Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is Greece the perfect country?

Greece has iced coffee available in every cafe...
Known as frappés, iced coffee is most offen served in a tall glass with a straw. Unlike their similarly-named franchised counterparts, frappes are simple: just coffee with sugar and a ton of froth at the top. After cycling in the hot sun, a frappe is a delightfully cold treat!

Greece has amazing beaches...
Over the course of the last month or two, our route has skirted off and on along the coast. While it's always a treat to go to a beach, we've become somewhat choosier about our beaches as of late. The Greek beaches that we visited were sandy, the water warm and there were free beach chairs available (provided that you bought a frappé...).

Greece has delicious convenience foods...
After months of sandwiches for lunch, we were pleased to find tasty canned side dishes avaialable in all supermarkets. We particularly liked the stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers and giant beans in tomato sauce. Yum!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Familiar faces

We realised that it has been over two months since we've seen anyone that we know, so it was a real treat to meet up again with the Papalexandrou brothers in Thessaloniki. We had a great time - going to the beach, seeing the sights and generally enjoying a few days off the saddle in the company of good friends.

Beach rackets (Paris and Tryphon)

Dinner, fresh from Filippos's farm

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is Macedonia* the perfect country?

Macedonia has tasty, fresh, local fruit and vegetables
We had envisaged that southern Europe would be full of roadside farmer's stands selling the bounty of the Mediterranean harvest, but until now the selection of fresh fruit and veg was pretty limited. In Macedonia, we finally had the full choice of summer produce: juicy peaches, strange-shaped tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, zucchinis, plums, eggplants, etc, etc. Absolutely delicious!

Ohrid farmers market

Macedonia has beautiful lakes
Anyone looking for a beach holiday would love the crystal clear waters of Lake Ohrid. If (like us) you'd prefer less resort-filled shores, then Lake Prespa is just over the hill (actually a 1400 m mountain pass). The lake is beautiful, the perfect temperature for a swim and the local communities are unspoilt. We'd particularly recommend the small town of Brajcino, where we stayed at Benito's perfect little campsite and hiked up Mt. Pellister. For us, this was the perfect tourist experience.

Lake Ohrid (a remote beach once you got past the resorts)
 Macedonia has bicycle-only highways (almost)
As the highways were upgraded, new roads were built beside the existing ones. Now, all heavy traffic uses the newer roads, leaving parallel roads almost deserted. The road surface may not be ideal for smooth cycling, but it was pleasant to be away from the cars and trucks.

Our road (left) running alongside main road (right)
* our Greek friends should read this as "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Roads in the Balkans

Anyone who has seen the Pixar movie Cars may remember this scene where Lightning McQueen finds out how a new super highway has meant that no one travels along the old Route 66 anymore.

This is portrayed as a tragic story for the residents (cars) of the small town on the old road. But they failed to point out the upside: that back road is now perfect for bicycle tourists!

Our little helmet-mounted rearview mirrors show no traffic...
We have been biking along deserted roads like this across most of the Balkans. The roads are ideal not only because they are so safe for bikes, but also because - as explained to Lightning McQueen - the road moves with the land, rising, falling, curving:
"Cars [Bikes] don't drive on it to make great time. They drive on it to have a great time"

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is Albania the perfect country?

Anyone looking for an exotic getaway from Europe should look no further than Albania. The look and feel of the country is decidedly different than any countries we've passed through. It feels a bit like stepping back in time, but perhaps more like being in India. The roads are busy with people, not just cars - people walking or biking, or just waiting or socialing on the side of the road. And there is an almost complete lack of multinational brands - no Coke, McDonalds or Shell.

But the really striking thing in Albania is the overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met.

As we bike, we wave and say hello (or the local Dobar Dan, Zdravo, etc) to anyone who makes eye contact. In northern Europe, we rarely got a response, but at least made people smile. As we moved further south, people were  more responsive. By Albania, people were smiling, waving and shouting hello as soon as they saw us. Cars that passed would honk excitedly and passengers would stick their heads out the windows or give us a thumbs up.

Whenever we stopped, people would approach us to chat, find out where we were going, see if we needed help and generally make sure we were enjoying our time in Albania.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Day on the Road: Lots to Think About

One of the best parts of travelling by bicycle is that we get to experience so much of the countries that we’re visiting – interacting with locals along the road, noticing the slow changes in landscape, seeing how people live outside the big cities… And travelling by bicycle also gives you lots of time to think about what you’re experiencing.

On quiet sections of road, we are able to ride close together and chat. We try to explain the differences we see (“Why is it so lush here, when it was dry just over there?”[1], “Do you notice the differences in communism in Yugoslavia vs. the USSR?”[2]), or make plans for the rest of the day (“Let’s stop for cookies at the top of the next hill”, “How much further do you want to go today?”) or generally work on the question of life, the universe and everything.

Often we can’t communicate easily, but our internal thoughts run along the same lines – exploring what’s going on around us, or working on the world’s problems. To keep our mind off a particularly tough climb or head wind, we also sometimes listen to audiobooks or podcasts on our iPods. And we often play The Licence Plate Game ("I wonder which German city DD stands for?"[3], "How can their be so many New York licence plates in Macedonia?"[4], "Why is Austria represented by the letter A, when it should be Ö for Österreich?"[5]).

[1] We've noticed that a lot more rain falls a short distance inland from the coast, especially in the mountains - so the coast is arid while there can be lush crops inland.
[2] It seems to us that Soviet communism involved much more industrial development, while small-scale agriculture continued to dominate in Yugoslavia . Since the collapse of communism, the former Soviet countries have more abandoned factories and deteriorating infrastructure, while their is less sign of 'boom and bust' in the former Yugoslav republics. 
[3] The licence plates in most Eastern European countries begin with a code for the city. DD stands for Dresden.
[4] When Macedonians living in the USA return home in the summers, they ship back their cars as status symbols.
[5] No idea.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A lot to say about Albania

We’d heard a lot of stories about Albania (positive and negative), but you can never really know what it will be like until you see it for yourself…

Assumption: The roads are in terrible condition. (One Albanian blog post from other bicycle tourists was titled “Never Again” for a 60km stretch of steep gravel road).
Reality: Crossing the border from Montenegro, the road went from smooth tarmac to rough gravel, and we mentally prepared for days of tough riding. But it turned out that this small section of gravel was one of the last sections of new road that was still under construction. We sailed along into Shkodra on fresh tarmac wide enough for four lanes of traffic, and we’ve continued across the country on similar newly-finished asphalt.

Glorious smooth tarmac

Assumption: Albanians are reckless drivers. (One round-the-world cyclist described them as the worst in the world. A driver actually got out of his car and punched the cyclist for being in the way).
Reality: We have never felt unsafe about the cars and trucks passing us. We have stayed off the highways, so traffic has been pretty light and everyone gives us wide clearance or slows down if necessary. We were told that a recent law means that the car is at fault in any collision with a bicycle, but whatever the reason, drivers are as courteous here as anywhere.

We don't have many photos of cars passing us(we actually weren't passed by many cars, since the back roads are so deserted).

Assumption: Albanians are all very friendly and hospitable.
Reality: This was confirmed to us the moment we crossed the border and struck up a long conversation with a friendly cab driver, who offered lots of advice and told us to call him day-or-night if we had any problems or questions. All along the way, we have met very friendly people, who seem genuinely interested that we enjoy ourselves in Albania. Unfortunately, a bad experience can overshadow all this. While stopped for a meal, a couple teenagers approached us, smiling and checking out our bikes. They seemed friendly, but when we turned our backs for a moment, they stole one of our panniers and disappeared. This shook us up pretty badly, but we kept trying to tell ourselves that these were just some stupid kids.

Assumption: We would never see our pannier again. (All the Dude ever wanted was his bag back).
Reality: Arriving at the next big city, we went to the police station to report the theft. We had little expectation that they could help, but we wanted to at least record the incident (“Are you going to find these guys, or, you know, I mean, do you guys have any promising leads?” we’d ask. The cops would laugh and sarcastically say “Leads? Let me just call down to the crime lab. They got four more detectives working the case. They got us working in shifts. Leads!”)

The local police station
To our surprise, within one minute of explaining the situation to the desk clerk, via a translator, the chief of police rushed out, jumped in his car and escorted us at high speed back to the “crime scene.” We were eventually joined by 6 other police officers and the local baker came along as translator. We re-enacted what had happened, and several policemen headed out to investigate. We were taken back to the city, where the police chief took us out for coffee and bought us lunch. 

Lunch inside the police station (courtesy of the police chief)

Returning to the police station, we were informed that the police had apprehended the two thieves and retrieved our missing bag! It took a couple more hours to fill in the necessary paperwork and make an ID (they took us into a small room with the boys and asked “is this them?”) but the cops went out of their way to make sure we were having a good time.

 We left the police station, with our pannier in hand, and a renewed appreciation for the kindness of Albanians!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is Montenegro the perfect country?

Montenegro has so much mountainy goodness…
We biked for three days away from the coast to reach the national park in the Durmitor mountains, but the ride revealed that the whole country could practically be designated as a national park. The mountain scenery is stunning and constantly changing.

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Montenegro is designed for bicycle touring…
Leaving aside the beautiful mountain vistas, there are many other reasons that Montenegro was so much fun to bike around. Newly constructed highways across the country have left little traffic on the older roads, which are still in good condition. And despite crossing mountainous terrain, the roads are never steep. Drivers are not only courteous, but friendly to cyclists, honking and waving as they pass. Also, there are excellent opportunities for camping – we stayed at family-run site filled with outgoing hikers, at a quiet national park site beside a lake, and several times “wild camping” in small fields close to the road, but unseen.

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Montenegro has the best juice…
Every store in Montenegro offered as assortment of 100% pure fruit juices. This was a very pleasant change from the sugary “minimum 10% fruit content” drinks that were the norm for the past month. And there are so many delicious choices: strawberry, peach, pear, mango, orange, pineapple…

A bit of clever advertising obscures the fact that the drinks all contain some apple juice. Look closely and you'll see that "100% strawberry" actually reads "100% strawberry (and apple)"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Green is the New Black

Montenegro is its Italian-based name, meaning “Black Mountain,” but domestically it is known as Crna Gora, which means “Black Forest.” But something must be lost in translation, because while the entire country could be described as “mountain” or “forest,” the dominant colour is green

The coastal mountains are covered in small shrubs dotting arid mountainsides. Away from the coast, the mountains are blanketed in light green deciduous forest, with patches of lush pastureland wherever it’s flat enough. At the peaks of many mountains, we found alpine valleys filled with farmer’s fields. And even the sheer cliffs of the deep Tara Canyon are covered in green forest.

So, instead of Montenegro, we propose the name Monteverde…

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Pancakes on the road

As we planned this bike trip, one of my main concerns was how we were going to last a few months without our usual weekly ritual of pancakes.

Luckily, we have found an easy recipe that allows us to make pancakes on the go. Mix one mug of flour (all quantities are approximate), with half a spoonful of baking powder and two spoonfuls of sugar. Add one mashed banana, a small amount of oil and a mug of water. Scoop a couple heaping spoonfuls of this batter into your mini-travel-frying-pan and sprinkle in any extra fillings (e.g. walnuts or blueberries). Flip. Serve immediately with jam, other spreads and fresh fruit (unfortunately, we are not carrying maple syrup with us).

The batter can also be modified for dinner: omit banana and sugar; add some salt or soy sauce and stir-fried veggies like carrots, cabbage and peppers.

The only inconvenience is that flour is only sold in 1kg bags, enough for at least four batches. But this just means we have to eat pancakes several times in a short period…

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Is Croatia the perfect country?

It’s always sunny in Croatia…
For over two weeks, we didn’t see a cloud in the sky and it was baking hot. Sometimes it was hazy, but the sun was relentless. We can only imagine it’s like this year-round. Luckily, we could find some shade and put up our hammock for a siesta in the hottest part of the day. 

Croatia has an amazing coastline…
We could also easily cool off by taking a dip at the beach. The water is tantalizingly blue and refreshing, and the views of the surrounding mountains and islands are breath-taking. 

A campsite sign explaining the many virtues of the Adriatic Sea
Dubrovnik is the most beautiful city in the world…