From the European luxuries to the Balkan fields

Text : Stelios Ikonomakis, Natasa Spiliopoulou
Photos: Stelios Ikonomakis, Natasa Spiliopoulou, Athina Vernardou,
Stavros Alexakis, Dimitris Anastasakis
Video: Dimitris Anastasakis
Video Editing: Stelios Ikonomakis
Translated by: John Agriafiotis, Stelios Ikonomakis

European luxuries or Balkan fields? Why do we have to choose? Let’s first enjoy the European luxuries and then wander around “our” territory, the Balkans. This year the plan was to drive through 13 countries (including Greece) and cover about 5700 km in 16 days. Almost every day, we would wake up at a different country! Our journey included a little bit of everything: modern capitals, picturesque towns, forgotten villages, national parks, bombed landscapes, mountain passes and unknown paths, famous landmarks and well hidden secrets… So many controversial images that it’s hard to put them in an order and tell the story. But let’s give it a try!…

Friday August 9, And so the story goes…
Every year it’s the same story. Things that need to be arranged the last minute, packing our stuff and loading our motorcycles, meeting at the local motorcycle shop along with some friends who came to wish us to have a nice trip and finally boarding on the ship from Chania (Crete Island) to Piraeus.

Our fellowship is, more or less, the same like last year. Two groups that depart on different dates and will meet in Austria. Today, 3 people are departing on two motorcycles. Me and Natasa on the Yamaha TDM 900 and Dimitris on his brand new KTM Adventure 1190. A few days later, we will pick up Gianna from Bratislava, who will arrive by airplane due to a problem at her work, and in Austria -as I said- we will meet Stratos (Tiger 1050), Pelopidas (Speed Triple 675) and Stavros with Athina (Multistrada 1200). The unlucky one was Stavros (Stelvio 1200), that Murphy and his laws paid him a visit, since 15 days before the departure his bike was like this:
stelvio

He managed to complete repairing the engine and just about the time the bike was ready, few days before the trip, the guy that would replace him at work had a serious health problem, something that made him cancel the trip. So, I wish that by writing this story I will manage to make him travel with us, mentally.

Saturday August 10, Long way up… (906 kms)

View larger map

The boat arrives early in the morning and just a few minutes after 6:00 we hit the road. There is not much traffic and the boring kilometers are passing by fast. The speedometer is always over 150 km/h and at the first refueling stop, the trip computer shows 7,24 lt/100 km! A number that my TDM has never seen before. The same applies for the KTM with the only difference that Dimitris has no passenger yet.

We are finally approaching the borders, having only some short stops just to refuel and stretch our legs. As soon as I pass a fuel station -thinking that I will refuel at the next one- the fuel light on my motorcycle starts flashing… I reduce speed but it isn’t enough… After 71 km I run out of fuel, just 2 km before the fuel station. Fortunately, the KTM is still running so Dimitris goes to the fuel station and returns with some fuel in a can.

Αfter receiving the expected teasing from Natasa and Dimitris, I see for the first time the fuel pump writing 21 liters (KTM 19,5 lt). Then we buy some isotonic drinks, eat some peaches, a treat from a kind farmer at the gas station and continue towards the borders with FYROM (Evzonoi).

At our (Greek) side, we didn’t even stop for a check. A border guard nodded to us to pass through. At FYROM’s side, there was some traffic but nothing special.

As soon as we finish with the border check, we head to our neighbor country. No highway for the first kilometers, just a scenic -one lane per direction- road running beside Vardar river (or Axios in Greek) which is not possible to enjoy due to the heavy traffic.

After a few kilometers we enter their highway and soon we arrive at the first toll booth. I have passed this road a lot of times in the past, so I know what to do (or I think I know). Normally you pay one euro per bike (losing some cents due the currency conversion) and pass… So, we give two Euros for both bikes to the man at the booth and he starts shouting something in his language (that of course we didn’t understand), moving his head negatively. Then he picks a five euro banknote and shows it to us. No way, we are thinking, you are not going to take 5 euro even if we have to wait here forever… We are trying again to give him coins and he now crosses his hands like he is wearing handcuffs… Then I notice a small visa sticker at the window and shout “visa”. He starts saying something that we couldn’t understand again and he waves us to go… And that’s what we did 😉

The same thing happened and at the next toll station. I start to assume (correctly as I was informed later) that they have stopped collecting euro coins; you have to pay them in banknotes and you get the change in their currency. So we give him a five euro bill and with the change we may pay at the 3rd toll station. As I said before, I have crossed this road a lot of times in the past, so I know that there are only three toll stations.

We keep riding but soon we realize that something is going wrong… A car in front of us starts reversing … on the highway… with separate lanes per direction! And right after, another car does a U turn !!! Ooops, what is this huge queue in front of us? Where all these cars coming from?

Heavy traffic jam… We pass between the cars carefully, for about 2 km until we meet the cause of the jam… the f%^%*&# tolls. The following photo was taken as soon as we passed the tolls and you may see what is happening at the opposite direction:

Soon after, we reach the Serbian borders where there is also heavy traffic. Plus, it starts to rain. We pass everyone again… A policeman sees us and he makes us a note that what we do is not proper. I nod back to him that it’s raining and he lets us pass.

Finally, we reach the booth, show our passports and in few minutes we wear our raincoats and head to the north. The combination of heavy traffic and high temperature (even worse with the raincoats) makes the rest of our journey to seem endless.

About 17:00 we arrive at Elegance hotel in Nis. Check in, shower and out for a walk at the city.

We walked beside the river, visited the castle and walked again at their huge pedestrian street, just across the castle entrance.

Nisava river with the castle in the background

The monument of liberation in the central city square

Ο κεντρικός πεζόδρομος

The main pedestrian road

For dinner we choose the pizzeria La Spezia. Three big pizzas and some beers cost us only 22€ in total. With our stomachs full we return to the hotel to get some rest. Tomorrow, it will be another difficult day with lots of highway kilometers.

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