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.
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!