Trip Archives: In the Canyons of the Balkans

Roughly 5 weeks of cycling through the Balkans with my brother in the spring of 2013, starting in Thessaloniki, Greece, and ending in Belgrade, Serbia.

Bremen – Budapest

Today, once again, I headed to Budapest to start a trip from here. This time, my brother and I will travel across the Balkans. We will fly to Thessaloniki in northern Greece tomorrow and then cycle to Belgrade on a zig-zagging route.

The trip is named after a book by Karl May, btw. ;)

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Budapest – Thessaloniki

The second night without sleep. After my arrival at half past 10pm last night we packed our luggage and re-packed the bikes into cardboard boxes. We were finished at 3.30 or 4am. I had a cat-nap and we left at 5am for the airport.

The flight went smoothly and everything arrived undamaged. However, we noticed that on András’s bike a little piece of the rear hub had actually broken off, though that had happened in Budapest or before already. We decided it was not mission-critical.

Anyway, we cycled into Thessaloniki on side roads and unpaved tracks, and decided to stay there for the night.
We almost instantly fell asleep after sitting down on the beds…

Cycled: 21km

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Thessaloniki – Terpillos + 2km

Yesterday I managed to break my phone by updating some software… Now it wouldn’t even start up anymore. I had to find an Internet cafe and reflash it. All this took quite a while and we finally left Thessaloniki to the north at 12.30pm.

Thessaloniki has lots of ‘modern’ concrete appartment and office buildings, but it also has some nice spots where oldish buildings dominate. And of course there are the occasional ancient ruins.

We took minor roads as much as possible, and sometimes even rode on dirt tracks just for the fun of it. We visited the site of some ‘Early Christian Byzantine Settlement’. It was closed, though, and even after climbing over the fence there wasn’t too much to see.

Eventually we stopped near a river, crossed it through a ford, and pitched tents on some former meadow.

Cycled: 64km

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Terpillos + 2km – Lake Kerkini

In the morning I fixed yesterday’s broken spoke.

From our camp site we cycled further north-eastish, and crossed the hills near the mountain Mavrovouni on dirt roads. We spotted lots of turtles that crossed our paths or jogged through the dry leaves left and right.

The ‘roads’ were bad sometimes but overall quite fun to ride on. The view from the western side of the hills onto Lake Kerkini was amazing.

There is quite some logging going on on these hills. We passed by piles and piles of cut wood. Horses, in bad shape, were grazing nearby. Probably they are being used to transport the wood from the hills down to the dirt tracks from where it is then carried away by truck, presumably. We didn’t see any human beings there.

Once down at the lake we cycled along its western shore to the town of Lithotopos at its southern end, where we had dinner, then continued after nightfall along the eastern shore for a few kilometers in search for a suitable camping spot for the night.

The weather was again sunny and pleasant with temperatures somewhere in the low to mid twenties.

Cycled: 44km

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Lake Kerkini – Melnik

We cycled along the eastern shore of Lake Kerkini, then turned east, following the river Strimonas to Bulgaria (where it is called Struma).

The last 10km before the border to Bulgaria where a bit of a challenge at times. We rode on dirt tracks that were located between the new motorway and the river. Those tracks had been flooded recently and where still quite muddy in some places.
The tracks ended and we turned east again, into the mountains, to avoid the motorway, but soon were stopped by two members of the Greek army. They ‘commanded’ us in an very arrogant and unfriendly way to turn around as there was some kind of army outpost on that hill. (I believe we were still on a public road and they had no reason nor right to force us…) So we ended up cycling on the motorway for the last couple of kilometers.

Right after the Bulgarian border we left the main road and cycled north-eastish on quiet backroads. Eventually we reached Melnik, where we are staying in a ‘tavern’.

Cycled: 66km

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Melnik – Rozhen – Melnik

Melnik is located in an amazing area where wind, water, and sun have eroded the ‘sand stone’ hills to form interesting pyramidal shapes. In the afternoon we left for a little round-trip.

We cycled on paved road to Rozhen, then up a hill to its monastery. We had a grand view from there.

Then we tried to cycle a hiking path, but that turned out to be impossible, so we pushed the bikes. The path first followed a dry riverbed, and then, all off a sudden, emerged at the top of one of the ‘sand mountains’, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding impressive landscape in the evening sun.

The ride down on the other side of the mountain was quite exciting. We followed the hiking path again, which went down steeply.

Back in Melnik we enjoyed extremely loud, somewhat traditional Bulgarian live music with our dinner.

Cycled: ~17km
Walked/Pushed: 1km
Top speed: 70km/h

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Melnik – Strumica + 5km

The ride down to the Struma valley was easy, as was most of the rest of today’s ride. Not far from the city of Petrich I spotted a mini turtle on the road – and safely carried it across.

Petrich itself didn’t impress us much and we didn’t stop at all despite being in dear need of sun cream and a properly working battery for my phone.

Instead we continued along the valley of the river Strumeshnica towards Macedonia. The border crossing was easy and the border guard happily stamped our passports as souvenirs.

We are camping near a reservoir lake above the city of Strumica that has lots of plastic waste floating in it and looks too dirty to have a swim in. A bit disappointing, not only after a sweaty day of riding.

Cycled: 87km

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Strumica + 5km – Zagorci

When we woke up this morning there was a bunch of older guys already fishing down at the river coming out of the reservoir lake. Nobody cared about our camping there.

We left a little later and climbed up to another, much bigger valley with another, much bigger reservoir lake. We met a guy who had lived in Cologne for 43 years before moving back to his home village in Macedonia, and who was happy to speak some German. He gave us 2 bottles of water and a bottle of cola.

Our road ended and turned into a dirt track. And what a dirt track. Sometimes it was a royal pain to keep cycling. Fortunately, it was mostly dry soil, even though we had to ford a couple of streams, but that was actually easy.

We made it to Zagorci, a village beautifully located at the western slopes of the valley we had been cycling along today. It was mostly abandoned, though. We met an old couple tending their bees and from the little bits we could understand it was clear that there were only very few people still living here.

We camped more or less in the middle of the village, next to a well with drinking water.

Cycled: 50km

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Zagorci – A1/Radobil

The left-over food we had consisted of: Cola, muesli, dried apricots, chocolate. We mixed all that in our bowls for breakfast. Yummy… ;)

We left around 10am and continued on the track in a westish direction. The views into the valley beneath were beautiful in the morning sun. The few villages we passed through were as interesting to look at and almost as dead as Zagorci.

After 6km – as promised yesterday by the old couple – we hit paved road. Soon we had to do another long and exhausting climb, followed by an even longer visually rewarding downhill ride, almost until Negotino.

Negotino is not exactly beautiful, but it was kinda charming nonetheless. We had an extended lunch there, had the wifi password of a neighbouring bar provided by a friendly local, bought some sun cream at a pharmacy, and even found some spare batteries for my phone at a small mobiles shop.

We wanted to make it to Prilep today, but we weren’t lucky – again. The road conditions and the hills are killing all the plans.

We are camping high up on a hill-side, opposite the noisy A1 (or is it called M5?), a major road connecting Prilep with the motorway of the same reference number.

Cycled: 76km

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A1/Radobil – Bitola

For breakfast we had squid soup. :) Quite an interesting contrast to yesterday even though András didn’t like it so much.

Then we continued to climb the remaining 15km to Pletvar Pass at an altitude of 998m. The last 3km we hung on to a truck.

From there it was a long and pleasant downhill ride into the Pelagonia plain and the city of Prilep. We didn’t stop but continued to Bitola, at the southern end of said plain, which we easily reached at around 3pm.

Bitola is a very nice city. The lively main pedestrian street, Širok Sokak, is long and fun to walk along. At the southern end it leads eventually to the ancient settlement Heraclea Lyncestis from the Hellenistic period (founded in the middle of the 4th century BC). Left and right of Širok Sokak there are quarters with beautiful, if a little run-down, old buildings.

Cycled: 67km

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Bitola

This morning we decided to stay another day here in Bitola, and to have a look at the city some more. We also made up our minds about the next days.
As before, the weather was grand.

Bitola is really amazing. The main street is literally packed with cafés, bars, and people. Everyone is trying to look posh in their pink pumps and track suits. Never mind that comment – it has a really relaxed, lively, and sympathetic atmosphere about it.

So basically we visited Heraclea in the burning afternoon sun, and hung out at a bar. It was a very relaxing day.

For dinner we had a dish (I forgot the name, unfortunately) that reminded me of Adjaruli khachapuri from Georgia.

The streets were still packed at 10pm.

No cycling today.

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Bitola – Konjsko

This morning we headed westish from Bitola on quiet back roads, mostly parallel to the new motorway. We climbed up to a pass at 1156m, then turned south along the boundary of the Pelister national park, and cycled down to the Lake Prespa, at roughly 850m altitude. The views across the lake were stunning.

On the road we spotted something amazing. Have you ever seen something like this??

It didn’t last long. Almost all of them were killed by two consecutive cars.

I guess this is just one of the examples of what you simply don’t see when traveling by car.

Less than 9km from today’s destination, Konjsko, András’ rear wheel made a cracking noise. One of the spokes had been ripped out of the rim. Two more seemed to be going to share that fate soon. We were on a steeply climbing gravel road and the wheel was seriously untrue. We decided to go on carefully anyway and discuss our options over dinner.

Our camp site at the outermost north-eastern tip of the peninsula on which Konjsko is located was beautiful. We pitched tents just a meter or two from the water. Pelicans and lots of other birds were constantly flying over our heads or starting from/landing on the lake somewhere. Thousands of bees and other insects created a humming background noise.

While having dinner the full moon rose from behind the mountains on the other side of the lake. And later I spotted the most distinguished shooting star I have ever seen. It looked a bit like fireworks…

Cycled: 64km

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Konjsko – Ohrid

It was difficult to leave this almost magic place. We had another swim and packed our stuff very slowly, with long breaks in between. We left around noon.

The plan was to try and continue to Ohrid as planned, some 60km away, despite András’ decaying rear wheel, and look for a bike shop there. From there we could go back to Bitola if need be.

The 15km climb up to the 1567m pass between Lake Prespa and Lake Ohrid was quite a challenge for riders and bikes alike. Needless to say that we were rewarded with beautiful views once more…

Somewhere at the descent András became adventurous (considering his wheel) and we took a mountain bike trail as a short-cut. Great idea, the track was beautiful and lots of fun to ride.

Lake Ohrid is much more touristy than Lake Prespa. The villages along the shore boast with hotel next to hotel. We liked Lake Prespa better…

In the city of Ohrid we were chatted up by Jovan who rents out apartments. I think he ripped us off a little, but that’s ok. We’re happy the bike(s) brought us this far.

Cycled: 56km

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Ohrid

We got up a little late. Our breakfast was interrupted by Jovan, and we had to move our stuff to a different apartment for the 2nd night.

After finishing breakfast we went to the bike shop he had recommended. They did have spare rim, hub and spokes and rebuilt András’ wheel within 1.5 hours!

Other than that it was a relaxed day.
I finally added some pictures to these posts.

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Ohrid - Peshkopi

Today’s ride along the shore of Lake Ohrid and then the Black Drim, Lake Ohrid’s only outflow, was easy. We covered the 70km to Debar in a bit more than 3 hours.

The Black Drim’s valley is beautiful – if you don’t look at the details. It is full with plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other rubbish. The lack of sense for every-day, visible pollution is a serious problem in all of Macedonia. But the real problem is that we (‘The West’) just export our oh-so-civilized progressive achievements without teaching about the consequences. People here are just not aware that plastic doesn’t decompose within any reasonable amount of time.
A pleasing attempt has been made in the Galičica National Park, where notice boards inform about decomposition times of various packaging materials. Interestingly only in Macedonian language, whereas all other signs are bilingual (English/Macedonian).

After Debar we said Good Bye to Macedonia, the land of the open Wifis, and crossed the border to Albania.

The road became much hillier and far worse in quality almost instantly. The people seemed even more friendly than in Macedonia – almost everyone greeted.
So, the last 20km to Peshkopi were far more exhausting than the 70 before.

Arriving in Peshkopi we were quite the attraction with our bikes. Though not only in a positive way. The streets were filled with mostly male youths and youngsters, some of which cracked jokes about us in a loud and obvious way. It wasn’t the most cordial welcome… However, as soon as you speak to someone directly people are friendly and helpful.

Cycled: 93km

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