Day 28 & 29 – Greece & Macedonia

I left the hostel in Saranda a little groggy after a very late night, probably less rested than when I actually arrived, but it was good fun. There was a bit of a plan for the start of the day, but no plan for after entering Greece since my SIM card would work for mobile internet again.

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From Butrint Castle

Butrint National Park was pretty amazing, there’s evidence of settlements in the area from 3000 years ago and some of the ruins you can see are nearly 2000 years old. I spent around an hour walking around it, which isn’t nearly enough. When you start it just looks like most old stuff, but when you start reading about the variation it’s pretty staggering, the settlements have been built and re-built so many times there’s just layers of history, all really well preserved.

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A baptistery built in 6th Century.

The road at Butrint kind of stops, which was another reason to go there. Despite literally having a bridge and aqueduct serving the town 2000 years ago, there’s currently no bridge to cross the river. Romans had that shit sorted (literally, they built a sewer). There is a guy driving a raft back and forth for about 3 euros though so I hopped on that.

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Modern day engineering.

Another border crossing got me back into the EU in Greece and heading East again. My route ran through some pretty remote back roads, I would have had to ride around 30 miles south to find a motorway going the same direction, and I don’t even like motorways.

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Goodbye Mediterranean

Since I head into Turkey soon I won’t be seeing the Mediterranean again for a long while, and I got to say a pretty epic goodbye. The road climbed around a mountain and at the “peak” where it begins the decent into the next valley I stopped for a little break. Behind me was a plain leading to the Med (picture above) and on the other side (picture below) a view through the mountains covered by a huge thunderstorm that was shooting forks of lightning across the sky. I took it as Zeus approving of my trip.

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Zeus’s Approval

I did underestimate the roads a little, they were riddled with surprises, some of them new to me! Tree branches at head height, in the middle of turns. Sometimes there was a bush protruding into the lane and you could just push through it, sometimes there was a thick branch in it. Lovely. Thankfully the road was pretty dead which made it more of a fun challenge than a hindrance.

I did search for somewhere to camp but it was a bit half-arsed, after all the rain, any spots in the valleys were sodden, and any spots up in the mountains were pretty cold at 7pm (which means they’ll be freezing by 3am). Anything in between seemed to be a town or filled with stray dogs. The last straw was when I saw a sign warning of bears. Nope. Nope. Nope.

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Very timid stray. I won him over with Doritos and some water. Shame I don’t have a spare seat

I passed an unfinished abandoned building that some guys with trucks were setting up camp in, so I spun round, hoping to spend the night with some other travellers. When I pulled closer though they were local fruit merchants. Alarm bells went off in my head and I knew I shouldn’t camp with these guys, though they seemed nice enough helping me out with the directions I made up. It’s weird how quick it changes. If their number plates had been “NL” I’d have happily camped next to them, because you know they’re fellow travellers and in the same boat as you. But locals camping by the road is a totally different situation.

I aimed for the next city along and rode around until I found a hotel at a reasonable price. I arrived at about 9pm and went in search of some food, a really nice actual Greek kebab and then bed. Plenty of miles done today to deserve a hotel.

A quick start on Day 29 to get going, and a return to the back roads, up hill and down dale toward the Macedonian border. The roads got a bit sketchy again. More rain overnight had caused some landslides covering half the road, so you came round a corner to a boulder covered in mud in your lane. Most of it was just a little extra mud in places though, pretty easy to deal with after riding in Albania. One bit did catch me out though. I didn’t even see anything but mid corner both my wheels slipped. One tyre slipping is bad, either the back wheel comes round on you, or the front wheel washes outwards dragging you wider in the turn. When they both slip you’ve basically crashed, you’re not touching the road anymore. Luckily it was only a small patch and the tyres caught again and chucked me back up right. Took about 3 hours for my butt to un-clench.

I got to the border and had to literally ask to be processed out of the EU. The barrier was up and the window closed. So I knocked (I’m not just going to roll through an international border!?) the guy looked a bit annoyed and took my passport, then closed the gate so I couldn’t leave… Nailed the security there bro. A quick check and I was out of the EU again. I rolled up to the Macedonian entry border and as always, they took a long hard look at the Pakistan Visa in my passport, always rings alarms bells when they see it. Then they held on to my passport and told me to go get the temporary insurance. Actually he said “make a deal for” which is never a good sign. So I strolled in to the insurance booth feeling mighty with my 20 euros. Then she said 55 Euros for the 15 day cover, and wouldn’t budge. Not matter how much I told her I only had 20 Euros + about 10 euros in Albanian Leks. I relented eventually and got my other euros I said I didn’t have and paid up, screw you insurance lady.

After that I was in Macedonia, country number 12! The roads got a little worse but nothing terrifying. I stopped in the first major city, Bitola. I thought I’d stopped in a small town so was surprised by the mile long pedestrianised zone lined with bars and restaurants. I did wonder if I’d locked the bike up well enough for such a populated place. I grabbed a pizza and coffee in a nice looking bar with some Wifi and planned the rest of the route.

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I refuse to use toll roads unless absolutely necessary, so my route usually takes me on the equivalent on UK A Roads or B roads sometimes. Macedonia had some awesome A roads for a while, they went up and down mountains, then flattened out to horizon-touching straightaways. Then all of a sudden tarmac wasn’t a thing anymore. I ended up rolling through towns of mostly dirt track or 50/50 stone/holes.

 

Since around Croatia more and more people will look at me and the bike as I pass, sometimes with obvious “hey nice bike” look that even I give to every biker. Some with a more “WTF is that giant alien thing making noise”. Macedonia seemed to accelerate that and in one town it was genuinely worrying. The road narrowed toward a street market with people walking in the road, so cars were weaving  through in both directions. It was a dirt road with lots of holes so I was paying a lot of attention just to stay upright at 2mph, bumper to bumper with cars. When I looked up for a second I realised the ENTIRE market was staring, people literally mid purchase had turned to watch the weird thing roll through town. Felt very odd, was glad to be getting out of there once the traffic cleared up. Though it probably didn’t help the “alien” status that I roared off at speed once I hit tarmac at the edge of town.

It turns out that was a one off because anywhere 30 miles of Skopje there were plenty of big bikes, lots of lovely BMW 1200GS’s. One of them filtered up next to me at some lights with his wife on the back and we gave each other a nod then had the customary little drag race to the next set off lights. The lights said 60 seconds until green so I put I flipped up the visor and said hi (side note: Knowing how long till the lights change, is an awesome feature). They said hi back and asked if I needed any help, I said I was fine, just heading to a hostel I knew. He asked what my final destination was and when I said “New Zealand” he literally cocked his head back and belly laughed, the lights changed and I shot off, easily won that drag race. I’m a Master of distraction.

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Welcome to Skopje

I made it to the hostel without a problem and the owner was the only one in at the time. A guy probably in his 50s just pottering around painting some furniture, had all the time in the world for me when I got there. Had a nice chat about the town then I headed out to find some food and see what was around. Ended up in the night sitting and chatting with a few people staying at the hostel. Someone pulled out a dodgy looking coke bottle filled with yellow stuff and said it was amazing homemade Rakia he got from a friend (fruit brandy ish thing). What could go wrong. It was amazing stuff, really strong, really tasty and so easy to drink. We went to bed around 4am, still quite sober, strangers are awesome sometimes.

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The living room of Chill

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