Dubrovnik wrecked my legs! Its countless flights of steps hammered muscles in my legs that hadn’t been used for three months, leaving me half crippled, hobbling downstairs clutching at the walls for support. Fortunately, back on the bike I didn’t feel so much as a twinge of the DOMS (Dubrovnik onset muscle soreness) that had blighted me for two days in town. A few hours out of the city and I was back into the swing of things, heading towards Greece via the customary overnight doss-downs amongst olive groves, fruit orchards and vines. The countries were coming thick and fast now, with new languages, customs and currencies every other day. What do they spend in Montenegro? Stick your card into a cash machine and find out! It’s the Euro, by the way, although Montenegro isn’t even a member of the EU, whereas Croatia, a member state since 2013, spends the Kune.
Our one night in Montenegro was another ‘cast about in the dark looking for somewhere suitable while not attracting attention with the headtorch’ affair. Finally locating a relatively stone free plot between a pebble beach and a reedy wetland, we should have been in for a pleasant camp. Unfortunately the weather and local wildlife had other plans for us. The ferocious wind almost blew my tent out to sea before I’d weighted it down properly with rocks (thanks for catching it, Taneli) and the half a billion bullfrogs in the floodplain behind us competed with the howling gale to penetrate even my Muffles earplugs. Every hour or so the noisy amphibians went quiet just long enough for me to doze off, then resumed their cacophony with renewed gusto.
Groggily we found our way to the Albanian border with trepidation, having heard all kinds of stories about people being robbed or murdered for their shoes there. Differences from the rest of Europe were immediately apparent – from the already two days past date stamped in our passports (need to watch out for this in future) to the tiny gypsy children who virtually threw themselves under our bikes to get us to stop so they could beg from us, 20m out of passport control. But we needn’t have worried; our first impressions were misleading and Albania quickly revealed its good-natured character; we soon found that our shoulders were tiring more than our legs as we exchanged friendly waves & warm greetings with virtually everyone we passed. As we sauntered along potholed and gravel roads, every other person shouted a cheery ‘ciao, ciao!’ or ‘hellooo!’ as they went about their business on foot, on donkeys, tractors, on cargo bikes with huge loads in carts in front of them. Car drivers beeped and waved encouragement. Children would scamper from farmhouses to the roadside when they saw us approaching and stand waving, usually beaming but sometimes agog. It was heartwarming to see so many people smiling and curious at our presence – we experienced a peculiar kind of celebrity in Albania. Astonishingly, for a country that clearly sees few foreign visitors (as attested by people’s open mouthed bewilderment as we passed – the words ‘WTF am I seeing here’?’ plainly written in their expressions), many of the kids we met spoke enough English for basic conversation.
Unfortunately some stereotypes do contain a kernel of truth; Albania was as polluted, untidy and decrepit as I had feared. Crumbling buildings, rubble strewn roads, fly-tipped rubbish tumbling along in the breeze everywhere (although it’s unfair to single Albania out for that – Montenegro was almost as messy). Many a backward glance to admire a great view revealed enormous chutes of landfill pushed over the roadside down to the river valleys below.
Between the steep, rough terrain and the low intensity but highly pervasive farmsteads that covered the landscape, we were unable to find a suitable camping spot on our first night in the country. Encouraged and emboldened by the warm welcome so far we determined to knock on the door of the next farmhouse we passed to ask for permission to camp. Luck was once again on our side as, despite speaking no Albanian and the owner speaking no English, once our request was eventually understood it was rejected in favour of bringing us to stay in the house. There we were given the full honoured guest treatment as we were served coffee, grappa, warm trousers (our hosts were deeply worried for our health to see us in shorts in March!), and then an enormous family banquet of traditional food, including several more rounds of moonshine grappa. All the while, a steady stream of extended family members and neighbours were brought in to meet this peculiar pair of peripatetic pedallers that had fetched up in the front yard. The neighbour’s son had enough English to do translation duty, and bizarrely warned us to be on our guard as the country he said was rife with dangerous types, and indicated a gun with his fingers. But not once did I feel threatened in Albania. On the contrary I would say it is the friendliest country I have ever visited.
After an unusual breakfast of warm milk, Turkish coffee and another large shot of grappa, overseen by two of the brothers of the household (who, I noticed, declined to join the 7am drinking club) we found our way up into the mountainous interior in the northeast of the country. Stopping at a run-down looking cafe on the dusty roadside to take a break from the hot afternoon sunshine, I was about to prop my bike against some railings when Taneli murmured in his customarily understated fashion, ‘dude there’s a bear there’. Weary from the heat and climbing, I couldn’t really process this unexpected non sequitur, until he repeated, ‘Dan, there’s a f#*cking bear there’. From the gloomy interior of a large cage the great snout of a brown bear poked through the ‘railings’ beside me and brought me up with a start. As we sat eating rice and cheese we watched a stream of weekend tourists stop by in cars and buses to take photos, pose in front of or even poke at the benighted beast. After witnessing this sorry scene for an hour I left without taking a picture (I hadn’t the heart to add to the beautiful creature’s torments), so you’ll have to take it on trust!
From northern Albania, we crossed into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to visit Ohrid and Sveti Naum, a couple of Unesco world heritage sites on Taneli’s tick list. Perhaps I didn’t embrace the tourist ethic sufficiently to get into the spirit of the places, but I found both sites distinctly underwhelming, although Lake Ohrid itself was beautiful. A great mirror ringed by mountains, it is Europe’s deepest lake and largest volume of fresh water. Aside from the meltwater river in northern Italy, it was without question the coldest water I have ever bathed in – I was unable to swim for more than a couple of seconds before I had to turn tail and get out!
FYROM marked the start of a run of rainy days. Our route towards Athens took us briefly back into Albania, where this time we were greeted by implacable headwinds that wore us down, before we were confined to our tents to wait out a rain and hail storm for a day. Perched on wet hillside in a secluded, misty Albanian valley listening to the wind carrying the calls to prayer from a distant mosque and the eerie howling of dogs (wolves?!), we rationed our meagre food and water supplies and bailed out the moats that formed in the porches of our tents. On into northern Greece the rain continued, turning all to mud – the wheels of my bike eventually refusing to rotate as ears of orange clay clogged between the brakes and around the panniers as I pushed, then dragged, my bike up a steep farm track to return to the road one morning (sadly the photographic record was lost with Taneli’s late lamented iPhone – see below). Fortunately the track joined the road next to a service station, where we were allowed to use the jet wash for free.
A newly opened motorway bypassing Kastoria (no signs prohibiting cyclists, so fair game right?) provided an irresistibly rapid conduit south. To my faltering renditions of Led Zep’s ‘When the levee breaks’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Three feet high and rising’, we carved through the deluge, more like jetskis than bikes, with graceful arcs of sandy water spraying high off our rear wheels. After six days of precipitation, the clocks went forward for the second time in a week for us (having crossed a timezone when we entered Greece) and we finally got a chance to dry out all our kit in our olive grove private campsite. Around this point Taneli’s Unesco WHS hit list came up trumps and we made a side trip around Meteora’s impressive towering, vegetated rock pinnacles and cliff top monasteries. After a low mileage wet week, we finally found our rhythm again and enjoyed a few fast days, taking turns ‘on the front’ to cut a swathe across the vast Plain of Thessaly and then over the moutainous rim to an incredible descent to Lamia. As the mercury climbed, so did we: shorts on, shirt and hat off I enjoyed the chance to test my hill climbing legs, pedalling hard to reach Bralos.
My excitement grew as we approached Athens – the destination I’d focused on since leaving home. It was by now only a couple of days away, so we made contact with Dimitri, a Warmshowers host who kindly offered to put us up for a few days in town while we ran errands. Well that was the plan at any rate. Dimitri officially welcomed us to Athens with a bottle of local tsipouro moonshine, then showed us round the more anarchic side of Athens’ drinking culture. Somewhere in the ensuing melée, not only did we lose Taneli but Taneli lost his iPhone – the working hypothesis is that it was stolen, but then again there was the incident of trying to start a mosh pit in a bar after five free G&Ts (either way, fortunately he’d insured it). Cue a day of getting bounced from pillar to post round several of Athens’ most sublimely bureaucratic police stations to no avail.
And so, after a day of sightseeing in Athens, a long overdue haircut and a very convivial evening swapping stories with fellow biking Brits Rob & Jen (www.tyredriders.com), we boarded the ferry to the island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades. Exactly two months after leaving England, I rolled off the boat in Ermopouli close to midnight to be reunited with Elina, my dear friend from university. Next morning I awoke to dazzling sunshine and the hum of insects in the citrus trees and across verdant hillsides dotted with villages of pretty whitewashed, flat-rooved buildings with navy blue shutters.
Two blissful weeks proceeded to pass in the blink of an eye; a charmed life of very pleasant company, wonderful homecooked Greek food, swimming in the sea two or three times a day (that is, after a spring storm blew through for a couple of days – but then, in the right company, reagge in the rain isn’t such a hardship :), and joining in the Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations with local friends of Elina’s – the tsipouro ever flowing, the island alive in the brief green haze of spring, and the heady aroma of coconut curiously omnipresent.
Night out in Ano Syros
However, as the song says, all things must pass. So two days ago, mindful of the approaching summer in Central Asia, I somewhat reluctantly tuned up my neglected bike and wrenched myself away from the easy life of on the Island of the Lotus Eaters Syros. After a fitful night at sea on the boat across the Aegean to Turkey, I arrived yesterday squinting in the dawn on the Greek island of Chios, from whence a short crossing to the Turkish port of Çeşme, followed by a weary but pleasant 90km into the wind to Izmir, Turkey’s third city, where I am staying with affable young Turks Altan and Kaya, students at one of Izmir’s many universities. The night boat marked the breaking of the Anglo-Finnish fellowship, at least for the time being, as Taneli stayed aboard until Mitilini en route to Istanbul where he will obtain an essential replacement part for his damaged Rohloff hub, his last chance to fix it before the rigours of the Asian deserts and mountains. I hope we will cross paths again before long, perhaps on the Black Sea coast, or certainly in Georgia. From there Taneli plans to travel the southern Silk Route via Iran and transit Turkmenistan to reach Uzbekistan, whereas (since Iranian visas are not currently available to British travellers) I will take the boat from Baku in Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazakhstan, reaching the western Uzbek border via the southern Kazakh desert. Just writing these place names sends a frisson up my spine as now, in Izmir, I have officially gained the western edge of Asia. From here the biggest land mass on the planet stretches before me apparently boundless; unexplored territory for me, both thrilling and dauting in prospect. Bring it on.
Yasou Europe. Merhaba Asia.
PS – thank you for the comments here and on Facebook, I really appreciate the feedback even if I can’t always reply!!