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Into the Balkans

semi-overcast 20 °C

The scenery on our last day cycling in Greece was beautiful, a fitting end to our time here. Our last stop in Greece was Florina - 12km from the border with Macedonia. There is little tourism here in the summer but apparently in the winter it is full with winter sports enthusiasts. As my kidney was still trying to work free its stone we decided to 'splash out' on accomodation by staying in a pokey room on the main street rather than attempting to find an illicit camping spot in a park somewhere.

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Were it not in on the frontpage of every newspaper here you would never know that Greece was in the clutches of an economic crisis as restaurants and bars are booming, packed with cavorting men and women who are all immaculately groomed and throwing back cocktails and coffees like water. We wandered into one of them and ordered a couple of green teas. We nearly choked on them when the bill came for 6 Euros. Convinced this was a typo on the receipt Rob queried this with the waitress. It was correct. Rob felt this exemplified why Greece was in such dire straits financially and thought it would be an opportune moment to discuss this with the waitress.

'Greece is bankrupt and many people do not have a job How is it possible that this bar is charging 3 Euros for a cup of tea?'
'This is the price' She responded simply
Rob ploughed on 'Do you mind if I ask you how much you earn?'
'4 Euros per hour'
'So you have to pay 3/4 of your hourly wage on a teabag and hot water?'
'Yes'

That was the end of that discussion so we paid and left.

We left early the next morning excited about cycling in Macedonia (or Skopje as the Greeks refer to it due to a political dispute over the name Macedonia). Out of all the cycling we have done I don't think we have ever seen so stark a contrast in architecture and people when crossing a border. We hit the first town, Bitola, about 15km after the border. It was very dark, very concrete and very ugly. As we came into the city we overtook a local cyclist and tried to strike up conversation. Despite the fact that he spoke English we managed to elicit very little information from him other than his name (Vladimir) and that he lived in Bitola. We told him excitedly that he was the first Macedonian we have ever met. He nodded solomnly and said nothing. We cycled for a couple of minutes in silence before getting the hint and carrying on along the road alone.

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We had contemplated staying in Bitola but decided to carry on to Lake Prespa. Our friend Evangelos in Edessa had been very enthusiastic about it 'It is a very unique place' he said. It must be better than Bitola so we pushed on. The road out of Bitola was glorious, smooth and practically free of cars. We gradually climbed up to 1,100 metres at Bukovo after which we had a glorious descent to 850 metres. Despite its natural beauty we quickly realised that Macedonia is a food and drink desert. Stupidly not stocking up at Bitola we arrived in a little village called Kozjak on the way to Otesevo which we had lined up as a possible wild camping spot on our map. We cycled into the village which contained a smattering of houses, a church and from what we could see nothing else. We chanced upon a man who spoke decent English.

'Is there somewhere we can get something to eat?' we asked, miming eating at the same time
The man shook his head gravely
'Ok, where is there a shop where we can buy some food?'
He shook his head again
'Nowhere? not even to buy bread'
'There is nothing here'
'Is there a shop in Otesevo?' (17 km away)
He shook his head again. 'You need to go to Resen' (a town 5 km the wrong way) 'Only there can you buy food'

Resen has two restaurants (using that term loosely) that serve food. One of them only served fried food in oil that was so black it resembled tar and the other one did frozen pizza. We went for the second one. When we pulled up we gave a cheery 'ciao' to the group of men huddled outside on round tables smoking. They muttered 'ciao' in response. So far it seems that the contrast in outlook and culture could not be more different than Greece. Whereas the Greeks have this carefree joie de vivre the Macedonians have an air of stoicism, getting on with life inspite of its hardships. We were feeling quite tired and up at 850 metres it was not warm so briefly flirted with the idea of staying in Resen despite the fact that, like Bitola, it is very grey and very ugly. It was clear from this point that the highlights of cycling in Macedonia are probably not going to include the towns. Amazingly when Rob enquired at the only hotel in town they said they were full! (Who is staying here??) so that made our decision for us and we pushed on to Prespa. And we were glad we did.

About 2 km before the village there is a dirt track that leads off the main road towards the lake to a totally secluded spot hidden from the road by a line of trees where we were undisturbed by anyone - except one curious goat. Probably one of our best wild camps of the entire trip.

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Up early with the sun (the clocks went back after leaving Greece so it is now light before 6am) we were on the road by 7am. Just as well as we had some serious climbing to do, up to 1,600 metres to get into the next valley to Lake Ohrid - Macedonia's main (only) tourist destination, described as the "pearl of the Balkans". The climb was long but steady and not to go overboard with superlatives, it was possibly one of the most spectacular cycling days we have had in terms of scenery as the road hugged the side of the mountain overlooking lake Prespa on the way up and then switched over to Lake Ohrid at 1,500 metres. From the high point of the road we could see the entire lake, half of which is Albanian with its rugged mountains in the distance.

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glorious cycling

glorious cycling

Ohrid is beautiful, a bit touristy, but beautiful and like another world from the rest of Macedonia that we have travelled through so far. It is one of the oldest towns in the country and was reputed to have 365 churches - one for every day of the year (only a fraction of these are still intact). Prices in Macedonia are incredibly cheap (especially compared to 3 Euro cups of tea) so we treated ourselves to lunch - including Macedonian wine which is surprisingly good and cost less than 2 Euros. We found a campsite just outside the city - which was almost full, but not with tents. It seems that camping in Macedonia doesn't mean camping as we know it - more 'caravanning'. We were turned away from the first campsite we found quite confusingly as they were insistent that they were a campsite ('Yes - camping camping!') but when we gestured at our tent "no no not possible!" so we went to the next one where it was 'possible' but we were the only ones.

Our final day of cycling in Macedonia again was a contender for best cycling of the trip, along the river from Struga up to Debar cycling through a gorge the whole way.

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We had arranged to stay with a couchsurfer in the border town of Debar which we were particularly pleased about as although we were enjoying the cycling immensely we hadn't really managed to get a sense of what the people here are like and what it is like to live here as our interactions with people have been limited. We had expected to get to Debar before lunch but despite clear skies when we left Ohrid the heavens opened when we were passing through a village called Dzepiste, about 15 km from Debar. We saw a little shop open with 3 men outside smoking. Brilliant we'll stop here and get a coffee while we wait out the rain. We wandered in. The shelves were virtually bare apart from a few packets of biscuits that looked like they passed their sell by date in the 90s and some toilet roll.

"Do you sell coffee or tea?" we ventured
"no" was the reply.
"Where can we get a hot drink?"
"Debar (15 km away) or Struga (50 km back the way we came)"

There is definitely a gap in the market here.

Eventually the rain stopped and we made it the rest of the way to Debar which has an amazing setting overlooking the lake backed by mountains. Entering Debar was like stepping back into another time. It is absolutely untouched by tourism and the only sign of anything remotely western is the ubiquitous coca cola but that is all. The town still has horses and carts delivering vegetables. The rain started again so we sought refuge and lunch in one of the three restaurants in town which served up a decent dish of beans, salad and drinks for less than 150 Denar (about 3 Euros). Just as we were finishing up our Caj (tea) ChaCha (our host) approached us having spotted us from across the square.

He took us back to his house that he shares with him mum where we would be spending the night. He explained that they don't have any electricity (apart from a cable that runs from the neighbours to which they are able to connect the computer) and the only running water in the house is through one hose that is used both to flush the toilet and to shower with. Anything water for cooking or washing up also needs to be taken from the hose. ChaCha is an artist and makes some of his money through selling the jewellery he makes using plasticine and a pasta machine. I offered to show him how to make pasta but he didn't seem particularly interested.

Chacha was enthusiastic about taking us round Debar to see spectacular views that we would never otherwise have found. He also took us to a sulphur spa (again ridiculously cheap at 70 Denar each to get in) where we soaked our aching legs in a hot sulphur bath. The forecast tomorrow is for storms so we may be here for another day. If not it is goodbye Macedonia, Hello Albania!
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Posted by mrs lewis 03:48 Archived in Macedonia

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Great blog Mariana. I want to go cycling round these places!

by ricosarena

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