Radoslav Bozovic thought we were nuts. Absolutely nuts.
We’d hired him to drive us through five countries in a day. We left Dubrovnik, Croatia, early in the morning, then drove through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and finally to Skopje, Macedonia.
Actually we made the trip for a couple of reasons. Largely it was economic. We wanted to see Dubrovnik, but then had to make our way to Istanbul where we had already booked flights with Turkish Airlines down to South Africa. And there were no direct flights from Dubrovnik to Istanbul. To fly would have taken all day and cost twice as much as it did to drive.
Not to mention it was a fascinating trip through the Balkans, particularly a stop at Kotor, a fortified town on the Adriatic coast and another world heritage site. We drove through impoverished Albania and ended up in a charming bed and breakfast in Skopje, next to the official residence of the President of Macedonia.
Our driver was a huge asset. The borders in this complex region are notoriously hard to cross. Most of the time Bozovic pretended we were his wife’s long lost relatives visiting from America, which explained why we couldn’t speak the local languages. That and an occasional bout of shouting, seemed to grease the wheels of the bureaucrats who let us cross the borders without too much fuss. Apparently it could have been a lot worse had we tried to go it alone.
And yes, I was counting countries.
This began in Cambodia when a fellow tourist touring Angkor Wat told me about the Traveller’s Century Club – for people who have visited 100 countries.
Fascinated, I did a count and found myself a dozen or so short of the magic 100.
But then the debate raged: what is a country?
I realized the fairest and most accurate way to answer that question was to base it on the list of countries that are members of the United Nations. They list 193 counties, but there are also four other independent nation states not in the UN (Taiwan, Vatican City, Palestine and Kosovo). So, let’s say, that makes 197 countries in the world.
However take a look at the Olympic and the World Cup organizations. The IOC lists 206 member nations and FIFA lists 211. For example, the UN counts the United Kingdom as one country, yet FIFA and the IOC count England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland separately.
I had other territories on my list. I decided they didn’t count. I had included Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Macau. But they are territories or dependencies of other nations according to the UN, not strictly countries. And officially, there are 58 of them.
After researching this for a year I have concluded that under the UN definition I have been to 104 countries and 20 territories.
That day in the Balkans added six more and got me very close to the 100 mark!
The main purpose of that trip, in 2015, was really to go on safari in Africa but started in Italy.
Remember Clive’s law: find interesting places to stay en route to your main destination because of the high cost of air fares.
We flew to Venice from Vancouver, took a memorable private water taxi to our hotel on the Grand Canal and spent four glorious days wandering the back streets and canals of Venice. And on one of those days, drove 175 miles to the tiny Republic of San Marino – squeezed into the North East corner of Italy. It was worth the drive to see Mount Titano, with three spectacular defensive fortresses perched on its slopes.
Venice was magical, rightly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And our lasting memory of dining there was they had the most delicious tomatoes in the world! The young man who waited on us the first night, as we watched dusk gather over the Grand Canal, whispered to us that we were, in fact, eating tomatoes from his own garden, picked only hours earlier. It may be hot in Italy during August but worth it for the tomatoes alone! Our hotel, the Hotel Canal Grande, which collectively probably had the nicest staff of any hotel we have ever visited, was located just across the canal from the main rail station.
So on our departure from Venice, our hotel procured the assistance of a porter as we made the short trek across the bridge to take the train to Florence.
Of course, I remember Florence for the Uffizi, Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, but I remember it for two other reasons. I dropped my Nikon camera on a concrete floor. And the camera survived! That’s why I buy Nikon. The other reason was the restaurant we discovered – Mamma Gina. Family-run, reasonably priced and some of the best Tuscan pasta, fish and meat we’ve ever eaten. And my wife reminds me of two other reasons, gelato and night music. All reasons to return again and again.
While in Florence, we hired a guide for a day trip to Cinque Terre – a string of centuries old seaside fishing villages on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline. In each of the five towns there are colourful houses and vineyards clinging to steep terraces. We sailed from town to town under bright blue skies. As the towns are jammed with tourists by mid-day, we left at dawn and arrived just as the first sleepy town was rising. It was magical but as the day lengthened, it lost some of it’s charm.
On the way back, we just had time for Pisa. I thought it would be tacky and it was never really on my bucket list. But was I wrong. Set in a beautifully manicured area, the gleaming marble tower, glittered in the setting sun. My wife, who had avoided it on numerous trips to Italy over the years, said it took her breath away. I hiked up the 284 steps to the top – well worth it, for the amazing view.
Leaving Florence, we took the train to Rome, overnighted at the airport ( if you book the Hilton at the airport, know that there are two hotels to avoid any confusion) and then flew to Dubrovnik to begin our sojourn to the Balkans.
We spent our wedding anniversary in Dubrovnik and splurged on a hotel that overlooked the Adriatic. The distinctive old town, encircled with massive stone walls completed in the 16th Century is utterly spellbinding.
It takes about an hour to walk right around the wall looking down on the streets, some of which glisten as they are made of marble. And the distinctive red tile roofs add to its beauty.
Istanbul, located on the Bosphorus, spans both Asia and Europe. Full of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture like Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, Sultan Ahmed Mosque – and the Grand Bazaar.
Noisy, dirty, frantic. That’s Istanbul today, but now terrorism haunts the entire country.
There are carpet salesmen everywhere. I swear we didn’t walk down a single street without hearing the patter of a salesman telling us we had to buy from him. The bazar was so crowded and hot it is surprising they don’t find bodies under foot! “Hello, beautiful lady,” or “Sir, kind gentleman” was the constant refrain of the stall owners. “Hello, where are you from? Vancouver? I once lived there….near Seattle. Hello, I have the carpet you want.” But they are extremely charming.
The clear highlight of that visit, though, was a trip to Ephesus on the coast of Ioni. Built in the 10th Century B.C. the ancient city’s top attraction is its temple to the goddess Artemis. Today only a few columns remain of the temple. But other treasures, like the library, remain. A highlight on my bucket list.
Other countries and sites on my list of short, flying visits included Angola. It was my birthday and I bribed a boat owner to row me across the Okavango River into Angola – despite warnings from our guide that we were flirting with danger as armed soldiers camped out along the river. However, he agreed that it was early morning and the chances were very high that most of the soldiers would be sleeping off excesses from the night before. I was safe.
Another fast trip was to Macao. I was in Hong Kong one year, filming a story for BCTV, when I took the opportunity to take a hydrofoil to the Portuguese territory. Full of giant casinos, it has been nicknamed the Las Vegas of Asia.
Surprisingly, the Vatican counts as a country. The world’s smallest. Most people who visit Rome have been there because it is home to the Sistine chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
We have wonderful memories of two-day trips to smaller countries and territories like Luxembourg, Morocco, Andorra, Gibraltar and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which is consumption on steroids – but I loved the spectacular architecture.
So 104 countries and counting. I still have two major trips remaining on my must see list – one to see the Komodo dragons in Indonesia, orangutangs in Borneo, Lhasa in Tibet and the country of Bhutan, snuggled close to Nepal. The second trip is to travel through West Africa – I have always wanted to see Timbuktu in Mali. That seems like an appropriate place to conclude our adventures.
As Sir Richard Burton, the explorer, once said: “The gladdest moment in human life, methinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.