macedonia

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…