We were excited to reach Croatia after a lovely night napping on the floor of the ferry from Ancona to Split and I was keen to gobble down a gigantic slice of greasy pizza as I had fond memories of munching my own weight in 1euro slices last time I was in Croatia when I was a younger, fatter Cowgill. Spent the first morning in Croatia attempting to push the bikes around the narrow cobbled streets of split's lovely old town but failed fairly miserably as those asshole Romans thought marble steps were better than ramps. Romans hated cyclists and the disabled, fact.
We decided to catch another ferry to Hvar island the same day and hoped to find a campsite in the port village of Stari Grad, but when we eventually tracked down the campsite we found it was closed for the season. This was a problem. Wild camping is illegal in Croatia and the police will fine you up to 1000 euro if you are caught plus locals will call the police if they see you setting up camp. I think it's to do with tourists leaving rubbish and even starting bush fires by not properly putting out their campfires so I guess it's understandable. It did kind of kick our plans right in the nads as we now had to either find official campsites (or cheaters camps as I like to think of them) or open our extremely tight wallets to stay in a hostel or hotel.
We opted to cycle on for another 20 kms to jelsa despite running on very little sleep and the sun setting rapidly, but did not regret our decision; the campsite was open and it was fantastic! Amazing site right on the edge of the water in a beautiful little cove.....I guess this whole official campsite thing has it's advantages. Loved the few days we spent on beautiful hvar island, although it's very hilly it's still a cyclists dream with quite roads and stunning views plus the picturesque harbour of hvar town. Even managed to squeeze in a beer with an old work mate of mine from my days as a salmon vaccinator in Scotland. Reminiscing about squirting salmon jizz in co-workers faces is always a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Before we'd reached Croatia we were convinced that the water was going to be warm enough to swim in and we'd spend our days lazing on the beach. Unfortunately it was still as icy as a Norwegian canoeist's nut sack and we spent a total of 4 seconds in the sea.
We left hvar and headed south towards Dubrovnik stopping at a couple of campsites on the way. We thought we'd escaped the shitty rain and storms once we left Italy, but we were wrong! We set up camp just before a crazy storm hit with some seriously strong winds and very heavy rainfall so we quickly jumped in the tent to hide for the night. Unfortunately the ground at this particular site was very rocky and we chose a spot that somewhat sheltered us from the wind behind a bush, but unfortunately not from the torrential downpour. Woke up at 2 am to find that we were now surrounded by a lake and our tent was now more of a boat...a very cheap, leaky boat. The sleeping bags were wet along with all our clothes and mattresses but as the damage had already been done and it was still pissing down solidly we had to just attempt to sleep in a puddle.
Not particularly fun, but these things happen and we comforted ourselves by deciding to stay in a hostel in Dubrovnik to dry all our crap and get some sleep. You know you've become a badass cycling machine when you can ride across an entire country in one day....so what if technically it was only 20km across Bosnia's coast and back into Croatia? You can't take that away from me, we rode a across a country in a day god dammit! Yeah, We're cool as fuck. Dubrovnik was cool, Kelly got hyper and ran around like a nutcase pointing out all the spots where 'game of thrones' was filmed and we munched some mighty fine gelato and sipped our lattes like fancy European folk. Croatia was fun, extremely hilly but worth it for the awesome views along the coastal roads, the amazing lakes and the mighty fine bureks that we feasted on regularly.
Now to enter a country that I'd been wanting to cross off my travel list for years now, Montenegro! Spent about a week in Montenegro but it was one of the coolest places id seen on the trip so far. Kotor bay was absolutely stunning and as a wannabe photographer type dude I nearly made a baby in my pants at the sight of the mountains mirrored in the crystal clear water of kotor. I spent a fair amount of time taking photos of the lush green mountains mirrored in the clear water and every possible angle of the church on an island in the centre of the bay...I'm sure Kelly loved every second of me snapping away.
Got the first flat tyre of the trip in Montenegro! Not bad going really, about a month of cycling and only one flat between us. Of course it happened just as it started to rain so we were stuck on the side of the ride patching a tyre in the rain, joy! The roads got a bit worse in Montenegro and the up and down hilly coastal roads continued like in Croatia, but the scenery and towns we passed through definitely made up for it. Coming into budva was our first real taste of cycling uphill in the heat. I'd made the mistake of wearing my 'man tights' and jacket as it had been cold earlier in the day, but by the time we'd climbed the very steep hill before descending into budva I was dripping with sweat.
Stayed with our first Couchsurfing host of the trip in budva, an American called Justine who was working as an English teacher in Montenegro. Went out for awesome pizza and beer (I’m sure you've noticed a theme to our diet here) and even washed our clothes in an actual washing machine! Holy shit! Clean clothes! It's nice to feel semi human and not be a stinky bum occasionally. It was at Justine’s house that I also discovered something slightly disturbing, my weight had dropped to 67kilos despite the huge amount of food id been consuming, 6 kilos in a month isn't really cool and I made a vow to remedy the situation by feasting solidly for the next week. Started that very day with a huge burek followed by an even huger kebab and then about half a kilo of granola and yoghurt washed down with beer, rum and particularly bad red wine. Being healthy is fun.
Had one more night in Montenegro, camped in the hills in a cool spot just off the road with an awesome view out across the sea. Had a friendly snake pop out from a bush to say hello outside our tent while having dinner, which was a nice surprise. After a cool week of riding through Montenegro it was on to the first country we were slightly apprehensive about, Albania. Albania gets a raw deal in the media, it's got a bad reputation and I don't think it's particularly fair. Sure some people run into trouble here, (we just met a Swiss guy that got mugged on the side of the road in Albania) but I would say overall the people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I would definitely recommend cycling here. The roads did turn to poo when we crossed the border, but only in some areas and other parts were actually extremely good.
Our first night in Albania we decided to try and sleep on the beach near Lehze after riding over 100km and actually came across a sign for a campsite on the beach! We pushed our bikes along the muddy sand for about a kilometre before we reached the campsite...which of course was closed. The sun was now pretty much down and we weren't really sure what to do as the area was actually pretty dirty and there were quite a few people drinking and partying on the beach so we were a bit unsure about setting up the tent when suddenly a young guy appeared with his three dogs to tell us that the campsite is closed but we can come and stay at his friends restaurant! He was an absolute legend, we followed him back to his friend’s restaurant where we thought we were going to set up tent, but when we arrived the owner insisted that we stay in one of the three cabins out the back for free! The cabins had seen better days and the smell of the drains had a funky egg like quality with a large family of mosquitoes living happily on the roof...but hey, a free bed! Really cool bunch of guys, one young guy zef spoke good English and acted as a translator for us. Not only did the restaurant owner let us stay for free but he also filled us full of coffee and tried to give us a meal too!
This was the first of many positive experiences with Albanians, had a young guy call us over from the carpark where we were making sandwiches to sit in his restaurant and eat our food while he got us big jugs of Ice water. People were always happy to see us and wave and yell hello. Only negative experience I had was a little shit that jumped in front of our bikes to try and make us stop and when we swerved around him he thought it was a cool idea to hit me in the head with a stick. I've never wanted to beat the shit out of a 13 year old child before, but this young man awakened that desire when he then threw a rock at me too. Had to calm myself down and continue riding so I didn't get arrested for running a child's face over with a bicycle.
We decided to take the 'scenic route' into the capital Tirana...not a wise choice. The main road had been fairly patchy, ok in parts and then pretty bad with potholes and debris in other parts plus not much of a hard shoulder and constant trucks so we thought we'd try a smaller road that we could see on Google maps that also went to Tirana. The road started out great, newly asphalted and plenty of shade but quickly deteriorated to a rocky dirt track, and then a series of muddy puddles before finally becoming completely flooded. Had to get off and push for quite a while and then even when we could ride it was pretty tough going over huge rocks up dirt hills. Eventually lead out to a more main road after about 35 kilometres and we eventually got to the outskirts of Tirana.
The biggest city we'd come into so far and definitely the worst for traffic, we also managed to get slightly lost and ended up pushing the bikes alongside some old train tracks for quite a while before eventually winding our way through neighbourhoods into the city centre. By this stage we'd ran out of food as we hadn't expected it to take so long to arrive and we were both shaky and starving from dehydration, sun exposure and hunger. Hadn't felt this hungry since the first week of cycling in the Alps on our first mountain pass. We found a bakery that sold huge square slices of sloppy wet chocolate cake....I devoured three massive pieces followed by a yoghurt and drink and then pushed our bikes to hostel bloated and satisfied.
This was our first experience camping in a hostel! They had a tiny patch of grass behind the front gates that we set up our tent on and then spent the next 3 nights chilling out and playing with the worlds coolest hostel dog, drinking beer and munching pizza. I also invested in a really shitty front rack for a grand total of $4 so I could distribute the weight a bit more evenly by strapping the tent to the front and also bought three new bottle cages each so we could carry more water to attempt to avoid becoming dehydrated again. Tirana is a handy place to pick up cheap bike gear from the 'bicycle bazaar’, which is more like a series of bike shops in a small street than a bazaar, but it does the job!
On the way to the bike shop to get the rack had a guy pull out in front of me to turn down a side street without indicating so I had my first crash of the trip. Slammed into the side of his car as he flew around the corner but miraculously remained on the bike and didn't damage my beautiful ride 'gemima the lady stallion'! I did have a brief second of fear as the driver, a rather large angry looking fellow sprung out of the vehicle looking ready to stomp my face off, but luckily when he saw I was a tourist he said 'no problem' and hopped back in and drove away.
Felt rested and ready to go after a few days off the bike checking out Tirana so continued on our merry way towards Macedonia. Things got hilly as we headed into the 'Albanian alps' and it was fairly slow going but beautiful scenery and more cool people. Tunnels are generally not a cyclists friend with very little light, usually no hard shoulder plus all the debris and general crap tends to accumulate on the side where you are attempting to ride making for some very unpleasant and potentially dangerous cycling. Not in the Albanian Alps though!
We saw a tunnel coming as we slowly climbed a hill near the end of the mountains and approached with a sense of impending doom as it looked particularly long and threatening, around 3 km if I remember correctly. As we neared the entrance though, a police officer motioned for us to ride over to the opposite side of the road where he was standing. This is the kind of moment where your stomach goes in to a knot and you assume the worst; I was certain he was going to tell us that we could not ride through the tunnel and would have to go back through the mountains and find another way making our struggle uphill all day in the heat all for nothing.
Alas no! The man was a prince amongst policeman and a completely cool motherfucker in my books! With a series of hand gestures and a rapid fire stream of Albanian that we couldn't understand he explained to us that road works were underway in the tunnel and only 2 of the 4 lanes were open so we were free to ride down the as yet unopened side of the tunnel!! Absolutely awesome experience, the cars were on one side of the tunnel separated by a barrier and Kelly and I had a lane each on the opposite side to cruise downhill along a freshly tarmaced, well lit tunnel. Paradise! We exited the tunnel and to our extreme joy the downhill slope and fresh Tarmac carried on for about 25 kms and we zipped out of the mountains in about an eighth of the time it took us to get up!
Decided to ask at a petrol station if we could camp out the back and to our pleasure and surprise he said yes! Perfect patch of grass, toilets and best of all he had an ice cold keg of beer set up next to the petrol station! Can't really ask for more from a camping spot. Next day we were on our way back up into the hills, again got the timing wrong and had to tackle some extremely steep mountain roads at the hottest part of the day. Was pretty unpleasant but we eventually got up after several 10 percent gradients and some serious humidity it was sadly time to say goodbye to our new friend Albania! Faleminderit Albania! The weather came over stormy as we approached the Macedonian border and when we were about 2 kilometres from crossing it decided to absolutely piss down with rain. We got completely soaked through and were forced to seek shelter in a tiny coffee shop and hope that it would stop raining long enough for us to cross the border. It seems like that's been our luck with weather on this trip, either bucketing down with rain or boiling hot, no comfortable middle ground! It eventually cleared up a bit and we made it across the border to Macedonia after a fairly hard 90 km day.
Macedonia was a late inclusion on the itinerary, we were originally thinking of heading along the coast of Albania all the way to Greece, but I'd been ranting on about how awesome lake ohrid in Macedonia was so much that we decided to make a fairly quick detour through to Greece. Kelly's birthday was in a couple of days and we decided that ohrid was a pretty cool place to celebrate that glorious time of the year when for just a little while, Kelly and I are the same age. She's not a fan of this period. Stayed in a cheap hostel and then for Kelly's birthday I splashed out and got us a fancy pants resort type hotel on the waterfront where we did some serious damage to the breakfast buffet and walked away with three days worth of cheese, egg and pastries plus enough single serve honey and Nutella packs to fill a mans large floppy hat. We rolled out of the fancy hotel getting some odd looks from the other guests (probably because our bikes and gear look like shit) and headed for the hills!
Galicia national park outside ohrid remains one of my favourite cycling destinations, very quite roads with only the occasional car, roads in good condition and even though it is fairly steep with a lot of switchbacks it's still a joy to ride. This place is what I had pictured when I first dreamed of a cycle tour; surrounded by lush green forest either side, no cars screaming past you and breathtaking views out across a stunning lake. We wound our way up the hills stopping regularly to take in the amazing panoramic views out across the lake and back into Albania. We'd seen a map that had official wild campsites marked on and decided to spend the night as it was such a cool spot.
The wild camping spot far surpassed my expectations with a beautiful icy cold fresh water stream, picnic huts and a drop toilet. Set up the tent and took a quick walk to the view point near the campsite to take in the stunning view once more before the threatening rain clouds rolled in. Luckily made it back to the tent before the rain hit and no leakages in the night through the tent this time. We zipped through Macedonia pretty quickly and just spent 1 more night in Bitola before crossing into country number 8, Greece!!
Didn't have the greatest start in Greece, after about 20 kms cycling through a little village my back tyre suddenly started squealing like an angry piglet and I nearly came off the bike as it felt like something had grabbed a hold of my wheel. Hopped off the bike to discover that a screw holding my back rack to the frame had snapped off and now my rack was resting on the tyre with the weight of my backpack on it. Shitting fuck nuts was the first thought that popped into my head as I realised part of the screw was still lodged in the frame with no way of getting it out. Could have been a pretty poo day as I didn't really have a method of reattaching the rack, but an old Greek guy emerged from his house and took me out to his little shed where he managed to drill the broken screw out and replace it with a new one! Absolute legend, saved us a lot of trouble as it was a Sunday and we were far from any major towns so I would have struggled to find anywhere open to fix and replace the screw. Camped outside a tiny petrol station in a village and then in the hills behind a closed fast food place on the way to Meteora monasteries.
Meteora was pretty spectacular, awesome monasteries perched on top of huge rock formations with cool views out across the valley into the mountains. Spent a few nights at an official campsite doing some general maintenance on the bikes, hiding from yet another fucking ridiculous storm that turned the ground into a dam and drinking cheap beer, wine and delicious ouzo! From meteora we headed to the coast in search of some warm water finally! Headed through a bunch of resorty coastal towns full of Russian tourists and cheap souvlaki on our way to Thessaloniki. Kelly had booked a flight to the UK for a week to surprise her Nan for her birthday so I was flying solo and staying at a couchsurfers.
Weird experience, never expected to see a Greek mans dick at the start of this trip but in that one week in Thessaloniki I was left staring down the barrel of a Greek schlong on multiple occasions. My Couchsurfing host and his girlfriend weren't fond of wearing clothes when they walked around the apartment, something that they'd neglected to mention on Couchsurfing profile, also forgot to say that the apartment had no electricity or hot water. Never actually figured out if they were squatting in the apartment or what the set up was there. They were nice enough most of the time but just felt really awkward when I'd wake up in the morning and go to the toilet only to bump into a naked hairy dude smoking a joint. Not my ideal start to the day.
Spent my week in Thessaloniki replacing some stuff on the bikes; chains, cassettes, brake pads and cables and stuffing my face full of gigantic pizza slices ( literally bigger than my head....and my head's friggin huge). Also squeezed in a Bob Dylan concert when Kelly returned and then hopped on a ferry to the island of Chios to celebrate me getting old! 29 and still no drivers licence...but at least I've proved you don't need one and a bicycle is enough, so fuck you friends in Perth that have been giving me shit for the past ten years!!! Ok sorry guys, you're alright kid.
Kelly being a very cool person booked us a cabin for my birthday on the ferry as well as a nice hotel once we arrived so many beers were consumed and had a bit of a paddle at the beach before hopping on another ferry to my favourite country, turkey!!! The Balkans had been amazing despite the weather being a bit patchy and we now felt fit and ready to tackle the huge sweaty beast that Is Turkey!!!
Will we survive the Turkish heat? Can I still eat 5 kebabs in one day like I used to? Will we get lost and end up in Iraq? The answers to all these questions and more will come soon(ish) when this long boring blog continues!