A Travellerspoint blog

July 2011

Things Fall Apart

sunny 29 °C

Does anyone actually live in Montenegro? Is the Balkans the best place in the world for cycle touring? How did we end up staying on a boat along side super-yachts with Jeffrey Sweetbaum, an New York born, Moscow based entreprenuer? And what happens when things fall apart with a 1,100m descent over the horizon? Will this blog post actually ever say anything or will it just be a series of meandering convoluted questions? Perhaps...

We stood at the top of an 1,100 metre pass and looked down all the way to Kotor, a beautifully preserved historic town, nestled at the foot of a sunken canyon in Montenegro. We were all set for one of the most spectacular descents of the entire trip, except for one problem. Three spokes on my back wheel had broken and the the wheel was in perilous danger of falling apart. It had been an eventful week to say the least. Cycling through the lakes of Macedonia before crossing into Albania had offered spectacular views and fascinating encounters. Albania has only been open to tourists for a few years now and arriving there was like entering another world. There is a feeling of the wild west here, soaked with adventure and lawlessness. The roads ranged from perfect newly laid tarmac to dirt tracks (on the same road!) indicating that money is now beginning to be spent on infrastructure. A booming tourist industry will no doubt follow due to the incredible mountains and beaches but for now this place is still untainted by mass tourism and provides an awesome experience for travellers looking for something different. bizzarely almost everyone drives around in clapped out old Mercedes, apparently the only cars which can endure the awful roads. IMG_6234.jpg
On our second day there, we began looking for somewhere to camp and spotted a lake on our map. However, when we arrived we were unable to access the lake except via someones property. We wheeled our bikes down their driveway where we were greeted by a squat Albanian man by the name of Nico. No we could not camp down at the lake he said in Italian. We must stay with him and his family in their house. This was typical of the amazing hospitality we received here and at dinner time we were constantly told to eat more food and drink more of their home made grappa.
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The next day we set off descending down through deep canyons and gorges until we reached the main coastal road which took us through to Shkoder, the centre of which contained very pretty streets and houses which bustled with life as day turned to night and people spilled out from their homes and offices. We stayed in a former communist hotel, a big brutish concrete structure that was the cheapest place in town. However, our stay became slightly more expensive when 2 days later i realised i had left half my cycling clothes in the room, never to be seen again. All the way through Albania we were greeted with toots from cars and enthusiastic greetings by people genuinely happy that we were visitng their country and we were sad to leave but know we will return.
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We crossed the border into Montenegro, a country we had greatly been looking forward to visiting after hearing of its spectacular natural beauty. Without doubt this was another wonderful country for cycling with very quiet roads and stunning landscapes. However, we hardly encoutered any Montenegrans other than those working in the tourism industry and the place laked the exciting vibe of Albania. The ride along Lake Shkoder was truly breathtaking and we camped that evening at a small beach on the lake shore after enjoying fish caught from the lake (actually Mariana had a tomato salad). Our decision to camp at the lake meant we started the next day with a 250m steep ascent back to the road. Already soaked in sweat we continued on to Virpazar another beautiful town located where the river meets lake Schkoder, surrounded by a lush green nature reserve. The next day we cycled on to the former capital of Montenegro, Cetijne, a beautiful old city though sadly lacking in the buzz of a thriving city.
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The following days cycle to Kotor was all set to be one of our most spectacular yet; a wonderful climb through pine forest and craggy mountains up to 1200m before traversing across a high plateau and then a descent to sea level involving 25 hairpin turns. As we set off my bike was making a strange sound and I looked down to see one of my spokes broken. Further examination revealed that actually 3 had broken. Usually this would not be too difficult to fix but 2 things prevented this. First, the broken spokes were all on the rear wheel cassette (the gears) side meaning i would have to remove the cassette to replace them, and secondly, the spare spokes seemed to have dissappeared from Mariana's bag. We managed to find the cities only bike mechanic, an eccentric old Montenegran who ranted at us for several minutes before indicating we could return at 2pm. When we did return the wheel was still in a sorry state and the mechanic seemed angry - he was unable to remove the cassette. We asked if he thought it was safe to continue to Kotor. He shrugged his shoulders. What choice did we have. So on we went.

What a ride. Even going slow so as to ensure i got down in one piece the cycling was one of the highlights of the trip so far. So breathtaking that i kept having to stop to take in the view in an attempt to imprint it on my mind.
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When we finally reached sea level and the old town of Kotor we phoned our couch surfing contact; Jeffrey Sweetbaum. Now Jeffrey is definitely not your average couch surf host. First of all he owns a large boat which he spends most of his summers on, sailing around various parts of the world. He is also an eccentric New Yorker who decided to go to Moscow after the fall of the Communist regime, in his words "to see what was going on". It turns out plywood was going on so he set up a business in it. Anyway, we spend a lovely couple of days hanging out on his boat, riding his dingy around the lake, and swimming in various coves.
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Feeling refreshed after some rest, we cycled the last leg of our Balkans adventure, an 90km ride to Dubrovnik (still with 3 spokes missing). After 80km we decided to stop at a lovely beach just outside Dubrovnik, a place Mariana had stayed 10 years earlier, with a lovely campsite and beach. The next morning we rose early and arrived in the city for breakfast. Although Dubrovnik is undoubtedly beautiful and incredibly preserved, the place has become a tourst circus, heaving with English and Americans following guides holding colourful sticks so that they dont get lost. No Croats actually live in the old city and after 1 day we had definitely had enough. "Lets get out of Croatia" i said "the place is heaving. Lets go to Italy!"

Posted by roblewis 07:13 Archived in Albania Tagged mountains lakes bicycle croatia cycling montenegro albania couchsurfing mercedes Comments (1)

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 Comments (1)

Thessaloniki to Edessa

sunny

We left Lesvos with a heavy heart but a full stomach to board the weekly overnight ferry to mainland Greece. On our last day we were treated to a lunch banquet by our new couchsurfing friends in Lesvos. The meze dishes were flowing from pumpkin stuffed with feta to fava, wild spinach and aubergine... With 20 minutes before the ferry was due to leave they announced we would have dessert. Reluctantly we said we needed to go... They all laughed raucously.
'plenty of time!' they said. We looked at each other uncertainly....
'We only have 20 minutes...' I trailed off
'You are so ENGLISH! relax. You have to stay for dessert'

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And so we did. This delicious Greek twist on a baklava but with almonds instead of Pistachio nuts and doused in icecream that was infused with sweet pine nectar which tasted like a forest smells. Racing for the ferry we made it about five minutes before it was due to leave, and then waited on board for another 2 hours before it actually DID leave.

We paid an extra Euro on top of the basic price of a ticket to get a airline seat which we though was pretty good value. As we boarded the ferry most of the passengers were writhing and thrashing to mark out their territory on the boat using anything from teatowels to portable carpets. We were very bemused watching this chaos as we sat serenely on the top deck secure in the knowledge that we had reserved seats. It all became clear a couple of hours later when we went to find our seats and our seat numbers didn't seem to exist. When we asked at the reception we were told in so many words that it is basically a free for all and the numbered seats mean nothing whatsoever. Ah. So the next couple of hours were spent prowling round with our panniers trying to find two seats together amongst the bodies that had sprawled themselves out over ten seats. Note to self for next time...

The next morning when we arrived bleary-eyed in Thessaloniki we were met by Ariadni, the girlfriend of a friend of a warm showers host, so quite a tenuous link even for us! She was one of the kindest and warmest hosts we have been lucky to have on our trip. She took us round the city, to deserted beaches and for a trip to her boyfriends soon to be permaculture farm. Ariadni lives close to the White Tower which has become the gathering point in Thessaloniki for protesters who are demonstrating peacefully about the economic crisis in Greece. It has been interesting cycling through Greece at this time as the feeling that people can bring about change is palpable. Reflections from Greek people have been quite diverse. We have met some who have been quite resigned to it and feel that the people of Greece have brought it upon themselves, compared it to gorging at a restaurant that you can't afford for many years and then suddenly being presented with the bill. However others feel a strong sense of injustice and firmly believe that the government is wholly to blame. Although people seem very politicised everyone we spoke to lamented how fragmented it is. Everyone wants to have their voice heard but individually not as an organised whole. Speaking to Ariadni's boyfriend Vasilios he was hopeful that now that people are mobilised to react against what is happening that there will be a more lasting positive outcome beyond the anger of 'how does this affect me?' Perhaps people who have lost their jobs will think about whether spend spend spend is really the answer. Maybe they will go and work on their family's land, perhaps seek a simpler life or at least a life that will make them happy. We will see.

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white tower

white tower

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After two days in Thessaloniki we were keen to get back on the bikes and cycle towards Edessa, a small town on Northern Greece on our way to Macedonia. We were met by our exuberant couchsurfing host Evangelos and his friend Elefterios who is a cycling fanatic and proudly took us inside his shop to make us tea and show us his three bikes that were stuffed inside the souvenir shop that he runs.

Evangelos explained that he had arranged our accomodation for the night, as we were unable to stay with him, to be in the local consumer council office, a little cottage style building on the middle of the highstreet. As we inflated our thermarests on the marble floors next to the piles of magazines and office desks we reflected that this might just be one of the most unusual accomodation types of our trip so far.

our little cottage in edessa

our little cottage in edessa

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Edessa is a very pretty little city, unspoilt by tourism with beautiful waterfalls right in the city, however we were not planning on staying more than a day to explore it. My kidneys however had other plans as just as we were packing up our sleeping bags in the morning I was hit by a thunderbolt of nausea and pain and collapsed on the office floor. We needed to be out by 8am as the office opened for business at 9am so Rob shuffled me out onto the pavement where I curled up shaking and occasionally vomiting in the bin, much to the disgust I am sure of people passing by but I was in too much pain to care. The cavalry arrived in the form of Evangelos who raced me down to hospital in his car. I can't remember the last time I went to hospital in the UK so I can't make a comparison but within an hour in this small hospital in Edessa I had blood tests, urine tests, xrays and an ultrasound to determine that I had a kidney stone. I was then put on wildly hallucinogenic painkillers and remember very little except visits from Evangelos and Elefterios who came down from work to check on me. Luckily despite the crazy dreams the painkillers worked a treat and I was out of hospital that afternoon. Evangelos was keen to look after us and bent over backwards to accomodate us (another night in our little office hut) and he plyed us with food - or at least plyed Rob with food as I couldn't hold down food for another couple of days.

So after three days, longer than we had planned in Edessa, we were finally ready to cycle again, albeit it gingerly as bumps on the road were painful on the kidney, heading towards Florina, our last stop in Greece before we cross into Macedonia.

Posted by mrs lewis 10:48 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Lesvos

sunny 28 °C

Lesvos is a stunning island and we had a wonderful 5 days there. Four of which we spent cycling around the island (very hilly with obscenely beautiful wild campspots on the beach - Ampelia and Podaras) and one hanging out in Myteline with an awesome group of people we met through couchsurfing.
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Our host Panos showed us a great time in his hometown and said he wanted to come with us on our cycle around the island. However, at 7.30am after a night drinking the local spirit (Oozo) he was far from lycra clad and seemed to be put off by the hills and 75km a day schedule.

The island is perfect for cycling; stunning vistas, beautiful old villages, good clear roads, and wonderful beaches to relax on with crystal clear sea - just the ticket after a day in the saddle.
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The food at the Tavernas was also superb with the notable dish of fava (crushed fava beans with lemon and garlic) being a new favourite, as well as pumpkin flowers stuffed with cheese and great seafood (octopus salad!).

Check out this video for a glimpse of the action.
On Sunday, we left on the weekly overnight ferry to Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, with a feeling that living in Lesvos would be a fine thing, even though the country is now bankrupt. But if wealth is measured in natural beauty, and the hospitality and happiness of its people than they don't come much richer than here.

Posted by roblewis 06:15 Archived in Greece Tagged lesvos Comments (0)

ouch!

A glorious 5 days cycling on the Greek island of Lesvos saw me suffer another swelling/infection, this time after being bitten by a spider. My elbow suddenly started swelling up and quickly took the form of a golf ball. The next day, the swelling had still not gone down and so on arriving at a town with a hospital i thought i'd better get it checked out. They prescribed some antibiotics and game me a cortisone shot in the bum. After receiving this i started feeling very nauseous and as i got up to leave the room I could feel the blood draining from my face, the room span, and I quickly passed out. Thankfully the swelling has gone down now but it made me think that spending so much time travelling in the outdoors has led to quite a few bites, stings, infections and so on and so forth. The current list stands at:

  • 1 Tendonitis in my left ankle
  • 1 kidney stone in Mariana's right kidney
  • 2 numb hands for Mariana before realising her handlebars were too low. I was given the responsibility of cutting up her food into little pieces.
  • 2 bee stings (one each, mine when it flew into my shirt and stung me on the chest, nearly causing me to swerve onto oncoming traffic. Mariana endured one in the mouth, on the tongue)
  • 1 foot infection after a prolonged period of mosquito attack in Thailand. It got bad when the flies attacked the pussing bites.
  • 1 ditch mishap. Mariana was blown into a wet muddy ditch whilst cycling in NZ on a particularly blustery day
  • 1 spider bite leading to mass swelling
  • Lots of sunburn, mainly on Mariana's nose and chest
  • too many stomach issues to go through and list.These mainly originated from our eventful fortnight in China.
  • 2 magpie diving attacks. Both on me whilst cycling.
  • Multiple occasions of being chased by dogs - again too many times to recount but we now carry stones in our pockets to fend them off.
  • 2 bird poo bombings (both on me so i'm the lucky one)
  • Some particularly pusy sores (you can guess where) and unhappily nowhere in Greece or Turkey seems to sell anti-chaffing cream.

Posted by roblewis 12:31 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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