Archive | October, 2012

Goodbye Yugoslavia. Hello Greece

24 Oct

So I am in Gevgelija, about to cross into Greece this afternoon, ending my last few weeks in the former Yugoslavia (except for Albania). Since I left you the weather has been great (I hope it didn’t sound like I was moaning in the last post), aside from a grey morning everyday it has been clear skies and bright sunshine everyday.

I left you in Shkoder heading towards Kosovo. The next day I embarked on the stunning road to Kukes near the border to meet a Couchsurfer. The road was quite simply the best I have ridden, I think. Starting in a valley climbing high and dropping down to another river, repeat about 6 times, with the views of the mountains either side getting better each time and you get the idea. It was hard work but very rewarding.

I met Karl, a Peace Corps volunteer in Kukes, went out for dinner and then back to his while he had water pressure for a shower. The residents have to plan their days around when they have water, which must be very frustrating, as well as occasional power cuts. Karl was working with the local government in devlopment and his friend Scott a fellow volunteer (ex army) was teaching English; An evening of good conversation, beer and the clear moonshine esque grape Brandy ensued.

The next day after a quick tour of the town (with a dry mouth), the highlight being the abandoned hotel for Communist big wigs and trip to the market  (where I picked up a second hand woolen jumper to replace my fleece for only 70p, and it has a scorpion on it to remind me of my last tour when Andrew got stung!) I left on the road to Kosovo. Prizren, my first experience of Kosovo was very nice, a Balkan tourist hotspot with lots of families milling around the river banks that run through the center. I spent a while chatting to some local lads who were pretty funny and trying to get me to ogle the local ‘totty’.

I camped in the gorge and after a leisurely morning in which I took apart and cleaned my stove as it wasn’t working efficiently, I hit the slopes. I climbed the 1500m up to a new ski resort with it’s freshly varnish chalets and picnicking families, a very pleasant place to read and have a beer. I descended to the Vardar river (which I am still following) and set up camp. As there were already scorches on the ground and plenty of drift wood around I had a little fire which was a nice addition to the chilly evening.

The next day I crossed the border into Macedonia and it was surprisingly flat for once, which made a change. In fact the last few days have been decidedly level compared to the last few weeks which has been a nice respite.I have been taking it pretty easy too dropping my average from teh 80-100km mark to around 60-70kms.

I entered Skopje, after a quick tour I called Rubinco, my Couchsurfing host for the night but to no avail. Luckily the guy who’s phone I used was not busy, he gave me a little tour and a potted history of Macedonia and eventually as I was thinking of cycling back out of town Rubinco called back. I spent a slightly strange night in his brand new, unfinished flat and chatted over a James Bond film.

I left the next day and have been cruising through Macedonia since enjoying the sun and taking it easy. You may have guessed that I am not going to Bulgaria, it is on my route for the way back so I will save it for then. I am also toying with the idea of amending my flight to a bit earlier because I have made good time and am only 700kms away from Istanbul. It is booked for 22nd November but I paid a bit extra to make it amendable. This would mean I would have a bit longer in India as I have to be out by the 14th February. Watch this space.

Once again map and photos updated. Oh yeah and I got a shave in Shkoder too which felt pretty good. I was looking pretty grisly prior to that, with 7 weeks growth.  I left the hair on my head though, it might get colder!

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Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania

16 Oct

Hello. It hasn’t been long since my last post but it is a bit rainy today, as the last few have been so I am catching up whilst taking refuge.

I left you, stinking, in Mostar. That afternoon I got a room at a ‘pansion’ or guesthouse  (only 20 Euros, a bit of a splurge but not too bad). I had a much needed shower and did my washing, also in the shower. I spent the afternoon wandering the city, taking in the sights of old cobbled streets, a plush new shopping mall, which felt very strange and saw husks of apartment blocks riddled with bullet holes.  There was an interesting guy working at the pansion who was the same age as me; already married and divorced to an American Bosnian. In the evening I drank beer, watched Discovery channel and then Juno which was a nice change.

Cycling through Bosnia was interesting; the further I got the more alien I felt and the more foreboding the scenery and weather was. All around me was scrubby land, and high mountains of various hues. Some were yellow, orange or green depending on the foliage of the slopes but predominantly they were a deep purplish grey which gave the place an eerie feeling. This was intensified by the signs warning of landmines that were by the side of some roads. (Don’t worry I have been very careful choosing camp spots, never straying far from the road and picking places that had signs of others being there.)

The weather has been cloudy, big dark ones that hang low and fill the sky. I have had quite a few rain showers since Mostar, not normally too bad, but yesterday I stopped early at a campsite near Shkoder, Albania in order to get all my clothes dry before a big climb into Kosovo in the next couple of days. The most challenging day was my ride from Bosnia and Herzegovina into Montenegro. I had had a fast morning, up a climb and then skirting down and round the mountainside into Trebinje, covering 70km before lunch. I timed a cup of coffee well, avoided a heavy shower and set off as the sun was reappearing. I thought the 33km into Montenegro would be simple following a river, how wrong I was.

The first 20km were great, following the river and then I turned off, and up.  I think what made it hard was that I did not know it was coming, every corner I expected the incline to end (it looked straight on my map) which bred frustration when it did not. About halfway I up I stopped for a banana and jam sandwich and the rain started to fall, increasing to a torrential downpour. Normally I would have stopped but I was in a race against the light; I needed to cross the border, to get water and ideally a beer. I reached the Bosnian checkpoint thinking it was over only to be told the climb carried on for another 5km. I entered Montenegro and still it continued. Luckily I had spent my last Bosnian Marks on bread and soup so when I got to the top I could get water from the petrol station, and a tin of beer and find a spot to camp and get warm as darkness was setting in (About half 5!).

Montenegro had similar scenery to B and H and similar weather. I had a great thick coffee in a ‘caffee bar’ furnished with chipboard and run by a woman with about 4 teeth. I got bought a whiskey and then brandy and given the snack of choice, a hard boiled egg by some red faced chaps drinking spirits like water. That gave me the necessary Dutch courage for a long dark, dripping tunnel and then a long descent in the rain to Podgorica; I think it made my singing down the mountainside better too.

Albania definitely feels like the most ‘foreign’ place I have been so far with the town center resembling the organised chaos of India. I’m am enjoying the regularity of horse and carts driven by dirty old men in blazers and hats and the feeling of stepping back in time. My route may change as it seems I can’t head into Serbia from Kosovo because of a lack of Serbian entry stamp (they don’t recognise it as autonomous)  and the lure of the Greek coast may entice me away from the planned destination of Sofia, but we will see where the wind takes me.

 

Croatian cruising

11 Oct

Hello one and all.

I will keep this one fairly brief because I am in a darkened internet cafe that stinks of onions with groups of rowdy lads playing computer games and shouting around me. Not exactly the best atmosphere to describe my thoughts and experiences. Before I forget, I have updated the map, found on my route page. And I have uploaded and tagged some photos here:

http://s1171.photobucket.com/albums/r558/philb0412/

 

I left you on the coast of Croatia, I am now in Mostar, Bosnia and what a week it has been; fantastic cycling in spectacular countryside. I began by heading inland to Porec, a town famous for the chasm that Jules Verne wrote about in one of his novels. I rode through the scrubby forests, up and down hills, through little villages and got to the chasm. I was really looking forward to it, expecting an underground grotto and waterfalls. I descended the ravine and walked past without even noticing it only to be charged 30 Kuna (about 3 pounds fifty) for the pleasure. I spoke to the disinterested girl and she said it was closed because it was dangerous. Well I am not paying for nothing I thought. So I went back down.This time when I reached the river I followed it. I scrambled over the rocks, having a great time exploring and getting grubby. I did have a nagging thought of 127 Hours (the film where a guy gets his arm caught under a rock and has to hack it off with a penknife) in my head but the climbing was and I made sure of my holds. It was a nice little excursion and nice to do something off the bike for once.

I carried on heading East and the next day had the first of many climbs in Croatia. This one was a 900m pass in the Ucka region that lead me to Rijeka on the coast. It was really steep, I had a cycle of pushing a bit, spinning in gear 1, climbing out the saddle in gear 3, spinning in gear one and then pushing again. I got up in a couple of hours and enjoyed the long descent with great views of the sea.

I hugged the coast for about 100km, it was really pretty but the roads were busy, clogged by the many tourist buses full of retirees. What I really enjoyed about Croatia were the inland regions. At Klenovica I took the road inland, over a 700m pass that I cruised up and down into a verdant valley. After that range the scenery was completely different, the soil had changed from a terracotta red to a deep brown and it was lush and covered in grass. I saw old men chopping firewood (winter is definitely coming!!!!) and working the land and lots little old ladies with gnarled faces hunched over and covered in shawls. You could tell the area had seen conflict by the houses. Some were debilitated old stone building that shrubs had taken over, some were crumbling concrete shells, others were either unfinished and lived in or reclaimed, it was hard to tell judging from the grey blockwork facades. 

 

I made an unintentional detour that took me over another 700m pass, in the wrong direction and lead me to Obrovac but it was worth it. The view of another national park was brilliant and as I was descending rays of sun began to break through clouds.

Anyway the time on the computer is about to run out so I will have to end abruptly. But the riding was great and my legs felt strong on the climbs all the way through. I am now in Mostar, very smelly and bearded going to treat myself to a hotel room for the night.

 

Bye for now.

Venetian Weight

3 Oct

Hello again. I have been having a leisurely day today so have the time to use a computer. I only cycled 35km from Umag to Porec in Croatia; however I did have to stand up all the way because I forgot to put a bag over my lovely leather Brooks saddle last night so it got sodden when there was very heavy rain this morning. I didn’t want to sit on it and stretch the tightened leather as when it dried it may have been to slack. But this afternoon I have been sunning myself on the beach and eating plenty of food so all is good now.

Since I last left you I have had a couple of frustrating days and couple of really nice ones. The worst idea I have had so far was to visit Venice. I didn’t think I was going to like the place from the outset but seeing as I was going so close I thought it silly not to ‘pop in’. I imagined a quick coffee in a lovely plaza and then back out again heading toward Gorizia to meet a couch surfing host the following night. Well, to begin with the road into Venice is horrible, a busy dual carriageway through industrial areas. I thought I found a cycle path alongside it but that veered off to a desolate place of disused factories. Eventually I made my way along the road and reached Venice alongside thousands of other tourists. I should have thought taking a bike there was a bad idea at the sight of the first foot bridge, but not wanting to cycle back along the road I decided to get the ferry to Punta Sabbioni the peninsula that heads North east in the direction I was heading. 

I had to carry my heavily loaded bike over countless bridges and push it through the crowded narrow streets. This suffice to say somewhat spoiled the place for me. I got totally lost and frustrated at the place. Eventually I thought I had found the answer a water bus that would take me to the peninsula. I bought my ticket and then was refused boarding twice because they were too busy. I tried walking along the ‘line’ to the last stop before heading out to the peninsula where the boat would be less empty. After many more bridges including a really big old wooden one I eventually found the place, within the hour that my ticket was valid for, and was refused boarding 2 more times despite there being room on the boats. Eventually I found the correct larger ferry that would take me across after about 3 of the worst hours of my trip.Even without the bike I don’t think I would have liked Venice, there were too many tourists and it seemed like an open air museum. I hate sightseeing anyway, but the basilica and cathedrals I did see were to to my taste, over-grandiose displays of opulence.

In the afternoon I needed to make up some ground in an effort to get close to Gorizia, I got a bit lost, it started raining and had to get to a town for water (and then back out to find somewhere quiet to camp) as night was falling. But I managed to cycle 70 km which was pretty good going, spurred on by brooding post-rock and the prospect of soup for tea which worked some of the frustration out through my legs.

The next day was good, apart from my stiff back from all the lugging of my bike. I rode the 70km easily and with enough time for a long tasty lunch (leftover pesto really improved a mozzarella and tomato sandwich) and reading in the sun. I met up with Irene a host, who showed me around town and up to the castle which gave a great view over the city at sunset. I was lucky to be in Gorizia, usually a quiet city, on that day (as I was told countless times). It was, roughly translated, ‘borders tastes’ festival. Basically a festival of food and drink from all the Balkan countries. We went out in the evening with lots of her friends and ate some interesting food. I had pizza, which I had to have in Italy but especially enjoyed the deep fried courgette flowers and mozzarella balls. I also tried a Spritz: soda water, white wine and an orange liqueur, a quintessentially Italian drink and surprisingly good. It was still 21 degrees at 1 in the morning when we returned to the flat to sleep.

 

The next day I bought a map of Yugoslavia and headed off into Slovenia. I got about 20km up a lovely scenic valley and went to take a photo only to find my battery completely dead from uploading the photos the night before which was very frustrating. Then I realized that I had left my Kindle back at Ire’s flat!!! So back I cycled and luckily here flatmate was still in as Ire had gone back to her hometown of Rome early that morning. Whilst on the way back I stopped to get some water from a stream, slipped on a rock and soaked both my shoes through! Great, could my day better much better. Well, I decided to take a different route from Gorizia, I had seen some of the Slovenian hills so I headed towards Trieste on the coast for a dip in the sea. On the way I inadvertently lost my fleece by leaving a pannier open at a food stop. When I reached the coast, I could see it was a cliff face all the way to Trieste, not giving me the chance to have a swim or a place to camp. So I had to cycle into the city as night was falling. It was almost completely dark when I saw a turning off the busy road, next top the motorway that was just about alright to camp on, so I took it and proceeded to drop my pot of jam. I was very glad when that calamitous day was over! Maybe it was a penance for the cigarette I smoked the night before, or more likely the result of lack of sleep and a few beers.

However the next day I cycled over the border again into Slovenia, saw the small area of coast that Slovenia has and then entered Croatia. The weather is good, warm and sunny and the roads are great to ride. Wonderful scenery and rolling hills that you have to pedal hard up get to the top, speed down the other side and try to keep the momentum going to reach the top of the next one. And flat sections through coastal towns with rocky beaches, fishing boats and crystal clear sea. 

Now I need to think a bit more clearly about my route towards Sofia, I know I will follow the coast of Croatia for a while but after that who knows. If anyone has any recommendations let me know.

 

I have updated the map so you can look at my route so far on the Route section.