albania

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…

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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…