Archive for June, 2010

(Im)patient

Monday, June 28th, 2010

(Emily) Last night, James finally persuaded me to leave the confines of the hostel and make a long overdue return visit to the bar round the corner. I think the prospect of watching the England match with about two other people on a crappy tv outside the hostel was too much to bear and consequently I got a piggyback all the way down there! I have to say, I was resistant at first as the jolting around is a killer for my foot, but I’m glad we made the effort; despite England’s somewhat inevitable exit, we had a great evening and it did me good to have a change of scene. All the gang were down there, being very chivalrous with Sasha lifting me over the tables (no easy feat but he’s a big bear of a man) and Big Haci lending me his jacket when I got cold (James, being the good doctor, insisted I have more ice on my foot but it soon turned my whole leg numb…) We had a good chat with a guy from Melbourne, Rick,  who had just arrived in Istanbul, and two more Aussies, Scott and Ben, who were staying at the same hostel as us. This helped take James’ mind off the match (and the terrible injustice of the disallowed goal) – he was not a happy bunny – and by the time Argentina were giving Mexico a thorough pasting, spirits were high again. I suspect it was a little harder to get over for those in the midst of it all back home…

Little Haci insisted on being the mule on the way home (I think I ruined the poor guy) and it was sad to say goodbye – he’s about to leave Istanbul to do his military service and was obviously feeling apprehensive about the whole thing. I’ve always been of the opinion, based on limited knowledge admittedly, that military service is a great idea as it must give sense of achievement and responsibility  to young adults at a time in life where apathy is an all too easy option. However, when one looks at it from the other perspective – it means being uprooted from your family and friends for 15 months with the real possibility of going into combat – the programme is perhaps not quite so laudable. Good luck, Haci : )

Fed up and grumpy, moi?

Friday, June 25th, 2010

First things first: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESSIE & LIZZIE!! Have a twin-tastic birthday, wish we were able to celebrate with you tonight. Hope you like the pressies we sent back with Dad : )

So, what news? Well, yesterday I didn’t even leave my bed thus cranking up the boredom to a new level. The doctor may have been tall, dark and handsome but that didn’t seem to do much for his bedside manner when he literally ripped my cast and bandages off on Tuesday evening. Open cuts + bandages stuck to them + sadistic doctor = owwwwwww!!! Leg feels good to be ‘free’ but now going all sorts of colours and my ankle has yet to make an appearance (I have the cankle of all cankles). Can’t move my foot, apart from the toes, and can’t even begin to put weight on it yet - trying to get up causes excrutiating pain as all the blood rushes down to the swelling. Am not a very good patient! James, however, is being a very good nursemaid (he only dropped the rucksack on my foot once…) and is also having a bit of a mare trying to sort out all the paperwork generated by the crash.  And it’s raining.

Still, things could be worse! At least I’m getting the chance to do some reading and, of course, play Scrabble! Really enjoying everyone’s messages and emails, keep ‘em coming. Have just put some Istanbul pics on if you’re interested…

Istanbul

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

(Emily) My current immobility/boredom has given me the chance to write up the first bit of Turkey (photos to follow). Thanks everyone for the messages and emails : ) Love you bigtime!  

Crossing the border from Bulgaria seems like ages ago (it kind of is – we’ve been in Turkey for nearly two weeks now…) We were a little apprehensive on the approach as our detour to Burgas in Bulgaria meant that we came south to cross at fairly minor point rather than the main border at Erdine; we were worried that we might get turned back! It was our first more ‘serious’ border crossing, with officials directing you from one office cubicle to the next to the next, and we felt excited to be entering Turkey, something of a milestone destination for us. Comedy moment was when we’d got all our documents in order and were going through the final checkpoint. The guy took James’ passport and stamped it, then we tried to pass him mine and he goes “No, no, drivers only”. Er, hello!!! Despite the fact I was there sitting astride my own bike, it didn’t quite compute that a girl could be more than a mere passenger- a little insight for me there of what’s to come!

The highway road leading towards Istanbul was brand spanking new (they’re sprucing up the roads system as part of the campaign to join the EU) so although the thought of motorway for the whole day was not a fun one, at least it would be a relatively easy ride. And it was… until we reached the outskirts of Istanbul. Oh. My. God. For a start, the sheer size of the city was just overwhelming; the high rises and roads stretched for as far as the eye could see. And the traffic; bloody hell!!! I guess it didn’t help that we had arrived at rush hour, or that we then took the wrong exit road which added about an hour’s detour, but it was just crazy town! We were soon following local bikes down the hard shoulder as it was the only way to avoid the constant beeping, cutting up and general nut-bar behaviour. It also didn’t help that I needed the loo more than I ever had in more entire life and was in excruciating pain!!! When we finally spotted signs for ‘Sultanahmet’ where we were heading, we were in a bit of a daze. Luckily a friendly passer-by, a really nice guy called Furkan, gave us directions and eventually we made it into the relative calm of the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet, the main tourist district in Istanbul due to its proximity to all the major sights. Phew! We lived to see another day!

 

Istanbul is one cool city and, despite being tourist-tastic, we really like Sultanahmet. It seems very young and cosmopolitan, with lots of parks and a tram system that gets you about easily and cheaply. Our hostel boasts a fantastic location between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, both colossal in size and architectural wonders. It’s a chilled place to walk around, people watch and take in a little culture. Food’s not great (to James’ great disappointment as he had high hopes) but then I don’t think Istanbul, and in particular this area, is representative of the rest of the country in the culinary stakes… we hope not anyway, we’re here for a while! It’s also far more expensive than we had expected – especially petrol at nearly £1.70 per litre – so we’re trying to stick to our free breakfast at the hostel then a kebab from Kadir (street vendor, much better food than all the bars and  restaurants) in the evening. Oh, and all the beers of course – prerequisite to accompany the football!!

We’ve been really struck by how friendly and helpful people have been towards us. Inevitably there are the inexhaustible carpet sellers, market vendors and front of house restaurant staff who become your biggest fan for the two minutes you walk past their business then mutter insults as soon as you’ve passed (yeah, we may not speak the language but it’s not hard to interpret), but the people we’ve come to know better are nothing but genuine. The guys down at the bar, that we frequent all too often, have really looked out for us, especially since I had my accident. Little Haci (not to be confused with Big Haci) even invited us to his sister’s wedding last Friday! (Unfortunately it was the day we were visa hoop-jumping but that would have been cool). The nature of the way the Turkish bars are laid out, with cushions on the floor in a horseshoe and shared tables, means that you soon get chatting to the people next to you and so, as well as the guys working here, we met some lovely fellow travellers. On the first evening, we had a real laugh with Aric and Angi from Virginia, Washington (hello guys!) and were also kept amused by Zach and Andy, college students from the US, who got steadily drunker and drunker on their ‘beer tower’. Each evening brings a different set of people and it’s so interesting to find out who they are and what they’re about – ended up chatting to a retired couple, Tom and Penny, the other night who had just been to Exeter (where I went to uni) to discuss an architectural proposal for the new school for the deaf. When they were travelling around Europe in the 70s, they sketched everything instead of taking photos as the film was so expensive to buy and develop: I love that! For the last few evenings we have been watching the football  with Albert from the Netherlands. He and his friend Daniel have been riding round Eastern Europe on their XT and Aprilia and were due to leave Istanbul on Friday, but unfortunately one of the bikes (no guesses which – always the Italian) conked out. Despite them being mechanics, there was no fixing it so Daniel headed off while Albert waited for alternative transport. The drama of the overland biker’s life, eh?!!

 

Speaking of which, as we were parking up outside the hostel on our first day we got chatting to two Aussies, brothers Dean and Paul, who are riding to Magadan in far eastern Russia on a crazy route which took them up the length of Africa including the DRC (Deeply Risky Congo). It was really interesting chatting to them about their experiences in Africa (check it out on their blog; see links page) which seemed to go from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright scary!! Both lovely guys, they’ve continued from Turkey on quite a similar route to us so were able to give us invaluable advice about visas (lucky for us, they had just been through the whole palaver in Istanbul so helped us find the correct locations for consulates and ensured we filled in the right forms) and are now a great source of info for the countries we heading too. And not only that but Dean gave us his whole i-Tunes collection – up ‘til then we had no music on our netbook – so thanks, Dean!!

One good thing about being in Istanbul for a prolonged period of time is that we’ve had two family visitors (so far…!) As luck would have it, BMI has just started a partnership with Turkish Airlines so Dad has spent a week training some Turkish pilots. He just so happened to start and finish his week in Istanbul so we’ve got to see him twice (the second time was the day after my accident so Daddy’s little girl was very pleased to get a big hug). Then we managed to persuade Dan, James’ little brother, to come over for a weekend break. He was dubious at first as he was leaving for the US on Tuesday to do Camp America but we’re very glad he blew caution to the wind and got his a*** over here – we had a wicked time showing him the sights (er, the bar) and although he had to spend the whole evening without us on Sat while we were at the hospital, he’d made enough friends by then to saunter down to watch the football on his own. Wish you could have stayed longer, Dan, and good luck in NYC! (Maybe you’ll finally start reading our blog now you’re actually in it…)

Not ideal.

Monday, June 21st, 2010

(Emily) Soooooo, our mild distaste toward Istanbul taxi drivers has now blossomed into full on antipathy – what they want to learn to do is LOOK before they pull out and do a u-turn on an otherwise empty road. Result: see below. Now our departure (meant to be today) has been put back at least ten days and I’m going to be getting pretty bored seeing as I can’t actually move unaided.

Early on Saturday evening, James and I were returning from Daytona Yamaha, very happy with our newly pristine bikes and the friendly service delivered by Bener, a lovely guy who works there who has bent over backwards to help us. We’d left Dan at the hostel, uttering the fateful words ‘See you in about an hour…’ It was not to be. Whilst on one of the few stretches of road that wasn’t jammed bumper to bumper with traffic, a taxi parked to my right decided to pull out into a u-turn with no indication or warning. Luckily, I was going slow (mototortoise, I should be called) and I had a few seconds to react and brake, but basically there was nothing I could do. He clipped my right side and I just couldn’t keep the bike upright. B*****ks!!!!

It was all a bit crazy after that. James stopped and ran back to me as soon as he saw what had happened in his mirror, plus the taxi driver and several passers-by. My right leg was not feeling too happy, but mostly I was worried about the bike and my shoe – ‘Get them out of the road, and me too while you’re at it!’ Once I’d been deposited on some steps by the side of the road, James tried in vain to get my bike to start and, with the help of a local, got it over to the pavement. The taxi driver meanwhile was offering to take me to the hospital – er, that would be a no! Ironically, although this had all happened outside a police station, there were no policemen to be seen for quite some time. I decided to text Bener from the bike shop to see if he could come down and help us with the bikes/do some much needed translating while we waited for the ambulance. He arrived shortly before the paramedics  – what a star – and assured us he would look after the bikes. The nurses were busy poking and  prodding me to establish what hurt and soon my leg was enveloped in a plastic sheath which was then inflated to keep it still (I thought that was pretty cool). Slight panic when they stretchered me onto the ambulance and I was worried I would have to leave without James, but with Bener’s help we established that we could file the police report at the hospital so James hopped into the front. I’d never been in an ambulance before, let alone in a foreign country with two nurses who couldn’t communicate with me, so that was a bit surreal.

I won’t bore you with the epic that was our experience at the hospital (James might later…) but on the plus side, I was seen very quickly and had multiple x-rays which established no break. On the downside, we then had a really drawn out process of paperwork (our documentation was all back at the hostel which really didn’t help smooth things along) involving long waits and dodgy bribes. It was gone 2 am before we finally got to bed and poor Dan had had to fend for himself for the evening (which he did admirably by eating kebabs, drinking beer and watching the football at our local!)

 The whole thing has been really rather tiresome and inconvenient. The hospital couldn’t even give crutches so I’ve become a complete invalid (James getting me showered while I sat on a plastic chair with my leg in a bag would have been comedy if it wasn’t so bloody awkward) and James is now having to continue the paper trail by going back and forth between police stations, doctors and the garage where my bike is currently impounded. However, things could have been a lot worse and the people here at the hostel and our ‘local’ have been so lovely; Sasha who owns the bar managed to get hold of a walking stick for me, though we have strong suspicions he liberated it from his gran! Even Dad was able to come by for a few hours before his flight back to Heathrow (he’d been training a Turkish Airline crew all week) and so I got even more spoilt (James has been doing a good job so far!) Then last night, James and Dan managed to take me round the corner by linking arms to form a makeshift swing seat so we could enjoy Dan’s last night with some beers and a shisha. So not all bad!

I guess now that I’m ‘convalescing’ I’ll be able to finally write up about Istanbul so far – it’s been really good fun and we’ve met some fantastic people – so watch this space. Please take pity on me and write me long and interesting emails (got no gossip? Make stuff up!) and I’m getting back involved with Scrabble on FB without a shadow of a doubt (that’s a silver lining right there!) Also, should you be at a loose end/needing to take some holiday time over the next week get yourself over here – James could do with the company and it’s a very cool place to visit. Do it!!

Stop press: Current update for once!

Friday, June 18th, 2010

(Emily) We’re now in Istanbul and got our third and final rejection for Iran the other day (I can hear your sighs of relief from here, Dad and Matt!) so our route will now take us through Georgia and Azerbaijan on our way to the ‘stans’. Today we picked up our Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan visas; result! (Yes, the border between the two is pretty much at meltdown at the moment but I’m sure we can pootle through no probs…) Never was I more glad of James’ experience commuting in London than today as he weaved in and out of the crazy Istanbul traffic, trying to make it from one consulate to the other across town in the hour’s window we had. I sensibly went for the pillion option – the 20 minute ride to take my bike to the Yamaha service centre was enough to put me off – but the lurching back and forth did not make for a comfortable ride (will be cracking out the sudocrem tonight…) We were too busy for lunch but I managed to inhale many lungfulls of exhaust fumes, so that was a tasty treat. Also we both have very sunburnt forearms after throwing caution to the wind and riding in t-shirts; rather that than pass out in the ridiculous heat. Brilliant. Now waiting for Dan (James’ little brother) to turn up – managed to persuade him to come out last minute – and then we can recover from what was a bit of a day (over 160 km of busy city riding combined with visa nerves = knackered) with a beer and the football. Awesome!

P.S. Thank you everyone for your recent messages – we’re not ashamed to admit we check with keen anticipation on a regular basis!

Veliko Tarnovo and Burgas

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(James) As usual, our planned early start saw us heading off at about 11am… Once we’d managed to find our way out of the labyrinth of little back streets in the old town we were able to quickly cross the river that divides the town and head north east. Before long, we located the small road we’d selected for our route that we hoped would give us a more scenic ride.  The journey to Veliko Tarnovo would see us head away from the Turkish border (to the SE) but although we were keen to get to Istanbul  and start lodging visa applications, we didn’t want to simply ride through Bulgaria without seeing anything. 

It was already hot as we left Plovdiv, but finally, we’d been able to wake up to a cloudless sky and were, for the first time on the trip, able to take our waterproof inner linings out of the jacket and enjoy riding without looking over our shoulders at the approaching storm clouds. Our target that was morning was to cross a plain and then a ridge of mountains, before dropping down into the Valley of the Roses, so named because, (as you’ve probably already guessed) it’s full of fields filled with roses. We made excellent progress as for the first time since Albania, we found ourselves riding in pretty much a straight line through farmland, before climbing over the mountain ridge and by early afternoon found ourselves riding through a valley with the most incredible smell of roses which had just that week been harvested and were now being prepared for the cosmetics industry.  

After stopping to pick up groceries for our lunch in the town of  Kazanlak and realising it was already far too hot to stay and eat, we decided to climb the mountains that sat over the town and find somewhere a bit cooler to stop. On the way, however, we did stop once. We were riding along when we both commented on some gleaming gold orbs on the side  of a hill in the distance. As we got closer we realised that they were 5 domes on a spectacular orthodox church. The church, a gift from Russia, seemed completely out of place as the surrounding  village of Shipka was anything but spectacular.  The mountain roads that followed were a little more like those we’d experienced in the Alps and Em (ever self-critical) was busy convincing herself that she’d completely forgotten how to ride hairpins but, as ever, as soon as we got to the first one she swung round and following a perfect line powered up the short straight to tackle the next one – she just won’t be convinced that she’s become a good rider!

Ever since Albania and the Ethnographical museum (no, I’d never heard of one either) Em has developed something of an obsession for them and so, although it pained me somewhat, we’d ‘agreed’ to stop in a small village at the bottom of the other side of the mountain, which claimed to have the country’s best Ethnographic museum (don’t they all?!) so the excitement in her voice was building as we reached the top (I wasn’t even allowed to stop for a photo!) and come to think of it, her descent was unusually rapid too. We all-too-quickly arrived in the village of Erta and Em hastily made lunch on the grass whilst I sorted a few things out (fell asleep) before she went off to see if it was still open (my suggestion to avoid having to get up unnecessarily). Her face as she came back over was hard to describe, but if I could put a sentiment to describe what it was saying I’d go for ‘you complete git’ so I opted to close my eyes and feign innocence to the fact that we’d obviously arrived just a few minutes too late! What this did mean was that we could get straight back on the road with a chance of trying to find the hostel (often an effort itself as they’re invariably located in the old part of town and we don’t have satnav) at a decent hour.

Less than hour later we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo and, as usual, quickly determined that our hostel was located at the top of the steepest, most heavily cobbled street in the town. Em made it a fair old way up before, probably sensibly, deciding that she’d wait for me to come back down on foot for her bike. The result of her losing her balance on the hill would not have been ideal for either rider or bike. Having located the hostel and parked up both bikes we found we were the only people staying (still too early in the season) so had the place to ourselves. Our view was fantastic looking straight over the vast castle ruins on the hill next to the town that once served as the capital of the second Bulgarian Kingdom. The town itself was really pretty, sitting on and in a gorge. It was also surprisingly cosmopolitan (not hard after the questionable ‘fashion’ scene of Plovdiv!) and is home to the most prestigious university in Bulgaria.

The next couple of days saw us visiting the castle (v hot), going to a wine tasting (highlight for Emily) and sampling the local food (too much) before heading east towards the Black Sea coast and the town of Burgas where we had a an offer from Rebekka, the German girl we’d met in Plovdiv, of a roof over our heads. The journey to Burgas was fairly tedious but we made reasonable time and by early evening we had located Rebekka’s flat, had a much needed shower and were wandering round the pretty town centre where Emily managed to have a drink (she’s always so strict when it comes to our budgeting) that cost more than 5 times more than my admittedly overly large beer! She’s now agreed to stick to beer until we reach the dry patch that is Islamic Asia! That evening we went out with Rebekka, her flatmate (and fellow German Johann) and friend from home Aura (who we’d met in Plovdiv) for dinner as it was Aura’s last night. Rebekka has been living in Burgas for almost a year working on an EU funded project  and also spending much of her time volunteering at a local orphanage which, apart from being very laudable, had also allowed her to become (at least to our ears) very capable speaking Bulgarian – not an easy task! We’d assumed that Rebekka and Aura were in their mid-twenties but were shocked to hear that they were both taking a year off between school and university (they’d also spent time in their mid-teens living and working on random farms during school holidays in different countries to learn languages!) which we found both really impressive yet slightly depressing as in the UK we just don’t, on the whole, see teenagers taking such initiative or showing such an interest in bettering themselves and others. We liked them a lot.

Plodding around Plovdiv

Monday, June 7th, 2010

(Emily) The Bulgaria border was a breeze – no mention of insurance and didn’t have to pay for a vignette (road tax) as motorcycles are exempt, bonus! The fantastic scenery we’d enjoyed in Macedonia continued and it was all very green and mountainous. As usual, we were being chased by storm clouds (or rather they were enveloping us from all sides) so we pressed on for quite some time, anxious to escape… inevitably, we didn’t and got caught in a really heavy shower; lovely. At least the roads  were reasonably good so you could get a pace on and dry out in the wind, but the winding routes they took round the mountains meant that progress was slow and the ominous black clouds were ever at our heels. Having been anxious for some food since lunchtime (me and hunger don’t mix well – think of the whinge ‘are we there yet?’; poor James got ‘can we eat yet?’ for a good few hours), we finally stopped for our sandwiches at 4pm and it was the quickest I ever ingested a meal (and I’m a fast eater anyway, right?) as James was convinced we were about to get caught again. Fun and games.

Anyway, we got to Plovdiv in pretty good time due to our ‘must not stop, must not get wet’ mantra and set about finding the hostel for which we had a flyer. Despite the ‘map’ on the leaflet, I think we must have been riding around for a good hour and asked at least 6 passers-by before we reached our destination; I was so hot and sweaty and desperate to get there that I tackled the ridiculously uneven cobbles of the steep road up to the hostel without hardly thinking about it. Progress! It was a cute place with a great view of the city and we got a little cubby hole room under the eaves (think Brambly Hedge, Lizzie). That night we ate out with Charlotte, a lovely lone traveller from the UK who been all over the place and had some good tales to tell. Felt a bit bad in the morning when we realised the time-zone had gone another hour ahead without us realising, and we had made Charlotte wait until about 10pm ‘til we were ready to go to the restaurant!!!

We stayed in Plovdiv for three nights in the end, not wanting to leave in the still unsettled weather – it absolutely peed it down every afternoon/evening, invariably just at the time we wanted to head out for something to eat! The old town is a pretty place to mooch around, and has a surprising amount of Roman ruins including an amazing amphitheatre, but on the whole there’s not a great deal going on – the most entertaining past-time is ‘people watching’ and clocking the quite frankly hideouso outfits sported by many of the women!! Imagine you want to wear exactly what Carrie does in SATC, without realising it’s not really practical or real, yet need to buy your stuff on a Primark budget. That said, mocking as we were, the abundance of heels and lycra on show made me feel decidedly dowdy!! Our prolonged stay meant we could get a load of laundry done and update the blog for Albania, and with free breakfast at the hostel and cheap eats everywhere, there were worse places to be! There were quite a few travellers passing through and we ate out with Forest and Alex, both from the US, one evening. A very pretty and friendly German girl named Rebekka, who we got chatting with, kindly invited us to crash at her place (in Burgas on the Black Sea coast) if we were passing through that way; she was working in Bulgaria for a year and was having a little mini-break in Plovdiv with her equally friendly and pretty friend, Aura. On our last evening, we were much entertained by Priscilla, an Irish lady in her late 60s who has been living in Sardinia for the last 50 years and goes backpacking whenever she can – coolio!  Many people travelling from the opposite direction to us were recommending Veliko Tarnovo in the north-east as a good place to visit so, rather than plough on to Turkey straight from Plovdiv,  we decided to make the detour – am growing to like this lack of planning!!

Macedonia

Friday, June 4th, 2010

(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…