Some of Macedonia is 'Ohrid'
Firstly I apologise for all the puns (my mum writes pantomimes so I have been brought up with it and can't help myself). The first place I visited in Macedonia was of course Lake Ohrid. There was an obvious change when crossing the border from Albania and straight away I noticed everything was more clean, more organised and well.... more boring. To get to Ohrid I had to cycle along a number of large lakes, luckily the scenery continued to be beautiful and the weather likewise. However all I really noticed is that as I was cycling alongside a lake, the road was pretty much flat the whole way, which came as a relief after the never ending hills in Albania. I was flying along and soon I found myself in Ohrid trying to remember the name of the really good hostel everyone had recommended. I had stupidly had a massive tidy out of my panniers in Serbia and thrown away the piece of paper with the hostel name on
. To make matters more annoying there were also a number of guys going round on scooters bombarding me with leaflets trying to convince me they could put me up in a 5 star apartment for 30 Euro (which if true was amazing value for money) however all I wanted to do was stay somewhere where there were fellow travellers to talk to. I managed somehow to trick one of the guesthouse owners in to telling me the name of the hostel and set about trying to figure out where exactly it was in the maze of streets that is Ohrid's old town. After a while and whilst looking very lost I was approached by a young guy who was working in a record shop. I told him the hostel was called Sunny Lake and to my surprise he said "oh yeah, I know the place, my best mate works there, hang on a second I'll phone him". Soon his mate from the hostel was on his bike coming to show me how I could reach the hostel using pedal power (there were a lot of steps).
It was a great hostel with an amazing view of Lake Ohrid (it's a very big lake, in case you were wondering, so big in fact that the weather wasn’t good enough to see the other side for the first three days). The best thing however was that there were plenty of other people staying there so lots of chatting to be done. I spent a few days sorting out my blog and running a some errands in town, I was also trying track down the parts I needed to repair my bike (unfortunately the closest place I found which had them was in Athens!)
. The weather was typically rubbish (which always seems to be the case when I stop to do some sightseeing) so I didn't manage to see all of Ohrid’s sights. One of the main things to see is the maze of streets that forms the old town, they are very pleasant to stroll round and it’s interesting to see local people going about their daily business as you get further from the town center. I also go attacked by a dog! Luckily this particular dog was only about 20cm high however it took a distinct disliking to my trousers which is bit then wouldn’t let go of. I’m a dog lover and found it quite funny but it was so persistent (it latched on for a good few minutes) that in the end I had to (gently) kick it away and run to avoid it latching on again. Many of the other sights are of course churches of some description however unusually the few I saw were actually quite interesting and unique. Ohrid also has a castle which is usually the first thing you see as you approach the town, it is perched on the top of a hill with great views out over the lake. I’m not the only crazy person on a bike
After I had been there a couple of days I was wandering round (trying to at least see something of Ohrid) when I noticed another guy on a touring bike. I was going to go up and say "hello" as there are so few people cycling at this time of year, but he was deep in conversation so I decided I would leave it
. Luckily it didn't matter as an hour later he turned up at the hostel. He had actually been doing exactly the same thing as me and trying to locate the hostel or at least some WIFI so he could get the address (it's quite bad how reliant on the internet we are becoming). He was a guy from the Netherlands called Taco and had ridden all the way down from the North cape at the top of Norway to Macedonia. As you can imagine for two people who had just spent time cycling in Albania and not talking to anyone, lots of bike and travel based chatting soon started. It was nice to meet someone else who was riding alone and had also been on the road for a decent amount of time. Often you only meet couples and groups of friends who are less keen for a chat. As many of them are usually on cycling holidays and have only been riding a couple of weeks they tend to lack the interesting stories which long distance cyclists seem to amass over time. I discovered that he too was heading to Istanbul and planning on being there at a similar time as me. We were keen to do some riding together however I wanted to head to Bulgaria so I could add it to the list of countries I have visited and Taco wanted to head to Greece as he had never been there before. However as we were independent cycle tourers used to answering to no one neither of us were totally sure about exactly what route we would be taking (indeed this is the best thing about cycling on your own, you don't have to decided until you set off). We knew that we were heading the same way from Ohrid so decided to meet up the first night
. Taco was keen to see some of the views over the lake and decided he was going to take an adventurous hilly route out of town (I don't think he had been up as many mountains in the past few weeks as me). I on the other hand was still on the phone frantically trying to get hold of the parts I needed for my bike so had to leave later and therefore decided to take the shortest route possible (which actually turned out to be almost as hilly). An unusual guesthouse
We had decided to meet up at a small guesthouse near Bitola. Taco had found the place on the internet, I had been too busy phoning about bike parts to check it out so as I rolled up to the gate I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I was greeted by a cheerful looking bloke who spoke no English but signalled for me to wait then proceeded to get out his mobile phone which he eventually handed to me. On the other end of the line was his son who ran the guesthouse. I explained that there were probably two of us although I didn't exactly know where my travel companion was (he not surprisingly was quite confused at how i could not know this). All was ok and we were able to stay and I was soon being shown round the lovely old building. There was a small living room/kitchen which had a roaring wood fire, and lots of nice old wooden furniture, it was really cosy and within no time at all I was being poured some homemade rakija. I was then shown the fridge which was stocked full of bottles of homemade wine, homemade beer and obviously more homemade rakija. The unusual thing about this place, was that there was no set price in fact you had to decide what you wanted to pay at the end based on the service you received. This meant you could help yourself to as much alcohol as you wanted and even get meals cooked for you if you wanted. It was a very interesting and quite clever system and by all accounts it had been really successful given the number of visitors they had seen over the two years it had been open
. Indeed I was not alone and soon met John a fascinating old American guy who sound quite camp and was very energetic being currently in the process of writing a book about the mountain people of Europe. By this time it was getting dark and I was becoming a tad worried about where exactly Taco had got to. After an hour or so of darkness he appeared looking particularly knackered. We later found out that he had picked up a puncture just as it was turning dark and had decided that instead of mending it he would stop every couple of minutes to pump his tyre back up (very tiring stuff, excuse the pun).
Soon all was forgotten and we were setting about preparing a very strange meal amongst the three of us. John had a left over salad from lunch and we also had some pasta and tuna sitting in our panniers but it wasn't really enough for all of us. John was the kind of fellow who wouldn't let anything get him down and said I’ll go find us something else we can have for dinner. He arrived back 10 minutes later and informed us that the bar down the road was cooking up some sausages and fried goat cheese (quite how me managed to come to this agreement without speaking a word of Bulgarian I don’t know). After a while he disappeared off again to pick it up and we tucked into the rather interesting meal of fried sausage and goats cheese, with salad, tuna pasta and sauce but it was very tasty indeed and the bottle of homemade wine we had open was also rather good
. It was a really nice little place and we were both glad we had decided to give it a go. The only trouble with staying in a place like this when you are on a budget is deciding what you should pay, especially when your hosts are so lovely. Mammoth puncture mending extravaganza
The next day Taco and I were both planning on starting the big push to get to Istanbul. We both had about 10 days to get there at were both planning on riding about 900km, I had decided to take the more adventurous (and stupid) route over the Bulgaria mountains in winter which was going to be interesting. Taco on the other hand decided he wanted (very sensibly) avoid the mountains and head south into Greece where there were a couple of things to see along the way. We woke up feeling fit and ready to go, there was just the small matter of mending Tacos puncture before we left. I couldn't leave him there with a punctured wheels, I had to help him fix it before I left (it's part of the cycle tourers code of conduct, you can never pass someone that has broken down without offering to help out). Although this is true I didn't quite know what I was letting myself in for when I offered to help. Taco had bought a replacement tyre in Norway and it was quite possibly the worse tyre I have ever had to remove. In the process of removing it we managed to break 2 out of my 3 tyre levers (and almost a couple of fingers)
. We patched the hole pumped it up and all seemed good. It hadn’t gone down after a few minutes so we put it back on the rim (or rather struggled to due to our lack of tyre levers). Of course once we had it back on it then pretty much instantly went down again and after a closer inspection we found another tiny shard of the glass bottle he had ridden over embedded in the tyre. So, after struggling to put the tyre back on we then struggled even more to get it off again (this procedure was accompanied by some mild swearing in both English and Dutch). We mended the inner tube for a second time and once again it seemed good. We set about trying to force the crappy tyre back on for a second time, but it wasn’t until poor old Taco had pumped it all the way back up to pressure that the it decided to deflated again (the patch hadn’t taken properly). Finally we decided to do the sensible thing and put a new tube in (why we didn't think of this in the first place I have no idea). The only upside to the good couple of hours we battled with the tyre was the dog which the owners of the guesthouse had. He was huge and fluffy and was very excited to have people around to stroke him so kept intentionally getting in the way hoping we would give him a pat. After finally getting the new tube in and putting the tyre back on for the third time (amidst a barrage of bad words and using a fair bit of brute force) we checked our hands and somehow we still had all our fingers left. We decided we would have to find a bike shop to replace the pile of broken parts tubes we had amassed during our epic puncture mending session
. We rode into town, found a bike shop and after purchasing a considerable number of tyre levers we finally said our goodbyes well after mid day. Taco (very sensibly) decided after such a bad start to the day it wasn't even worth leaving so headed back to the guesthouse for another night relaxing night by the fire drinking homemade beverages. I on the other hand pushed on and headed towards the Bulgarian border. Couch Surfing and Warm Showers
The next day I woke to really nice weather, pretty mountain scenery and was keen to get to the Bulgarian border. I stopped to have lunch by the side of the road and intently watched the world go by as i ate. As I watched I noticed a guy on a racing bike in the distance. He looked pretty keen and was kitted out with all the right gear. This was very unusual for Macedonia where you are unlikely to see any bikes let along a proper racer. I waved as he approached and to my surprise he stopped and started speaking to me in English. It turned out he lived in the next town 50km away and was just doing a training ride. He was a really nice guy. He then asked me where I was headed and when i said Bulgaria he offered me a place to stay for the night. He then told me he was a couch surfing host and used to having people staying with him so it really wasn't a bother. For anyone that doesn't know couch surfing has become a very popular way for travellers to find a free place to stay. Basically the way it works is you register on the site and are then able to see the profiles of all the other people who are offering their couches for travellers to stay on. Everyone's profile has some information about them so you can gauge if you really want to stay with them. For example there are some people on there who are a tad too far out, often listing hobbies such as, bong smoking, playing the didgeridoo, making tie-dyed t-shirts, and naked yoga, which for some people might not be the kind of person they want to hang out with
. On the other hand there are some people on there who are a bit too uptight, would be a nightmare to stay with and no fun at all. Most people I have met seem really nice and easy going and are usually keen to show travellers some of the sights in their town. There are other people listed as social members who don't want people to stay but are keen to meet up with travellers and go for a drink and give them some information about the local area. Once you have found some couch surfers in the town you are going to be visiting (who sound like they aren't too crazy), you drop them an e-mail with the dates you are going to be around and then they either accept or decline, it’s as easy as that. It is very popular with people travelling on the cheap often people who are also hitch hiking (in fact in my opinion it is being coming too popular as so many people are signed up that it has lost its original appeal of being a close knit community of travellers, most of whom you knew would be nice people).
It’s not so easy when you are travelling by bike as people don't always have room for your bike and you can't necessarily be sure exactly when you will arrive. There is however an alternative, there is a similar site called warm showers which is exclusively for cycle tourers. This has a lot of advantages, as there are less people joined up it is much easier and people are more willing to accept you
. Everyone on the site rides so will have some where to put your bike and often have tools or a workshop if you have stuff you need to fix. Most importantly they will have all the information you could possibly require about local cycling routes and will often be able to help you plan your next couple of days riding. Despite all that i have said I have (annoyingly) not done either, I have met loads of couch surfers but because I am on my own all the time I would rather stay in a hostel where there are lots of people about to talk to. As for Warm Showers, it sounds amazing and I will definitely join however I only really found out about it towards the end of my trip and never got round to signing up. Anyway after this guy told me he was a couch surfer I started telling him about this amazing community of cyclists called Warm Showers, feeling good that I was spreading the word, however to my amazement he said "yeah I know, I’m on that site too". I was quite surprised, there can’t be that many people signed up in Macedonia. I was excited that it was looking like I was inadvertently going to try out warm showers without even signing up.
He rode off but said that he would probably catch me up later. He did indeed catch me up (in fact before I had even finished my lunch, it was a nice day and I was enjoying watching the world go by). He was in no rush and said he would ride with me for a bit
. The road we were riding lead us straight over a mountain pass, but I didn’t care as the weather was great and I had great company. It was really interesting to find out about the local politics from someone who actually understands them. Macedonia have been unlucky as disagreements with the neighbouring part of Greece which shares the same name, have stopped Macedonia from being able to join the EU. This dispute has also lead to other changes, the country has actually had to change their flag, which in my opinion is no bad thing as the new Macedonian flag is possibly one of the coolest in the world (so cool I had to get a huge one to stick in my room). It was also interesting to find out about the local people and local riding, from memory you could count the number of people that ride in his local town on one hand (cycling isn't the most popular of sports). Unfortunately after showing him a map it became apparent that I was actually heading the other direction to reach the Bulgarian border so wouldn't be able to accept his kind offer of a place to stay after all. I was very aware that I was holding him up and kept telling him I wouldn't mind if he wanted to rush off. The weather was great and he was quite enjoying having someone to talk to so we continued to climb talking all the way which made it disappear much faster than usual. He rode this route a lot and said that the downhill on the other side was pretty fun. In fact he often clocked well over 70 km/h when going down it. It was indeed a great bit of downhill and I watched as he accelerated away from me on his super slick racing tyres
. I managed to just about hit 60 km/h but unfortunately didn't manage to trouble my speed record for the trip. I caught up with him at the bottom and we soon reached the junction where our paths would part. We said our goodbyes and headed off both pleased to have had an enjoyable few hours of riding a great road with lovely weather and good conversation, pretty much a prefect afternoon for a lonely cycle tourer. First impressions of Bulgaria
When I arrived in Bulgaria it straight away had a cool feel. It is not too westernised but at the same time doesn’t feel too backward. The roads were good, the people were friendly but not pestering you all the time, they only bad thing was the weather which was not looking so hot. The first thing I normally notice when arriving in a new country is the traffic I’m sharing the road with. I have mentioned that in a number of other countries local modes of transport have been the horse and cart and donkeys. Well in Bulgaria a common mode of transport is the donkey and cart. However these donkeys are often not the big, strong, fit looking donkeys I saw in Albania rather they are usually skinny looking ancient beasts which appear that they could collapse at any time. Usually they are pulling carts which look way too big for them, to give an idea of how long donkeys had probably been pulling theses carts many of the cart wheels were made from wood with a steel rim added to give longevity, this gave the carts a distinctive grinding sound as the trudged along
. The carts were usually driven by (very) old men (who looked even closer to death than the donkeys) with shrivelled faces sticking out from under a kind of Bulgarian version of the flat cap. Often they had a small stubby cigarette in the corner of their mouth and would be wearing a grubby blue jacket much like factory workers wear. Pretty much every donkey and cart I saw was exactly as described above, it was quite funny (and quite annoying if you got stuck behind one because not surprisingly they go very slowly). Bad weather in the Bulgarian mountains
My route across the south of Bulgaria was hilly, very hilly and passed over a number of pretty decent mountain passes. The problem with riding a route like this in November is the very changeable weather which can be experienced. I definitely experienced some interesting weather, for a start it was getting pretty cold so I decided I would try and stay in hotels where possible (in Bulgaria a room in a hotel with free breakfast is normally less than 10 or 15 Euro, one was 6 Euro!). For my second day in the mountains I was planning a big ride as I needed to make up for lost time (mending bloody punctures) and was eager to get to Istanbul. I got up early and set off but soon the sky started to look a bit iffy and there were a few showers of rain. This was then followed by some thunder storms which barrelled though at an alarming rate
. The road was really nice and passed through lots of lush alpine meadows surrounded by trees. Any other time this would have been great but when there was lightening about it was pretty much the worse terrain to be riding with no trees close to the road to attract the lightening away from me. On a number of occasions I had to stop for a while and shelter whilst I waited for the lightening to pass over head. I managed to clock up 35km and approached a small town where I was hoping to get some lunch. I was just trying to figure out how to get to the town (which I could see it but there was no obvious road going there) when the sky started to darken dramatically. I was lucky and just round the corner there were a couple of policemen in a small shed by the side of the road doing checks on the passing motorists. I asked them (using sign language punctuated with the odd place name) which way I needed to go. As we were stood there 'chatting' it started to rain and they quickly retreated into their shed leaving the crazy looking cyclist (I was dressed head to toe in waterproof gear and already quite wet and dishevelled) to fend for himself.
I found where I needed to go and was just cycling up the incredibly steep road to the center of town when the sky literally erupted. Instantaneously the black clouds started dropping a torrential barrage of pea sized hail stones. They were coming down with such force that it was actually hurting my hands and face and I had to dive off my bike and under the nearest tree (which was a bit small so I had to hug it to avoid falling down a bank, much to the amusement of a passer by)
. Then as if it wasn't interesting enough the thunder and lightning started, momentarily everything stopped, there was no one around and no cars on the road so when each rumble of thunder subsided it was replaced by an eerie silence. The sky was so dark now that it was almost like night time and I could no longer make out the other side of the valley. It was by far the heaviest hail storm I have seen and within a few minutes the road was completely white with a layer of hail stones at least a centimeter or two deep (see my pictures for proof). The road as mentioned before was incredibly steep (probably 20% gradient) and soon it had turned into a slushy torrent of hail stones and icy water a few centimeters deep. As the hail became less severe one or two adventurous motorists decided they would try the hill, the first was sliding all over the place and nearly went round one bend sideways. Eventually I decided it was safe to move although was soon met with another problem. So much hail had fallen from the sky that the whole road was becoming a raging torrent making cycling and even walking for that matter very hard indeed. I managed to get to a small pavement which had some more grip and made my way slowly up the hill. In one place an overflow pipe was spraying water out at such a rate it was completely missing the pavement and landing on the road a meter away. I finally got to the shop and bought some lunch. In the time it had taken me to do so the weather had changed again and there was now monsoonal rain pouring down. I stood and watched people attempting not to get too wet sprinting from doorway to doorway. Some kids from the school opposite, who were obviously on their lunch break, were loving it running round soaked to the bone, grabbing handfuls of hail stones off passing cars and lobbing them at each other. Then out of nowhere something I have never experienced happened. This town was high up in the mountain about 1200m above sea level and the clouds were only just higher than the buildings
. As I stood under the shelter of the shop awning there was suddenly an almighty bang followed by the sound of 20 car alarms. The ground was shaking and the bang continued into a seemingly never ending (and stupidly loud) rumble which echoed down the entire valley. The thunder strike had been so close to the ground and so loud that it was like an earthquake and had shaken the cars so much their alarms had been triggered. It was pretty scary and made a fair few people jump. Strangely there was hardly any other evidence of a thunder storm and soon all was quiet apart from the few car alarms which were still going.
Part of the joy of travelling is the little things you see which make you smile, or things you see that you think people just would be allowed to get away with back home. As the rain began to stop for a moment I made a split second decision and although I had only done 35 km I decided I would look for hotel as it was stupid to go on in such bad weather. I found a place, settled in and typically within couple of hours the sun was out and it was a beautiful evening (you can't win them all). Later that evening I went for a wander round this strange little mountain town. I decided to get some food so headed back to the shop I had stood outside earlier. It was already dark and the temperature had plummeted due to the clear skies. I was just walking into the shop when I caught a glimpse of the big fridges outside the shop full of beer and soft drinks
. What made me laugh was that in a truly Eastern European way of thinking the shop owner had opened up all the doors to allow the cold mountain air to cool down his drinks over night. On closer inspection I looked at the fridges and realised that they didn’t even have plugs so he must have just done this all year round. This shows how resourceful Eastern European are. It would never happen in the UK, for a start no shop would have fridges full of beer unattended with no locks on, it wouldn't last a night. Secondly everyone would complain, it’s just the way people are in the UK, this drink isn't cold enough, why doesn't your fridge work etc etc, it’s actually quite refreshing to see these things and is a nice little reminder that you’re in foreign country. The only problem is that often the things you see highlight all that is bad about the UK.