Albania to Macedonia to Greece
01.09.2011 35 °C
The afternoon temperature was climbing it was 30 degrees and it would continue to rise, at least for an hour or so despite being well past Noon. He lay spread on the Concrete, he was asleep yet not totally oblivious to his surroundings. 10,000 years of having his genes manipulated had produced in this supine mass of skin, bone, hair, flesh and sinew an ever aware Sentinel... He was asleep, but yet despite this an outside stimuli had begun that unstoppable journey to the awareness centre deep within his brain. The irreversible process of awakening had begun, a lip began to curl back to expose slightly bared teeth, but for this one instant he slept on. No matter, it was all now too late, the brain had in an immeasurable moment responded. Signals were flashed along neural pathways, the Asleep was asleep no longer. Lurching upward, twisting his body and scrabbling for purchase on the rough surface, already assessing the threat he quickly looked around. This would never be a choice between flight or fight, for he would always fight. Now fully awake and in full vocal fury, he charged toward the source of his anger, reassessing and constantly evaluating. He would now engage and the question now posed was how best to ensure total victory for nothing less would be acceptable. A full and violent confrontation was imminent. It would always be this way. He had to do now whatever was necessary in defence of his territory, it was expected of him.
I left Camping Albania, Barbullush Bushat and pressed on southward but with the later intention of veering eastwards at Lezhe, through to Milot, Burrel and then to continue on the Road to Klos. Quite flat for a good 25 miles. It made me look good because the total distance covered on that day was 67 miles. I learnt later that the temperature on the southward leg had been around the 45 degree mark. It is surprising how you do get acclimatised to working at these very high temperatures. It should be noted tho` that it is very easy to get caught in the trap of not drinking enough. I remember naively thinking that I hadn`t sweated as much as I usually did when doing these hot treks, quite forgetting that this would be one of the sure signs of not taking on enough water.
An unusual aspect of the weather in Albania in general is that because of its aspect the weather can be quite different just a little further along and this can be measured in just tens of miles, and not the greater distances that you might imagine you would need to get such a change in for instance: a 5 to 10 degree change in temperature.
I arrived in Burrel just before dusk and the town was abuzz with folk out walking. I had become unused to crowds and seeing such a mass of people here was unsettling. However there was also something a little odd and a little intimidating and at the time I really could not determine what it was that caused these mixed feelings. Well I`m sure that you are ahead of me. The population is 70 pct Muslim the rest purportedly are Catholic. The crowds were all men, the softer, and some say the calming side of society was plainly missing, with only a few of the very young, and much older women out and plainly in sight.
I had to keep going through the town as it was soon to become night. Once dusk has begun then darkness very quickly arrives. I still needed to find a place to sleep but out of town. Options were now lessening and I had to make a decision. I took a right down a track and found myself in a gravel pit. Oh it will do... bread a cheese tonight but get that tent up quick, find the torch, I reckon I`ve got five minutes.. Oh no! The ground is concreted where over the years they have been mixing and loading and shifting cement.. Where is the torch. Decision: don`t use pegs, use rocks... that`s it get the tent up... Oh its collapsing, doesn`t matter get the kit inside, lock the bike, bring in the metal cable from the lock, run it under the mattress and secure it to one of the panniers inside the tent. Seconds later it`s total blackness just as my fingers close around the torch.. all in the nick of time... Bread and cheese?... What I really want is a cooling and steadying beer.... No beer, no bread and no cheese, I laid down and succumbed to total inactivity. I was exhausted and moments later I was asleep.
I had only been cycling 4 or 5 miles the next day when I noticed a guy at the side of the road with a cage in his hand and a parrot striding around authoritatively on top of it but on the outside. It was such a beguiling sight that I just had to stop and attempt conversation. They were both waiting for a bus back to Burrel, he suggested that it would perhaps be better for me in the direction in which I was travelling if I considered getting a bus to at least as far at burqize as the road ahead was very difficult, unmetalled in the most part, rugged and very steep. I explained that my deal was to cycle to Cyprus where at all possible otherwise I`d forever feel a fraud. But not wishing to appear dismissive said I would reconsider and do that here at Suc – Burrel Albania www.campinggallachiesa.com Holidays to Church. I could see the Church above him and to the right on a high point some 25 metres away.
I left both of them to their bus, (Frank, an American and the parrot, probably African) and said I was now looking forward to seeing them both later, as I pushed the old Gal up the hill to the gates, thru and into grounds where the accommodation block for the clergy, the visitors and the Church and the well tended grassy area were laid out before me. I decided there and then to stay two nights as it all felt so welcoming and restful, and perhaps this then was the time and the place that the beginnings, the seeds of my own unsettled feelings and doubts began their early growth.
I had been hearing over the last few weeks on occasions but always in the early hours sounds of drumming. Boom ba ba Boom! It had always sounded spooky, the near proximity of the drumming, at times maybe less than 50 metres away – I have learnt only very recently that it is because of Ramadan and that the drumming are the sounds of the ‘Lodra’ . It stirs everyone from their sleep over the period that Ramadan extends. The Lodra is a double-ended cylindrical drum covered in sheep or goat skin. The drummer hits each end with different sticks, resulting in a two-tone beat. One side is beaten with a wooden hammer-head drumstick, while the other side is hit with ‘thane’ – red branches, stripped of bark, which grow mainly in the mountains. The drummer is traditionally from the Gypsy community and it is customary to give him food or money in recognition of this vital service. He strolls around from habitat to habitat and on one memorable occasion my tent, raising my pulse rate significantly. He might also be invited for Syfyr (pre dawn breakfast), or Iftar (meal at break of fast). Ramadan this year ends here in Albania on the 30th of August. Ramadan doesn`t appear/seem to affect day to day life quite as extensively as it might do in other countries that are predominantly Muslim.
On the 23rd of August I was up at 0545 had coffee and decamped on a bright and dewfilled morning. Saddled up and climbed a further 4 miles levelled out, and there before me was the Dogana/customs check point that would process me through and into Macedonia. I wanted to spend my remaining Lecs but it was quite impossible, it does appear now that I will have them for ever. I bought a double expresso in a well presented coffee/bar restaurant about 25 metres away from the border the only retail outlet I`d seen in the last 7 or 8 miles. A thought occurred to me, it was probably prospering because others would do what I was about to do – give a very generous tip for what probably would be pretty average service just to offload the Lecs.
I was through pretty quickly, still hilly but as it was still early I felt fit and up for it, had a spot of lunch midday and bathed in probably the coldest river I`d ever known. My feet loved it. What I have learnt about these mountains is that during the ascent which can be over many miles, as you then turn the corner, and look across into the distance like as not on to the next and higher mountain you will see the route that next needs to be tackled far far away in the distance, seemingly carved into the mountain and extending over maybe a five mile tract and at a maybe perfect 35 degree angle continuing upward perhaps disappearing and continuing round yet another corner.. Inspiring or disheartening? Take your choice.
Arrived at the Macedonia/Greek border at 1115 a.m on the 25th, very quiet and very shabby, just a dusty wide looking street edged with empty buildings that were once maybe open and thriving and dealing in `duty frees`. Reminiscent of the empty towns in the wild and woolly west of America in the 1890`s...with the sage brush bowling down the often windy but always deserted main street would be an apt comparison, and on that basis I`d guess you could call this a Ghost Crossing. It took the official an age to process me through. I think he was lonely, just wanted a chat. It was around ten miles south of Bitola, the last largish town in South-west Macedonia. I had crossed over into Niki, Greece, and from Dinars for a return to Euroland. I was now heading off to Thessaloniki, and the route was to be via Edessa and Galatades.
Looking back on this period I remember thinking that I was losing my motivation that I no longer looked at the scenery as closely as I once did. I repeatedly found myself deep in my own thoughts, snapping out of it and trying then to remember without success the countryside that I`d just cycled through. The journey had also become deeply repetitious, very few trees and if there were any they would be of the short bushy variety. I remember constantly stopping and eating the blackberries which were growing everywhere, eating by the handful those small round yellow damson like fruits, the stones only slightly smaller than the fruits themselves, and that they were very very sweet. Then as I neared Thessaloniki it became 20 miles of industrialisation. Large buildings with familiar logos, mile after mile after mile of showrooms, cash and carry`s, light industry and non of it attractive or dare I say It? Busy!
Thessaloniki, an easy place to arrive - a very hard place to leave.
I`d already plotted a route over to Alexandroupoli, in readiness for my continuing journey into Turkey. Right now though I needed to plot a route out of Thessaloniki.
If you look closely at the map and Thessaloniki in particular you can see that exit routes in the North-East corner are dominated by motorways. However there does appear to be a number of minor roads that would lead me out via Lagina and then subsequently on to the main road, onwards to Kavalari and Aghios Vasillios and finally out to Alexandroupoli.
That day I arrived in Thessaloniki at midday with the intention of getting out and onwards immediately. I cycled extensively over the next 5 to 6 hours all over this north-west corner in my varied attempts to escape the clutches of the Thessalonikians. I quizzed the locals, I continually explored dead end routes. I followed a variety of tracks over this range of hills but all to no avail. I stubbornly would not accept defeat in my search for a way out. I could not see that there would not be a route out other than the Motorways. One local chap advised that since the Motorways were built that the alternative local routes were not now maintained and had subsequently fallen into disuse. At one point as I laboured up a tarmac lane that had then turned into a track I was harassed by a pack of dogs, they would not give up parrying me, running as a group, as well as making individual runs at myself and the old Gal. Its occasions like these, I remember thinking, that boots should be worn and not the flimsy sandals of the type that I was wearing. Time was against me as dusk was now approaching. I had to change my plans and make a run southwards down the length of Thessaloniki, take a route out, again avoiding the motorway and head toward Nea Redestos edging further eastwards all the time and ultimately heading north-west to Alexandoupli.
As I cycled Southwards I realised that I would need water and cash. On seeing a Bancomat and supermarket I stopped and hurried over. It was then that I realised I no longer had my debit card. I`d lost it. I was still in a busy and very crowded Town, I was all but broke, it was getting dark and I was miles from a bed. I lent the Old Gal up against the wall, I crouched down beside her and did the same. 30 minutes later I was on my way home.. I cycled in the dark a further 25k to the Makadonia airport and booked a seat on a flight to Gatwick. I was done. It was over. I had discovered that I no longer had the resilience, the tenacity or the will to continue. I needed now to go home.
I feel desperately sad that I did not get to Cyprus. Desperately sad that I`ve disappointed people particularly my brother and his family. We had all looked forward to seeing each other.
I had completed 2974.2 miles. I had been away 120 nights. I had lost 12 Kilos.
I had just arrived from across the border and one of the first villages that I cycled into was Itea, with its white walls and blue painted edges. It was quiet and sleepy. A group of men were sitting outside a coffee shop and some shouted out to me as I rode past. I filled my water bottles from a running tap in the square, I enquired in the one shop about maps, spoke to a mother and her daughter who appeared to own It. They sold me some bread. I cycled to the edge of the village to a bench under a tree near a farm. A gated track led up to the property from where a dog emerged at high speed. I watched and sat mesmerized as the drama unfolded and the yapping and totally enraged dog got nearer. Then in what I thought was a well practised manoeuvre threw himself angrily at the gate, his shoulder bulging the gate outwards and toward me and from barely 5 metres away. There was now no longer any point in sitting there. I packed my belongings, repacked my panniers, climbed on the old Gal and left the village. There were other places to go and very many other things that I now wanted to do.