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.