Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cruising the Montenegrin Riviera

Kotor, Montenegro, November 26

I am in a little hostel in the sublimely pretty old town of Kotor, here on the truly lovely Bay of Kotor, one of the most picturesque spots in the entire Balkans. I have spent the past two days slowly making my way northwest up the ridiculously beautiful Adriatic coast of this tiny country, happy no longer to be in the oppressive ugliness of Albania's lowlands.

I last blogged from Berat, the pretty stone town in south-central Albania. I am sorry to report that Albania declined in attractiveness from that point on. I got up early the next morning, looked around Berat in the morning light, and then headed to the old Illyrian and Greek settlement of Apollonia. The riding was flat, easy and dull, except for the heavy volume of traffic. The scenery was another matter, a never-ending stream of roadside garbage, hideously ugly concrete buildings, many half-built, and piles of concrete rubble dumped absolutely everywhere. The smoggy air didn't add to the post-Communist aesthetic malaise. Apollonia was pretty, but scarcely excavated. Its hilltop position was its best feature; the worst feature was the fact that in the days of Enver Hoxha, concrete bunkers had been dug right into the old acropolis, as well as into the Bronze Age necropolis across the valley. I wished I had been able to camp in the olive trees adorning the slopes of the ruined city, but instead I retreated to the main road and ended up camped well off the highway in a flat, dry field that was one of the better campsites I've had for a while.

I awoke to clear skies, instead of the heavy mist that had become the norm for me, and got an early start towards Durres. I absolutely flew all morning, aided by a slight tailwind, flat ground and an absolute lack of anything attractive to stop and look at. Durres, sadly, fit into that pattern; it was once a major Greek and Roman city, known successively as Epidamnos and Dyrrhachion, but has little to show of that past glory other than a large (and largely ruined) amphitheatre and a few remains of baths and walls poking out of the regulation grim concrete of the modern city. The archaeological museum showed the city's rich history, but once I was done with it, it was time to move on.

I raced into Tirana that afternoon at a good clip, along a relentlessly industrial strip of concrete and garbage, watching the sun fade to a dim yellow orb in the choking smog that enveloped the capital. It wasn't quite as bad as Pristina, Kosovo, but it was still a bit depressing to see how bad the air quality was; again, coal-burning power stations and factories seem to be the main culprits, as elsewhere in the Balkans. I checked into a little hostel, went out to see the sights of downtown Tirana, and had an evening of conversation with some of my fellow travellers.

The next day, Monday, was supremely frustrating. I went to the Libyan and Dutch embassies and a translation service, trying to get an Arabic translation of my passport information page, necessary for a planned trip to Libya. As had happened in Sofia, it was frustrating, particularly because nobody could really help me despite their best efforts. Having gotten a definitely no can do, I headed out of the smog and traffic and beggars and dumpster divers towards Montenegro, making it about 30 kilometres out of town before camping in a field near the airport.

Tuesday was a long slog of a day, over 100 km without much scenic payoff. The 75 km to Shkoder, the last city in Albania, was eminently forgettable, as was Shkoder itself, noticeably poorer even than the rest of the country. The only really top-notch thing the city can boast is a pretty hilltop castle; having admired that from below and scarfed down a big doner kebab, I headed for the border, through some visibly poverty-stricken little villages. At the border, I met a Scottish couple headed to China along my Silk Road route, but we had little time to compare notes. As soon as I had crossed the border, the cycling improved immensely, with little traffic, little garbage, lovely limestone mountains and citrus plantations. I met another pair of cyclists, this time a Czech/Slovak team, and then camped in what would have been the best campsite of my Balkans trip, except that I got chased out soon after arriving because my secluded field was right in the path of a wild boar hunt, and the hunters didn't want me getting in the way of their shooting. My second choice, found in the dark, was much less appealing but at least I didn't get shot in the night.

The last two days, riding up the coast to get here, have been pure pleasure. Lots and lots of scenic wow moments, as the coast consists of high, steep limestone mountains sloping directly into the Adriatic. The weather has been balmy, an unexpected Indian summer that has had me sweating and has provided sublime light for photography. On neither day have I posted big daily kilometre totals, as I've been stopping so often to admire the views, or to explore old Venetian towns with limestone houses, narrow alleyways and broad cafe-lined piazzas. Montenegro is definitely on the European tourism real estate radar, with lots of holiday apartments and villas going up, but at least for now, it's a far cry from the Turkish Mediterranean coast or the Greek islands or the Costa del Sol. There are lots of citrus plantations and olive groves and small villages with old churces, and now, in the low season, there aren't that many locals or tourists around.

The first day I made it to Ulcinj before lunch, an old pirate stronghold where Miguel de Cervantes spent five long years in prison before his ransom was raised. (Sounds like Somalia today! Plus ca change....) Then I scooted up a roller coaster of a road to Bar, an industrial port with a sublimely pretty old town perched high up on a hill above town. It looked wonderful from outside, but I had the itch to keep riding on such a pretty day, so I didn't venture inside the walls. I ended up camping just past the picturesque mountaintop castle of Haj Nehaj; my campsite gave me a perfect view of a Kodachrome sunset over the Adriatic. This only partly compensated for the fact that my brand-new Therma-Rest died during the evening, about half an hour after the fuel pump for my camping stove. I went to bed unhappy.
A good night's sleep put me in a better mood, and today was another day of great views, old architecture and lovely riding. I passed picturesque Sveti Stefan (a tiny offshore island connected by a narrow causeway to the coast), Petrovac and Budva (a huge resort town with a very pleasant old town jutting out into the sea) before making my way around a headland and into the Bay of Kotor, a convoluted fjord-like bay ringed by high mountains and dotted with absolutely perfect fishing villages with Venetian architecture, old Catholic churches (I'm on the borderline between Orthodoxy and Catholicism here) and still water. I made it as far as Kotor, another old town that's as pretty as a postcard, before it got dark, and I was hauled in off the streets to this hostel, whose existence I knew of but whose location was a complete mystery until I randomly walked past the front door. I spent the evening strolling the streets, looking way up at the impossibly vertical fortifications that crawl up the very white flanks of the Monte Negro (the Venetians must have had a sense of sarcasm when they named this area; it should really be Monte Bianco, or at least Monte Grigio) and drinking in the historical atmosphere.

From here it should be a more or less straight shot up the coast towards Trieste and Venice; how quickly I get there depends on weather (rain is forecast for tomorrow, to break this long string of fine weather) and how hilly the coast road is. With luck, I should make it to Dubrovnik tomorrow.

Peace and Tailwinds

Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Between Fier and Lobunje




near Fushe Kruje


10 km before Ulcinj, Montenegro


near Canj



Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marvellous Macedonia, Oh-so-pretty Ohrid and Brilliant Berat

Berat, Albania, Nov. 20

I can't believe that it has taken me more than two weeks to make my first post from the road on this blog. Partly this has been due to the slow, interrupted start to my trip in Bulgaria after my derailleur-crunching incident, but mostly it has been the lack of excitement about the scenery and culture I was cycling through in Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo. Now that I have seen Macedonia, however, I am reinvigorated and ready to share my experiences with the blogosphere.

I started my ride 16 days ago, when I jumped, bleary-eyed and freezing cold, off a bus in Edirne, Turkey. It took about 18 hours of bus travel from Adana to Edirne, and it was long enough to inoculate me against long-distance bus travel for another few years. As I put my bike back together and repacked my luggage, it began to rain out of a misty, grey sky, setting the scene for the following week or so of the trip.

The first day, or half-day, of riding took me to the Bulgarian border and another twenty kilometres into the country. It rained steadily, and I really didn't see very much except passing trucks. I ended up splurging on a hotel room in Svilengrad and sleeping deeply, making up for the largely sleepless night on the bus. Svilengrad didn't have a lot of great architecture to look at, but it did have a good bike shop, where I bought new pedals (for the first time since Azerbaijan, I have matching pedals!) and a new saddle (the old one was killing my backside).

My second day of riding was a longer version of the first: grey, rainy and very dull. It continued to be quite flat for the first half of the day, and then a few hills interjected. I think there were mountains in the distance, but I couldn't see them. Eventually the rain stopped, and I camped in a decent spot in a meadow above the road a few kilometres past the town of Haskovo.

After a good night's sleep, the next day's riding lasted about a minute. I was still getting up to speed when my chain, which was dirty and grimy and sticky, stuck to my front chain ring as I tried to change front gears. I was still a bit sleepy, didn't notice what was happening and kept pedalling. This was A Bad Idea. I ended up pulling the back derailleur forward and bending it into the rear spokes, which resulted in a horrible crunching noise. I skidded to a stop and examined the damage, which was extensive: broken rear derailleur, broken chain, broken spoke, bent rear rim, bent derailleur hanger (the bit of the frame to which the derailleur attaches) and a slightly bent rear luggage rack.

This began a two-day bus odyssey in search of a new derailleur and a good bike mechanic. I walked the bike (it rolled, but pedalling was out of the question, as I had to remove the broken chain and derailleur) back to Haskovo, where there were no good bike shops. I decided to load my bike and luggage onto a bus and head to the bigger city of Plovdiv. I spent hours wandering around Plovdiv on a Friday afternoon, and by the time I finally found the one bike shop that sold Shimano parts, it had already closed for the weekend.

I spent the night in another pricey hotel, and then hopped onto another bus to Sofia, where I found a great bike shop that was actually open, and a brilliant bike mechanic who fixed all the damage (using a hammer on the bent derailleur hanger!) and adjusted my rear hub, all in under an hour. I found a cheap hostel (at last; the first 4 I tried had either closed or were impossible to find in the driving rain) and settled into Sofia for three nights, resting up and trying to get my Dutch passport information page translated into Arabic (for my upcoming Libya trip). Sofia was grey, concrete, very post-Communist and extremely rainy. The only highlight were the transcendent 13th-century frescoes adorning the walls of the tiny Boyana church in the hills above Sofia. There, 150 years before Masaccio set the Renaissance alight in Florence, an anonymous icon painter in Sofia had anticipated the realism, colour and feeling of the Italian Renaissance. My allotted ten minutes inside the church were over too soon, but I emerged revitalized. Cycling is all very well, but without feeding one's brain, it is just empty exercise.

Last Tuesday, I finally left Sofia on my repaired bike, headed for Serbia. It took 2 days of relatively easy riding to get to Nis. The last twenty kilometres of Bulgaria gave me the best scenery I saw in the country, a forested gorge leading downhill to the border. The fact that the sun came out may have played a large part in this aesthetic judgment. The rest of the ride to Nis was extremely flat, through densely-settled farmland. I liked Nis, with its Ottoman fortress and excellent hostel, but with the Roman ruins closed for the winter, there was nothing to detain me more than an evening. I did make the obligatory visit to the gruesome Tower of Skulls, erected by the Ottomans as an example of what happened to Serbs who dared revolt against their Turkish masters, and now held up as an example of "Serbian heroism and Turkish barbarism", to quote the information board.

The next day was the longest day of riding I had had for quite some time. I set off early and made it to Pristina, the capital of the self-declared country of Kosovo, after 127 kilometres. The ride through southern Serbia was very pleasant, with a bit of sunshine, little traffic (the first time I had been off the main Europe-Turkey truck route since Edirne) and poor but picturesque farmhouses dotting the landscape. The Kosovo border marked the end of this; traffic increased fivefold, and the countryside was absolutely full to bursting with new houses. Between the traffic, the new shoddy brick houses and the pollution from the coal-burning power station (the dirtiest in all of Europe, according to the EU), it reminded me unpleasantly of riding into Kathmandu years ago. Pristina was a bubble of prosperity inflated by foreign aid from the EU, the US and an alphabet soup of NGOs. I ate in a very swish little bistro and watched an election rally pass off peacefully outside.

The next day I headed south towards Macedonia, via the Serb-populated enclave of Gracanica. I had hoped to visit the Orthodox monastery there, but it was off-limits to tourists, wreathed in barbed wire and guarded by a contingent of Swedish KFOR troops to protect it from Albanian vandals who have managed to torch dozens of Serbian churches around Kosovo since 1999. It's funny how situations evolve; KFOR came in to protect the Albanians from Serb ethnic cleansing, and now they protect the remaining Serbs from Albanian ethnic cleansing. The town seemed calm, but the heavy presence of KFOR troops and foreign aid workers may have had a lot to do with this.

The rest of the ride to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was uneventful, although it had a nice downhill through a river canyon, dotted with monasteries, near the border. Skopje was really quite pleasant, despite acrid air pollution (another coal-fired power plant), and I spent a day off there, exploring the old Turkish quarter, fortress, churches and archaeological museum. I could see myself living in Skopje, unlike Sofia or Pristina. The arts scene is very active and it has great cafe life, but it's also small enough not to have traffic issues and seems a very liveable, human city, with mountains right on the edge of town.

The ride to Stobi, a major Roman ruin south of Skopje, was easy and flat, down a river valley. Stobi is quite a big site, mostly early Byzantine, but its best floor mosaics were under a protective layer of sand for the wet winter weather and were thus not visible.
I camped a few kilometres away in an apple orchard, and then headed over the mountains to Bitola the next day. It was a day of pure pleasure: sunny warm weather, gorgeous fall colours, oak forests, sweeping views and my first pass over 1000 m elevation in weeks. One section of the climb really reminded me forcefully of the climb over the Zagros Mountains to get to Shiraz: same forest type, same limestone peaks, same feeling (except about 25 degrees cooler!) Bitola, when I got to it, was wonderful, an old Ottoman riverside town with a big neighbourhood of old houses and a main pedestrian street with wonderful 19th-century facades, some from the old consulates that various European countries had here in Ottoman days.

I visited the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, on the outskirts of Bitola, the next morning. It was like a compact version of Stobi: heavily Byzantine, but with its floor mosaics buried for the winter. Another wonderful ride took me over more mountains to the vicinity of ancient Ohrid. I climbed over an 1100-metre pass, sweating in the Indian summer heat, then dropped to the basin of Lake Prespa. I was delayed in climbing the second pass of the day when I ran into a couple of bicycle tourists and stopped for a natter with them. The second climb was shorter than the first, but I still barely made it over the top with light in the sky, so I camped about 15 kilometres short of Ohrid in a pleasant roadside meadow. There was supposed to be a meteor shower visible that evening, but although I sat outside cooking, eating and looking up at the sky, I saw only one meteor before I finally got cold and crawled into the tent. I was excited about the fact that from Bitola I had been following another ancient road, the Roman and Byzantine Via Egnatia. It's not as famous or as long or as evocative as the Silk Road, but it was the key road linking Rome to Constantinople for centuries.

I got up early and raced downhill into Ohrid, arriving by 9:30. I dropped off my bike and luggage at a small tourist apartment and set about exploring the city. The setting is magnificent, on the north shore of the big mountain-ringed Lake Ohrid, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and a Mediterranean blue colour to the water. A Bulgarian castle towers over the town, from the 11th century period when Ohrid was the capital of the Bulgarian kingdom. In the ninth century, St. Kliment of Ohrid is said (by the Macedonians) to have created the Cyrillic alphabet, modifying the Glagolitic alphabet created by St. Cyril and his brother St. Methodius. (It should be noted that Wikipedia, along with most non-Macedonians, attribute Cyrillic to St. Cyril.) There are Roman remains, too, an amphitheatre and a fourth-century basilica, but it is the collection of Byzantine churches that constitute Ohrid's greatest tourist attractions and most important cultural significance. I walked through the stone-paved streets with their overhanging Ottoman houses in a bit of daze, overwhelmed by the sense of history after so many days of hideous Communist concrete.

I liked the tiny Sveta Bogorodica Bolnica church for its architecture, but I absolutely loved the much bigger Sveta Sofia, the cathedral church for the entire Macedonian Orthodox church. I had the entire place to myself, and spent a long time looking at the ground-breaking frescoes on the walls, including what is claimed to be the first-ever painting of the Last Supper (the depiction is quite different from the usual version that arose soon afterwards). There was a lot of realism and feeling in the paintings, like the contemporary Boyana Church frescoes I had just seen in Sophia, probably connected with the Palaeologan Renaissance in classical learning that took place in the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century under Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus and his successors. It seems probable that this provided the spark for the 15th century Italian Renaissance, especially as artists and academics fled Constantinople for Italy in the dying days of Byzantium.

I mused over the ebb and flow of artistic trends as I walked to the beautifully situated Sveti Jovan in Kaleo church, perched atop a cliff overlooking the lake. It looked like a tiny slice of the Mediterranean transplanted north into the Balkan mountains. The reconstructed Byzantine basilica of Plaosnik didn't do much for me, but I did like the ruins of the much earlier basilica, displayed elegantly under a suspended roof. After peeking in at the castle and the amphitheatre, I wandered into the Sveti Bogorodica Perivlepta, another church covered with 13th-century frescoes. I liked these paintings even more than the ones in Sveti Sofia, partly because the caretaker, a woman who had written her PhD thesis on them, gave me a guided tour for a quarter of an hour. Again, the static, lifeless aesthetic of earlier Byzantine icons was thrown out in favour of greater realism and passion, and new subject matter was tried out for the first time in centuries. The two main painters even broke with the tradition of anonymity and signed their names to their works, starting a trend that would be continued by Giotto and his successors in Italy.

After a pizza break, I scuttled back to Sv. Jovan to sketch the church before the sun set (at 4:10 pm; these early sunsets are hard to take!), then went out for a frustrating session at the internet cafe, during which I lost large sections of this post in repeated crashes before giving up and going to watch World Cup qualifying soccer matches. I was tired, though, and left without seeing the much-talked-about "Hand of Frog" goal in which Thierry Henry flicked the ball back into play with his hand before setting up the French goal that eliminated Ireland.

I was sad to say goodbye to Macedonia the next morning, but after a stiff, steep climb over the mountains to the east of Lake Ohrid, it was downhill all the way to my campsite near the apocalyptic post-Communist industrial wreckage of Elbasan. Albania looked pretty from far away, especially its forested mountain peaks and steep canyons, but up close it was fairly hideous: garbage everywhere, concrete construction rubble everywhere, wrecked Communist-era factories, jerry-built half-finished brick houses lining the roads, and the trademarks of Enver Hoxha (the Kim Il Sung of Eastern Europe), tiny hemispherical bunkers partly buried in their thousands everywhere in the landscape, like crashed UFOs or Communist concrete toadstools. Bizarrely, given all the untidiness and garbage, I have never seen a country more obsessed with washing cars; there must have been several hundred car-washing spots, most in use, between the border and Elbasan. Finding a campsite was a frustrating experience, as after a day of riding past great campsites in the mountains, I couldn't find any unoccupied flat ground in the area of Elbasan. Long after dark, I finally found a path into an abandoned olive grove and wearily set up my tent.

Today, the riding was ridiculously easy, across flat lowlands with a brisk tailwind. I got here to UNESCO-listed Berat by 2:30, found a hotel, and walked around its old streets until it got dark. The castle district, with its whitewashed stone walls and crumbling stone houses, has as much atmosphere and charm as any place in the Balkans, and the more stately white-fronted Ottoman mansions lower down the hill are very pleasing to the eye. To the south and west rise inviting-looking mountains that, sadly, I don't have time to explore. Tomorrow, I will try to get up early to take photos in the morning light before riding out of town.

Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Svilengrad, Bulgaria


past Haskovo


before Pirot, Serbia




Pristina, Kosovo


Skopje, Macedonia


near Stobi




15 km from Ohrid




10 km past Elbasan, Albania



Monday, November 2, 2009

Off to the Balkans!!

Ayas, Turkey, November 2

So having just finished my Silk Road bicycle ride, it's time to hop on a bus to cover the 1300 km separating me from Bulgaria and start cycling fast to prevent me freezing to death in the cold Balkans. The idea of this trip is sheer, unadulterated country-bagging, trying to cross 9 separate countries on my way to an eventual endpoint in Venice. Stay tuned for more stories and photos from the cold road!