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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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!

Lakes, Mountains and The Coast

After our day off in Sisak, we headed west to meet up with Jasmina – who kindly offered to take us in for the night – in Karlovac. The cycle there was fairly unremarkable apart from the fact that halfway along the road, the road builders forgot to turn up to work and didn’t bother to lay any tarmac for around 5km of severe uphill terrain.

Upon our arrival in Karlovac, we dumped our stuff off at Jasmina’s house and ended up back on the bikes again for a night time tour of the old town.

Karlovac was on the front line of the Croatian/Serbian war in the early 1990’s. Much of the southern part of the town was damaged and the smaller outlying towns totally destroyed. As you cycle through Croatia you can still see the remnants of the war – whether it be destroyed houses or occupied buildings still with the bullet holes in the walls. I have to remind myself sometimes that this was a very recent war. I remember seeing news reports, at the time, about the war and here I am cycling through the very same areas that were on the news during that time.

The next morning, we got an early start to head to Plitvice National Park. This is Croatia’s jewel in the crown as far as a popular tourist destination is concerned.

Unfortunately for us, the only route there is along a main road (which we normally do all we can to avoid). Again unfortunately for us, we were going along this road on a Saturday and not just any Saturday – the Saturday at the start of a long weekend as the Croatians celebrated their independence day. This was a horrible cycle – 75km along a fast main road, with lots of hills and fast moving cars/trucks/buses/camper vans whizzing past every few seconds. We definitely do not recommend this route for a pleasant day out on the bike.

We got to our campground in the early evening and finally got our stove working. Before we came out on this trip, we already had a gas canister stove that we had always used on our previous expeditions. For this trip we decided to go for a petrol stove – mainly because gas canisters won’t be available everywhere on our route – whereas petrol should be. Then about a month before our departure date, a friend of Monikas discovered a new type of stove – one that ran on twigs and small bits of wood. Having read up about it, we thought this was a good idea, especially as it negated the need to carry petrol bottles. We had read that travellers often complained about everything smelling of petrol, after a while, when using a petrol stove. Since petrol is such a dirty fuel, the burners and jets require a lot of maintenance and various bits and pieces need regular replacement. So anyways, we got this new stove shipped in from America.

Of course we didnt test it before coming on the trip (much like ninety percent of our stuff!), so we tried it out for the first time in Lake Velence. That was a spectacular failure. It kept going out and so we had no fire. In Plitvice National Park, we tried it again and it worked perfectly – like anything else, you just have to get the hang of it. Getting it started is the trickiest bit, but it turns out that dried pine needles is the very best thing to use to get the baby fire started. Even after a heavy night rain, we were still able to find dry needles and wood.

When we have used it a few more times, we will write a proper review on it, but for now, you can read all about it here.

The next day was spent at the Lakes in Plitvice National Park. It is a beautiful place. The lakes, waterfalls and scenery is amazing. The only problem is the bus tour groups! They come in their thousands, follow each other around like lemmings for a few hours (or seconds/minutes depending on the location) and get back on their buses again and move onto the next tourist attraction.  What a horrible way to travel. Apparently in July/August, the board walks and paths that allow people to move around the park is just one solid line of people all the way round the park – so if you plan to go – go out of season.

After the insanity of the crowds of people at the lakes, it was nice to get back on the bikes again and head through the mountains towards the coast. We decided to stop over in Gospic on the way to the coast to stay with Mile. We met him through www.couchsurfing.org. He actually works at the lakes and offered to take some of our luggage off us, so we could tackle the mountains without so much burden, but we politely refused, telling him that we thought it would be cheating.

This cycle to Gospic turned out to be my favourite day up until that point. The hills were brutal and the downhills were sickening (as you knew you were wasting all that altitude and were going to have to get it back later). The pace was painfully slow at times as the hills were so steep, but each time we made it to the top, we felt like we had accomplished something. We climbed well over 1,000m that day, but net altitude gain was just about 100m, so you can see how much wasted climbing there was. The scenery was amazing though.

Mountains covered in green/golden trees made the climbs totally worth it. When were still about 20km from Gospic, Mile caught up with us in his car and told us that he wasn’t actually going to be at home when we got there, but told us to go ahead and let ourselves in, cook dinner, get a shower and generally relax. We couldn’t believe it when we got to his house. The place was unlocked – key in the door – food in the fridge. It was such an odd feeling to walk into someone else’s house, take a shower, cook our dinner with their food and basically make ourselves at home. Mile had never met us before and yet he had opened up his home to us like he had known us all of his life. It was a real big eye opener to how differently strangers are treated in this part of the world, than they are where I come from. They are treated like a friend, rather than ignored. Everyday we come across examples of kindness and generosity that neither of us had never experienced anywhere else before.

Mile was an amazing guy with loads dreams and aspirations and a real zest to enjoy life. We can’t thank him enough for his hospitality and it’s meeting and interacting with people like him is one of the reasons why we wanted to travel – not just to see different places, but get to know the places through the people who live there.

Yesterday we set off from Gospic and headed toward the coast – to Karlobag. It was another climb up through the Velebit Mountains.

When we reached the Ostarijska pass the clouds had rolled in and it had started to rain – but that didn’t spoil the views across the Adriatic Sea and of the many islands off the coast.

Mile had told us that it was one of the most spectacular views in Croatia and he was not wrong! After leaving the summit, we descended the 928m to get back to sea level at the small fishing town of Karlobag.

It had taken us two days to climb to a height of around 1,000m and about 40minutes to lose it all. We did not turn the pedals or let go of the brakes once in the 20km descent. Everything was numb with wet and cold by the time we got to the bottom, but we had conquered the mountains, so it was all very much worth it! A very enjoyable two days in the Croatian mountains.

Today turned out to be one of those days. It was supposed to be 90km along a flat road to Zadar, but it turned out to be almost 100km along a very hilly road. At times it felt like we were never going to get there!

We did meet our first other cycling tourer today. His name was Jo from New Zealand. He has spent the last five years, working in New Zealand during their summer and then cycling around the Northern Hemisphere in our summer. He has been on the road since April and has been through South East Asia, China and now through Europe, making his way to Germany before flying back to New Zealand at the end of the month. As we were talking at the side of the road, another guy pulled up. He was from Brazil, but unfortunately, we didn’t find out too much about him as he was in a big rush. As we later found out – he was a bit crazy!

He was going in the same direction as us and we caught up with him about twenty kilometres later – just in time for him to give us dodgy directions, which resulted in all of us heading uphill in the wrong direction for half an hour – despite the fact that I knew the right way to go! It was great to meet fellow cyclists on the road though – it sort of reminds us that myself and Monika aren’t the only ones out there.

After what seemed like an utterly endless road, we arrived in Zadar just before dark, thoroughly exhausted and very much looking forward to our day off tomorrow.

Welcome to Croatia!

After a quick breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Phil and departed for Croatia. We crossed the border, got our passports stamped and were in a different country. Does this mean we are international cycling tourers now?

The weather is the same as Hungary – surprisingly – a hot 30+ degrees. After some 30km of cycling through nice flat farmlands and countryside, we reached the town of Koprivnica where we met up with our new couchsurfing host, Janja.

She was a super host. Very welcoming and friendly. We were given lots of home cooked food and made to feel very much at home. One of the big advantages of staying with members of couchsurfers is the local knowledge that they can provide. Janja went through our route and showed us great places that we should visit, which we will certainly do. She has similar interests to us, in terms of how travelling should be done and she will be very welcome on our couch should the need arise for her. Thank you, Janja, for everything.

In the morning – which followed another night time thunderstorm – we set off to Bjelovar. It was a cold damp morning and it was to be a day that the sun did not come out at all. The cycle to Bjelovar was largely uneventful, although it was our first experience of some of the hills that Croatia has to offer.

The route was very undulating – a 10% climb followed by a 10% descent. The descents were fun and after a while the ascents became fun too in a strange kind of way. It felt like we were being challenged.

As we approached Bjelovar, to meet up with our newest couchsurfer, Kris, it began to rain. This was the first time it had rained on us while we were cycling, but I managed to find a waterproof chestnut tree in the main town square to hide under. We eventually found Kris’ house and he immediately told us to make ourselves at home, take a shower if we wished and even use the washing machine, then he went off back to work and left us in his house alone after meeting us for only five minutes. Very trusting! He obviously knows what the power of a hot shower and clean clothes can do to a persons spirits. He too was a great host, he took us out into the town, told us a bit about the history of the town, bought us a beer and we chatted away about anything and everything. He then took us back to his apartment and cooked us dinner and then played a bit of his own music on the guitar. All in all it was a great evening and he is a fantastic guy. If any couchsurfer is in the northern part of Croatia, I would suggest stopping off with Kris on your way to Zagreb or further south.

In the morning Kris made us some Turkish coffee (I have never had Turkish coffee before in my life, but now I have had it twice in two days) – it’s very popular here, due to the Turkish influence on Croatian history. Once again we said our goodbyes to our host and we headed off on our bikes – to Sisak this time.

The early morning fog soon lifted and gave way to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine.  The cycling was pleasant and relatively easy. As ever the heat was…well…hot! Just after one o’clock we found a nice quiet spot by a canal. It was very quiet. It was off the road, there were swans in the water and horses on the bank.

We got all of our food out, got the knives, plates and other lunch time items out of the panniers, laid them all out on grass ready to go. Next thing, a television camera crew turned up in a van, tripods came out, cameras came out and here we were surrounded by our jam, cheese and bread rolls. We felt a bit silly, but also a bit annoyed that the quiet spot we found now appeared to the centre of some breaking news event. As it turned out, they were just taking some shots of the swans and the water – probably for a slow news day – and we were once again left in peace to enjoy our lunch.

As usual the chaos really started when we arrived at the town. We had no couchsurfer organised for today, but we had noted the address of a hostel in Sisak so we could go straight there instead of having to hunt around the town for somewhere to stay. At least that was the plan! We arrived in the town, cycled round in circles for a while looking for the street, then decided to ask some people. No-one we asked (and we asked eight different people who lived in town) had even heard of the street or the hostel. It was like we were in the twilight zone! It turns out that between ten and fifteen years ago, towns and cities all over Croatia decided to get rid of any trace of the communist era and so preceded to change all the street names. Unfortunately nobody bothered to learn the new names of the streets and they are still referred to as their old name on a day to day basis. After a trip to the tourist information office (which was closed) we figured out the location of the street that this hostel was on. Hurray! So off we went. Before we got there though, I was stopped by a Croatian guy and his wife – who wanted me to give a short interview on camera giving my opinion on the cycle lanes in Sisak. It was a bit of an odd experience, especially because Monika arrived in the middle of it and had no idea what was going on!

An hour and half after we arrived in Sisak, we located the hostel! Only one problem…it was closed! Surprise surprise! It was half five, darkness would be descending soon, we had already cycled 90km and we had no more options. There are a couple of hotels in town, but they would have been ridiculously expensive. Monika wanted to try wild camping, but I was more inclined to start knocking on peoples doors and asking them if we could camp in their back gardens. It was around this time where I decided to sit down on the ground outside the closed hostel. Monika was not very impressed with my lack of activity, but I wasn’t going to move. I said to her “If I sit here long enough looking miserable, maybe someone will take pity on me and come over and sort me out”. Sure enough about two minutes later, there was some activity on the street with the hostel owners neighbours. There were walking backwards and forwards across the street to each others houses, some were pointing at us and it was clear that they were talking about us. One nice lady came over and spoke to us in Croatian. Apparently the owner of the hostel was at work in Zagreb, since she wasn’t expecting any guests today – since we hadn’t booked ahead. The neighbours had seen two tired, fed up cyclists outside her hostel and had given her a call, so she was leaving Zagreb now and would be here shortly to let us in. In the mean time, the neighbour had a key to let us into the back yard, so we could at least go in and relax. How do I know all this if the lady was talking to us in Croatian? Well it turns out that Monika can speak and understand Croatian! I did not know this! I knew about all the other languages, but Croatian was not one that I was aware of. I am constantly amazed that somebody can talk to us and Monika understands everything perfectly and is able to talk back, where I just stand there looking rather quite dim. It happened in Hungary, with Monika talking to everyone in German and now again in Croatia. Just wait until we get to Australia and I will be able to show off my Australian language skills!

In the end, it all worked out nicely. We are in our nice little apartment in Sisak and are planning on a rest day tomorrow, since we haven’t really had one for over a week now.