The second night of my road trip down the east coast of the Adriatic Sea, as blackness settled over the water, I wasn't totally lost, but I didn't exactly know where I was, either. So I pulled over to check my map. A car stopped beside me. The driver's window was rolled down.
I'd just passed through Senj. The tranquil seaside town had once been the stronghold of the Uskoks, the most rapacious pirates that ever pillaged the Adriatic. Uskoks liked to nail the turbans of Turkish prisoners to their heads and cut out the hearts of Venetian sea captains, protectors of the cross whose hearts made fine hors d'oeuvre at Uskok feasts. Granted, I was on the edge of the Balkans, a place perfectly suited for the mind to run amok. But this was April 2007, not April 1607. Tired and hungry, I lowered my window with some trepidation.
Ivan Samarzija didn't wear ear loops or have a moustache, but he was a descendant of the Uskoks. Instead of rowing out to sea in a galley with other pirates to prey on ships, Ivan waited along the highway, swooping down on unsuspecting travelers like me and taking our loot the modern way.
"You want room?" he asked.
"You will follow."
His single taillight led me to a house overlooking the Adriatic, with the bulk of an island in the near distance and Venice about 150 miles due west as the gull flies. In his kitchen, Ivan said, "I am seaman. Six-month contracts. Asia. Singapore. Hong Kong."
Then he got serious. "Now, tell me, please, why is dollar so bad? I am on United States salary."
Surprises are the essence of a good road trip: an unforgettable encounter like this one, a startling vista, a thrilling series of curves, an odd roadside attraction, a detour that becomes a trip unto itself. I'd enjoyed them all today. All the planning in the world can't guarantee such surprises. You just have to be a little lucky.
My luck on this trip began in Prague. Two weeks ago, purely by chance, I'd met a musician and told her I was taking a road trip - six days, 500 miles - from Trieste, the Italian capital of nowhere, to Tirana, the Albanian capital of paranoia. And she'd said, "Visit Tamara Obrovac. She's the best jazz singer in Croatia." I had leapt on her suggestion like a gift.
This very morning, I parked my Audi A4 cabriolet near a medieval castle in Svetvincenat, a village in central Istria, a pie-shaped peninsula an hour south from Trieste, where the Vespas outnumbered the cars, and took a seat at a caf overlooking the moat. Soon the jazz singer appeared.
Small, intense, with brown eyes, Obrovac wore jeans and a white tee. She looked about forty. Over tea, she said that she'd trained as a classical flutist and then fell in love with American jazz. "Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Coltrane . . . I was eating them." Then came the Balkan War. Ironically, the ethnic hatefest was fruitful for her. It gave Obrovac time to shape a musical style seeded in her regional dialect. Now she performs from Rome to Belgrade but is worried some about a new force. Glancing quizzically at me, an American with a slick new car and a lot of questions, she said, "We are not used to your hard-rock capitalism. If you lose your culture, you lose everything."
Obrovac sent me to "a special place," the island of Cres, which I reached by ferry from Istria. Top down, sunscreen on, I drove through a sun-baked landscape of karst, a limestone filled with caves, sinkholes, and fissures, a place associated with pagans, Roman conquerors, sheep, olives, and a rare bird, the Griffon vulture. I glanced up at the dazzling blue sky, hoping to spot a Griffon vulture soaring overhead. Huge birds of prey, the vultures have eight-foot wingspans, a top speed of 75 mph, and eyes several times as sharp as yours and mine.
I didn't see a vulture, but I did visit an eco-preserve for the birds in Beli, a stone village overlooking the Kvarner Gulf and reached by a goat path of a road on which you are protected from a long plunge to the sea by a railing encrusted with rust. I drove farther south on Cres, down another narrow lane, and parked by an ancient settlement called Lubenice, which, like an eagle, was perched about 1000 feet above the sea. You could hear the wind blowing through the bell tower of a fifteenth-century church and easily imagine liburnia - swift little fighting galleys developed by pirates in these waters and later copied by the Roman navy - being rowed far below, chasing a Venetian galley.
Day three dawned, as did every morning on this trip, blue-skied and cloud-free. I lowered the top, left Senj, and climbed up through the Dinaric Alps on a winding road past lavender flowers and stone huts. The mountains form a belt from northeast Italy to Albania and are a joy to cross. I passed a Renault 4 GTL, a boxy little wagon ideal for goat-path narrow lanes. I slowed behind a diesel truck belching particulates, the bane of a cabriolet. Then the truck was behind me and I kept climbing.
This topless driving is all right, I thought. I flashed through tunnels, had on my tuque, sunglasses, more sunscreen. Obrovac's hauntingly beautiful voice sang loudly:
Don't be without wings
Most beautiful and brilliant they are
Shining in the sun.
Gradually, in the distance, rose the silhouettes of more mountains. Smoky blue prom-ontories, some smeared with snow, they were in Bosnia. It was in the early '90s that Croatia broke off from the rest of the Balkans and then fought for independence against Serbia. Now, with its long coast, 1000-plus islands, inland lakes, and green valleys, Croatia seems poised to be a new Balkan powerhouse. "For centuries, we were killing each other," Obrovac told me. "Now self-awareness is growing. Before we kill the planet, we may realize what we're doing."
I drive into Split's maze of one-way streets and traffic and soon find myself being shouted at by young men whirling their arms. Somehow, in the mess anchored by Diocletian's palace, built between 295 and 305 AD by the Roman emperor who retired to his boyhood haunts, I've gotten myself into lanes of cars being directed onto ferries to the so-called "new Riviera": Brac, Hvar, Korĉula, and Vis.
"I don't want to go onto a ferry!" I shout. Eventually, a friendly cop grasps my plight and stops the flow of traffic, allowing me to turn and head back into the gritty city.
Three hours later, though, I drive into the cavernous, noisy maw of a different ferry and head toward Korĉula, the island where Scottish soldier and adventurer Fitzroy McLean, used by Ian Fleming as a model for James Bond, lived for a time and where, according to popular legend, the patron saint of travelers, Marco Polo, was born.
En route, I pass Hvar, a jetsetters' popular hangout, then dock at Vela Luka, off which yachtsmen typically blow their horns as a salute to Marco Polo. In the interior town of Blato, I have another surprise.
On the town square, about twenty men are skipping and whirling swords over their heads as drummers pound out a military rhythm and a pig's skin squeals like a Scottish bagpipe. Pairs of combatants face off and exchange blows, their swords shooting off sparks. Sweaty and breathing rapidly, a dancer named Bacac tells me, "It is tradition of the island. My father did it. My grandfather. I got my uniform from my grandfather; it is 150 years old." The dance, adopted from a real military routine, is now for show, he says, as we watch a flurry of blows ending with two fighters leaning graciously over each others' shoulders and then slowly laying down their weapons.
"It is the kiss," Bacac says. "After the kiss, everything is OK."
"You speak good English," I say.
Bacac smiles as a flag-swirling dancer spins past. "I was born in Detroit," he says. "I live there one year. Here I am mechanic. On tractors and cars."
The morning of day four, on a narrow road in Korĉula, I smell flowers and look up at a solid slab of blue sky. Another paradox of the road trip is that too much speed ends the journey too soon, while too little speed stirs no adrenaline. On Korĉula, I want to stop and dally. On the adjacent peninsula of Pelješac, I do.
I've been joined by Rich Newton, a British photographer. Maybe it's him or the McLean and James Bond linkage playing in my mind, but when we pass a half-moon bay tucked in a natural amphitheater, boats bobbing, stone houses snoozing, one café open, I dub it "Dr. No's Hideaway." And we're soon sitting by the café, where it doesn't take much imagination to see Ursula Andress - white bikini, tanned - coming out of the blue-green sea and asking if we've seen 007. Begrudgingly, we leave idyllic Trstenik and head on a detour, a night drive into the mountains of Bosnia.
There, the Audi struts its stuff. Although the A4 looks classic and reserved, it changes character with speed. From the powertrain (Volkswagen/Audi's 2.0-liter turbo) to the reassuring brakes to the cabin ergonomics (excellent lumbar support, good front leg-room, easy-to-read gauges), everything seems to skip up a notch when the tach revs. Some kind of superglue seems to seep out of the rubber. The dash lights get a little brighter, suggesting that the sun chaser has transformed into a night rider on a mission. Or at least that's what I think with Newton now behind the wheel.
Overhead is the Big Dipper. Orion's Belt. Few drivers nowadays get to savor such a glorious night sky. It's another paradox: those who can afford new convertibles seldom enjoy them far from urban sprawl. Soft tops are extremely rare here. All it takes is a knife. Slit, slit. In you go.
In Sarajevo, our host, Morgan Sowden, is an English expat who came to the Balkans in 1995 with the idea of starting an Internet café in a war zone. By the time it opened, the war was over. But the café became a hangout, drawing UN officials, journalists, and foreigners eager for java, talk, and Web access.
Sowden sounds a tad irked when I refer to coastal Croatia as the new Riviera.
"It's not a Riviera. It is a spectacular place. Very clean."
That tag does seem like a real-estate gimmick fostered on the coastal region by developers and promoters trying to sell prime seafront and bus tours. But plenty of Croatians have bought into it. The people up here are different, Sowden says. "Bosnians and Serbs still shoot off their guns at weddings."
At breakfast, from a city overlook, it appears that they've also buried a lot of dead below us. Numerous cemeteries are packed with white crosses. In the distance are minarets. "Today," Sowden says, alluding to the city's tense mix of Muslims, Christians, and Orthodox, "everyone here wants to trade. They just don't want to live together."
Leaving Sarajevo for the coast, Newton and I pass through a roadscape of postmodern eye trash, tacky service buildings, and bullet-ridden reminders of ethnic cleansing. In the daylight, Bosnia looks scared and exploited. But soon we are driving through a spectacular gorge alongside a green river. An Islamic settlement is carved into a stone hillside south of Mostar. We pass through customs and rejoin the coastal highway, leaving the real Balkans behind, and are soon in Dubrovnik.
The once-independent republic whose ships traded goods across the Mediterranean for centuries is showing signs of tourist wear. Dubrovnik feels like Aspen-by-the-Sea. We do a fast walkabout, through plazas and to the harbor, then head farther south to Cavtat, a seaside town that also has been discovered. "Prices have gone up ten times in the last five years," a construction worker tells us. Eating dinner by the harbor, we see why.
"It's the British dinner-party set," Newton says, glancing over his shoulder at blazers and colored slacks. "Ugh."
Morning is better. Pointed cedars poke through mist. As it burns off, there's a moody blue sky. We enter Montenegro and are waved through customs with no problems.
There are still rare places on the road that touch our dreams, where we are Kubla Khan entering what in our time is as close to Xanadu as we're going to get. Driving around the long, undulating shore of the Bay of Kotor, which is carved out of rock, the town of Kotor itself huddled in a deep finger bay, Venetian ruins strung like an antique necklace high above and white cruise ships in the harbor below, I feel I've entered such a place. Newton, a road salt who has been virtually everywhere, soon stammers, "I've never seen anything like this." This is the Ladder of Cattaro.
"Daunting but thrilling," Jan Morris called it in The Venetian Empire, "a dizzy zigzag path [that] clambered up the sheer face of Lovcen in a series of seventy-three narrow and precipitous loops." The Ladder of Cattaro was for centuries the route to the mountain stronghold of Cetinje, the royal capital of Montenegro. Everything from the sea left Kotor, traveling up on the backs of mules and the shoulders of men. Today, the ladder is a road. There are fewer switchbacks but little traffic because a new, faster route has been built. In the Audi, the old road is simply a knockout thriller. Even though it lacks all-wheel drive, the A4 exits each corner crisply, the transmission seamlessly drops a gear or two, the tires dig in, the next corner comes into sight. This goes on and on, the cruise ships getting smaller and smaller far below. I have only one complaint: the rank stink of garbage. Montenegrins ought to stop throwing their trash over these banks or erect signs: Most beautiful view in the world from a dump.
We spiral down into Cetinje. We drink coffee. We stop at the president's house, where two guards stand in colorful regalia. Historically, Montenegrins were known for flamboyance and individuality. Swaggering, argumentative, often armed to the teeth, they never surrendered to the relentlessly aggressive Turks. I was advised to be wary of their descendants, thieves and worse who might rob me. Today, from what I can see, there is little to fear. The men behave much like the rest of us, sitting around beneath awnings that advertise beer and cigarettes, drinking espresso, talking, wasting time.
Leaving delightful Cetinje, I drive down into a lush landscape that looks and feels tropical, with pine trees and big aloe plants. I cross the inland sea of Skardarsko, the view to the north a vast panorama of mountains - soft, high, wild, almost untouched - and it brings to mind Tahiti when I first saw its mountains from the water almost thirty years ago. Then it, too, was off the beaten track. Now it's paradise trashed.
Today, however, our destination is Tirana. The former capital of paranoia is said to be hip. A young mayor, Edi Rama, commissioned artists to pain city buildings to brighten up decades of Stalinist gray. The streets were filled with Mercedes-Benzes driven by twenty-somethings with sketchy backgrounds, I was told by an Albanian guy in Prague. "It's like we got the golden keys from Mercedes," he said.
At any rate, the main road to the border suggests none of this. It's like a class three Vermont highway: badly paved, potholed, without signs. A customs station appears like the set for a grade-B film, complete with dusty idling trucks, men lounging on the hoods of dented cars, and guards whose suspicious gazes linger on an Audi A4 with two gringos aboard. A guard scrutinizes our papers, then disappears inside.
I'm not feeling good. My luck has held for days, but half an hour ago, at the last gas station in Montenegro, a talkative attendant said, "The fuel in Albania is bad." Still, I didn't fill up. It wasn't smart. And my back hurts. The Audi's great ergonomics and supportive seats notwithstanding, all the miles and hours in the A4 seem to be catching up on me.
A theatrical character, official-looking, with close-cropped white hair and a pistol riding high on his hip - he's a Montenegrin through and through, I think - comes to the Audi, looks it over, then at me in the driver's seat.
"No stampa," he says. He holds out a paper that says Audi provided the car for this trip. "No stampa, no stampa," he repeats, making a stamping motion on the admittedly unimpressive little document.
An Albanian guy came to the car a few minutes earlier. Curious and killing time, he said, in decent English, that he passed through here every day and that he did a little business across the border. I look at him for guidance and wonder if I should offer a bribe. But the friendly Albanian looks down at the dust as if to tell me not to aggravate this guy any more than he's aggravated by this lousy job already.
The guard does make one thing clear: there is no way this Audi is crossing his border to Albania, a quarter mile away.
"How are we supposed to get out of Montenegro if he won't let us out here?" I ask.
The Albanian translates. The guard gestures back at the trucks and cars behind us. "Get out the way you came in."
"Well, damn," I mutter as he starts waving me around in a U-turn.
I turn to the Albanian. He shrugs, as though this happens a lot.
"It's the Balkans," he says.
My luck has snapped. Irritated, reminded that not all the surprises of a great road trip are good ones, I bump over the median that separates those going into Albania and those coming out. And we're out of there.