The Balkans, June-July, 2018
When we arrived back in Rome after Malta it was time to plan where to go in our next five weeks. We had vaguely planned to head north to beat the heat either in the Dolomites, Austria, or French Alps or some combination thereof. I kept staring at our planning map of Europe, noting the fact that the Balkans were equally within our range. How hot would it be though? Kathy and Rick (our editors) to the rescue. They traveled through the Balkans in August, 2011. Reading through their write ups it sounded like it wouldn't be too bad—especially if we kept to the mountains. So we headed out, spending the first night in a free aire/sosta near Padua and the second all the way to Split, Croatia. We did take the toll roads all the way $60 in Italy and $65 in Slovenia/Croatia. We had crossed the Apennines Mountains in central Italy before on the old roads—never again thank you. We also wanted to get to the most touristy parts of Croatia before the July's even worse crowds and before our ACSI camping discounts would expire.
We had tried to get reservations at Camping Split but it was too close in. They said if they were full we could stay in the overflow. Arriving at 8pm we stayed at the very edge of the overflow with 7 others. The next morning moving to a site only 50 yards from the beach. We ended up staying 5 nights and had to move once more. With the camping discount it was 19E a night, 33E without. In July the same site is 55E. Getting there before July was certainly worth it. It was a lovely destination campground on the beach with every amenity (though pool/spa is extra) and good nearby bus service into Split. Split is a lovely place even if it is definitely on the cruise ship circuit. The old medieval town was built inside the walls of the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian's retirement palace. Fascinating. With the added bonus of several sites of the filming of Game of Thrones. One day we took another bus to Trogir, a small walled town on an island just 50 ft offshore over a bridge. A nice day trip, but we didn't think it lived up to its UNESCO billing. There are lots of excursions from Split to islands, inland to waterfalls, but we just lazed around on our days off, Mark, catching up on the blog, doing the laundry, reading. We also rented a 50cc motorbike for a day ($40) for Mark to practice. We have been thinking about getting one for the US for the back of the camper to have some extra wheels. He did fine. I didn't ride. It will take a lot more thought. If anyone has done this we would love some input. We are thinking that a 50cc might be too small for two and we would have to have a 125. We want the smallest, lightest one we can use just to get to trail heads etc., as we roam around the Western US.
The drive to Dubrovnik was easy and we headed for Pod Maslinom Camping about 15k east. With our discount card only 13E. The campground closest to town (Camping Solitude) is $65 a night and down a steep drive. Pod is much less as it is a long, steep walk down to the beach. But the bathrooms were clean and there was even a communal refrigerator and freezer, so I could defrost ours and still have some ice for these hot days. The bus stops near the entrance but you have a goodly walk down into Dubrovnik. Be sure to find out where to the catch the bus back to the campground. We thought it would be self evident but could never find it. Since the bus only runs every hour and sometimes every two, we had to take a taxi for 11E to the main bus station (way too far to walk) and get an alternative bus from there. Unfortunately that was not our only problem. While trying to park the camper under the olive trees for shade in the campground, we failed to notice a really big, sawed off branch and managed to pull up the trim on our roof above the awning. Thank heavens no puncture, but Mark couldn't fix it, so will have to find someone able to cut out that short section and reattach. In the meantime Mark sealed it all with waterproof tape.
Dubrovnik itself is a lovely walled city, again made from the creamy limestone prevalent throughout the area. Since the day was to be in the upper 80s (though a good breeze) we walked the walls around 10am. Lots of steps, but my knee didn't really complain till near the end. I think the stop for gelato helped. We had bought the all day tourist card for 200 kuna or about $32 pp. Just the he wall and the fort are 150k. We did pop in to the maritime museum and the folk life museum of the 7 museums included. Not much, and we had no use for the local bus transportation so the wall entrance would have been enough. We ate a nice lunch inside the air conditioned Kopun Restaurant—famous for its eunuch rooster dishes. We were the only ones inside and the outside was pretty full. It slays Mark and I that Europeans would rather sit outside with the temp at 85 than inside. Mark is not a Game of Thrones fan, but I enjoyed seeing the many spots where filming was done for the scenes of King's Landing and especially the Walk of Shame. At about 3 we started up the 180 steps to the fort and promptly gave up on about step 25. We knew we still had the climb back to the bus stop (which we never found) and it was hot. We still liked the city though!
Leaving the Dubrovnik area we stopped to get propane (LPG in Europe) at the first station as we had run out and were running on our German exchange bottle back up. Yes, they had it, but no, couldn't fill our refillable bottle—against the law. Further along we stopped at another station where the LPG was self service. Still a big sign that you couldn't fill removable bottles. However, though our bottle is removable we also installed a through- the- door filler as several countries in Europe, including France, have this same no refillable bottles law. Until only a few years ago all campers in Europe used only exchangeable bottles and nearly every country had their own type. They couldn't be refilled because they didn't have the 80% automatic shut off like American bottles do. Of course this was a huge problem for full timers and others traveling over months to different countries. The Germans and English started selling the refillable bottles (very expensive, but worth it.) Then you just needed to buy the various adapters needed in different countries. A German refillable bottle and the solar panel were the first things we bought for our European camper in 2015. The laws haven't changed because most folks still have the old bottles, so you often have to hunt a little to find a station where you are allowed to refill.
Mark and I have always enjoyed seeing folk dance presentations when we travel—even some of the corny ones. A Croatian group performs in Dubrovnik on Tuesday and Saturday nights but that would have been difficult given where we were camping and the bus schedule. I read about a Sunday morning folk dance in Cilipi, right on the way to Montenegro. We arrived about 10:15 and managed to find parking at the furthest end of a side street. The singing and dancing commence right after Mass at 11:15 in the square in front of the church. A $10 admission gets you a folding chair, admission to the town museum, and a minuscule welcome glass of sweet rose. The performance lasted about 30 minutes which was about right as this isn't scintillating but certainly authentic. The town museum emphasizes the place of textiles and especially the embroidery that the women still do today. It was well done. Many people had come on tour bus excursions from Dubrovnik but in total the crowd was about 350 which was a nice size for the space. I would certainly recommend it if you are in the area on a Sunday morning.
The crossing from Croatia to Montenegro required about a 10 minute wait in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. We only needed to show our passports and the camper's green liability insurance card. We were headed for Kotor and its beautiful fiord-like bay that seems to have escaped from Norway. You can take the small ferry across the neck of the bay, but the bay with its walls of limestone rising high above is certainly worth the drive. The road is twisty but good and wide enough to pass the inevitable tour buses. We arrived at the parking lot just outside the walls of Kotor about 2:30. Our Parkings app had indicated a 20E fee to park overnight—the attendant quoted 30. We weren't happy, but we wanted to see Kotor, needed a safe place to park, and had to have a place to spend the night. At the border crossing a huge sign made it quite clear that camping or staying in a motorhome overnight outside of a campground or auto camp was strictly prohibited in the entire country. We had spent an extra day near Dubrovnik in order not to spend Saturday night in the Kotor parking lot as the comments had indicated it could be quite noisy with lots of cars coming and going on weekends. There are no facilities but there is a beach, fishing pier, kayak rental, and large park—the views across the bay were worth it and it is only two blocks to the city gate so no bus to deal with. Though be warned that even on a Sunday night groups with loud music and partying hung around the beach until 11.
We liked Kotor very much. It is another walled town, but absolutely one of, if not, the best ones in Europe. The 3 mile wall circles the town in the the flat area by the fiord and then extends up the mountain—way up the mountain of incredibly steep limestone cliffs. Over 700 ft of vertical and almost 2000 steps of climbing held no interest for us, but just looking at it was awesome. The town itself is a lovely place to wander and just get lost in—it is too small to actually get lost. Lots of the usual stores and tourist shops and restaurants but we spent most of our time craning our necks at the Venetian palace balconies and interesting stonework. It is a cruise ship stop so there will be crowds until late afternoon when they depart and when the excursion buses head back to Dubrovnik.
Rick Steves had recommended stopping in Perast—the pearl of the Adriatic, located along the fiord. So we decided to do that on the way back to Bosnia-Herzegovina--(from now on BiH). You have to park at a lot at the end of town or in paved spots along the road (5E) and walk in about 10 minutes. Not a lot to it but we just liked looking at all the small Venetian style palaces. Further along we stopped in Mlini for lunch at Konoba Catovica, drop-dead gorgeous setting spread out over the site of an ancient mill with ponds, streams, waterfalls. The food was also excellent and extremely low priced—2E for a salad, mussels 10E, but in Montenegro you are expected to leave a 10% tip. We highly recommend it—not crowded at all for lunch but dinner reservations recommended.
Leaving Kotor we could have taken the old road into the mountains—the very definition of serpentine, but instead took the new road after the fiord up to Trebinje and into BiH. 7E toll at the border. This is wild and lonely country with no services except in Trebinje. We stopped there for an hour to get
Bosnian money and walked into the old town which is completely skippable. The mark is pegged 2 to 1E so most folks will take Euros instead. We made it to the Heaven in Nature campground in Stolac. Very friendly host with excellent English. Container style bathrooms for 15E a night with electric. The wifi was also pretty good. Our Italian TIM cell data no longer works as we aren't in the EU anymore. (It did work in Slovenia and Croatia on the included roaming.) The caretaker loaded us up with fruit and amazing tomatoes from the owner's garden and told us we could park at the edge of Mostar at the owner's auto insurance agency where his daughter also works. We arrived mid morning but lots of rain and wind and a terrible 3 day forecast decided us to head back 6k to Buna to the campground River Camp. It had excellent reviews in our Parkings app with a cost of 17E a night. Mark definitely didn't want to drive further in the rain. We have new and nearly new tires but the pavement here is such that skids are common. So common that most curves have had the road surface mechanically “chewed” to help.
After two nights at the campground, we parked at the insurance agency and took a 2E taxi the 2 ½ miles or so into Mostar. Amazingly low price for a taxi. Arriving at 9 am the famous bridge was not yet loaded down with tour bus excursions. Though shelled to oblivion during the war, it was rebuilt using the same methods and materials from almost 500 years earlier. But it will take several hundred more years before its appearance looks anything but new. The cobblestone main street of old town is wall to wall Turkish souvenir stands and Bosnian restaurants. We ate near the end of the cobblestones at Restaurant National—a busy mom and pop place. We split a tomato, cucumber, onion and sour cream salad and Mark had the house (and national) special—cervacio--lots of grilled, small sausages made of minced meat tucked in pita bread. I had a small veal steak with fries, beer and coke—17E with tip. Food, like the taxi, is inexpensive here. I bought our granddaughter a Turkish style dance outfit since she obviously can't wear the one we got in Turkey in 2011. We would love to go back to Turkey but don't think, given the current political situation there, that it is in the cards. We spent less than 4 hours in Mostar including lunch, as we didn't do the walk through the newer section. Certainly worth a stop if you are in the vicinity but maybe not to go out of the way for.
I haven't talked any about the war. There is still a lot of obvious war damage, roadside graves with engraved pictures of young soldiers, and large Christian and Muslim cemeteries with many, many new graves. We have read the background information and of course, we lived through the news coverage in the 90s. Overall we find it incredibly depressing and haven't yet gone to any of the exhibits or museums, though we intend to in Sarajevo. The consensus we have read is that for hundreds of years the Croats, Bosniacs, and Serbs lived side by side fairly amicably despite historical and religious differences. Then after Tito's death various political leaders whipped up the populace bringing to the fore old grievances and playing on people's worst instincts. So much as Hitler did—and so many before him and sadly so many will today and the future, seeking personal power at the expense of so many innocents who just want to live their lives in peace.
We stayed on the outskirts of Sarajevo in the suburb of Ilidza, at the end of the tram line. Camping Oza is part of a hotel and restaurant affair and not too far from the Tunnel Museum if you want to go there. The restaurant was quite large and the food reasonably priced as in all of BiH but we didn't eat there. The camping was $25 per night with tax but no electric. Most of the spots are in a large grassy field. After the first night, watching campers get stuck in the mud, we moved to the end of one of the internal roads which was gravel. It rained the next day and lots more stuck vehicles. Mark felt badly about not volunteering to help push people out—I pointed out that at age 71 if he did, he might end up having to be carried out.
Our second day the weather looked better so we walked the 20 minutes or so to the tram and rode it the 30 minutes to the oldest, Ottoman section of town Square. We spent the next six hours doing most of Steves' three walking tours. We didn't go into any of the museums or exhibitions on the genocide and the siege by the the Yugoslavian army. Just reading the guidebook was enough to turn our stomachs about the whole needless war. We had lunch in a small, recommended place that cooked the traditional spiral pastry, the old fashioned way in the domed ovens covered with red hot coals. We had the mixed—meat, onions, potatoes, and spinach rolled in filo dough and slathered in sour cream, if you wanted it. Two large portions and 2 cokes--$10. I wasn't that crazy about it—next time I'll try Mark's first, since I am the picky eater. I did love the pistachio baklava available all over the old town. Once out of the Ottoman section (souvenirs, underground market, etc., much like Istanbul), you go directly into the Austrian-Hungarian part of time. There is even a line painted on the street so you can stand there and take a photo in each direction for contrast. Austria-Hungary only colonized this area for about 40 years but they built many dozen buildings in their empire style. Finally we finished our walk near the Holiday Inn where journalists stayed during the siege and sat down for a drink in Cafe Tito tucked by the river next to the National Museum. It had a tank, artillery guns, jeep, etc. and lots of photos of Tito—Mark was intent on seeing it since he missed Cafe Mao when we were in Bejing.
We were glad we had taken in most things as the next day dawned with another cycle of rain. We drove out of the valley headed west to Croatia. Needing to spend the rest of our BiH money we spent the night near the border at Hotel Ada, for $21. We were the only ones in the quite large campground and registered at the almost equally empty hotel. Wifi was great though and after dinner we walked next door to the hotel and discovered an incredibly scenic restaurant incorporated into the little island in the wide river. Mark commented to the waitress how lovely it was and her comment was that it was better now since it had been ruined during the war. We didn't get to eat there but Mark watched part of the Croatian world cup game (they beat Denmark) and took lots of pictures for the blog. Certainly worth a detour if you get close by. And in fact if you are going to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, this is only about 20k away.
What can I say about Plitvice??????? I don't have the vocabulary to tell you but if you saw nothing else on the Balkan Peninsula you would be happy you came. We had planned to get an early start but due to issues with updating our GPS we got parked and after lining up for tickets got in about noon. We had wanted to go in at entrance #1 to follow the Steves' walking directions but got misdirected to entrance #2. Parking for campers for the day is $11 and entrance is $40 pp (we are now in high season on July 2) You can go in at 4 pm for much less. It is a pretty long walk from entrance #2 parking to the shuttle, which we took to the top of the upper lakes and then walked down. When we first got on the boardwalk it was a shock. It is made from small logs about 4-5 inches in diameter, flattened on two sides. There are for the most part limited hand rails and the walk is suspended over the various lakes, streams, and waterfalls, at various heights a good bit of the time. It was crowded. Two can pass abreast easily but folks are stopping to take pictures continually, so it is a constant stop and go and always watching your step. I was very uneasy at first but you do get used to it. The entire walk is about 6 miles though there is a 20 minute free shuttle boat ride on the largest lake in the middle. The walk is almost continuously lined with waterfalls of various heights and widths. At the beginning, end and middle are snack bars and bathrooms and access to the free shuttle tram. Steves' suggests cutting out the very top part but we did that, and I thought it was nice. The Big Waterfall is at the beginning of the lower lake near entrance #1, so if you can't manage some of the distance you need to be sure to get there. From the start of entrance #1 you walk quite a ways down on a wide, paved switchbacked trail to the base of the falls and the start of the walk headed upstream. In all I clocked 18,000 steps but though I was tired it was so unbelievably gorgeous that I was exhilarated. If you stay in one of the three hotels in the park you only have to pay one entrance fee and could break it into two days. Other wise the two day entrance is somewhat more than 1.5 times the one day. Much of the walk is in the shade but still it is a long one, so hopefully for you no hotter than it was for us, in the mid-seventies. We have seen a lot of waterfalls—Iquazu in Argentina still number one, but this is a close second and like nothing else. As I said it was crowded, but in the six hours we only heard 7 or 8 parties speaking English. When it gets discovered by Americans and Chinese it will be a reservation-only system.
The campground near the south end of the park was described in the Parkings app as having only two level sites, so we drove on to a small, rural campground near Zaluznica, Zelena Dolina. Everything clean and adequate but still $22 with tax and no electric. At sunset, the owner brought shots of his plum liquor—about 1000 proof, Mark said—around to all the campers. The next morning we drove through Otocac which was the front line during the war—still lots of bullet holes and some houses never rebuilt when the Serbs who lived in them were forced out and their homes attacked. The prevalent mosques all through BiH have died out completely, only churches here. Our next goal was Motovan, a hill town in the central Istrian penisula. In setting our TomTom there looked to be only 5k difference in the route with tolls and the one without. We had been finding the rural roads to be good, so I told Tom, no tolls. All was well climbing up from the sea until I notice that the road for the Unimun Tunnel headed off to the left. We continued straight and in a couple of blocks an 18% grade sign appeared. Okay, that was what the tunnel was for. Not wanting to play around with that sort of grade if we didn't have to, we did a quick U turn. The toll ended up only costing $8, so not so bad. The bigger problem was missing the detour for Motovan at the toll exit. We asked the toll man which way at the exit and he said just go right. Tom said go right. We went right, and 7k later we were looking up at Motovan—only the road was closed. Fancy that, a detour, a detour that took us way round the mountain to the tune of about 25 more kilometers with Tom protesting the whole way. Motovan's only “campground” is across from the first parking lot on the way up to the hill town. Nice enough with even a small pool, but room for only about 10 campers. Price--$33. Shuttle bus to hilltop-$3 each way and only for groups until 11 am which is check out and then you have to move to the paid parking lot. We decided to go on up at 5 pm as the last bus down was at 7 and we figured walking down wouldn't be too bad if we had to. The bus, in fact, doesn't take you all the way to the city gate. It is still a walk of 2-3 long blocks, very uphill and on the worse rectangular cobblestones we have ever encountered. No real sidewalk—when a resident drives a car through you just get to flatten yourself against a building or step into a doorway. The street is lined with small souvenir shops and truffle and wine shops. This is the truffle capital of this part of the world—only France and the Piedmont area of Italy are more famous. Here they hunt with specially trained dogs instead of pigs. Still very pricey, at $16 for a tiny jar, but a good opportunity for free tasting. And, of course, all the restaurants have many truffle augmented dishes. Getting to the top double gate you enter the small square and at the tourist office you pay 4.5E each to walk the walls and see the photo exhibit at the art gallery. Not overwhelming when you have seen many walled hilltop towns. You will note how often we are staying in campgrounds in Croatia—wild camping is illegal throughout the country and strictly enforced except in very rural areas.
So next up two coastal towns—similar but in different countries. Rovinj is the larger and many, many of the shops have quality gifts. Lots are unique and that is saying something when you have traveled as much as we have. The town's buildings have no buffer to the Adriatic and for that reason they look like Venice. We stayed at a typical, large Croatian beach side campground--Porton Biondi—almost highest season so 33E for a night. Arriving at noon we were lucky to get a site. It is about a mile walk into town along the coastal path. It was in the upper 80s so we waited until early evening to go into town. Thus we missed going inside the hilltop cathedral—I wanted to see the marble sarcophagus that floated up the Adriatic in 800 AD with St. Euphemia inside. Next trip.
Unfortunately, while checking in we witnessed an embarrassing scene with an American woman. Normally, I would have introduced myself as we waited in line, but she was already talking to the Swedish woman in front of her. First she commented loudly about how pretty her daughter was—following that up when she heard they were from Sweden with a remark about how tall they were. Then she admonished the mother to be sure her daughter used plenty of sunscreen, and on and on. When she got to the reception desk her first remark was a complaint about a bird that kept her up all night. The clerk said it was probably a protected night owl nesting in the pine trees—well, she said, you ought to do something about them! Yikes, I was mortified to have to show my passport when my turn came and tried to be as polite and mannerly as possible. Absolutely an Ugly American.
Leaving Rovinj we left the Istra Peninsula and wound around the huge estuary to Piran, Slovenia. Since Croatia is not part of Schengen visa area we went again through passport control. Slovenia has a very short coastline but makes the most of it with a large port plus resorts. Piran is a mini Rovinj, not so artsy, but many fewer tourists. You actually felt like people lived there. We loved the best house on the square that a Venetian built for his mistress and inscribed with a sculptured plaque—Let Them Talk! The square itself used to be the harbor, but it smelled so bad they filled it in and put a seawall and promenade round the walls next to the Adriatic. It was an easy walk from the campground Fiesa--30E and again full by early afternoon.
Heading north we decided not to purchase the sticker to use the toll roads. Slovenia's regular roads had been good from the border and a week's sticker for a camper was 30E. Only a couple hours from the coast is the Lipica Farm. This is where the famed Lipizzaner stallions are bred. They are a cross between 6 original Spanish stallions and the hearty Karst mares native to this part of Slovenia. We were there on a Saturday when you could both tour the farm and see a performance for 21E. The guided tour was quite informative and the performance lasted about 40 minutes. We haven't see the Viennese performance, which I am sure is much flashier. This one was so-so for non horse enthusiasts. We stayed nearby at Autocamp Wellness Center in Razdrto for 13E. Within 30 minutes of the farm is Skocjanske Cave.
Well, I adored Plitvich Lakes and then I just couldn't believe Skocjanske Cave. Why do well traveled Americans like us not know about these places? I'm sure the fact that it was in communist Yugoslavia and then the war, are huge contributing factors. Away from the cruise ships of the Croatia coast we haven't heard much American English. Which means you should come as soon as you can! These spots are well known to Europeans and when the Americans and Chinese start coming—yikes. Anyway there are two cave systems—Skocjanske and Postajna. Even with Rick Steve's guidebook it was hard to decide. We opted for Skocjanske as it was “more adventurous” and less touristy. We are so glad we did. Yes, you walk about two miles with the guide and there are 507 up and down steps. But they are well spread out and honestly it felt like half that to me even with my bad knee. The guides have excellent English and basically you go fairly slowly—the path is wet but good handrails and distressing in the pavement make it not slippery. (Walking poles would be a hindrance.) The first part of the cave is called the quiet cave—lots of the usual stalactites, stalagmites, big rooms—we have seen all that many times on many continents and so don't usually go on the numerous cave tours in Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere. But then you walk down a bunch of stairs and the underground river with its waterfalls and cataracts makes itself heard. You round the corner and you are in one of the largest caverns in the world (the largest in volume in Europe) but perched high on the side with the river roaring below. In the floodlit distance is the river bridge 450 ft from its surface and you can follow the lights of the wall hugging path as you wind you way to the other side of the cavern. I immediately thought of the Bridge of Khazad Dum from the first movie of The Lord of the Rings. Awe struck, absolutely worth the whole trip to the Balkans, and we will have to come back to do it again.
Just up the road is another famous site: Predjama Castle, the castle in the cave. Well it started out small and was in the cave but as the centuries went by it was rebuilt and expanded and now is mostly in front of the cave. The interior is not supposed to be that interesting so we just ogled the castle and then decided to spend the night in the lower parking lot for free. No signage and not in the Parkings app but a Belgium family stayed too and no one said a word. Slovenia does not have a law about wild camping.
Time to head for the capital—Ljubljana. I still can't pronounce it—I think another reason most Americans don't travel here. We stayed at the terrific Dolgi Most Park and Ride. Get this: 1.2E per night with electric included and one round trip bus ride into the city center. Yes, a little train and expressway noise, but not much different that most spots and even expensive campgrounds. The buses run about every 15 minutes. When you get off at the Post Office stop in town, turn right, not left, and you end up at the river with the main square about 2 long blocks ahead of you. Absolutely lovely city—often called a little Vienna. A terrific mix of architecture—Austrian, home grown by local boy Plechnik and our favorite Art Nouveau. We bought the 2E Art Nouveau guide at the tourist office and managed to see almost all the many buildings. Who knew, as Kathy would say. We eschewed the museums and spent two lovely days wandering the town. The market area was fascinating both architecturally and in its contents. Absolutely perfect produce in booth after booth at rock bottom prices—it is mid July. The underground meat and cheese market has these fascinating cave-like stalls we haven't seen anywhere else.. The weather though was hot—hitting 90 and our third day we stayed in the camper for a day long deluge. By the way, lots of very interesting stores for buying or browsing. A city we highly recommend.
After the rain passed we drove straight away to Lake Bled staying at Camping Bled. (30E) We arrived in early afternoon to be sure of a place but it actually wasn't completely full even at nightfall. It is at the opposite end of the lake from the town but the whole reason to come here is to walk around the 3.5 mile lakeside path. Very pleasant. We didn't take the boat out to the island though. Instead we caught up on the wash! We didn't get electric and noticed again that our 100 amp coach battery was depleted in about 12 hours. (parked in the shade so no solar recharge) We have owned the camper three years and the battery wasn't new then, so looks like we will need to replace it first thing next spring. Bled was somewhat cooler in the low 80s but looking ahead rain and thunderstorms were predicted so we decided to head into the Julian Alps doing the one day tour over the Vargis pass. 24 hair pin turns up, and 26 down. I was concerned about our little 1.9 liter, 17 year old engine making it. But she did with only a reasonable rise in temperature and a lot of first gear. We did the usual tourist stops at the Russian Chapel, look-outs, etc. I was hoping to find a cool place to spend the afternoon parked in the shade and enjoying the 70s temps. But not to be. Even though we left Bled at 8 am, by the time we made it to the pass at 11:30 every parking spot was taken. And most people are hiking from there so there's no much turnover. If you want to hike, plan on a 7 am departure and don't dilly dally. But there is some beautiful countryside before you get to the pass road that you will want to enjoy too. On the down side of the pass there just aren't many places to park at all.
At this point we still had three days left before we needed to start south for Rome. What to do, what to do? The Dolomites were just over the next range and they are lovely to drive through even if you don't have time to stop and hike. We set Tom for the nearest town in Italy in the Dolomites. Oh my, the roads he wanted us to take over that ridge. We finally stopped, got out our Italian Atlas and went somewhat out of the way to get to Udine but by a bigger road. We spend the night at a sosta next to the hospital. Free on Sunday with about 10 other campers in a huge lot. That night the predicted big thunderstorm rolled in. Typical summer mountain weather—clear in the morning and thunderstorms building in the afternoon. The weather in fact didn't look good for the next couple of days. So change of plan—certainly not going to drive through the mountains in rain. Looking south, we spied The Republic of San Marino—that would be our 54th country. But who's counting? It is also up a mountain and temperatures were to be in lower 80s instead of upper. So we took the coast road headed for the free sosta near Padua in Alban Terme that we stayed at on our way to the Balkans. While I cooked spaghetti, Marked watch the World Cup at local sports bar. The Croats lost, but France won.
San Marino has a nice, free sosta half way up the mountain with lots of space and a sometimes open restroom. It is at the base of the funicular. San Marino itself isn't worth a lot of time. Yes, people still seem to live inside the old walls at the top of the mountain but the main floors are all restaurants or shops—specializing in jewelry, purses, replica guns, clocks, and candy. Taxes are lower than in Italy so lots of visitors are there to buy things. Frankly, not really worth going out of your way for.
After San Marino, we drove on to Rome and our camping/storage spot at Prato Smeraldo, near Laurentino, in the south of Rome. The next few days consisted of the usual cleaning and packing, plus making arrangements for repair from the incident at Dubrovnik. We left the camper at Prato Smeraldo and flew Air Norwegian back to the States on July 21st. It was another great European adventure, some old, much new, and always interesting and enjoyable. We are so very glad that we decided to head to the Balkans this trip. We will be back in the US now until early April. Happy Travels everyone!