It was early February. We had been on the road now for just over a year and cycled through all four seasons, including temperatures above 40ºC and below 0ºC. We had managed to traverse Asia in this year and were now waiting for a ferry to take us from Turkey to Greece, leaving the Asian continent behind and setting foot on European ground. I must admit it was an emotional ferry ride, and I kept imagining the Greek police welcoming us with a big smile and a warm: “Welcome home!”. I guess I had watched too many American movies. Instead of a friendly welcome, we were greated with the by now normal “open all your bags” order from the officer. How many smugglers travel by bicycle?
Greece captured us for an entire three months! In Athens, our first destination after a one night stop on the island Chios, we met up once again with my parents. One entire week of relaxing, a bit of sight-seeing, drinking coffees (or frappe) and eating delicious food.
After recharging our batteries a bit, we left the busy and somewhat rundown Athens behind to head for a small village on the Pelepones, Leonidio. This village is surrounded by impressive rock walls and has turned into a new climbing hot spot. We planned to stay for a few weeks, but it took us 1,5 months before we recovered our motivation to leave these beautiful walls behind us and start the last cycling episode.
What especially impressed me in Greece, was the high diversity in flora and reptiles. We were lucky to be there in spring and literaly witness nature coming alive with color. The olive tree plantations are generally not “cleaned” of plants, resulting in a high diversity in the ground covering flora and a good soil quality. Moreover I had never seen so many terrestrial turtles and snakes as in this area. On one climb on a southern mountain slope, I counted an amazing 19 turtles on a 1,5km stretch. The presence of bears and wolves contributes to the healthy ecosystems. My personal highlight though, was getting a short glimpse at a wildcat, the first I had ever seen in the wild.
From Greece we continued on to Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe with a curious history of a paranoid communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, who had led the small country into complete isolation. After crossing the border I felt like I had gone back to Central Asia, admittedly with a bit of an Europan touch. Old cars, bad roads, curious and friendly people and cheap food.
Albania has a bad reputation as being a dangerous place where criminal bands roam the streets looking for something to steel. If they exist, we never encountered them. What we did encounter were friendly faces, asking us about why we had come to Albania and why we didn't come in our Mercedes (apparently every German citizen owns one).
A lot of Albania is mountainous, tough on the legs but oh so beautiful. Before arriving in Tirana, the capital, we spent a couple of days in the Shebenik Jabllanice national park, where we met the director, co-workers and the park rangers. You can read about it here. What's especially interesting in this country is the moratorium on hunting. After the collaps of communism, wildlife numbers soon started to dwindle. The situation got critical, until the government prohibited hunting completely in 2014. This measure also makes the ranger job safer, as they are less likely to encounter someone in the field with a weapon.
Just before entering Tirana, I had my first and only close encounter with a dog. Dogs react very strongly to cyclists and we have been chased and viciously barked at all over the world. This time, however, the dog got closer. Just as I was pedalling past, he lunged towards me and bit into the front panier. I was struggling to keep the bike straight and as he let go I lost control. Fortunately I was able to jump off, letting the bike skid across the road. Very fortunately the dog didn't aim at my thighs! Besides a hole in the pannier, everything was OK. However, after this incident, cycling past dogs was never the same again.
We spent a few days in Tirana, a city in transition with creativity at every corner. Continued to Skoder, a city where surprisingly everyone cycles! And then continued to Montenegro, country number 15.
Not surprisingly Montenegro (the black mountain) is mountainous. We decided against going to the coast and Montenegro's most touristic area, the bay of Kotor and stayed inland. We were rewarded with small solitary roads, long up-hill climbs, stunning views and gorgiuos camping spots. Our GPS decided to send us on a short cut, and as always the short cut ended up being very hard with lots of pushing and carrying the bicycle. We didn't see bears, but spotted a small horned viper (Vipera ammodytes) warming up on the rocks after a very cold night.
I had expected to spend two nights in Montenegro, since it's such a small country, and then cross over to Bosnia y Herzegovina. We had selected a small border crossing, where we assumed there would be less traffic. What we didn't consider though, that even in Europe there are borders where only nationals can cross. A man picking wild flowers spared us from heading to this border, located at the bottom of a 800m drop in elevation. It meant staying another night in Montenegro, but we found a beautiful spot in a meadow with wildflowers and a tawny owl cooing during the night.
Part II coming soon.
On our bicycle journey we are raising money for the Thin Line Foundation, a foundation dedicated to improving working and therewith life conditions for park rangers across the globe. Please, if you have the opportunity, join us and donate by clicking here!