Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Our journey has abruptly come to an end. When we left the village of Ierissos on Tuesday 13/9 we rode on a wide two-lane road. Suddenly an oncoming car started to overtake the car in front of it. Doing this it came way too far to the left and it hit Eveline, who rode just behind me, at full speed. The left side of the bike was hit. Eveline was injured, but not unconscious. An ambulance has taken her to a hospital, where it became clear that her left arm was badly broken in several places. Although it looked worse initially she has amazingly few other injuries, considering that on the left side of the bike everything was ripped off and that the content of the rear pannier hung high in the bushes. The arm needs surgery. In consultation with the emergency center of our insurance company the decision was made not to wait for this to be done here. We hope to arrive in the Amphia hospital in Breda next Friday, where they have a MRSA-room available for her.
We hope to be able to continue this blog as usual in due course.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Finding a place to stay

We use several sources of information: maps, guidebooks, tourist information offices, the internet, information passed through by travelers we meet and co-incidence. Internet is a recent phenomena in this area and its significancy is rapidly growing. No traveler without a laptop, hardly any accommodation without wifi.
When traveling in Europe most of the time we camp on regular campsites, since staying in hotels or hostels would be too expensive in this part of the world. Besides that we like to camp. There are many campsites throughout the continent, very often with free wifi, and we usually find them just by locating them on the maps we use.
In countries with a decent touristic infrastructure we visit the Tourist Information offices in the places we pass and gather all the information that could be useful for us, including locations of campsites. Or we have them book a room, as we did in Martigny (rain!)
Sometimes, f.i. when we're tired or if the area is nice and there is a road sign indicating that there is a campsite we just follow that.
Sometimes, if available, we use a warmshowers address. As I mentioned under the button “Links” there is this website Two American guys who like cycling set this up. You can subscribe and then you declare yourself ready to host passing cycle tourers and provide facilities such as: a warm shower, a bed, couch or something else to sleep, safe storage for the bike, a meal etc. Only the first 2 items are required, the rest is optional. Requests for a stay can always be refused, so no obligations. Members are then also allowed to request a stay at another member's place. Thus among others so far we hosted a Taiwanes cyclist, two Koreans and a London couple, all long distance cycle tourers. And as you can have read in earlier blogs, we stayed in 3 warmshowers homes during this trip so far. We just sent a request per e-mail 1 or 2 days ahead and got yes as an answer. And all three were very agreeable stays with interesting talks, excursions, even IT-training and good food included. In Italy, the Balkans and Greece there are hardly any warmshowers adresses.
In countries like Albania and Macedonia and in the part of Greece that we went through there are no campsites either. Then we have to free camp, which we are not fond of and we have not done so far. So we have to find a guesthouse, a hostel, a room or a regular hotel. The Lonely Planet, but also guidebooks as Brard, provide you with pre-selected adresses. Most of the time they suite us fine. These guidebooks aim at travellers like us and backpackers, so you will not end up in posh business hotels. Only if nothing else is there. Mostly they are easy going places with rooms, sometimes also dorms with 4 or 6 beds, a garden or a inner yard where the guests hang out in a relaxed state, can cook and do their laundry themselves if they like, chat and exhange information, since they are all more or less of the same kind. Prices are considerably lower than in regular hotels and the atmosphere is mostly utterly agreeable. Very often they are small family run houses, so contact with the staff is mostly very personal. In south east Asia we have been in the most wonderful ones for just some euros or dollars per night.
Then there are sites like They give the same kind of information as the Lonely Planet, but now you can read reviews and book ahead. We seldom do the last, since exact far-ahead planning is hard for us. But f.i. for the Thessaloniki hostel we did, as this is a much frequented city. And it was very nice, this “Little Big House”. For Istanbul we most likely will use this possibility as well.
Another source of information is the fellow traveller. Whenever you meet other cyclists, either along the road or in a hostel, you stop and talk. What you mainly do is exchange information, on routes that are good or bad to ride and about places to visit and stay the night.
In practice the result is that you always find a place to stay. Some examples: In Elbassan (Alb) we stayed in a beautiful new hotel because it was recommended by a friendly young man that we met on a coffee stop. In Ohrid we went to an address that was recommended by the Lonely Planet. It was in the centre of the historic city and in the spaghetti of narrow streets and stairs we found it easily by means of our gps (hurray for those modern techniques). But it was fully booked. So I parked the bike and went strolling around. In places like these there are always people who rent rooms and within 10 minutes I had arranged the nice room with balcony in a private house (€15 for the two of us). In Edessa full again, at least they said so at two places (the posh little bastards didn't like sweaty cyclists I suppose). So we went back to another hotel sign we had noticed and found a decent room for €35. Today we're camping on the grass (exceptional in these dry regions) on Sithonia, the middle one of the 3 fingershaped peninsulas of Halkidiki, near the village of Vourvourou. When we leave our patch of grass we step right onto the beach of a blue lagoon and the Eagean sea. In order to get here we have made a 100 k detour. It was recommended to us by Mewes and Astrid (, two world cyclists who we met on our way to Thessaloniki. Standing still and talking along the road (they were on their return from China) we exhanged this information, next to some pears and grapes that both couples had scored on their way that day.
In 2010 in Colombia we met a Brit who cycled from north to south through this country. He told us that he had planned not to spend any money on accommodation during this part of his trip. He was a week under way and until then he had always stayed in the homes of people who offered him a free place to sleep and eat.
Hiram, the Taiwanees cyclist who we met in Yunnan and who slept in our house in november 2010, pitched his tent just everywhere under all circumstances, on a boat jetty in Harlingen, in a park near the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam. The two Koreans that stayed with us in May this year told us that in the beginning it took them up to 2 hours to locate a good spot for free camping, now it was the least of their problems, 20 minutes at most and they would find a proper spot. (Mind that mostly it's illegal, so you must carefully pick your spot.) 
So, all in all, finding a place to sleep is hardly any problem (for a cyclist?). And when carrying a tent it should not be at all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Macedonia, then Greece

We spent a relaxing day in Ohrid on the lake with the clearest water you can imagine. It's a very touristic place, but the high season is over, so it was quiet and nice. Many terraces of course, and souvenirshops, but the historic qualities of the place are very much in shape.
We stayed in a room in Emile and Sandra Jovanovice's house. A simple room, with a simple shared bathroom, but so cosy and nice. A place to feel really at home.
The day after that we rode to Bitola, they say the cultural capital of Macedonia. Here we slept in an old mansion house, now a private house combined with a 3-room guesthouse. Perfect again, only a 10 minutes' walk away from the centre. Here there were some mosques, a clock tower, a covered bazaar and an app. 800 meter long shopping street that for 80% is used for terraces for the numerous bars, restaurants and cafés. The Macedonians really like to hang out. Even in the early morning, just after 8 o'clock, when we were in the street to change our unused denars into euros again, there were already people having their coffees there.
Having got rid of the elsewhere useless Macedonian Denars we left the town in southerly direction. Within a kilometer we stopped for a visit to an archelological site, Heraclea Lyncestis. Remains of buildings from Greek, Roman and Byzantine origin. Sixteen km further we reached the border with Greece. We entered a region with only a few settlements and not much activity to be noticed. When we stopped for a coffee at the first bar we saw after a couple of hours, it appeared to be closed. But the owner, who had worked in Germany for 14 years, didn't mind a chat apparently. He offered us a frappé. This is the cold coffee that is very popular in these regions. Nescafé, with or without milk and sugar, is beaten up with a little mixer, ice cubes and water are added and that's it. The locals can sip hours on one, the barman said, and it was going to give us energy enough to reach Thessaloniki. We had an interesting chat about all matters, including the euro crises. “If our politicians would give back what they have stolen from us, there would not be any problem”. He felt that the ordinary man now had to pay for the debts caused by the politicians. And not untrue, since f.i. VAT is raised to 23%, even for food. Only water is exempt from this high tariff.
We left without having to pay, he wouldn't allow us. Just half an hour later we were waved into an orchard, where we had to eat pears right from the tree and from where we couldn't leave without a plastic bag full of the delicious fruit. After 110 k we ended our day in beautiful Edessa, in a simple but good and cheap hotel. In the evening we had to flee from a terrace (of which there were a lot again) because of a thunderstorm, the first rain in 4 months.
Today we continued to Thessaloniki. Not a nice cycling day, as there was no real alternative for a busy main road. The Greeks build new roads for cars just over the old ones, leaving no escape for other vehicles. They say that Thessaloniki is the record holder as to the number of bars, cafés and terraces. We'll see tomorrow. But, as a German cyclist who we met told us when he descibed this phenomena said: “Die Griechen sind pleite, aber sie feiern!” So we suppose it'll be true.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Through Albania

We entered Albania in the north and the first town we stopped was Shköder. The road from the border to the town (app. 15k) was quiet and pleasant, and so was the town. One of the reasons that it was so quiet was that it was the day of the end of ramadan. We found a pleasant hotel in the centre (Hotel Kaduku) and in the evening everyone came outside to parade the pedestrian area and to pay a visit to one of the many terraces.
The next day we rode over 100k to the capital Tirana. To avoid the busy main road we used side roads. In the morning this was ok, although we got lost on, I suppose, a deserted army base. Overgrown tarmac, bunkers, and no one to be seen. Once we had to walk and push our bikes through the shrubs and in order to reach a normal road we had to pass through a closed gate, that was not completely closed, that is, the closure was broken. But no problem, now and then smiling countrymen would wave us into the correct direction and with the aid of the gsm we were at least sure that Tirana was gradually coming closer.
In the afternoon we took a parallel road east of the highway (here called autostrada) and this become a miserable affair. The road surface was very bad, so, in spite of a friendly tailwind, our speed dropped dramatically. For a great number of kilometers there were roadworks going on. This implied that the road was completely broken up, no hard surface, loose rocks and pebbles and the scarce traffic had to wrestle its way through. Just as we had. No road workers to be seen, no signs or any indications how long it was going to be like this, so no joy for a cycle traveller.
At a certain point there was a possibility to go to the 'autostrada'. Not allowed for us, but what else? The term autostrada appeared a bit optimistic. It was a 4-lane road (most of the time), traffic was not too bad, the tailwind helped firmly and progress was so good that we reached the centre of Tirana and a cosy little hotel at app.17.00 hrs.
Tirana is a traffic nightmare, but as experienced cyclists we make ourselves as big as we can and claim our road space. Until now this approach has worked well.
We spent a nice and relaxing extra day in Tirana. Pleasant, dusty, noisy but with quiet places and parks, many terraces and restaurants as well.
After Tirana we cycled to Elbassan, to the south east. Except for the beginning a quiet highway that took us over a 800 meters high mountain range and that was really beautiful (video). The night we stayed in Hotel Colombo, a posh hotel with swimming pool and everything, a bit past the town of Elbassan. It was adviced by us by a young man who adressed us when we were having a coffee stop. The hotel had only very few guests. There was a striking presence of some, relatively many, men with a certain attitude. Big, short haircut, uninterested, somewhat annoyed look in their eyes, smoking, big cars, greeting each other very intimitely, acting as if the world was theirs, some with a (too) posh female companion. Then there were some of the hotel staff who were clearly busy making a good impression on some of the first. We had our doubts of the nature of the professions of these men. This was something that we had noticed before, Albanians are friendly and open, but there is this kind of macho man that you cannot escape to notice. An unpleasant note.
Another thing that we noticed was that after we had passed Tirana the economic situation looked better. Good road, everything in better shape than during our first day in the country.
From Elbassan we rode further east and again we had to cross a mountain range, this time 1005 altitude. It went surprisingly well, the border post was on the highest point and after that we only descended towards the Ohrid lake in Macedonia. In Ohrid we found a simple, cheap but very pretty room with balcony overlooking the historic centre with the oldest cathedral and the lake itself. Here we stayed again for a non cycling day, for a stroll, a drink, a dinner, so for a nice and quiet day.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A poor country?

Albania shows many signs of an underdeveloped country, or is it more correct to say developing country? If the latter term is used it implies that there are things developing. We didn't notice much of this.
The bar owner in Shkodra already told us that there are no jobs and that their politicians are no good. The word corruption was used, public interests came second. Schooling is bad and parents had difficulty to pay the extra money for the teachers. Teachers' salaries are so low that, without asking extra money, they are not high enough to support a family. (Didn't I hear exactly the same story in Cambodia?) No jobs means no money, so though people are friendly, he said, they are not happy. There is little hope for a change for the better, there is no change at all.
In spite of this most people are well dressed and in this the image is similar to other European countries. Besides that, the fact that most people are muslims doesn't show in clothing or other behaviour. Men and women visit bars, together and on their own, and alcohol is served everywhere.
But, as the barman told us, many guests in bars sit for hours on one coffee with the glass of water that is coming with it. Not much money to spend. This does not prevent the many bars and terraces being crowded in the evening, mostly with young people. The atmosphere is certainly agreeable.

On our way from Shkodra to Tirana we saw many men idling and hanging around. We noticed a large informal economy. Many people have set up very small businesses. As the motorcar seems to be the status symbol, there are very many 'Lavazh', car washers. Just a waterhose and some cloth and you're in business. Hundreds we have seen. Also very many bars, small 'markets' (groceries), people selling cigarettes and potato chips from a cardboard box along the street, or gsm's, fruit, sun glasses, shoe shiners, a man with scales to determine your weight, etc. People try to earn some money in all possible ways.
Then we also saw deserted factory buildings, a deserted railway complex, a cement factory in good shape but with no activity. Roads were sometimes good, but often really bad and for many kilometers we had to work through roadworks that had been started but where no road workers were to be seen now. In Tirana there are big areas in the centre that are broken up, but where there are no igns of activity. Just in a few places building is going on. Streets are not clean, side walks are broken and a lot of waste is just dropped along the roads and in rivers. So public services are not performing, or not well enough.
I already mentioned the great numbers of Mercedes Benzes. In the city it's more mixed, but in the countryside it is mainly this brand, the great majority. Most of them are old or very old. You can see that for many drivers it is their way to be someone. They just hang around in and on and near their cars. The reason why it must be this one brand must be found in sociological and cultural processes, of course. In more places in the world you'll find a similar image. F.i.: just watch any photograph of a Palestinian place, sure to see the same brand of car as here in Albania. Once again the similarity with Cambodia struck me. Also economically very much deprived, corruption is tangible and no signs of improvement visible. There the only car owners are the military, politicians (=the same), the police and other criminals. There it's not Mercedes, but Lexus.