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!

“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.

 

Our Thoughts on Hungary (Magyarország)

I have finally managed to get round to writing a little bit about what we experienced in Hungary. After a few changes to our initial plan, we are glad that we started in Hungary. The weather was fantastic and it was different enough from Ireland to feel like you are actually travelling but not so different for it to feel like we had landed on a different planet. Budapest was as expected. It had lots of culture, period architecture and buildings, mixed with some communist style calamities. The Parliament, the Castle, the Danube and the bridges across the river stole the show, especially at night.

If you are visiting Hungary – you will get away with English in Budapest, the but moment you move away from Budapest, no-one will speak English. German is spoken to some degree by everyone.

In most towns we visited there are ample cycle lanes and in the more touristy areas like Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, there are hundreds of kilometers of cycle lanes that take you pretty much everywhere you wish to go in the area.

The drivers are very considerate towards cyclists. In some circumstances, it appeared to us that, they would rather have an accident with another car than injure a cyclist! We felt safe at all time – not just on the roads – but in towns and villages. Crime doesn’t seem to be a major issue, public drunkenness and general loutish behaviour was non-existent where we visited. In general, everyone we had dealings with were very friendly.

Most importantly, for cyclists at the start of their tour, the countryside is flat – hardly a hill of note to be found anywhere. The scenery is mostly flat farmland – which was very pleasant for us to cycle through.

The Hungarian people seem very proud of their country. The streets were clean, the grass verges were largely free of litter. We would frequently see teams of people (both paid and volunteers) cleaning up any stray litter and pulling up weeds in the footpaths and verges.

The infrastructure is excellent. There are plenty of motorways and A roads for cars and trucks to get from A to B as fast as possible, but also plenty of small roads for us cyclists who want to enjoy remoteness and the scenery.

Prices for accommodation and food is reasonable (even for us) if you don’t mind hunting around a bit for the cheaper places, rather than going to the first place that you see. Prices for accommodation can always be negotiated – off peak season at least!

All in all, we had a great experience in our first country on our trip and would definitely recommend it to other travellers.

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.