Not All Roads Are Paved, and Other Lessons I Learned While Driving Through the Balkans
by Sarah Thomas on July 22, 2013
NOT ALL ROADS ARE PAVED. And it’s really a better idea to stay on paved roads. I actually learned this when I broke my transmission high in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, but some lessons you have to “learn” over and over. In many countries that we visited, especially Albania and Romania, “paved” meant that somewhere along the route, there was some paving. The rest of the roads are covered in rocks, gravel, or dirt – amazingly, we didn’t get a single flat tire.
YOUR GPS WILL NOT GET YOU THERE. My TomTom was much more reliable in EU countries (Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria) and near useless everywhere else. After crossing the border from Serbia into Romania, we were shocked to see even goat trails delineated on the screen when in Belgrade, the capital, only one road was marked.
SO BRING A MAP OR THREE. And look at it before you hit the road. Otherwise you’ll be doing a lot of second-guessing, like we did, of where we actually were in relation to where we were going. Frequently stopping and asking directions provides for adventures, but running into cold faces and no English can get a bit frustrating. We finally came up with a formula of the TomTom and a couple of downloaded google maps on the ipad. I also downloaded the google maps to my phone, so that once we hit our next destination we could see exactly where we were courtesy of cell tower triangulation.
YOU HAVE TO PASS THROUGH CROATIA TO GET EVERYWHERE. Because of it’s boomerang shape, Croatia is on the way to lots of other countries. When we were driving from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we passed through a border checkpoint that we didn’t even know we’d go through (why you need to look at a map before you head out). We thought it was Hungary, for whatever reason, until I finally recognized the Republik Hrvatska flag as we passed Customs.
KNOW WHAT THE LOCAL CURRENCY IS and what it’s worth in relation to your native money before you hit the ATM. If you didn’t do this, then go for one of the middle set amount buttons, and hope for the best. We forgot to do this in almost every country, and ended up cash poor when it came to lunch.
IF YOU’RE HUNGRY AND YOU SEE FOOD, JUMP ON IT. In the most eastern countries, most establishments only served drinks and toast. I guess everybody eats at home. As much fun as it is to wander the streets and happen upon a great cafe, this is not so easy in Romania and Serbia, where we walked for hours looking for food more nutritious than bread. Have an idea of where the food is before you head out to eat.
THE BALKANS ARE BEAUTIFUL. Despite the near-constant uncertainties and spells of being absolutely lost, the countries of the Balkans are great to drive through. Most vistas are absolutely breath-taking!
kapı kolu (door handle, but literally it translates to arm of the door).
I recently read Nicholas Kristoff's article, "Go West, Young People! And East!" where he talked about his one word language test for language learners: How do you say door knob? Generally, people who lived abroad did much better than those who simply studied a language in their native country.
Since I've been living in Turkey for almost two years, I figured I had better learn this simple phrase.