We flew into Milan on the 7th of May with the intention of spending ten weeks wandering around Eastern Europe.  While we had lived three years in Western Europe in the ‘90’s and had seven years on our boat in the Mediterranean, we never, but for quick business trips into Eastern European capitals, spent any time exploring this part of the continent, so this was our opportunity.  And but for a month of car camping in South Africa a few years ago, we have been using Dan the Van ever since.  Having investigated bringing Dan over to Europe and abandoning the idea because of its complexity, we decided to try tent camping again since we are camping nuts. If it didn’t work out we would just go ahead and stay in hostels, pensions, and hotels.  So we brought the tent we purchased in South Africa and used there, along with our lightweight sleeping bags.

When we landed in Milan our plan was to pick up a Renault Kangoo from the company on a buy back program and head off, first to Slovenia, and into those parts of Croatia we hadn’t seen from the boat when we sailed that coast in 2003, and then move east and south through Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia for starters.

But things immediately hit a major snag.  While the Kangoo was there waiting for us, there was no license plate, no registration document, no insurance documentation.  By the next day there was license plate and insurance documentation but no registration, so we were told to head out east, but not to leave Italy until we had registration for the car or we would be arrested at the next border.  So we decided drive to Lake Garda on our way to Slovenia and wait out a French four-day holiday until they could fax us a copy of the registration document.  It was all frustrating and meant a four or five day delay in our plans, but Lake Garda is beautiful, the campground was perhaps the nicest we have ever camped in, the medieval town of Sirmione complete with a huge Roman bath ruin was out the campground gate, and the weather was spectacular.  So we just cooled out, rented bicycles and rode a lot, and started feeling European again!

The town of Sirmione from the tower of the medieval fortress

Part of Sirmione from the tower of the medieval fortress

Sirmione's central square, lined with gelato shops

Sirmione’s central square, lined with gelato shops and restaurants

Five days later, on Monday, the fax arrived with a temporary document of registration for the Kangoo and the next day we left Lake Garda for Slovenia and Lake Bled.  Even in the ‘90’s Slovenia was amazingly western and advanced, and the same seems to have continued.  The roads were better than the Italian Autopista, the country was beautiful and unspoiled, and when we arrived at Lake Bled we understood why it has long been a European treasure.  A rather small lake is wedged up against the still snowcapped Alps, with a castle overhead and a beautiful church on an island in the middle of the lake.  We loved it.

The castle looming above just as castles are supposed to do!

The castle looming above just as castles are supposed to do!

The church in the middle of Lake Bled with the Alps behind

The church in the middle of Lake Bled with the Alps behind

The downside was that it was 4 degrees Celsius and raining in the night, and the same was to continue for the next four days, so we headed off to the south, toward the sun, toward the Adriatic.  We ended up in Trogir, a wonderful medieval town we had explored on the boat in 2003.  We spent three days there in an apartment in the campground outside town waiting out the bad weather. It seemed to be unending, but it turned out to be much worse inland.

Our intention had been to head into Bosnia and Serbia from there, but on the third day we learned of the terrible flooding in Bosnia and Serbia—exactly where we were headed!  That, of course, changed everything, so we headed further south down the Adriatic coast past Dubrovnik, that famously beautiful medieval city on the sea.

Dubrovnik from high above, looking down on its ageless harbor

Dubrovnik from high above, looking down on its ageless harbor

But since we had spent several days there in 2003 we just drove by and continued south to Montenegro, which turns out to be a gem of a country.  Small, wedged between all those other Balkan countries that were part of Yugoslavia, it has been relatively unscarred by all the warfare of that region.  While we knew of Montenegro in our sailing days, we blew right by it in the dead of night when we sailed up the Adriatic from Corfu to Croatia.

We aimed for the Bay of Kotor, described appropriately as fiord-like—mountains plunging down into narrow spits of water with several wonderful 12th century towns.  It proved to be beyond our expectations.

A map of the Bay of Kotor

A map of the Bay of Kotor

 We stayed in Perast, a picturesque medieval town at water’s edge in a lovely hotel for three days waiting for the weather to settle.

A still morning on the bay

A still morning on the bay

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A Benedictine Monastery on the left island and a church on the right

A Benedictine Monastery on the left island and a church on the right

Our delightful hotel in Perast

Our delightful hotel on the waterfront in Perast

The days got warmer and better and our time there was wonderful.  We then went down the Adriatic coast a bit further, past the town of Budva with its medieval walls and lovely beach

Budva from high on the hill above

Budva from high on the hill above

A closer look at its medieval walls and enclosed beach

A closer look at its medieval walls and enclosed beach

and the amazingly upscale resort island of Sveti Stefan.

Yours for just $700 to $3000 a night!

Yours for just 700 to 3000 Euros a night!

 With Greece as our ultimate destination, we were forced inland since our Kangoo had no insurance coverage in Albania, directly to the south.  So we looped around Albania by first heading inland toward the mountains of Montenegro,

The beautiful mountains of Montenegro, complete with dozens of road tunnels

The beautiful mountains of Montenegro, complete with dozens of road tunnels and an occasional monastery and waterfall

 and then into Serbia (just a corner far from the flooding), Kosovo, and finally Macedonia.

 We had two long days of driving lots of switchbacks, about 45 tunnels (yes, we counted) and where our TomTom GPS decided suddenly that this area of Europe was off the map and left us with a blank screen. The paper maps were no help either since all road signs were in the Cyrillic alphabet.

 On our second day, we went far out of our way through fog and rain till we finally realized that the road map we had been using didn’t have a river, which was what we had been following for 45 minutes. Duh. So we turned around, backtracked, ran smack into a huge Albanian car rally (we were still in Montenegro but no worries, lots of cars with flags, cheering and road blocks), re-routed and down the wrong road, again. That’s how we ended up in Serbia, not Kosovo. We got so confused with all the border crossings in such quick succession that we had to ask if we were checking into or out of a country and by the way, which one?

 One border guard just pointed down the road and said, “Serbia” and we said, ” Huh, not Kosovo? Where’s Kosovo?” Wrong question. It turns out Serbia has never recognized Kosovo as a separate country and still considers it part of Serbia, in spite of the thousands of NATO troops still stationed there. There is lots of barbed wire and military in Kosovo as it is still a disputed land. It just didn’t feel like a friendly place, though as a country it is in boom times.  The road from the capital, Pristina, south to the Macedonian border is a long line of strip malls, construction sites, new company headquarters, and for some reason dozens of home furnishing stores until the road finally rises into what is left of the forests just short of the border.  It was one of those “Let’s go home and watch the Travel Channel instead of doing this!” days.