The Road to Thessaloniki – Part IV: northern Italy and into the Balkans

After the flat lands of northern Italy from Verona on the fringes of the Alps, through Venice and round to Trieste, finally shaking off the rain as we followed stunning gravel mountain roads through Slovenia, we arrived in Croatia. The woman on the border control – the first time on the trip we’d had our passports checked – smiled as she saw where we’d come from. We spent a week wandering down the magical Adriatic coast. The fond memories I had of Croatia from a trip in 2003 weren’t undermined, as we camped out in island coves with no one in sight, swam in the sea and rode in sunshine along incredible coastal scenery, barren rocks, pine trees and crystal blue waters. Looking for a quiet place to camp one evening, I climbed over a rock in the sun, disturbing a large brown snake that slinked off into the undergrowth with an alarming thud. I’m not sure who was more scared.

Leaving Dubrovnik felt like leaving a frontier. The effect could have been heightened by the fact we’d arrived by ferry, skipping the gradual transition we might have experienced if we’d come along the coastal road between Split and Dubrovnik. We wandered around the narrow streets of the old walled town bustling with tourists, peering through a doorway in the thick wall that emerged onto the rocks above the sea. A bar perched between the city wall and the sea, with locals and tourists swimming or soaking up the sun.

Before we left, Sarah went into the local mini Konsum supermarket — a bit of a regular since Germany — to top up on supplies, while I waited with the bikes. A middle-aged American guy in a baseball cap asked where I was from, and where we were going. I presumed he was a curious tourist, but as we got chatting it became clear he had an intimate knowledge of the city, and the whole section of land we were about to cross to Thessaloniki. Wondering where the catch was, we showed him our maps and discussed the best roads to take through Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. It turned out Chuck was a former New York Times journalist who had lived in the Balkans for some time, covering the break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent civil wars in the 90s.

We shared a beer with him at his local bar, hoping we’d still make it to our destination for the night — a “Warm Showers” (like couch surfing for cyclotourers) host 40km or so south of Dubrovnik towards the border with Montenegro. Chuck was also a cycling enthusiast, and so we talked Tour de France, journalism and travelling. He padded out our itinerary for the following week and more, giving us insights on the history and geography of the region, and sent us on our way along the abandoned old coastal road out of the city, past a World War II monument above a precipitous cliff marking the place where a few young men were killed by “liberators” from Herzegovina in 1944.

We rode in the late afternoon sun first along the main road before turning off at the airport along quieter lanes, through a landscape of cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves and well-tended country farm houses. We arrived at Marko’s place, a self-styled hippie staging post for bike tourers and travellers. Marko was in his seventies, maybe older, and had returned to Croatia after a long period in Canada. His “house” was a shack by the roadside, almost entirely off grid, with a large plot of land on the slopes behind it. The “ecopark” was a one-time attempt at something like an ecological tourism commune/camp ground, complete with driving range (square of grass with broken net to catch the balls), swimming pool (natural pool lined with a few mosaic tiles, but empty after land movement had split the rock), and toilet (bucket on a crate). Here we met the first group of tourers we had come across. We’d seen a few riders on our way in ones or twos, but not many, and never anyone camping at the same spots as us. Marko let tourers camp for free in a clearing up the hill, and we met two French guys, two guys from America, one from Spain and a Belgian family, who were touring with their 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, which put our own loads and trip into perspective. The girl had her own bike that attached to the dad’s frame, and the boy rode on a seat on the front of the mum’s bike, with a luggage trailer on the back. They too were heading to Greece before returning home. They had permission from the girl’s school to take her out for a year, and were teaching her the first year’s curriculum on the go. One of the French cyclists played his trumpet for the girl after dinner, before the rest of us chatted round a fire. It was good to share stories and cycling tips from the road after several weeks of working it out for ourselves. And in fact, it was the start of a period of cycling sociability as we bumped into the French and Spanish guys and met other cycle tourists over the next few days through Montenegro and Albania. It felt like we had come a long way since the morning on Hvar, waking for a 4km climb over the hill to the ferry from Hvar Town, and had been the most human interaction we’d had in a long time. But that was before we hit Albania.

The next morning, we left Croatia across the coastal border with Montenegro. We got in the habit of an early start, mid-morning coffee break, and long lunch stop to avoid the heat of early afternoon. Through Montenegro, busy, uneven roads butted up against breath-taking mountains that reached down to the sea. The landscape was a steeper, starker continuation of the Croatian coast, and the country had a more aggressive driving attitude. We made a loop round a large fjord-like sea inlet, hugging the bay past the ancient walled town of Kotor, before climbing a low col and descending back to the coast — a mixture of neglected tumble-down buildings, crumbling communist-era blocks and flash new apartments, new money rubbing up against lack of public investment in what appeared to be development in the vein of the worst of Franco-era Spanish construction. There were many empty plots of land with “for sale” signs in English. We stopped for dinner at a seaside bar in a small, quiet cove, watching the sunset, and contemplated sleeping on the beach, before following the bike computer “route” over a steep headland footpath with steps, towards the campsite we hoped existed on the other side. Contrary to all expectation, we rolled up at a nice campground, and pitched our tent before a thunderstorm set in for the night, loosing count of the number of times we’d slept under rain.

Montenegro was also a transition from Christian to Muslim culture, steeples giving way to minarets, crescents instead of crosses. Towards Albania, the landscape mellowed as we skirted fingers of the coastal mountain range. The border was policed by friendly European Frontex guards from France and Italy, though it was unclear why they were there. We descended gently towards the city of Shkoder, a pleasant mess of calm chaos, bikes everywhere, including on impromptu contraflows along dual carriageways, the wrong way round roundabouts, or even weaving across the middle. But all happening at a slow enough pace and in such a laid back way so that it all seemed perfectly normal and safe.

We stayed with another Warm Showers host, Mikel, who also ran a hostel, but for some reason let cyclists stay in his garden for a night for free. We shared the garden with his tortoises and dog, and met two Catalan girls who had spent 7 months volunteering in Thessaloniki and Athens with a group called Eko. We later learnt that the name came from the petrol station on the main road near Polikastro in northern Greece where an impromptu camp had sprung up. We ate more than we needed at the local restaurant, where Mikel phoned in the order ahead for us: a goulash-type stew, grilled cheese, salad and rice.

The next few days through Albania were like travelling through a different world, and probably the highlight of the trip for me. There is something magical about the place. It was like stepping back several decades, riding along former Roman roads through stunning landscape, meeting incredibly friendly people, and seeing ways of life that hadn’t changed for half a century or more. Nothing I’ve seen in Europe quite compares to Albania, and the closest thing I can think of is parts of Mexico or even Bolivia. Nowhere else did we attract so much attention and interest from locals, with kids running out to shout, “Hello, hello! Goodbye!” in every town and village. Men in bars stared at us as if they’d never seen anything like it (possibly they hadn’t). One boy looking out a car window gasped open-mouthed when I smiled at him.

We rode south towards the capital Tiranë, along flat lands and down quiet lanes. We thought the horror stories of wild dogs and rough roads were exaggerations as we were chased by nothing more terrifying than a puppy, along smooth tarmac. Soon enough the road gave way to gravel, and we were back in cyclocross touring territory, though thankfully the dogs stayed at bay. At least at first. We rode past houses with their blue water tanks perched on stilts above the roofs. In many of the villages, many children weren’t in schools. Some were getting other education. One young boy gleefully drove a car towards us, waving. Another boy, 8 or 10 years old, drove a scooter up and down the road with a friend on the back, beeping, waving and shouting at us happily as we sat at a cafe.

Many people were working the the land by hand. Many more young men were sat in cafes and bars, drinking espresso coffees or beer, sometimes playing cards, dominoes or chess. Men and women stood around on the roadside, waiting for lifts in cars or minibuses. Much of the paved road we rode had a narrow strip of asphalt along the edge that had been dug up to lay a cable. The strip occasionally formed a convenient cycle lane, but more often acted as an additional obstacle to negotiate, with ridges ready to catch a straying tyre.

We edged out of the wide valley as we approached Lezhë, what was the ancient Greek colony of Lissus, treading again on millennia of history. Late in the afternoon, after dodging a rain storm, we were flagged down by a group of Czech cycle tourers who invited us to share “Albanian cognac” with them in the roadside bar where they were sheltering. They were touring around Albania, sleeping under shelters at friendly bars, and we swapped some cycle travel stories before continuing to find a place to stay for the night. We left the main road on a B-road that quickly became a gravel pot-holed track, and it became clear we wouldn’t make the next town before it got dark. After passing a few small villages, we decided to pitch our tent for the night in a field next to the quiet road, behind some bushes. We didn’t need our air beds, the long grass making a soft mattress beneath us. Lying down as it became dark outside, we saw lights quietly blinking just outside the tent walls. Alarmed that stealthy angry locals had come to have a word with us, we called out, but got no reply. Opening the tent door, we saw a field full of flashing lights — fireflies flickered across the grass, and all over the surrounding hillside. Later in the night we heard far-off gunshots, and hoped the hunting party wouldn’t come our way. We packed up early in the morning, and rode to the next town for coffee and breakfast, sweatier than usual having not washed since our arrival in Shkoder.

Macabre roadside gravestones and dented crash barriers marked the spot of traffic accidents. The driving became more aggressive as we progressed, especially around the capital. We wove through the outskirts of Tiranë, a strange mix of high-rise apartments, new highways, crumbling buildings and gravel backstreets. Transport appeared to be either by Mercedes (old or new) or on foot with a donkey. Extensive roadworks rendered our computer route through the city almost entirely useless. Confused by the construction of the latest part of a new motorway, we rode backwards and forwards before a man waved us along a gravel slip road and onto the compact hardcore of the construction site. A few hundred meters later and we had six lanes of brand new, empty tarmac to ourselves. This, apparently, was the way to go to get to Elbasan. Riding out of the city on the motorway, we left the hard shoulder to join a main road winding up the hillside and into the mountains above, passing hotel resorts and swimming pools for the first few kilometres out of the city.

We worked our way into the mountains, hesitating as the clouds gathered heavily, and thunder started to rumble in the next valley. We stopped for lunch in one of many roadside tavernas along the route, watching as rain poured off the awning over us, and lightning flashed in the distance. After the breeze had pushed the thickest of the clouds up the valley, we made our move to continue over the top as the storm cleared. Traffic left the road to go through a tunnel, leaving the mountain road to us for the next 20km. Shafts of light illuminated the countryside, and reaching a flatter road along a chain of mountain peaks at the top we gazed down across a wide, tree-covered landscape, scarcely populated, with rough gravel roads dipping down towards isolated buildings, inviting further exploration. We flew down the mountain pass, past farmers and goatherds, dodging sheep, donkeys and turkeys, saying hello to the baffled people we saw, dropping towards the valley below, as the switchbacks wove above the rusting communist-era steel works on the outskirts of Elbasan and storm clouds gathered again behind us. We must have looked like something from a different world ourselves. But perhaps not so alien: a monument at the top of the mountain commemorated an Albanian cycling hero from the 50s and 60s, Bilal Agalliu, who won the Tour of Albania multiple times. I’m not sure which other big names from the pro peloton that event draws.

Approaching Elbasan, we picked up the route of the old Egnatia road, the Roman route between the Adriatic and Constantinople. Christianity had travelled west along the road. We traced the route of the road for much of the rest of our journey, some sections still cobbled, over mountains, through valleys and past the large lakes of Ohrid and Prespa, visiting the place where Alexander the Great was born, and the city where Aristotle was summoned to teach him, ending up in our apartment in Thessaloniki two blocks from the Egnatia road that runs through the centre of the city (the project to build a metro system has apparently been stalled for years by the constant discovery of new sections of ancient Roman, Greek and Ottoman ruins). Elbasan was an ancient Roman and later Ottoman town, an important staging post and fort. Now, the rundown old town is surrounded by modern high-rise blocks. The hotel where we stayed stood next to the remains of a 4th or 5th century basilica, discovered only in the last 10 years. We were kept awake into the night by loud 80s pop tunes from the bar below, but a bed and shower were a treat after a few nights in fields and gardens. I don’t think we slept the whole way through for a single night on our trip, with animals, storms, parties, temperatures or sloping ground conspiring against a good night’s sleep.

Many people’s eyes lit up when we told them we were from London. “London is my dream!” we heard more than once. We spoke to one young man who wants to move to the UK when he finishes his studies. His cousin is a labourer in Brixton, who has been there for one year. He went illegally, with no documentation, and so can’t return easily any time soon. The man excitedly shared his plans with us to illegally smuggle himself to the country to find better work prospects, in the full knowledge of the crammed living conditions and dangerous journey that could await him. Another Albanian man we met in Shkoder told us he was British, running a cafe in Chingford. “We’re neighbours,” he told me. There was the occasional British number plate. One man had ridden his moped from the UK all the way through “Yugoslavia”’ he told us. The pull of the UK was evident. On the border on the way in, two guys strolled past asking us, “where are you guys from?” in an almost-British accent.

The final stage through Albania took us on a long gentle climb along a valley with scattered ex-industrial sites before climbing past many Albanian hand car washes, or lavazh, water jetting from the open pipes running down the hillside on the steep road to the border with Macedonia. Drains along the final section of road were open gaping holes several feet wide, easily big enough to ride a bike into and put your head on the opposite edge. At one point we marvelled at the space an overtaking lorry was giving us, only to realise that the wide berth was to accommodate overtaking a van at the same time. A few times we were alarmed by double overtaking on hairpin bends as the mountain road climbed. Throughout the country, strange mushroom shaped concrete gun bunkers dotted the landscape, marking the communist regime’s fear of invasion. Climbing into the evening, we looked back across the wide, mountainous landscape as the call to evening prayer rang out. A strange land of overlapping existences, coexisting almost without touching. Young, aspirational, entrepreneurial men and women dreaming of western Europe and peasant farmers working the land. We felt worn out but exhilarated by the attention and friendliness, the warmth shown to us by everyone we met, the constant calls of hello, our overlapping worlds.


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