Sunday, December 20, 2015

The crash and the Flat and the 4000m Elevation Day

Well, I’m back in Germany and proud to report to you that there was only one crash and one flat and they both happened at the same time. Picture this: A curvy road alongside a canyon is in construction and a piece of mountain is in the way. So what do they do? They blow a hole directly through it. (Also known as a tunnel.) They don’t get far enough to think about the fact that mountains aren’t transparent and that that means they’re dark inside… but to be fair, most are short enough to make your way through without lights. Flash forward however many years to when there’s a lone Canadian girl riding along this beautiful landscape…

I’m happily cruising along, repeatedly being distracted by the turquoise water that is the pot of gold at the centre of the majestic meeting of two mountains – the Piva Canyon. I come up to yet another tunnel and am suddenly enveloped into pitch blackness. I can see the other side in the distance though, so I continue on with just a slight higher level of caution, pointing in the general direction of the light. That doesn’t last long though, and soon I hit gravel and then am skidding along the edge before I’m lying in the dirt, listening to the sound of my tire deflating. On the wrong side of the road. I lie there for what feels like 10 minutes, repeating the same two explicit words, as everything else seems to have escaped my vocabulary. And then I fumble around to find my headlamp which triggers words like “You’re extremely stupid,” to come back to memory. I unclip and untangle myself from my bike and bags and then shakily find my way out of the tunnel. I set up my workshop on the side of the road and start patching up the tube. There’s an alarming amount of car horns echoing down the canyon, bouncing off the rocky walls. I’ve located the hole (finally), when a parade of cars drives by, honking and waving. The plates are Bosnian, so I’m not surprised by their friendliness, yet still feel like a mini celebrity… and then the newly wed couple zooms by in their BMW decorated in ribbons. Once I’ve got everything back in working order, I notice the stinging sensation on my foot. I stick a tissue in between my slightly bleeding ankle and my now ripped smartwools, and I’m set to continue!
A few kilometers later a rusted bent metal sign to “Zabljac” points directly into the mountainside. I stop to look at my map, feeling apprehensive about the darkness of this tunnel that didn’t seem to have an end. Sure enough, this was my turn. I put the map away and then pull it out again, wondering if there’s any way I can avoid this. As it turns out, the tunnel isn’t all that long and leads to a series of very steep switchbacks.

That’s the beginning of the non-stop climb. Except, thinking back now, it couldn’t have been non-stop because unfortunately, the top wasn’t at 4000m. Logic and stuff I guess. I had been riding for a good 5 hours when I got to a more forgiving section in the heart of the Durmitor National Park, that also had some breathtaking views. There’s an unfortunate lack of photos though, as I was too worried about making it to Zabljak before dark…
I’m starting to bonk and pull out the only food I had – a bag of granola. I look around and check my map trying to guess how much farther I had to go, in both the horizontal and vertical direction. A sign behind me points in various directions. Zabljac is on the bottom and the distance is 35km. In the direction I came from. I take a moment to break down. Then I decide to trust the map and continue on, climbing two more set of switchbacks until I reach a promising mountain-pass-like sign. It’s quite chilly up here!
I watch the sunset as I suit up for the ride down. Glooooriouuus!
I arrive in Zabljak in the dark and go directly to the grocery store, struggling not to buy everything in sight. Then I check my email and learn the hostel I wanted to stay at is closed for the season. I take the closest hotel in sight and have a glorious hot shower and pass out in a queen size bed. Life’s good.

The lesson: doesn’t lie and 4000m is too much for one day on a bag of granola. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

A trip back centuries BC (Athens)

Jenny is a fantastic host. When I mention I have a sniffly nose she quickly makes me a delicious traditional Greek remedy - tea from local plants with organic honey. Her apartment is a cozy yet spacious place and I enjoy myself the next morning, slowly eating breakfast with more tea. And then I head out to conquer the last stretch!!

A large portion of it is pretty industrial and not really all that enjoyable, but there's one section of an old coastal road that offers a majestic pano over the sea. Once I get into the 15km radius of Athens, traffic is disgustingly thick... Why didn't I think about that?! Small town kid, I suppose. 

Wide empty roads!!


In all my excitement to reach Athens, I took on more mileage than I usually plan for and arrived downtown in the dark. I decided to just crash at a hostel for the night and figure out a couchsurfing option tomorrow. And what a fabulous choice!! This hostel wasn't what you'd call cheap, but you got what you paid for. Best bed ever. Cozy communal area. FAB breakfast. Cool people. A+, City Circus Hostel, A+. I went for the 3 course dinner offer in the restaurant, where I learned about Christmas in Singapore, Amsterdam, China and Ireland - hostels, I tell ya!

On my first full day in the city, I did pretty close to nothing. Which was fantastic. I met Tom from England who is en route to Singapore on two wheels. It's so fun and reassuring (that you're not an absolute idiot) to hear about other cycle tourers' adventures, mishaps, crashes, wrong turns, GPS-routes-gone-wrong, and of course the beautiful moments, too. In the afternoon I went to meet Konstantinos before wandering around somewhere downtown until he got off work again. He lives with his dad and grandmother who is very cute. She sorta clutches onto my arm and says short little things in Greek (that I obviously don't understand) while smiling and nodding. The next day, I tackled the Acropolis Museum - an overwhelming 4 hours of impressive statues and history.

In the evening, Konstantinos took me on a tour up the Lykavittos Hill where you get a great view over the city lights. 
The next day, I meet up with Michael who I had met in Agrinio. (Apparently Greece isn't all that large after all?) He says there's a cool cafe he wants to show me. We're walking down a rather deserted alley and I'm starting to question what kind of cafe this might be. Then we step through a completely normal door with only a very small, discrete sign beside it, and emerge in a courtyard type area. All the tables are full.  A retractable canvas roof, that is usually open in the summer, gives a nice soft light. The place is surrounded by old abandoned rooms that have graffiti and other art on the walls, and upstairs there's a small art gallery. Sweet spot!

After being in Athens for a full 3 days I still haven't been up to the Acropolis... So I decide to take advantage of the sunshine and tourist it up. I'm pleased to say I didn't pay a cent of entry fees! I walk through the National Gardens to where Olympian Zeus' Temple is easily viewable through the fence, Hardrian's Arch beside it. 

Hadrians Arch
Zappeion Hall - Athens Academy of the Arts
Temple of Olympian Zeus

Then somehow, I sweep a free entry to the Acropolis, after showing my joke of a student card. (Thanks past self for thinking it would be hilarious to put your hair in cute little pig tails because 'you're never going to use this card anyways right!?') I casually stop by the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora as well as the hill of Nymphs and the Theatre of Dionysus. Fun fact: since disturbing ancient ruins is a crime, all of Athens was built illegally... Because they're literally everywhere.

The Parthenon
This is a remake of what used to be on the west pediment of the Parthenon. In the middle are Athina and Poseidon who compete for the honour to become the city's patron. Athina presents an olive tree, while Poseidon brought water. However, since the water is salty, it does not prove to be very useful to the people, and Athina wins.

Temple of Athena Nike
Theater of Dionysus

On my last day in Greece, I go on a hunt for a bike box. It's surprisingly simple! Soon, I'm weaving my way through the crowded streets with a large cardboard box, receiving questioning looks. Somehow, finding a roll of packing tape is much more difficult than the bike box itself, and I end up walking the length of downtown Athens a few times, lugging this box with me the whole time.

I soon learn that packing up a bike isn't as simple as I thought and slightly regret not having paid more attention when my trusty pops did it for me 5ish months ago... Eventually I have everything wrapped in foam and the handlebars, derailleur, front wheel, and seat removed. But the pedals are not budging! Frustrated, I decide to take a food break and go for a last Greek souvlaki with Tom. 

This photo really doesn't suffice for the quite commical changing of the guards ceremony. They do it every hour, including at 3 in the morning... 

And then Konstantinos persuades me that we should forget the bike and go to the movie... Leaving 2 hours to sleep before I have to get my bike in the box, carry (drag) it to the tram, then to the metro and then through the airport to catch my flight. You're probably expecting a very catastrophic story now. But this is a Suchy girl were talking about; pretty sure it's in our blood to work on no plans and always last minute. So long story short, at 10:45 the plane takes flight and I AM on it.

Here's some more photos of my wanderings around...

Lots of Christmas lights
Greek-looking stairs
'The World is More Beautiful with You'
This made me smile.
These stands are everywhere. They're selling a drink called Saleb which tastes like a chai latte but creamy and more heavenly...
Cosy cafes everywhere!!
This is a protest against the compulsory military service all males over the age of 18 are subjected to in Greece. 

Second hand book shop... with English books - win!
Lots of buskers on the streets.

I want to say that I thought deeply about how incredible it was that I was cruising by all the countries I'd travelled through at a ratio of 1 month of cycling to less than 1 hour of plane riding... But I was 100% passed out, probably drooling on the tray.When I arrive in Berlin, my first thought is 'Oh, well maybe I'll put another jacket on.' And then, 'Wow, I understand why half the world has a hate-on for winter - Where's the snow at??'

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

First few Greek days

On my first morning in Greece, I take a walk around the neighbourhood looking for a grocery store. I realize I know nothing about Greek culture and especially nothing about their language. I can't even begin to try pronouncing words because of the cryptic alphabet, which makes guessing which button on the scale means banana seriously impossible. I head back to my room and eat breakfast on the balcony as I watch the sun rise and the locals below heading to work and school.
The ride to Preveza is unfortunately quite trafficked, but there's a North American-sized wide shoulder for the majority of the way. There seems to be a lot of construction sites, which I guess is better than a bunch of unemployed men sitting on the side of the road, drinking coffee, because they don't know what else to do with their day. When I arrive in Preveza, I'm starved - it's a good thing I didn't decide to write this post just then. I find a park and make sandwiches until I feel thankful for where I am again. And then I go to a cafe for a drink (wifi) and look for the cheapest option for the night. Apparently that's a 35€ room in a hotel. I've learned that in these situations, you have to forget the price and just embrace the fact that you're forced to go to a fancy hotel. I enjoyed pretending I was a queen for the night, watching TV and sprawling out on a king size bed and then being served breakfast in the dining room the next morning.
I rode on towards Agrinio then. There's an underwater tunnel across the Ambracian Gulf that shortens the ride quite a bit. You're not aloud to cycle through, but I'd read a cycle blog that said they were given a ride across - it's part of the service. As I approached the tunnel, there wasn't a toll anywhere in sight - it was on the other side. I wondered where I would see the car that does this service and started riding into the tunnel when the lane is closed and a voice over the loudspeaker says "Bicycles are not aloud in the tunnel. Please go back." Look at me, making a scene! I scurried back out and stood around wondering, 'now what?!' I decided to try hitchhiking. The first car I held my thumb up to pulled over and the man told me there was a car coming - wait 2 minutes. Sure enough, moments later an orange truck pulls over and the tunnel employee is apologizing for having to say it like that but that he had to get me to turn around. He's incredibly friendly and helps me load up my bike and bags and gives me a ride across the other side. I go to pay the toll fee but he shrugs it away saying I don't have to pay. They only do this for tourists because they only pass once, but locals go back and forth all the time.
And then I'm riding through rolling hills along the gulf. The dogs here are much more like what I had been expecting in Albania. I'm observing the grazing sheep who glance up at me before turning their focus back to chewing, when two large shepherds come bounding in my direction barking and baring their teeth. I jump off my bike, alarmed at this sudden confrontation and start yelling back at them, walking by slowly.
Once back on my bike I'm curving around an uphill bend when a guy on a moped comes up from behind. He's holding his foot up to the back of my bags and I'm sorta swerving around as I'm trying to see what in the world he's doing. Then he gives up and holds out his arm to me - he wants to help me up the hill! I laugh and decline his thoughtful request. He shrugs and zooms off.
When I arrive in Agrinio, I find a coffee shop where cookies and cake are served bottomless - this should definitely be adopted by every coffee shop ever! "Unfortunately," the couchsurfing host here hasn't replied and I'm left with an even fancier hotel as my option for the night. I spend the same amount for 3 night of accommodation in Greece as I did for my entire 2 week stay in Albania. That evening, I'm walking around the streets made cosy by Christmas lights and sit down for dinner but the waitress doesn't speak English.

A guy at the table next to me becomes translator and tells me what's on the menu. And soon, I've joined them at their table. Afterwards, we go for drinks at his favourite bar and they teach me the basics in Greek: first off, swears (obviously) and then Vanessa puts "Se agapo = I love you, Kalimera = Good morning, Ti kanis = How are you?" in there, just in case. They give me an extensive list of things to see, do and eat in Athens and advise me to get there as soon as possible so that I can fit it all in.
The next morning we meet for Capuccino Freddos - a shot of espresso on ice topped with milk that is so frothy it's like whipped cream. New favourite!

I take my time riding to Patras. There is again a lot of construction and traffic but the views over the sea are still wonderful.

I stop for my 3rd coffee of the day - there doesn't seem to be any other option when I need wifi - and am pleased to be greeted with a couchsurfing acceptance notification. Yay! I'm full of energy (caffein) and cruise into Patras city centre to wait for Christos. We spend the evening wandering the streets and eating souvlaki before I have to pass out, while he goes out partying.

My pace seems to be slowing more and more as I approach Athens. Riding to Xylokastro is bliss. There's a new highway that takes all the traffic away from the old coastal road, leaving it free for me! I ride up to a guy heading home from work and we chat for a while. I'm telling him about my trip and find myself trying to inspire him to do something like it too. He says he's got too many commitments now. In that moment I vow to have a career and lifestyle that lets me continue exploring. I'm sure many young travellers tell themselves this.
I spend the evening sitting in a cozy cafe bar waiting for Jenny to get off work.

I'm one ride away from Athens. And even though I've been thinking about this every day as I ride, now suddenly, I realize that my simple lifestyle, where my biggest worry is where I'll head next or where I'll spend the night, is coming to a close.

Maps and stuff

For my Papa:
Here's an overview map of the last half - the part after I had actually decided I was doing a long bike tour and where my destination was! 

After the race in Umag on the north coast of Croatia, I began heading south. I did some island hopping before I got to Zadar. From there I rode to Šibenik and then Split. I was in split for a long time! I had my 18th there and met a really fun group of friends my age. We hung out for a week or so and went to a couple islands together, it was a grand time! After I figured out my passport situation (another story) I finally carried on from Split to Makarska. The next day was a beautiful ride across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina to Mostar. 

Konjic was a pit stop on the way to Sarajevo before I headed on to Foča. From there I crossed into Montenegro and rode up through the NP to Žabljak. (the very long day with the crash!!) It's not big enough to be on the map apparently, but in between Žabljak and Kotor, I stopped in Nikšic. After Kotor I slowly headed to Albania, stopping in Budva and Bar. Unfortunately, the memories of Montenegro are not what I had been lead to expect due to my sickness that lasted through the entire country... 
From Bar in Montenegro, I went to Shkodër - the first Albanian city. Next up was a long flat ride to Tiranë and then a short hop over to Durrës. From there I went back inland a little to Berat and then back out to the coast to Vlorë. 
This was the beautiful coastal mountain pass route in the south of Albania - the "From Vlorë to Sarandë" post. 

This is the route I've taken through Greece. I would have liked to go via Gjirocastër and then over the mountains by Ioannina but I figured it would be too stressful with the lack of time before my flight out of Athens. So coastline it is! The start is still in Albania, in Sarandë, the town I mentioned in the last couple posts. I'm in Xylokastro tonight - the last stop before I ride into Athens. It feels a little surreal... The past 3 months all leading up to this!

Ciao Albania, Hello Greece!!

From Sarandë it was a bit of a rough adventure ride to the border.

The road was incredible - new and smooth - until suddenly it just didn't exist anymore. And then I spotted this "ferry." I think they were pretty amused with how I was looking around and taking photos of this questionable wooden structure...

I hadn't had the chance to charge my phone because the power was out, so I didn't really have a map. But I didn't mind because it made me enjoy the last bit of Albanian kindness as I repeatedly asked "Igoumenitsa?" pointing in the direction I thought it was.

At the border, I pulled up to the window and handed over my passport. He took a look at it, scanned it and then held up the stamp looking at me questioningly... I tried to explain my stamp was in the front pages, but then realized he was asking me if I wanted a stamp... I was very confused, thinking 'dude, I don't know, this is your job!' Eventually he shrugged and laughed and stamped my passport. A woman in uniform stoop at the other side and said hi to me so I stopped thinking she wanted to see my passport or ask questions or something.. But she just asked where I was from and then said "Your eyes are very beautiful... Bye." And that was the last thing I heard from an Albanian. What an incredible country! Albania, Thankyou for your kindness and chaos, your rakija and your cozy funky cafe bars. Stay as open and rugged and relaxed and welcoming as you are!
I cruised down to the coast and through the Greek customs. A few hours of riding through neat rows of trees who's branches sagged under the weight of juicy looking oranges, I was in Igoumenitsa! I started to notice the higher quality new cars, the brand name clothing people were wearing and the clean streets. Just this morning, as I had been eating my breakfast on the promenade, I observed a cleaning woman picking up garbage and emptying the bins into her garbage bag. And then she dumped it on the beach in a big pile of rubbish. I wondered how much she gets paid.
In Greece now, I sat down for some food and quickly also noticed the quadrupling of prices. And then the lack of hostels... A sad, sad discovery. A couple hours later, after settling into my Airbnb place, I went for a stroll and popped into a crepe place. I sat there for a while until a group of friends asked me to join them. Turns out Greece is just as awesome as Albania!!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

From Vlorë to Sarandë

If heard many fabulous things about the road from Vlorë to Sarandë. I was getting pumped for the uphill grind and the views that would accompany it.
Getting out of Vlorë proved to be a long difficult process as my shoe decided to not behave. *Sidenote* This is actually 100% my fault for ignoring the issue caused by my crash in Montenegro (for another post...) 
Anyways, I'm standing on the side of the road with only one shoe on, searching for my Allan keys that have disappeared in the single moment I actually need them. I've opened all the logical compartments for the 3rd time, with no luck, when a man across the street asks what I need. I make a turning motion with my hand and say 'Allan key!' but I get the feeling that's not a very international term... He comes back a moment later with pliers and a screwdriver. After looking at the shoe, he runs away again and returns with a large set of Alan keys! The dirt that has accumulated and cemented into the bottom makes it impossible to budge the screws though. He tells me to wait a minute and disappears around the corner with my shoe. In the next 10 minutes, practically the whole neighbourhood stops by to see what the foreigner is doing with one shoe and one sock, asking if they can help me. Eventually the man comes back with my shoe in pieces and we figure out how to align it and straighten it out, then tighten it down nice and firm. I thank the man and his possy of friends standing around watching and ride out onto the street. I want to stop to grab some snacks for the road but the stupid thing is permanently attached to the pedal now. I have to take the shoe off and then struggle prying it off the pedal before I change into my runners...

Finally, I'm en route! The first 30km or so is pretty flat and uneventful... I lose myself in my thoughts, singing to myself and moving at quite a slow pace. Then the climb starts. It's steep. And goes on for years! I'm making my own mini switchbacks on the road that is already a switchback and still I'm crawling. When I make it to the top, a majestic sun-filtered foggy view over the ocean is revealed. I can see the downhill switchbacks I had been expecting to be uphill when I was looking at the map. What a pleasant surprise! 

I suit up for the windy descent and start cruising down the - also very steep - backside. 

Only to be greeted with another 10% grade climb. I soon have to stop to strip again. Around every bend there's another red triangular sign warning me that this too is a steep 10% grade. Thankyou for your kind words of encouragement, you stupid sign. The road curves through small villages, up and back down. A beautiful sunset bathes the whole scene in a golden orange light - photos are a perfect excuse to stop. I'll admit, I'm getting tired and a little hangry at this point. 

It's starting to get "late" - as in 4:30 when it starts getting dark. I'm getting a little frustrated and worried when I spot a cyclists with a whole lot of baggage ahead of me. I try not to get too excited, telling myself it's probably just another local doing their groceries or something. But sure enough, around the next bend I meet David from France who has been cycle touring for 2 years. His bike is falling to pieces. "No breaks... I wedge a rock here between the cables... I have to shift manually..." He's easily carrying twice as much weight as I am. Suddenly my whiny struggles seem very illegitimate and silly. We ride together into Himarë before parting ways - me to look for a hostel, and he for a place to pitch his tent.
The hostel is closed, but a friendly English-speaking man who knows everyone in town calls up the owner. They're at the hospital with their mother and can't come in. The man gives me a free shot a rakija and then says the hotel down the street is owned by his friend and would be just 1000lek for the night. I crawl into bed and then out the light and then realize it's only 20 to 7. Oh well. 
I'm up before the sunrise and walk around waiting for shops to open to get some breakfast. 

From here to Sarandë, the hills chill out a little and it's a beautiful ride along the coast. I arrive before noon to the picturesque harbour town. The waterfront is noticeably developed in contrast to other Albanian towns. There's a gym with the classic "no pain, no gain!" plastered on the windows next to photos of people working out. Pretty standard. But it occurs to me that this is the first one I've seen throughout Albania. I suppose people are too busy trying to put food on the table to worry about how flabby their arms are.