CAPUT AUTOS ON THE AUTOPUT
For anyone who had grown up in England in the 60s and lived through the weird phenomenon of the Sound of Music running for about two years in the local cinema, the landscape in Austria was not unfamiliar and it continues not to be unfamiliar as you enter the first part of Jugoslavia. Crossing the mountains and descending towards Bled and driving on to Zagreb you could still be in Austria although I am sure any Austrians or Slovenians would dispute this hotly; for who wants to be told they resemble their neighbours?
We must have passed Zagreb in the mid to late morning and we were now driving along a narrow pot-holed street, two-way traffic, pretty busy, a bit wider than a country lane.
“This must be the road to the motorway,” I said to Deborah.
“No!” said a Greek in front who had turned to look at us between the seats, “this IS the motorway…the Autoput !!” And, treating us to a facial expression that could have come right out of the most blood-thirstily depressing Aeschylean tragedy, he turned back into his seat.
We looked at one another. There was a road sign coming up…a bit bent, battered and rusty…
Four hundred and thirty seven kilometres and nowhere before?
Apart from a few shacks and hovels at the side of the road this
narrow country road snakes across the centre of what was
Jugoslavia and at that time it handled all the traffic from the west of Europe to countries in the east such as Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.
And that means whopping great pantechnicans and an endless
stream of slow-moving clapped out old trucks and late holiday
makers with ludicrously big caravans hitched onto underpowered
cars and Turks transporting the gross national product of their
country on their Ford Transits…and our coach.
And that in turn means that the road surface is wildly overloaded and therefore full of potholes over which we were jolting with painful regularity.
And that also means that the traffic moves extremely and unbelievably frustratingly SLOWLY!
Which in turn means that anyone with a little bit of extra horsepower under their bonnets and a suicidal streak in their hearts spends the whole time looking for the slightest gap in the oncoming traffic in which to overtake the obstructing vehicle in front.
Which explains the macabre but bounteous harvest of a veritable multitude of overturned burnt-out wrecks of all makes, shapes and sizes along the roadside; left there to rust or rot in the rain or sun, demonstrating with black silent eloquence that no make of car is a status symbol when it is on the scrapheap.
At one point in the long hot afternoon during which the advertised but not actually onboard air-conditioning would have been really good, all the traffic in both directions ground screechingly to a halt. Cars, trucks and lorries stretched bumper to bumper from the horizon behind us to the one in front. People started getting out of their cars. We risked it too. Ah, the joy of stretching your legs even surrounded by this hopeless dollop of sticky traffic jam.
We went over to a nearby wreck and sat on what had been a bonnet.
“I feel as if I have spent my whole life on this coach”
“Me too. It’s like a strange coach-shaped never-ending journey.”
It was a phenomenon which I experienced every time I did one of these coach journeys. There comes a point where you simply cannot remember ever having had a life outside of this coach and you are also incapable of imagining a future life anywhere but inside the coach.
After about an hour of stillness there was talk of something happening far up ahead in the distance. Like a look-out on an old sailing ship sighting land, someone had spotted movement ahoy. Gradually we got underway again. No doubt one of the wrecks we passed had been the cause of the hold up but we would never know. Accidents on this road wouldn’t even merit a mention in a very local newspaper - assuming there were any places around here in this forsaken region with enough inhabitants to warrant a local paper – you would really only have needed a local back-of-an-envelope.
On we trundled at about 70 to 80 kilometres an hour…that’s 45 to 50 mph…also known as "a v e r y s l o w c r a w l". The road signs to Beograd still seemed to have the same number of kilometres on them as they had at the start, as if they had just had a hundred copies made of the sign we saw outside Zagreb.
From deep down in my lower intestinal tract, messages were coming in to my brain of the need for a bowel movement…not yet urgent but dull and insistent. The food I had eaten over the last couple of days, going at a speed similar to our speed at the moment, had finally made it to the dispatch department.
I get a bit grumpy and groany when I feel like that and Deborah complained that I was getting on her nerves. So I had a sulk. I was too polite to tell her, “I just need a crap!”
So, Deborah, if you are reading this, now you know the truth!
On and on this 400 kilometre-long procession of vehicles droned; through boring forests, up boring hills, alongside boring fields we jerked and jolted. The sun slowly moved to the west up in the harsh glinting sky and that was also pretty boring.
More forests, more hills, more fields…and then a few more forests and hills...
Hour after hour on this fucking road…a dullness spreading through me from the small intestines to every part of my body and then extending out through my skin into the landscape outside…dull, dull, DULL!!
With a very great disinterest I noticed we were finally nearing Beograd. 101 kilometres, 49.5 kilometres, 23.025 kilometres – I have often wondered why they put these road signs in exactly these places…why not just go down the road a bit to where you are say 100 kilometres away or 50 or 25? I have often wondered that but not on this occasion; right now I couldn’t have cared less.
Beograd was all I could have wished for in my present miserable mood. Endless rows of horrible grey communist concrete blocks of flats…like Lego towers drained of all their pretty colours. This is where the architects who “designed” the inner cities in England in the 60s came to die.
Night was falling and we were somewhere deep in the bowels of Jugoslavia probably at some point in the never-ending wooded valleys between Niš and Skopje. I was beginning to lose my will to live…like a hypothermia sufferer…I felt perhaps I could just snuggle down into this coach seat and drift off, never to awake…
The news that we were getting near to the Greek border which filtered through the bus improved my mood a little. I looked out of the window and saw the silhouette of a hill topped by a fort of some kind lit by the full moon and was reminded of the never-ending Balkan wars we had studied. It looked quite romantic…I was obviously feeling better.
Then, abruptly we bumped and banged into a brightly illuminated sort of large lay-by with guard posts.
This must be Greece…! There’s a sign…YES!!! Thank the Olympian gods for that!!
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