It’s been a whirlwind of a ride through many diverse regions of The Balkans, and on crossing into Greece yesterday I can’t help feel that I’m even more confused about the land than I was before I pushed the bike through. The historical and cultural difference, as well as some spectacular mountain landscapes, has made for a plethora of memorable experiences. True to their reputation, the people have proved to be by far the most hospitable and friendly in Europe (especially the Albanians).
The Danube River is generally taken to be the northern border of The Balkans, and it was from Budapest that I rode south into the region with my new friends Povi and Eva. The weekend included plenty of challenging riding through all sorts of rugged terrain, and camping by the fire in an abandoned quarry in the evening. Entertainment was supplied by Povi’s harmonica, Eva’s soothing traditional Hungarian songs, and marshmallows burning away above the flames. When we woke we got the embers going to enjoy banana splits and coffee; I’ve come to realise that one of the downsides of cycling alone is never being able to build a fire in the evenings.
On my last evening in Hungary I was cooking up noodles in a park when a woman asked me to her home with her three five-year-old triplets! After a welcome shower I enjoyed an evening of traditional Hungarian goulash and homemade palinka. It was a lovely way to end my two weeks in Hungary; the next evening was spent in a cold wet Slovenian field, with the field’s mud somehow seeping through the canvas of the tent.
Slovenia was absolutely gorgeous; quant villages within lush valleys, full of homes painted with intricate countryside scenes, complete with corn drying traditionally on farmers sheds. It was then that I decided to cross into The Alps (I figured to ride from The Arctic to The Balkans I needed to take on the notorious mountain range), and the scenery became magnificent! To avoid repetition you can just click here to check out my Alps Blog, complete with both a short film and my favourite images of the (yet another) detour. But don’t let the pretty pictures deceive you; I was hit by a heavy storm on one mountain pass, those gravel paths are hell to descend down, and the five summits were at times absolute torture!
Next on the agenda came The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, whose rugged mountainous landscape diving into the azure sea was at times breathtakingly beautiful. The Croatian cities were also a pleasure to explore, especially Sibenik and Split. On the flipside the Croatian wind has a vicious reputation, and true to what I was warned against it hit me something savage on the island of Pag (where it was somehow funnelled through the valley straight onto Wilson). The next day I was defeated back on the coastal mainland, but was thankfully able to take shelter by sleeping in one of the many resorts that were abandoned due to the Balkan Wars of the nineties. In the abandoned multimillion dollar resort I was joined by Keven (who is hitchhiking from France to India), and we took no time in scraping away the filthy floors and ripping wallpaper off the walls to make a comfortable surface to sleep on for the evening.
In Split I met Cyros, who kindly took me in for the night in his posh hotel, and had me devour most of all the food we ordered in the evening! After he left for his flight in the morning, the waiters had to put up with an ever hungry cyclist demolishing my first all-you-can-eat breakfast of the trip. The seven servings gave me the much needed energy to push inland up the mountains to Bosnia in the afternoon, and I more than ever came to appreciate the importance of binge eating while on tour (which sadly my MSR camping efforts rarely satisfy). Excitably, after twenty-two countries my passport was finally stamped for the first time when crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia remains an enigma, whose complexities refuse to be understood despite reading widely on the war during the evenings in my tent. The road was frequently dotted with devastated buildings full of bullet and artillery damage, and people I spoke to seemed disillusioned with the current politicians (whose supporters frustratingly cover the Cyrillic road signs with political posters just to further confuse a bewildered cyclist). Despite it being nearly twenty years since the war, when I rode through the majestic Sutjeska National Park the roadside was still sadly signposted with minefield signs, who continue to claim their unsuspecting victims each year. The continued divisions in the country made for some fascinating encounters as I traversed the various regions of the country. In Sarajevo (which endured a 1400 day siege) every building from the period still had bullet or shrapnel damage. It is clear to every traveller that ethnic tension remains throughout the land, between Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs.
As I was slogging up a mountain in the Serbian region of Bosnia, a noisy timber truck suddenly came within sight behind me. I made a frantic push of the pedals as the truck approached, and with the added momentum I clutched the back of the truck. Just moments before I was feeling ‘the wall’; but was now gleefully happy to try ‘truck surfing’ for the first time. The driver waved behind with a smile, and thankfully stuck to 18 km/h on the potholed road to the summit of 1293 metres.
After a touristic couple days in Dubrovnik (where confused tourists wondered why a cyclist was donning his goggles to dive for coins in the picturesque harbour), I arrived to the much anticipated fjords in Montenegro. I was quite refreshed after fellow cycle tourers Amie and Olly had me for an evening in their holiday home, and I gladly fell asleep on the beach in the elegant waterside town of Perast. The bay itself was just beautiful, and my only concern on the refreshing dawn ride to Kotor was to beat the three cruise ships unloading their cargo in the medieval town. Kotor proved to be a highlight of the entire coastline, although with Wilson as company I wasn’t able to take the hundreds of stone steps to the fort. Instead, during a moment of madness, I decided to tackle the twenty-five switchbacks from the Adriatic Coast to Montenegro’s highest mountain of Lovcen (1749m). It was a hard slog which took most of the day, twisting my way up the road until I was swallowed up by the enveloping clouds.
In the Albanian mountain village of Shemri I discovered just how much cycling up mountains and playing football with local children don’t mix. After cycling all day on constantly steep gradients I kicked the ball around on a dirt football field for two hours, only to spend the next few days riding in complete agony! But I had a great time playing ‘the world game’ with rural kids, with our point of communication being the names of the stars of Barcelona or Manchester United…
Albania was just spectacular, and I enjoyed the mountainous scenery and friendly people so much that I re-entered the country a second time from Macedonia to explore the south. Albania’s dictator of forty years (Enver Hoxha) had 750, 000 bunkers built throughout the country. These absurd five ton concrete monoliths now dot the countryside in various states of disrepair, and make for some bizarre scenery as I traversed rural communities.
The Albanian people are by far the friendliest in Europe, and people have constantly tooted their horn and shouted friendly hellos from their cars. Australia also has many migrants from the Balkans region, and twice I found myself chatting on the phone with relatives of the non-English speaking locals I’ve met by the countryside. It was quite strange cycling into a farmyard on the Montenegrin and Albanian border, and after pitching my tent the farmer had me on his mobile chatting to a friend in Liverpool (just twenty minutes from my hometown in Oz). It was great to speak English at the end of the day, and in return for letting me pitch my tent I helped the farmers collect and load their lumber truck.
I was told that squirting a dog with a water bottle would scare them away. Baloney! When I was attempting to cut through the Kosovo countryside on a gravel path, three little terriers stormed towards me with their yapping jaws. Remembering my water bottles, I squirted two directly in the face. The result was three psyched up dogs hungry for foreign flesh, and a frantic sprint for over five hundred metres along a potholed gravel path. I’ve since learnt (especially in Macedonia with the specially bred sharplaninec mountain shepherd dogs) to keep plenty of energy in reserve for an unexpected sprint.
When it was getting late in Kosovo I stopped at a service station to cook, and asked for permission to pitch my tent. Unfortunately I misunderstood the teenage worker and thought he said it was okay. Once it was dark I was left stranded on a busy road with nowhere to camp. I stumbled into a nearby construction site, and after meeting the workers they put me in their office for the evening. Unfortunately mice got inside my pannier bags, and one managed to chew itself out after I had closed them up. So now one of my front pannier bags is no longer waterproof, and a cheeky little mouse got a small meal out of my gear!
After a couple days in the Macedonian capital of Skopje with my warmshowers host Rante, I cycled through traditional substance agricultural villages in central Macedonia. Most of the villages grow tobacco, and at the moment before the first frost the leaves are drying against the sun in every conceivable place. Between villages in this part of The Balkans I’ve had sheep or goat herders to keep me company and point me in the right direction, and whenever I attempt to put up my tent families quickly invite me into their homes for the evening.
In Macedonia I took a heavenly break in Treskavec Monastery, located 1300 metres above sea level above the town of Prilep on a mountain ridge. The Byzantine Monastery is built on the very site of the Ancient Greek temple of Artemis and Apollo, and time stood still between endless sunrises and sunsets. I spent most of my time relaxing and volunteering at the monastery by collecting wood for winter and cleaning. Father Kalist was the only monk on site, and I was honoured to spend time with him and join him at mealtime. Needless to say, in such a spiritual place I felt completely content and enjoyed the much needed mental and physical break off the bicycle (which was rather ironic given the two hour push to get the bike up the dirt track).
The past week has been spent riding south through Albania and northern Greece. In Albania I had anticipated a 200km mountainous detour to reach Greece, but at the last moment in the town of Carcove a road to a Greek border crossing appeared out of nowhere! No online or printed maps in my possession show such a road, and it saved me two whole days of slogging up Albanian mountains in the wet. The early crossing also means I will always remember the sunshine of Albania, free from the wet and miserable storms that have met me in Greece. When I was searching for a place to camp a couple nights ago I stepped on a snake! It was the first time I had seen a live snake when camping, and luckily it didn’t seem too concerned that a soggy cycling shoe scrapped its lower back. Frustratingly, I was too scared to set up the tent, and left the picturesque riverside in a flash!
Next week I will have the pleasure of visiting an AICR funded cancer lab in Patras, as well as give my first presentation at a Greek primary school. On the saddle I continue to debate my winter cycling route, and have also come to realise just how inadequate my gear will be in Central Asia. But spirits remain high and the adventure continues to bring daily surprises that keep me buzzing…