Greece, Punctuated by a Birthday

21 10 2012

On leaving Macedonia the first thing to do was fix Rose’s puncture again.  We then met a couple of French cycle tourers coming the other way who explained to us that they had been sleeping in the grounds of churches and that this was a widely accepted practice. So for the first time in our trip we immediately went in search of God’s house. The first was surrounded by many barking dogs and we decided against it. The second was on a small hill being overlooked by a village. With no-one around to ask and light fading fast we pitched up and the chef got to work on a nice noodle number.

We were up early to evade discovery, but thwarted by two well hidden punctures did not leave the church until 9 o’clock. Flat tyre syndrome continued as we had another 2 to repair before lunch. We did have a lovely country road to follow that wound through the hills, the wind swept farms and past some friendly packs of dogs. We asked about sleeping in a church but were informed, “forbidden” and “police” so we spent the night in an apple orchard completely hidden from view. Maybe we weren’t welcome at these camping churches after all. Of course we awoke to people working just metres away- damn that agricultural work ethic- and another 2 punctures! So we stealthily pushed our bikes out of the orchard into safe ground before repairs could begin.

This day was spent wholly on a motorway which was no fun at all. The only entertainment coming when Rhi punctured both tyres and had 3 holes in one of them. I think we must have been going a bit mad to have enjoyed this!

We found a lovely camp-spot in the scrubland near to (and still in earshot of) the E96 and its 4 lanes of traffic. Rose and I slept well. Rhi on the other hand was too excited, as it was the eve of her 27th birthday. Rhiannon woke us early and we were forced into giving her presents and making her a full English breakfast. Although I suspect the latter was not wholly altruistic, chortle chortle. This joyous occasion was interrupted by an invasion of hunting dogs who were surprised to be on the trail of herby sausages instead of the usual rabbits. We pretended the ensuing gunfire was a six gun birthday salute and uneasily crept back to the relative safety of the motorway.

A short but hectic ride later and we were in Thessaloniki. We couchsurfed here with Hlias and Moto, a pair of jugglers (not out of choice) and bike enthusiasts (very much a choice). They explained that many of their friends were unhappy living in Greece and were trying to find a way to live in another country. They are mostly pissed off with the shit money situation, everything is very expensive and the wages are very low. It costs €1 for two tomatoes and a chef in a restaurant will be paid around €2.20 an hour. We ate a delicious meal in a local taverna and drank a couple of beers to celebrate Rhi’s birthday.

The next day was an even more monumental occasion, ‘the doctor’- Rhi’s bike- was getting new tyres. So now wearing Schwalbe Marathon Plus’s we are hoping for a puncture free few weeks in Turkey. We took  the overnight ferry to Lesbos – from where we would take a shorter one to Diliki, Turkey the following day enter Asia.

On Lesbos we couchsurfed with a lovely lady Nefalia with whom we shared some warm and interesting conversations, a swim on a deserted beach and some of her Mum’s home cooked delights. We even witnessed a miracle- Rhiannon said no to a party!


Macedonia Bears All

11 10 2012

After arriving in Struga in a dream like state- an 11km downhill at 40kmph can do this to you- we sent Rhi (‘the chef’) to the shops to buy the ingredients for dinner and off we set to find the campsite for the night. Our new found friend Jonny had a ‘no campsite policy’ so Jimi had to regretfully inform him that we would be staying in a campsite as we had not had a shower for four days and needed one. Jonny replied with, “Ive not had a shower in  a month.” I was shocked at this and we plodded on down the road to find the campsite. It was of course closed and there was a fence up so we could not even get in and sleep there free of charge. We circled the surrounding areas to find a wild camp spot and could not see anywhere apart from an old land fill site which had old bones which to our disgust were the size of human ones and we were a little worried about this spot! We decided it had gotten too dark and we could not find a spot so we agreed to get a room and set off in search…it was low season and we could not find one close. Just as we gave up hope, a Mercedes crawled along beside us and we were asked if we would like a room, €50, ‘no thank’s we said and carried on. A little down the road,  a BMW pulled up and a man peered from the blacked out windows and said ‘room?’ we said we were looking for a camping spot and he said ‘come and stay in my house’. We were a little dubious about this but followed him anyway and trusted he would help us out with a little bit of grass to camp on. Further down the road, we pulled up outside a huge pink luxurious apartment block with a grass lawn and extravagant water features. Lovely we thought, we can camp on his lovely grass, perfect! He then said to us ‘ it’s far too cold to be outside, would you like to just have an apartment?’ We said we have no money and he said no its okay, you stay inside as its too cold outside.

A luxurious 5* apartment awaited us and he brought us towels and bedding and looked after us as we were his own! He explained there is only tourism there for two months of the year and so the apartments are empty and we may as well use them.A great nights sleep later we awoke to find I had my first puncture and we did not want to leave the luxury of the apartment and the beautiful hospitality of Aris who was so kind to us. We felt again its only a small act of kindness but can touch our hearts. We set off full of warmth- although still unclean as there was no running water- and feeling happy about the Macedonia and what it had to offer us.

After a little party on the pier we bid an emotional farewell to our new found friend Jonny and bid him a safe trip ahead.

Lake Ohrid is an extremely clear lake and we were told one of the clearest in the world, it was very cold as well. Rhi sat with the fish nibbling on her toes while Jimi had an Indian style bath and washed in the water.



We knew there was a large mountain ahead of us, we stuffed ourselves with bread and cheese and prepared for the climb to the other side of Macedonia. We started the climb and realised it would be tougher than all of the other climbs, so 3 hours later and ploughing on in the heat we decided to stop at a wood chopping clearing and camp there fore the night. Dinner was cooked and by the time it was dark and we had filled our hungry tummys, we were fast asleep by 8pm, resting our bodies for the next days climb.

We awoke to the screech of tyres and quickly got ready and found a man with an axe in the clearing close by, me and Jimi exchanged glances nervously but the little old man waved and said, “Good morning” (to our delight). The final climb to 2200 metres was a slow one as Rhi hadn’t slept much and had an upset stomach (either that or herEPO was running low). The view at the top was magnificent and well worth the 6 hour climb. We read the information at the top as we admired the view, only to realise where we camped in the national park was home to brown bears, Balkan lynx and Balkan chamois. Wow we thought we had a close shave there.

It took a mere 30 minutes to speed down the other side of the mountain and through the apple orchids which were abundant. We picked a few and they were some of the most delicious apples we had tasted, a great reward after our two days efforts. Rhi was still not feeling well and she decided the 30km to Bitola would be a little too much and decided to hitch a lift, so off she got into a transit van with a man and his wife and we cycled on. I of course took a picture of the van to be on the safe side. They were Macedonian Turks who ended up taking Rhi for coffee and cake, finally her Turkish language skills were coming into play.


Bitola greeted us with a bustle of three weddings and songs and dancing in the streets, Rhi found a hostel and we made traditional Macedonian sausage, egg and chips! We got talking to a Macedonian man in the hostel and he said, I cant believe you actually stayed in that national park, the locals don’t stay out there after dark as they are feared of the bears and wolves. ( I am so happy we did not know this before)

Macedonia had been an adventure and we were happy, we met Aris, and happily we didn’t meet the bears.


7 10 2012

The few people we had met coming the other way had used a common word in describing Albania- interesting- so we were unsure of what to expect. Often when crossing a border in Europe there is no immediate difference, this time it was not the case. In Montenegro the only thing you might see by the side of the rode would be a donkey, here there was really rubbish everywhere and a number of small fires filling the air with a disernable aroma. Also whereas before we might get the odd beep and a wave here about 8 in 10 people were doing so, we really felt like celebrities.  We cycled through Shkoder, which Rhiannon describes as being like the wild west, to a campsite on the edge of Lake Shkoder. On the way we did a crazy thing, we just rode across a train tack without stopping to look, guess what, a freight train was coming and only 80 metres away! We scolded ourselves for our stupidity.

Here we met Swiss Martin who has been riding around the world on this motorbike for 6 years, he was a really nice guy with lots of great stories. We share a moment of jealousy as he departs at 60kmph knowing he can see 10 times as many places today than us. However we remember that we get to see everything in slow motion, absorbing more and anybody can speak to us at anytime, we are often meeting local people this way.

The next day with some local knowledge advice we head south, after hearing about the craziness of main roads in Albania I tried to steer us down some nice country lanes (the white roads on the map). We started on some tarmac, then it turned to gravel, then gravel and mud, then mud, then a grassy path and then we were just in a field. Oh yeah, this must be why everybody is on the main roads. It was really nice to cycle through the little farming villages and speak to people but we got nowhere slowly. We stopped for coffee in a small village,  the man spoke no English, he refilled our water and when we came to pay he would not let us. A small gesture like that was a nice touch.

Another problem with cycling these routes is that there are many viscous street dogs and guard dogs. We now know to walk past slowly with the bike between you and the dog and carrying a few stones to throw at them, often just imitating a throw will do the trick. But the first time we were set upon I just pedaled as fast as I could until the dogs were out of breath, Albanian street dogs must work on their speed endurance if they are going to catch me. I then turned and heroically, from a safe distance, photographed Rose and Rhi being defended by a nice lady with a big stick whilst her son on his moped giggled hysterically.

That night we could not find anywhere to camp and a nice chap called Leon helped us find a hotel and negotiate a room in Hotel Ambassador for £15. I was then invited to drink some beer with the owner and Leon translated. It was a nice time. Albania is so cheap we realise we can afford to eat out and going against previous advice we ventured out post 4pm and were rewarded with a feast of grilled meat, salad, rice, chips and bread with a beer each for under £10.It was just pot luck as we were in one of those rare places where English is not spoken or used in the menu, this is a good thing. In the morning we collected our bikes from the bingo hall they had been locked in and set off, it was not until 10km down the road that I realised my compass had been stolen, this made me very unhappy. It was probably the most used piece of kit and a present, also it hurts to be stolen from. I vow not to let one person spoil my outlook, however it takes a few hours until I can take my own advice.

On the roads here you will find everything and everyone. From lorries to donkeys and fruit sellers to kids playing football, the road is for everyone. But everyone is in it together and everyone wants to get home at the end of the day so we felt pretty safe in comparison to other main roads in other countries. After following an OK yellow road we bite the bullet and join the motorway, to our surprise despite the hype it isn’t too bad at all. We have cycled on similar in almost every country. The difference here is that all along both side there is something being sold or made so we cannot pull off for a rest. Don’t forget we are being waved and jeered at by almost every passer by and children run alongside or chase behind us wanting our attention. There is one 5km stretch as you enter Tirane, the capital, which is blooming bonkers but after that we cruised in to the centre and settled in the National Opera House cafe. Here we met 2 other cycle tourers who have been cycling in Albania for 3 weeks, they gave us the low down on all the roads and high passes, they also advised us to just ask people for a some grass to camp on. So that night we set are sights high and asked a 4star resort if we could camp, of course we could but only behind the resort in the field, this is fine with us and we slept well with the soothing sounds of heavy machinery from the all night quarry.

After a good day’s ride over a high-ish pass, more grilled meat and navigating our way through the pot holed roads of Elbasan we asked at a small hut bar if we could camp somewhere. Of course we can, we can sleep on the floor of the newly built restaurant. At this point Jonny (later to be ‘Crazy Jonny’) arrived much to the amazement of the locals, there was now to be 4 strange English people travelling on bikes sleeping in the restaurant and through the evening many people came to look at us. We did not mind as it was all very good natured. They even brought us plates of fruit and came to join us at one point, not speaking any english, just sat staring at us all. It certainly made for stories to tell their mates about the “crazy engliagh people”. Jonny has also cycled from the UK and is heading to Sofia to take the bus home. He is living on a diet of bread and chocolate spread and wearing denim to cycle in- the definition of crazy!

The next day we all cycled together slowly through a valley knowing that at the end we must go over a high pass into Macedonia.

It was a real slog  but the views were fantastic and we felt really good on reaching the top, it was the biggest climb we had done to date. Not for Crazy Jonny though, he has cycled through the alps to get here.

We blew are last few Lek on all the vitals- wine  and beer- and rode down the last 2km to the border. Albania we have had a bloody good time, thanks.




6 10 2012

Once again our own ineptitude to research an upcoming country amazes us and we arrive at the border knowing nothing. The passport control man was a right joker, he wanted to confiscate Rose and Rhi. I said that this would be OK and on seeing my sincerity hastily released them. We then met a motorbike man at the shop who recommended the Bay of Kotor to us and warned us against being outside after 4pm in Albania. So marginally better informed we rode down the Montenegrin coast,  again taking advantage of the hospitality of closed campsites.


The Bay of Kotor really is something special. We cycled around it at a snails pace so we could enjoy it for as long as possible. In Kotor we bought the most tasty smoked ham we had ever eaten and some pretty decent olives too.

After Croatia we really noticed the lack of foreign tourists here, I think because of this we have had many more chats with other travelers  swapping stories and advice alike. The coast is pretty heavily developed and the main road not much fun to cycle on. The secondary roads are much more fun and we often found fresh water wells to cool off in and top up the supplies.

There is also a number of tunnels to negotiate, we did not much enjoy these.

After only four days we headed into Albania and another unknown!