travel

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…

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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…

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…

Last Night in Asia

It’s been a tough few days, with a constant headwind trying to batter me into submission.  And a few more hills than expected.

But I’ve made it to where I want to be; just 60 km (38 miles) from the narrow strait between Asia and Europe.  I should get to the Asian side of the crossing just after lunchtime tomorrow (Sunday), from where a ferry should whisk me effortlessly across the (roughly) three mile gap between two continents.

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Leaving Iznik was hard, though.

Partly because of that interesting mix of history and culture that I discussed last time (the Ayasofya mosque, above, sums it up pretty well; an ancient church converted into a mosque, just like its much bigger and more impressive namesake in Istanbul).

Partly because it was a really nice, chilled-out little place with loads of lakeside cafes.  And partly because, from Iznik, the only way out is upwards.

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At least I got a last view of Iznik as I left.  The vast majority of Turkish towns I’ve been to have been flat, meaning there’s rarely a vantage point on the road to see the whole place at once.  And, despite a little shower as I hit the top of the hill, the short(ish) run to Bursa was unproblematic.

The only big issue in Bursa (which is regarded as the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire, by the way) was the traffic, which got a bit manic in the city centre.  It’s the biggest Turkish city I’ve ridden in, so I suppose this is excusable to an extent.  Although it made me very glad that I decided against riding through Istanbul, which is many times bigger (and therefore the traffic’s likely to be many times worse).

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Another reason that I was happy not to be riding into Istanbul on Thursday was that there was (yet) another bomb attack there that afternoon.  In the eastern suburbs, which may have put me nearby if I’d headed that way.

Then again, there was also a suicide bombing in Bursa only a fortnight before I got there (27th April), which I thought it was probably better not to mention until I was through, in case people worried.

It seems to be a grim, almost daily occurrence in Turkey at the moment.  And the frequency may go some way to explaining why neither attack appears to have made it anywhere near the news at home (along with obsessive Euro referendum navel-gazing, I’d guess).

In any case, unless you’re unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (and that could happen just as easily at home), you’d never even know they’d happened.  Bursa city centre was a scene of total, big city normality.  I’m sure Istanbul’s the same.

It’s a real shame that things like that seem to be putting tourists off coming to Turkey.  I’ve had a great time here so far, but I’ve lost count of the amount of people in the tourist trade bemoaning the lack of business this year.

I was much more worried about the bike’s health, to be honest.  It had developed a distinct wobble at the back end.  And wobbles at the back end can’t be good news.

As usual, it took a while to work out that it wasn’t something mechanical (and therefore expensive, and maybe problematic).  It was just the rear tyre finally giving up the ghost.

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I’d decided not to rotate the tyres this time, just to see how long they actually last.  The front will be fine all the way home, I think.  Maybe even for ever; it still looks almost new.

But the rear, having carried most of the weight, and delivered all the traction for 11,500 fully-loaded kilometres (including the UK Tour) had finally had enough.  As you can probably tell from the badly-focussed picture above; the replacement tyre (identical to the old one) is on the left, obviously.

Still, 11,500 kms is pretty good.  Especially as it still showed no signs of actually falling apart.  One puncture in all that time (way back in Myanmar).  Dirt roads, potholes, mud, rocks and glass dealt with with aplomb.  It’s just a shame that it didn’t quite last until Europe.  But, in the end, the wobbling was driving me nuts, and making the whole bike shimmy, so it had to go.

It’s possible that I just spent slightly too long mourning the loss of a tyre.

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For the rest of the bike and me, Europe awaits.  Although I’ve been roughly following the south coast of the Sea of Marmara for the last few days, I only got to see it for the first time today (above).

Tomorrow should take me pretty much along the coast, until it narrows into the Dardanelles (that strait between the two continents I mentioned before).  The ferry will take me to the town of Gelibolu.

Which, as well as being my entry into Europe, also gives its name to the peninsular on which it sits.  In English, its name is Gallipoli.  Site of one of the most appalling wastes of life in the First World War.

And that should certainly put today’s relatively tiny risks of terrorism into perspective…

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

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Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

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That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

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Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

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But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

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I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

The Cloud Tunnel

Back at altitude, and dodging showers.

It’s felt like the same day over and over for the last few.  With the honourable exception of yesterday (Friday), which I sat out, due to the entire day being nothing but one long thunderstorm.  But I was due a rest, anyway…

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It took a little while to arrive, but the rain comes with a vengeance in the hills.  There was already a hint of it in the air as I left Osmancik on Thursday.  But it stuck on the mountains, and didn’t do more than spit on the road as I headed gently downhill in the Red River valley (above).

The downhills haven’t lasted long, as the road’s been mainly upwards.  I’m in Cerkes this evening (Saturday), due north of Ankara, and back up at around 1000 metres altitude.  So every down has been paid for by a slightly longer up.  And the hills have got steeper as I’ve got further in.  Where the first days out from Samsun were on lovely, moderate gradients, I’ve been copping three or four 10% ramps a day on the way here.

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By Thursday afternoon, as I dropped down another short valley (above), the clouds were closing in at the end.  For the whole afternoon, there was at least one massive downpour lurking within a mile or two of where I was.

A man at a petrol station pointed at the sky, and performed a very entertaining and realistic mime of a wet and shivering cyclist.  I was worried he might be right.

And whenever I wasn’t moving, I was staring at the sky, trying to work out if I could outrun the nearest rain before it got to the road, or whether I should stop and wait for it to pass.

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If there’s an effective incentive to finish the last (uphill) few kilometres of the day, it’s seeing a bank of black clouds following you up the road (above).

But later, as this particular storm again missed the road outside, I began to wonder.  There had been showers around ever since I left Samsun, and yet I’d not got wet.  More surprisingly, the road had not even been wet when I got to places where showers had seemed to be minutes before.

Maybe the road, as well as being smooth and well-engineered, has some sort of magical rain-repelling properties?  Maybe it’s a tunnel through the clouds.

It wasn’t yesterday.  Thankfully, I’d taken notice of the forecast this time, and decided that a day off was in order.  So I lay around, stuffed myself with food, and listened to the rain battering the streets outside.

But today, it seemed to be back in full effect.  Showers everywhere except on the road, even when I watched downpours apparently cross the route just in front of me.  I was certain I was about to get soaked three or four times, and yet I finished the day dry again.  Despite a vast amount of liquid falling from the sky as I approached Cerkes this afternoon:

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Whether the road really does repel the rain or not, things should clear up in the next couple of days.  And, from tomorrow afternoon onwards (after one more biggish hill), I should begin dropping towards the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul.

Though, as well as pondering the weather, I’m still trying to decide whether heading to Istanbul is the best option.  It’s a great city, but I know that because I’ve been there before.  And, although the Bosphorus is by far the most famous border point between Asia and Europe, there are other options which don’t involve the dire Istanbul traffic.

With a bit of luck, the more downhill nature of the riding in the next few days, together with fewer showers, will give me the chance to think through my best route to Europe.  I’ll let you know exactly where I’m going next time.