MACEDONIA – GREECE, 13th – 21st June 2017
I felt well rested when we set out from Skopje the following day (the same can not be said about Chris, I think, as after his 160 kilometre ride he stayed up most of the night writing a blog post. Yes, we work hard to keep this blog fairly up to date). We had decided on a route south-east through Macedonia first taking some small roads over some hills outside of Skopje before following the main roads further south in the country. We expected this to be the easier part of our two week ride to Istanbul as the next section through the south of Bulgaria would go through the mountains.
We could not avoid the busy traffic out of the city, but we survived it and after a few hours we turned away from the tarmacked road and onto a gravel road of a very varied quality having everything from loose sand, thick gravel, long and muddy puddles and steep rocky climbs and descents where the road surface in places had been washed away leaving gaps and holes to steer around. In between were smoother bits where I was wondering what the next obstacle would be while listening to the cicadas and birds singing. There didn’t seem to be many people out here, just us and the nature. It was a great adventure and we made it further and further into the wilderness far away from any town and pavement.
When we eventually got to a tiny village it seemed abandoned except from a few donkeys and a dog, that began chasing us up a steep and difficult climb. To our surprise a man appeared and made the dog quiet, but anxiously I had already raced far ahead and was up at the top long before Chris. He seemed so tired and struggled to go on, and there was nothing to say to that, so we decided to make camp at the top of the hill as it was a really nice place. While we did so another angry dog appeared but this time it was soon accompanied by a shepherd with his many white goats and a cob of puppies that turned the angry dog into a nursing mother. He came over to say hello to us and so did all the goats who seemed to follow his every move. He didn’t speak any English but there was a special feeling about him, he seemed so naturally connected with the animals and it was like he truly belonged here far away from the rest of the human world.
The next morning the road turned into nothing more than a track through the grass, but soon joined another gravel road that had a few cars on it. We thought the worst was over, but it was still awaiting us as we found ourselves pushing up some climbs so steep and rough that neither of us was able to pedal up. I only just had the power to push the heavy bike up, but I somehow enjoyed to experience my physical capacities and take them to their limits. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do this trip.
We returned to tarmacked road as the downhill finally began and exhausted with legs feeling like jelly we whizzed down and into the town Sveti Nikole. Here we found the lively square in the centre full of little cafes. We placed ourselves on a bench outside such a cafe, and it wasn’t long before a man came over with two white-yellow drinks for us. It was a traditional Macedonian drink called ‘boza’ made with yeast, wheat and sugar. It tasted, erhm… interesting, but we drank it happily as it was cold and we believed it would restore our energy.
And surely the next part of the day went much easier as we were now cycling on a tarmacked road with hardly any traffic that ran next to the highway towards Stip. We played The Spotting Things Game again, enjoyed the day and set our hopes up for reaching our daily goal of 80 kilometres. But outside of Stip we were to cycle on a main road that had heavy traffic on it and it was so narrow that there was no extra space for a cyclist when two trucks or cars passed each other. After cycling a few kilometres diving out of the way every other minute, we escaped into a gas station. Our plan had been to follow this road all the way south-east through the country, but it didn’t feel like such a good idea anymore. Unfortunately there generally were not many other roads in Macedonia than these main roads, but on Chris’s phone the map showed one small road that ran parallel with the first section of the main road up on the hillsides we could see from down on the road. This road was even numbered, which made us think it could be a proper road, not like the gravel tracks we had just finished. Chris thought it was a great alternative – and I didn’t want to have him crying again over going on a busy road. When the owner of the gas station told us that we would not be able to find our way through up there as it was just shepherds’ routes and not for cars (or bicycles) and when he called it “a bad bad road” compared to the “bad road” we had taken before, we just thought he was exaggerating like so many locals do in their advising cyclists.
Five minutes later we were leaving the smooth, but dangerous road behind us struggling up another gravely bumpy hill that was definitely frequented more by sheep than wheels. It was at least as bad as the previous one we had taken, but this time I just couldn’t approach it as an exciting adventure. I was quite a contrast to myself. In the morning I had battled it bravely, now my whole body protested still exhausted and my mind kept arguing: “This was supposed to be the easy part, now what is this?”
Chris’s argument was that it was always better to be struggling and go slow than to risk your life going on a dangerous road, and there was nothing reasonable to say against that, he was absolutely right. And yet, I wanted to be down on that busy road – or I just didn’t want to be doing this again and now I was the one crying. My mental strength that should help me get through physical tasks like this melted down completely, everything in me was complaining and protesting and filling me with doubts. Not only did I not enjoy the adventure anymore, I didn’t want it and that created the question in my head: Am I really the right person to do this? Should I just go home now? I knew there were so many strong men and women out there doing this and I just did not feel like I was one of them. It was a storm of negativity in my head that was fuelled by the physical frustrations. It was a few quite terrible hours for me (and also not much fun for Chris who clearly sensed my distress) as we kept fighting our way forward, up and down steep, bumpy and overgrown foot paths. We did meet a nice and funny female shepherd and from time to time had great views over the valley, something that wouldn’t have happened down at the busy main road, but none of it brought me out of my dark thoughts. They seemed to have overtaken my mind and I turned everything against myself. Quite symbolically some dark clouds were moving up behind us and they caught us up with wind and rain just as our track disappeared out into some grassy fields. We were lost. And so we wisely surrendered to the situation, set our battle on hold and pitched the tent early. It gave us a long evening to talk things through and Chris helped me greatly getting through my frustrations and doubts. I was amazed and felt so grateful and lucky to have such an understanding and supportive partner. We also changed our route plans drastically, deciding to go for Greece instead of Bulgaria. Doing so we could cycle on smaller, but decent roads through Macedonia most of the way to the Greek border and the route through the north of Greece was much flatter than the one in Bulgaria. Our initial dismissal of Greece because of the rumours of bad traffic and dogs had been disproved by our friends Martin and Susanne (twistingspokes.com) who had cycled that way without big problems a few years before.
The next morning Chris managed to get us back on track, we battled some more steep climbs being closely followed by two barking shepherd’s dogs and finally found ourselves back on the tarmacked main road, but this one a much quieter one. There was still some climbing to do, but when that was over (and we hugged each other saying “Well done!”) we had the most wonderful and very long downhill to the town Negotino, where we found our final reward: A restaurant with a swimming pool that we could use. It was like a miracle. I washed off the leftovers of the negative thoughts and found new energy in the huge meal we shared, and the rest of the day we cycled fast and smooth on good roads finally setting up camp in the dusk between some vineyards only 20 kilometres from the border to Greece. I’d been down, but I was back in the game again.
Talking of being down but not out, that fantastic swimming pool was almost the end of me. I was so excited to find such a place after the stress of the roads and the heat of the summer that I ran to get in as fast as I could. Then I saw the sign saying that you should shower before swimming, so I changed direction, and ran to the showers as fast as I could. After inadequately cleaning myself I stepped out of the shower ready to run back to the pool as fast as I could. That’s when I felt my foot slip on the wet floor. I put my other foot down instinctively as I fought to keep my balance, but unfortunately that slipped too. Then I had no feet helping me keep my balance, and in fact both of my feet were above my head, which was a bad sign, and a warning of the impending impact. I landed square on my back on the hard floor. I lay on the floor in shock. A cleaning lady started shouting something in Macedonian. Dea came over. “I’m okay,” I said. And I was, just. My head had missed landing on the hard, sharp edge surrounding the shower by a matter of centimetres.
Dangers to our health were everywhere, in fact. On our last night in Macedonia, unable to find anywhere better, we’d made camp behind some vineyards. We woke in the morning to the sound of tractors. The workers were already out spraying, and judging by the harsh taste of the air, they were spraying poison. We packed up and moved on as fast as we could.
Greece, too, was somewhere I feared we would encounter trouble. I’d not done too much research into cycling in Greece, but most of what I’d heard about it was bad. Dangerous roads, dangerous drivers, dangerous dogs. I was really quite apprehensive about going there. But this could not have proved more wrong. We began on a small road beside a lake. There was nothing in the road besides us and a few turtles. It was wonderful. Then we reached a sleepy little village, where some old men sat chatting in a cafe, like they do everywhere, but there was also a woman there chatting with them, more than holding her own in the conversation. I liked that a lot. We continued. More quiet roads. Little picnic areas with natural springs. Fields of sunflowers. Storks nesting on electric pylons. No stress. Flat land. Easy, enjoyable cycling. To our left, above our flat plain, rose a giant range of formidable dark mountains. “Is that where we would have cycled if we’d stayed in Bulgaria?” Dea asked. “Yes, I think so,” I said, relieved we’d changed our plans.
The people in Greece were nice, but not intrusive. The next morning we encountered some grey skies and a little light rain. A car stopped in front of me and a woman jumped out. She came to me with a box of delicious pastry snacks, handed it to me, and left, saying nothing to me other than “Umbrella? Umbrella?” and pointing to my stuff, like I was ill-prepared for this weather. I carried on. Around the next corner I saw the car stopped again and the woman running over to give a similar box of pastry to Dea, at the same time as a man was calling her in out of the rain. We then sat together with this man and another woman in his garage/nut shop, grateful for these small acts of kindness and trying to get our head around the Greek language until the worst of the weather had passed.
Greece seemed so sleepy, so peaceful and quiet. Even on the main roads we felt safe enough cycling. The roads were wide and there was plenty of space for us. It was a good place to cycle. After a couple of days we found ourselves at the coast and we stopped on a private beach for a swim. I felt so lucky. We followed the coast eastwards, towards Kavala, where we knew there would be a couple of Lidl stores. The small shops in Greece had been so expensive, that this was a necessary stop that we were greatly looking forward to. We arrived and spied the Lidl across the street but our joy soon turned to despair. The car park was empty. The lights were off. It was closed. We passed through Kavala, an old, old, fortress town that looked especially pretty as a rainbow formed over it on our approach.
On the other side of Kavala it was with some relief that I saw a big billboard advertising all of the Lidl stores in the area and I noted that there was one more, out of the city to the east, in a town that I could not pronounce or remember, but noted began with an X. Looking at the map on my phone later I determined that it most probably was in a small village up a hill, because it was the only place I could see beginning with an X. So we cycled up the steep hill. It was the end of the day and we were both tired, and I could see Dea was especially getting frustrated going up this steep hill, so you can imagine how worried I was when we arrived to find that there was no Lidl in this tiny village, just a very smelly dog that came up to us. I looked more closely at the map on my phone, and I saw that there was a bigger town, not up this hill but a bit further east, that also began with X, which, now that I thought about it, was almost certainly where the Lidl was. Dea took the news surprisingly well. There are no wrong turns, after all. And our Lidl-hunting detour worked out quite well, for on our way back down the hill we stumbled upon a huge abandoned marble mine. It was a pretty remarkable site. Absolutely vast it was, with white terraces, formed by the big blocks of marble being systematically removed, providing us with a flat place to pitch our tent. After dinner Dea retired to bed and I sat alone in this great Greek amphitheatre and watched the moon rising. I thought back on our trip so far. Holland had been brilliant. Belgium had been brilliant. The Rhine, Switzerland, the Alps, North Italy, all brilliant. Venice, brilliant, Slovenia, brilliant, Bosnia, brilliant, everywhere, brilliant. And now Greece, Greece was brilliant.
The next day we reached the bigger town beginning with X and finally found our elusive open Lidl store. We went in very excited. After all the effort of getting to it, you can imagine how disappointed we were to find that it wasn’t even that cheap. We shopped anyway. It was still Lidl. Then we mulled over whether it was really a good thing to visit Greece and give our money to Germany. “Oh, I’m sure they’ll give it back to them eventually,” I said.
Secretly, though, we were quite excited to leave Lidl behind. Europe was drawing to a close, Turkey was fast approaching. All the excitement and chaos of Asia was just around the corner, but before we move on to telling you about that, there is one final story I must tell you about Greece. It involved our favourite game, the Spotting Things Game. A quick recap on the rules: in the morning we each write down ten random things, like ‘a cow’ or ‘man with a beard’ and put them in a hat. We draw ten each at random, then we have to spot them throughout the day. The first to spot all ten, or whoever has spotted the most at the end of the day, is the winner. I’d been doing very well at the game across Europe and had a quite healthy lead in the overall standings, but on this particular day Dea made an outstanding start. We went through a village and she was spotting things left and right. At the end of it we stopped and counted up the score. She had a 6-0 lead, and she’d even seen the swap item first, meaning that she could swap one of the easiest things on my list for the hardest on hers. She was in a formidable position.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her.
“Pretty confident. I think I can relax a bit now. How are you feeling?”
“Oh I’m feeling great, I’m very excited, because the scene is now perfectly set for the greatest comeback ever seen in the history of the Spotting Things Game.”
I think Dea got a little bit nervous when I said this, and her face had practically gone white by the time we were through with the next village.
“Shepherd!” I cried, “Yellow car, Pigeon, CAT!!! CAT!!!”
The score was suddenly back to 6-5 and Dea was looking anything but relaxed.
I was determined now. I had to win this game. Unfortunately Dea saw another couple of things on her own list, and had a good lead again, 8-5. But as the day went on we were heading out towards the coast again, and I still had to spot a fisherman and a topless man, so I thought I was in with a chance. I also needed to see a snake and a turtle, and I was scouring the road for them. This went on for a long time, until we passed over a pond of water and I glanced at it and saw something that looked like a turtle diving. I went back to check. There were actually lots of turtles. It was a whole pond full of them. They bobbed up to the surface to see what was going on. It was really cool to see, not least because it gave me hope again. From then on, I knew I had to win. A short while later we reached the sea and I saw a fisherman throwing in his line, and the score was tied at 8-8. Dea was fretting, searching frantically for a blue and white tablecloth that just wasn’t there. It stayed at 8-8 for a while, adding to the anticipation, until, with the most dramatic swish a little snake danced across the road in front of me. “SNAKE!” I cried. “SNAKE! DEA! It’s a snake! It’s 9-8! I can’t believe it!” I was almost in tears. “I’m winning!” And we cycled a few hundred metres into another village, and I noticed some girls sitting on a balcony, and from behind them out stepped a topless man, his bronzed Greek torso looking down on me like a heroic God. “TOPLESS MAN!!! TOPLESS MAN! DEA! DEA! TOPLESS MAN!!! It’s 10-8! I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I’ve won! I’ve won! From 6-0 down! From 6-0 down! From 8-5 down! To win 10-8! This is the greatest comeback ever seen! I’ve done it! I’ve done it!” The girls on the balcony started whistling. They must have known. Somehow they must have known. It was truly an incredible, incredible moment. Absolutely incredible. Dea didn’t care too much for it though.
Sveti Nikole – Negotino – Dojran Lake (on border between Macedonia and Greece) – Kavala – Alexandroupoli
690 kilometres cycled