- Dubrovnik to Istanbul
- 14 April 2016 – 4 May 2016
- 2,232 km
- Bears seen – 1 🐻
- Gawkers – 1 million…mostly in Albania
- Country I’ve ever visited with the most trash – Albania
- Highest elevation – 1,250m in Macedonia
- Dog chases – at least twenty
I got told off
about my last blog by my grandad for swearing (yes I’m 30 years old 😂) so out of respect I will try my best to cut it down and test my articulacy out a little 😉 After saying goodbye to my parents in Dubrovnik I met my Aussie pal, Mike again,and we headed South out of Dubrovnik down the coast towards Montenegro! The entire Adriatic coast of Croatia is pretty stunning and this continued into Montenegro as we headed down the coast towards the old fortified town of Kotor. It only took one and a half days to cycle through Montenegro and reach the border of Albania so unfortunately I never got to experience much of the country but it definitely seems an up and coming tourist destination and Kotor and Herceg Novi are definitely worth a visit.
From Montenegro we passed over the border into Albania…definitely the most…interesting country I’ve visited so far! To say it is unique is an understatement and definitely not typical of a European country!
Within about thirty seconds of being in the country an old woman rushed at me crying and begging for money and I thought this was going to be signs of things to come but this was the only bigger I encountered I the country (thank god as I have huge moral and philosophical debates with myself over this for days 😂)
It’s a country full of surprises…the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ definitely rings true here and around every corner it felt that anything could occur! From the border crossing it began to earn its nickname…’gawker central’…them Albanians love a good stare and engaging them in stare warfare in hope to deter this will not make a shite of difference…they will literally stare a hole right through your head 🕵 And the kids are Wiley…you’ve got to watch them…they move too quickly…it’s pretty stressful when people are coming at you all quickly and shit and babbling on in a foreign language…I don’t like it…slow down, stop moving so fast and back off a bit I’m in a panic🖕 😂
We spent the first night in the garden of a youth hostel in a small city in the North of Albania ran by a man who initially offered us to camp for free in the hostel grounds…turned out he was just trying to get money out of us and it was an extremely uncomfortable situation…but safe to say I didn’t part with a penny ☺️
Albania has a very interesting and complicated history and I think this explains much of the bizarreness experienced whilst cycling through the country. It was completely isolated from the rest of the world for the majority of the 20th century due to a communist dictator and the collapse of communism only occurred in 1992…which I guess partly explains the extreme interest in anyone that does not look like an Albanian…the borders have only been open for twenty years and outsiders have just started to travel to Albania over the last few years…so tourists are certainly a novelty! Prior to 1991 apparently there were only 600 cars and only party officials were allowed to drive…which explains the crazy road antics! Basically it doesn’t matter what side of the road you’re on…whether your a human, animal, car, bike or wheelbarrow…you see a gap you go…you don’t see a gap…you have a crack at getting through anyways!
It is a country of contrasts in terms of wealth…you will see plenty of brand new Mercedes, bmw’s, then a man riding a donkey will pull up next to them on the HiGHWAY! It’s the same with people…there’s kids running around with torn clothes, no shoes and matted hair and then kids thatare decked out in branded clothing with their hair gelled neatly into place! Wild camping was hard work in Albania…I’ve never known a place where people are literally everywhere…every corner you turn around, mountain you find, little stream or wood there is someone walking about, sat on a rock, lying in the grass…its unbelievable, you cannot get away from them! They walk on the highway, wait on roundabouts for buses and walk their cow down the Main Street of the city looking for a patch of grass to feed on! People are friendly…they shout hello from miles away but they are nosey and a little intrusive (only in my opinion ☺️), especially the children! We were cycling down the main highway one day and rounded a corner to be greeted by two children on the side of the road rush at us and dangle two tiny bunny rabbits by the scruff of the neck under our noses to sell to us and proceeded to kick my panniers as I declined the sale 😂
We headed from Shkroder towards Durres on the coast…the weather was really hot for the 5 days spent cycling here which made the cycling nice and made up for the lack of scenery and dodgy roads! The rubbish
is terrible which doesn’t help the fairly bland landscape…the rivers are full of rubbish…people just don’t seem to care…we even cycled passed a policeman who finished off his can of coke before throwing it over his shoulder onto the grass verge 😡 !
Most of the land is farmed and this mainly seems to be worked on by women! In fact it’s really the only place I saw women…there were no women in the streets, in the coffee shops or parks…I was always thinking ‘where the hell are all the women?’ I think women have much more traditional roles, especially int the small towns and villages! I guess that’s also part of the staring…people are curious by nature and me on my loaded bike is pretty foreign to them! After Durres we began to head south before inland, east, towards Berat and the border of Macedonia.
Most of the route we had ridden in Albania was pretty flat but the last day riding to the border of Macedonia was pretty hilly as we cycled over a pass around 950 metres elevation before crossing the border…it was the nicest landscape I’d seen in Albania! Albania was the most interesting country for sure but I was ready to get out of there as it was pretty exhausting dealing with the people…24/7 they are on your ass 😂
It was a relief getting out of Albania and instantly Macedonia was much more peaceful…people were where they are meant to be…not popping up from anywhere, moving rapidly, gawking, hollering and touching your stuff! It was pretty mountainous and from the border we dropped to around 700m elevation before climbing upto around 1,250 metres!
After a week cycling with a pal from Australia I set off solo again and headed south in Macedonia on my way to Greece! The weather was so nice and the landscape was awesome as I rode alongside a river in a valley between mountain ranges on the way to the border.
I arrived in Gevgelija, a nice, small town near the border. I met an older Greek man who warned me to ‘be careful’ at the border as it’s ‘full of Iraqi’s’! I’m used to people telling me the next place I’m heading to is dangerous…this is a common theme I have encountered along my way so I take these warnings with a pinch of salt (especially as most of the refugees in this area are actually Syrian’s) but unfortunately I have to admit (as much as I try to stay open minded) I started to feel a little nervous. My narrow western conditioned mind began conjuring up images of dark skinned men wearing balaclava scarf things strapped with a shit ton of amo running around with automatic guns waiting to capture me! I cycled feeling more and more apprehensive as I neared the border…I reached the border and passed through uneventfully without any sighting of these ‘Iraqi’s’.
About 10km inside Greece just as I was beginning to forget the words of warning I rounded a corner and immediately was right in the middle of a refugee camp and instantly all my preconceptions were proven very wrong. It was not anarchy, there was no police or army presence, there was no rubbish, no screaming untamed children clawing at barbed wire fences and no terrorists. The camp was small, maybe 100 small brightly coloured tents on the grass either side of the road…it was clean, well organised and very peaceful. I stopped to talk to some excited, waving children and just managed to give them the remainder of my skittles and a chocolate milk before I began feeling overwhelmingly emotional and had to get out of there as my eyes pricked with tears. A young woman refugee, maybe twenty years old, waved and stopped me another hundred yards down the road and asked me where I was coming from and where I was going and commented how brave I was…she was from Syria, she had nothing…she had been smuggled on a boat and walked hundreds of kilometres through countries who didn’t want her there, with no idea about her future and no one to recognise her human rights…and I was brave! I’ve never felt more stupid or pointless and again I started to fill up with tears and had to get out of there sharp! I spent the whole afternoon cycling towards Thessaloniki with many thoughts rushing through my head crying my eyes out…I’m not even exactly sure why…empathy, guilt, embarrassment, shock, relief, anger, helplessness…I’m not sure but when your faced with the human factor of this ‘crisis’ right in front of your eyes and you see the faces of these people and the circumstances they are in through a mere lottery of birth it’s hard not to feel connected and embarrassed at your undeserved position of privilege and the excuses you tell yourself to justify the fact that you don’t help! I have no photos of this camp or the people there…it’s bad enough my contribution to these people was a half eaten packet of skittles and a chocolate milk…I’m not going to start taking selfies to promote my ‘superior moral stance’ and ‘generosity’ over social media.
I arrived in Thessaloniki after a couple days riding through North Greece just in time to meet my pal Sarah who had flown over from England to see me for a few days. After a few awesome days off the bike sightseeing, relaxing on the beach and eating ☺️ it was time to say goodbye and get back on the bike again heading east towards the edge of Europe! I always feel really sad and a bit sorry for myself when people leave…even though I love doing what I’m doing its nice to see friends and family from home and I knew this would be the last visit for a while 😢 haha 😉
From Thessaloniki I headed east through Ethniko National park until I reached the coast again and found a sweet stealth camping spot by the beach 🏕🏖…it’s awesome when you find a great spot…because trust me…it’s not always easy and my romantic fantasies of finding a beautiful, quiet, safe, perfect campspot to myself every night is not quite reality 😂 The next morning was soooo windy as I set of East along the coast, I could hardly cycle and was blown off the bike into the verge many times! This part of the coast was awesome cycling apart from the wind, the road was quiet, good surface, flat and beautiful views and there was lots of Roman archeological sites, statues, bridges, ruins and even thermal springs along the way…nice tame cycling with lots of things to see along the way.
The number of stray dogs in Greece was astronomical and although luckily I never got bitten I got chased frequently by some very aggressive dogs! I have a dazer (a little plastic hand held object that emits a high pitch frequency) which I used many times! It works quite well against just one dog but when there’s a pack it’s not so good! It’s pretty frustrating as there are often packs of dogs lying around on the outskirts of towns just ready to pounce on me as I arrive! Often the locals just stare on dosile as fuck ( sorry grandad) as 5 huge, scratty, flea bitten, chomping dogs surround me barking at my ankles and panniers…sometimes I have to get off the bike and put it between me and the dogs rolling around in circles as the dogs bark aggressively at me trying to get around the bike to me and the locals just look on blankly…absolute morons like…chuck a stone at them or something for fuck sake 🚴🐕🐕🐕🐕🐕
After a few really awesome days cycling I made it to a nice city called Alexandroupoli, where I had organised to call in at Crosfit Ironcage…the first crossfit gym in around 6 weeks and omg did it kill me! I ended up staying two nights did three classes and went for a run…Jesus Christ I was in pain…every single muscle in my body hurt for 3 days following! I forget how intense this sport is if you do not train regularly and I was reminded of how unfit I am now 😢The two days spent here were a lot of fun and I was made to feel so welcome by the coaches and people here…big thanks ☺️ I set off the next day in pain…I could hardly get my leg over the god damn bike but needed to get to Turkey ☺️
After crossing the border I continued to head East towards Galipoli where I caught up with my Australian friend again as we cycled the Peninsula that was the home
of Anzac Day in World War One! The friendliness of the Turkish people was apparent from the very beginning when a man pulled up beside us in his car, welcomed us to Turkey and asked if he could do anything for us! the Turkish are extremely friendly and hospitable but like the Albanians they are gawkers for sure! The weather was amazing again and it was interesting to see this area now so peaceful where so many lives had been lost 100 years ago! Almost 25,000 British soldiers lost their lives here along with many more Turkish men and it was interesting to see the memorial plaques naming the British as ‘the enemy’ and ‘the invaders’…history holds true I guess that the other side are always the bad ones! The Turkish memorial sites were full of bus loads of Turkish tourists…the English sites had no other visitors!
After cycling around Galipoli for a few days we headed North towards Istanbul and the friendliness of the Turkish people continued as we were regularly welcomed by passers by, offered cay every time we stopped and were even brought plates of food by locals who appeared honoured to have us pass through their village! I don’t want to bang on about sexism and equality all the time because there is a lot to the culture and religion I am completely unaware of and can only comment on what I see from my perspective…but women are literally nowhere to be seen in the streets and restaurants and coffee shops of the towns and villages…I don’t know where they all are but lots of them are in farmed fields hammering the soil with what look to me like mini pick axes while men are sitting around in tea houses or playing dominoes or backgammon! Most of the women in these small villages wore massive pants, baggy cardigans and headscarfs and out of respect I put my Lycra and vests back in my panniers and donned some baggy garms myself ✌️
As freindly as the Turkish are they are also horn happy…I would say honestly at least 50% of passing vehicles honk their horn and for the first few days I was constantly shitting myself followed by getting mad and miming fuck sakkkeee as trucks flew past honking their horn just as they pulled up in line with me…and the horns are actually customised…it’s ridiculous I’ve never heard this before…as cars and vans blast musical toots out at you every thirty seconds…some are even sirens…I was a nervous wreck for the first few days with the entourage of sneaky noise 🤔 I also saw the drunkest man driving I have ever seen in my life 😱 he was pulling over to throw upon the side of the road, couldn’t walk in a straight line and kept overtaking us and pulling over, getting out of the car, kicking the barrier, pushing his dad and repeating the process…unfortunately we were in the middleof a big hill climb so couldn’t get away from this guy but luckily he never bothered us!
A couple hundred kilometres from Istanbul we took a smaller road and pulled off the side to camp in a forest for the night…the next day it was raining quite heavily so we waited until it stopped before setting off…the small road turned into a muddy dirt track and within a couple hundred metres our bikes were covered in mud and had pretty much seized up…we had to backtrack about 10km uphill and luckily found a hose pipe along the way to declog our bikes 💩🚴💩
As we continued towards Istanbul we met another cycle tourist along the way as he rode up alongside us…Aussie Mike obviously didn’t like the look of him straight away as he took one look at him up n down, completely blanked him and shot off 🚴 🌪 haha and I didn’t see him until a couple of days later in Istanbul! So I was stuck with this dude from Greece and I’m a horrible human but he was super fucking annoying…nice guy but just not my type of person at all and he drove me absolutely insane for 2 days…I thought I was gonna lose the plot with him as he questioned my every move, needed to stop every two minutes to do ridiculous things including washing his socks and searching for stupid items and needing a wee constantly and asking every person we cycled passed if we were heading to Istanbul…it was more than obvious we were 😡🤔😱🙄🤐 Anyways after shaking him off I eventually made it to the centre of Istanbul…after a rather chaotic crazy ride in…the traffic is pretty dangerous…a city of over 16 million I’m sure you can imagine the chaos…probably lucky I escaped being mowed down!
Istanbul gave a very chaotic greeting…within the first hour of being there I was ambushed for selfies, surrounded by 5 undercover cops demanding my passport (I thought it was a scam and tried frantically to cycle away to no avail), latched onto by child beggars, witness to a mass brawl and accidentally cycled through the dodgiest area of Istanbul in the dark (it was pretty scary 😱)
I spent two weeks in Istanbul as I needed to sort visas for ongoing countries…which by the way is a pain in the ass! At the kindness of a warmshowers host who let me stay at her place for two weeks even leaving me her keys while she went on holiday for the weekend! Amazing generosity and trust! Istanbul is an amazing city and I was lucky to get time to see sights, meet some great people, eat awesome food and see a Turkish band at a gig…And I had also completed my first stage…I had crossed Europe and reached Asia✌️❤️☺️