Leaving Tirana I headed once again for the coast; the lure of simple navigation, keeping the ocean to the right hand side, the relative ease of camping on the beach; the guarantee of a swim morning, noon and evening and the promise of boundless sunsets made for an easy choice.
Costa del Durres and Sarande del Sol are quite the caricature of their Spanish inspirations. The only sadness is that these resorts lack the vast hordes to occupy the multitude of sun loungers and umbrellas lined up row upon row along the sandy beach. South of Durres and just 53km north of Sarande the town of Himare has more successfully attuned scenery and tourist ambitions. The narrow strip of sand is open to all with an emphasis on the natural beauty of the surroundings; the water is clear blue revealing perfectly smooth, rounded pebbles as you enter the cool sea for a splash of salty goodness.
The best spot though is the neighbouring beach in Livadh. Just five minutes away by car (20 minutes by bike), the beach is sublimely inviting; soft, white sand, crystal clear sea and not a soul in sight. Only camping is available in this tiny resort, if you can call it a resort; a handful of bars, restaurants and campsites, less than a dozen in number. This far south in the splendour of the Albanian Riviera, next the mountains and forest of the Llogora National Park it’s easy to see why Lord Byron so loved the country.
I had time on my hands so at leisure I arrived in Sarande where happily I met up with my Dutch friend Danielle; just as she arrived into town following her week in Tirana, we crossed paths in the street and exchanged fond hellos, causing quite a scene in the sleepy evening streets of this most southerly of Albanian holiday resorts.
My next move out of Albania was to cross to Greece, where economic uncertainty and potential crisis was looming. So it was with a tinge of sadness that I left my favourite Eastern European country to cross late on a Sunday evening, full of trepidation, to Greece, the eighth country on my journey East.
The crisis turned out to be a major frustration for the Greek people, given that they were limited just just 50 euros per day at the ATM. Queues would form quickly and lengthen as the day wore on, peaking just before noon and once again in the evening at around seven o’clock. Aside from that the reality was much talk of the referendum; the scandal being that whatever happened the Greek people felt helpless and trapped. A corrupt government having effectively stolen the money, leaving the population to pick up the bill with the EU. Many people that I spoke with wanted to stay in the Euro but did not want to pay tax or the debt. All the upside, none of the down. In the end the ‘Oxi’ vote settled the matter as far as public sentiment was concerned leaving the politicians to either reach an agreement or Greece be kicked out of the Eurozone.
I elected to take the long way round to visit my good friend Aphrodite in Athens. What’s 1,200km between friends? I was in Athens little over 20 minutes before I was photographed by a friendly photo-journalist; I was taking a moment to rest after the usual trauma of cycling into a capital city. The image appeared on the German MSN news feed four days ahead of the referendum. Aphrodite was most pleased that I had endorsed the ‘No’ vote, even if somewhat unwittingly.
Our plans to visit the Acropolis and other historical sites went slightly awry when I learned that my old friend and colleague Nick was also in town; preferring to take drinks on the roof terrace with a cracking view of, rather than actually visit, the Acropolis. Much fun was had over our handful of four euro Efes. Besides, I for one made the most the roof top swimming pool and did a few lengths.
Sadly my visit to Athens was to be a short one. Aphrodite flew to London next day; I made tracks north to Lake Marathon and onward to Istanbul. The road took me up the other side of the country, again following the coast, right past Mt Olympus and on towards Thessaloniki. I was having a very tired day on the bike when I came across a fellow cycle tourist resting in the shade of a few trees at the side of the road. Kevin, a Frenchman (I know another one!) cycling from Grenoble to Iran, turned out to be a splendid remedy to my weary state and so we took off together to seek out a camp for the night.
Kevin and I got along famously and so agreed to ride together to Istanbul. Our evening at Aiginio. just outside Thessaloniki was a pleasant one; many families came over to our spot on the town’s park to offer us water, food or inquire if there was anything else we might have need of. Kevin was most pleased and felt that I was a lucky charm in this respect given that he had so far on his journey of three months not been quite so well looked after.
Our good luck continued next day when a chap in a van rolled over to me asking; ‘ Wo kommst du?’ shaking my hand and insisting I have a coffee on him, driving away quickly to leave me with a folded 20 euro note in my palm. Buoyed by our recent good fortune, we progressed easily along the road into the centre of Thessaloniki. With our new found riches we treated ourselves to a hearty lunch in the car park of one of the cities many Lidl’s. The road out of Thessaloniki was steep work. Our chosen road took us up the ‘Panorama’ which for a city road was something of a shock; long, vertiginous and winding through the wealthier suburbs; climbing up past an army base to eventually summit, 106 minutes later, 18km from our destination – Lake Koronia.
The highlight of this stretch to the Turkish border for me was the Nestos National Park. The Nestos River providing ample wild camping opportunities and a superb river to swim in to boot, one of my favourite camps so far. Just before we crossed the new frontier we met an Englishman called Mark on his way home from Hong Kong. We stopped to chat awhile. Mark was travelling extremely light in our view, with just rear panniers and a bar bag, though he was on the home stretch; the height of a European summer to tackle before returning to Bristol. The thought crossed my mind to lighten my load in Istanbul.