Former Republic of Yugoslavia

Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, BiH, Croatia + Slovenia | Ohrid - Skhoder - Podgorica - Pluzine - Sarajevo - Mrkonic Grad - Karlovac - Ljubljana | 14th March to 14th April 2016 | 21,339km

As Ohrid refused to dry out, we donned our well used, socially unacceptable, bin bag trousers and reluctantly left for a town called Debar, on a northwestwards trajectory through the Balkans. A average day of riding by all accounts where we don’t take many photos and nothing extraordinary happens. We were discussing, or shouting, as cars whizzed past, spraying us with dirty water, how much of this trip is comprised of unglamorous days like this, which we thought might not come across in the concentrated highlights we manage to document. So below is an attempt to illustrate the following 24hrs, through Luke’s eyes, in all of it’s unpredictability as well as it’s boring details.

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It’s about 4.30pm, we’ve ridden 75.67km, the light is fading and we need to find a place to sleep. We’re damp but the drizzle has stopped long enough to suggest we should be able to pitch the tent tonight. Some shelter would be useful as it’s been on and off all day. We check out an abandoned building like we’ve used previously but this one looks like a horror movie set. Laybys are full of fly tipped rubbish and don’t offer much either. Just before Debar, where I’m envisaging asking for a spot in someone’s garden, the terrain flattens out into some grassy fields. On our right, a sheep herder is stood watching us as we grind and squeal to a stop, I need new brake pads. ‘Are they wearing bin bags?’ he must be thinking. While Flo holds my bike I walk over as approachably as possible, proffering a hand shake and a dobro dan. In English, and touching my other hand to my chest, I say ‘my name is Luka’. His name is Marka and he has no teeth. I monition that we’re looking for a place to pitch the tent, repeating tent in every language I know plus some charades. He looks generally perplexed, but hasn’t said no, which I take to mean, ‘yes, you can pitch in the corner of this field’. No messing around today - I put the tent up before the rain comes on and complain to Flora that it’s going to rain overnight, I hate getting everything wet. Flo is half listening whilst cooking up some pasta to which we add mayonnaise, some kind of spinach and herbs from the field. We’re just out of view of the road, Marka has wandered off and we’re in the damp tent by 5.45pm, just before dark. Flo makes it through half an episode of Game of Thrones and we’re both drifting off by about 7pm.

Wake up with the early morning light and pitter patter on the tent. 30 minutes later it’s still raining so, with ample moaning on my part, we don bin bag trousers in the tent which requires more flexibility than I’m blessed with. Smear my face on the wet inside of the tent in the process. There’s a hole somewhere in the ground sheet now, so our sleeping mats and bags are wet too. I’ve ripped my silk liner to shreds. Exit tent, ritual morning piss, too grim to make coffee so set off pedaling towards Macedonian border for our second visit to Albania. New stamp, passports running out of space. Sill raining. Albanians have big smiles and like to wave. Still haven’t had coffee, so looking for some shelter to make breakfast. It’s cool enough to have carried yoghurt in my bottle cage since Ohrid, very exciting. Peruse selection of unfinished buildings, which locals leave teddy bears on for some reason, and eventually roll into one that isn’t blocked off. Muesli and coffee from the Aeropress, brain starts to function. Man comes to shake hands and watch. He doesn’t want a coffee. Still raining.

A Mercedes goes past us very quickly and we see it again on the roadside a couple of km later, steam or smoke coming from the engine. It’s genuinely quite hard to take a photo in Albania without a Mercedes in it. Scenery is bleak as we follow a murky river, we’re sweating in the waterproofs, which makes it cold going downhill. The roads are shitty and as such so are we. Why didn’t we get mudguards? To change down a gear on the front mechanism, I have to unclip and physically knock the chain with my boot. The zip is broken on my jersey since it got run over a few weeks ago, my chest is cold. I tell Flo this but she doesn’t care much, she’s doing better than me at zoning out. We’re low on water so pull over outside a cafe with a natural spring. What the fuck is that? We both do a double take as we see there is a bear in a cage a few metres away from us. His name is something like Deano and he drinks beer according to the owner, who shows us a framed photo to prove it. Deano’s cage is tiny and he looks extremely bored, poor chap. 

I break the silence when I realise that ‘Albania’ can be fit satisfyingly easily into the lyrics of Peter Andre’s Insania, which provides a good 5 minutes of time passing entertainment. Reach the end of the river and start heading up and over. Today we just want to ‘make distance’ or ride for about 5 hours. Stopping to eat is a highlight, so getting over halfway before lunch is an achievement. Around 3 hours in we’re thinking of just that when we hear a shout of ‘hello my friend!’, from our right. Within 2 or 3 seconds of hearing/seeing someone, I can usually get a vibe. We’re beckoned down a driveway, it's still raining and I've got unthreatening/good/it's better than what we're doing now vibes. Artur speaks a bit of English and urges us into a tiny, warm room where his equally tiny mother is sat, beaming at us. Artur has a son called Ronaldo, named after the Brazilian, not the Portuguese, and while he goes about adding us on Facebook and showing us pictures of his car, a ‘very fast’ Nissan Primera, mother is dispatched to make coffee. Though we didn’t say it, her ‘special Albanian’ coffee is the same as Greek/Turkish/Georgian/Macedonian coffee, but we’re extremely grateful as it’s hot and sweet. Before we know it walnuts, oranges, bread and a kind of sausage appear with a bowl of homemade soft cheese. All within 10 minutes, this sort of spontaneous kindness never ceases to amaze us. Artur is a Muslim, but a pretty liberal one, as he shows by tucking into a sausage. Our polite refusal of a second generous glass of raki (homemade spirit), which smells like paint thinner, was firmly refused and we were both given liberal top ups. The mother was adorable and when Flo implies that she was her favourite lady in Albania and she nearly explodes. The heat and the raki are making me dopey. Most of our clothes are drying on the stove, but upon feeling that my top was still wet, she scurried off to find me a dry one. Flo takes the opportunity to pour her raki back into the bottle.

We left, though sorely tempted to take up the offer of staying the night, with the rest of the raki crammed into my bottle cage at the expense of water, walnuts, a carrier bag of white beans, 1kg of the soft cheese and a lump of the homemade butter. High spirits on the climb as these encounters have that affect. Flo sat behind me as the wind gets up, it's a bit tense after spraying her with mud. Why didn’t we get mudguards? About 20 minutes later a Nissan Primera pulls up alongside and veers in close. Artur is hanging out the window with a bag of cakes. He didn’t even stop, just did a u-turn and headed back down the road. Flo is riding stronger than me, a reoccurring theme of late and drags me along as the road runs over the plateau, guarded by pillboxes, overgrown and eery. The state of the road would make a pretty good tank deterrent in it’s own right. No barriers and a steep drop to our left, with several road side memorials.

After the excitement of lunchtime we’re back into the wet and mucky reality of covering the days distance and the final hour or so is dragging. Need the loo and in the end I settle for wee in a gas station drop toilet. I’m wearing bib shorts for the slight bit of extra warmth, so weeing requires a bit of contortion. Talk about friends on the way down hill as the weather starts to clear, wondering/speculating over what they might be doing at this very moment. I miss the cat. What is HE doing? It’s Mel’s birthday tomorrow, Flo says. A kid steps out in the road with his hand up, ‘Police, police’ he says with a grin. He just wants a go on my bike. With 5 hours and 7 minutes ride time we pull into a church with a big, recently mowed lawn that would make a decent camp spot. Knock on the adjacent buildings door which was answered by a surprised looking Italian nun, Sister Liliana. She doesn’t want any raki but says we can sleep inside with a gas heater, winner. She runs on Italian made coffee and has every size of mocha machine imaginable. We peel ourselves out of our clothes, which really need a wash and hang everything around the room we’re in, which soon smells suitably musty. Wet wipe wash. Now to work out what to cook with beans, cheese and butter and finish that episode of Game of Thrones.


On the way to Skhoder, with the sun finally out, we met up with Julie whom we’d bumped into in Ohrid, an Aussie teacher who’d lived for in the Balkans for a long time. She treated us to a mean pizza and explained the teddy bears on the unfinished buildings - there to warn off bad spirits. She also told us that there was a substantial mafia presence in Albania, hence the excess of fuel stations, the best business for money laundering. Skhoder itself, the old capital had wide flat streets bustling with bicycles and is as such referred to as the Albanian Amsterdam. It had a very Italian feel, leather jackets, slick haircuts and espresso in abundance. A shoe shiner was doing a good trade polishing chrome mudguards. Into Montenegro we skirted around the capital, Podgorica, having planned a mountainous route that would take us to the Durmitor National Park, the abundance of Mercedes giving way to MK1 Golfs and Westfalia vans. We wound our way up a lush valley dappled with gorgeous old stones house, generally complete now, with residents busy doing spring time jobs in their gardens. The valley narrowed until the road had to be dug into a series of tunnels and galleries, the river down to our right. Way above us on the other side was an audacious railway reliant on an array of impressive engineering feats. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing the film ‘snow piercer’, it looked like the train line from that. In a long unlit tunnel, with a left kink that made it particularly dark, Luke’s dynamo suddenly cut out, plunging us into darkness and general panic. By the red pulses from our rear lights (thanks Cam), we scrambled to the side, only to find our selves exiting onto the older version of the road, which clung to the cliff in the narrowest part of the gorge now bypassed by the kinky tunnel. On the only possible spot, we pitched the tent next to a maintenance hut, centimeters from a sheer drop to the river, but completely hidden. No sleep walking tonight.

We pedaled ferociously the next morning in search of some sunlight to warm up and have breakfast in. Whilst taking some arty pictures of our coffee making tekkers we got talking to a Monk called Ignacio. He lived in the monastery, had an astonishingly long greying beard and was off to the capital for groceries. We climbed into the wind for 4 hours, seeing only a few cars and a handful of ruddy faced farmers. Snow was building up on the sides from where it had been recently ploughed and eventually rocks began to litter the road. We both probably thought it just before it became obvious, ‘I hope the road isn’t blocked’. Two switchbacks later, the plough had sacked it off and tarmac was replaced with snow. Keeping remarkably calm, we attempted to push, but made about 500m in half an hour. Unable to work out where the top was, or what the road was like on the other side we were faced with the unthinkable, as in Georgia, a massive back track past the ruddy faced farmers all the way down into the gorge. As we’d hoped, Ignacio was kicking about at the monastery and he let us pitch the tent nearby. The reroute took us all the way back to Podgorica, a day and a half and 150km after we first went around it. Having spent the morning exploring the monastery in a quest to find Luke’s boots, which had been redistributed during the night by something slobbery and hairy, we monastery hopped on the back roads (read: hilly roads) to Ostrog. Embedded in the cliff high above the valley it was worth the massive climb up to it, especially in the golden evening light. We’d heard that it was possible to stay the night, and we were given two spots in the windowless 90 bed dorm room. Orthodox Christians make pilgrimages to this undeniably spiritual spot, often sleeping outside in their 100’s during summer. We left the following day unconverted but with bottles full of holy water.

Two days later we left Montenegro and arrived in Sarajevo, just inside the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, feeling badly beaten by a country smaller than Wales. We’d made it though the mountains but most of the last day had been in a freezing rain. With every bit of clothing we were carrying in the wash, we sat in our silk liners in the extremely homely Doctors House hostel, as snow settled across the city below us. Luke did some work and we got to know the fascinating city slowly, dodging it’s rusty trams and stopping regularly to gorge on burek. With over 300 mosques, so the locals didn’t have to go too far on the steep streets, synagogues and churches, the city is often referred to as the Jerusalem of Europe. During the break up of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo itself was subject to the longest siege in modern warfare. From 1992 to 1996 Serbian forces occupied the hill tops around the city with reports estimating an average of over 300 shell impacts a day and over 5000 civilian deaths. Many buildings are still pock marked by shrapnel blasts and graveyards with distinctive white headstones and are found throughout the city. We also stood on the street corner where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, sparking the outbreak of the first Word War.

Recharged, cultured out and barred from most of the pekara’s (where they sell burek) we continued northwest, dipping in and out of the Republica Serbska and Bosnian parts of the country, wild camping easily. On some unintentionally small back roads, thanks to maps.me, we came across notice boards explaining the risk of unexploded landmines in the area and were glad we had a couchsurfer, Nikola and his family to stay with that night. There was no one at the Croatian border and we rolled straight though. An off duty soldier who did a bit of cycling offered us a roof for the night - his old family home, abandoned during the war and occupied by troops and refugees from both sides, before being recently reclaimed. In less than 24 hours we were leaving Croatia. Having declared it’s independence first and suffering a relatively short 10 days of civil unrest Slovenia was the most unaffected by war of the Balkan countries. Unusually, we took no pictures of the immense tractor filled wooden barns or dense forests that greeted us on the way to the capital but it’s Balkan, Italian and Austro-Hungarian mix was very charming. Largely English speaking, well kept to the point of looking like a big golf course and with recreational sport suddenly very noticeable, we had arrived in western Europe. After months of careful scheming, Flo was unaware that the two weirdos in wigs and sunglasses asking her if she’d take their photo were in fact two of her best friends! Screams, tears, wine, etc. We were treated to a few more days of relative luxury as we met Luke’s Dad and partner Ann, who also imported some much needed peanut butter supplies and took away a load of our heavy weight winter gear. It WILL be sunny from here on in!

Vitamin D

Turkey, Greece, Albania + Macedonia | Denizli - Bodrum - Kos - Piraeus - Patra - Zitsa - Leskovic - Ohrid | 21st Feb to 12th March | 20000km!!

It took 17 hours to hitchhike from Denizli to Istanbul. It was a worthwhile experience and impressive feat being as we were effectively standing at John o’ Groats asking if anyone was going to Paris. As our eta ebbed and flowed dramatically between each new vehicle, the wonderful uncertainty of that kind of travel did become increasingly torturous for Flora who was dying to see her Mum. Holding a box of doner kebabs in the walk-in freezer of a Turkish butchers Luke’s enthusiasm also waned as the doner delivery chap had taken us miles off course. We’re not complaining, it once again showed how generous people can be, as not only were dropped 2km from where we wanted to be, we were fed two breakfasts, given a bag of oranges, a Fenerbahce scarf and taken for dinner, all in exchange for the repetition of our limited Turkish vocabulary. Our decision not to pedal into the city was justified as the final two hours of our journey was spent in it’s vast outskirts. We felt immensely excited as we finally got within sight of the Sultan Ahmed skyline, punctuated by some of the world's most speculator mosques, seagulls swirling around their minarets - çok güzel! (said whilst pinching 4 fingers to thumb and pursing lips).

Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia, and a visit consists of stumbling from one Unesco site to the other, through a maze of bazaars, trying not to buy carpets or turkish delight from the persuasive salesmen. It was nice to stop in a major city without the added stress of doing some sort of visa application, we just wanted to see family, meet new members of the family and hear what was going on back in Penrith. After being treated to a week in a hotel we felt like very different humans, noticeably better smelling ones. We took a bus (cheap, but with mega leg room and complimentary snacks served up every hour!) back to Denizli where our couchsurfing host Mehmet and his two kittens were guarding our bikes. In Denizli, we were 31 degrees from home.

Part of the charm of riding through Turkey, if you’re into cats and dogs, are the strays that greet you round every corner. There is still the odd rabid hound who’s apoplectic reaction to our arrival doubles the heart rate in a split second. We’re usually fumbling for the dog bashing stick as it garrots itself on it's longer than we’d like leash. But there are also scores of roadside puppies hanging around tired looking mums, all keen to lick you to death and keep you company if they find your camp spot. We were grateful for one particular canine companion who, in exchange for some stale bread, kept guard outside the tent as the evening bark off was countered with distinctive wolfy howls.

After a couple of days in the mountains, the weather seriously undecided wether it was winter or spring, we began decending towards to Aegean. Hopeful of getting some much needed vitamin D we entered a completely different Turkey, where it looked like there wasn’t ever a winter. Olive trees, blossom, flowers and citrus groves lined the tiny coastal roads out towards the port town of Bodrum. As we rummaged around for shorts, we felt ourselves drifting back into a much more relaxed form of cycle touring. Not that the last few months hadn’t been interesting, but they were pretty testing and the nights drawing out gave us time to think about important things, like which type of wood we should use to best skewer chunks of halloumi, for grilling on the camp fire. Bliss! Keen to make the most of our favourite cheap Turkish snack food çig kofte, a spicy bulgar wheat paste (originally made from raw meat but now veggie friendly) in a thin wrap with lettuce and pomegranate sauce, we were sat eating a particularly good one (or three), enjoying the novelty of actively looking for shade. Normally we’re used to being stared at, but it was our turn to do the staring as (what we later found out was) a 1928 Graham-Paige Model 610 driven by an enigmatic Argentinian couple Herman and Candelaria and their 4 kids. As the village locals crowded around the car, they came to chat to us and ask if we’d seen a petrol station recently - 1920’s mpg was not so good. They’d been on the road for 16 years since originally leaving Buenos Aries on a 6 month trip and have had all 4 kids on the road. Within the space of a few minutes they’d organised for us to stay with a lovely lady they’d met in Bodrum - we’ll never get over how these things have a way of working themselves out. A day later, we pulled into the gorgeous courtyard of Bahar’s converted fisherman cottage, traditionally painted in the Aegean white and blue, and were introduced to the pre tourist season Bodrum pace of life, being spoilt with incredibly tasty mezze food, sipping raki and grilling spicy suçuk sausage on the beach.

Feeling reinvigorated, we stood on the pier at the end of Asia, bound for the Greek island Kos (with complementary tickets, thanks again Bahar!). We reevaluated our dwindling budget and timescale and aligned them for an early June arrival in Cumbria and set off at a bit of a lick though Greece. Overnight ferry to Piraeus, Athens, with a large group of well organized refugees chaperoned by Save the Children. In Piraeus, there were signs of larger numbers of people having taken refuge there recently, with a few hundred still occupying the main terminal, tents and washing lines strung up around the place. Having been unsure of what to expect the atmosphere was relaxed and the people we saw seemed as content as someone fleeing their country can be. Brewed up in the port before setting off along the densely populated northern Penepolise coast. Looking for a camp spot in an orange grove we bumped into Papou, tanned, mobile and quick witted at the ripe old age of 87 he was a perfect example of the longevity we associate with a Mediterranean lifestyle. He was immensely kind and gave us bags of delicious fruit and has us in for a ‘Papou coffee’. Through his enthusiastic mime, we learned that he was amazed and quite concerned about the way we were cycling and camping. It took at lot of reassuring that we were always careful for him to be happy, and we camped, very safely, in his orange tree packed garden. We don’t know what Papou seemed so ‘scared’ of, but on his tiny TV there were pictures of the unrest at the Macedonian/Greece border camp, which we think he had been referring to. We haven’t been to Syria, (and we know it’s not just Syrian refugees) but from the time we’ve spent in Muslim countries, where hospitality towards strangers is unflinching, we can imagine they must be frustrated with how they are being perceived as the try to escape a war torn country.

Crossing the Gulf of Corinth onto the Greek mainland meant peddling over the impressive 3km Rio - Antirrio bridge, a storm approaching from the west meant it was a challenge to keep the bikes upright. Enforced dismount to push around the barriers welcomed us back to westernised health and safety BS. Heading northwest towards snowcapped mountains we didn’t appreciate Greece had we noticed the sound of church bells had replaced the mosque calls to prayer and ended up camping outside a secluded church. Having been overly people reliant in Turkey we took some time to ourselves, moving fast and camping each night. With the western Greek coastline likely our last before the English channel, and mostly steep and rocky, we found the only flat spot available, where the water looked much warmer than it was. As dusk fell a bloke with a spear gun arose in sinister silence from the water a few meters from the tent, but quickly broke into a smile and explained how he spent the winter catching octopus for his family restaurant. The next day we bumped into the first cycle tourer we’d seen on the road since we left Tim and Het in Uzbekistan and oddly later that afternoon we met another Frenchman, who was walking to Jerusalem.

Having bashed though Greece in 6 days, we approached the Albanian border with pockets full of delicious baked goods having stayed the previous few nights with an American-Greek couple who ran the village bakery in Zitsa. In exchange for a couple of hours of Luke getting in the way, we were effectively given unlimited samples of everything, dangerous. Crossing through the empty border post was apparently a 6 person job, as we don’t think they’d seen anyone all day, and to their delight, ‘Flora’ is about the most Albanian name going. Blissfully though, the whole process took under 10 minutes. The winding ‘main’ road we were following was lined with graffitied war bunkers and stunningly rugged scenery. Locals seemed to be pretty chilled operators, sipping espresso and a their homemade raki, often for breakfast. Only two days later we crossed into Macedonia. At the top of a particularly lung bursting climb a chap offered us a break from the rain and a hot coffee, which turned into an offer of fresh milk, right out of his prize cow’s udder. Did we want to go and see his cows? Well, not really, but you’re not going to give us much choice are you? Said cows were kept under lock and key as apparently pesky Albanians like to romp over the hills and nick ‘em. We rolled into the Unesco town of Ohrid and it’s accompanying array of hotels, motels and Holidays Inns, planning to treat ourselves to a room for the night and celebrate passing 20000km for the trip. To our relief it rained all day and we didn’t have feel bad about staying to bed, watching all of Jonathan Creek season two and binge eating cornflakes. Please see photos of our room’s fridge magnets for how Ohrid looks, apparently.

There’s a Hemmingway quote we heard from the cycling newlyweds Dan and Kiri back in Kazakhstan. It says ‘never go on trips with anyone you do not love’, which we thought to be sage advice. It’s relevant to this ramble as Flo begrudgingly accepted Luke’s marriage proposal on our last day in Greece, 10 years after neckin’ round the back of QEGS sports hall! Sounds better than being proposed to in Albania.

Cold Turkey

Turkey | Ardahan - Erzurum - Cappadocia - Konya - Isparta - Denizli | 19th Jan to 20th Feb 2016 | 18,959km

Cold Turkey, as well as being a witty blog title, describes the abrupt cessation of something, as opposed to a gradual process of stopping. In our case, this was the abrupt cessation of having any feeling in our hands, feet or faces shortly after going outside and for a considerable period after going back inside. We had envisaged free wheeling triumphantly into Turkish spring time, eating lots of baklava and picking up the pace a bit post central asian winter. We did find baklava, but if we took it outside the shop it would quickly freeze solid, and eating baklava with three pairs of gloves on was immensely impractical. After crossing the border from Georgia we made it an impressive 20km before being escorted onto the Anatolian plateau with the bikes crammed in the back of a Jandarma 4x4 having been refused the right to carry on over the pass on two wheels. To be fair, they were probably right to stop us and this set the scene for the next few weeks as the day time temperatures hovered between -20 and -30. It was was cold enough to freeze the inside of our nostrils, shatter water bottles and leave us pedaling single speed; cables and cogs amassing too much ice to function. With camping impossible, or at least with the kit we had, we were grateful for the string of couchsurfers that had us to stay on our way through Eastern Turkey. Keeping riding stints as short as possible we would arrive cold and bruised from multiple slips on the icy roads, to be thawed with çay, turkish coffee and Salep. The Turkish are rightly proud of their country and its hospitality but ours were quick to point out that a) we were in the east of Turkey at completely the wrong time of year and b) we were idiots. We were particularly happy to be inside when the night time temperature dropped to -50 and having inched our way into Erzurum decided to take a train to try and get a bit further west.

Not long off the train, which had stopped frequently to allow ice to be chiseled off the doors, it was a balmy -10 and we were heading for the Cappadocia region, right in the middle of Turkey. It’s a world of bonkers rock formations, deep valleys and troglodyte dwellings. It’s best viewed from a hot air balloon, so we’re told, and ‘the’ Cappadocia image is of hundred of balloons launching the summer tourists into the early morning sky. A winter visit had it’s benefits and we hitched around the best bits chasing balloons without too many crowds. On our last and clearest morning we watched 27 balloons go up whilst listening to the call to prayer echo down the valley.

After Konya we felt like we might just have escaped the cold, both getting down to t-shirts on the climb out of the city. Keen to get back to camping we pitched in a pine forest only to wake up to the roof of the tent drooping under the weight of a fresh inch of snow. Too soon! Diet improving with fresh fruits in abundance, mostly grown in the same country believe it or not, just further south where we’re told it’s nice and sunny. Service station stops in Turkey have been a pleasure for cyclists with çay, wifi and a place to sleep often readily on offer. In fact, if we leave one without a least a few cups we’re pretty disappointed. Rolled in to Denizli excited in part by the prospect of meeting family in Istanbul, but mostly by the two kittens our couch surfing host had promised.