The Road to Thessaloniki – Part V: the final stretch 

Another border, another change in road quality and driving style, and a long descent to Lake Ohrid, the high lake peaceful and calm in the quiet of the evening. We pitched up fortuitously at an incredibly hospitable campsite right on the lake, two fields overlooking the still water, where the host at Camping Rino brought us complimentary coffee, cake and raki. We put up our tent light-headed but happy, before a fried fish dinner, all for a few euros, entertaining the German and Dutch campers in the restaurant with tales of our journey.

The next few days to Greece were a bit of a blur. We made it round the lake in the dry, but heavy rain was forecast for the rest of our journey. On the far side of the lake, we sheltered from a lunchtime shower in a village built on stilts on the lake, a reconstruction of a village from Ancient Greek antiquity, with the ruins of a Roman fort on the hill above. Apparently, they tied string around one foot of their babies to prevent them from falling down the fishing trapdoors into the lake. As we approached the top of the high pass between Ohrid and Prespa, the clouds enveloped us, visibility fell to a few metres, the temperature had dropped to little more than 5 degrees and finally the heavens opened. We put on our wet weather gear as quickly as possible, but knew it was only a matter of time before our hands and feet would be soaking and cold. The road surface had deteriorated as we climbed, and was consistently patchy on the other side. The wind, shake of the road and eyes full of water from the rain and from the road meant it was even harder to negotiate the hairpins and straight sections, covered in rivers of water hiding gravel and potholes. Before we’d got half way down, we were both uncontrollably shaking too, adding to the handling difficulties. Happily, we had to stop half way as an old goat herd lady led her small flock of goats and sheep spread across the road, rounded up by 5 wolf-like dogs. She happily trudged down the road in wellies, a mac and umbrella, chatting away in Macedonian to us, disregarding our lack of understanding. She proudly showed off her attire, as we mimed how wet we were. There were a few (rainy) occasions where I thought a waterproof poncho and walking boots would be better cycling attire than the Lycra we had opted for.

After 20 minutes or so walking in the middle of the flock, warily eyeing the dogs who were curiously eyeing us, talking incomprehensibly with our new companion, and grateful for the relative warmth with the wind chill now gone, we were able to pass as the lady took her herd into a clearing off the road. Reaching the bottom, teeth chattering after sitting still on the bikes on the way down, we realised we were still some way from civilisation, and another 20km lay between us and a possible bed. All thoughts of camping had gone out the window somewhere on the descent, and besides, there were no campsites open. Knowing how I coped (more accurately, didn’t cope) when I got cold, Sarah fed me crisps and chocolate to keep us going, and I tried to look at the map with wet gloves and rain pouring down. We headed for the nearest town, which had, we were assured, a guesthouse. Riding fast along the lake and flat valley we warmed up a bit, and eventually arrived at the Holiday Restaurant Hotel, a place that looked like a forgotten love motel, with a cheap wedding reception venue at the bottom. Sarah got us a room, and I got in the shower to warm up, a cubicle with a shower hose directly above the toilet and sink, with nothing but cold water coming out the nozzle. A move to a slightly less grim room with a working immersion heater, and we started to thaw out, eating chicken burgers in bed, and finding the final 10km of stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia on the TV, a definite highlight of the day. The next morning, speaking to Mum and Dad on the phone, Dad cheerfully informed me we were having the only bad weather in Europe.

Finding what dry clothes we had left, we made a start to try and get as far as we could before the next round of rain set in. We rejoined our route, another stretch of the old Egnatia road, climbing a cobbled section running parallel to the main road before rejoining the good tarmac of the main road to descend to Bitola. The whole section of the route through Albania to Edessa in Greece was mountainous, often picking our way between the hills, but inevitably having to climb several ranges before dropping to the wide plain leading to Thessaloniki. The run in to Bitola was fast and smooth, an easy 40 km/h with a tail wind assisting the gently sloping road. Filling up on the Macedonian equivalent of fondue, we rode out of the town past the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, the city founded by Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, still tracing the Via Egnatia. Sections of the Roman theatre and early Christian basilicas nestled within the thick city walls, where streets ran complete with covered drainage systems.

Not much further along, we crossed the border into Greece at last, ominous clouds gathering in the hills either side of the wide valley we rode along. Bizarrely, a group of peacocks wandered around the Macedonian side of the border. On the Greek side, swallows nested in the eaves of the immigration control building.

Down a long, fast section on a good road, we approached a house on a hill that had been turned into some sort of military installation, with signs advising against photographs. Slowing to look, we stirred the interest of an Alsatian by the gate, which gave chase. Fortunately, the house stood at the top of a steep hill and we raced away, wondering what we’d do if we encountered dogs without a downhill. We didn’t have to wait long to find out.

We turned off to climb a hill into the clouds and drizzle, hoping it wouldn’t be a repeat of the previous day. Happily, it was several degrees warmer, so hypothermia wasn’t a concern, at least. Passing shepherds in the rain, and riding through a small village, we then descended yet another winding road above a lake, where we encountered another downhill dog chase. Or Sarah did. I’d been past in front, rousing the dog just in time for it to chase Sarah for several metres. Reaching the valley below, and now on the look-out for dogs, we approached a farm building. What I thought were sheep stood up and ambled towards us on the drive. They turned out to be three fierce-looking dogs, which were joined by another five that came running and barking across the fields down from the buildings. They looked like some sort of Alsatian wolf mongrel troop, and barked at our heels as we slowed with the incline of the road. The pack surrounded us as we edged together, panniers touching, trying to keep pedalling, and watching for any sign of an attack. Sarah took the initiative and told the dogs “No, dog! No! Go Away!” which seemed to do the trick. We were eventually able to ride away slowly as we left their turf, but it was definitely the scariest encounter of our trip.

We stayed in a guesthouse by the lake, getting our first taste of Greek food and hospitality. Finding the guesthouse closed, we went to a bar, where a group of men sitting round a table playing cards told us to sit as we stood around bemused, not understanding anything, or whether they had understood our predicament. They had, it turned out, phoned the owner, and she drove past in her pick-up truck and we followed the car back to the guesthouse. She recommended a local taverna to us, where we had Greek salad and fried trout from the lake, before walking back to our lodging in the rain.

Waking early to get the long ride ahead of us in – around 120km to Thessaloniki – we had one last climb away from the lake before an extended downhill through Edessa, where a waterfall pours out of the town and over a cliff to the wide plain below. Going down the mountain road to the town, I caught up with a van towing a trailer full of men. Getting just about close enough to talk round some of the bends, they said they were from Albania. We turned off into the town, and Sarah practised her new approach to dogs, talking in a friendly way to a big stray on the roadside in an attempt to show who was boss. It came over, licked our legs, and followed us around the town for the next half an hour.

A tail wind and clearing skies eased us on our way, and after coffee in the sunshine, we dropped fast to the plain, clocking the highest speed of the ride – 70km/h. The run in to Thessaloniki was fast across the flat land, and we spent the early afternoon eyeing rain showers moving across the landscape and gathering thunder clouds, while we rode in the sunshine.

The weather appeared to be converging on Thessaloniki, the wind swinging round to push clouds from both sides towards our destination. We made it to the Help Refugees warehouse on an industrial estate on the western edge of the city in the dry, gratefully rolling through the gates to a warm reception in the office, where the volunteer coordinator Rohanna made us a cup of tea and fed us with leftovers from the Soul Food Kitchen lunch. We picked up the keys to our apartment and rolled into town as the heavens finally opened, pedalling through the industrial estate and then the city centre, and up to our temporary new home.


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