Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kiss The Rain

I'm writing this from Rijeka, a dodgy industrial town in Croatia. It's likely that today will bring us out of this country, through Slovenia and into Italy.

Short on Moldova (the rest of it):
Not really my kind of country, this. The differences between rich and poor are extreme, and apparently the country has a trafficking problem unlike no other nation in the world. The roads were actually surprisingly ok, and the monastery was scenically beautiful, but otherwise I'd not recommend one goes out of one's way to get there. We rented an apartment in Chisinau instead of finding a hotel, and this I must say was a very pleasant surprise. We used the rental agency suggested in the Lonely Planet guide - easy to find at the bottom of the hill where Beer House is situated.

Short on Romania:
For me, Romania was pretty much the purpose of this roadtrip. I've been fascinated with this country since I don't know when, and have been talking about making it the destination of a roadtrip for years. I am very happy to say it lived up to expectations. The trouble is, I'll have to go back! We stayed in Brasov four nights, with one night of camping on either side. Monasteries, castles, good food, mountains, crap roads, ice-cold rivers, sheep, rattle-snakes imitating birds, mist, Swiss vampire wannabe's, milk-carrying and -distributing monks, in general a beautiful country with lovely people.

Short on Serbia:
The Balkans were not really plan of my initial itinerary idea, but as I had no real preference after Romania it was as good a suggestion as any. I had little relationship with these countries up front, so it brought a couple of surprises. First of all, crossing over into Serbia from Romania was a piece of cake. The countryside in the east was a bit boring after the mountaneous regions of the previous country, but Belgrade was quite nice and I think it grew on Florentin. We spent one night there, and the following night in a national park close to the Bosnian border. Spine tingling views, and a bit scary roads at night. People follow the traffic rules in this country!

Short on Bosnia:
The border crossing from Serbia was almost like being in the EU again. Ok, they did stamp the passports, but otherwise there was very little ado about the whole thing. Bosnia was gorgeous. I never realized how montaneous it was, and Sarajevo certainly left me wanting more. We only had a couple of hours there, well spent in a small restaurant called Club To Be Or Not To Be where a one-man chef/waiter/cashier impressed me no end with his ability to juggle his guests, make dinner for all and still look like he was just having a totally normal day at work. Drivers here are almost en par with the Latvians. The majority drive reasonably well, but there's a lot of dodgy passings and it's quite exhausting to navigate the narrow roads circling around the mountains.

Short on Croatia (so far):
Border crossing? What? The lady laughed and looked like she was pretty amused by the antics of tourists when we kindly asked her to stamp our passports. Croatian roads are pretty much like the Bosnian ones - meaning very few potholes but very winding and lacking of straight stretches. The ocean is _beautiful_. Most of you will know I have an affinity for the ocean along Norway's coast line, but I could be willing to throw Croatia into the competition. Waters are sparkling clear, and the water is cold enough to really cool you down even though the temperature ranges in the higher thirties still. There are, however, tourists _everywhere_! Having been spoilt with the solitude it gives to drop off the beaten track, this was not a welcome return to the Western world of money spending sun worshipers. They also create havoc on the roads, as the mix of different driving styles is nothing short of a health hazard.

Temperatues have been between 30 and 40 pretty much for three weeks straight now. Norwegians like me are not built for this kind of heat, so it was very nice to finally cool down a bit in the ocean. I'll probably blog a little bit again from Switzerland. Catch you on the flipside!

"Kiss the rain and wait for the dawn."
Billie Myers - Kiss The Rain (Growing, Pains, 1997)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lost Highway

I'm on the road. Currently in Moldova, writing this en route to the Orhei monastery outside Chisinau. Up until now several countries have been undertaken with neckbreaking speed, and until I get to Romania I'm not really planning on slowing down anywhere. I could use a day with a book, my feet up and a bit of quiet, though, the contrast to how I usually travel is like night and day.

Estonia was a pure transportation stretch and hence didn't bring much of interest. After very few hours of sleep the night before I actually slept through most of it. Day 1 ended as we reached one of Latvia's national parks where we set up camp with the tent Deb and David so kindly bestowed on us (thanks you guys, it works like a charm!). The morning after we had breakfast with a stork. Seriously.

My first couchsuring experience on the surfing side of things took place the following night, as we hooked up with American Jimi who lives and works in Latvia. He had just moved house with his wife, and showed an outstanding amount of hospitabiliy taking in a couple of unknown surfers on his first night in a new house (and WHAT a house it was!). We also got to hang out with the dog and Jimi's daughter, both lovely.

The next morning we started our career with police confrontations a bit sooner than expected when Florentin ran a red light (typical!) and was presented with the doubtful honor of receiving his first ever ticket. Since then there has been so much going on I'll not bore you with a step by step recollection of it all. A few key notes on the countries, however:

Short on Estonia:
Early morning ferry with already drunk Finns. Pancakes in Tallinn. A lot of road. Drivers starting to get a bit impatient. I mostly slept, but woke up as we passed a motorcycle passanger who had fallen off the bike. Aparently he seemed to be doing well.

Short on Latvia:
GREEN! They've had a bit of rain this summer, and I guess that explains the abundant greenery all over the place. Oh, and the gardens, they are lovely. It looks like the Latvians really put a lot of pride and love into the tending of their green spots. Storks are everywhere, as are speed-crazy drivers. Riga is quite nice, but has little on Tallinn in my opinion.

Short on Lithuania:
A little field'ier than Latvia, but still green and nice, and I got my first swim of the trip following one of many detours. We spent a night in a hotel in the centre of Vilnius, in the squeekiest bed ever - kept me awake most of the night (Florentin.. again!) - but the breakfast was good and we found a bookstore that sold Lonely Planet guides. Most important.

Short on Poland:
Another transportation stretch - we knew we wanted to get from Vilnius and as far down into Poland as possible in one day, with Lublin being the priority target. A day of driving later, we checked into a hotel in the old town that made up for the lack of good breakfast with excellent location, good service and a good bed. About here it started getting really, really hot. I almost had a heat stroke opening the car doors the next morning. Went for swim no II in a packed lake somewhere on the way to Ukraine. Insane amount of ongoing roadworks in this country!

Short on Ukraine:
The border crossing into Ukraine was a bit of a wild card. I was not one hundred percent sure we had all documents needed to get across, but as it turns out we were fine. A ridiculously young border guard asked me some questions about our camping equipment, listened somewhat half-heartedly to my answers before plunging into the core of the matter; "Any drugs?". When I could satisfy him with a clear "No!" in response, the rest was pretty much just paper work. And we got a stamp! Alas, by this time it was so late we ended up emergency camping on some dodgy backroad that set a new world record in the amount of potholes per square meter, and we got a zillion mosquito bites setting up the tent. First destination L'Viv took a while to figure out, but once we had it nailed this city became the first proper full-blown sightseeing session of the trip. As I am not the happiest of campers when temperatures are high and no water is to be found, this was all a bit too much for me. Sleeping arrangements were made on a hillside of a FSC forest that was supposed to hold bears. We saw none. The next day was spent driving to Kamyanets-Podilskyi, a smaller town in a natural park quite close to the Moldovan border. We spent a night in a hotel there, came across a Shell station (Yay!), accidentally reset the km reader for the trip (checking a fuse.. but we managed to calculate our way back to 2098 km so far), and again did a bit of sighsteeing in extreme heat. Ukraine became the by far champion country in numbers of nights spent as we were a bit time-confused the next day (reset the clock as well of course) and decided to go swimming and camping one more night instead of rushing across the border at dusk.

Short on Moldova (so far):
The border crossing was rather uneventful. Five desks where people wanted the exact same documents and answers to the exact same questions took about one hour, and the only unexpected event was a CO2 tax for non-Moldovian cars of 30 moldovan Leu, which we didn't have. Fortunately my relentless storing of money in all kinds of pockets turned up a 5 Euro bill in a jacket, which they accepted (even got change!) and we were free to go. Moldova has the biggest sunflower fields I have ever seen. They stretch so far all you can see is yellow. Beautiful.

As said, this is being written in the car while driving along one of Moldova's main highways as quickly as the endless potholes allow us. Roads have been pretty shitty since Southern Poland, but nothing like we expected when it comes to aggressive drivers. In fact, Latvia was by far the worst in that respect, since then it's been manageable (of course it helps to drive a car that accelerates ten times as quickly as the heaps of junk metal they drive down here (although there are really expensive cars around as well)). The road police has given us a couple of scares, as they are pretty much all over the place and will jump at the chance to squeeze some money out of a foreigner. After the first ticket we have, however, managed to get out of it with just being stopped one more time, also this deserved as Florentin made a dodgy left turn onto a main road. There's a first time for everything, including bribing police officers to let you go without a fine. 'Nuff said.

"Guide the cars, you've got the keys, farewell to mediocrity.
Kicking off the cruise control and turning up the radio,
got just enough religion and half a tank of gas,
come on, let's go!"

Bon Jovi - Lost Highway (Lost Highway, 2007)