Balkan Road Trip Part V: The Country Manor

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This is Part V (and the conclusion) of the epic Balkan road trip I undertook with my friend Lara over one crazy weekend in September 2016. For the rest of the story, please click on the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Fumbling with the keys in the lock, Lara eventually got the door open and flicked on the light switch. Why we had entered through the rear of the premises like cat burglars she wouldn’t comment, but regardless of whether we were trespassing on private land or not, I decided in that very moment I would be spending the night there regardless. The corner kitchen area opened up into a massive lounge area, with the luxurious corner sofa and armchair combination laid out in front of such a large television that it created a home cinema environment. Against the opposing wall were numerous trinkets and collectables, with a rather antiquated drinks cabinet stocked to the brim with equally aged bottles of Scotch and other hard liquor. To the left was a staircase, and the room-sized patio windows to my right were hidden by floor to ceiling length blinds. It was the item tucked in the back corner, however, that stole the show. As I dumped the bags and took off my jacket and shoes, Lara waltzed over to the black leather massage chair and pressed a few buttons on the control panel. ‘80s American West Coast hip hop started blaring from the speakers in the headrest.

“No fucking way,” I yelled with glee, rapping along to a couple of bars. “What else does it play?”

“Nothing,” giggled Lara. “It comes pre-set with a playlist and we decided to choose the ‘gangsta’ package.”

“Of course you did.”

With Dr Dre as a soundtrack, Lara proceeded to give me a tour of her country estate. It was passed down to her father and uncle as a farmhouse by their parents and has been a continuing development ever since. With the main property now complete, plans were being made to construct a gym and Jacuzzi/sauna in the outhouse. As we crept up the spooky stairs, through a study, and into the sleeping quarters, she explained to me that the family had also decided to purchase all of the surrounding lands as well so that nobody could build near them and spoil the habitat. Standing on the balcony in the pitch black, I was promised that daylight would bring with it an absolutely epic view of the Serbian wilderness. We were absolutely starving, so Lara cooked up some pasta whilst I shuffled a deck of cards and popped a bottle of champagne that we found in the fridge. As the temperature plummeted we dealt hands, drank, and chatted shit to one another, before snuggling up under the warmth of her bedsheets. My flight the following evening from Trieste was a seven-hour drive away across four countries. With stacks of boring corporate paperwork waiting for me in Scotland, I considered just staying there and starting a new life; a simple existence filled with a tranquillity that would allow one to truly enjoy the little things.

“It’s funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most.
Not where you live, what you drive or the price tag on your clothes.
There’s no dollar sign on a piece of mind; this I’ve come to know.
So if you agree, have a drink with me, raise your glasses for a toast.”

I stumbled down the staircase the following morning and entered the living room; the cold tiles on my bare feet quick to shake my grogginess. Lara followed close behind, and as I stretched and yawned she pressed a button on the wall-mounted control panel. The faint whirring noise of an electric motor could be heard as the patio blinds began to rise and fold up. Like an excited dog who has just seen snow for the first time, I knelt down and peered under the slowly widening gap. A utopian vista unfurled before me. Crisp autumnal colours stretched for as far as the eye could see. A myriad of greens, brown, oranges, and reds canvassing the rolling fields and frosty hills. I didn’t need to say a word. That view itself completely encapsulated my understanding of why this place was so special to Lara. I made a promise to return one day. For now, though, it was time to depart and begin the long journey home.

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For the entire trip, Lara had continually pestered me that she wanted to drive. I’d been reluctant to let her up until this point, with the girl not being insured on the car, nor having held a licence for long enough to be named as a second driver. As we tidied up the property and gave the house keys back to her neighbour, however, I looked around at the solitude. If there was any moment to give her a shot behind the wheel, then this was it. We were far from any major traffic and there wasn’t a policeman for miles. She winced with glee as I took my place in the passenger seat. Adjusting the rear-view mirror and sliding into first gear, she pulled onto the road that headed back to the motorway, and we were off.

“You might want to move up a gear,” I politely suggested, as the rev meter flirted with the red line.

“Do you think?” she responded; the clutch breathing a sigh of relief as she moving up to second.

“Perhaps,” I inclined, as we turned a sharp corner and faced the glare of an oncoming farm vehicle. “You might also not want to hug the centre line of the road so closely.”

“Did I tell you that there is a prison up here on the right? she said, choosing to ignore my last comment as the tractor whistled past just a ball-hair from our left wing mirror. “There are warnings not to pick up any hitchhikers in this area in case they turn out to be escaped convicts.”

“Give this guy a wide birth then, why don’t you?” I hinted as we screeched around the old man gallivanting down the middle of the road. We then had to further avoid two more pedestrians walking on similarly suicidal paths in quick succession. Granted, there was no pavement, but the lack of awareness these locals were showing made it seem like they had been bitten by a zombie virus and were on the run from an apocalypse. Or, perhaps they had been incarcerated for so long that they’d forgotten general highway safety.

When we reached civilisation and the speeding cars of the motorway I hopped back into the driver’s seat. Overall, Lara had done a pretty damn good job and being able to give my foot a rest, even if it was for only ten miles or so, was a delight. At that time in the morning, there was barely any queue at the border, and before we knew it our passports had been stamped and we were back in Croatia. As the TomTom indicated for us to continue on the same road for the next 216 miles, Lara turned to me; a guilty expression on her face.

“Chris,” she whispered. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

“What?” I queried, a little disturbed by the tone of her voice.

“I know that I’m not insured to drive the car at all,” she started, “but when I asked the guy at the car rental desk about taking Ben into Serbia, he told me that your insurance covers EU member countries only.”

“Right,” I chuckled, trying to process what Lara was hinting at. “So what you’re saying is, even although you knew that neither of us was legally allowed to drive in Serbia, you conveniently forgot to tell me that pretty vital piece of information so that I would cross into the country anyway?”

“Exactly,” she grinned, happy that I’d understood her plan.

“And that, I’m guessing, is why you were so keen to get out of Belgrade before nightfall?”

“Precisely.”

“Well, we’re in the clear now, so I’m not even going to pretend to be annoyed. I’d break plenty more rules if it meant I could spend another night in that epic country manor. Whilst we’re on confessions, though, there is also something I should get off my chest.”

“Go on…” she purred, one eyebrow raised like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

“Perhaps, maybe, possibly, I made an ever so slight change to our car booking before you arrived.”

“I knew it,” she glared, before bursting into laughter.

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We chewed up the miles across northern Croatia, stopping only for petrol and a panic-stricken toilet break. Approaching the border with Slovenia, Lara then got out her makeup bag, folded down the sun visor, and started applying lipstick in the little mirror. I didn’t even have to ask what she was doing. With the ominously long line of cars queued up, Lara was planning to run some routines on an unsuspecting customs officer. On approaching the front of the line, I let her take charge, and within a minute we were cleared to pass through without even showing our passports. Even Lara looked impressed by this result. It occurred to me that I might have genuinely been travelling with the female version of Jason Bourne. This teenager has multiple passports, speaks twice as many languages, owns numerous ‘safehouses’ across Europe, and has a way of manipulating people with those big brown eyes of hers that I’ve only ever seen from masters in covert operations and neurolinguistics programming. Thankfully, she has committed the cardinal sin of never having a single film in the Bourne franchise, so won’t really have an understanding that I just compared her to a butch, forty-year-old, man. Otherwise, there’s a chance that I could go missing without a trace.

“Even the half smile would have slowed down the time.
If I could call you half mine.
Maybe this is the safest way to go.”

It was plain sailing from there on in, and I was soon pulling into a rental car bay in the Trieste airport car park. Ben the Corsa looked like he had been through the wars all right, with mud splattered tyres from our country retreat, a bug splattered windshield from the pounding motorway legs, dust covered doors from tracks around Lake Bled, and scrapes and scratches on the rear bumper that were most definitely there when we picked up the car and could not have been made at any point on our epic 1500km journey.

“Oh, hey, it’s the Panda couple,” said the woman behind the desk as Lara handed back the keys. “How was your trip?”

“Great thanks. It seems like we’re local celebrities now after this one’s little outburst,” I laughed, giving Lara a nudge. “Do you need to check the car at all?”

“Nah, it’s all good,” she shrugged, clearly not giving a shit. I could have told her that we’d entered the Corsa into a Demolition Derby and then run it over with a tank and she’d probably have responded in the same blasé manner. “Actually, did you fill it up with petrol at all?”

“Yeah, Ben’s got a full tank.”

“Ben?” she queried.

“Never mind.”

With a few minutes to steal before I had to go through security, we headed up to the café which overlooks the runway. Ordering some coffees we then sat in silence, neither of us wanting to say anything but both of us thinking everything. I hate goodbyes. When they play that song, our song, all I’ll picture is her turning up that radio dial. Feet up on the dash; window down; sunglasses on; and that jet black hair blowing in the breeze. The landscape whistling by at 130km/h. It was over before it even begun, but we got it right. We’ll always have the bar in Zagreb. We’ll always have that balcony in Serbia. We’ll always have that Highway 70 ride. Always.

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