The Long and Whining Road

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The Long and Whining Road by Simeon Courtie

Free excerpt - Croatia

When Simeon Courtie persuaded his wife, Jill, and three daughters, Ella (13), Bethan (11) and Edie (9) to leave home and drive a VW camper van around the world for a year, busking The Beatles for charity, he soon discovered that song contests and political unrest don’t mix.

Battering rain lashed us as we negotiated the precarious, mountainous coast road south towards Dubrovnik. Jill kept holding her breath and leaning away from the sheer drop beneath her as we wound through almost impenetrable rain. We got as far as Makarska, an hour or two south, before Jill’s nerves could take no more. We had packed the tent away wet the morning we left Italy and so collectively agreed that unpeeling sodden nylon to camp in this horizontal rain was a bad idea.

The Dalmatian coast is dotted with towns that boast a clutter of ‘Apartment For Rent’ signs, most of them so homemade and badly written that you suspect the ‘luxury holiday accommodation’ is in fact a swarthy Croatian farmer’s back bedroom. After a few ‘er, I think not’ false starts I found a reasonably priced apartment for the night. A perfect chance to stop, dry out and spread a huge map of the Balkans out on the table of our kitchenette to plan our route from Dubrovnik down to Thessaloniki in Greece.

I was very excited that the route which avoided the steepest mountain passes, and politically difficult Albania, would take us through a total of six countries. The list went like this: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece. It was only when I presented Jill with this list that she went online to do some research on the FCO website.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a great website providing travel advice to Brits abroad. It's bang up to date, and even includes enlightening statistics like ‘how many British Nationals required consular assistance in the past year’, ‘how many died’, ‘how many were injured’ and ‘how many formed a ramshackle travelling band’. It was FCO advice, for instance, that led us to avoid Albania. It said:

We advise against all travel to the north east border areas (the districts of Kukes, Has and Tropoje) between Albania and Kosovo because of the risk of unexploded ordnance placed during the 1999 Kosovo crisis and the poor condition of the roads.

Although public security is generally good, particularly in Tirana, crime and violence still represent a serious problem in some areas. Gun ownership is widespread.

(I particularly liked that last bit. Factual. Scary.)

We’d found, when planning the trip, that it was a similar story when we looked at driving through Pakistan or Afghanistan. The cities, particularly the capitals, are fairly secure - it's the borders that are a nightmare. And you can't avoid those if you're driving from country to country.

And the FCO was about to put another couple of spanners in our turbo, so to speak. First, Montenegro looked difficult. Paperwork was required that I hadn't prepared, and we would have to register with the police or be arrested trying to leave. These things alarmed Jill and, frankly, didn't show my planning skills in their best light. The only road left to us, then, was the one that dropped us down towards Pristina from Serbia through the north of Kosovo.

‘The North Mitrovica area,’ I said with confidence. ‘Across the river Ibar.’

Jill read from the screen.

‘We continue to advise against all but essential travel to the North Mitrovica area. On the night of 11 September 2010 law and order forces had to intervene to separate Kosovo Serb and Kosovo Albanian mobs on either side of the River Ibar - an international policeman and at least one Serb were injured as shots were fired and Molotov cocktails thrown. Tension remains high.’

Tensions were about to get even higher in our kitchenette. That incident was less than a week old.

‘Did you plan any of this part of our journey?’ asked the prosecution.

‘Well. Sort of,’ I replied. It wasn't a rock solid defence, I know, but I was still forming my argument.

‘Sort of,’ repeated the prosecutor. ‘We have travelled, at some expense, all the way to Croatia. A country, from which, there is no overland route to Greece.’

‘Well, there is a ...’

‘Not,’ she interrupted, ‘unless Albanian gangsters, a prison cell in Montenegro and rioting mobs on the Kosovan border are part of your itinerary.’

(Dammit she's on a roll. Hang on, she hasn't finished.)

‘Explain. What, exactly, did you do in the way of planning?’

An awkward silence descended. I knew she wouldn't like the answer. She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

‘The Eurovision Song Contest.’ It sounded weak. I could see that now.

‘Sorry?’ She wasn't sorry. She was pretty angry.

‘Well, they all take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, don't they? So I just figured they must all be happy people. Friendly. If anything they're a little too friendly. The way they vote for each other is clearly not in the interests of finding the best song, it's because ...’

‘You based a major and costly part of our journey - on the Eurovision Song Contest?’

‘Well when you say it like that it sounds stupid. It's not like I sat down with the score sheet from the Radio Times and made a list, it's just ...’

‘Did you?’


‘Did you sit down with the score sheet from the Radio Times?’

‘No! It was just - y'know - a hunch. I'm sure I checked the FCO before we left. I couldn't have predicted violence that only took place a few days ago. We were trapped in Alessandria!’ That memory always cheered her up. She left the room. And in an open plan apartment that's not easy.

The argument was over. At least this round was. I won't bore you with the gory details of the many other rounds that followed on the subject of my lack of planning, but the upshot was that we now had a brand new plan to sail from Dubrovnik back to Bari in southern Italy, from where we’d catch another ferry across to Greece. Once the charged atmosphere had diffused a little, and we could talk about it again without anyone crying/throwing something/searching fruitlessly for a door to slam, we all agreed it was a darned shame that six exciting countries on our list were suddenly reduced to two. If I’d been on my own, or maybe with a mate on motorbikes, I'd have just pootled across and hoped for the best. After all, it’s an approach that had got me this far. But even I could see that taking the children through a riot of Molotov cocktails, gunfire and unexploded ordnance could, by some, be seen as irresponsible.

‘Back to Italy then,’ said Ella, visibly tiring at the very thought.

‘But at least we'll get to busk in Dubrovnik,’ I chirped.

Even that optimism, though, was doomed.