Zagreb was eerie and quiet, It’s Sunday morning. We park our bikes against a wall, take stock on our losses and figure out where to stay the night. We’re amazed by how thoroughly the thieves have gone through our stuff, right under our noses. They’d even taken care to remove cash from our wallets then carefully place them back in our bags. We’d been fleeced good and proper. We carry on looking. Phone, cammera, yep, gone. They’d even taken Jim’s jeans. We were livid, scratching our heads in bewilderment, how didn’t we wake up? Did they really gas our cabin? The truth is we’ll never know but we arrived in Zagreb feeling pretty down about it all. The weather had taken a sudden winter-ward snap. The cold fog was sucking the life out of us as we sat dejected on the pavement.
Where have you been? What have you been doing? Why have you left us hanging for the last 77 days, 19 hours, 57 minutes and 21 seconds…
Well, it turns out that life on the road is WAY simpler than life in the ‘real’ world. We’re truly sorry for the delay in getting this final post together and published but I’m certain that if you read this post you will be satisfied that we completed the trip in proper Really Big Bike Ride fashion…
How much fun was Albania? I’ve just reread AJ’s post and its taken me back there. Awesome! Like so much of our journey Albania for me most clearly demonstrates how we get along and as lucky as we do. The trick is to have a loose idea of where you want to go, what you’d like to see and then get on and see what happens. As you’ll have read Albania took us for the ride and not the other way around, sort of grabbed hold of us and swept us away of its own accord, much to our enjoyment and satisfaction. You really have to just roll with it, and because we did it’s easily the most exciting place that we’ve visited.
Albania has a bit of a dodgy reputation for some reason. We approached the Balkan’s very own wild west with apprehension, I didn’t know what to expect. Peasants shitting in the streets, bent cops after our cash, gun toting drug barons lurking in the shadows and desperate thieves sniffing around our wheels! If rumour is to be believed then these are some of the sketchy folk we’re likely to come across in this part of the world… It’s a good job we don’t care about rumours, but is this really the most backward country in Europe? Is cycling here as dangerous as people say? What are we getting ourselves in to? There’s only one way to find out…
Happily this last few weeks we’ve fallen into a pattern of crossing borders on a Sunday, we’re spending a week in each of these fabulous Balkan states and making the most of the rich culture, the glorious weather and the traveller-friendly prices. This week we have been mostly enjoying Macedonia; the food and people we have met along the way have been of high calibre. I’ve also after more than sixty days on the road begun to keep my journal up to date and in some meaningful order – this is of great use when now I am writing for you an account of what we have seen and done and experienced.
A surreal feeling came upon us as we approached the Greek boarder, it could have been a small dose of culture shock or perhaps it was the drop in elevation going to our heads. It was certainly surreal. As we rolled through the baron scrub of no man’s land the customs and excise complex stood looming ahead, a structure of standards far excelling any buildings we had encountered on our passage through the Balkans. The significance of our arrival to Greece, the geographical pinnacle of our journey, added to our bewilderment. I presented my passport to the official, he looked at me and my vehicle. He actually laughed, an unexpected sign of emotion from a boarder rozzer, he waved me through then took a look at Jim “you bicycle from UK?…” Jim nodded. Yes we have!
This post is dedicated to Mr Steven Patrick Morrissey for making it possible for Mr James Thomas get the sharpest haircut in Sofia without speaking a single word of Bulgarian. Happily James is a bit of a Smiths fan and so lacing this entry with lyrics, song titles and album titles should be a breeze.
It was like we had travelled back to time somehow. As if cycling through one of my granddad’s memories of Staffordshire when he were a lad, we start our Serbian journey in little farming villages. Buzzing with activity, real work, real places, real people. As we pass them by everyone says hello or waves us on. Old folk watch the world go by their doorstep, farm workers ride on tractor trailers, children play in the streets and half a dozen escapee piglets scuttle off squealing down the road. People still grow their own food and collect their own fuel. Village shops, fascinating dimly lit little grottos, sell just about everything under the sun. Welcome to the Balkans!
Somehow this week has been a Balkan roller-coaster of fun, meeting some of the friendliest people of our journey so far. Arriving in Hungary from Slovakia was rapid and took us very little time before we arrived in the split cities of Buda and Pest. Right up to Thursday afternoon I had this whole post worked out, nailed down. We’d spent an excellent three days in Pest, the older, more interesting side of Budapest at a great hostel called Big Fish, with some of the friendliest and hospitable Hungarians in town. While we were in Budapest we visited the best spa, enjoying a full body massage and a choice of twenty pools and a dozen saunas. So far, so relaxing. We really did enjoy our time in Pest and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t been to go at the soonest opportunity.
There are a million different ways to cross Europe by bicycle so picking a good route can be quite a task. Most of our route planning happens while we’re on the road, combining map reading and intuition to find the best cycling roads as we’re going along. The great thing about riding in Europe is that you’re not just confined to riding on roads, there are thousands of cycle paths all thrown into the mix too. We don’t have any maps of these cycle routes, we just seem to find them, or they find us. Many of Europe’s finest cycle paths follow the course of rivers, taking advantage of nature, so watercourses and their bike paths will no doubt play a critical part in navigating our way across the continent.