The idea was to get an early start, but we just couldn’t get ourselves out of bed. We had a deal with the host to come and pick up the keys at 9:30am which then dragged to just before 10am 🙂 Eventually we showered, packed up and were ready to go. The host gave us a few ideas and critically made our minds up on which route to take to Ohrid. There are two options, the main road South or the one going through the North through Mavrovo national park and lake areas. The host was adamant that the latter is much more scenic and we decided to follow his advice.
As soon as we left though, it was clear that… of course… breakfast was due, so we indulged in some local pastries called biurek which are basically filo-pastry with a lot of butter and feta cheese (or spinach). We downed them with a yogurty drink called airian.
This is when Sasho’s stomach situation started to solidify (or not) into what would become a long marathon of suffering. All morning he struggled and had to stay locked in the toilet.
We detoured a bit to go through the “famous” central area of Skopje, which has recently invested millions (from the little that they have) to build monuments, statues and all sorts of memorials to it’s ancient Greek origins (or so we are told).
Finally, we stopped at a cafe to get some wifi (and a toilet) and download some maps which I forgot to do earlier. Was this leaving of Skopje dragging on or what… by the time we exited the city it was already close to midday.
The road serpentined around a lot of small hills until it opened up a view of the mountains to come in the distance. The roads were smooth, the weather was warm and sunny and the joy was full… quickly, we need to find a loo.
It was clear that October was here. The colours were changing magnificently and we were on a quiet road allowing us to enjoy the views.
Loads of stops for water and … relieving of the natural pressures.
The locals were very very friendly. We were moving East and the ethnicity was slowly but surely changing into more Albanians than Macedonians. Our experience of both was very warm and welcoming, but the trend started to form with the Albanians clearly being much warmer.
The way led us out of the hills and into the plains. The steep overshadowing walls on the sides become fields ripe with crops or already harvested. The colours were a bit greener and it was clear we dropped some elevation. It was totally enjoyable, with no headwind, flatness and easy rolling.
I loved the contrast of the light and the covered skies. It was still warm, but the sun was starting to get low. Our goal was to get past Gostivar and head a bit into the mountains, but the exploration of the benefits and views of the local loos, along with the late start seemed to be working against that.
Sasho was feeling a bit weak and tired, so we made a quick stop for some coke and food which seemed to work a treat. The stop was in the village just before Gostivar, which the owner of the cafe told us proudly was the longest village in the country and was entirely occupied by Albanians. They become very interested in our trip and sat around on chairs, talking to us about Bulgaria, Macedonia, about politics life and everything in between. When we started to plan to leave, the were asking “Just have another coke, stay a bit more!”, unfortunately we had to go as it was getting late. We jumped on the bikes and set off…floppiness, dragging… I looked down – flat tyre, great! I could have fixed the damn thing instead of sitting and sipping coke. Oh well, got off and went on to fix it. A few of the guys from the table jumped up to help (not that there was much space for it). I used the spare, replaced it, pumped headlessly, packed up and thanked them. We were rolling again!
Finally, we made it into Gostivar and to a beautiful little pizza place next to the river overlooking the mountains. Sasho was really in trouble, he was shivering and displaying all the symptoms of something you don’t want to have on a cycling trip. We stayed for a bit, looking online for AirBnbs or hotels to sleep in as it was clear a night in a tent wouldn’t be ideal (plus they were mega cheap). Unfortunately, everything was booked – shock! The only available place was a five star hotel in the city centre, so we booked that, which ended up being about £15 per person for the night. At that point was dark and Sasho had all his clothes on, including a blanket. We got on the bikes and rode to the hotel as fast as we could.
Registered, paid and even sneaked the bikes in the room (as the reception was not overlooking it). It felt like a victory, who can say they sneaked two bikes in a five star hotel’s room?
Sasho went to have a long warm shower, and I went to look for some pills and bottled water as we suspected that could have been part of the problem.
On the way out I encountered the maid right in front of our door. “Where are your bikes, I was looking for them in the parking?” “Uh… we didn’t put them there.” “Oh, they are in your room!?! No, no… the boss will be VERY upset! Come, bring them with me!” “Wait, let me just put some shoes on…”
She took me to the basement (not the parking) and actually showed me a pretty safe place to store the bikes. So I ran back up, unloaded them, and ran down to leave them and lock them together. We managed to even get our stinky clothes washed and dried in the hotel. Then went to get some water and medication which a shop owner gladly gave me as he said all pharmacies will be closed (it was Sunday).
Soon we were in bed and ready to rest. An amazing first day with a multitude of impressions… and loos. I was excited for the morrow, I think Sasho not so much.