Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Greece - From Pedal Power to Public Transport!

Croatia  - From Split biked: Makarska wild camp – wild camp past Neum - Dubrovnik – Makulici Nature Camp – Kotor (via ferry/short route)
Overnight bus trip from Kotor through Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and into Greece
Greece - Day Trips from Thessaloniki to Mt Olympus and Meteora
Overnight train to Athens
Ferries to the islands of Patmos, Samos and Chios

Next:  Chios (Greece) then ferry to the west coast of Turkey (at some point yet to be determined)

Dubrovnik (Croatia)

Dubrovnik was our goal! For the past three days we had been cycling alongside stunning clear blue/green water, sunshine and mountains that reached down to the waters edge, but it was a looong way down the coast to Dubrovnik. Albeit, we had a couple great wild camping spots along the route and it was finally warm enough for our first swim. It was with a wave of triumph and relief when we rounded the corner and saw the city come into view. Despite being severely damaged in the Yugoslavian conflict on the late 90's, a huge amount of effort has gone into restoration and it is hardly noticeable now.

Upon arrival, our first priority was a water and snack, and as we sat down, we noticed a cyclist coming up the hill (our eyes are highly attuned to spotting other cycle tourers!!) With excitement and disbelief, we realised it was Julia - the first ever cycle tourist we crossed paths with in Morocco 6 weeks earlier!! Back then, I was a bit in awe of how fit and fast she looked, and it was super fun to randomly meet up on the side of the road!!! She was heading in the same direction as us, so we joined forces and enjoyed being a three for a few days!

We shared meals and a room and biked together the following day, but also enjoyed wandering the city with her. A real highlight was visiting a very, very insightful photo exhibition which followed the "Balkan Route" refugee movement as well as the Yugoslav conflict. Really interesting topics and a great way to learn some more about this area.

Take a moment and check out: http://www.warphotoltd.com/ (This has an insightful summary of the Photographer's thoughts on the current refugee migration).
The old city at sunset

Marco’s Place:

Cycle tourers tend to share stories and experiences when they pass each other and for days we had been hearing about Marco, a Croatian guy with a 'nature park' just south of Dubrovnik. Comments like "oh, you should definitely stop in", "plan to spend a few days", "wait and see!!!" had us intrigued and so it was no surprise that Julia was heading in the same direction. On the way, we also passed Boorne, a Korean cyclist who joined our gang for the night.

Marco - think a Yugoslav-Canadian-Socialist-Businessman, with a giant personality and physical stature and many, many good tales to boot. He lived up to his reputation! When he was in his 20's, he and a couple of mates stole a boat and rowed to Italy from Dubrovnik for three days as a refugee. He decided to reject offers from South Africa and Australia to go to their countries and headed to Canada, where he spent the next 40 years. Over the course of the night we also heard stories about his mate Fidel Castro (the Cuban leader), interviewing the pope, and many other strong political socialist views and stories. Now he's returned to support his home country, starting up a multitude of business ventures, from organic pomegranates to a tourist Railway into the Mountains.

He now has a steady stream of cycle tourers, couch-surfers, WOOFers and others turning up at his place to help clear ground, tend the pomegranates, help with business ventures and generally relax and listen to stories of times gone by!


Bike Gang! From Dubrovnik to Marco's Nature Park - Us, Boorne (Korea) and Julia (Canada)


Croatia - from epic hills, to snow, amazing coastline and fun friends!

Leaving Croatia:

Our bus luggage:  two bikes, two wheels, bedrolls, two large bags packed with paniers, and four carry on bags...

After biking further south to Kotor, a stunning fiord in Montenegro, we jumped on a bus in order to get to Greece in time to meet up with our good friend Amy Bishop.

It was 6pm as we settled into our 13hr bus trip from Kotor to Skopje, I said to Andy - "oh, i'm so ready for this - one bus, all the way there. Seems easy so far eh"......FAMOUS LAST WORDS!!!!

8 p.m. We were told we had to swap busses - this wasn't very clear on anything we had read but it seemed legit so it was all scramble to get the bikes, the wheels, the bedrolls, the panniers off one bus and onto another. Easy enough.

10 p.m. We are hurtling round some windy roads just as everyone is nodding off to sleep and around the corner is a truck parked. On the road. Our driver slams on the brakes, but not quick enough and he rear-ended the truck. Whole front window of the bus is cracked rights across it, plus the front end of the bus a bit munched. Uh oh.....our 13 hour trip just got a bit longer...

11 p.m Surprisingly quickly, we are loaded onto a passing bus so in the dark it is another scramble for all the bits and pieces to make sure everything makes it across.

Sometime later (about 3am:) The driver of Bus B informs us (well, the Croatians who translate for us) that we are being dropped at the next stop and a bus will come to collect us. This will save us travelling into the capital city of Kosovo where Bus B is going. Ok, again, unload and make a pile.

The bus drives off and we realise that none of actually know when/where/how/what this new bus will look like....phone calls, murmurings....maybe 4 or 5am? Maybe 6am? We give up standing on the side of the road and go inside to the cafe and buy a hot chocy....

6 a.m. Sure enough, a new bus which has driven all the way for us stops to collect us. It’s very small though so we have to put the bikes inside on one of the seats as they don't fit underneath...

10 a.m. We arrive to find our connecting bus is fully booked so we need to spend a night here in Skopje in Macedonia. Kinda relived!!! Means we can settle into a hostel instead of waiting at the bus station all day. Back on the bus 6am tomorrow for the final leg to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece.

Miri's Impressions from the bus window....
1. Montenegro is an amazingly scenic country. Lots of steep mountains, fiords and a stunning coastline.
2. The road to Kosovo is very steep, very windy and the mountains are very snowy.
3. Kosovo has more mosques than the other countries we have been in...Definitely poorer, with very rough roads but a surprising amount of development happening, with many German Kitchen design stores and other high end shops near Skopje.
4. Macedonia (Skopje) is a pretty cool place. Getting closer to Greece and Turkey with yummy looking food appearing. Exciting!

It was with great sadness that we left the Balkans knowing we had so much more to see and learn. If you get the chance, COME HERE!!!!  
 Kotor Pics (Montenegro):
The old city walls around the town of Kotor, Montenegro

Dinghies around the edge of Kotor, Montenegro

Market time - Kotor, Montenegro
The fourth bus - just chillin with my luggage!

Our stopover in Skopje - the city where Mother Theresa was born

Greece (Thessaloniki to Athens via train)

Safely arrived!
As we biked out of the bus station onto a very busy main street in Thessaloniki, we quickly realised we needed to refresh our memory of the city layout. While we stopped, a guy on a bike was also figuring out his next move close by and came over to talk to us. He had seen the NZ sticker on my bike and was stoked to share his experiences of a previous trip to NZ. He offered to guide us to our hostel, which was awesome – Thessaloniki didn’t really seem like a particularly cycle-friendly city and we saw maybe only one other cyclist so it was awesome having a local bike guide!! We were equally stoked when he emailed us a day later offering to meet up and introduce us to some good local Greek food. We had a lovely evening with him and his wife and enjoyed chatting about life in Greece, local history and learning about the secret spots around town that we’ll have to come back to explore more!! Thanks Stelios and Sortiria!!

Stelios guiding us through the streets of Thessaloniki

Enjoying a complimentary iced coffee when we arrived at our hostel in Thessaloniki!

We were ready for a few days off the bike and with so many options for exploring we swapped pedal power for public transport and enjoyed being regular tourists for a few days.

Wandering up the slopes of Mt Olympos
Exploring Thessaloniki

Greece - the old and the new beside each other. Main road of Thessaloniki
Meteora - a cool area of rocky outcrops with monastries perched on the top

Night trains.....(Thessaloniki to Athens)


With excitement we headed south to Athens to meet our rendezvous with Amy – a real treat to hang out with such a good friend on the other side of the world. We spent a few days wandering the city streets, enjoying the ruins, planning and hanging out. 

Hanging on Mars Hill (Acts 17 if you are interested!), with the Parthenon and Acropolis behind us.

Off on an adventure


So many people talk about ‘the greek islands’ which seemed like good thing to do together…..turns out there are hundreds of them though!! After researching how touristy you want to be, what kind of beaches you want, the sunset ratings, price, beauty etc etc etc we finally settled upon heading to the island of Patmos, and then onto Samos.


Patmos is known mostly as being the island where the Apostle John was exiled to. The "Cave of the Apocalypse" is the main attraction today (where Revelation was written) but as well as this there are cool isolated beaches, a really cute little harbour, whitewashed houses, laid-back Greek men on scooters and many little cafes and shops. We had a great host Stefanos who looked after us and it was great to be somewhere slower, quieter and more traditional feeling than the big cities.

Sunset from the ferry to Patmos

Skala Harbour, Patmos


Stephanos and his grandson, Patmos Island
Waiting with anticipation for our Greek gyros (kebab)
Us! Patmos Island 

The Monastry dedicated to St John, Patmos Island

The view from the Cave of the Apocalypse (almost)


Known most recently as a refugee island, Samos is a much bigger island but still has a laid-back feel to it and we enjoyed a day or two here before we all parted ways again onto various other adventures.

Pythagorio Harbour, Samos

Samos Town, Samos

The (non-biking) route through Greece

Phew! Well Done if you made it to the end!! We are looking forward to getting back on the bikes soon and resuming the journey, but it has been a pretty special "half-way holiday" over the last week or two.  We'd really love to head back & explore the inland Balkan area, where we simply ran out of time to go, like Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia - this trip has whetted the appetite to cycle through or get a teaching secondment here at some point!

We'll leave you with a very insightful look into life in the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek/Macedonian border written by Colleen Sinsky (a coordinator at the camp for a Norwegion Aid organisation - DrĂ¥pen i havet.  Today (24/05/2016) this camp is being shut down & the Refugees shifted off to other army camps.  If your interested, it's well worth a read....  https://colleensinsky.com/2016/05/23/idomeni-the-front-lines-of-life/

Miri and Andy

Footnotes:  Poetic & Not so Poetic Words
**************************   Important not to the reader:  If you're already over what we've written so far, and it's late at night & your eyes are drooping lower in their lids, and your already thinking about what you need to sort before work tomorrow & just remembered that you haven't made the kids lunches yet & that you have to take a plate for something on tomorrow night ..... don't read any further! 

It contains many wordy words!

Island Senses:  I hear, I See, I Wonder
Thoughts from the journey from Athens to the Island of Patmos

I see
I see Athens Piraeus E1 terminal.
Tents, many tents, green and blue
Two large and white.
Many small and dome
Crammed into every shady cavity
Encircling the ferry office.
Under every tree
Sweltering openly on the asphalt

I see many things at odds
At odds with the luxury inside this ship.
At odds with the harsh industrial port
At odds with the unrelenting mid-day heat

I see children creating games
With large plastic pipes & balls
I see a lone girl skipping
I see a pram
I see uncertainty and hope intertwined
But I also stand at a distance
Unsure of their stories
Only guessing

I see fellow humans needing respect.
Knowing it's too easy to gawk on -
With an intellectual curiosity.
Gazing from my ship
About to disappear
For an island holiday
I see you, fellow human, and
I wonder

I hear
I hear the distant tinkling of goat bells
Nimbly traversing rocky ridges
As they are herded on
I hear roosters crowing
I hear waves
Consistent in their coming, yet inconsistent in their rhythm
What I hear is calming
I hear

I see
I see rocky walls, fashioned over the centuries
Scaling steep ridges
Dividing gentle slopes
Grey and brown

I see a distant whitewashed chapel
Solitary on the grassy green island hillside
Vibrantly separated by the blue-green waters
Waters inviting in the warm sun.

I see ancient paths.
Paths to hillside houses & monasteries
Weathered rocks, smoothed over the ages
Now overgrown.
I wonder how these were used
In times gone by in ancient Patmos
I see and I wonder

I wonder
I wonder how ancient leaders
Who once devoted their lives to fishing.
Now with large monasteries in their name
Filled with golden treasures

I wonder how they would feel
Those who once cried out for people
To devote their lives to those less fortunate
And follow the call of Jesus to place their riches
In things that really matter & last
I wonder how they would feel
Finding themselves encased in golden paintings
I wonder

I see.  I hear. I enjoy. I wonder. I hope. I thank.

Monday, May 2, 2016

War, Peace and the Generous Goat Herdsmen (Italy, Slovenia and Croatia)


The journey that's been: (Map to come in another blog ...)
From Venice (Italy) we generally followed the coast to Trieste into Slovenia (briefly to Piran) and then Croatia crossing Istria (peninsula) inland over Vela Ucka to Rijeka. We then bussed to Plitvice Lakes (Some cool falling lakes inland half way between Zagreb & Zadar). From Korenica we biked through Gracac, Benkovac and Sibenik, and over to Trogir and on to Split.
(Island of Lido de Venezia - Punta Sabbioni - La Salute di Lavenza - Monfalcone - Trieste - Piran - Buje - Buzet - Roc - Vela Ucka - Rejika - Bus to Plitvicka Jezeera via Karlovac & Bike to Korenica. Bike through Gracac, Benkovac, Sibenik, Trogir, Split)
The journey to come: Cycle along the coast towards Dubrovnic and Kotor before heading to Greece (somehow - likely via a ferry)


Miri taking a moment out to unwind in the evening light
(after our largest KM day to date)
Grab a hot cup of tea for a moment and picture this ... It's 8:30pm at night, dusk and we've just been dumped with our bikes, wheels and pannier bags on the side of a remote road in Plitvicka National Park, inland Croatia near the Bosnian border.  We had previously thought our bus was going to be taking us past our hostel further along this road, but alas a couple of hours in we realised this was not the case.

So, here we were, as the bus abruptly turned around and headed back after emptying us and the two Japanese tourists onto the roadside. With nothing to lose, we scavenged around for our lights, fitted our wheels back on and headed off into the cold and windy night, spurred on by the promise of a warm hostel waiting further along the deserted and hilly rural roads. After an hour and half's ride, (it actually wasn't so bad, perhaps exaggerated in our minds) we arrived to the cosy hostel, relieved, excited and happy to be able to relax! We had spontaneously changed plans and jumped on this bus due to the approaching weather system, which was well worth it - As I write this now, Miriam is outside scraping snow off our bikes outside after a small dumping overnight. We are reminded that Croatia isn't all sunny warm beaches, it has a good amount of character building material too! (Andy)

Catch me if you can… (Miri)

Earlier that morning (pre late night bus drop-off) we were climbing up a very steep road to cross the Velo Ucka pass which took us from the peninsula of Istria to the rest of Croatia, which stretches a long way south into the Adriatic Sea. From Piran to Roc, the peninsula has been a mixture of rolling hills, olives and vineyards and green green valleys. After climbing for a few hours (the steepest of the trip to date!) we reached the top and donned warm gloves, hat and jackets for the descent (standard ‘going down’ clothes!) 

About one kilometer down, I stopped to check out the view, thinking Andy would see me and also stop….not so!! I turned round to see him racing past, full of concentration and not even slowing down. The race was on!! With Andy thinking I was ahead of him, and me behind desperately trying to catch him (not possible), I was hoping and praying he would stop for a photo, or to check the map, otherwise I was freaking out he’d keep biking all the way south!! Flip, he’s pretty fast that boy!
A LONG way down, he did stop and was surprised to see him frantically roll up behind him, excitedly explaining my plight and how hard he is to catch! Phew. Thought I’d lost him forever…

Looking up towards Velo Ucka Pass

Shelter from the Storm… (Miri)

On the road, one can’t be too picky about where your shelter comes from. We have experienced and heard of bridges, trees, underpasses, toilets and supermarkets all being used to save the weary cyclist from the extremities of the elements. This story, while being much more urban and civilised, is still pretty different from our normal life choices in NZ. As we rolled into the town of Rejika on the front of a good storm we bee-lined it for the centre of town where there is usually a mixture of cafes, or tourist info centres.

This day, our saviour was the familiar golden arches of McDonalds, calling to us from across the square. The golden glow emanating from the inside and the promise of a warm hot chocolate was too much to bike past! So, dripping wet, we settled ourselves in at one of their outdoor tables (we were soaked) and waited out the storm under one of their flimsy tent umbrellas. It is amazing how slowly you can make a hot chocolate go down, how sneakily you can eat lunch when you need to and how many jobs you can get down on the free wifi when the opportunities present themselves!

Central Rejika just down from the Golden Arches

Snakes and Land Mines  (Andy)

It's 4:30pm in the afternoon and we are on the scout for a place to tent, when suddenly signs with red crossbones start appearing at regular intervals on the roadside where we are looking. On closer inspection we realise that they are warnings for landmines. Biking further, we come across a farm house and bang on the gate, shouting out a cheery Dober Dan! (Hello). A lady in her late fifty's appears, and we try and mime, draw and explain that we would like to sleep in a tent there the night. She eventually, possibly understands and then explains in Croatian (no English) that this would not be good, as there are snakes. Finding a spot to tent has become almost like a regular artform! However, between landmines and snakes tonight was proving much more difficult than usual!

The generous shepherd... (Miri)

The Goat Herdsman and his flock of 8 goats across from out tent site
Once settled in a safe spot, just outside the town of Budak, we were just sitting down to our dinner (CousCous/Vege/Tuna one-pot Curry Extravaganza) when we noticed a local man wandering up the gravel road towards us.  He was following his small herd of goats as they browsed the roadside vegetation.  
Despite no English, he was very friendly and it was a great reminder of how little you actually need words sometimes.  We learnt:
  • There was a well for drinking water 300m in one direction, 
  • That the inland road has rolling hills but the coastal road is flat, 
  • That 8 goats is enough for one man, 
  • “no, thanks” to our offers of water and chocolate (only wine and beer please), 
  • That 8L of goats milk makes 1 block of cheese ...and other various bit of information. 
It was a nice yarn and off he went (when we realised the goats had vanished!!). We got ready for bed and were in the tent just after sunset. Next minute we heard a car arrive and a gruff “Hello…”. Andy jumped out of the tent, not to a policeman, or landowner, but to our shepherd man who had returned to give us a bottle of milk and half a round of cheese!! LEGEND!!! Such a treat and we felt super blessed to have been shown unexpected kindness yet again.

Fresh goats milk and cheese

War and Peace (Andy)

I had heard of Kosovo, but didn't realise that here in Croatia, a place known for it's holidaying beaches, had also experienced a lot of pain, bloodshed and all very, very recently.  The warnings of landmines, other remnants of war and stories heard has brought this "in front of our faces".  Wikipedia suggests that in Croatian's war for Independence between April 1990 and 1998 some 500,000 Croats and Serbs were displaced from areas with various segments of ethnic cleansing. Over 10,000 Civilians and Soldiers were killed.

War sucks! It is both really sad and also really eye opening riding through many towns and cities that we have read about in terms of the number of shells that rained down on them, battles fought or people displaced from these areas, as little as 15 years ago. We are about to head towards Dubrovnic, a city that was heavily shelled, with both the new and UNESCO old city suffering a lot of damage during a seven month long siege in 1991. 

We hear stories from some too about remaining (less open, but very present) discrimination depending on your family background in various parts of the former Yugoslavia.  While illegal to ask your ethnicity or religion, this information derived from what your family name is, or village of origin may significantly influence whether you get a chance at a certain job.  

There's an interesting summary of general events on Lonely Planet at: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia/history for those interested....

Courtesy Wikipedia:  Dubrovnik during the siege

Abandoned building en route to Split
Here's a few pics from this segment of the journey ....

Enjoy and hope you are doing well!

Andy and Miri


Cycling with Yoann through northern Italy.  After 1 and 1/2 months of not seeing any other cycle tourists in Europe we seem to have hit the main trails along the coast!  We have been super privileged to have met, rode or stayed with at least four different parties in the 3 days since Venice.  They have had some inspirational stories to tell and it's been a pleasure to compare notes with them!
Ferry from island Lido near Venice to continue biking along the coast
Beaches near Venice preparing for summer:  Tractor sand grooming and umbrella installation for kilometers in front of the hotels

It's a wonder anyone can see the beach here in Summer!
Fishing nets drying in the coastal rivers
Hitting the Coast en route to Trieste
A great Italian dinner:  some awesome cheese, Salami, Bread, Spaghetti with Parmesan and a little wine.
Our final Italian Pizza before entering Slovenia:  A Margaritta with Baffello Mozzeralo in Trieste (thanks Tony!)
A freezing coastal ride leaving Trieste
Border crossings:  Our day in Slovenija
Gazing back at the Alps we'd crossed from Piran on the Istria Peninsula
Piran (Slovenija) - A cool small fishing village on the Istria Peninsula
Piran .... Ahhhhh
Roc:  An example of one of the many ancient walled villages regularly placed on the hill tops inland in the Istria Peninsula (Croatia)
Boj:  Hilltop towns (Croatia)
The green interior:  Istria (known for it's truffles growing amongst the oaks)
Green Istria
Plitvica Lakes (Inland Croatia) - Spot the umbrella brigade back right
Part of the Plitvicka Lakes from above
Castle ruins while climbing up from Obrovac

The view towards Sibenik

Sibenik, Croatia

The interspersed olives and vineyard groves adjoining the Mediterranean

A night spent in an abandoned apartment left open to Cycle Tourists near Split with these two epic adventurers travelling from Spain to China

The UNESCO world heritage Palace in the old city of Split

The old city of Split

Tis the season for vibrant red poppies, reminding us of ANZAC day back home

The view towards Trogir and the distant Split along the Dalmatian Coast

SUPPLEMENTARY SECTION: THE DESCENT AWARDS ***** Reader alert - probably meaningless to anyone who hasn't biked these roads *****

Most Deserved Descent:  Vela Ucka Pass to Rejika (Croatia)

Fresh from a particularly grunty ascent of Vela Ucka in Croatia, we'd like to take this opportunity to dish out a few awards to our memorable descents to date.  The descents are made all the more sweet (with some exceptions of the miserable ones) by the effort and enormous sense of satisfaction of reaching the top.  So without further ado:
  • Most Fun descent: Fern Pass to Nassareith (Austria)
  • Most leisurely descent: Brenner Pass to Brixen - 50km of old railway turned cycle path (Italy)
  • Most scenic: Gerdena Joch Pass to La Villa (Dolomites, Italy) - AWESOME!!
  • Coldest: Valparo Pass to Cortina d'Ampezzo (Dolomites, Italy) - ALMOST SNOWING
  • Most unexpected: Between Buje and Buzet (Croatia)
  • Most deserved: Vela Ucka Pass to Rijeka (Croatia)