For the past four weeks, we have been cycling down the Balkan peninsula, mostly through countries that formerly were a part of Yugoslavia. The Balkans, while offering perhaps the most natural beauty we’ve seen in Europe, also hold a complex history that still affects much of the culture today.
We started in Croatis, working our way down the coast. The road that goes along the Adriatic Sea is dangerous for cyclists during the summer because of loads of traffic, mostly comprised of tourists. But apparently we had perfect timing, because the traffic was light, the weather was mostly sunny, and the free camping options were abundant!
Off of much of Croatia’s coast lie countless islands, large and small. So for more than 500 kilometers, we were met with views of mountains rising to our left and islands popping out of the turquoise waters to our right. Not bad, Croatia. Not bad at all!
From Croatia we crossed into Montenegro, a little and little-known country just south of Croatia, home to only about 650,000 people. We only cycled there for about two days, but we also spent a rest day in historic Kotor. This charming city, with its “old town” surrounded by the ancient city wall, sits in a unique natural harbor tucked into Montenegro’s coastline.
Sometimes when you cross a border, the culture change is slight and gradual, or almost non-existent. Other times you are immediately aware that you have left one country and entered a completely different place. Our border crossing into Albania was the latter. It quickly became clear that we had officially left modern and fully developed Europe. This sudden change was a bit of a shock to our systems. Out of nowhere, our surroundings had become reminiscent of Central America (without the sunshine). Stray dogs roamed the streets and we cycled past laden wagons pulled by donkeys.
It’s not that we mind cycling through the developing world… after all, we spent eight months in parts of Latin America that, for the most part, would fall into the category. And we loved it. But the change was sudden, and unexpected. Cycling in environments like this generally requires a little more work and planning—finding the right food and enough of it is sometimes challenging, and you have to be a lot pickier about where you pitch your tent for the night. It’s just a bit more complicated, and we weren’t expecting to deal with that before Asia.
But there’s also a certain flair, or character, that most developing countries seem to possess. Where else can you find burros covered in firewood plodding along the same road as you? And almost always you can count on finding more rugged landscapes on roads that have virtually no traffic.
From Albania it was on to Macedonia, which was much of the same feel. In fact, for the first two days in Macednoia, we weren’t sure we’d actually gotten into the country, as Albanian flags waved proudly from flagpoles and in the streets. We came to find out that about 25 percent of the population is Albanian, and they must be a patriotic bunch. These two countries reminded us a lot of South America as we spent most of our time going up and down through the mountains, often having to yell at or splash water on the stray dogs that decided to chase us as we rode by.
Perhaps the worst part of Albania and Macedonia was the lack of sunshine. It has turned completely fall, and traces of summer sunshine are no more. Cloudy skies (though thankfully not that rainy) can wear you down day after day. However, we know that the weather is also the reason we’ve had the roads at their best… so it’s a package deal.
Altogether, we would highly recommend the Balkans for a cycling trip… it has been the most consistently scenic place we have ridden in Europe!
We’re now about halfway across northern Greece, working our way to Istanbul. We should arrive in about a week, and we’re sad but excited to be bringing the European leg of our journey to an end.