Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Lounging in Levkas

The end of the last blog was written from the top of the mountains in Durmitor, Montenegro. At that stage I had resting due to a tummy bug rather than the cycling. So it was with great relief that Ken and I set off one cool morning very early to cycle down to Niksic. This picture was taken after a 100 metre climb and at a point when the tummy cramps had just ceased and the going got really good - a new beautifully engineered road!!!

No pictures of Niksic, which is a pity as it really is a lovely town, home of the Montenegran Niksic brewery. But, Podgorica, the capital beckoned and it was DOWNHILL!

Unfortunately when we got there poor Ken was feeling poorly, so we headed for the first hotel on the GPS - the amazing main city hotel built in 1953 at the height of the communist optimism. Despite feeling rough, Ken still managed to irk them by cycling into the foyer across their red carpet. Here's a picture from our balcony with the usual end of ride laundry drying.

Podgorica is strange. Given that it's a capital of a country og about 3/4 million people and itself has only 150,000 people it's not surprising that it's so quiet. The main square hots up in tyhe evening when folk go walking with their best clobber on, but otherwise everything I tried to see was closed - Natural History Museum (which is alongside this tower from the days of Turkish rule), Museum of Modern Art (which is in a lovely cool park alongside the river running through town). So. it was rather boring waiting as ken recuperated.

But, here he is as we left the hotel at 7.30 am bound for the main border with Albania about 15 miles away. That's the hotel behind - lovely innit!

The road to the border started well, but soon deteriorated to a windy dirt road. That's because after many years of closure it is being reinstated. But it's tough on cyclists and took ages to negotiate. Crossing was easy, after which we really felt like we were in bandit country.
Here's our first sight of Albania - Lake Shkroder in the early morning mists.

There's also a railway crossing the border, but it hasn't been used in years - so now it's made best use of by sheep and goats see below!

There then followed two days of hot cycling on roads that really did improve after Shkroder. People there are so intent on progressing, hence all the new roads and helpful welcoming folk, like the guy who escorted us on this scooter all the way through Shkroder so that we could get on the right road. Or the girls in the Red Bull mini who accosted us and plyed us with cold drinks and took photograhs as we enterd another very hot town.

Our route was via Shkroder, Durressi, Fier to Vlora where we left the plains and started to head for the mountains in the south. This picture is at the end of the coastal plains and shows the only rolling stock we saw on any of the miles of railway that still exists. It was two carriages and a diesel going at walking pace!

Here's Vlora, a lovely resort town now frequented by many hard up Italians keen on getting a cheap holiday, there are direct ferries to Italy from here.

As we hit the mountains the weather really changed, with massive thunderstorms and torrential rain. We spent two days climbing and descending the most amazing roads I have ever seen. On the first day we climbed from sea level to 1045 metres in 24 kms and took 4 hours doing it. I was forced to push the bike over much of the last 4kms as it was too steep even for my gearing. Another memory of that day is sheltering from the rain in a honey seller's abandoned shelter thatched with bracken as the storm raged around. Getting good pictures was hard because of the swirling mists and rain, but here's one of our descent to the coast.

After a night in Hamare we headed south through gradually easier terrain bound for Saranda where we were aiming to get the 1.00pm ferry for Corfu. We managed to lose each other, and by text message found each other at the ferry office 10 mins before the ferry was due to sail at 12.45 pm!!! Gulp, but we managed it and had a great trip by aging hydrofoil to Kerkira, drinking the beer that Ken had purchased with the last of our Albanian Leks as we went. It was two happy guys who landed in Greece that afternoon. Here's the port with strom clouds still looming.

The following day we took the ferry for Igoumenitsa and cycled south for two days bound for Levkas. There's little to remark on apart from Ken's broken spoke (and the wonderful scenery of course), here he is repairing it at the top of another climb, but with a good view of Levkas for us in the distance.

So, we got to Levkada at 4.00pm on 10 October and here's the proof, with me by Simmare. Later today we are off to Sivota at the southern end of the island to leave my bike at Martin and Sue's house, ready for another adventure somewhere, who knows where, in 2012 or 2013.

I am very please to have completed this journey so successfully though and to have discovered so much wonderful country and such friendly Balkan people. I am sure I'll be back!

Best wishes to all my readers (both of you!)


PS - basic stats :-
  • 35 days on the road 6 September to 10 October
  • 27 days riding
  • 1288 miles or 2060 kms
  • 47.7 miles per cycling day
  • 36.8 miles per day including the 8 rest days.
  • Seven countries, loadsa hills!!!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Meandering in Mountainous Montenegro

This blog is written in a high mountainous ski resort in central Montenegro. It has been 9 days since the last blog and since then Ken has turned up in Belgrade and we have cycled up into the mountains out of Serbia and into Crna Gorna, Montenegro to us. It has been hard work so we decided to take a couple of days to rest our tired old bones!

Belgrade was OK, but not particularly inspiring. You will see what I mean from these two pictures - me on the castle ramparts and Ken outside our Hotel.

Actually the Terazie was not as bad as it looks and it was very central. But we were pleased to head out to our next place which went by the wonderful name of Ub. It was just a way stop and we were really heading for the first mountains at Divcibare a Serbian Ski resort at about 1050 metres. That was probably the hardest climb as the road was not graded for anything but local traffic, so was very steep in places. The next three pictures show the roads as they got steeper and a typical farm, this one with a still if you look closely.

The next two pictures were taken last Saturday as Ken and I whizzed away downhill from our small ski hotel out on to the rolling hills that rise gradually towards the Serbian border. There were lots of very traditional farms with hay stooks ready for the winter and everywhere people getting in their huge supplies of logs to see them through the snow that is not far away now.

We stopped at a town called Uzice, probably one of the most uninspiring places, but we had little alternative given the lack of choice of any other roads to take us up and to the border. The hotel was the worst of all. It must have been built in communist times and is now semi derelict. It had my great big Serbian wedding going on in the restaurant as we arrived. We were sent up to the 4th floor to a really tatty room where most things did not work and were falling apart. The next morning the lift was broken so we had to walk down to the ground floor - it was then we realised that the bottom three floors were like building sites as the rooms there had been taken out of use, probably to re-use the bits on the floor above. We also reckoned it was designed to look like a space rocket or the tower out of Close Encounters, which was a popular film when the hotel was built. Here it is. Ugh.
The following day we climbed hard amongst all the traffic to get up to Zlatibor where the scenery changes to high Alpine. It was lovely leaving our ski chalet the next morning bound for our last stop in Serbia before the border. At least the cycling made up for the next hotel we got to. This was much like the last, but even more rundown. Here it is below. It was probably built at a time when the middle class communists were told where to go on holiday, so they built places like this up in the mountains. But, the kitchen did manage to rustle up one of the best steaks ever for only 3 pounds! Here it is with me leaving for the border on a very cool misty morning.

Frankly, I was pleased to leave Serbia. We met some lovely people, like the old lady who found us eating lunch sitting on her wood pile and promptly brought us nuts, plums and apples to eat, or the couple who invited us in for coffee and were keen to talk about Serbia and its past problems and how those affect it now - bad reputation, lack of tourists etc.. But getting to the border was good and as we did the weather brightened, cloud lifted and we were in sunshine for a wonderful ride to Prijelo Polje the nearest big town. Here is Ken sorting his stuff out and the following picture is of the view back to the border.

Suddenly things seemed brighter with people seemingly smiling more and more of a holiday atmosphere. That day took us to Mojkovac, which is not too impressive apart from the fact that it sits on the Tara River. Ken also tells me that we did a continual ascent for about 45 miles that day! Here is me just about to descend to the River plain and the next picture shows Mojkovac with the plain.

Now, at ti stage we could have carried on over the hills in the distance direct to Podgarice, the capital, but we had heard from some German cyclists we had met that the Tara River Gorge, which is a Unesco World Heritage site must not be missed, so that is why we have meandered up here, adding about 4 days to our journey but going through the most magnificent scenery I have ever biked through.

This next picture shows is taken looking back up the valley towards Mojkovac. Huge steep sides with little flat areas of farmed land wherever possible.
Then you get to the deep gorge, which at this time has a small river running and is enclosed by massive steep walls. These pictures do not do it justice - there could have been more of them, but we were enjoying the whizzing down so much that the pictures just did not get taken. But the vast bridge at the end, where we turned off to climb up the mountains where we now are gives some idea of the scale of things.

Whizzing down is fine, but it does mean a climb up. In this case it was a 10 km climb rising to 1385 metres. We had to pace ourselves on that one! Here is a picture of what greeted us when we had done the climb. The last is a view from the chalet where we are staying.

So, tomorrow we set off across more mountains before descending into the river valley that will ultimately take us down to Podgarice two days from now. Then it is into Albania on Monday and hopefully into Greece by the weekend of 8 and 9 October. All going well the last blog will be done from Levkas sometime around then.

That is it for the moment, next blog in about 10 days. Love to all who read this.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Biking in the Balkans

Hello those of you who have been wondering where I am after a break of almost 16 months since the last update. Well now it's a BALKANS RIDE!!!!!

I am writing this sitting in an internet bookshop in Belgrade having yesterday completed the first 592 miles from Domacyny in Poland via the Carpathians in south Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and northern Serbia. It's been very hot and dry with temps in the upper 20's or 30's every day apart from the mountainous bit. But my cycling friend Ken, who is due to join me later day when he arrives from England has brought the rain and cold with him - it's pouring outside and the temperature has dropped by about 10 degrees.

So, a few reflections on the journey thus far :-
  • Poland - brilliant, welcomed by Marek in Krakow, looked after by family in Domacyny and best of all - reacquainted with my bike! I even managed to find a great bike shop in Mielec and cycled through Agnieska's village where Liz and I will be going to her wedding with Gresziek next year. And the country has come on in leaps and bounds sine we first visited as a family 20 years ago.
  • Slovakia - not so brilliant, it looked little different from the then Czechoslovakia that we passed through in 1991. So, making use of the incline towards the Hungarian plain and noting that as I was going south it must have been downhill, I sped through in less than two days with only one overnight stop in a non-existent campsite.
  • Hungary - why don't more people visit this fascinating country. As I arrived there I felt I emerging back into western Europe - there's far more of a pride about the place than Slovakia, it's clean and apart from the vast fields with no farms anywhere to be seen (a throwback to the past collectivisation of agriculture - as in Slovakia, but not Poland which is still a country of small farmers) you could be in Western Europe. The people were lovely,the only problem being the weird language they speak - apparently related to Finnish, a group came into this area from Asia many centuries ago (as did the Slavs, Huns, Celts etc.) and land pressure forced some north with the Magyars remaining here.
  • Serbia - such a friendly bunch of people with no apparent grudge against we NATO types who bombed them only 12 years ago. So far here it's been very flat cycling by the Tisza as it flowed into Serbia and now by the Danube, although some hills are starting to appear and I know Ken and I have some hard work ahead!
Now how about some pictures.

These are of Kasia, Andrej's wife, Adam, her parents and Leszek, my deceased cousin Christina's husband. We'd just had a Sunday afternoon meal on the farm. The next is of Darek and Katerina with their two sons Jacub and Kaspar - they were just about to drive back to England after a month at home renovating their lovely old farmhouse - what a change in since I stayed there in 2005.

This shows typical farming country in southern Poland - here workers are harvesting spuds.
And this proves that I did indeed visit Agnieszka's village

Now into Slovakia, this was taken at the highest point of the Carpathian crossing - not very high really!
I then took a small side road to get off the main drag - through tiny villages that have been systematically depopulated through war, famine and ethnic cleansing - the people who lived here practised a Greco-Catholic religion, all that remains of them are their beautiful wooden churches.

That night was rather grim, with nowhere to stay, but the next morning the landscape made up for it as the suN emerged and warmed us all. The a speedy ride to Hungary - that's it in the distance in the second picture, with vineyards staring to appear on the slopes.
So, into Hungary and to a lovely unpronounceable place called SATORALJAUJEHELY! Here's the border crossing followed by a picture of the cared for pristine town square.

Not that everything in Hungary is up to date - here's my first horse and cart up till then, many since though.
But really Hungary is very civilised how about this for a bus shelter. I took the picture because it was here that the local police almost impounded my bike as I left it unattended when nipping into the cafe next door - now, would you get that level of service in England?
My next destination was Tokaj ,where I had my first day of rest. It's famous for the sweet wine of the region used as a dessert wine normally. A lovely place where eastern Hungary's two main rivers meet the Tisza (it's massive) and the Bogrud (I think). I took this at the join of the rivers.
There then followed 3 days of pretty hard riding averaging 70plus miles everyday as I crossed the almost totally flat plain towards the border with Serbia in the south and the meeting of the Tisza, which I followed on mostly good bike routes, with the Danube close to Szeged. Everyonce in a while there's a ferry crossing, normally a wire restrained wooden vessel powered by a puttering diesel or an outboard attached to a small boat roped alongside - all very basic, but worth it given the small amount of traffic and the width of the river.
I camped a couple of times, but on one occasion I arrived tired at 6.00pm to find no campsite "es ist Kaputt" in the words of a local (they speak a lot of German down there - something to do with the Austro-Hungarian Empire or war I imagine). I asked a second opinion from a lady out running she said the same, but said wait a minute. Not knowing what to expect when she said come with me I then found myself being offered a night in a cabin in a closed down children's camp, so here's my abode!
And so to Szeged a small city of elegant churches ceremonial halls and theatres and parks lying by the Tisza River, on which it depends for its affluence and which has also destroyed it at least three times. The first photo is of a statue of the the town's water engineer in the 19th century, the plauques at its base (bottom left show the high water level in 1997 and 2006 - and this park is well above river level now!) The second picture is a statue depicting the people in 1956 attempting to support the butterfly of freedom that was trying to fly at that time.
Now, there's no picture of me crossing the Serbian border. It's much more formal and the crossing involved me having illegally (??) to cycle down the motorway for about 10 miles, so pictures weren't uppermost - border guards and police are mostly full of their own importance and it's not worth trying it on with them. Soon, however I got to Palic, a small resort town close to the border that Liz and I stayed in in 2009. This picture will prove to Liz that I went there - it's not the two of us!
Next stop was Subotica. It's renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture - is this that??
Then on through hot steamy Serbia to Novi Sad. Another ex-communist country, its people are now thoroughly westernised, but its social infrastructure has a lot to be desired - here a picture from a bar (lots of Cokes drunk) showing a typical town street with the usual rather grim blocks behind - it must look drab in the cold snowy winter.
Novi Sad, where I spent a couple of nights is known for hosting one of the biggest music festivals in Europe - Exit. It's held within the walls of its Citadel which overlooks the Danube. The first picture shows the city square - note that elegant brick church (it looks better at night) alongside the drab communist era block. But its full of life and both evenings there was local folk dancing in the square and a real festival atmosphere.
I made a visit to the Citadel, it has the most amazing fortifications, all bastions and star layouts allowing the best chance to get at the invaders. Here's a picture taken from the bridge whose predecessor we blew up in 1999. The memorial records the death of a young civilian - "collateral damage".
...................and finally, you're never very far from home - this reminded me of Dorchester South Street. Can it be the same shop?

That's all for now. I hope it hasn't been too tedious. If you've got this far - well done!! I'll make sure not to do another for some time. In fact cannot imagine when that might be. But I'm sure I'll complete with the next leg at some stage, probably after Ken and I have done south Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and are in Greece.

Love to all!!