With the winter snows clearing from the Alpine peaks, CRA Route Master Keith Baud set out in April with Winter Challenge winner Anthony Preston for an exhaustive survey of the route for the 2005 Classic Marathon to Slovenia and Croatia.
The former Yugoslavia has an illustrious history of long distance rallies from the tough Liege-Sofia-Liege's of the '60's to the World Cup Rallies of the '70's. and Keith reports that there need be no concern for safety or security in the area.
As is usual the world over, the people of all the countries in the area are warm, welcoming and friendly. This is what France, Italy and Austria were like 50 years ago in the Golden Age of rallying. So if you want to enjoy a great adventure exploring one of Europe's last remote areas, then read Keith and Anthony's brief report.
Day 1 - Sunday 11th September - Opatija to Zagreb:
From our start at this Adriatic resort close to Italy, a loop west into the hills of the Pula peninsula takes us into the first regularity section of the event. This is a lovely area, very much influenced by the Venetians, with pretty hilltop villages and vineyards.
Heading east, just south of the Slovenian border the route then enters and area of mountainous pine forests - many of the roads were still blocked by snow in April. We will take lunch in the little town of Duga Res where the owner of the hotel - Zefjko Kekic - is also the President of the local Old Timer Club. So a good welcome should be guaranteed.
North of Duga Res lies a lovely area of rolling, wooded hills, vineyards and remote villages hiding a maze of lanes which we will be exploring fully before the final control in the ancient town of Samobor, just west of the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Day 2 - Monday 12th September - Zagreb to Sarajevo:
Today we head south out of Zagreb, but not before a test at one of the kart tracks in the city outskirts.
The run south is fast, on quiet traffic free tarmac roads. But beware! It seemed to us that bends in Croatia had a habit of suddenly tightening up on you! As you approach the Bosnian and Herzegovinian border evidence of the war is more obvious - there is a lot of new housing to replace that damaged in the war. You will also start to see your first mosques, which gives the event quite an exotic feel.
You may wonder why I call it the lengthy Bosnia and Herzegovina. Well the Herzegovinians get very touchy if you leave them off so from now on I will abbreviate it to BiH.
The border crossing at Bosanski Novi is not a popular one so hopefully your passage into BiH will be relatively easy. However, there did not appear to be a bureau de change or bank in the town where you could change Euros into Convertible Mark - the local currency. But don't worry too much, despite what the only guide book to the country says, most fuel stations take Credit Cards but if not, they will usually do you a deal in Euro's.
You will certainly have plenty to look at as we cross range after range of remote mountains, culminating in a dramatic descent into Travnik before a final main road run into the capital, Sarajevo.
As home to the 1984 Winter Olympics, the mountains surrounding the city proved to be ideal. It was here that Torvill and Dean won their famous Gold in the ice skating. However, these same mountains gave the Serbs an ideal platform from which to launch their 1200 day siege of the city from which it still bears the scars. But that was 10 years ago, and whilst there are still plenty of ruined buildings lining the streets, I can remember seeing just the same sights in London in 1955 - 10 years after WWII.
Sarajevo is a fascinating place and apart from the new buildings of Novi Sarajevo, still has the low level skyline of a city half a century ago...
Day 3 - Tuesday 13th September - Sarajevo to Split:
Not only do the surrounding 6000ft peaks of Jahorina, Igman and Bjelasnica provide excellent winter skiing, they also give us a couple of cracking regularities with which to start the day.
From here a number of roads lead across the lonely heights southwards. They afford some wonderful views and pas through remote villages hardly changed since the middle ages. We explored them all and none are suitable for our purposes - they are far too rough!
So we have to take the main road south. But don't despair, it is actually a lovely drive as it threads its way through deep river gorges and alongside the turquoise waters of JablanickoJezero lake west of Konjic.
Mostar is well known the world over for its famous arched bridge over the river Neretva, which has now been rebuilt after its destruction in 1994. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to park in the old town - most visitors come in by coach - so we may have to give it a miss. However, the great maze of tarmac roads on the Velez plateau to the east will more than compensate!
A short run brings us back to the Croatian border on another little used crossing. A final regularity on old Liege and World Cup Rally roads from the 60's and '70's, through the dramatic coastal range finally brings the beautiful Dalmation coast into view before the run north to the overnight halt in the ancient town of Split.
Day 4 - Wednesday 14th September - Split to Opatija:
It is easy to be seduced by this beautiful coast and the offlying islands, but it is a popular coast and traffic on the coast road can be heavy. Anyway, the mountain roads inland are more interesting!
Some of the old Liege sections are now too rough even for normal traffic (or maybe they were always like that?) so we shall be avoiding most of those. However, there is still plenty of choice in these unfrequented mountains, so you will not be short of competition or views as we head north west back to Opatija to complete the southern loop of the Balkans.
However, before the night halt, we still have a few laps of the magnificent Grobnik AutoMotodrom planned before you can rest and enjoy a few drinks.
Day 5 - Thursday 15th September - Opatija to Ljubljana:
A short run north from Opatija brings us to the Slovenian border and the start of yet another great days rallying.
The war in Slovenia only lasted 6 days so there is little evidence and the country is now prospering under its EU membership. The roads are good, the towns and villages tidy, the people well fed and clothed, the cars modern. In short Slovenia makes much of "western" Europe look shoddy!
It is also impossibly pretty, particularly in the Julian Alps bordering Austria. Magnificent castles, onion-domed hill top churches, wooden houses and contented cows make this a real "Sound of Music" landscape. But 56% of Slovenia is forest, much of it deciduous, and home to an extraordinary collection of wildlife. Whilst I cannot admit to seeing any of the local bears we saw numerous deer, wild boar, red squirrels and at one point even a wild cat!
Of course these forests also hide a maze of beautifully engineered gravel roads which we will be making good use of as we head north for the highest pass in Slovenia - the Vrsic. At 1611m it is as high as the Col de Turini but its 46 hairpins (some still cobbled) and magnificent alpine scenery makes this the equal of any of the alpine greats. Many rallies have passed this way over the years.
No trip to Slovenia would be complete without a visit to the picturesque Lake Bled, the blue waters of the lake framed by snow capped peaks. But again, it is the country roads around the lake that hold a bigger attraction for us before we reach the overnight halt in Ljubljana...
Day 6 - Friday 16th September - Ljubljana to Ljubljana:
The Classic Marathon is renowned for its final "sting in the tail" day. In this case we really have left the best right until the very last... This short day again explores the foothills and forests of the Julian Alps for a number of testing regularities before lunch.
After lunch, if all goes to plan, we reckon we shall be giving you something that may never have been done on a Classic Rally before. What is it? Well, you will have to join us in September to find out, but it should be a fitting and enjoyable finale to what promises to be another great Classic Marathon from the originators of the sport - the Classic Rally Association.