The Doctor’s Verdict

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front recently simply because we haven’t been doing any cycling for the past three weeks. We are writing this post a couple of days after Christmas from a hotel room in the centre of Sparta.

Christmas tree in Sparta square

Sunrise over Sparta on Christmas morning

Here is how we got here:

We left Athens on a damp and dull Friday morning at the end of November. We packed up our stuff, returned the key to the landlord – all before the sun came up so we could get on our bikes and away before the traffic could get too busy. As expected, Athens was enormous! It took us about 15-20km before we were properly free of the busy, fast roads. Once we were out of the clutches of Athens, the road we had chosen to cycle on was the old national road – was totally deserted, thanks to the new motorway built alongside it (in some places only about five meters away).

The oil refinery is on the shores of this bay - this boat never made it.

This old national road was fantastic for us. It was a hilly, twisty coastal road that provided some nice views of the bay below. Our destination for this day was a little coastal town called Agioi Theodoroi. This place didn’t have too many obvious cheap places to stay, but after asking a local, who then spent an hour making phone calls and driving us around town, we managed to get a room. The price of the room started at €35, to which I tried to negotiate it to €25 then to €23. At some point though she either got fed up or felt sorry for us and reduced it to €20 without me having to ask for it. It was certainly one of the stranger negotiations I have been involved in!

Monika taking a rest on the shores of Agioi Theodoroi

The next day, we cycled off in the rain, crossed the impressive Corinth Canal, got lost, ended up on a motorway slip road, where we were then pulled over by the highway people who told us it wasn’t safe for us here. He then made us turn around and cycle the wrong way back along the slip road to where we came from – that sounds so much safer – doesn’t it?

Corinth Canal - pictures don't do it's scale justice!

The canal isn't hugely popular anymore as it's too narrow to be of huge commercial benefit.

You may wonder how we ended up on a motorway, but it was rather quite easy. In Greece, a green sign means motorway and blue is a national road. So we were cycling along for a national road for 10km, maybe more, then all of a sudden a fork appeared in the road – both signs were green and both were pointing (in different directions) to the same town that was on our route. The map didn’t help, so we chose the left green sign. Wrong one – it turned out. So we cycled back to the fork and took the right green sign and lo and behold about 500m down the road a blue sign appeared. Knowing how Greece is run, the motorway signing people probably ran out of blue signs that day and fired up a green sign instead.

After staying the night in Argos, we headed off toward Tripolis. Unfortunately for us, there is a big set of mountains plopped between Argos and Tripolis.

The neverending switchbacks toward Tripolis

We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. By 1pm we made it (to what we thought was the top), had lunch and watched the skies darken and listened to the not too far away thunder claps. It turned rather eerie up there. We donned our waterproofs and quickly realised we were not at the top of the mountain – still lots more left.

Windy, wet, cold and miserable

We were fortunate enough to have organised a couchsurfing host for the night in Tripolis, so it was nice after an exhausting day not to have to chase around town looking for accommodation. Maria and Alex were very welcoming hosts and their two children where just adorable. They had loads of interesting food on the table and we managed to get a couple of recipes off them for Greek specialities, which we will try ourselves when we stop the nomad lifestyle.

Our couchsurfing friends in Tripolis. From left to right: Helen (14 months), Alex, Maria, Helen (2 1/2 years) and us of course

The following day we had an arrangement to meet with Phil – our workaway host. As I mentioned before we planned to work at his house for a few weeks over the winter. We have been in Vasara with Phil and his family for three weeks now and are having a great time. More details on this will be included on our workaway experience at a later date.

Meet Meli - one of the family dogs

And here is Lola - mother of Meli

When we arrived in Vasara, I (Geoff) had been suffering from a pain in my right knee for a couple of months. The pain has been slowly getting worse and is now at a point where it’s too painful to cycle. So while we were at Phil’s house he arranged for me to visit a knee specialist in the town of Sparta. The doctor was able to diagnose the problem almost straightaway. The cartilage under my knee cap had been damaged due to repetitive strain or a condition called Chondromalacia Patella for those of you who understand Latin – or knees. The recovery time is between one and three months. One to three months is a long time to be sitting idle and waiting for my knee to fix itself. Even if my knee does heal, I will have to make some major adjustments otherwise the same problem will happen again a few weeks down the road. Between the bike and the load, I am trying to drag around 90% of my body weight, which appears to be putting too much stress on my body. So, we will be trying to reduce the amount of stuff that we are carrying around.

Back in my school days, I was in accident and emergency twice after injuring that knee, so I suspect it has been an underlying weakness since then. The doctor also mentioned that if its not completely healed before I start to cycle again the damage will become permanent.

At least I now know what the issue is and there are exercises that I can do to strengthen the leg muscles (which in turn take the stress off the tendons, ligaments and cartilage in my knee).

While we are hoping for the best, in terms of my recovery, we are now looking into what we do from now, if my knee does not heal properly. Going on and doing further irreparable damage is not an option and we know that we want to continue travelling, so the most likely option is the regular backpackers method of travelling. This is something that we will be thinking about over the next few weeks – while at the same time, I will be doing what I can to help my knee heal.

Anyways, enough of my knee for now.

The family that we are staying with are in a bit of an awkward situation themselves. Charlie is sixteen and is in England doing his A-Levels, so his mother is there most of the time, with him, to help him along, while his father, Phil, and his sister, Annabelle are here in Greece. The whole family are back together in Greece for only ten days over the Christmas period, so myself and Monika thought it would be best to stay in Sparta over the Christmas holidays and let them be together, alone, for the festive season before they have to be separated once again.

Mmm, I wonder what this smells like...

Who would have thought that ice cold frappes would have been required to cool down on Christmas day in Europe!?

Views of the snowy mountains surrounding Sparta

So that’s how we ended up in Sparta for Christmas. Our hotel looks out over the main square, which has been playing the same ten or fifteen Christmas songs on repeat for ten hours a day for the last four days. I may be slowly losing my marbles…

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Getting Dusty in Athens

So the 90km cycle to Thessaloniki was to be the day of destiny. It was the easiest 90km you could ever wish to cycle. It was super flat and very fast. We did the distance in just over four hours and by the time I got there, I knew that I was going to have to rest my leg properly. I could feel my thigh muscle start to stab with pain at certain intervals during the day, meaning that if I was to go out the next day and try and tackle some of Greece’s mountains, there would be no way I would be able to cycle for any more than a day. Unfortunately, there was nothing else for it, other than to rest my leg properly.

We arranged to stay in Thessaloniki for a couple of days to give us time to figure out what we were going to do for my recovery time. At first we were not really taken with Thessaloniki. It is a typical large city – the second largest city in Greece with a population of around 1.5 million. Cycling into town was a shock to the system after weeks of quiet roads and villages.

Koulouri - Greek Speciality For Sale

All of a sudden we were surrounded by swarms of buzzing mopeds and the honking horns of impatient drivers, in a rush to get to their next red light. The main street is ten kilometres long, arrow straight, eight lanes wide with ten story high buildings lining both sides of the road, giving you a feeling of claustrophobia.

Thessaloniki is in the middle of getting a subway system built right in the heart of the city. It’s a massive project as you can imagine. It started in 2007, after twenty years of planning, and is due to finish in 2020, costing a mind blowing €1.1billion – money which the government no longer has. When you look at the construction timetable, for each station area and tunnel section there is a whole period side aside for the inevitable ‘archaeological excavation’.

Archelogical Excavation in the Subway Construction

This is the case for all construction projects in Greece. If an archaeological site is discovered and can’t be moved, then the planners have to work round it, figure out a way to incorporate their project around the site AND make it visible to the public. So you could spend years planning and designing your project only to have to change everything halfway through the build because someone found an old loo!

As I said, we weren’t terribly impressed with Thessaloniki to begin with. It’s very grey, noisy with not much to entertain a tourist.  But we aren’t tourists, we only had a day or two to kill and we can entertain ourselves quite easily. We did find a nice little area of the town by the sea front which was quiet enough to read a book and watch the sun go down.

Seafront and White Tower

Silhouette at Dusk

Dying Sun

Sun Setting Into The City Smog

By night, the place really comes alive. The coffee shops – there isn’t much of a restaurant culture in Greece – are packed with people drinking frappes and chatting noisily over the traffic sounds. After a while, the town kind of grew on me. For the first time in a long time – we were anonymous, we could blend in and didn’t have to answer questions about our bicycles or our trip.

There was one place in the city that took my interest more than most – a sweet shop. Blé makes its own chocolates, cakes, sweets, buns and bread in house. Everything looked so delicious and it was so hard not to buy anything – as it wasn’t really within our budget. Since I didn’t try anything myself I have no idea what it actually tastes like, but it sure looks good!

The following day we booked our train tickets to Athens. There were seven daily trains from Thessaloniki to Athens, but bicycles were only allowed on the last two of the day. We chose the last one because it was half the price. The red eye train was due to arrive in Athens at five the next morning, which meant we had an entire day to hang around Thessaloniki before getting our train at eleven o’clock at night. We spent some of the day by walking up to the old city walls where there was a view of the city.

Thessaloniki Castle - Heptapyrgion

Arch of Galerius - Built To Celebrate Galerius' Victory Over The Persians

Finally after hours and hours of waiting it was time to get to the station. The darkness, rain and busy roads all combined to make the two kilometre cycle to the train very fun indeed.

When I read other travel blogs about cyclists taking a train – that’s all they mention – the fact that they took a train, but the nasty little details of moving big, heavy, unwieldy bikes are never mentioned. Firstly, there are always steps in train stations and steps to a touring cyclist might as well be a brick wall. Escalators and lifts are just as useless. In order to get to the platform, we had to take our bikes through areas where only staff is allowed to go and cross the tracks where only maintenance vehicles are supposed to go. When you finally get to the luggage section of the train, at the platform, the fact that the entrance to the train being three foot off the ground, is not talked about! Trying to get 45kg of bike and luggage into a train without destroying your stuff is no easy feat. Non-cyclists do not know how to handle a heavy touring bike. Everybody always tries to lift the bike wheel off the ground by lifting it by the back of the saddle, so you generally have to push them out of the way and try and take control of the situation yourself, before something gets broken.

Then there is the luggage itself. Both of us have six bags on our bikes and it’s totally impractical for you to take all of this off and bring it with you into your passenger compartment (the other four of five passengers may not like having to sit with a couple of panniers on their laps for six hours!). So the bikes have to be left in the luggage compartment, fully loaded on the bikes, for the trip. You just have to hope that nothing gets interfered with or stolen.

Getting the bikes off the train at the other end is even worse, as gravity will do more damage to a bike, when the train employee decides to shove your bike out the door. None of it is a pleasurable or a relaxing experience. I would much rather have cycled the 600km to Athens than go through that experience again, but in this case that wasn’t an option.

I often read on travel blogs about touring cyclists taking a bus – how they handle those logistics is beyond me!

Six hours later, we arrived in Athens and had to cycle seven kilometres in the dark in a strange city to the apartment we arranged to rent. We had no map, no real idea of how to get there. The previous night I had taken photographs of our route on Google Maps from the computer. We had to go nice and slow and keep checking the camera every couple of hundred meters, because if we got lost then there was no way we were ever going to find our way to the apartment by 7am – when we had to meet the landlord.

We must have looked like a couple of strange people, cycling around the city in the dark with panniers and head torches, but we found our way there and were very relieved to get in, have a shower and a quick nap.

One Euro a Kilo!

So here we are in Athens, a city so big that it makes Thessaloniki look like a country village. So far we have only seen a huge fruit and vegetable market as well as graffiti on virtually every stationary object.

How Many Varities of Olives Are There

Hmmm...Not On My Shopping List

We will be here for two weeks and so will have plenty of time to explore all the ancient sites that we have seen on tv and read about in books. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype and expectation.

If You Leave It Sitting There Long Enough...

We also plan to catch up on some sections of the blog – mainly the gallery, which we have fallen very behind on.

Apart from that though, it will be strange to have so much free time. We already feel a bit odd not to be getting on our bikes and moving on to the next destination. I feel responsible for this enforced stoppage, as Monika is ready to move on. My mind is ready to move on to our next adventure but unfortunately my leg was saying “no way, Mr”.  I suspect that I will be feeling a bit dusty after sitting here for two weeks and very anxious to get going to feel the wind on my face once again!

When Injury Strikes…

Between the two of us, it was a rather miserable couple of days since leaving Struga and Macedonia.

We left in the morning, in the drizzle. Within a few minutes we had our full waterproofs on preparing for a day of rain. About twenty minutes after we put our waterproofs on, it stopped raining.

The rest of the morning until early afternoon was spent putting on or taking off various items of clothing (rain jackets wind jackets, fleeces, gloves and waterproof trousers) in a multitude of combinations. We did manage to get some cycling in as well. Around lunch time we ascended into the clouds and the rain was there to stay for the remainder of the day, all the way to Bitola.

Monika was miserable, while I was rather enjoying the rain and cold. It certainly made a change to the weather we had experienced for the last six weeks. About halfway up the final seven kilometre hill, I felt my left thigh muscle start to pull. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, except that it was maybe just sore from the days climbing.

After a great big whooshing downhill section which left us in a near frozen state, we found ourselves in Bitola. We stopped our bikes (as we always do in a new town to try and get a perspective on our new surroundings) and immediately a guy on a bike came up and asked us the usual questions – where are we from? Where are we going? And what are you doing here? When we told him we were looking for a place to stay, he then told us to follow him. He ended up giving us a little tour of the hotels in the town. The first one was just about too expensive. We were wet and cold and were looking forward to a hot shower, but we still have a budget to think about and just because you are a little miserable, doesn’t mean you jump at the first place you see and pay more than you want to. The second place our bike friend showed us was a four star hotel, but I went in and asked just to appease him. It was way way out of our budget. The third place was also out of our budget. The guy behind the desk said it was €42 per night. In reply to this I asked him did he know if there were any cheap hostels in town where we could stay. He asked how much I wanted to spend, to which I said “No more than €20”. His reply was “Ok”. I was rather confused, so when I asked him what he meant by ‘ok’, he said “Ok, you can stay here for €20, it’s raining outside, you are a tourist and have come along way on your bikes, you can stay here for €20”. I have to say, I almost hugged the man! Between this guy and our bike tour guide friend, we had ourselves a very well priced hotel and a hot shower within an hour of arriving in the town. It just goes to show, that even if you think you are an independent bicycle tourer – you are always dependent on strangers.

The following day, the pain in my leg had not gone away overnight and within five kilometres, I knew I had a problem. We were 85km away from our destination and I couldn’t use my left leg at all. All day long I struggled. I had to push the bike up every hill and on the flats, only my right leg was doing the pedalling. The day was passing so slowly and I was getting more and more frustrated, as I knew that every time I turned the pedals that I was doing more and more damage to my leg.

After over six hours of excruciating pain, we managed to make it to Edessa in Greece. Incidentally, Monika really enjoyed the day. The scenery was great and made the hills rewarding. But I was just too miserable to see any positives.

Again, however, we had help. We had arranged to stay in Edessa for a night with a couchsurfer, so at least we didn’t have to deal with the accommodation hunt that afternoon. When we got to Chrissi’s home, she made us feel welcome and upon hearing about my leg, she told us we could stay for three or four days if we wished. For someone to help us out like that – just a few minutes after we arrived – was incredible.

So here we still are – in Edessa. Chrissi has been amazing. She has given us free run of the house and made us feel really welcome. We were given a tour of her town, met a few of her friends (who were keen to meet a couple of mad cyclists) and experienced some of the local foods. We even ate some octopus! We were quite fortunate to get ‘stuck’ in Edessa. It’s a lovely little place, with waterfalls, quaint cobbled streets and amazing views of the valley below.

We have spoken to loads of Greek people already and our impressions are very good – everyone is extremely friendly and interested to hear about your life – not just about your bike. I suspect the biggest challenge we will face in Greece will be the alphabet. This is the first country, we have been in, where the letters don’t even make sense, nevermind the words themselves! But as we will be here for a good while, we will have plenty of time to get used to it and lots of practice asking for γάλα or ψωμί.

The plan is for us to try and cycle to Thessaloniki tomorrow. If my leg is fine, then we will continue on towards Athens and if not we will hop on a train to Athens and hang out there until I am fit enough to cycle again. We really hope we don’t have to take the train though!

“Don’t Miss Albania”

The weather cleared up and we were able to leave our prison of Virpazar, finally! As we were cycling out of the little village we stopped and stroked a lovely young dog. Well, the dog seemed to like the attention, as it followed us for around 25km right to the top of the mountain. By this time we had grown quite attached to our friend and had even given him a name – Snowflake.

He was a super friendly dog and he even stopped other dogs from chasing us. We were a bit sad when we got to the top of the pass and started rolling down the other side – Snowflake was running and running, but he couldn’t keep up with us. We hope he wasn’t too sad. It was better for him that he couldn’t keep up with us, because he would have ended up on the main roads and dear knows what would have happened to him. We hope he decided to go back home where at least people would feed him scraps and he would be reasonably safe.

Shortly after we got back on the main road at the coast at Bar, we stopped for a snack and much to our surprise another couple of heavily laden cyclists pulled up. We always get excited when we see other cyclists with panniers. It gives us a chance to compare notes and find out about how other people, who are going through a similar experience to us, are getting on. These two were Chris and Jasmin from Germany. They had left Germany on October 1st and were on their way to Beijing. We chatted for a little while and as they were heading in the same direction as us, we headed off together toward the town of Ulcinj. We found a great campsite right on the beach – amazing sunset included.

After spending a couple of hours with Chris and Jasmin, we realised they are a perfect example of the German efficiency that everyone is always talking about. These two cycle in unison and in time with each other, one goes shopping while one looks after the bikes, they know exactly where they are going and when they get to a campsite the tent immediately comes out and is pitched. They both have their jobs and stuff gets done! Now compare that with us; we don’t cycle in unison. One of us is stopped having a drink, while the other is off in the distance. Then someone is having a pee in the bushes or someone wants to stop and take off or put on an item of clothing. A couple of minutes later we stop again because someone is hungry, a picture needs to be taken, suncream needs to be applied or we are lost and we need to look at the map. When we stop to go to the shop, we stand out in front of it for half an hour discussing what we need or don’t need for today’s and possibly tomorrow’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When we get to a campsite, I put my hands in my pockets and wait until the tent is up. We seem to have no rhythm or travel coordination! Apart from being super efficient, Chris and Jasmin are fun people to hang out with. They cooked us dinner and we just chatted for a few hours telling each other how we came to this point, where we wanted to cycle a really long way on our bikes.

The following morning – after they waited for us to take our tent down – we said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again in the future.

Myself and Monika were feeling a little bit anxious about Albania, as we had heard a few negative stories about it. We are in contact with a French couple who are cycling (and climbing) around the world. We had been exchanging experiences and plans about our trips, via email. They had previously gone through Albania and had moved onto Greece and Turkey. At the bottom of one of their emails to us, they wrote “Don’t miss Albania”. This always stuck in my mind. Travelling isn’t about going to the easy, well developed countries. It’s about going outside your comfort zone and seeing places and people that are different to what you are used to.

After a couple of hours of nervous cycling, we crossed the border into Albania with no Albanian Leks (money) and no map. We cycled and cycled but couldn’t find either. Eventually we found an ATM. I walked over ready to get money out and suddenly it lifted off the ground and was put on the back of an orange truck. I don’t know if it was broken, being moved or being stolen – I didn’t hang around to find out. We cycled along the main road into Lezhe, where it was chaos. Cars everywhere. Lots of noise and just general mayhem and of course we were the stars of the show in town. There are no real road rules in Albania, you just drive where you see a space and as long as the other person coming the other way has a space to go, then it’s all good. We stopped at the first hotel in Lezhe and after asking the receptionist to call her manager, we got the price down to an acceptable level and so we stayed, relieved to get out of the madness. The next day, there was another storm so we stayed another day to avoid being washed away.

We wandered around the town a couple of times in the rain. We stuck out like a sore thumb as we walked round, but looking at the madness in the town was too much to resist. It’s not the sort of place that I would like to live, but I’m glad that I was able to experience what daily life is like. It seems to consist of sitting in a car honking a horn…

After tracking down a map we were able to depart the next day toward the town of Burrel. The route through a canyon was fantastic.

Lovely scenery and autumn colours. At some points the road turned into an obstacle course. No tarmac, mud, rocks, massive potholes all made progress painfully slow – even when we were going downhill.

Burrel turned out to be not the sort of place that we wished to stay the night – it was a bit grim. With the help of some policemen we were directed to campsite a few kilometres down the road. The campsite turned out to be ridiculous! It was the same price as a hotel and the facilities, such as shower, kitchen etc. costing extra, so we left. We pedalled on a bit more until we were invited to pitch our tent behind a restaurant by the son of the owner. We pitched our tent, then we were told by the father to take our tent down and come and sleep inside where it was warmer. So there we had it, we spent the night in a room with a freezer full of frozen meat!

The next morning we spent almost four hours climbing up a seemingly endless hill. There have been very few moments that I have wanted to sit down and give up, but this was one of them. The hill just went on forever and we seemed to be making no progress at all, which is always frustrating.

When we made it to the top, we went into the next town to buy some milk and bread. The whole town seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at us. It’s a very unsettling feeling indeed. I’m not sure what these people do with their day, but standing about seems to take up a large part of it. We didn’t feel threatened at all, but we aren’t used to be stared at by so many people at the same time.

Over all we had a very positive experience of Albania. We said hello to thousands of people. All the cars gave us friendly toots of their horns and waved at us. The people seem genuinely pleased to have foreigners in their country. All the kids are curious, want to shake your hand, say hello and ask where you are from. Even the teenagers and young adults will smile and wave – which would be the demograph you could expect would give you most trouble (or not care at all) in Ireland. Chris and Jasmin had some stones thrown at them by kids, but we didn’t experience anything like this. It is clear, however, that Albania still has a lot of work to do to make the country a tourist destination.

If I had a week off work and wanted to go for a holiday, I wouldn’t choose Albania – because it’s hard work and not at all relaxing, but we are both very glad that we had the chance to cycle through it and see the rawness of society – and beauty – for ourselves.

We moved into Macedonia in the evening and ended up in Debar, just a few kilometres from the border. We knew there was a hotel in town, but finding it took an hour! When we did, the price was so far out of our price range – it was laughable. We knew there was another hotel at a gas station just down the road, so we found that and discovered that it was closed. Mmm, what to do? We were a bit stuck.

Slowly but surely on this trip, we are losing our inhibitions about going up to random people and asking for directions, shops, accommodation or anything else that we are looking for. You might not be successful the first time, the second time or even the third time, but if you ask enough people, you will get what you want. How many of us have gone into a strange town (even in your home country) and driven around for ages looking for something that your map told you was there, because you are too shy or embarrassed to ask a stranger for help? Well if we tried that approach here, travelling would be so much tougher – maybe even impossible. We are learning that most people are friendly and helpful if given the opportunity.

So we asked a guy on a bike if he knew of any other accommodation – he didn’t – but another cyclist stopped and he didn’t either. But two people on bright yellow bikes with lots of bags hanging off the frame (us), tends to draw a crowd and when we are stopped and speaking to a couple of locals, other people tend to get more interested and come over and join the group. A crowd always draws a crowd. In these cases, we enjoy being the center of attention, and are glad that these people come over to find out what this discussion is all about. A teenager in the group knew of another motel above a gas station, not too far from where we were, and so one of the original cyclists told us to follow him to the gas station. See – sorted! We thanked everyone involved and moved off to our home for the night. The place was dirty, stank of cigarettes but it was cheap and we were very glad to have a roof over our heads for the night. We were very glad that we stopped and asked the question and drew in the crowd.

We went back into town to get some dinner and found a pizzeria – which is the best meal to look for when hungry and tired. There were three sizes of pizza on the menu, but when the waiter came, we ordered the flavour and he asked us if we wanted small or medium. We said ‘large please’, to which he said ‘No they are too big, they are family pizzas’. We insisted that we were hungry and wanted two family pizzas. He rolled his eyes and gave a look as if to say we were a bit dim. The pizzas were indeed huge, but they were no match for two tired, hungry cyclists! Maybe our pictures are now on the restaurant wall!

When we were in our gas station motel, we were wondering who on earth stayed in this sort of place. Well it turns out that quite a lot of people stay in these places! People kept coming during the night making loads of noise – including a motorcyclist who was travelling around the world. He arrived just before two in the morning. Who knows what he was up to until that time!

We had an easy 55km cycle to Struga the next day from Lake Debarsko, along the river Crn Drim to Lake Orhid and found a really nice apartment for buttons.

So that’s where we are currently – Struga. Next we will be going a bit further east towards the mountains in Macedonia. I’m pretty sure we will regret that later though…

Crna Gora i Crni Oblaci

It was Monika’s birthday while we were still in Zaton. It would have been difficult to find a nicer spot in which to stay to celebrate. Our apartment was overlooking a quiet little bay, the sun was shining, the views of the surrounding mountains were quite spectacular.

There was a water supply outage for the entire day, so Monika had to wait until the evening to get her birthday cake. The lack of any sort of cooking utensils, an oven and even ingredients made the birthday cake quite a challenge, so in the end I went for a ‘pancake cake’. I am led to believe it was worth the wait…

We spent our last night in Croatia with a host from warmshowers. His name was Marko and to say that Marko was an interesting chap is an understatement to say the least! He was born in Dubrovnik, left home at seventeen to make his own way in the world, moved to Canada where he lived for 48 years, before coming back to Croatia to try and promote tourism in a tiny little village where his mother was brought up. He told us about a huge number of business ventures he was involved in – everything from building housing for the workers of the Alberta oil sands project to collecting money on behalf of Che Guevara. He is the sort of guy who sees ideas, opportunities and ways to improve things everywhere, but more importantly does something about them, rather than sitting and waiting for someone else to come along and do something about it. He was a very inspirational guy and it’s a shame that we didn’t have the chance to spend more time with him. If you are a backpacker or a cyclist travelling from Croatia to Montenegro or vice versa, do not miss Marko in Mikulici!

The following day we packed up our tent, said our farewells to Marko and freewheeled (almost all the way) to the Montenegrin border. The border is perched on top of a hill next to the sea with quite spectacular views of the sea. Even if you have no desire to cross from one country to the other, it’s worth going to the border just for the views.

We were a little sad to be leaving Croatia. We felt like we had gotten to know the country over the last three and a half weeks. It had far exceeded our expectations. We had fabulous weather, met some great people and cycled through amazing scenery. We would definitely recommend it to anyone – please just don’t come in a cruise liner or a bus!

The road from the border crossing takes you into Kotor Bay, which is lined with quaint historic towns, one of which is Herceg Novi, where we met a fellow cyclist called Ian.

He is South African and set out on his latest bike journey from England in March. He is living on a tiny budget of around €6 per day, doesn’t eat much hot food and spends virtually every night in a tent regardless of weather. Seems like an extreme way to travel, if you ask me, but he seems to enjoy it. He was in Albania previously and wasn’t even planning on heading northwards, but someone recommended Dubrovnik to him, so he took a detour to go and see the place. His plan is to head south for the winter months – similar to ours – so I’m sure we will meet up with him again in the future.

After lunch with Ian, we continued on our path around Kotor Bay and we decided to stop in Orahovac and ask if we could camp in someone’s garden. Initially we were allowed, then we were to be charged €20 for the pleasure! She was an old lady obviously looking for the chance to fleece a couple of ‘rich’ travellers. We agreed on a price of €6, but in all honesty we should have said ‘no thanks’ and continued on our way. Another lesson learned.

The next day we passed through Kotor – which is supposed to be huge attraction in Montenegro, but again, cruise ships, thousands of tourists wearing neatly pressed knee length beige shorts with socks and sandals ruined the experience. We weren’t allowed to take the bikes into the old town (probably in fear of us knocking down the tourists), so I stayed outside while Monika went in to take the necessary pictures.

I was quite happy to be leaving Kotor Bay and the tourist trail. Our destination? – The mountains. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. All day it was up, up, up. There wasn’t a single section of flat or freewheeling all day. The views from up above were quite spectacular – made all the better by the fact that we had pedalled all the way.

This was a tiny mountain road with cows walking up the middle of the road, so you can imagine our surprise when a couple of tour buses squeezed past us! Is there anywhere those things don’t go?

After camping behind a mountain restaurant and shaking the ice off the tent in the morning, we set off to get over the mountain pass. We started off in freezing temperatures, but soon after the sun came out, making the last 300m climb, to the pass, warm and pleasant.

After a bone chilling two hour descent we were back at sea level right in the heart of the mountains. Life was very different in this part of the world. The villages are almost cut off from the rest of the country, with only tiny mountain roads as a means to get in and out. Buildings and houses are very few and far between and the ones that are there seem to have an abandoned look about them – even though there are people living their lives behind the walls and in the surrounding land.

We came to the village of Virpazar, right on the edge of Lake Skadar. It looked, from the start of the village, big enough to occupy us for a couple of days, so we decided to stay. Unfortunately we ended up staying for four nights, as thunderstorms rolled in one after the other. One of the storms knocked out the power and water supplies for eighteen hours or so. The rain was constant and torrential. There just didn’t seem any point in attempting to cycle in that sort of weather. As I said the village looked big enough to entertain us, but it wasn’t. It’s absolutely the smallest place you can imagine with an ATM! It has a shop, a bakery and two cafes and the previously mentioned ATM. I think I have been suffering from cabin fever. We have been out a few times, but as the village can be roughly navigated in a five minute period (we have done that at least four times), it doesn’t occupy us for long. Most of the time it’s been lashing, so venturing outside isn’t even an option. The tv has about three channels all of which are filled with stuff I can’t even imagine Montenegrins watching!

The weather looks better for Tuesday, so we plan to be off again on our bikes, heading towards the great unknown – Albania. We have received my conflicting reports about Albania. Some love it and wouldn’t miss it, others are so afraid of the reports that they cycle 180km a day just to get through it as fast as possible. I wonder which column we will put our names under…

The Islands and the Skinny Bit of Croatia

We spent a day last week wandering around Split and seeing what it has to offer. Even though the old town is the main draw for tourists, it’s apparent that the whole economy of the town does not depend on tourism. Yachting and boating is a big industry here, although how people afford to buy, park and run these boats is beyond me.

Yes, there are souvenir stalls and the usual ice cream stands around town, but there is plenty of normal life going on, which is always nice to see. Having said that, today an enormous cruise ship plonked itself a kilometre or so off the coast and delivered thousands of elderly American tourists to town, which gave the place an odd vibe. No destination is particularly enjoyable to walk around when everyone in the town is a visitor!

Split has loads of history behind it and you could spend hours walking around all the old buildings and reading about how they came to be and what trauma they have suffered through the following centuries.

Or if you aren’t so inclined you can simply get an ice cream, go down to the sea front and look out to sea in the shade of a palm tree. Life is slow paced here, so you don’t feel the need to spend your day rushing around to the point of exhaustion.

Before we arrived in Split, we were pretty sure we were going to do some island hopping to move onto to Dubrovnik. Having frightened ourselves silly on our cycle on the motorway on the way in, neither of us wished to attempt trying to cycle out of Split and along the main road to Dubrovnik, so we planned to get the ferry from Split to Brac and onto to Hvar. We had been reliably informed that these islands are beautiful and since we are expecting another period of good weather, we thought why not go have a look. However, when we had a look at the ferry timetable – this was not possible, so we had to change our plans slightly. We would end up getting a ferry from Split to Vela Luka, on the island of Korcula and then another ferry from Korcula to the peninsula of Peljesac.

I hope jumping on some ferries is not regarded as cheating…?

The ferry to Vela Luka on Korcula Island took about three hours, during which time the temperature reached a brain sizzling height of 37 degrees.

The 45km cycle from the western port (Vela Luka) to the eastern port (Korcula) was much tougher than expected, due to the hills. Loads and loads of hills!

The following morning, the ferry was due to leave Korcula for Orebic on Peljesac peninsula at 0910, so we arrived at 0810, only to be told that the ferry was leaving in three minutes.

Who knows how these ferry schedules work, but at least we were there in time. Peljesac proved to be even more hilly than Korcula. It was up down, up down all day long.

After 60km of this nonsense we gave up and found a campsite to bed down for the night. The only problem was – the campsite was closed. We had cycled too far to let a closed campsite stop us! We weren’t going anywhere, so we decided we would camp there anyway. There were a lot of German tourists in campervans parked in the car park outside the campsite – clearly with the same idea as us (except they stayed outside the camp as we were pitching our tent inside the deserted campsite).

After dark, we went off with our water bottles to try and find some water for cooking and the following day – no luck. Unknown to us, some of the German campervan people must have been watching our comings and goings from the campsite with our water bottles, as a few minutes after we got back – now picture this, myself and Monika alone in this deserted camp ground in the pitch dark with only trees, spooky rustling of leaves and animals scurrying around in the undergrowth for company – out of the corner of my eye I noticed a silhouette about 15 feet away marching straight at us. My heart almost stopped beating and I made a squeak-like sound that I have never heard before, all before freezing in sheer terror! “Wasser” he called out, before pointing something at me. It took me what felt like forever to figure out what ‘wasser’ was. Water! He isn’t going to kill us – he’s giving us water! He obviously saw us return to the campsite with empty water bottles and thought he would be super helpful and give us some of his. In my still shocked state, all I could say was “Dankeschon” a couple of times, even though I should have appeared more grateful. But really, Mr Very Helpful German Campervan Man, in future, call out a good solid “Hello”, “Ola” or “Hallo” fifty feet away, instead of sneaking up on people in the dark!

Needless to say, sleep did not come easily after that.

The day we entered Croatia, we had Dubrovnik as a target destination. Back then it was over 750km away (by the most direct route) so it seemed like it would take forever to get there, but today we made it to within a handful of kilometres of Dubrovnik.

Another fun 50km of coastal road (and some lorries) we made it to the tiny little village of Zaton. We found some accommodation, hopped off our bikes and jumped into the crystal clear water to cool off from the heat. Absolute bliss.

After three weeks in Croatia it was finally time to visit Dubrovnik. It wasn’t that we were racing through Croatia to get to Dubrovnik, but Dubrovnik signals the end of our Croatian adventure. The old town of Dubrovnik is beautifully built and situated right on the very edge of the Adriatic Sea. The town is completely surrounded by massive defensive walls and from high above, the terracotta roofs completes the idyllic setting.

However, for me, that’s where the positive and the good stops. Dubrovnik is now a town that is geared 100% for tourists – mainly from cruise ships and tour coaches. There are thousands of people – all tourists – milling around this tiny little place. There is no character or atmosphere in the town. Everywhere you turn, someone is trying to sell you something whether it be, sea kayaking trips, excursions, food, souvenirs, tablecloths or other bits and pieces. There is not one single piece of information available that will tell you about the history of the town or any of the particular buildings.

I was in Dubrovnik for a whole day and I couldn’t tell you anything about it. I guess will have to go onto Wikipedia to find out more. It seems that the town is happy for all cruise ship/couch tour gangs to charge into town, take their pictures, buy lots of stuff and leave again, without getting to know anything about the place they are visiting. The prices of everything here were way out of our price range. We only bought an expensive ice cream, as all the real food would have cost us a night accommodation or about a weeks worth of our usual food.

You could buy tickets to walk the city walls, which I’m sure would have yielded some amazing views, but again, the prices were insane. We did see people up on those walls, but it appeared to be one long snake of people circling the city, so we are pretty glad that we didn’t bother with that.

Monika has a little bit of a soft spot for Dubrovnik, because she was here eleven years ago and have a good experience at that time, but I was very disappointed by Dubrovnik. From now on we will be trying our best to stay away from places that attract tourists in tour buses and cruise ships, as the tourists that come off these buses and ships tend to take over the place and ruin the experience for us.

Having said all this, Im sure if you can get into the old town of Dubrovnik on a day where there is no mass tourism, then I’m sure you will have a pleasant enough day – as long as you bring your own ham and cheese sandwiches – or a bank loan.

 

The Croatian Coastal Road

We spent a day relaxing in the old coastal town of Zadar which dates back to the 9th century BC. As with all towns of this age, it has had a chequered past. Most recently it was completely destroyed (only three buildings were salvageable) by the Allies in World War II, after it had been taken over by the Italians and then the Germans. The town was rebuilt by 1990, just in time for it to be become one of the many targets of Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavs Peoples Army in 1991. The town again sustained damage to buildings and its UNESCO sites. All of this is in the past now. The town has been fully restored to its previous state and looks fabulous.

There are hundreds of tiny cobbled stoned alleys in which to get lost, the sea front is completely free of tourism propaganda resulting in a great space to relax and watch the boats come and go.

After our day of sitting in the sun watching the world pass us by, it was time to get on the bikes again. As soon as we started it began to rain. And boy oh boy did it rain! Within half an hour the streets were completely flooded so we pulled off to the side of the road and sat under a motorway bridge for an hour or so. It looked like it was easing off a little, but this was just to tease us out of our hiding place.

The rain continued to come down in sheets and after 30km we gave up and decided to seek accommodation for the day in the town of Biograd. We found our accommodation, but after a while we wished we had continued cycling. The owner and proprietor of the guest house we were staying at was a little old lady and would not leave us alone. She kept talking to us in an odd mix of German and Croatian. For over an hour she hovered around while we were standing there soaking wet and cold desperate to take a shower and get some dry clothes on. We virtually had to push her out the door and close the door in her face to get some peace!

The rain continued unabated for a couple more hours. At one point it was so heavy that I was able to fill a litre bottle of water in about twenty seconds. But that’s what happens here, when it rains, it rains hard for a long time. When it eventually stopped, we sneaked out of the guest house – without being spotted by the crazy lady – and went into town to have a look around. There wasn’t much to look at to be honest. It wasn’t the sort of place we would have stopped if it hadn’t been for the rain.

The next morning, despite our best efforts to pack up and leave without being harassed, we failed. I have the feeling you have to get up really early in the morning to get anything past this woman! After another half an hour of listening to her jabber away (she still didn’t get the idea that I didn’t understand one word she said) we escaped. I can now understand how Frank Morris and his two compatriots felt when they managed to get off Alcatraz Island!

Our next stop was another historic town called Sibenik. This place seemed to be devoid of accommodation. We cycled around town for over an hour trying to find something, getting a bit desperate, when, finally, we were approached by someone in the street asking if we were looking for accommodation. After getting the price down to something reasonable, we were able to unpack and see what this new little town had to offer. Again the old part of the town is a nice little place with all sorts of nooks and crannies to wonder around in with plenty of stone cathedrals and ancient fortifications to admire.

The following day we cycled 60km to Trogir, yet another historical town. The road followed the coast the whole way and the sights were absolutely fantastic. The picturesque views of the blue/green water and hundreds of little tranquil bays sometimes made it difficult to cycle in a straight line!

It would have been very easy to stop and stare out to sea for the rest of the day. With the temperature just sneaking into the thirties all we wanted to do was to get off the bikes and go jump into the sea. Just outside Trogir, we found a cheap campsite, right on the Adriatic coast. We pitched our tent and then ran off to go for a refreshing swim in the sea. After our cool down, we managed to get into town, have a look around and watch the sunset behind the islands. All in all it was a great day and a route that we would highly recommend (at least on a hot sunny Sunday in October)!

Heading to Split from Trogir was every bit as bad as the previous day was good. It was a nasty narrow, fast road into the city. We managed to end up on the motorway (with no hard shoulder) for about 10km. Every pedal stroke was torture. I guess there is a very good reason why cyclists prefer the scenic route and avoid the major cities. It took about two mental hours to cover the 30km into Split and it felt like an entire day had been spent on those roads. When we managed to escape death on the motorway and found our way to the old town, we couldn’t find accommodation anywhere! People were quoting us prices for a night that we would normally spend in a week. I was just about to sit down again and let someone take pity on me and fix our problems, when a lady approached us and asked us if we needed accommodation. We were very happy to accept, as her guest house was right in the middle of the old town about a thirty second walk to the palm tree fronted sea front. Couldn’t have worked out any better in the end…