After two weeks of coastal cycling (and lazing around) in Croatia, I for one was definitely ready to get away from the tourist trail and back up into the mountains for the next leg of our adventure. We were initially thrown however, as after sitting down to work out the logistics, we realised that due to our speedier-than-expected cycling (and my bad planning), we had basically double the amount of time we needed to reach Bulgaria and my parents. Too much time is a strange prospect when you’re used to cycling along a planned trajectory in a logical direction, so for a day or so we wondered what on earth we were going to do. We decided on a huge zigzagging detour of exploration, and it turned out to be the best decision of the trip so far!
Getting yourself into the mindset of going in a sideways direction is difficult, especially when there are mountains involved. However after a few days in Bosnia-Herzegovina we knew we had made the right decision and every extra kilometre was worth it. Taking the long road from Trebinje to Foča, we were stunned by the amount of wild natural space all around us, relatively untouched by humans. Wild camping was easier than ever (although we were a little nervous about landmines so made sure we stayed on land that had been grazed and walked on by cows). On our second night we camped out on the shore of the beautiful lake Bileća, which in any other European country would have been seized upon by the tourism industry, but there wasn’t a single building in sight. We were starting to feel very peaceful. The following night was equally as rewarding with a high altitude wild camping paradise amongst the mountain tops in the Avtovac region. Ok, we were ambushed by a herd of scary mountain cows in the morning who decided that licking our bikes (and in particular our ukulele) was the height of fun, but it was a small price to pay to be able to sleep under the lights of the Milky Way with no light pollution to mask it.
We were also well looked after here – only an hour after crossing the border, we were shouted into the home of an elderly bee keeper after stopping near his gate for a quick rest. He demanded that we have a drink of his homemade rakiya, followed by a tour of his bees and a mimed explanation of how he makes honey (which we were also instructed to taste out of the barrel with a spoon). When I mime-asked him whether he gets stung by the bees, he proceeded to give a demonstration involving taking a bee, holding it against his leg and tickling it until it stung him, and then very proudly pointing to the sting sticking out of his leg as if to say, “I am immune to bee stings”.
After Lake Klinje, the gorges began. Our descent into the Sutjeska national park was like a scene from another planet in its appearance. Once again, almost no evidence of human inhabitation for hours, just speeding down in between towering walls of rock, in the crevices carved out by the river. Never has a mountain range looked more unforgiving and majestic. When we did eventually come to a man made structure, it was this strange thing, which really did make us suspect we had stumbled onto the set of Star Trek:
Gorges and canyons would set the tone for most of the following week, following the path of the River Drina out of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Montenegro. On the Montenegro side, this became really dramatic, with dark tunnels that looked like they’d just been hacked out of the rock to be entered at your own peril (the road was littered with fallen rocks so were were grateful for our helmets at this point) and terrifyingly high bridges from one side to the other. Reading about the atrocities committed in these areas we were cycling through by rival nationalistic and religious groups during both the Second World War and the more recent break up of Yugoslavia gave a chilling edge to the natural beauty.
After such an intense day of tunnels, it was a relief to stumble across a no frills campsite on the shore of lake Piva, complete with a friend for the evening in the form of Janet- another cycle tourer from New Zealand, going in the opposite direction. It was great to have a few beers together and share stories, and after an early morning swim in the lake we parted ways and started our all-day climb up into the Durmitor national park. (We instantly regretted the beers after realising that our climb would indeed last the entire day, the altitude and distance equalling that of an Alpine pass- oh if only our map had contour lines)! Our efforts were rewarded by rolling meadows of wild flowers and brightly coloured butterflies fluttering everywhere. (One even came to join me when we stopped for our usual midday combination of reading and snoozing, and sat inquisitively on my kindle for half an hour as I read). The villages up here were strikingly basic- mainly consisting of tiny triangular wooden huts, outsized by the giant haystack pyramids that surrounded them. Most of the people we saw seemed to be herding goats.
We thought we were winning again when it came to camp-time, with so much untouched space amongst the mountain tops, and set up our tent under the looming shadow of Bobotov Kuk. The illusion of freedom was quickly shattered in the morning however when an angry national park warden spotted us and came over to give us a hefty bill of 11 Euros. (Apparently you have to pay to be in the park yourself, and then pay an extra fine for your tent). Of course he wasn’t concerned by the fact that we were on bicycles, had cycled all day until we were completely exhausted and found nowhere to stay because, well, we were in the middle of nowhere! I wasn’t impressed by his angry shouting- it didn’t fit well with all the natural beauty. After this abrasive start to the day we sulked our way down to the Tara canyon and towards the mountain border with Kosovo.
Arriving into the town of Peć after freewheeling down the switchbacks from the border, we decided to stay in a motel for the evening as it was late and we were slightly nervous about looking for a place to camp in a new and unfamiliar country that was immediately different to any we’d travelled through previously. We quickly realised that we had nothing to worry about however and were met with open friendliness wherever we went. Joe happened to mention he was hungry when we arrived at our family-run motel, and half an hour later there was a knock at the door, which opened to reveal the owner and her children bearing a platter of homemade food (burek, stew, bread, salad) with excited grins on their faces. Best spinach burek ever tasted, and she even gave us a bag full to take away for lunch the next day when we told her how much we loved it!
After so many days of climbing, we were quite happy to relax and cafe-hop for a day, talking to people and soaking up the atmosphere of Southern Kosovo. We had so many questions but obviously of a sensitive nature so just let people talk and gauged what we could about the situation. There seems to be a lot of post-war regeneration going on, but the villages we cycled through still had high outer walls built up around each house for protection so that you couldn’t actually see the houses at all. At one point, we saw a ‘camp’ sign with a tent symbol, so pedalled up the side road curiously to investigate. All of a sudden an Italian army officer appeared with his gun, shouting at us to stop. Joe’s direct questioning of this stern character as to his purpose there didn’t yield very much information (surprisingly) but a man we met in a cafe down the road told us that the camp is for the Italian military unit based there to protect a nearby Serbian monastery, which is in a predominantly ethnic Albanian area. Many people that we met though said that they felt things were good now.
After camping in the garden of a friendly restaurant up in the hills above the village of Junik, we made our way towards the Albanian border and into another world entirely. For a minute I thought we’d skipped back a century, as some of the first ‘traffic’ we saw on the road was an old man in a black suit and tie, riding along on a donkey. The occasional car passing by brought us back to the present, but now everybody seemed to be beeping their horns and waving at us in greeting. Before we even reached the first town we’d been stopped by a passing car and invited into a nearby village to stay the night (unfortunately we never found the village as it wasn’t signed, so ended up in the town of Bajram Curri, where we were met with more waving, shouts of ‘hello’, people stopping us to ask questions, children pointing, and a generally overwhelming feeling of welcome. All of this sudden vibrancy was enhanced by the backdrop of the half built- half shell buildings, open front shops with piles of watermelons spilling out onto the streets, the call to prayer echoing out from the minaret as cows wander around in the side streets and just the general chaotic atmosphere of the town. We found ourselves grinning uncontrollably with the liveliness and unfamiliarity of it all.
Early the next morning, we boarded the Fierza to Koman ferry with our bikes, heading back west (in the wrong direction completely) so we could spend more time cycling across the country and exploring. It was novel to be able to see parts of the landscape that were completely inaccessible by road, and felt like we were being let in on an Albanian secret as we weaved through the silent mountain passageways. You can imagine my surprise then as we sailed around a bend to find an old man in his best suit, waiting patiently on a rock at the water’s edge. How he got there and still looked so pristine afterwards I have no idea, as behind him was a steep rocky slope covered in thick forest. The boat pulled in to let him on, just as though he were waiting at a bus stop. This happened about ten times over the course of the voyage, each time with villagers appearing in increasingly obscure places. At one point a lady who must have been around eighty years old got off in her long black dress and afterwards could be seen scrambling up the unforgiving mountainside to her remote house at the top. Every time somebody new got on, they’d do a lap of the boat, shaking hands and kissing the people from the other villages. Hands down the most entertaining boat trip I’ve ever taken.
Unfortunately, litter is a big problem- not just here but in all of the countries mentioned in this entry. It’s sad to see so many lakes, rivers, forests and beaches stained by huge piles of rubbish, and looks as though the respective authorities still have a long way to go before finding an adequate solution. One of our new Albanian friends was eager to explain to me how all of the rubbish “floated down the river from Montenegro,” which would have been only slightly less unbelievable had his friend not chosen that exact moment to hurl his cigarette into the river…
Miraculously, the bikes managed to survive the ride west from Koman (Let’s just say we’ve learned to appreciate asphalt) and we treated ourselves to a couple of days relaxing by the sea and wild camping in a coastal pine forest before heading back east again. Campsites in Albania were virtually non existent, so we had to start being brave and asking people whether we could put our tent up on their land. More often than not, this was met with absolute warmth and we felt welcomed by so many wonderful people who wanted to help us as much as they could. (Sometimes this included insisting on helping us to put up our tent, which is a one man job and can be done effectively in five minutes, but takes three times as long when you have four people all trying to put poles in random places and peg anything in sight! We developed a technique of looking extremely grateful and delighted to have help, whilst discreetly correcting everything)!
Obviously this beautiful country has a number of social issues that still have a way to go before being sorted out, but we were particularly arrested by finding, on two separate occasions, caged brown bears outside cafés to attract/entertain customers. We took photographs to send to animal rights organisations in the country who are working all the time on this particular issue. Hopefully this will be a practise that dies out as awareness spreads.
By no means did the cafe owners seem like bad people; on the contrary they were just as warm and genuine as anybody else we’d met in the country- it just seems to be a case of animal rights awareness that hasn’t made enough of an impact yet. However I can’t help finding it interesting how this practise seems to us barbaric, and many people in our society will be horrified by this photograph whilst turning around to gaze adoringly at their caged rabbits, hamsters, birds etc. What a strange world we live in.
Bears aside, Albania had a really positive and unique feeling to it and I could write for hours about all the people we stumbled across who made us smile and told us their stories. Needless to say by the time we entered Macedonia we were completely exhausted!
In other news, the UK government has agreed to match any donations made to WaterAid as part of their ‘To Be A Girl’ campaign before the 1st September (well isn’t that nice of them!). As part of our trip we’re trying to raise money for this amazing charity to help with the work they’re doing to bring safe, clean water to people with otherwise no access, so if you want to sponsor us for all those hard kilometres pedalled, you can do so via this link: http://www.justgiving.com/londontomalaysiabybike (The trip is self-funded so all of the money raised will go straight to the charity).