Touring The Balkans With A Porsche 912 In Quintessential ’60s Road-Tripping Style
Photography by Chris Koch and Madalina Ene
My favorite road trips count their kilometers by the thousand, and I’m lucky enough to have married someone who shares my enthusiasm for exploration. My wife Madalina and I have spent 10,000km glued together on a Harley Davidson, we’ve trekked across Patagonia in a Jeep Wrangler, and we showed up to the airport on our honeymoon pushing my 356 Speedster replica through the tunnel where it conveniently decided to take a mechanical nap. The point is, she’s a terrific sport, and my absolute favorite person to have next to me regardless of the means of locomotion.
Last year we set off on another Porsche-based adventure, though the details were quite different from that airport arrival a few years prior—I should have mentioned, we wanted to have a traditional honeymoon wherein bride and groom fly out to the destination on the same day as the wedding, tux and dress included. We must have been a sight to see, wheeling the car along the motorway in our very best schlepping attire… Thankfully the story I’m here to tell today involved none of that. Before I begin though, we should start with the car that made it possible.
The 912 was my very first Porsche, but it was by no means my first time spending time in the marque’s cars. When I was a growing up as a young boy susceptible to the charms of speed, my father used to drive me to school in Porsches on occasion, and over the years this took the form of sitting shotgun in his 356 Speedster, his first G-body 911, and in a handful of Carreras that followed throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. I loved it. So much so that I bought a 356 Speedster of my own, albeit not a genuine one. There was no way I could afford such a car, but, I had a plan to get there eventually. And it began with this 912, our little green frog.
Was my plan very complex? No. It went like this: find a 912, then find a 911, then find a 356, then find a 356 Speedster; with enough hard work over time and enough digging, perhaps I can complete the circle, in a sense. My father’s Porsches were certainly influential cars in my budding world back then, but their presence in my head has proven a constant one, and I doubt I’ll ever get tired of these cars.
I’d been searching for an entry point into the world of vintage Porsche for a while, and the 912 seemed like the right platform to get started with for obvious reasons. So, I looked for a while near our home in Sanremo and beyond, hoping to come across the right car to put me on my “Porsche path.” I eventually found this car for sale by a man who told me all about the restoration he’d performed on it, and really, it sounded like a solid one. We talked for a time afterwards, during which I learned that this man’s son had a penchant for 356 Speedsters too—lucky me, this meant his father was interested in a trade for mine, which is how I ended up driving my Speedster a few hours east along the Ligurian coast to trade keys, paperwork, and some money on my end to make up the difference. I returned to Sanremo in my first genuine Porsche, marking an important point in my life in the process.
I loved the car, and especially the fact that it retained the city-specific license plates that were fitted to it in the 1960s (in certain places, cars keep their original plates forever, rather than being updated over time—the 912 has Pistoia plates, which as you can see are pretty unique in a sea of EU standard-issue white-and-blue, and they tie the car’s history to Italy in a more meaningful way than something that’s always being swapped out).
I loved the 912 so much in fact that I didn’t really care when it filled up with water each time it rained. Turns out the restoration conducted on the car had certainly waterproofed it all right, but it seems they mixed up which way that relationship was supposed to work, seeing as it was nigh on impossible to drain out the rain once it was welcomed into the interior beyond the weather stripping… Oh well, the motor was hearty and hale, and again, it was my first Porsche—I couldn’t complain. After all, that’s reserved for the owners who get upset when they can’t buy the new limited editions, right?
The plan was always to sell the 912 once a 911 became an option though, so before it left us my wife and I wanted to show the faithful little car a good time. We have family and friends in Romania, so the idea of a Balkans tour of sorts was formed early on and we stuck with it, planning to take a route that would bring us through multiple countries and some of the world’s best driving roads in between. The idea was to take a few months to drive through Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and of course, Italy, where we would depart from our everyday parking spot in Sanremo. People are usually curious as to how we can afford to do such trips that take months to complete, and though it would be nice to say I don’t need to work and can enjoy such travel whenever I want to, the reality is different: I have a job that allows me to take a few months off each year, but this is paid for on the other end by having the rest of my year characterized by a seven-day workweek. Worth it.
Upon telling our friends of this latest two-month trip we wanted to take, they told us our car would be stolen, that we were gambling. “A classic car that says ‘Porsche’ on the back? I hope you don’t like it too much.” We weren’t deterred though, and the we’d be avoiding major population centers anyway. Major highways too, and in fact our goal was to travel through time as we traveled through the Balkans with period-correct 1960s authenticity. This meant avoiding big trucks and modern traffic on the highways, so we only took back roads through small villages, even if they weren’t paved, which was often the case. This meant no hotels with keycards to get into the rooms, only staying the night in traditional country homes and B&Bs. This meant meals consisted of a picnic blanket and basket, a bottle of wine from the nearby village, and a distinct lack of other diners sharing our chosen patch of sunny grass. At one point Madalina felt like having a nap, so we simply stopped on the side of the road and took one, taking advantage for the umpteenth time of the idyllic freedoms provided by our route.
We wanted to avoid the ring roads around the kinds of cities that appear on maps in bold capital letters. We wanted to travel through the places where life hasn’t been sped up so much, where meals aren’t just home cooked but sourced from the garden. This is no hip urban farming I’m talking about.
We met so many wonderful people along the way that lived like this, and without fail we were greeted with enthusiasm, eager questions, helping hands, genuine smiles. I have a few hundred stories to illustrate this, but I’ll stick to a handful here. One is a border-crossing. There we were, on our way into Montenegro, when we’re flagged down and told to pull aside for further paperwork checks. First thought: I didn’t think people still shook down tourists for money at the border, this is too bad. Of course, this was not the case at all, and they simply wanted to understand why our license plates were so, well, square. They insisted that the Italian plates should look like all other EU plates, and were much more excited to look at our odd registration than bother us over passports, and we were sent off with another set of smiles at our backs.
We loved to meet the locals who were interested in the car along the way, which turned out to be anyone from wrinkled grandmothers to fresh-faced kids running out of the house to see the 912, including some who were curious as to why we didn’t just buy a new car to do such a long drive in! Indeed, it was a trek and a half for a 50-year-old Porsche, but with regular oil changes every 5000km it all went remarkably smoothly, no hiccups nor breakdowns along the way. And speaking of oil changes, we had a few memorable ones, like the time it was performed over a ditch on the side of the road in Romania. The people helping us out were exceptionally happy to do so, and though it’s a far cry from dropping it off at Porsche’s Classic service centers, this kind of scene is exactly what we were looking to find in our pursuit of the truly vintage road trip experience.
That particular oil change occurred soon after we’d crossed the legendary Transfăgărășan that cuts into and up through the country’s Carpathian Mountains. It was the kind of road that defies even daydreams, and is rather easy for me to call this a once in a lifetime drive—that is, if you aren’t headed to the Transalpina afterwards. Of the two snakes of mountain asphalt in Romania, the Transalpina is surely the more treacherous of the two due to its noticeable lack of guardrails along with even greater elevation than the Transfăgărășan from which to fall; coming up to a hairpin that offers an unbridled view of sky and nothing else sends a strange sensation to one’s stomach, even when you aren’t trying to drive like Hans Stuck up the hill. Before we tackled the Transalpina we were seeing temperatures climbing to 40°C, and so it seemed like an especially sage choice to put some fresh oil in the car, but this wasn’t the first thing we fixed prior to our ascents.
Before the Transfăgărășan we’d spent a week of downtime at Madalina’s cousin Andu’s home in Romanian. I’m happy to call him my cousin now too, but first and foremost he is a great friend. A great friend for letting us spend time in his home and with his family, and also for helping me sort out a few niggling issues on the car. See, when I purchased it, the clock on the dash wasn’t working, and no amount of tapping and flicking on the drive home could get it ticking, so I started to make some calls around Sanremo for someone who might be able to repair the thing. Evidently this is an obscure request, because the only positive response I got was from a garage in Pavia. They wanted €450 for the job. I did not want to pay €450 for the job. The clock remained frozen. Until Andu took a look at it and had it working properly within thirty minutes of having it out of the dash. He didn’t ask for money of course, he simply likes mechanical things and has a knack for figuring them out and helping his friends. He also turned our defunct radio into a unit that could connect to our phones to play music, all without sacrificing the look of the original unit in the dash. It’s not so often that in the course of many thousands of kilometers that an old car actually returns in better shape than it left in!
We had a wonderful time in Romania staying with Andu and elsewhere, and I even had a chance to find some special marmalade. A bit off topic perhaps, but I had been looking for this specific flavor—a delightfully bitter cherry—ever since my wife had given me some a few years ago, with no luck whatsoever. We knew it was a local Romanian tradition of sorts though so it felt like we might have some luck seeing as we were passing some decidedly traditional villages and hamlets on our journey. So in one such place we pulled over to ask a man where we might find such a marmalade, and we were informed that yes indeed, we could find some nearby. His grandmother happened to make it, but would we mind driving down a “bumpy” road? Sure, we’d been off pavement plenty of times in the Porsche already, and when you have a certain hankering for something you’ll do what it takes to get it! So, we bounced our way down 10km of dirt pathway to find our marmalade, which, of course, we did.
We also celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary in Romania, though it did not turn out to be as romantic as I’d hoped. My idea was to get together some good food, some good wine, some good cheese, and have a nice barbecue with a few of our new friends—like the boy who was literally being carted around behind his father’s car, avoiding the heat with a nice open-air carriage ride the likes of which you’d never see in a country like Germany! Anyway, I wanted to get some local cheese from the region so I’d gone to visit a farmer to purchase some from the source. Eating the cheese was a great experience, but once it sat in my stomach for a few moments I had a different opinion. I’m sure I was simply not used to the type of cheese that it was, but whatever the case was it turned our romantic outdoor meal into a few days of a very tumultuous stomach. I was basically out of commission for the 48 hours that followed that first bite, but something like that wasn’t going to ruin the trip, far from it.
After Romania—I believe, or at least haven’t been able to find proof otherwise, we were the first 912 to cross the Transfăgărășan and Transalpina passes—we headed into Montenegro, where we drove from the eastern side of the country to the the city of Kotor on the Adriatic coast. It was one of the most strikingly pretty cities I’ve visited, and it has a very Italian look to it that’s unmarred by throngs of tourists and the storefronts that pop up to cater to those crowds. The rest of the coast along Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia and the like was a bit more of the traditional European vacation zone than the rest of the trip up to that point, but it wasn’t like we were sitting in traffic in Times Square either. We enjoyed every kilometer.
Eventually everything ends though, at least temporarily. The 912 is no longer with us, but it’s story isn’t over, and I’m happy to say it has returned to the city where it’s original license plates came from: Pistoia. We sold it for a good cause and in accordance with the loose timeline of Porsche ownership I laid out for myself. Madalina and I have a 911 in the garage now (with original Palermo plates), and we certainly have plans to take it out for a drive. Perhaps a Trans-Siberian trek from Russia to China? Oliver, the dog in the window in these photos, has hermit-crabbed his way into the 911 and looks keen to stick his head out the window again.
Wherever we go, and whatever takes us there, it’s about the journey. Yes, that’s not an original saying, but sometimes these things are too true to avoid the cliches attached to them. Traveling in this way is otherworldly, and you tend to learn more about yourself than the landmarks you pass by. Trips like these bond you to your machine, but the ties they create between the people in the seats are far stronger for while the scene out the window is changing constantly, the person next to you is there for everything, always.