(Emily) We braced ourselves for the ride east out of Albania and much to our surprise, it was absolutely fine; possibly one of the best roads we’ve ridden on to date!! With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d enjoyed myself a little more as the smooth tarmac wound gently round mountain sides and through lush valleys but I was too worried that every corner we turned would pitch us into a pot hole! For quite a while we were riding along a series of mountain ridges with stunning views on either side but again, I was too busy concentrating on the road surface. Ah well, better safe than sorry!
The border crossing into Macedonia was fairly straightforward (though €50 each for insurance, ouch!) and we were soon riding alongside Lake Ohrid, our destination being the town of Ohrid itself. (Albania actually shares a third of the lake’s shoreline but we’d heard that visiting the Macedonian side was much more picturesque, i.e. not strewn with garbage…) We were a little caught off guard as we rode into the town and found ourselves mobbed by accommodation touts on bicycles and scooters, blocking our way forward. (It was the first time such a thing had happened, a downside of entering a more touristy destination). Once we’d lied that we had a reservation at the hostel, one guy did actually offer to show us the way there which was really kind. It was yet another cobbled old town but at least this time it wasn’t fully pedestrianised so we hesitantly followed his scooter up onto the pavement, through the main square and up into the steep winding streets. I grew somewhat anxious as the narrow lanes got narrower and steeper still and in the end, I had to stop and wait for James to come back and ride the last bit for me (wussy, but not worth dropping and damaging the bike again!) The hostel didn’t have parking as such but James managed to ride up the particularly steep entrance and squeeze the bikes into a small spot by the gate – quite how we would get them out again was another problem for another day…
Ohrid, far from what the name suggests, is a very pretty town situated on the lakeside with green parks by the waterfront and a very relaxed vibe. It is probably the most touristy place we’ve been since Rome, and has quite a resort feel to it, but as most of the tourists were from Macedonia and the surrounding countries, it still felt very foreign to us. We didn’t do a whole lot during our three day stay (apparently there was an ancient amphitheatre at the top of the hill which we didn’t even realise ‘til the day we left, oops!) but it was a chance to do some laundry, reflect on Albania and generally chill out. There were some nice people staying at the hostel, and Jocko, the guy who ran the place, was lovely. One girl, Gabriella, offered us a place to stay in Skopje within about five minutes of meeting us; representative of the general warmth and kindness we received from Macedonians. Another guy, Oliver, was mid-way through cycling from Brussels to Jerusalem (having done many other overland bike trips in the past year or so) and when he left, we ended up passing him when we went for a day trip up the mountain in the nearby national park! He already been in the saddle for about 3 hours that day and we felt a little guilty rocking up after a 20 minute motorbike ride!
James: Skopje hadn’t really been in our plans as we’d read that it was a bit of a concrete jungle (the city was pretty much destroyed in a large earthquake in the 60’s and rebuilt in a typically ‘soviet’ fashion) but having been offered a place to stay with a local we decided to go, leaving Ohrid and heading north east for the 120 mile ride to Skopje. The ride north was fantastic with great roads winding through beautiful green hills and mountains whose slopes were dotted with little isolated villages and the minarets of mosques. The weather was great but, as has been the case so much in the last 3 weeks, the mountains all around us were covered in sinister looking dark grey clouds which seemed to constantly threaten to descend on us. In the end we rolled into Skopje at 5pm and once in the centre tried to call Gabriella to get directions but despite being in the capital, Em’s phone didn’t seem to be able to get any reception so eventually we had to give up and head over to a local hostel. The hostel itself was a pretty funky affair (it’s called the Art Hostel) and the room we stayed in was bizarre to say the least – the walls and ceiling made being in the room like being in a psychedelic zorb ball (you’ll have to look it up if that doesn’t mean anything to you!).
Our walk around Skopje that evening showed that once again the guide books have got it wrong, and that even into the most grey and concrete of cities, if you’re prepared to scratch a little beneath the surface, you can find charm and character. Following a suggestion from the girl working in the hostel (she warned us it wasn’t the fashionable place to go – luckily not an issue for us!), we did just that and had a great evening with great food. Macedonia in general seemed to have food that was pretty much perfect for Em but the little bistro we found that evening blew her away! Em likes cheese, she likes it with everything which is apparently the signature of Macedonian cuisine, so we had what appeared to be a large meat pattie with lumps of cheese in it – covered in cheese, fries – covered in cheese, a side order of bread – covered in cheese, and a salad – covered in cheese. Curiously, they don’t seem to have a cheese course with their meals but then, why would they?! Whilst in Skopje we visited the castle that looks over the town (probably more accurately described as a building site with an ornate ancient wall surrounding it) and wandered round the old Turkish quarter and the bazaar that sits below it which pretty much meant we’d ‘done’ the capital (most visitors appear to be simply passing through).
The next morning after squeezing the bikes out of the courtyard of the hostel, we hit the road and headed east, our target for the day being the small town of Kriva Palinka and, with luck, a working monastery where we hoped to spend the night. Our ride east involved the usual storm dodging and for the most part we were lucky, only getting caught in a heavy downpour once; as soon as we would get ahead on a bit a straight section of road we get to another mountain valley that would see our progress slow as the road followed the contours of the cliffs and inevitably the weather would catch us back up again! Our progress on the roads now, particularly after rain, is much slower as the road surfaces have deteriorated somewhat (we try to only travel on minor roads) and even when relatively smooth, each mile will see us having to dodge a minimum of a dozen potholes – forget the potholes you know about though, these ones can be a metre wide, a metre long and 30cm deep with vertical sides so hitting one would be disastrous! It also means that when it’s raining, I often try to keep an eye on a slow moving vehicle in front as these potholes can fill up and in doing so even the most innocent looking puddle can spell trouble! This policy of avoiding and treating puddles with suspicion is one I can’t help but think will only become more relevant as the trip goes on.
(Emily) We reached Kriva Palanka just as the rain started to fall once again but had no idea where the monastery was so stopped in at a grocers to get some provisions and ask for directions. James used his pigeon German to good effect once again and got the gist of how to get there, but even that failed in producing courgettes for our dinner so the point-it book got its first airing!! Next thing we knew, the shopkeeper had invited us for a coffee and also plied us with a free bag of peppers and tomatoes (irrespective of the fact we’d just purchased some and clearly had no room to carry them!!) He and his wife were so kind and welcoming, even offering a place to stay with their family should the monastery be closed. It’s a privilege meeting such people.
We’d seen pictures of the monastery in a hostel guide book, and been told by several Macedonians it was lovely (supposedly the best in the country), but nothing had prepared us for its awe-inspiring beauty. We couldn’t believe that we would actually be able to stay at such a place but we’d read that ‘travellers are welcome anytime’. It was not yet dusk and, apart from the ‘innkeeper’ waving a friendly hello, there was no one around, providing an even more atmospheric approach. Make sure you check out the photos, though they won’t quite convey the air of peace and tranquillity that envelops the impressive monastery as it sits on its lofty mountain side perch amid the swirling mists. When shown to our room, we had another surprise – far from the plain stone-walled dorm we had been expecting, we were led into a smartly furnished double that any hotel would be proud of. All this for €10… we were tempted to move in (James: or convert!)!! It was a perfect end to our stay in Macedonia and we both slept incredibly well in preparation for country number 9 the next day…