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!

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“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…

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.

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.

Homer Gets a Puncture

Homer got his first puncture today! We were up extra early today, made breakfast and prepared ourselves for departure from Balatonelle. When I went round the back of the apartment to retrieve our bikes, I noticed Homer’s front tyre was completely flat. I was tempted just to pump it up and continue, but I knew that would be doomed to failure. Once I had disassembled the front wheel and removed the tube, I attempted to find the hole.

But I could not find it for love nor money! I had to resort to the old trick of using a bowl of water. The hole turned out to be miniscule. It was one of those cases where a new tube would have needed to be fitted to fix it, if I hadn’t had a bowl of water handy, so I guess it’s a good job it happened when it did. But anyways, it is probably the first of many, so I might as well get used to it.

Apart from that it, was a very relaxing day. We spent 50km drifting along a cycle track to our next destination, Keszthely, on the very western tip of the lake.

Here are a few pictures of the lovely town we are currently staying at:

Tomorrow we are planning a trip to some natural spa in a neighbouring town of Heviz, which dates back to the time of the East Roman Emperor, Flavius Theodosius, who was supposedly an invalid as a child, but was cured by a natural spring.  The minerals in the water are meant to cure all sorts of diseases, ailments and rejuvenate physical strength. Just in case the spring doesn’t work, the town has a doctor, surgeon and a dentist on standby…

First Day on the Saddles

And so came the Sunday, the day when we planned to leave Budapest – on bikes! Geoff was worried about getting out of the city, I was scared of cycling those loaded bikes (well over 20kg each), so it did come as a surprise, that we actually packed all our stuff in the morning, had a quick breakfast, took all that stuff downstairs, got it on the bikes and took off. The first miles weren’t the most pleasant – Sunday morning traffic was heavier than anticipated and the bikes wobbled a bit. But then we got out of town (after only one wrong turn) and it was quieter and smelled of early autumn. I was getting excited. We were only supposed to do about 60km that day and Hungary was meant to be flat. So I wasn’t very impressed when the first hill of the day appeared before Budakeszi. The road was pretty narrow and steep and the path next to it had strange steps every once every few hundred meters, which mean’t that we constantly had to get off the bike to push. I discovered that neither getting back on a fully loaded bike going up hills, nor pushing it up is very entertaining – unless, of course, to someone watching you from the other side of the road, having a quiet giggle to themselves.

But we kept going. Distances grew and even though we cycled for hours, we were nowhere near the lake we wanted to reach for the night. We had a quick stop in Etyek for ice-cream, which turned out to be our lunch. From there it was mile after mile, some uphill, some down and it was singing that kept me going. A very random selection of hardly ever finished songs (as I didn’t all the words), yet it helped me focus on something else than slowly passing meters and which part of my body was more sore at that time.

I know that this wan’t the plan. It was meant to be an adventure not an ordeal. But I guess beginnings might be tough and the more we cycle, the easier it will get. That’s why today we were having a relaxing day at the lake (apart from the 8km round trip (walking!) to the shop that Geoff didn’t like at all). If it wasn’t for that and for the wind blowing in off the lake, so bad that our tent nearly got blown away, it would have been a very pleasant rest day…

And here’s what Geoff’s been up to today…