Rediscovering the Adventure Mojo

What a difference a day or two and some sunshine makes.  And the mountains, of course.

Thursday was the last of the flat, straight roads for a while.  Constantly harassed by showers and big black clouds.  But I realised halfway through the day that my diversion plan must actually be working.  Despite missing the north of Slovenia and a little bit of Austria, I was still moving.  I was beating the big storms.

And yesterday morning (Friday), I awoke at the entrance to the mountains.  The sun was out.  And I was ready to get my exploring head back on.  No more whining about being nearly home.  Or the weather, if I can help it.

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The nice thing about the Alps (and the Dolomites, to which they are joined with no obvious boundary – I think I’m in the Dolomites at the moment, but will apparently be climbing in the Alps tomorrow) is that, although the mountains are big, the valleys in-between tend to be wide and quite flat.

There is the odd place where you have to climb, and then drop, a few hundred metres to cross to another valley, which can be quite spectacular:

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But, if you hit the right valley, you can make quite a lot of progress without too much climbing.  The flip side of this, of course, is that when you do hit a proper climb, it’s likely to be massive.

Anyway, this part of Italy is a mixed area.  There are German speakers as well as Italian speakers here, and many of the towns have two names.  It’s probably the only place in the world where a frankfurter pizza is actually an authentic local dish.  Or at least, that’s what they told me… Which suits my healthy touring cyclist’s diet perfectly.

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It’s also an area with more fairytale castles than you can shake a stick at (one pictured above).  And as you roll up the valleys, you hardly notice that you’re gaining height, as the mountains on either side just open up more and more astonishingly beautiful vistas.

But there are definitely easier ways to climb in the mountains than by pedalling.  I’ve always fancied having a go at paramotoring (essentially flying around on a parachute with a propeller attached to your back), and the guy below was having a great time dive-bombing cyclists in the valley this morning:

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Maybe that’s the next challenge; it’s certainly a lot less sweaty than cycle touring, but possibly more dangerous in thunderstorms…

My musings about how I could attach a bike to a parachute were, however, rudely interrupted by the tunnels.  As you can see from the rugged landscape, there’s a lot of call for them, and the Italians seem to love building them.  This is the entrance to the second of three on the drop down to Trento:

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The last of the three tunnels was by far the longest I’ve done on the trip so far, at over 3km.  And it was pretty steeply downhill.

Downhill tunnels on a touring bike are a bit like a theme-park ride.  Italian tunnels are well-lit, and I remembered to take my shades off this time (I’ve done a few nearly blind due to dark glasses), but the inside is still dark enough compared to the bright sunshine to to be disorientating.  Then there’s the noise, with every engine echoing and amplified by the tunnel walls.

And then there’s the wind, as every truck, bus and car creates a pressure-wave of air which has nowhere to go.  So it pushes you about.  And pushes you forward.  Faster and faster and faster.  The Italians have electronic speed warnings on a lot of their roads.  I hit the speed trap in tunnel three at 77 kph (48 mph).  And still accelerating.  If you want to know the speed limit, I’ll refer you back to the photo above.  Oops…

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I exploded out of the end of the last tunnel like a cork out of a bottle, and, after a little break to let the adrenaline subside, headed up the valley through Trento.  I was on a short day today, which ultimately joined me up with my original intended route, after the longish detour of the last few days.

Returning to the original plan made me happy, and I began looking at the slightly menacing clouds over the valley walls (above) as just a spectacular landscape feature rather than anything to worry about.

This was nearly a mistake, as there was a rogue downpour lurking, which almost pinged me before I got to shelter:

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The benefit of that shower is that it stopped me getting too intimidated by being able to see much of tomorrow’s climb.  It’s the only hill I’d class as a ‘monster’ before I get to the French border (I’m using the valleys to good effect), but it’s unavoidable if I want to get further west.

Nearly 1900 metres (or nearly 6200 ft).  Gulp…

Here’s how much my attitude to the weather has adjusted itself.  There’s a chance of heavy rain tomorrow afternoon.  Just for a few hours.  I’m thinking that I might be glad of an excuse to break that climb into two manageable chunks.

It’s just possible that I’ll actually be wishing for rain…

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Deflection. Reflection.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.

One of the joys of bike touring is that you can pretty much go where you like, and change your plans when you want.  One of the pains of bike touring is that sometimes your plans get changed for you, and you have to miss things to keep moving.

So I’m in Italy today, when I should really be in either Slovenia or Austria.  I’d better explain why, I suppose…

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About two inches of rain fell in my part of Croatia on Saturday, in the couple of hours it took England to make a typically underwhelming start to Euro 2016.  In contrast to the football, the lightning was pretty spectacular.

Then it rained all day on my day off (Sunday) too.  Thankfully, my now well-tested bike chrysalis stood up to the deluge (above – a good reason to carry a tarp, even if you never use it to keep yourself dry).  So the Beastlet was saved from drowning.  And the rain failed to dampen the spirits of the locals, who celebrated Croatia’s first goal in the competition by lighting every flare in the marina, while running around in clouds of early-afternoon alcohol fumes (below).

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But the rain was starting to get to me.  You might have noticed that the last few posts had lost a little sparkle.  Spending what has felt like weeks dodging thunderstorms wears you down eventually.  But I think I’m also suffering from quite a bad case of end-of-trip blues.  Of which more later.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and drizzly.  Some time before I eventually woke up, needless to say.  I was heading for Slovenia, my last ex-Yugoslav country.  I’d been there on a brief work trip years ago, and was looking forward to heading north through the big hills, and reacquainting myself with the pretty capital, Ljubljana, and lovely Lake Bled.

But the central European storms are back.  I’m not sure they ever really went away.  I can’t imagine it’s been much fun for people who live there for the last few months, as storm after storm has just bombarded the whole area.  But the weather forecast on Monday showed an area of storms nearly as big as Germany sitting all over the mountains to the north.

It looked like I could squeeze across the border before the rain hit on Monday, so I hammered along, trying not to notice the damage I was doing to my quads by climbing over a thousand vertical metres much too quickly.  I suppose it’s good training for when I hit the Alps…

And I did just get under cover in Slovenia before the rain hit.  And then got soaked to the skin just getting to the supermarket and back.

My only hope yesterday morning was that the weather forecast might have changed miraculously overnight.  It hadn’t.  At least three days of heavy electrical storms if I continued north.  Electrical storms in the mountains are a terrible idea.  Half a chance that the rain would be intermittent enough to keep moving if I swung out of the hills and made a run for the lowlands of north-east Italy.

Slovenia’s not a big country, but it is very pretty.  So it seems very unfair that my enforced deflection from my intended route left me riding only about 40 miles of the country.  And in the pleasant, but entirely unremarkable, south-western corner.  So unremarkable that it wasn’t worth any photos.  And I’ve missed out on clipping Austria before getting to Italy, too.

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On the positive side, as the picture above may suggest, the plan seems to be working.  There’s been occasional drizzle, black clouds, isolated showers, massive downpours overnight, and wet roads.  But nothing that’s stopped me riding.  Yet.  And I’ll hopefully be able to get up into the Italian Alps to rejoin my intended route in a couple more days, when the weather has (hopefully) eased a bit up there.

Shops selling wine in milk cartons for less than 2 Euros a litre helps to ease the pain a little, too.  As does access to lovely Italian food.  And proper coffee.  It’s nice to be back in Italy.

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And that brings me back to those end-of-trip blues.  I’ve had plenty of time on long, straight Italian (probably Roman) roads to reflect on why I’m feeling a bit off at the moment.

Getting back into Europe when I arrived in Greece was stage one.  Things immediately got more familiar.  Then I had the fascinating and beautiful Balkans, which were adventurous again.  But ever since I began working my way up the Croatian coast, I’ve been in holiday country.  People from all over Europe go to Croatia for their dose of summer sun and relaxation.  Same with Italy.  And it’ll be the same again with France.  You know you’re back in Europe proper when every incline has a Dutch caravan on it.

The Italians have even named a phone network in my honour.  So my phone now says ‘I Tim’ on it, just in case I ever forget my own name:

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I think the problem is that these last few weeks before home feel more like a holiday than an adventure.  It’s exactly six months today (Wednesday) since I pedalled away from Hanoi to begin part two of the round-the-world ride.  And just over 23 months since I left London to begin the circumnavigation.

And after all those months and continents, after the big accident in Thailand, after the deserts, mountains, different cultures, and interesting people, it feels a bit like I’m already home.  And that I’ve just nipped away for a couple of weeks’ break.

I should be enjoying feeling this comfortable, and having all the benefits of civilisation available on demand again.  And I know that the idea of riding a bike across western Europe should be an exciting adventure in itself.

But it just feels a bit tame compared to Uzbekistan.  Or Laos.  Or Myanmar.  Or even Georgia.  Which is why I need to get back to the mountains.  The Alps should snap me out of it.  Just as long as it stops raining…

Isles of Thunder

Up the coast a bit, then some island hopping up to the very north of Croatia.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  After all, the road’s bound to be quite flat by the sea.  The islands have much lower hills than the mainland, too.  And there are ferries to cover the little blue bits between the lumps of land.  Definitely pretty simple.

Well, pretty is right.  Not so simple, though.

After just one clear, if slightly too warm, day on the coast (on Wednesday, pic below), the thunder started rolling.

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If you live anywhere in Europe, you’re probably aware of the massive thunderstorms which have been sitting over the central areas of the continent for weeks, causing flooding and hitting people with lightning.  Well, they’ve left the middle of Europe in the last few days, and meandered south to Italy and the Balkans.

Just as I’ve been heading north into them.

Thankfully, while the inland areas appear to be getting absolutely pasted, the storms only occasionally make it across the last range to the islands.  But this makes trying to plan a day’s ride quite tricky.

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As you can see in the picture above (from the very bottom of Pag island), the big clouds and heaviest downpours lurk behind the last range on the mainland.  Then, at a seemingly random point, and with very little warning, they rush out to either electrocute or drown you.  They don’t care which.

As you can also see from the picture, the islands are pretty rocky, and not exactly flush with shelter.  So there’s been quite a bit of ‘ride like mad, hide, check the sky, ride like mad’ etc, etc going on.

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The biggest storms seem to be in the evening (it feels like there’s a cracking one waiting to get going this evening (Saturday), and even then, as you can see above, you can have bright sunshine in one place and the world’s blackest clouds a mile or so away.  It’s all been a bit unpredictable.

The roads and ferries probably haven’t helped that much, although that’s mainly my fault for pathetic levels of research.  I got to Novalja yesterday only to discover that the ferry I thought I was going to get from there doesn’t take bikes.  So today ended up being three ferries (from Pag to the mainland, from the mainland to Rab, and from Rab to Krk – got to love the names of these islands!).

It also cost me an extra 600 vertical metres of climbing, which will also teach me not to assume that coast roads are flat…

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Still, at least a bit of climbing gets you some decent views (above).  And the scenery remains spectacular.  The hills might be a little smaller, but all the little islands are really pretty.

And a bit of time on ferries lets you have a proper look at the sea (below).  Crystal clear waters and millions of tiny fish sum it up.  The bike wanted a dip after all its hard work.  I had to assure it that if it jumped in, I wasn’t going to be the one to pull it back out; those fish looked like man-eaters…

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But the Beastlet was right; it’s time for a little rest and relaxation.  I’m having my first full rest day tomorrow since Dubrovnik.  Partly because tomorrow’s supposed to be the worst day for storms.

Mainly because Euro 2016 kicked off last night, and England are playing Russia this evening.  A beer or two will probably seem appropriate, so there’s little point in trying to ride tomorrow.  From this point until England (almost inevitably) get knocked out, I’ll have to juggle the riding with both the weather and being near a TV at the appropriate time for the football.  Another complication thrown into that ‘simple’ ride up Croatia.

Still, I’m nearly there now.  I should be able to move back into the mountains, in Slovenia, at some point on Monday.  If the storms and roads play ball; I think I’m done with boats until Calais now…

As a ‘Stop Press’, and in case you’re not following the footy yet, Wales just beat Slovakia in their first game.  Fingers crossed for England this evening…

Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia

Border after border after border.

Today was the first day’s riding in the last week that I didn’t have to pull out my passport on the road.  Just since Dubrovnik, I’ve crossed four international borders.  But, because of the peculiar geography in this part of the world, I’ve only been in two countries.

I was slightly inaccurate in the last post, as I suggested that Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘BiH’) was going to be my last Muslim-majority country.  That’s not actually quite true, as the Bosniak (Muslim) population is actually marginally less than 50%.  And my time there only took in the Herzegovina part of the country, where the majority of the population are ethnically Croatian.

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But it is the last country that I’ll ride where the Ottoman Empire had a significant influence.  I’ve probably done a few too many lists of historical ‘owners’ of various pieces of Balkan real estate, so I’ll keep this one brief.  BiH had Slavic rulers for a few hundred years, then the Ottomans for a few hundred, then the Austro-Hungarians.  Then the Yugoslavs and the Communists.

It’s no wonder that there are bundles of fortified towns (like the one above) all over the country.  And perhaps it’s also no surprise that BiH was where the spark occurred that started World War 1 (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand).  Or that most of the worst damage and atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s occurred there, too.

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The old town of Mostar is a beautiful place, sitting in a bowl between steep hills (hills from which my legs are still recovering).  Its ancient Stari Most (Old Bridge, above) had spanned the river for centuries before the 1990s.  And then, in a microcosm of what was going on all over the country, it was besieged twice in a few years.  First, the Muslims and Croats were fighting the Serbs.  Then they were fighting each other.

Hundreds were killed, and almost a hundred thousand refugees were forced out (pretty much the whole population).  And the Stari Most was destroyed.  Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, and much of the damage cleared up.  But the city still bears the scars over two decades on.  Several burned-out buildings still dot the old town, and bullet / shrapnel holes are still visible all over the place.

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Still, apart from its sometimes grim history, BiH is a beautiful country of mountains, valleys, and colossal thunderstorms.  I really enjoyed riding there, and was quite sad to be heading out yesterday (Monday).  Although the blow was softened a little by knowing I was heading back to stunning Croatia.

I had my longest and most thorough questioning at the border.  Not because I was looking especially suspicious (or even especially sweaty).  But the border guard was apparently a bit of a stamp and visa buff, and wanted to chat through pretty much the whole trip, while admiring the various stickers and marks.

I was a little relieved when another vehicle finally appeared behind me, as trying to identify visas on a passport being waved at you through partially-reflective glass is quite exhausting.

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Eventually, though, I was back into Croatia.  And I spent today (Tuesday) heading back to the Adriatic coast.  It wasn’t quite as downhill as I’d expected to start with, but there were some spectacular views to appreciate as I crossed the coastal range (above).

And then there was the drop back to the seaside, which was kind of spectacular:

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It’s not often that I’ll stop to take a picture halfway down a hill (apart from anything else, it takes quite a lot of effort to stop a fully loaded touring bike from 40-odd miles an hour), but this one was just fantastic.  Twisting right off the mountains down to the waterside.  It’s hard to get scale properly on photos.  But there’s a tiny boat with a tiny white wake just next to the big headland, which gives an idea of just how big those hills are.

Although it was lovely dropping off the big hills, my legs are feeling the effects of climbing them.  So it’s going to be nice to stick along the coast for a while.  I’ll be heading north, and an awful lot of big mountains will be looming all too soon.

A bit of island hopping and a little less climbing is probably just the thing for the next few days…

The Adriatic

The small Balkan countries have been flashing past again.

Since the last update, I’ve left Albania, crossed Montenegro, and entered Croatia for the first of two visits.  And, after a day off in Dubrovnik today (Friday), it’s on to Bosnia tomorrow…

But such a brutally short summary doesn’t do any justice to the places I’ve been for the last few days.  Let’s start with finishing up Albania.

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Impressive when I first arrived from Macedonia, Albania got better and better.  My only full day in the country was a bit hilly, to be sure.  But the hills are what give you long descents through stunning valleys (above).

Unfortunately, the downhills eventually ended, and I was left on the flat for the last few miles to Shkoder, running alongside, but never quite within view of, the Adriatic Sea.  Which meant I’d pretty much crossed the Balkan Peninsular.

It also meant I was within a few miles of the border with the tiny country of Montenegro.

Crossing the border, just west of Shkoder, I was entering the most recently independent of the ex-Yugoslav states (if you don’t count Kosovo, which not everyone agrees is a country).  It was only a mile or so after the border that I realised I’d only stopped at one control on the way through.  I’d been expecting to come up to the Montenegrin entry check at some point, but realised something was amiss when I saw a mini-market and a petrol station instead.

Frantically checking my passport stamps, I worked out that I’d skipped the Albanian exit gate somehow (I didn’t even see it, but maybe the guy was just on a break or something).  So I wouldn’t have any trouble leaving Montenegro again, as they had stamped me in properly.

Phew!  Although I suppose I may never be able to go back to Albania again…

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Anyway, Montenegro, as the name suggests (and as the photo above shows), proved to be another hilly country.  But really not very big.  I wasn’t rushing, and yet, despite constant ups and downs, I rode the entire length of its coastline in roughly eight hours (spread over two days).

The road essentially glued itself to the Adriatic coast, and just stayed there.  It’s still there at the moment, in southern Croatia, too.  Which makes for a lot of little climbs, and detours into bays.  And even the odd tunnel and ferry.  But I find it hard to complain about the little delays, the hard work, and the extra few kilometres when it looks like this:

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All too soon, I was a handful of miles from the Croatian border.  I’d soon be back into the EU again (albeit only for a couple of days).  Although, in keeping with the cultural oddities of the region, Croatia is in the EU, but doesn’t use the Euro.  On the other hand, Montenegro is not in the EU, but doesn’t have its own currency, and just uses the Euro regardless.  Odd…

Montenegro makes it difficult to leave.  Not just because it’s beautiful, but because there’s a monster hill up to the Croatian border (below, looking back into Montenegro).  I’m not actually sure which country you’re in as you climb; it’s about two kilometres of steep between the exit from Montenegro at the bottom of the pass, and the entry to Croatia / the EU at the top.

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Which is hard work.  But any fears that the effort might be rewarded by a much uglier country on the other side of the border were (kind of obviously) unfounded.  The coast, the hills and the bays all continue in the same, exceedingly pretty, way.

And it wasn’t all that far after the border, before I crested another steep hill, and saw the city of Dubrovnik below me:

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Dubrovnik is a world heritage site (that’s quite a few I’ve seen on the way round so far).  It was a city-state for most of its history.  And that history is very different from the Ottoman / Slavic battles of the Balkan areas I’ve seen so far.  Dubrovnik’s been squeezed between western European powers, such as Venice, and the Ottomans instead.  Although, given the amount of foreign influences and changes of ruler, you could just say it’s the same old stuff with a few different players.

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Anyway, I had a day off to explore (and to rest – it’s the first day off the bike since Skopje).  The old town is really lovely; tiny alleyways running between the main street and the massive city walls.  And you can really see the Italian influences; it actually feels a bit like a tiny Venice without the canals.

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Tomorrow (Saturday) will be a little strange.  And maybe a little sad.  I’ll be heading back out of the EU again, into Bosnia.  You can’t get from here to the rest of Croatia without either crossing Bosnia or using a boat.

But it will be a day of lasts.  Bosnia will be my last Muslim-majority country.  And the last country that I’ve never been to before.  Things will be getting increasingly familiar as I head closer to home.

No more of the excitement of crossing into places that I’ve never been before.  On this trip, at least.  I’ll have to savour it while I can…

Grinning from Ear to Ear

I’m not sure that I ever thought that I’d find my cycling paradise in Macedonia.  I certainly didn’t expect to find it in Albania.

But after two superb days of stunning mountains, gorges, lakes and rivers, I’m beginning to think that this might be it.  At least, it might be if the roads weren’t quite so ropey, and the driving standards quite so poor…

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There wasn’t much of a clue as I left Skopje on Saturday.  Some reasonable scenery, and reasonably flat roads, but nothing to indicate that I’d spend most of the following days grinning like a crazy person.

And Sunday began with an 800 vertical-metre climb into Mavrovo National Park, pushed up against Macedonia’s border with Albania.  I reached the top feeling fairly hot, and slightly tired.  A coffee by Lake Mavrovo perked me up a little bit.  And then it was time to head for the border town of Debar.

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I’d kind of registered that there was a lot of downhill from the lake.  But I didn’t realise that it was around fifteen miles of downhill.  Down a magical gorge road (the two pics above).  Magical because the road kept falling as the mountains on either side got higher.  And because every twist and turn just revealed another spectacular view.

It was actually a bit dangerous, as my head was constantly swivelling to catch the next snow-capped peak, or overhanging cliff, or village clinging improbably to the side of the valley.  I’d normally have been paying a little more attention to the next bend, or the next vehicle charging towards me on the wrong side of the road.

It was a stunning piece of road.  And when I finally hit the bottom at Lake Debar (below), I was so elated that I didn’t even mind the nasty, 20% ramp before Debar town.  I barely even noticed it.  But I did feel sad to be on the verge of leaving Macedonia so soon.

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Debar is typical of western Macedonia.  All the way from Skopje, you can feel the Slavic and Orthodox Christian influences weakening as you approach re-entry into the Muslim world at the Albanian border.  Once you get to Debar, you can really feel how close you are; I noticed several mosques, but no churches.  And the statue in the town park was of the great Albanian hero, Skanderbeg.

This morning (Monday), it was just a five kilometre ride to the border.  Another super-relaxed crossing, although the Albanians do still stamp your passport, and I was rolling into country number 27 (they really clock up quickly round here).

Albania proved fairly pretty, but irritatingly uphill and headwindy until lunchtime.  And then it all changed again.

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For the second day in a row, I found myself on an almost infinite downhill.  There’s a new road in the bottom of the valley (above), which is not finished yet, so the current road twists and turns its way along the valley side.  You can just about see it.  There’s very little in the way of barriers or other safety equipment here, so the ride is a little more exhilarating than it strictly needs to be.  Which is fun, as long as your brakes keep working.

By the time I’d worked my way down the upper slopes, and round the corner to the right, I could actually smell the discs heating up.  This is a first for me on a bike (possibly indicative that Albanian driving habits are contagious), and I was relieved to find that there was no scary brake-fade as a result.  Because I was about the hit the really fun part.

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It’s always hard to appreciate on photos, but there’s still quite a long way left to drop on the picture above.  Another five or so miles of passing trucks, bouncing flies off my teeth, leaning through hairpin bends, and slithering a little bit on the occasional gravel patch.  And all the time with this magnificent landscape all around.

If I’d smiled any wider, I’m pretty sure my face would have split.  And I’d have started ingesting unacceptable amounts of airborne insects.

The last few miles to Burrel were flat and pleasant farmland, along the valley bottom.  With the exception of another steep spike up into the town itself.  Just like yesterday, I didn’t mind the hill at the end at all.  I even had a go at chasing a local cyclist (on his carbon fibre road bike, complete with race number) up the incline.  I’m pretty sure he let me catch him, but he did a great job of looking impressed.  A fantastic end to a brilliant couple of days’ riding.

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And, as the sun fell over the hills at Burrel (above), and a well-deserved steak rounded off a near-perfect day, I realised that I’m already halfway across Albania (it’s not exactly the fattest country).

It seems almost a shame to be progressing so quickly.  People here are insanely friendly (roadside high fives, and even slaps on the back, are common), and the riding is just great.

I have a feeling that I might just be back around here one day…

Complications

The Balkans are a complicated part of the world.

So I suppose it’s not surprising that things got a little bit complicated for me before I got to Skopje yesterday (Thursday).

Two different sources had told me the road to Skopje was flat. “Pan flat”, they said. “Easy”, they said.

It wasn’t either of those things. Which proves that local knowledge should be taken with a healthy (or unhealthy) pinch of salt.

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It was false flat, most of the time; just rising enough to wear me out (especially in combination with the constant headwinds). It was hard work. And then, there were hills. Quite big ones, with roads where the surface fell apart (above).

And, to top things off, there were the Macedonian cobbles:

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Right out in the countryside (and running for miles, sometimes with a thin skim of tarmac, sometimes not). Someone spent a huge amount of time and effort laying all these cobbles. It’s just unfortunate that they’re a recipe for snake-bite punctures if you’ve forgotten to pump your tyres up rock hard.

Thankfully, the puncture was quickly fixed with a ‘revolutionary’ instant patch kit that I got free with a big internet order for bike parts.

Less thankfully, it turns out that ‘revolutionary’ actually means ‘doesn’t work’. So I spent the rest of the day rushing a few kilometres, followed by stopping to pump up an increasingly quick ‘slow’ puncture. Eventually, just a few miles out of town, I had to get the wheel off again, patch the patch, and hope that I could roll into Skopje before the tyre went down again. I did. Just.

A simple, apparently flat and easy day’s ride made immensely complicated.

Thankfully, I was due a day off today, so I bought a new inner tube. And had a nice wander around town. Which proved to me that the Balkans are even more complicated than keeping my tyres inflated.

First, the Macedonians seem to build their cathedrals like mosques (complete with minarets):

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I’d guess that this architectural style probably has something to do with the Ottomans (again), who ran most of the Balkans for a long while.

But the Ottomans can’t explain all the odd cultural thefts that seem to abound around here.

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Alexander the Great (also known as Alexander of Macedon) sits proudly on a column in the main square in Skopje. Him and his Dad, Philip, pop up all over the place. Statues, motorways and stadiums are named after them. Big Alex built an empire which reached all the way to Egypt and India within just a few years, and then died at 32. He was a major over-achiever.

He was also, very definitely, Greek. While modern Macedonia was part of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, the town Alexander was born and raised in is in modern Greece. And he was, by all accounts, ethnically and culturally Greek, too. Not Macedonian in the modern sense at all.

So, Macedonia seems to have pinched Alexander from the Greeks. The Greeks are not happy about this. Or about the Macedonians using the name ‘Macedonia’ for their country, either. In fact, the Greeks are so upset about this that it’s holding up all sorts of international negotiations.

The Macedonians also appear to have tried to pinch stylish, red double-decker buses from London:

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They look a bit odd, as if they’ve taken a modern bus and welded an old-fashioned driver’s cab on the front. But I suppose imitation is some sort of compliment…

Possibly in revenge for these cultural appropriations (but probably not), the Albanians next door seem to have got in on the act as well.

Everyone knows that the world’s most famous Albanian was Mother Teresa. Tirana airport is named after her, and everything.

Except Mother Teresa was born here, in Skopje. She was Macedonian, in modern terms (though Ottoman at the time). So, it looks like the Albanians pinched her from the Macedonians.

It’s all really complicated, isn’t it?

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Anyway, what is clear is that Macedonia is a beautiful country with friendly people and bad drivers. And cobbled country lanes. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and I’ve still got another couple of days before I get to Albania.

Maybe I’ll be able to work out the apparent theft of Mother Teresa on the way…

Slowing Down

‘Three countries in three days’ probably doesn’t sound like I’m not making much progress.

I left Greece on Sunday, crossed the south-western corner of Bulgaria, and arrived today (Tuesday) in Macedonia. I’ve gone from the Eurozone, to an EU country with its own currency, to a non-EU European country (which accepts Euros quite happily).

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But I have slowed down. I’ve not been feeling great, especially today. I’m not sure if I’ve just overdone it on the hills. Or if the hay-fever that’s been bothering me for the last couple of weeks is starting to affect my riding.

Whichever it is, I’m definitely not 100% at the moment, and blasting up some fairly big hills too quickly probably hasn’t helped things much.

I didn’t expect Bulgaria to be as beautiful as it is. But I also didn’t expect the ride to Bulgaria to be as hard as it was on Sunday. There are very few flat routes through mountains, but I’d picked a relatively easy pass. Once the Greek downpours had subsided, I headed off quickly towards the border.

Probably too quickly. I’d had the unexpected day off due to the rain, and was feeling fresh. It was a fairly low pass over the mountains (about 700 vertical metres), on an easy gradient. I hit it pretty hard, pleased to find out that my climbing legs hadn’t deserted me.

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What I’d probably not appreciated enough was that there was not much chance to recover over the top. Just more hills up to the border, a headwind, and a fairly flat run – admittedly with a tiny bit of downhill – to Gotse Delchev, at the foot of the enormous Pirin range (slightly disappointing picture of a stunning mountain range above).

I was feeling rough when I got there, but seemed to recover OK overnight. Only to be faced with a much steeper pass, up to 1450 metres, yesterday morning.

I got up to the pass in less than two hours, which is pretty reasonable, considering the weight of the bike and bags. The effects of Sunday’s effort had apparently just melted away.

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And having hit the pass, and met its slightly fearsome guardian (above), I got to enjoy one of my favourite downhills of the whole trip: 25 kms of smooth, twisty tarmac. Surrounded by the spectacular scenery of southern Bulgaria. By the time I hit the bottom, I was grinning like a lunatic, and was having one of my best days ever on a touring bike.

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A look back at the Pirins (above), and it was a short(ish) and flat(ish) run to Petrich to finish the day, and for my second and final night in Bulgaria.

Today, there was just 25 kms to go to the border with Macedonia. I spent last night debating how far I was going to get towards Skopje, the capital. I reckoned I should be able to get there from Petrich in two days without too much effort.

I know better now. The climbs of the last couple of days in the mountains had caught up with me. My legs were still sore this morning (never a good way to start), and I felt like I was lacking energy. Oh, and I was sneezing every time I came within sight of a flower. And there are wild flowers in the edge of pretty much every field over here.

In the end, a leisurely half-day’s ride across the border to Strumica was as much as I was going to manage today.

Still, it’s country number 26, and it’s a bit flatter than Bulgaria, at least for the first few days.

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Better yet, there appeared to be a tractor-based protest going on when I got into town. You can’t beat a convoy of hundreds of little red tractors trundling past (for roughly twenty minutes).

What fun Macedonia already seems to be…

No Drama

You can tell you’re back in Europe when the weather decides to play a large (and largely unwanted) role in your touring.

I was pretty sure, heading west from Alexandroupoli on Thursday, that I’d be able to update you on southern Bulgaria today.  The weather was nice, the road was good, and the hills weren’t too big and threatening:

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Xanthi on Thursday, then Drama on Friday, and Bulgaria on Saturday.  Not even stupidly long days.  Should have been easy.

And Thursday was fine, with the exception of a nagging headwind.  More of a head-breeze, really, so not a major problem.  The sun was out, the birds were singing (there seem to be a lot more birds here than in Turkey, for some reason), and all was well.

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I even found that ultimate mark of civilisation, a Lidl supermarket, when I got to Xanthi.  It was probably the busiest shop I’ve seen in Greece so far, which may be an indication that the Greeks’ economic woes are not yet all in the past.

My usual weather check that evening was where things started to go a bit sideways.  A huge blob of slow-moving rain was due to cover pretty much the whole of northern Greece (and southern Bulgaria and Macedonia) for about 36 hours from yesterday afternoon (Friday).

This was unfortunate.  You’ll be aware of my enthusiasm for getting completely soaked from previous posts.  And this blob of rain had all manner of online weather warnings attached to it, so it looked like the internet didn’t think it was just going to fade away, either.

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But you never know with weather forecasts.  It’s not like they’re never wrong, is it?  And this is Greece.  And it’s almost summer.  Surely it couldn’t rain that much?

So, proceeding according to plan, I twiddled away from Xanthi towards Drama.  But it was already clouding up by the time I hit the coast at the Beach of the Giant Pineapples (above).  It’s not really called that, by the way.  And I’m pretty sure it’s actually some sort of palm…

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I decided not to stop in Kavala, despite its impressive old town, complete with ancient castle and aqueduct (above – you might have to squint a bit to see the acqueduct).

I’d get as close as I could to Drama before the rain came.  And hope that I didn’t get stuck in no-man’s-land between the two big towns.  So, pausing only to have a quick look at the monastery at the top of the hill out of Kavala, I ploughed on.

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And duly got stuck in no-man’s-land.

Last night was a bit damp.  Today has been wet in an English summer sort of way – pouring with rain one minute, drizzling the next.  Miserable.  And not entirely helped by being stuck in the sort of village where a car driving down the main street would be a local talking point for weeks afterwards.

It’s my own fault.  In retrospect, I could have got to Drama in the dry quite easily, but it just didn’t feel that way at the time.

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If I’d been here a thousand or two years ago, things would have been different.  Where now there are just a couple of villages, separated by the fairly large hill above, there was once a Greek / Roman city called Phillipi (roughly; the spellings, and even the name, have not been particularly consistent over the years).

It was on the Via Egnatia, which was the Roman ‘motorway’ between the western and eastern parts of the empire.  And it was, by all accounts, a busy place; an administrative centre and a military site.  It was also, apparently, the first place in Europe where St Paul started spreading Christianity to the Romans.  Then it was abandoned.  Pretty thoroughly.  And used by the Ottomans as a quarry, according to Wikipedia.

So an interesting past, and a desolate and rain-soaked present.  I do hope that’s not some sort of metaphor for the rest of my journey!

It shouldn’t be.  The bike’s had a clean and fettle today, so I’ll be ready to head on to Bulgaria whenever the weather clears.  Which will hopefully be tomorrow.

If there are no more dramas.  Except for Drama, finally…

The Last Continent (and the First)

It’s a little bit of a shame that EU border guards don’t stamp EU passports when you pass the border.

I’ve pedalled my little heart out, uphill and down, into the wind and through the hellish blue skies and sunshine of early summer.  I’ve crossed from Asia to Europe (geographically).  And then, I’ve crossed from Turkey into Greece.

And all I have to show for it is one smudgy exit stamp from the Turkish border this lunchtime.  Well, that and several shops full of tzatziki (and other assorted dips that I don’t like) around the corner…

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I caught sight of Europe on Sunday morning.  I was lucky it was a shortish ride, as the headwinds were really giving me a kicking, for the third day in a row.  The incessant whistling in my ears was doing my head in.  As well as making the riding much harder than it needed to be.  I needed some good news.

And then, the headland I was slowly rounding (above) curved south to form the eastern edge of the Dardanelles strait.  That landmass in the background, which is part of Europe, was only a couple of miles away.

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I found the ferry, and prepared to hop across the narrow waterway to my final continent of the trip.  Of course, it was also my first continent, and I still have to cross pretty much the whole thing to get home…

The boat was a nice surprise.  Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a charge for cars, a charge for trucks, and a charge for pedestrians.  But, apparently, no charge for cyclists.  You can’t get better value than a free intercontinental cruise!

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And so I landed in Europe.  At Gelibolu, on the peninsular of the same name.  For the British, and more especially, for Australians and New Zealanders, the English name is more significant – Gallipoli.

During World War One, the British Empire (as it still was at the time, including British, Indian, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces), and the French, decided to attack the Ottoman Empire (as it still was at the time), which had joined the war on the German side.  Somehow, this degenerated into an eight-month stalemate.  Presumably, they weren’t expecting the Ottomans to fight back.  The invasion never got far beyond the beaches, and by the time the Allies withdrew, there were a total of nearly half a million casualties.

Which, along with the rest of the First World War, is an astonishing waste of life.

In any case, from Gelibolu, it was just a gentle day-and-a-half’s riding to the Greek border.  Up the peninsular, and across eastern Thrace.  The wind finally shifted to a slightly more sensible direction (much to the dismay of a French tourer who I met going the ‘wrong’ way yesterday; he was trying to wrestle a tandem through the wind by himself, aiming to meet his girlfriend in Izmir).  So it was a reasonably gentle run for me, spoiled only by a valve problem on one of my inner tubes, which is now forcing me to pump the tyre up every 90 minutes or so.

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This afternoon (Tuesday), feeling reasonably fresh, I arrived in Alexandroupoli.  It’s a pretty standard seaside town nowadays, but, like Gallipoli, its short history is a reminder of what a turbulent part of the world this has historically been.

The town was founded by the Ottomans, only about 150 years ago.  Since then, it’s been controlled by the Russians, the Ottomans again, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Bulgarians again (World War One), the French, the Greeks again, the Bulgarians again (this is now World War Two), and finally, so far, the Greeks.  Amazingly, it’s not suffered any significant damage through this whole period.

But those shifts of control have shaped the history of the whole area I’m now moving into; the Balkans.  Empires have washed over this region from the dawn of written history, from Alexander the Great onwards, leaving a bewildering mixture of ethnic, religious and cultural influences behind.

The next couple of weeks should be fascinating, as I head north and west.  I’m having what feels like a well-deserved rest day tomorrow (Wednesday), trying to finalise a sensible route through the region.

But I think it’ll be interesting, whichever way I go…