Monthly Archives: September 2013

Turkey: Istanbul. History for the mind and food for the stomach

It’s 7 years since I cycled the length of Turkey and things have changed. Construction and road building dominate, even in seemingly remote places. Country lanes I cycled on have since been widened and even in places are being turned into motorway or dual carriageway. I suppose it’s good for the country, but takes some of the adventure out of cycling.

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A common sight across the length and breadth of the country

Arrival
Not many people make the short crossing to Turkey from Lesbos to the bustling western coast port town of Ayvalik.
Gone are the coffee and cigarettes that everyone seems to be consuming in restaurants in Eastern Europe and Greece and out comes the food.. Pots of it are cooked up in front of you and there is no guess work. Point, eat and enjoy. There is a lively covered market with a few eateries tucked into one side and from here I sampled the offerings and the wifi that seems to be everywhere.

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A perfectly presented stuffed Aubergine

Pergamon
This ancient town is located on a hill just outside the modern city of Bergama. Campsites are often appended to restaurants and this one was nearly empty other than a friendly German couple, an anaesthetist and an artist. “I don’t get to talk to my patients much at work”, he lamented… {I should think not!}, so I get involved in the art with my wife.
An evening tour of Bergama gives the impression of a noisy traffic clogged place and I found the quite backstreets just as soon as the shutters rolled closed. Food then back to camp to finish off the ferry duty free, which just about finished off all 3 of us!

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Pide, like a Turkish piza

Next day decamped to a lovely family run guesthouse in a traditional Ottoman house tucked away on a quiet backstreet and set about doing chores. The town grew on me a little. Next day and significantly delayed by a breakfast feast like no other in Turkey I have seen, shared with the enjoyable company of retired U.S couple Ingrid and Robert. Cycling up a big hill somehow seemed less important.
Feast over I set out to explore the Greek and Roman past of Pergamon. The prime archeology site is mostly located on a hill that looks down over the modern town. Cycled to the top and spent the day imagining how the place looked in its prime. Majestic.

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Asklepieion
An Greek healing site with many springs, treatment rooms, baths and accommodation for the afflicted. Based on the dreams of the patient the priest prescribed a relevant treatment or medicine. Harmless snakes were allowed to crawl around accommodation at night, if that’s not enough to put you off staying, you must be desperate!

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Museum

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Bergama to Bandirma
This is the countryside. Small villages and people shouting out “Cay” waving me over to join them, which I do occasionally.
A chance encounter with French cyclist Xavia coming in the opposite direction through a village was witnessed by a family who brought out Tea (Cay) and savoury breads. We sat down and chatted about routes and impressions. An elderly lady passed up and discouraged handfuls of fresh walnuts from a folded cloth she was carrying. Me munched, drank Tea and cracked open the nuts with stones.

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Kus Golu
I finally get to see flamingos in the wild! And stalks, but I’ve seen them before. Talked to the fishermen over Cay. I showed the pictures of the birds, they rolled their eyes, “They eat our fish”, he gestured with a slight smile.

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I get to see flamingos after all.. after failing to see them on the island of Limnos

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Usual accompaniment to my evening meal

Bandirma
A friendly and relaxed concrete city. Wrote up the Greece blog with sitting in a tea shop while waiting for a ferry and laundry.

Istanbul
Arrival time of 10pm is not ideal. My GPS informed me of a dockside campsite 400 meters from the Blue Mosque. That has to be a mistake I thought, but so close it’s worth checking out. True to word, there was a manned gate and a car park with a patch of grass. Very basic and free. I was stunned and relieved I didn’t have to go cycling around in the dark finding a sensible priced hostel.

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Free campground a few hundred meters from the blue mosque. Fantastic!

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View out to sea from campsite

Not the place you leave your tent I decamped and set off to find a room. For a decent clean room expect to pay 50 Euro (end of September). The room I found was 12 Euros a night, which even surprised the locals. Otel Inci Palas, just south of the train station. Nice part or town away from the ‘tourist trap drag’. This was my base from which to deposit the bike at a specialist touring shop for a service, buy new trousers as I left my only pair at the launderette, plan food excursions and undertake an ambitious walking tour. My walking started at Sirkeci train station where the hotel is located to the Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Suleymaniye masque, Attaturk bridge, Galata bridge, Galata tower to Taksim square, the scene of the recent protests.

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Basilica Cistern, underground water storage

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If you want to buy gold or siliver, this is the area to come to. Lots of deals brokered on the streets just by the Bazaar.

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I feel the same way about studying too..

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End of Friday prayers. Many shops closed while the faithful attend

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Walk up to Taksim square

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Next day I looked round Hagia Sophia whose age and scale never fails to impress me, although the crowds did..

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The blue mosque

Categories: Europe, Turkey | Leave a comment

Greece: Old roads, Islands and remarkable people: An unexpected delight

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Welcome to Greece

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Rarely do I see them alive. This one I carried to safety

I had visions of chewing through the miles to get somewhere interesting, but what makes this place is the people. Friendly, informed and generous to a fault.
Macedonia border to Thessaloniki is a days ride, I didn’t count on the ferry to Lesbos being 5 days time. “There is a ferry from Kavala in 2 days”, the helpful agent said. A glance at the map, 2 days cycling. Perfect.
The industrial outskirts of Thessaloniki has a post apocalypse feel to the place. My GPS expertly navigated me away from the main roads and through over grown industrial estates that are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Many of the units have just been finished or almost finished, it’s quite sad. Many shops are also vacant and business closed for good. Lots of money invested by the banks not exactly producing the promised return.
The coast is not busy from here. Quiet and not particularly pretty coastal resorts scatter the old road. They seem to get a number of Serbian visitors, I guess not feeling too welcome in Croatia it’s a convenient spot for access to the sea.

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WW1 cemetery

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Pretty cemetery located just outside a town

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On the way to Thessaloniki

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Baklava for breakfast

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4th century BC monument, reassembled and sited at its original location

Arriving at Kavala a storm was most certainly brewing. Waiting for the ferry I moved to a sheltered spot to make my pack lunch for the boat. WOOSH..  A gust of wind blew and I got sandblasted. When I opened by eyes, my sandwich had gone and I saw pots and caps bouncing down the harbour and into the sea. Time to go indoors. What followed was the fiercest storm I have ever seen. Sections of the city plunged into darkness, a fire broke out in the old town and power in the harbour kept cutting out. To cap it, when the rain looked like it was about to ease, chunks of ice stared falling from the sky. When it was all over the fire really started to take hold and a large building went up in flames. Sirens echoed around the city as the drama unfolded.
Midway through the drama I realised the ferry had been cancelled. Not because of the freak storm, but it had broken down a few hours ago. I made enquiries. “The next ferry is in a weeks time, but if you got to Thessaloniki there is one from there in 3 days time… Or you can catch a ferry to Limnos at 6am this morning, the ferry from Thessaloniki makes a stop there on its way to Lesbos”. I now have a plan! With money refunded and free ticket to Limnos I was in a good mood.
Two bikes appeared and a group of 3 travelling musicians were presented with the same option. They chose the stopover in Limnos. I got chatting and soon we were making a dent in the bottle of Macedonian Reijki. With roll mat and sleeping bag tucked in a corner I drifted off to the calming rhythms of their music as it that echoed around the smart ferry terminal.

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Kavala

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Aqueduct bringing fresh water to the old city (once upon a time)

Ferry to Limnos
My past experience with Greek ferries has found them to be efficient, smart, reliable fast. This one is a flea infested rust bucket. The crew smoke below giant ‘no smoking’ notices while loading vehicles. There’s chaos and lots of shouting, and yes, I got covered in bites.

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Flea pit ferry

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Marina, Port town of Lesbos

Armed with a map and the low down on the places to visit from a friendly car hire company I set off across the rather barren island to a wind surfer spot called Keros with a campsite and bar. It’s a friendly, laid back place on some of the best beaches. I simply relaxed, walked the deserted dunes and did a bit of beach combing. The fact it’s located right on the other side of the island from the port town means not many people venture out that far.

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Barren landscape, beautiful people!

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View across to the campsite

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Deserted beaches

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Tent visitor

On my second night there a Greek wedding took place in the small chapel. The evenings entertainment was hosted in the restaurant bar, but after 3 hours of music and dancing it looked like it was fading so I headed for bed and put in the ear plugs. 5am, my usual rise time I removed my ear plugs to discover the party was now packed and in full swing, and by sounds of it the drinks had flowed all night. I started to get ready, but by the time I was packed and prepaired, it was ending. I pity the poor staff who had to serve at the wedding and then do an 8am breakfast!

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Whole deserted hotel villa complex. The owner did a runner

The journey back was supposed to take in more of the sights, but I soon realised it’s Monday and everything is closed. Stopped at a restaurant and had meatballs. Then someone at another table insisted on buying me a beer, another person Ozo.. I had to draw the line at more alcohol so I accepted an invite back to his place instead. Panos is in his 70s and in good shape for his years. I found out why, he is a retired sponge diver. I got the low down on the business, including the story about how his boat got blown up by an old Italian mine in the early 1960s. It nearly blew his leg off, sheering the bone in two. His friend was blinded. Years of therapy included cycling to help rebuild muscle. Throughout I was fed fruits in syrup and brewed tea from herbs picked in the garden. His parents were farmers and he showed my the collection of tools and agricultural equipment in a shed. When played a game where he pulled an tool or machine from the shelf and I had to guess it’s function, we both had fun. Showed him snapshots of friends, family and life in the UK then made my way to the port town to catch the 12.30pm ferry rushing to arrive before a 9pm storm hit.

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Panos, a retired sponge diver

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Preserved fruits in syrup and nuts in honey

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On the road back to the port town

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Storm closing in

In town I had 3 hours to kill, chatted to a local (more like talked at) who had great knowledge of lay lines, dowsing for them and how they influence your health. Acupuncture and so on. I would have made my excuses earlier if it wasn’t for the fact he looked just like a younger Richard Nixon.
Then on my way to find another cafe I bumped into the musicians Malta, Gail and Tonino. We finished the ouzo, chatted and snacked. Then invited by two fishermen over to a bar where the food, drinks and music continued.

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The boat from Thessaloniki to Lesbos arrived, 5 hours late. It was slightly less of a rust bucket, but did have an alarming list. I made note of where the life jackets were and grabbed a few hours sleep on the crossing.

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Lesbos
The port town of Mytilene is lively and bustling town with reminders of its past woven into the townscape such as crumbling mosques and old ottoman houses. The byzantine museum gives a glimpse at some of the houses excavated.

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The fort on the hill overlooks the town and contains a fascinating jumble of ottoman ruins built from the earlier ruins of the marble rich byzantine settlement. I spent a good hour exploring the deserted site taking in the views.

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Mytilene, main port town of Lesbos

Then I followed an itinerary neatly put together by my mum who has previously visited the island.
There is a covering of pine forests at the higher altitudes that makes excellent wild camping and provides much needed shade when climbing.

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Pine forests at higher altitude

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Extraction of pine resin

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Lower down the olive is king. The soil is either very fertile or they simply planted more trees. Either way the landscape lacks the dry barron feeling of Limnos. The traffic is very light which makes for relaxing cycling.
Agiasos
A 500m climb arrives at this traditional small town with narrow as streets overlooked by the highest mountain on the island. Left the bike with a nougat seller and explored the streets and basilica on foot. Chatted to a group about the trip.
The church / basilica is a work of beauty. Dripping in decoration, iconography, belief and superstition.

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Overgrown corner of Agiasos

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The group who advised me to try sardines in the fishing village I was due to visit

Scala Kallonis
Seaside resort specialising in Sardines and more recently kite surfing. I was informed not to leave the town by the group I met in Agiasos until I tried the sardines. With my first enquiry at a coffee shop I was sat down and a single fresh sardine brought out, raw and slightly salted. It was dissected and deboned. It tasted like how you would imagine, raw fish. Washed down with coffee while chatting to a dutch couple who are regular visitors to the town.

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Sardines.. Eaten raw!

Patra
With the wind behind I was pushed to Patra in good time. Located the woman’s co-op and was allocated a comfortable 25 Euro apartment. Back there I went to the restaurant where I joined a couple from the UK for a fun and relaxed dinner of moussaka, with the odd bottle of wine.

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Women's co-op

Molyvos
The town is another maze of narrow streets with atmospheric tea shops, useful shops and tat shops. The route to the fortress was worth the view over the town but sadly, living up the the Greek stereotype a big sign on the door said closed.. STRIKE.

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Covered streets

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The fort..

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When I Greece... STRIKE!

Bath house
I had spied this on the way out of the port town and decided to finish my tour of the island here.  Beach side hot natural spring waters emerge into an ancient indoor marble pool said to heal all aliments. A perfect way to finish a 100+ km day. After I finished I asked if there was anywhere to camp near by. He gestured to the beach. Sorted. I did my laundry that evening where the hot spring water overflows into the sea. I enjoyed the chore for once as normally it’s spring water so cold it bites the bones of my hands.

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Marble bath house fed by hot spring waters

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Camp spot next to Bath bouse

Ferry to Turkey
The 90 min crossing was quick and painless

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Categories: Europe, Greece | 2 Comments

Macedonia: Lakes, gorges and wine

My route starts in the NE at the lake town of Debar

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How much of Albania would look if they had not cut down all the trees

Where will you get water from??
From a source that we don’t have in the UK anymore, roads side fountains. They are very common everywhere. Villages and town usually have a communal tap, although you may have to ask around to find it.

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At just under a Euro, these plain thick yoghurt drinks are great for nourishment and refreshment. I usually add a little sugar.

The road from Debar to lake Ohrid follows a gorge carved by water and road. It’s here I notice signs warning you not to photograph certain areas. This only has the effect of making me stop and gawp at whatever you are not to photograph while pondering what the view is like on google earth.

Struga and Ohrid
The water from the take is so clear, if not a bit cool because it is fed directly by an underground spring. Ohrid is a gem of Churches, archeology sites,  castles all packed into one small area best explored on foot. I was lucky enough to find a 10 Euro a night 3 bed apartment with kitchen – in the town centre and all on the ground floor so I could wheel the bike inside.

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This church was only build a few years ago

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Gentle nightlife of shops, bars and restaurants

Cycle tourers, not so common here
Met two cycle tourers, a local and a German. The German guy worked for a government office fighting corruption. Although by his own admission there is not much of it in Germany,  “We must go looking in countries like Greece for shady deals by German companies”.

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Pile Village
Based on the finding of a nearby archeology site is the reconstruction of a neolithic settlement.

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Walking up to find a horses head in the bed is bad enough, but this...

Connecting the lakes
The two lakes are separated by a large hill that just had to be climbed.

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Resin, Bitola and Prilep

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Cross and the Crescent

Old road new road
There is an old road and a new road, I of course took the rarely used old road cobbles and all. It was the death of many small villages that relied on passing traffic. Most business have moved while in places are the remaining remnants of old garages and long defunct communist era cafes.

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French cemetery of 5000 in Bitola

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Prilep
A bit of a let down. On a national holiday celebrating independence in a town that played such a big role in past events I expected it to be interesting. But, holiday is just that. The museum explaining the towns role in WW2, fighting the Italians and Germans was closed. Tourist information, closed. Everton worth a visit, close. Just lots of people sitting in Cafes drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

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Power of the plates can fold mountains

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You don't have to be a geologist to notice a very interesting feature here. When I see things like this and hear people talk about how fracking is causing earth tremors, I agree with them... in the same way that I agree boats at sea create waves that contribute towards coastal erosion.

Wine country
Entering Kavadarci involved a 700 decent that took 45 minutes. It was a thrill. The past week has seen nights drop to single digit temperatures and now its back the the 20 again. I can hold off buying those woolly socks!

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With warmth comes wine

Weight of the grape
I noticed growers congregating, I had to find out more..

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They take their harvest to a buyer who grades and weighs the grape. They resell to a winery in large volume who use fleets of articulated trucks to do the pickups. Kindly invited for coffee and a chat with the boss, she gave a fascinating insight into the business of the grape. I was sent on my journey with a generous gift of 1 litre of Reijki, a 50% vol grape spirit.

Lake Dojrian
I arrived in a social mood in this little hot spot near the Greek border.  I have a with a few dinars left for a blow out. Sadly after 7pm everything is closed due to lack of customers. I think it’s more of a weekend scene. Nice lake and again miraculously, no mosquitoes. I’ve not been bitten once in this country, although it’s probably too cold for them in the mountains.

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Good restaurant does NOT mean good food
It’s an age old problem I constantly battle with. People are very helpful in giving you what they think you want when it comes to recommendations. Make the mistake of asking for a good restaurant and you are sent to a posh dining establishment or hotel restaurant  there they serve pizza, burger and spaghetti. It’s often very poor quality and the food is never hot and always cold by the time you are half way through. I learned this fact about eastern European dining a long time ago.
It’s the same with coffee, I have been sat down for coffee and everyone is served up delicious strong Turkish style coffee, mine arrives.. Nescafe, because it’s the posh expensive stuff they give to guests.
You have to be very specific about that you want. My quest was a traditional dish called ‘Tavce gravce’. I don’t ask for a good restaurant or even where can I can get good Macedonian food. I say, “Where can I get Tavce Gravce?”
The reaction is usually laughter, followed by why would you want to eat that. Strange looks. “Why would you want to eat that, it’s the sort of thing my grandma used to force me to eat…”. Now you see what I’m up against!

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My hunt for 'tavce gravce' a traditional dish (read above)

Be careful, you might get what you ask for..
If you don’t understand what’s going on,  only point to something someone is already eating. This is quite difficult in Macedonia because all people seem to eat is coffee and cigarettes.

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I asked for chicken, so this is what I got, along with looks of why would you want to eat it like that by the 'chef'. It's a full size plate and quite a big bird, even I struggled.

Money
You can be mistaken for thinking you are rich. This will but a yogurt drink. Each note is about 14p

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Categories: Europe, Macedonia | Leave a comment

Shepherds, fancy hotels and empty roads of Albania

The first stop in Albania from the crossing is the large city called Shkoder. I soon got to understand the rules of the road – that is there are none. This also applies to cyclist so there was no problem with one way streets or pedestrianised precincts.
First goal is to get some money and cash machines are easily found in the city centre.  I punched the equivalent of 100 pounds and out popped 4 shiny crisp notes of 5000 leke. That’s going to be a problem I thought so I headed for the nearest snack shop and gorged on drinks and 3 Burek (near deep fried bread / pastry filled with meat or cheese). The total came to a few hundred. I tenderly produced the 5000 leke note and watched the shopkeepers face drop. The usual patten is they leave the shop to plead with other shop keepers for change. A few minutes later he arrived back clutching a wad of notes and started counting them out for me. Feeling a bit guilty I left a generous tip which he flatly refused. I insisted and he beamed a smile and nearly tried to hug me. At least I now have some usable ammo in my wallet.

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Shkoder.. Like the car!

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Cycling out the city while eating an ice cream I quickly realised Albania is one of the best and safest places for cycling I have been to so far on my tour and I will enjoy it. For a start, outside the city and away from the coast there is no chance of getting run over because, for the most part there is no traffic on the roads. Many of the roads are newly surfaced, no gravel patches and decent crash barriers should you overshoot a corner.

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Traffic!

I made a poor judgment on route. I set off down a nice stretch of road only to have it run out on me. I checked the route on my phone map and sure enough, where the surface finished the road finished. My paper map shows roads where there are only dirt tracks. I asked around, “There is a way, but you can’t go that way because the road is bad”. Now there’s a challenge! I was warned about the gradient and the quality of the road.. For 2 hours I scoffed at their dire predictions of road quality. Sure it was a bit bumpy and steep in places, but nothing really. What they didn’t warn me about and actually made be turn back is the fact the road kept forking and there were no signs. That said I made all the right calls. The last straw came when I set off from a small cafe and after 30 seconds everyone started shouting at me..  No that way..  Pointing to some tiny side road I just passed on my left.
I camped up and seriously considered turning back due to the risk of becoming seriously lost in a place with more goats than people.
I then noticed that if I make it to my intended destination the next leg suffered from the same problem. The road is on the paper map,  but not my phone map. Mind made up I settled down for the night next to a remote church in a valley with a dry river bed. A nice chap on a donkey came by for a bit of a chat.

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The next day proved my decision to turn back was indeed the correct one. I wished to avoid the main road from Shkoder to Kukes, but on this main road,  I counted once counted a whole hour without seeing a single car, lorry or motorbike. Cows, goats and donkeys don’t count.. I did see a few of those.

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If you get on this bus, your going to Puke!

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I camped up on a hill and was joined by two shepherd boys and their 20 goats. I shared some Turkish sweets and chatted with them about the bike and kit which greatly interested them.  I mentioned the tent goes up when the sun goes down. They didn’t speak English so this was all partly mime and mostly pen and paper picture drawing. The skied on the higher Hill in winter and at the end of the day the goats are penned up next to their home for the night. By now the goats has all wandered off. They asked if I will still be here and off they set to round them up.
Half an hour later they returned with freshly picked plumbs and the goats. The eldest pointed out the sun had gone down and it was time to pitch the tent. Whey wanted to pitch it and I wasn’t going to object.

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Started doing my blog...

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Self erecting tent!

Next a police van and ambulance drove up the hill and into the Woods. The boys looked worried, illegal wood cutters one gestured. There was indeed the buzz of a chainsaw which soon stopped. On its way back the Police car
swung by us and gave a friendly wave before driving off.

Little did I realise the evening was about to begin. A mini camper parked down below and a lone figure walked up. “You have found a nice spot, can we join you?”.  The others came up,  we pooled our food and drink and had a delicious rice with bollagnaise source. We started with beer, moved to wine and then finished of the half litre of riajki (schnapps) that I had bough in Montenegro. Very unexpectedly entertaining evening.

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The road wound it’s way to Kukes, the next major town and a place where I spent the night in a hotel. Filled the evening with jobs, Internet, Skype, shopping and eating.

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Followed the road from Kukes to Peshkopi, another small town out in the sticks. Installed myself in an upmarket hotel and set off into town to hunt out food,  snacks and sweet treats.

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I am sad to leave Albania,  the best cycling conditions by far. The people are generous, friendly and welcoming. Despite staying two nights in a hotels and eating out all the time I struggled to spend 35 Euros!

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Mascots hang from many buildings... Peculiar.

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How will you find water? Is a question I get asked a lot. Answer, it's everywhere from fountains at the side of the road. Much safer than city tap water from leaked pipes..

Categories: Albania, Europe | Leave a comment

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