Pedaling from the Black Forest to the Yellow Sea
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Posts from — April 2008

Day 37 (Macedonia/Greece): Treskavec Monastery - Vevi (there is too much history in the Balkans)

today’s distance: 47km
total distance: 2956km
riding time: 2-3h

Considering that I was in a monastery the day began very late. I was awake at 5 am, but slumbered on and off until roughly 8 am. The weather was fantastic, the sky a deep blue and the view stunning. Not a bad place to build a monastery for sure. Hard to get to, but that is the point I guess.


Kalist needed to do a lot of clean up work as it was a big day for the monastery. A commission from Skopje, the capital, was expected and he needed to show them that this place is worth putting money into. But despite this and the clean-up from Orthodox Easter celebrations happening a couple of days before, Kalist and I talked for a good hour and a half and I am grateful to him for having taken the time to do so. We touched so many topics that it is hard to summarize our conversation, but I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, ranging from politics (mainly involving Greece) and the need to restore the church as the centerpiece of the monastery.

Kalist told me how the local population had rebuilt the monastery with their own funds after it burned down almost entirely in 1990. The church itself and the outer walls remained unscathed, which for him was a miracle. The people wanted the monastery to be restored … and in times of extreme financial hardship because of an economic collapse still came up with the funds by basically going door to door to collection donations. The conservationists weren’t happy, but eventually gave in to the new construction plans. The people had basically demanded it and carried the day. In order to save the church and the truly amazing frescoes (the images don’t do justice to what’s really inside), experts estimate that what is needed is EUR 1-3 million. Given what is shelled out in other places and given the awe-inspiring inside of the church, I hope that the funds come through, either governmentwise or through private donations. Kalist summed it up as this “what’s in the ground doesn’t matter that much, there may be lots to be discovered, but the frescoes are falling off the walls and this is what we need to take care of.”

I was also interested in his take on the increasing number of people (me being one of them and lucky enough to be the only one that day) that came to the monastery. His answer was rather straightforward: he doesn’t mind the increasing number of people, but it will change how he interacts with them – the tea were enjoying would no longer be possible. And that would be a loss for everyone going up. Kalist was a major part in what made this place special to me. As he is so busy during the summer months, one of his statements struck me as particularly poignant. “In the winter months, when the snow is so high that you can not leave this place, I can try to be a monk.”He also spoke about the relationship with Greece, a recurrent theme with everyone that you enter into a conversation. Apparently the day before, Greece had blocked the air traffic from Macedonia Air Transport, arguably because of the name of the carrier. This was enraging people quite a bit as they feel that they are doing whatever is necessary to settle things, but they are getting the short end of the stick.

Eventually it was time to leave and I headed down the mountain on a different track. After some unintended bouldering, I was back on the main trail and headed to San Marco, a little detour.

Back to Prilep and Bitola it was. I didn’t leave the place until 4 pm, as Elena, working in the tourist information office, and I chatted about this and that (including politics and especially Greece again, but also on tensions between Albanians and Macedonians within Macedonia).

After leaving Bitola I passed a lake with a great number of birds, including pelicans circling overhead and eventually reached the Greek border. Not a major affair and off I was, back in Euroland. First stop in a store to buy some supplies for dinner and the prices couldn’t have been worse. Sure, it was a small town and an even smaller store. But hey …

I asked some sheep farmers (major dogs on the way to get to them) whether I could pitch my tent somewhere and things were difficult for a while, then I finally got the point across that I had a tent with me and they just said to find a good spot. Pretty heavy winds and no flat spots eventually led me to an unused garage in the middle of nowhere, which seemed cosy enough. So, I am now in the Former Independent City States of Athens, Sparta, Thessaloniki and Mykonos.

I am also happy to say that two newspaper articles appeared in Croatia (thanks Sveto for sending the link) and Montenegro (thanks Sven for sending this one) and needless to say I can only hope that they say good things about the tour.

Moreover, more pics are as always on the flickr page.

April 30, 2008   3 Comments

Day 36 (Macedonia): meadow underneath Zavoy - Treskavec Monastery (half a day of biking)

today’s distance: 58km
total distance: 2909km
riding time: 3-4h

I woke up to a beautiful morning, blue sky, almost no clouds and soon set out to do the last bit of climbing. After reaching the pass, it was downhill for a few km and it could have been great if not for the strange cracks in the road.

At one point I looked up and thought I had seen a snow-covered mountain. Looking up again it was gone. I wasn’t in a desert yet … it was to appear later again and I would ride along its flanks for quite a while.

I finally decided to replace the other screw on the rear rack. Just as the other side, the threading had given up quickly … too quickly if you ask me. Bad quality I will say again. I asked in a town and the local car place didn’t have anything, but one of the guys started yelling to someone else who would bring me to another person. A seriously big guy, who would first bring out a short stubby screw (too short), then a thicker one (too thick) and eventually plunk himself on his scooter only to appear again 10 minutes later with a perfectly fitting screw. I talked to his son in the meantime who gave me directions and told me that there would be a climb coming up before getting to Bitola. I asked what I owed them, they would hear nothing of it.

Then the climb, which wasn’t bad - but just big long wide roads. Psychologically not the most appealing type of road. Got to the top and eventually reached Bitola aided by a good tailwind. Here it was either on to Greece, staying in Bitola (nice place, but not enough to make me spend the night) or heading to the Treskavec Monastery. It all hinged on whether I would find a place for the bike as I was going to take a bus and taxi to get there. Elena from the tourist information office just said to put it in the office and to pick it up agai n the next day. Did my purchases and set out by bus (an hour later only) and taxi. The taxi driver didn’t really know where to go and had to ask for directions a few times. Apparently he had never brought anyone here. The ride was interesting. We passed through an area of town that was largely inhabited by Sinti and Roma (commonly referred to as Gypsies) and he mentioned the surroundings with disgust. Not the first time it happened during this trip. But lo and behold the lady we stopped to ask for directions spoke really good German and told us where to go. She also asked whether I went by myself and if I wasn’t afraid. Not sure what I was getting myself into …

Almost there we thought and we ask the next sheepfarmer, he gives directions. The Lonely Planet says to go into the village of Dabnica, so I tell the driver to head there. It was all bunk … We ask in the non-existing village and sure enough happen upon Josko who again speaks perfect German.

He too is a sheepfarmer and is tending to some cows as well. He makes short shrift of things, puts himself in the taxi, says to go back a bit and gives me perfect directions. Look at this stone, go there and hang a left. Not that it would have been all that necessary given that I soon stumbled upon a pedestrian highway practically. If you have the LP, forget about what it says. Don’t go to the village, if you see church to your right, go back 500m and head up the mountain which is on your right as you head down the valley. You should see the monastery and a white stone above you. Head for that stone, then hang a left. It’s simple really. The climb isn’t really hard and extremely fun. Haven’t seen the dinosaurs that the LP refers to, but hey … they can’t always be right.

I arrive at the monastery soon enough, greeted by the big St. Bernard and there are only three people there. It turned out to be much bigger than what it looks like from beneath. The only monk in this quite good-size place, and an elderly woman and a young man as very temporary caretakers. The monk is a humorous guy and when I ask him whether this isn’t a large place for essentially one person, he says “I’m a big man!” with a resounding laugh. Our whole conversation is great and his English amazing. We also have a common acquaintance as it turns out, he is friends with Antonio (this will mean something to only a couple of people). I spend the night at the monastery in a wonderfully peaceful and quiet environment.

April 29, 2008   No Comments

Day 35 (Albania/Macedonia): Hotolisht - meadow underneath Zavoy

today’s distance: 81km
total distance: 2851km
riding time: 6h

It was a long night, I slept for over 9 hours after a hard day of riding and not much sleep the night before. I bid my farewells after a hearty breakfast with the family and set out. More winding road and then an uphill to get to Macedonia. The type of mother-of-an-uphill. You turn the corner and you see it and it’s the I don’t like it kind of uphill. Switchbacks alright, but steep ones. Lots of traffic. It was 45 minutes of work, grades being mostly in the double digits. Good fun though once you’re up. The views were amazing. Then it was time to say goodbye to Albania. I hope I’ll be back some day. I had been treated so well and the bad rep is not deserved as far as I am concerned. Maybe I was lucky. Could be. But the people I did meet were extremely open and forthcoming, even if they didn’t have much. Try to give something tangible back and it’s hard to do.

Macedonia greeted me with a downhill, rain and 10 degrees lower temperatures.

I was now at 1000m altitude but while warm on the Albanian side still, it was freezing in Maceonia. It soon cleared up and I arrived in Struga, the first town on Lake Ohrid. I was lucky again. I stopped to ask directions for an internet cafe - not knowing that I would have seen many had I continued just a bit more. The store owner said to continue on when Jetmir came around the corner and the store owner said something in Albanian (both are ethnic Albanians) and for the next few hours Jetmir and I talked about everything imaginable. I changed money, hopped on the web and we had a bite to eat. He beat me to paying and wouldn’t hear anything when I protested. He had been an exchange student in the US a couple of years ago. Things in Macedonia make a lot more sense to me afterwards (as much as they can), politics and religion included. Jetmir happens to not care about ethnic lines in a country where this is the norm more than the exception. Schools are divided, sometimes being used by one group in the morning, by the other in the afternoon. Macedonians in Struga protested to have a separate school by not showing up for class for a month. Flags are burned, the situation seems to be a bit ugly at times. But I found his stance to be admirable given the situation at the moment. We walked towards Ohrid, which was not his direction at all and continued our conversation. Jetmir, all the best to you.

Finished the day off by visiting Ohrid, left when I saw this ….

and continued on for another 20km or so finding a peaceful spot near a little stream to have dinner and turn in for the night. The ride was perfect with the sun throwing a gold glow on the surrounding hillsides and the forest I was pedaling through.

April 28, 2008   No Comments

Day 34 (Albania): Tirana - just before Hotolisht

today’s distance: 84km
total distance: 2770km
riding time: 5h

The night was short … we hit the sack at about 4 am and Mark was already at the hotel again at 9:30 am to pick us up for breakfast. Needless to say neither Sven nor I were ready. We headed downstairs eventually and after talking to Sven’s friends for another few hours, I eventually headed out just after noon.

The ride out was like the way in … Tirana showed itself in its full and non-existing glory. It is a way interesting city though and definitely worth a visit. After battling traffic for a while I eventually came to what I had thought was a mere ridge … but as it turned out it was a whopping 800m climb, bringing the daily total to well over 1000m in the end. The views were spectacular though. Sven had warned me that there would be some climbing, but I hadn’t calculated with anything of the sort that I had to contend with. But it was well worth it for the views. Many stray dogs and a pair of falcons in a cage were also noticable as well as steep climbs. But when you get to the top, you turn the corner and you see this:

More of this as I was heading downhill again (unfortunately the same altitude as Tirana again) when I encountered two Swiss cyclcists coming the other way. We chatted for a bit, they were on a month-long tour heading pretty much the way I had come.For once I was glad to not have a tailwind as I was seeing the smoke coming up from the local factories.

I passed Elbasan giving my first directions to Tirana to Albanians and headed up the valley.

It was a constant up and down affair with occasional rare stretches. When I reached Liberazdh I bought what I needed for the night and looked for a place to pitch the tent. More ups and downs, the valley was narrow. The first good opening I jumped at. The people looked at me puzzled. Then came a bunch of kids and all was well. It became dark … I said I should pitch my tent. Turns out the plan had been different all along … I was the only one not in on it. Only one person spoke a tiny bit of English, the rest was a hand and feet communication affair. I was to follow Astrid, a guy who had been sitting next to me when they had inquired where I was going and where I was from. I was led to his house and all of a sudden found myself in the kitchen/living room of his family. His father and mother, brother and sister were there, plus one brother’s wife and their two kids. There were nine children altogether and as before in Albania I was made to sit on the couch, the women working, the men biding their time. The TV was running (Belushi film) and when asked whether I was hungry I said I would just take from the bags and eat that. Nope was the answer. 40 minutes later then men and I were eating bean soup and pasta and a salad to top things off. Great stuff. Milk from the cow outside. We chatted about this and that … religion and life in general. Astrid was the only one speaking some English, but his father and I still figured out a great deal. The family was rather male-dominated though, any attempt of me helping with anything was brusquely put off by the women, pushing me on the couch and taking things out of my hands quickly. Thanks so much to Astrid and his family for hosting a total stranger.

April 27, 2008   1 Comment

Day 33 (Albania): close to Mamuras - Tirana

today’s distance: 34km
total distance: 2690km
riding time: 1-2h

What a slow day it was … I woke up as Alex was leaving his house for a couple of hours. The plan was to fix up the bike with the new bike computer and do general maintenance. Then we headed out for the castle of Shkanderbeg to have a look there and got back to his place quite late in the afternoon.



Not to worry much, I had made plans with Sven to meet up in Tirana and spend Saturday night in a club or something. This we did and had a great time … thanks Sven for everything. The ride into Tirana was made easier by tons of kids who were smiling whenever they saw me and yelling out “biciclist, biclist …”. There was also this kind of stuff … interesting meat places.


Once in the city I made my way to the center to see what was going on, the kids liking the four wheels early on. This might explain why the driving is sometimes erratic, though not nearly as bad as the Lonely Planet made it sound. By no means, apart from maybe this kid …




April 26, 2008   No Comments