Greetings from somewhere in Northern Greece

Hey folks,

Greetings from somewhere in Northern Greece!!!

Well I’ve made it to the last country on my European travels. You can’t imagine the sense of elation on so many different levels. Pride, relief, just so many different emotions.

In my previous email I mentioned unfriendly border guards but this proved to be way off the mark. Having said that this could be that on trying to exit Hungary I used the wrong border post and tried to use the bilateral one instead of the international one. They seemed to find plenty to smile about sending me to the next border post which involved a 40 miles detour. Ah well I guess it’s all miles in the bank.

Serbia was a tough ride. Probably one of the toughest experiences of my life. It’s a tough country to ride. As you’d expect from a former communist state and recent war zone, it was hardly a tourist trap. I’ll start with the bad bits first and then move on to the better bits.

Serbian Roads

For one, it rained all the way through Serbia. The great thing about this trip is the sense of relativity it teaches you. You think it rains a lot in Germany and then Serbia takes you to a whole new level. You think the roads are bad in Hungary and then Serbia takes you to a whole new level. Difficult to find places to sleep at night, new level. You get the picture. I arrived in Serbia last Sunday and it started raining on the Monday and didn’t stop till I left. When I say it didn’t stop I mean it in the literal sense. I worked out that I cycled for 20 hours over a two day period and for 19 of those 20 hours it rained constantly. When it stopped raining it made no difference anyway because the Serbians haven’t yet figured out the concept of drainage so if it isn’t raining, you’re cycling through rivers anyway. Now normally, I’d cycle round the massive puddles but this meant driving out into the road and that’d involve making myself more of a target for the Serbian drivers. The puddles were a risk themselves because most of them housed potholes that could swallow me and Bessie whole but being swallowed whole by a pothole was preferable to the 20 ton trucks that were trundling by.

On the subject of the Serbian drivers, that was a challenge in itself. I’d read a lonely planet page in Budapest which stated that Serbia wasn’t cycle aware. This is a complete lie, they’re very aware they just don’t care. The biggest risk was from a row of cars coming towards you. The varying degrees of car quality inevitably meant that there was a Lada in the front with 55 Serbians in the front seat and a high powered BMW behind it. No problem, just overtake and bollocks to the guy coming the other way on the bike. Self preservation dictates he’ll pull onto the verge which I obviously did. Add this in with the rain and the roads which threatened to vibrate my fillings out and you have a tough, tiring ride. At the end of each day I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Sometimes I just couldn’t take anymore and I’d just pull over, sit on the side of the road, in the rain and wonder what to do next. Equally disconcerting was the Serbian habit of putting the graves of people who die on the road right next to that section of road. It’s like driving through a graveyard. You’d expect this would make the drivers think twice a little before their next near suicidal overtaking manovure but no such luck.

On the plus side this meant I was always keen to keep moving. I managed three rides in excess of 100 miles last week. Another three days were 85 miles plus for a total of 620 miles for the whole week. This was also helped by the difficulty in finding places to sleep. I couldn’t find any trees so most nights it was a case of just sleeping next to the road which sure as hell makes you get up nice and early. That was the interesting thing about Serbia, there is no luxury. Every other country there was always the option of bailing out and maybe finding a quality campsite for the night. Granted it’s an option I rarely took but it was there. Serbia doesn’t have any campsites. In 500 miles I saw one hotel that looked tempting. Sometimes I’d feel like a bar of chocolate just to lighten the occasion but the chocolate would taste like it was from the communist era. There was just nothing you could do to alleviate the difficulty. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining btw. This is all part of the experience and I knew it would be. It’s made me a better, more appreciative person and I’m thankful for it.

Another strange thing is that I didn’t meet any Serbians. Not in Serbia anyway. I met plenty of Albanians, Croats, Hungarians, Slovakians just no Serbians. Every person you meet defines themselves by not being Serbian. “Hi I’m NOT Serbian, I’m Hungarian” is a common greeting. It’s very odd. I have no idea where all the Serbians are. Maybe they’re in hiding with Slobodan Milosevic avoiding prosecution for war crimes. I don’t know.

On a positive note all the non-Serbians you meet in Serbia are kind, friendly people. I’d stop at traffic lights and people would chat and offer me cigarettes which means they’ve kind of misunderstood the idea of cycling 100 miles a day on a 50 kg bike but it’s the thought that counts. I’d sit down at a cafe for a rest and a non-Serbian would give me a cup of coffee free of charge. It was these random acts which kept my spirits up.

On my first day in Serbia I met two non-Serbians who were two of the kindest people I’ve yet to meet. It was getting dark and for the life of me I couldn’t find a single tree to camp near so I headed for a town. One non-Serbian was mock offended by my observation about the lack of trees and pointed out they had one 6 kms down the road so I pointed out that if this clump of trees needed a direction and some distance, then they could do with more trees. I was cycling through town just looking for anything when a guy fell in beside me and asked if I needed any help. He was on a top end MTB bike which in Serbia is a rarity. I explained I needed a cash machine and after helping me he asked if I’d mind sitting and chatting with him for a while. He introduced himself as Bela and we sat talking for a while and you could tell he was in love with cycling. We sat and spoke about cycling for a while and then he offered me a place to sleep on his boat for the night which I was obviously grateful for.

Bela

Bela then explained he needed to do some training before turning in for the night and tbh I thought he was joking but he wasn’t. He asked if I’d mind sitting reading for a few hours and seen as my social diary was looking a bit bare for that night, I agreed. Off he went and five minutes later he returned in full team kit with his attractive younger sister Judith in toe. I expected 84.6 Father Christmas’ to turn up as well but no such luck. An internet test told me btw although it didn’t ask if I had a habit of doing stupid things like walking in front of cars or cycling through Serbia. This was one of the more surreal nights of my life. I was sitting on a park bench in Serbia, chatting to his lovely non-Serbian sister while in the background he kept whizzing past at 20 miles an hour as he did circuits of the town centre. To add to the experience, Bela had told the locals kids about my journey and two young kids came over and asked for my autograph.

Bed

Waking up on boat

I slept in Bela’s boat that night. It was the closest I’ve been to a real bed since I left. In the morning Judith brought us breakfast and coffee. Man how I wanted to take her round the world with me. Later they showed me the town which killed all of 13 seconds and then it was back to the boat. Judith was some kind of athletic goddess and taught the local kids how to kayak in her spare time and seemingly up for anything at the moment, I asked if I could have some lessons (kayaking that is). Apparently I was a natural and there was much debate about me lying to them and refusing to reveal my previous kayaking experience. Tbh, it the balance aspect of it isn’t dissimilar to surfing so yeah I guess I did have a slight advantage.

Kayaking Rulez OK

Beginner paddling

Before I left we had a meal at a local restaurant and it was the least I could do to pay for the meal. I guess it was pass it on for the meal in Austria. Everyone had fish, coke, beer etc and the cost for everything came to 6 quid. More than worth it for the kindness they’d shown me. Bela and I agreed to to a tour of Croatia one day. Apparently the coast line is an experience to behold and I’ve marked it down on my list of things to do. I gave Judith a book I’d been reading as a leaving present. It’s called History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes and really is a cracking read and one I recommend wholly. Man, cycling round the world, kayaking and book reviews. Next watch me juggle.

After I left I met someone else. A guy who worked in a bike shop. I wasn’t too sure about him though and didn’t stay for too long. He was one of those fast talking guys and one thing this trip has taught me is that if I’m not 100% about someone, I just walk away.

The hills of Macedonia

Eventually I left Serbia and entered Macedonia. Tbh I cheated in Macedonia as I couldn’t find any small roads so I cycled on the main highway. Now I know it’s illegal and I know my mother will be fretting but I didn’t have any choice. Anyway it was the safest 150 miles of my trip. I had 12 feet of hard shoulder to myself and the well wishes of the entire trucking community it seemed. On top of that I had permission from the Macedonian police. I stopped off at a cafe on the motorway and parked the bike outside. Five minutes later two policemen walk in and asked who the bike outside belonged to. I figured the game was up and at best would be told to leave the motorway. They asked where I was going so I said Australia. This seems to impress pretty much everyone so they asked if I minded if they joined me (Ummm YES) and we sat down and discussed my trip. Once again two fantastic guys. Just as they were about to leave they asked if I knew it was illegal to cycle on the motorway. I couldn’t lie so I said yes and they laughed and said now I had official permission to use it all the way to the Greek border. Armed with this knowledge (and their names) I nailed it through Macedonia in under a day. Helped by a glorious tailwind and some quality tarmac I was big ringing it at speeds between 15 and 20 miles an hour. Big ringing it isn’t some sexual deviance for the non-cyclists amongst you but refers to using the biggest ring on your front mech and the smallest on you back. Basically your toughest gear.

Macedonia's Finest

Now I’m in Greece. An interesting thing about my knowledge of southern Europe is the lack of it. I thought when I hit Budapest it’d be a quick trip down to Athens. Well Serbia is one big country and even though I’m in Greece I’m still around 400 miles from Athens. Hopefully that’ll be about 4 days riding and then it’s on to SE Asia. I think I’m going to try and make Oz by October. Sure it’ll be tough riding but it’s preferable to trying to kill time elsewhere and it means I hit other parts of the world at preferable times such as the States. As I’ve said previously, my current rate for exceeds anything I expected but I’d rather have a bit of time at the end than be killing time now and having to rush with the seasons later.

Anyways best go as I still have to find a place to sleep. Apparently it’s Saturday night night but it makes no real difference to me.

Kind regards to you all and as always lots of love,

Craig.

XXX

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