border that it was noted we had UK passports and a French registered vehicle!

Arriving in Donji Miholac in the early evening, we popped into a local bank to change some currency. Along with our money we received a warm welcome and guidance on where to park safely overnight. This happened to be next to a restaurant serving pizza at about £2.50.

We had an arrangement to park with friends at Osijek, but whilst there we drove out to Kopatchi Rit nature reserve. We would happily have parked overnight there, as well as on the north side of the Drava near the pedestrian footbridge into town.

Serbia

Our last night in Croatia was a very windy one, spent by the Danube in Illok before crossing into Serbia. There were friendly officials on both sides and no delays. The Serbians wanted to see our green card and were concerned that we knew the limitations of it within Serbia and asked where we were motoring in Serbia. The first main town had a well stocked brand new supermarket and a foreign exchange counter and all the folk seemed really friendly and keen to speak English!

We enjoyed lunch by the Danube near several restaurants (open but very quiet) before we travelled towards the fort at Petrovaradin, where we easily parked and walked along the Danube and into Novi Sad. As night fell we drove up into the fort and in spite of a 2.5m height warning we parked in the centre of the fort and enjoyed some spectacular views over the Danube and Novi Sad. As well as a plush hotel restaurant, there were three other eateries offering various food options. The next day we drove on pleasant roads in reasonable conditions, missing the motorway to Belgrade.

There is a car park for about €1 per hour located at the base of Belgrade Fort and handy for the tram. We tried to get into another car park (for €0.5 per hour) by a tyre fitting depot but the guys stopped us as there was a height restriction, which we could probably have been OK with. However, they said it would be OK to park on their forecourt (overnight if we wanted) and we were able to enjoy the fort in the late afternoon sun. Then, as the depot was near the busy road, we decided to drive south. Driving through Belgrade was easy – drivers were courteous and some wound down their windows to chat in the traffic.

Rather than take the motorway south, we headed out on a parallel main road and enjoyed driving through teeming suburbs - chaotic at times but enjoyable. When we stopped at a garage, just to brew up and ask for information about parking and a restaurant, the manager was very friendly, made a recommendation and then proceeded to almost plead with me to tell folk in Britain to come and visit! (Main problem for the British driver is the cost of insurance at the Serbian border.)

We found the restaurant behind a garage a few km further on and confirmed there were no problems parking. We enjoyed a meal at a very reasonable price, followed by a quiet overnight sleep.

Heading south the next day, our research had shown one stopping place at the home of the Raschdorfs: a German couple who let fellow motorhomers park at their house with facilities for €10 per night. See http://www.camperado.de/stellplatz_details/Serbien-Lozovik__8904. We turned up and eventually found the place with the help of the local policeman, only to discover that they had gone to Germany. However, a relative or neighbour turned up with the key and let us in.

The next day, having cleaned and sorted ourselves out, we headed south hoping to stop at Nis and explore its fortress. However, sometimes when motorhoming you arrive at a place at the wrong time. It was teatime, the traffic was heavy and we didn't seem able to find a stopping place, so headed back to the E75 promising to return another time.

Some 65 km south on the E75 a good stopping place would be Motel Predejane. For a motorhome there is the opportunity of electric hook up, water and toilets for €13. Also food is served 24/7. The parking is separate from the lorry park.

We decided however to motor on and eventually found a small restaurant by the side of the E75, where they let us park outside for nothing and the meal cost a total of €14 with wine – a bargain after the motel. After the meal we got chatting to some Serbian archaeologists, who invited us to come and see their excavations the next morning. With the impending upgrading of the E75 next year to motorway standards, it was fascinating to see graves dating back to 300/400 BC.

Macedonia

A few km further on we easily crossed into Macedonia (just a scan of our passports and green card) and, rather than take the motorway, took the more direct route to Skopje. Stopping for lunch by a football pitch before we drove into Skopje, we found the locals friendly and with good English.

Here we spent the first night in the zoo car park without problem and then next morning walked into town. We discovered a restaurant near the zoo and also a quieter parking where we stayed for the next couple of nights. It was an easy walk along the river into the centre of town.

After a pleasant time in Skopje we journeyed east along the motorway towards Tetova and then took the ordinary highway south towards Gostivar. This proved to be quite slow, as the road quality wasn't good in places and the villages merged into each other with lots of minibuses providing a transport service. After Gostivar we took the road towards Struga and Ohrid and turned right into the Mavrovo national park. Following the lake round to Mavrovo, a Macedonian ski resort, we found plenty of easy parking and even in November several restaurants were open.

After a quiet but very cold night up at 1150m, we headed towards Debar down a lovely gorge road and round one of the man-made lakes of Macedonia. We headed south, with Albania on our right, towards Struga and parked and ate at the hotel Perla on the west of the town near the lake. The next day, still full of the Perla's pizza, we headed down the western side of the lake south towards the Albanian border, discovering an open campsite at 10€ per night with full facilities at N 41.5486. E 20.65082: 'Restaurant Rino'( more café style). Further on was another lovely hotel next to an ornate monastery where we could have eaten and parked. We decided to return to Struga and, having had some problems with the ability of the motorhome batteries to retain their charge, stopped at a garage and bought two new batteries at a price a little less than the UK. They were fitted by a very friendly local.

We looked at the eastern side of Struga where the waterfront has been developed and there was good parking and lakeside restaurants but in the end decided to return to the Perla for a second night.

Thursday saw me rewiring the batteries – two new and equivalent ones meant I could put them in parallel and keep one of the old for some functions. Then we set off for Ohrid. We entered the town from the north side and found a quiet lakeside spot for lunch with a view of the fortress to the south. Our route through the town left us on the south side, near a large lorry and coach park. We took a walk south past a small marina and noted a parking spot so we returned and moved the motorhome.

On parking, a young local guy who had spent time in London came and chatted and gave us a map of the town, so we decided to walk in as it looked as if the old town wasn't too far from our parking place. We were approached in the town by Risto offering us a boat ride for €20, to which we said maybe.

The next day although cold was bright and sunny and so we walked back into town and met Bobby who worked with Risto, who was unable to take us out on the lake as he had immersed his mobile phone in it. Bobby gave us an incredibly lovely hour whilst filling us in on necessary local information (but not over the top). He dropped anchor just below two of the most beautiful churches and brewed us coffee and we chatted. As he smoked his €1.5 euro packet of cigarettes, he told us about his life as an unemployed economics teacher and gave us a simple economics lecture. The gist was that cigarettes are 'cheaper' in the west, not necessarily in cash terms but in the amount you have to work to buy one packet.

Bobby dropped us and we climbed the hill and looked round the fortress, followed by the beautiful church and then wandered down into the old town for lunch.

The afternoon was spent driving down the lake to the Bay of Bones and the museum there and St Naum on the Albanian border, before driving back up the lake and parking in the centre of Ohrid (90 denars or about £1.28 an hour – possible to overnight) to dine at a small restaurant.

After the meal we drove a short way and parked on a coach park free. The next day we left Ohrid and drove up into the mountains to Bitola and parked in a shopping centre –Macedonian style. In the car park were local farmers selling produce, especially white heart cabbages. In our journey through the Balkans we have never seen so many! We purchased a 10 kg sack of onions for about £1.50 and a 10 kg tray of tomatoes for £1. Inside the shopping centre were loads of stalls selling food and clothing with some hardware and we purchased locally grown shelled walnuts for less than half the UK price.

That night we parked on waste ground on the edge of Prilep before heading off to Stip. The tourist information office was really helpful and gave us a guide book and maps, as well as recommending a restaurant to try the local delicacy PASTRMAJLIJA.

The next night was spent in the large car park on the outskirts of Stip, attached to the three graveyards. We found no problems with parking in Macedonia and the only threat from locals was coming to look and ask questions about the motorhome!

Next day we drove through Strumica and spent our last night in Macedonia by the lake at Stari Dajran.

Greece

And so after a very interesting time in the Balkans we passed back into the Schengen zone. We found the Greek border police and customs remarkably casual and friendly, with barely a look at our passports! In contrast Macedonia (along with Serbia) used computer systems that tracked our entry and exit.

Conclusion

In these countries we found the people very friendly and helpful (without the sense that they wanted something, unlike our experience in Morocco). Our motorhome proved a draw and many came to ask questions and at the same time proffer suggestions as to what to see and where to go. Many of them were young family men who were avid fans of 'Top Gear' and had seen the exploits of Clarkson and co.

Currency: In Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia many places accepted euros without question. The motorway tolls also can be paid in euros. Exchanging euros was easy and at a good rate.

Internet: Open free Wifi was readily available in all three countries.