Friday, 30 July 2010

The Elusive Island

Greece was a much wealthier country and it's clear why it's such a popular holiday destination. People are helpful and friendly, the food's great, it's a beautiful place, blah de blah I could go on. Still, it took us a while to find what we were hoping for. We had caught wind of an island full of springs and thermal waters called Samothraki. Yey, sounded perfect.

In Thessaloniki we tried to get a ferry to take us there, but we were told that no such ferry existed. This was a glitch we were not expecting as our map showed a clear ferry connection between this city on the mainland and the coveted Samothraki. We decided not to take no for an answer (bad move) and hatched our own around the houses kind of route. So we took a ferry to the island of Limnos, hoping to then be able to hop the short distance to Samothraki. Unfortunately when we disembarked in Limnos we discovered that the ferry company had stopped crossing over to our island two years before! OK not so good. We decided to take a different tack and ask the local fishermen in the harbour if they would take us but were met with a resounding NO. Even though this was common practice until a few years back (as well as in the whole of Croatia) the travel agencies on Limnos had put the thumb screws on any independent boats taking tourists out... Great! By this point we had become flippin determined to reach our destination. We had been tipped off by one of the fishermen to try and find a boat in the north of the island which was far less touristy, closer to Samothraki and clear of the all seeing eye of the agencies. Getting there involved a 43km ride to the northern harbour or a reluctant 86km round trip to catch the early morning ferry back to the mainland. Since it was getting on for 2pm the task at hand was no mean feat (or something like that). We cycled, we sweated, we got there, we asked, we begged, we waved money under noses, but those noses were turned up. No way, no-one was going to take us to Samothraki. (We later discovered the Greeks have a very polarized opinion about this island. They either love it because of its beautiful unspoilt nature or loath it because “there is nothing there, just a big mountain”)

Our trip had turned out to be fruitless as far as boat hire goes. But on the way back we received a real gift. Far in the distance, over a lake I noticed a thin smudge of the palest pink. We had to do a double take and could not believe our eyes when we got closer. We had read that this was a rare spectacle of this island ut had never hoped to be part of it. On foot we crept to the shores of the lake. We were looking at a huge flock of flamingos, wading and stretching their wings just before sunset. What an incredible sight. Not a wasted trip after all.


Now we have spent two peaceful days on Samothraki. We finally got here, after conceding go back and to cycle along the coast of the mainland to Alexandropouli, the only port with a connection to the island. And I'm glad we did as this place was definitely worth visiting. Before we left for this trip I had hoped to find a haven where to stop and truly relax, this was such a place. The island is unlike other Greek islands tourists flock to, no white washed villages or turquoise bays. It's a wild and woolly island consisting of one big craggy mountain, thermal springs and lots of nature loving travellers just chillin (I call them hippies). Our second day there was one of those dream like, special days I will never forget. I took so many mental and actual snap shots trying to preserve such beautiful memories.

Following a precarious weaving path up the canyon, which some times required climbing on all fours, past waterfalls and pools we found our perfect spot. Almost beyond perfect. A couple of hidden away pools all to ourselves. This in itself was amazing as lots of people were heading for a dip in this crystalline spring that rushed and burbled down the side of the mountain into the sea. On the other hand not many people were prepared to slog it as high up the mountain, just to get their own private pool.

Our pools were cool and pale green surrounded by huge granite boulders, some hugged by the roots of ancient plane trees. LaStone therapy eat your heart out, the 10min of lying on the smooth hot granite eased our aching muscles and brought us into the present.

Time to just be, watch the blue, black and gold dragonflies, frogs and pond skaters and allow the water to soothe and hypnotise us for a few hours.

Oh, and on the way back we also saw a black snake slithering in a shaded, secluded pool just above the spot where we were swimming. We grinned remembering the warning we had received from the girls at the Environmental Information Centre about poisonous snakes on Samothraki.

Monday, 19 July 2010

MaKedoNia MaSsiV

On the shores of lake Ohrid, just before sunrise, a building from the socialist era overlooks the pebble beach. It used to house the holiday homes of the Partei elite, now its hollow rooms echo with the past over the placid waters of the lake. A few Scot's pines cover the area between the beach and the building, planted to provide shelter and shade during the hot summer days. The building is enveloped in darkness but from time to time a fleeting flicker of colour bounces off its angular shape.

Tonight water bottles glow with unnatural light; some are scattered on the beach, others, held up in the air, shake in time with the base sound reverberating through the small bay. The usual silence of the place is a broken fantasy. It is not croaking frogs, or the low call of some nocturnal bird one can hear, but the repetitive boom of highly amplified electronic music.

A few thousands are shaking to the rhythm or standing about transfixed by the djs weaving their magic over 3 separate stages. Isla and I are among this crowd, exhausted but blissful to have finally found a proper party. Of course, like so many things on this trip it all happened quite by coincidence. 20 minutes fresh into Macedonia we stopped by a couple of policemen to ask for directions. We were looking for a campsite and one of the man pointed down a track. Having seen some signs advertising a campsite shortly before we deemed the information plausible, but, differently to what we were expecting, the place we found was not ideal for sleeping the night away. It was the first major party allowed in Macedonia since 3 or 4 years.

After a day sweating up and down mountains one might not feel too inclined to spend a sleepless night, but we had such a strong need for social contact that tiredness did not really feature as a valid excuse (and it never should). So we remained at the party. Well, actually we went off to set up camp some place else, ate at a restaurant, showered and groomed ourselves and then went back to the party. But these are all minor details.

Some of the music played by the local talents was excellent, in particular Mirko Popov a top Macedonian dj. Timo Maas was also good and spun some excellent choons. At some point a chap approched me and asked for a light. I did not have one so I smiled and shook my head.
He went off, only to come back shortly after. He was tall and obviously went to the gym often. He was only wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, but they were well fitted. His hair was short and he had an expensive pair of sunnies over his head.
“Actually I did not want a light, and I approached you for a different reason”
“I am a very bad man”
“I was wondering if you wanted to have sex with my wife”

A small jetty jutted out of the shore and ended in a 8x8m platform. There were cushions on the floor and white drapes hung in the still air. People were lying or sitting, dangling their feel over the water, silent or chatting, some asleep or passed out. The night was changing into the new day to the tune of some suitably nasty dubstep mixed into some woman chanting a melodious indian raga. I was still happily skanking away and Isla was starting to flag, but we had agreed to stay until the sun rose over the water. And slowly, very slowly, the horizon was awash with luminous shades. Over the distant mountains the day opened its radiant eye and blinded us with its glorious stare.

A few hours later we woke up gasping like fish out of water. In the bright heat of the tent we were simmering in a puddle of our own sweat. Luckily the sun graced us and soon hid behind the quivering canopy of an aspen. A soft breeze lulled us back into our well earnt oblivion.

Friday, 16 July 2010

80k BaKiN uP aLBaniA MNtnS dEn RoLL iN2 MaKedoNia

Macedonia, Ohrid.

Faithless, maybe Tricky playing in the background. Sitting on the patio of a café on the shores of the lake, sipping a cold ckoπcko, the only thing that works to quench the endless thirst of these to(h)rrid days.

It was a hard push out of Albania and an easy slip into Macedonia, although that particular day ended at sunrise. The border as usual was on a mountain, but this time we pedalled all the way to the pass without stopping once, our legs getting stronger and stronger, our lungs now able to swallow this chastising heat in one big gulp.

At the foot of the mountain on the Albanian side there were dozens of little places offering lavazh, car wash. These are generally manned by 6-14 years old who advertise their services with hoses spraying a constant stream of water up in the air and onto the road. It looked surprising when viewed alongside the little sign we had found next to the shower in the Tirana hostel which suggested to be parsimonious with water as there is a drought throughout Albania. Cycling by we are bombarded by an onslaught of “çiklist” and “whereyoufrom”. The answers don't seem to be so important. Isla gets whistles and “wantsex”, but I often wonder whether some of these kids even know what they are talking about they are so young. Really it just sounds like a taunt.

Albania was tough, witnessing poverty is never easy, but at the same time it was great to work against the prejudice that Albanians seem to be tainted by. People were friendlier here than in any other place we crossed and everywhere we were met with a smile. In Tirana we also had the best meal out to date. In a small tavern of simple but graceful décor we tasted many traditional Albanian dishes. The cook had gathered many recipes from the mountain villages around the capital and turned them into a flavourous but unfussy selection. Vegetarians can live quite happily around here. The bread was freshly baked and warm, the stuffed peppers with goat's cheese (stuff paper wiv cheees) delicious, the vegetable pie (akindofpie wiv spinach an cheees) toothsome and the honey and nuts dessert brick saturated with syrupy yumminess.

Either way late for lunch or ridiculously early for dinner we were the only people in the place. The room was dimly lit, with long braids of garlic hanging from the dark wooden counter. We sat at a low circular table, the cushions on the long benches decorated with the same traditional weave as the tapestries hanging from the walls. Linear patterns of red and black on white backgrounds among the sepia of photos of old folk and youngsters posing in front of their houses in remote little villages long lost in the Balkans.

We had reached the capital in the early afternoon and checked into a lovely hostel run by Claas and Lira, two great host(ellier)s. If anybody feels inclined to visit Tirana, the left-of-centre Hostel Albania is a definite recommendation. Isla and I had a real strong urge to have a break, explore and meet some people on a slightly deeper basis than the usually utterly practical exchange of “can I have” and “thank you, goodbye”, but our Turkey deadline was looming and we could not afford to lunch out too many days. I wonder for how long the need for movement will stay stronger than the desire to stay, as the pangs for stillness and the chance to socialize are getting stronger (Note from the Future: 2 ½ weeks later in Istanbul we had to stop and spend 8 instead of the planned 2 days resting, partying and meeting people).

The Albanian capital is bustly, chaotic and fervent with activity. In fact it is in such ferment it feels like swimming in a huge vat of kefir, maybe kombucha. We watched the sun set behind the city from the sky tower, while very slowly sipping two extremely expensive beers (6€ each in a country where the average daily wage is 14€). When we entered the sky tower the chap at the ground floor reception even invented and tried to extract a 6€ tax for the privilege of taking photos from the terrace. We smiled, declined and declared that of course we were not going to take any photo.. here they are.

After sundown we walked around the nightlife neighbourhood Blloku. We looked at groups of friends hanging around and drinking together, totally made up girls tottering in miniskirts and high heels, huge hummers and suped up übercars driven by gangstarish wideboys in the midst of street moneychangers waving about thick wadges of cash, beggars, contraband cigarette sellers and offers of exhaust covered corn-on-the-cob roasted on tin coal braziers low to the ground.

We would have liked to find a party but without an 'in' from somebody and no interest in going clubbing we returned to the hostel just after 10. Our chance to shake a leg on the other hand did not take too long to arrive. In fact a few days later, after a long slog up and down barren mountains on dusty Albanian roads we coasted into wooded Macedonia and straight into a great big technival. The air on this side of the border felt fresher already and, even having liked Albania, we breathed a sight of relief at leaving it.

P.S. Sorry about the lack of photos. Turkey, where we now are and from where we are trying to update does not like google. Hence Picasa (as well as many other google services) is throttled to death. This has caused us quite a lot of annoyance and inconvenience, but we are unable to do anything about it. Maybe I'll look into a Linux uploader for Flickr..

P.S. Update. Well, on and off Picasa and google services seem to work.. Can't stand how dependent we are from the ****ers, but they're just.. soo, mmh not evil?!?

Monday, 12 July 2010

The other Thank You Post

Hello you,

this is a short post to thank all who have written e-mails and commented on our blog. At the moment we have no real way of answering people directly other than adding a comment to the comment, so you will have to forgive us for this bulk thank you. We do think of you and value your friendship individually.

It is reassuring and warming to see that you are interested in following our adventures and to hear what you have to say. Sharing our stories is fun, knowing that they entertain and sometimes amuse you gives them reason to exist.

A very special thanks to Solange, Jonty and Alise, Charlotte, Adriana and Nonna Mina for their kind donations. We have been taken aback by your generosity.

Another special mention to Mamma, for her continual logistical and moral support. We can't wait for our Cappadocia encounter.

Big Love!

Isla & Pietro

Saturday, 10 July 2010

But Really We Loved This Country

Disturbed dreams. Woke up in a spacious room with intricately patterned tiles on the floor. The décor is sparse but tasteful, a table and two chairs, a double bed, large windows on two adjacent walls. The closed shutters provide shelter from the constant sun and harsh light. The windows of course are wide open. In the cooler shade a pleasant breeze transports the sounds of the outside world into the room. A donkey bray, a cockerel welcoming the day, kids splashing in the small pool.

Dreams must be symptomatic of an agitated mind. The entrance into Albania was a step into a different world. The change had been fairly gradual until now, edging day by day towards the unfamiliar. First a change of currency, then subtle shifts in flavours and landscapes, then the loss of a common language. Physiognomy also gradually changed. People got darker, their smiles more frequent and gappier. But when we reached Tuzi a more drastic change was evident. This Montenegrin border town, with a dusty market at the crossroads, was chaotic, loud and foreign.

The border crossing between Montenegro and Albania is on the northernmost tip of Skadarsko Jezero (Skadar Lake). “Do you know anything about this area?” we had asked at the tourist office in Tivat pointing at the lake on a map. The answer was a blank stare; the lady did not know anything about it. It turns out that this is the biggest National Park and Nature Reserve in Montenegro, with many species of endemic flora and fauna. Unfortunately the Albanian side is not held in such high regard. In fact there was a joint Croatian/Albanian project, now luckily defunct, to build a nuclear power plant on its shores.

The road towards Albania got progressively worse. Just after a hairpin bend we found a couple of potholes so huge one could have lost a truck inside them. The border itself was busy, with a long cue of trucks parked in the road. The drivers were kind enough to let us through and the border police friendly enough to let us out of the last and into the new country. Goodbye Montenegro, Hello Albania!

Well, hello wild wild west actually, as this is what it felt like crossing over. The first thing we met was one of the many battered up old Mercs found all over Albania. This one had not one, but three, three seater sofas piled on top of its roof. And of course to maximise width as well as encumbrance these were tied across the roof. The precariously balanced load was larger than the car itself.

The road itself, a main national artery which connects Montenegro with Shkodar, the third largest city in Albania, practically stopped the minute we entered the country. The cracks in the tarmac got wider and wider till there was only cracks and not much tarmac left, just high clouds of dust behind the speeding rustbuckets. Admittedly there was another road being constructed next to it, but differently from how they would do it anywhere else, here they were not building it in segments but all at once. With the obvious result of maximum disruption for the longest of time over the entire distance. Where there is some tarmac left, this is a patchwork of holes and bad repairs, with the occasional gloopy ridge where the constant passage of trucks and extreme heat has melted the poor quality surface. These are not really to be considered roads as much as boneshakers.

A few abandoned gas stations also contribute to the frontier-land feeling of this place. Old watering holes for gleaming steel chariots, now inhabited only by stray dogs and ghosts. The metal panels of the station warp and ping with an eerie creak in the heat. Behind the dusty station rounded mountains of reddish earth, sharp rock and scraggy bushes.

The most obvious tragedy to catch the eye of a visitor to this country is the rubbish strewn across the landscape. Coming from a sanitized nation we are not used to see our waste all around us. System of disposal are in place to neatly contain and remove from our sight all of the containers, useless packaging and refuse we constantly produce and discard. To preserve our sense of order we even divide our rubbish into neat and differentiated little piles. Of course, most will end up in a great big pile on the land or openly burnt to the sky, but this land and this sky are hidden some place else. Here instead it all happens right under your nose, and your nose is what notices it the most, even before your eyes.

Approaching a town one is welcome by the smell of burning plastic and rot. Then long piles of rubbish appear to the sides of the road, some still smouldering, most just left. Jars, cans, bags, bottles, vegetable matter, lots of nondescript remains and for some strange reason lots of tattered blue plastic sheets mark the beginning of an inhabited centre. Often a dog is rummaging through the wasteland. Sometimes the appeal of a bicycle is too much to resist and they give in to the chase, more often than not they are just too hungry or too ill to care.

Ennio Morricone's music might as well be crackling out of some old tannoy, I am certainly hearing it inside of me. So we roll into the dusty town.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

eDgiN oN uNrEalitY, pLs nOt wAke uS up

Now we're near the last free camping is more frequent. One of our first nights in Croatia we really lucked out. After bumping down a dirt track we found ourselves in a tiny little cove with clear still water and white pebbles riddled with holes. The night was shared with sheep grazing on the wild sage around us and the full moon filling our tent. The next morning we got up at six so we could have the beach to ourselves for a couple of hours. The sea was full of black spiky sea urchins, shrimp and hermit crabs pretending to be shells. This has to be my favourite way to start the day: with a swim (the clear blue being a welcome change from Brighton grey), a coffee and time to lose myself in nature.

We arrived on Otok Krk (Krk island) via a very long and high bridge. We were not allowed on the road, so we had to push the bicycles along the thin strip of pavement. The views from the bridge were stunning, if a little vertigo-ridden. In Krk we stayed at a very expensive nudist colony for a couple of days, then decided to hop islands instead of going back to the busy coastal road on the mainland. From Otok Krk to Rab then to Pag on a little excursion boat. Then on Pag back on the pedals. The beginning of this island was really fascinating, with ancient olive trees surrounded by circular stone walls. Crickets and cicadas are the permanent soundtrack to our pedalling. The smell of earth and dry grasses fills our nostrils.

As soon as we arrived in Split we were approached by several people outside the tourist office and offered three rooms, so our late arrival was made very easy. It takes some getting used to being led off by a stranger to who knows what kind of place, but this is how it's done here. After 90k I felt surprisingly good and Alise's recommendation was spot on, this place is neck-craningly (should be a word) beautiful. Another walled city but with more interesting nooks, corners and alleys than Zadar and Trogir. This city's rich history is reflected in its architecture. The Cathedral is a lived in museum with its café and people hanging around on its steps. It's easy to imagine them having done the same for centuries. And the ladies here know how to do glamour, that's for sure, but it all looks like hard work to me. Teetering on great shoes on cobbles takes a lot of skill. The high stone buildings and alleys open up to ornate squares full of swifts and swallows and people selling everything from organic rye bread to home made sandals. Yep this place is cool for a bit, but as with most tourist packed destinations, unless your going to fully embrace it shelling out lots of money it's best to leave. And we did, with no regrets, the following day on a ferry bound for the island of Korçula.

We arrived in the dark and with a single front and back light between us (forgot to buy batteries) we headed off to find ourselves a hidden away camp for the night. The following day we cycled the full length of Korçula, 80% of which was uphill. Within the first two hours of our climb we had finished all our water. We were expecting to find a village or even just a house along the way, but these failed to materialize. So the rest of the ride was painful as the heat and dehydration made us weak and wobbly. The landscape was barren and offered no shelter from the fierce sun. After four hours ride we flew downhill into Korçula town where we drank lots of the local version of coke and ate crisps and ice-cream (mm healthy diet!). On the spur of the moment we also decided to jump on the last ferry to Dubrovnik. Relishing our last boat journey and a chance to catch brief glimpses of more of Croatian islands we sat on deck for hours just absorbing.

Dubrovnik was an incredibly beautiful town, unfortunately also full of cruise ship tourists. As we pushed the bikes off the ferry a group of local women surrounded us. They were very pushy and loud, shoving pictures of their rooms under our noses. We decided to stay the night with the least pushy and lucked out finding ourselves sleeping in a large clean room. Dubrovnik was all a bit too much, full of shops selling tat for tourists. We hung out for the morning but soon fled the city along the crazy coast road. At the first opportunity we turned off into the countryside we were both craving. We ended up at a campsite recommended to us by our Dubrovnik hostess. Monika's is a great place full of mellow travellers and its own little beach. In the morning we swam out to the nearest island. This was only about 1 mile there and back, a distance I do often in pools, but heading off into unfamiliar open water is a bit unnerving even if it is the mellow Adriatic. On closer inspection this little green idyllic island was covered with the usual plastic remnants of peoples carelessness, and with the realization we had to swim back, we didn't hang around for too long. After flitting in and out of places for quite awhile that need to just stay put for a while can be quite overwhelming so we stayed at the campsite an extra day. On Pietro's birthday we left for Montenegro.