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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…

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

First Three Days – London to Portsmouth and through Brittany

This is a slightly experimental first post from phone app. Hope it all works…

Well, off to a decent start; 309km or 193miles in three days, and out of the UK and into France. Slept on the ferry, in a wood, and now in a campsite. No discernible differences other than the herd of deer stripping bark from the trees all night. Not on the ferry, obviously.

Nearly starved when France closed down entirely yesterday (Bastille Day), but that’s as close to disaster as I’ve yet come. Met lots of friendly French people, some of whom were strangely concerned with my mental state.

And enjoyed beautiful Brittany; now aiming to cross the Loire tomorrow.

Please accept apols for the blog, btw. Think you can only follow if you’re on a computer at the minute… Will have to wait for a rest day to try and sort it. There were going to be some pics, but taking forever to upload; will put some up when I’ve a better connection.

Thanks, all, for the nice comments here and on Facebook. Will hopefully add a proper update soon.

UPDATE – looks like one of the pics made it after all. This is my nephew Tom making sure I left from Greenwich on Sunday.

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