The story of my journey through the Balkans can be found in my third book, The Wisdom Of The Road Gods (which you can buy HEREif you’re so moved). But like any tale of such a journey, there are untold stories I did not include in the book. I did this because I figured they might interrupt the flow of the narrative. But they remain in my head, and when they start clamouring to be told, then I guess I need to tell them…
It was still early morning when I started down off the alps. It was high summer, but alps are going to alp, and it was cold.
I was about a kilometre above sea-level and coming down through the Wurzenpass through the Karawanks Mountains that separate Slovenia from Austria.
It’s quite the historic road, and first paved in 1734, since it afforded one of the relatively easier paths through a grim and forbidding mountain range.
During the Cold War, the mighty Austrian army had installed a series of bunkers along the route just in case Tito’s Yugoslavian military juggernaut decided it wanted to seek revenge for the still-remembered atrocities of WWII – in which case the Austrian bunkers would likely have been turned into smouldering graves, and Yugoslavia might have extended its territory to include the outer suburbs of Vienna.
But the Austrians have always had fabulous luck in this regard.
Back in 1241, when Odogei Khan was chief of the Most Horrible Eastern Bastards Ever, the Mongols utterly destroyed Hungary in the Battle of Mohi. Half of its inhabited places had been turned into smoking ruins, and 25 per cent of its population had been killed. The Mongol armies – all five of them, were led by Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis and creator of the Golden Horde), and the fabled general, Subutai – were now on their way to Vienna.
They clashed with the Duke of Austria, Frederick II, and a bunch of his knights in their almost successful encirclement of the capital. Frederick and his boys managed to kill maybe 700 Mongols, and lost about 100 of their own men.
This was no biggie as far as the Golden Horde was concerned. They had lots more men, and their thus-far successful tactics of invasion and conquest was to send small raiding parties into villages, commit bucketloads of atrocities on the unarmed villagers, which instilled the appropriate terror in the general population, which would then be told to surrender or get more of the same.
So while the loss of 700 vicious savages was not about to stop the Mongols seizing Vienna, and very likely a lot more of western Europe, the death of Odogei Khan was. Batu and Subutai received the news, and in very short order the whole mob then returned to the east so they could set about sorting out a new mega-Khan. Vienna – and indeed Europe – was spared.
Much later, in the aftermath of WWII, the allies largely ignored Austria’s part in the war. Not the least of which was first supplying a Fuhrer, and then enthusiastically joining the Third Reich in the Anschluss (Union).
Austria declared itself a “victim” of the Third Reich after the war, and…well, no-one really argued that point very much – though they maybe should have – and everyone’s attention was very much on Germany and the Nuremburg Trials anyway. This probably explains why the Austrians were still having SS reunions well into the 21st century.
As I made my way through the pass, the Victory Magnum’s pipes booming and thundering in a most pleasing manner, the stirrings of hunger were upon me. I had left the stunning Slovenian Lake Bled early, and as I’d made my way along the banks of the Sava River (the very same Sava River that flowed past my ancestral town of Sabac and met with the Danube at Belgrade), my appetite had been teased awake in every single Slovenian village at the foot of the Alps.
Smart people, the Slovenians. They worked out a while back the villages which run from Lake Bled to the Wurzenpass – Hrusica, Dovje, Belca, Gozd Martuljek, Kranjska Gora, and finally Podkoren, where you chuck a hard right and head into the mountains (or continue west into Italy) – are ideally situated to attract motorcycle riders. The roads are amazing – smooth, light-grey bitumen, and largely free of traffic thanks to the Karawanken tunnel which replaced the Wurzenpass as the preferred route from Slovenia into Austria.
The scenery is stunning – everything from snow-capped mountains to fast-running streams, sparkling like light-blue frosted glass, and forever-deep forests that stupid luscious green only Europe seems to have.
The air is piercingly clean and crisp – and as you approach the villages, also redolent with the smell of spit-roasted pork and lamb, and fresh-baked bread. At first I thought I was having a stroke – strange, out-of-place smells can sometimes be the precursor to parts of your brain exploding and pouring out of your nose. Oh well, I thought, this is a pretty a place to die as any. And then I saw the source of the delicious perfume. An enterprising inn-keeper had situated a large spit outside his picturesque inn, and was slowly rotating a gorgeous dead beast on it. The smell was wafting in the air, and as you entered the village, it hit you like a promise. He had even hung a banner above the inn which read “Dobro dosli bajkeri!”(Welcome, Bikers!) – and I almost pulled in.
But it was 7am, and I was not prepared for a major spit-roast feast at this point in the day. Besides, the swine was unlikely to be ready to eat at this time. The inn-keeper was merely preparing for the day to come, as it were. I rode on, and in each successive village, I encountered more or less the same delicious scenario.
I got to Podkoren, where the road forks, and either turns north into the alps, or continues west for a few short kays and spits you into Italy at the Valico Di Fusine. It then subjects you to myriads of glorious ski resorts until you eventually arrive in the town of Tolmezzo where you’ll be robbed and beaten by gypsies.
I sat there idling for a bit, looking up at the mountains on my right, as well as the road ahead, and wondered if I had time to detour to Munich via Northern Italy. I had to be on a plane home in four days, and my detours are always unpredictable. The other option was to go back to one of the villages and eat roasted pig, drink beer, and admire the stunning Slovenian girls (and they are stunning. I know. I married one) until there was some kind of unpleasantness, followed by a crazy late-night escape over the alps. This is still the Balkans, after all. Anything was possible.
“Next time…” I muttered, clicked the Victory into first, turned right, and headed into the mountains.
The road only got better as I entered Austria. Smooth, fast, and surrounded by those stunning deep green forests that bathe your soul each time you look at them. But you can’t look at them too long or you’ll end up riding off the road and into a gorgeous tree, and then hopefully, into a very nice and efficient Austrian hospital. If you’re lucky.
It was now close to 830am, and I was hungry. I was good for petrol, but I needed to eat. And it was still pretty cold, so I wouldn’t have minded a break. Villach, a big Austrian town, was not far away, but I didn’t want to spend time riding around looking for a place to eat in a large, busy town during Peak Hour.
So I didn’t take the Villach turn-off – and went somewhere else. I’m not quite sure where it was, and I will likely never find it again because I had asked the Google Lady to lead me away from the Autobahns, so I do know it was some not-major road somewhere west of Villach. And I also know it was a truck-stop because there were two trucks parked out front. It looked like a shop and it had the words “kaufhaus – espresso – trafik” (shop, coffee, and cigarettes) on a small sign on the outside wall. And it was called “da capo”. This meant nothing in German and The Boss in Italian.
At the very least I could buy smokes and have a coffee, but probably much more.
Being a civilised country, Austria provides beer to everyone at all times of the day and night, as well as food. But it was early in the morning, and for all I knew, the drivers of the semis I parked beside may be asleep in their cabins and the place could be closed. But the Road Gods occasionally smile at the hungry traveller, and the door was open.
I walked into what looked like an Aussie delicatessen, with an archway to one side that opened onto a bar area with small dining tables and a big bar, propped up by two large truck drivers drinking beer. In the deli area, was a large, strong-looking woman, who greeted me with a big smile and a torrent of German.
I knew enough to understand she was not telling me to get out, and I gathered she was commenting on how cold it was, and how brave I must be to be out in that weather.
I haltingly explained to her that my German was limited, and she replied her English was almost non-existent, but we were both smiling and there seemed to be a way forward.
Good old sign language and the odd German word for food (lebensmittel) and eating (essen) and breakfast (fruhstuck), saw Inge (she introduced herself almost immediately) busy herself behind the counter. Laid out in the glass display cabinet was a staggering selection of cold meats, pickled vegetables, and cheeses. She chattered away in German pointing at various yummy goodies and I would nod “Ja, bitte”, (Yes, please) and she would put some of it on a giant plate. When the plate was embarrassingly full, she looked at me with a quizzical smile and said: “Brot?”
Hell Ja, I wanted bread. Fresh German or Austrian bread is one of the world’s greatest things. It’s right up there with penicillin in terms of benefitting mankind.
She placed two giant slices of white, crusty bread on another plate and then asked: “Bier?”
The fuck can you even think about saying no to Austrian beer before nine am? Hell Ja, once again. Inge carried my plates over to the bar area, put them on a table, and then went behind the bar to pour me a beer. It was a litre. In this part of the world, only women and the ill drink half-litre beers. She also smashed another two out for the truck drivers, who were giving me a friendly once-over.
Inge and the truckies discussed me briefly, she brought my beer over, wished me “Gut apetit!”, and the truckies raised their glasses and said “Prost!”
I Prosted them back, and started chewing my way through what remains one of the finest impromptu, ad hoc brekkies I have ever eaten.
As I ate and sipped fine cold beer, I also talked to the two truckies. It was one of those bizarre conversations where no-one involved speaks the other party’s language, one party has his mouth and hands full, and the other two parties have had more than one litre of beer.
There was lots of “Ja, ja!”and “Nein, nein!”, and the odd “Wunderbar” here and there, and eventually, I was given to understand that only crazy motorcyclists ever rode these mountain roads in the mornings, Inge was a hostess beyond price who has forever refused to marry either driver, and that there was a contingent of “arschloch Polizei” further down the road with a speed trap.
I tried to ask if they were also breath-testing, but neither truckie seemed to understand my gestures, and probably thought I was asking where I could get a blow-job. Which, all things considered was not a strange thing to be asking a bunch of truckies in Austria at nine am when everyone’s had a few beers.
Inge returned and asked if I wanted another beer. I certainly did, and I wasn’t overly worried about being over the limit. But I was worried about having to pull over every 15 minutes for the next three hours and void two-litres of Austria’s finest beverages in places where I might offend the sensibilities of the locals. I’m not sure how many years you get in jail for pissing in public in that part of the world, but it’s sure to be a decent lagging. I politely declined, and I think she thought me less of a man as a result.
I recall I paid very little for my magnificent breakfast – and Austria is not a cheap country. So maybe Inge took some pity on the old, grey-bearded biker from a foreign land, and slashed the price to somewhere under $20 of our money.
It strikes me to this day what an immense contrast such a place is to a truck stop in Australia. Our large roadhouses offer nothing but cancer, diabetes, and heart failure to our truckies. And the chances of a life-giving beer are less than zero given the inanity of our policing. It may be that we are so used to eating shit and being treated like shit, we actually think we’re doing OK. One trip to Europe will very quickly disabuse you of that misconception.
I shook hands with the truckies, who wished me a great ride, Inge gave me a little hug (she appeared to be as strong as a bear), and I went outside to thumb the Victory back into life.
It was about 10am, the sun was shining, the roads were still pretty empty, and my maps told me there were lots more corners I had yet to ride.
And how could a man not want to visit a place called Mooswald?
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.