Making Macedonian grannies cry, saving tortoises from the wheels of colossal trucks and spotting dilapidated communist memorials – cycling holidays in the Balkans are never dull.
With some of the most spectacular scenery and best cycling in the world, a spirit of generosity that is truly hard to find and a surprise around every corner, the Balkans is a weird and wonderful corner of Europe. And the best way to explore it is definitely on two wheels.
Having spent the summer living in the brilliant city of Belgrade, it seemed like a good idea to go chasing the last few rays of sunshine before heading back to the UK. I decided to head south with a vague intention of ending up in Greece and, having brought my bike out on a Wizz Air flight (an adventure in itself), pedal power was the best way to go.
Having travelled and cycled quite a bit around the Serbian capital, I decided to catch a bus with my bike to the southern city of Nis. In the UK, getting a bike on bus might prove a little tricky but this was Serbia. And a smile and few extra dinars in the driver’s hand always make things a whole lot easier.
Setting off from Nis, I followed the Great Morava valley through some fairly imposing mountains to Leskovac and down towards the Macedonian border. Now, the plan had been to chase the sun but things weren’t quite going to plan and the threatening grey skies and howling wind were making things a little tricky. It got a little worse when my rear cassette disintegrated about 20 miles from the border.
Limping across into Macedonia, I had the good fortune to find a town called Kumanovo where the local bike shop was staffed by the Macedonian cycle team mechanic. Things got even better when his gran, who lived next door, decided to bring me out some honied quince and coffee. While changing some money in town I decided to pick up a cheap bunch of flowers and repay this kindness. If you want to make an elderly Macedonian lady cry, buy her some flowers. It’s a valuable life lesson.
Cycling from Kumanovo (which it turns out is the third biggest city in the country) to the capital Skopje is a small but enjoyable ride. Coming down out of the mountains into the city was a real treat but in the outskirts of town, you really get a sense that this is very much a country that’s developing.
Skopje itself is hilarious. It’s like a lunatic dictator has attempted to build a ‘great’ city, using only pictures they’ve found in magazines. Red double deckers pass grotesque neo-classical statues, a concrete galleon sits hugely out of proportion on the small river. It’s like a scaled-down Las Vegas but equally bonkers.
From there it takes two days up and over the mountains to Ohrid. Sitting on a stunning, crystal clear lake, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth. And at 7,000-years-old, Ohrid is a genuine classical city that Skopje can only dream of being.
The ride down the side of the lake into Albania is simply stunning but across the border things are a little different. Piles of rubbish litter the lakefront, virtually nothing is finished and it being market day in the small town of Pogradec, cycling through town elicits stares like I’ve just landed from outer space.
It’s a little frightening and intimidating but once out of town, the sun comes out and Albania reveals itself to be an incredibly beautiful country. I’ll be honest, it could do with bit of tidy up and I’d recommend finishing one building before starting the next but who am I to dish out advice? It also has more petrol stations and car washes than any other country on the planet – and yet, none of the cars are clean. Figure that one out.
Cycling holidays in the Balkans are always exciting. Landscapes change completely over the course of the day. Everywhere you go, people go out of their way to help you. And while there is obvious poverty (and great wealth too it must be said) everywhere you go, there is a generosity here that is astonishing.
Leaving Albania for Greece was like coming back to the future. Greece may be in the southern Balkans but it is by far the most developed and modern country in the region. With few signs of the current financial and political difficulties, the mountainous northern part of the country is stunningly beautiful.
The town of Kastoria sits on a peninsula in a lake and is dotted with beautiful buildings in the local style. Equally impressive are the waterfalls at Edessa. Everywhere I stopped I was given free drinks, free snacks and even an entire cake. There may be a crisis but nothing can hold back the hospitable nature of the Greeks, it seems.
Arriving in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (yes, it’s nicer than Birmingham), I’d covered about 500 miles in all over nine days of cycling. The roads were surprisingly good in most places and if you have a good GPS you can probably take on some nice off road tracks. However, this is bear country so you do need to be sensible.
I really can’t recommend cycling holidays in the Balkans enough. This is very much Europe’s last frontier in terms of genuine adventure. There is an edge to the Balkans that has long been lost in Western Europe. If you’re looking for a trip that gets you away from the overly sanitised and regulated West, where horse and carts still share the roads with modern 4x4s and where people seem genuinely keen to meet and talk to you, then cycling holidays in the Balkans are definitely for you.