We wanted to do a Gran-daddy ride in preparation for our almighty Gran-daddy ride and the iconic jaunt from Land’s End to John O’Groats seemed the obvious one to do.
I stared at a map of Europe looking for an alternative. We had never visited the Balkans before. I knew you could fly direct to Dubrovnik from London and then scanned across the map to Istanbul. Google said there’s roughly 1200km of road between those points so I pitched it to Shell.
She replied with her customary “eeep” of fear so I made up a little lie about the extent of climbing on the route and she said “yes!”
Researching the route mostly involved using Strava’s route search tool to see what was ridden before. I also scanned cycle touring blogs looking for anecdotes of which there were hardly any.
It soon become clear covering the whole distance was going to be a stretch and most of the bloggage I found were by touring cyclists saying the route from the Greek or Bulgarian border to Istanbul was a bit of a nightmare punctuated by massive six-lined highways with only narrow shoulders for riding so I tweaked our plan to ride to the Greek-Turkish border instead and then hope to get a bus the rest of the way.
This would see us riding around 1000km in two weeks. Doable but we had never previously ridden on fully laden tourers.
Our flight out of Gatwick was early doors so we stayed the night near the airport. We had never travelled with our new CTC bike bags but in theory packing would involve simply deflating the tyres a little bit, taking off the pedals, turning round the handlebars, whacking them in the bag, taping it up and taking them to check-in. It turned out to take much longer than it sounded and we were running out of time. The first of many “marriage tests” involved us arguing over how much gaffer we needed to tape up the bag and how to protect our rear derailleurs. Our panniers were lobbed in those Pound Shop stripy hold-all bags and we made our check-in deadline.
Arriving in Dubrovnik we waited in anticipation of what state our bikes would be in once they were brought into the luggage hall but when they finally did arrive, long after our fellow passengers had buggered off, it was clear the CTC bags had done a great job. There were only minor blemishes where a bit of bike had managed to pierce the industrial strength plastic.
We built our bikes by the carousels, changed into our cycling kit and we were off on our adventure.
We turned left out of the airport and headed south to the Montenegrin border, which was only around 30km away.
We didn’t know where we would spend our first night but we wanted to get to the Bay of Kotor and find somewhere to camp. Once we reached the Bay all we could say was wow, just wow. We rode on a flat windy path at sea level alongside steep jagged cliffs.
We soon skipped round the edge of the bay and made it to Kotor. We had stopped by a roundabout to consult the map when a lady came out of her flat and made the pillow gesture with her hands. Shell went to check out her house and it seemed clear she was trying to earn a bit of cash on the side by offering up what we thought was a spare room. It was only after we came back from dinner that night and saw her husband had arrived home that we realised that they were camping out in the lounge for the night while we were staying in their bedroom.
The next morning, I thought we were going to have to ask the old lady if she minded sleeping on the couch for another night as it was raining torrentially and there was flash flooding. Shell decided we had to brave it so we left our hosts and waited under the supermarket awning across the road for the weather to clear. A weather window soon opened up and we rode off hoping for the best.
Today was going to be the day to climb the notorious Mt Lovcen, a snaking climb that would take us 1000m into the sky. We were unsure though as to whether we should actually ride it in case the elements were too miserable up top. I said let’s make a decision once we cycle the 500m up the road to the turn off. It turned out the decision was an executive one. I made the turn without consultation and started climbing with Shell at my wheel saying “but are you sure.”
It didn’t take long to find out we had made the right call. The gradients were challenging but not impossible but the views were totally killer back down toward the Bay of Kotor and then over the other side of the saddle towards the Adriatic Sea. I was so proud of Shell. She took the climbing in her stride and just kept going. She even seemed to be enjoying herself. This climb was our christening as proper touring cyclists.
We arrived into the Montenegrin capital Podgorica battered but elated after a day with lots of ups and downs (gradient wise, not emotionally). We now had to find somewhere to camp. Nothing seemed visible from the main road so we stopped at a building site to take stock. We mimed at a couple of workers if they knew of anywhere to pitch a tent when someone emerged who could speak English.
Before we knew it he was talking to the foreman who then called for his son who beckoned us to follow him. He drove down a backroad and pulled into a random driveway. He got out and simply pointed to the lawn. It was the front yard of the foreman’s house. What a score!
Our two days in Montenegro were brilliant. The people are relaxed and super friendly and their service station toilets are top notch, a commodity we would come to richly value.
Albania was the crazy, different kettle of fish that we expected. First vehicle we came across on the other side of the border was a horse and carriage carrying sticks and the scenery was suddenly less developed. We had heard the driving was dodgy since licensing hasn’t been in place for long but most of the drivers we encountered gave us ample room. Tirana, the capital, seemed to have its own rules.
There weren’t many traffic lights but people approached intersections with caution, sought eye contact with their fellow drivers and then continued. We adopted this technique too and found we were being let in everywhere. It felt like organised chaos.
Free from the mania of Albania we soon stumbled on probably the nicest road of the trip.
The old State Highway Three at Mushqeta had been rendered obsolete by a massive motorway tunnel leaving behind a virtually abandoned cycling playground that snakes up to 800m and opens out to amazing panoramic views.
Coming down off the mountain we decided today was to be the day when we would try to wild camp for the first time. Shelley had her eyes peeled for opportunities as soon as we had stocked up on supplies in Elbasan. She was keen on finding somewhere before it got too late but I wanted to keep going to get closer to my arbitrary number of kilometres I thought we should cycle that day. Shelley spotted a water fountain and decided that somewhere nearby could be a decent spot.
There were some young blokes hanging out so we asked if there was anything they could suggest. One of them spoke English and led us down a gravelly path, over a rickety bridge and up on to a hillside where a grass clearing emerged among the brambles. What a spot. We pitched Terry the tent and started getting changed out of our cycling clobber.
I happened to be innocently rubbing some of that water-free shower potion on Shell’s back when a mother and son wondered up the path carrying giant machetes. We didn’t really know how you are supposed to react to something like that when you have set up camp on presumably someone else’s land but we just smiled and two friendly, toothless smiles were returned back. They were just there to collect some bramble sticks for firewood. No need to be scared. They stopped by and attempted to chat on the way home. We managed to work out she had a brother who worked in Australia. She would have loved to be there too but it sadly wasn’t possible.
People are generally just so damn poor in Albania. The interaction provided us a reality check. We were so consumed with our cycling that we weren’t reflecting on what life is really like in the places we were passing through and how lucky we were to be there. We must improve on opening up our senses for our big trip. The young man who showed us to the camp spot spoke with pride about how his brother lived and worked in London even though the nature of his work was long days, getting paid peanuts in a North London kitchen washing dishes – the sort of job we the ultra-privileged would thumb our noses at.
Our first night wild camping wasn’t without fright when wild dogs gathered around Terry and started barking but luckily they were distracted and moved away, depriving me of the opportunity to confront my dog phobia and scare them off.
It was sunny when we awoke but as soon as we packed up Terry it started raining. We tried to wait it out drinking coffee with some Albanian workers waiting for their bus to work but decided to bravely push on into the misty mountains and head for the Macedonian border and Lake Ohrid.
One mystery in Albania we were never able to solve popped up before the final climb to the border. Every property had multiple hoses running out front sending floods of water out on to the road. Some were positioned as fountains to attract attention. Trucks would stop by when coming off the hill to hose down their muddy undercarriages. The fountains seemed like a way to tout for business. That seemed explanation enough for me but Shelley was convinced something else was at play. However, no google searches have managed to unearth a satisfactory answer for her.
Rolling down from the Macedonian border on the welcome descent to Lake Ohrid my brakes went from screaming to high heaven to being totally unresponsive. The back brake pad had worn away, no longer able to win the battle of slowing down my lard arse.
We had a series of hills to conquer the next day so the brake needed to be fixed, however, the spare pads I brought happened to be incompatible and we were in a small Macedonian town. I didn’t rate my chances of finding a replacement but needed to find someone who could at least do a bodge job. The dude at our accommodation knew a bike mechanic with a tiny shop on the main drag. Turns out Ohrid is a bit of a mountain biker’s playground. The mechanic Ennis’s brother was a Macedonian champion and there was a bike shop around the corner, with the bizarre opening time of 5:30pm, where I could buy the correct pad for my obscure disc brake.
I became gushingly grateful as everything was fixed but Ennis wouldn’t accept any payment and said in broken English that he just enjoyed hanging out with us. The next morning we turned up with beer and chocolate, which we left for him at the shop next door with instructions to pass it on. Hopefully he got that.
The weather on day seven was the grottiest of the trip. Luckilyy there were three big climbs to keep us warm but the descents were freezing. For some reason the place we chose to stop for our halftime break was an ice cream cake shop. It hardly warmed the cockles but still somehow did the trick. The weather cleared by the top of the day’s third climb and we were left with a brilliant long descent into Macedonia’s second city Bitola.
We called the tip we had for cheap accommodation and was told to wait at the horse statue in the Square and someone would come get us. Creepily our man sneaked up on us from behind and gestured us to follow his bike tracks. What a great ride it was though through Bitola’s back streets and side alleys. This is a great city for cycling.
Biota’s around 10km away from the Greek border so it was a short ride the next morning before we entered the EU for the first time since Croatia. I love how the scenery keeps changing from country-to-country. The riding was tough across the top of northern Greece to Edessa but the landscape was stunning.
We saw a lot of industrial-style olive and fruit farms but we were mostly surprised to see lots of small holders along the route. I’m talking about a walking shepherd with around 50 sheep or goats. This is a country in the EU with the power of agricultural subsidies behind it yet you see this type of rudimentary farming. Good on them but not what I was expecting.
We liked seeing all the small shrine boxes every few hundred metres.
They apparently originated in Pagan times to allow the traveller a moment of reflection along their journey. We did plenty of that as we fought tough gradients and strong winds.
Fair to say we were buggered when we arrived in Edessa so decided to reward ourselves with a rest day and get an onward train to Thessaloniki the following morning. The roads to Greece’s second city appeared to be big and largely uninteresting although I had to check my ego at the door somewhat to reflect on the fact this is a holiday and not an athletic feat with a glorious goal that had to be accomplished.
Edessa was also a nice place to chill. A terrible hotel was outweighed by the stunning waterfalls, a superb meal at Tsipouradiko Ousis followed by breakfast on the balcony of the local Four Seasons for my birthday.
Looking out the window on board the train to Thessaloniki, I couldn’t help but feel a little regret we weren’t riding as the views were amazing. On arrival we found a city run by cats.
They were everywhere and seemed to contribute to the city’s relaxed vibe, so relaxed that we decided to stay one more day. My crook guts helped make the decision a little easier but it was nice to explore the place a little more.
We were surprised how difficult it was to find places to eat. Even though the bars and cafes were teeming, turns out people seem to prefer drinking over eating. Or maybe it was that they prefer eating late, something cycle tourists find difficult.
Noticeably, the tables weren’t littered with empty pint glasses. There was no bingeing going on. Instead, young people were happy to sit on their frappes for hours while gossiping with friends.
Thessaloniki is ahead of the curve for this weird trend of coffee and hotdog shops. I may be coming across as a bewildered old man but since when did these two things start going together? Does the bitterness of coffee really go with the savoury taste of sausage and mustard? Someone must think so as I’ve seen one pop up in the new hipster precinct at London’s Kings Cross.
It felt strange to be back on the bikes as we reached Thessaloniki’s industrial outskirts and on to the shoulder of a big motorway for the first time. Not a great time to let a loose pannier strap start flapping around. Climbing a steep hill out of town, I had no idea the strap was winding itself around my front hub until I heard a snap and saw the pannier drop to the road underneath me. We then found ourselves on the side of a busy road with big Turkish trucks flashing past trying to gaffer a broken pannier to the rack.
The rest of the day was focussed on reaching the ocean. We could sense it was on the horizon but it took a while before the road opened out to reveal the blue waters of the Aegean Sea.
Turns out we had just missed the final day of the Greek camping season as all the sites had just closed for winter hibernation. That left us needing to embrace wild camping again, which we had been warned was illegal in Greece. We prepared our dinner down at the beach near the faded resort town of Asprovalta and scouted out potential spots that didn’t have lots of loo paper from a beachgoer’s emergency poo. Having found a decent pitch we waited for the sun to go down and put up Terry in the dark. So stealth/paranoid were we that we didn’t use head torches. The fuss was all for nothing really as we had an undisturbed night’s sleep and woke up to the treat of an ocean view as the sun came up.
The best part of the route from Thessaloniki to Alexandropoli on the Turkish border is the opportunity to take a nice quiet road that run parallel to the highway that lures all the big intercontinental trucks. The road is also steeped in history as alongside part of it is the Via Egnatia,one of the oldest trans-national roads in the world. It was constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC.
You are bound to run into some interesting dudes along a path like this and indeed we did when we stopped to check out the Byzantine Tower of Apollonia near Kavala. Perched in the ancient structure looking out to sea we found Ignatius. He was on a religious pilgrimage walking from Santiago de Compostela in Spain all the way to Israel and was already one year into his journey.
As we set out on what proved to be our last stretch to the Greek-Turkish border I made the mistake of telling Shelley that during my research someone remarked on Strava how they were continuously chased by dogs on this section. This freaked Shell out. Straight away her pace dropped. She was on the lookout. The prediction turned out to be right there were lots of dogs running after us but in the most part they were relatively harmless until we were around 15km out from Alexandroupoli. We just about to crest a hill when some giant dogs came galloping out of a property seemingly frothing from their mouths. They looked vicious. “Sprint,” I yelled like the wimp I am. Shell didn’t even look back, chucked her bike into the highest gear and took off down the hill with me in close pursuit. We quickly got up to speed and the dogs gave up the chase but the scare was enough to declare it our closest call of the trip.
We hadn’t expected dogs to be so annoying on this trip. Dogs don’t tend to go running out at you in England so it ended up being the main story we told our friends when we got home. I’m not a great fan of big, frothy-mouthed dogs but it’s a phobia I’ll need to overcome in Latin America. We’ve researched lots of strategies and unfortunately there’s no common answer. Some cycle tourists prefer to throw rocks, some use spray, others have a device that emit a piercing sound only canine ears can hear while we’ve also heard stopping and starring them out is also has a disarming effect. Any more tips let me know. I’m a total coward and will even hide behind my wife if a dog comes running toward us. Let’s see if I harden up.
The marriage had been going pretty well on our journey right up until the evening of our arrival in Alexandroupoli. We decided we needed at least three chill out days in Istanbul before our flight home so didn’t have enough time to cycle there (we were also a little bit frightened about cycling in Turkey to be honest). We had come 900-odd kilometres with barely a cross word said between us but when it came time to order the bus tickets to Istanbul there was a miscommunication. I thought we would catch the bus from the Turkish side of the Greek border, a 45km ride away but Shelley wanted to stop cycling where we were. Fair to say I packed a bit of a sad but in the end Shelley won. I got over it only after being bought a gelato.
I only wanted to cycle there to claim I had ridden all the way to Turkey. My ego is only just learning that these sorts of milestones are meaningless and the main thing is to appreciate what we had already achieved.
Arriving in Istanbul late at night was an adventure in itself. The bus dropped us off in the middle of the Esenler Bus Terminal, the world’s third largest apparently, with more than 300 platforms. We had no idea where we were or where to go but a sort of organised chaos reigned. People soon took pity on us with our bikes and helped us load them into the back of a bus to Sultanahmet. The rest of the passengers didn’t blink an eye at the big touring bike they had to negotiate in the rear stairwell. The driver of a red bus in London with no passengers at 6am once told me to get lost when I asked if I could board with my bike after I got a puncture 1km from the office in the pouring rain. Rules are rules I guess.
Istanbul is a brilliant place to chill out at the end of a cycle tour. We ate lots and relaxed in a beautiful Hamman. We were also able to reflect that yes we can do this cycle touring lark, yes it was fun and yes we can probably do this trip in Latin America.
A reminder that we’re probably ready to leave London presented itself as we rode home from Paddington Station after arriving on the train from Heathrow. A driver in a flash SUV cut me off and rabidly shook their fist. Welcome to the jungle. The contrast from our previous two weeks couldn’t have been greater..