Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.), Stories, Travel

My Fitbit vibrated on my hand and woke me up. With a difficulty I convinced myself and got out of bed, it was 6:30am. It was very chilly in the room, I put my trousers, shoes, jacket and hat, took my wallet and left the tiny room while leaving Sasho to joyfully enjoy his slumber.

The bus stop was 5 minutes walk away. I crossed two main boulevards and asked a few people about the “Bus stop for the bus to Struga?”. I still couldn’t get tired of their faces when I would talk to them straight in Bulgarian, they would understand me, but also at the same time wonder why the hell are they able to and what language/dialect that is.

The bus stop was packed with students and the first bus that arrived was entirely for them. Five minutes later another minibus arrived with a sign “Ohrid -> Struga -> Ohrid”. I jumped on, the ticket was one pound one way.

The bus was absolutely rammed packed, but that did not stop the driver to pick up more people from a few extra stops. By the third stop I didn’t even need to hold to anything, we were human sardines in a jumping and swinging tin can moving with 70km/h. While it was very cold outside and I felt warm with a jacket and a hat, it was indescribable stuffy and warm in the little mini van with all the people, close proximity, heating and no extra oxygen coming in. I was starting to get sweaty and looking forward to getting out!

After half an hour we arrived at Struga. I didn’t know where I could get off and there were too many people to get my phone out and see on the GPS where I am, so I simply waited until everyone got off and I jumped out along with them.

The place was familiar, it was exactly where we had arrived on our first night in Struga and were asking the locals for the campsite. I knew the way from there and headed down the main street. Fifteen-twenty minutes later I was at the “villa” (still love that name for the apartment), rang, thanked the owner, got my charger and left. I was aware that I didn’t have small change for the bus, plus had to get some breakfast and thus stopped at a few bakeries. However, none of them had cash to change my big notes, so I headed back to the bus stop where I got off (not knowing if that’s where the bus would leave back to Ohrid from, but it made sense).

This is when the day made a big turn and went on the road of becoming very memorable.

Baba Sabia

When I arrived at the bus stop there was an old lady sitting at the bus stop. I asked her if she knew whether the bus to Ohrid would leave from the stop (just to confirm). She said it does leave from that stop. I sat down on the other end of the bench.

About five minutes later a bus arrived, the grandma got up and went to the door and asked the driver if he knew whether this stop was for the bus to Ohrid. He replied something very disrespectfully in the tone of “How should I know, it’s no my business!”. The grandma shouted back at him, told him off and slammed the door, continuing to mumble while walking from the the vehicle. The bus left.

Five minutes later another bus arrived and the grandma got up and went to talk to that driver as well. This time the driver was very gentlemanly and I could tell he enjoyed what he was doing and was rather helpful. However, the conversation dragged on and after five minutes the grandma called me. My face (O,o). She called me again. I went and she said the driver will take us to the stop for the bus to Ohrid (for free). The driver smiled. The grandma showed me a seat next to the window and sat next to me blocking the way to the isle. My thoughts “W.T.F. just happened. Why the hell did I just get on this bus and where is it even going…”.

I kept turning around to make sure the bus to Ohrid wouldn’t arrive, I really didn’t want to miss it, I had wasted all morning already with this stupid charger.

Silence. There were another three people in the minibus, plus the driver, plus the grandma and me. We were just sitting there seemingly for the driver to have his rest. The grandma started talking to the people, I couldn’t exactly catch her accent. Two of the others got quite chatty, but there was a women who seemed strongly displeased by the invasion of privacy that the grandma was installing (she talked quite close to the woman’s face). 

I turned around, the bus to Ohrid was just stopping behind our minibus. I got up and turned to the grandma – “Sorry, the bus is behind us, I want to get off this one as I really must catch it, I am very late!”… “Don’t worry, don’t worry, sit down.”… “But… please, I need to get off! I will miss it! It’s right there, right there look!”… she pulled me down for the jacket to sit down and repeated “Don’t worry, sit down, sit down.”. Relentless, she was like a rock, I couldn’t move her, her eyes showed relentless conviction (very similar to the guy at the beach the day before). She had an authority in her voice, in her presence and definitely in her eyes. I had no energy to argue with this monolith of will! I sat down.

Our driver turned the engine on and left. I looked back, the bus to Ohrid was still there, just standing. Our minibus made a few turns then came back onto the main street I had been walking on earlier. A traffic light, few pedestrian crossings and we came to a halt – bus stop. The grandma got off and I followed. I looked around, the stop was right next to the cafe where we had had breakfast the morning before with Sasho and the awesome Turkish coffees. I thanked the grandma and walked down the bus stop to where more people were gathered. About three minutes later the bus that was standing behind us earlier arrived and it was for Ohrid. Thank God! The people started getting on and I waited my turn patiently on the side. With my peripheral vision I noticed that the grandma was keeping an eye on me from the distance. I got on the bus and asked the driver for a ticket to Ohrid, in that moment I turned around and the grandma was behind me, also waiting to get a ticket. The driver clearly noticed that we are acquainted and asked me how many tickets – I said “Two please” and paid him. The grandma thanked me and found a place to sit.

We wobbled, in the now relatively empty bus, all the way to Ohrid. When we got close the grandma turned to me and asked me where I need to get off – “Anywhere is good I said, I know my way to the house (as I had my phone with me)”. I recognised the main boulevard where I caught the bus and asked the driver to stop. I got off and turned around – the grandma was behind me. She grabbed my arm and said “Take me to your friend” (I had mentioned we were travelling together around Macedonia). In my mind I was “W.T.H. is going on, is she for real?”, but I asked “Why?”. “I want to make sure you get there safe!”… “But…you do understand that we cycled here all the way from Skopje, right?”…”Take me to your friend, I want to see you are safe, otherwise I won’t be able to sleep” (she gestured with her hands next to her head)… The determination again, I could tell she would not quit… I couldn’t believe this…

And then it downed on me “Did you come to Ohrid just for me?”, “Yes, I want to make sure you are safe. There are bad people here, they stop with a van next to you, take you and that’s it.”, “But, please don’t tell me you came all the way to her because of this?”, “Yes, of course”, “Oh my God…”. I was speechless. She stood there looking at me “Come on, show me where your friend is”. I just couldn’t believe it and then everything suddenly connected in my mind, how she measured me up as soon as I asked her about the bus in the first moment, how she kept looking at me and I realised that the thing in her eyes was worry, and how when she saw me queuing for the Ohrid bus looking around she must have felt the urge to make sure I make it… “So, what were you doing before you decide to come to Ohrid now?”, she explained to me that she was at the bus stop, because she was going to the hospital across the stop for an appointment later on.

Slowly, we walked towards the AirBnb house talking about my family, her family, about life and Macedonia. She told me that she was from a village between Debar and Struga. In fact, we had passed through there not more than two days ago and when we did we looked in awe at the villages, hidden high up between the hills and forests, only showing the tops of the houses and mosques. She was from there, from high up in the mountains from yet another ethnic group that we called pomaks in Bulgaria, a group of slavic muslims famous with their hospitality, extremely hard work and resilience.

Eventually we arrived at the house and I called Sasho out, explained to him what happened. He couldn’t believe it. The woman finally looked relieved and happy. We asked her to take a photo together. Her name is Sabia (which means “sword” in Bulgarian) and I totally saw why. I have never seen someone with so much strength and power, she could carry the troubles of many and would not be wavered by anything as soon as she was decided on something. For the brief hour I spent around Sabia, she made a lasting impression on me, with her stubbornness, uncountable goodness and completely selflessness in the name of others. If only we would all have a bit of that.

People tell you travelling is dangerous (and it really can be), but with a few of these moments and most importantly people, it is all worth it. Grandma Sabia gave me her phone number and told me to write to her when we get to Thessaloniki, so that she knows we have arrived safely! I gave her some money for the return ticket (which she took with a mountain of convincing), lots of hugs and she was on her way.

Let the cycling begin

But first, food!!! And not just any food, we got more biureks and pastries with yogurt drinks. Sasho was having a better day (so far) compared to the previous ones, so it was looking promising. Everything packed and us basking in the sun the joy was full.

We said goodbye to the hosts and set off. The start of the climb to get over Galichica National Park and from the Ohrid municipality into the Resen municipality was not far. We went along a few of the main roads and five minutes later found ourselves at the base of the mountain.

We knew there was a lot to go, as Komoot kindly told us about it:

Realistically that was about 1200 metres of elevation in about 15 kilometres. It was going to be tough!

Here, the road was still relatively flat and also the surface was good.
But then it started to get a bit steeper

We managed to do about half of the elevation on the road and after stopping for a coffee we made it to a church building at the top of the hill in the last village we were to encounter this side of the mountain. The views were spectacular. On the way there we saw two guys walking up to the church building from Ohrid and then heading down. They greeted us and explained they do it on weekends for good health.

Shortly after we had to turn off the paved road (which finished there anyway) and head on the “bike path” that Komoot was taking us on. Sasho’s body language clearly illustrates the angle of the path, which unfortunately does not translate well in photos.

And then the path ended and become a dirt road.

And then the dirt road ended and become a forest road.

And then the forest road ended and become a hiking trail with rocks, boulders and the same persistent elevation gain on every step. It was going very, very

Here you can see the rough outline of the path we had taken. Ohrid is behind the hill.

Somewhere on the path Sasho had lost his tent or sleeping bag, which were attached on his pannier rack with straps, so he headed back to find them (the joy and mental strength this even brought on is obvious). I waited and kept an eye on the bikes and the view.

He found them and came back, so we carried on, but now we were in the forest, thankfully at least the path was fairly clear.

More carrying of loaded bikes

Finally we came to a clearing and a small fountain, so we stopped to rest after a few gruelling hours and almost a thousand meters of elevation. It was warm in the sun and we had some snacks. Then… pushed on.

The problem in the clearing was that the path split in several directions and then faded into the landscape. I used Komoot to figure out the direction, but we lost it a few times, which meant pushing the bikes up and down in wasted efforts to find, or one waiting with them while the other pretended to be a goat and went through bushes and undergrowth looking for it.

It got a bit ridiculous at points. I was wondering if there would be a hiker passing us and what would his thoughts be if he saw us, at least that made me smile 🙂

We got the way wrong… a little bit
Forward, keep going forward… somewhere
Looking back at Ohrid behind the hills

Finally we made it above the tree line, so it must have been about 1500m elevation at that point. We had gone through the worse and could see a service road on the map which is where we were aiming.

As soon as we came out of the forest and over a hill we saw a shepherd who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Surprisingly, he wasn’t very surprised by us. He had a little kid’s school backpack on one shoulder and a large plastic washing up bowl fashioned as a basket on the other. He greeted us kindly and we asked him for the road. He told us the direction and said it was behind the corner, then set off into the bushes the same way he appeared.

We made it to the road and took a short break to catch our breath and appreciate what we had just gone through. But there was not much time to waste, so we jumped on the bikes and continued, on the road this time. Regardless of the roughness to us it felt like a velvety surface and it was great to be cycling once again.

We were now at the plateau of the Galichica National Park and the landscape couldn’t have been more different than everything else we had seen so far. It reminded me of Iceland and the beauty and simplicity of  barren-looking places. I was soaking it in.

After a very rough descent we saw a little hut behind one of the hills. I wondered if that was the living quarters of he shepherd we had just seen.

The gravelly road turned into super fine red dirt.

Then into grassy paths.

On the way we met two German hikers, a boy and a girl. They told us that they had been down the road and were now coming back and planned to go and visit a cave. However, they had missed the turn for it and now were backtracking their steps. I looked on Komoot and saw where the turn was, it was in the direction me and Sasho are going, so I told them we would leave a mark on the side of the road to show them were it was.

I loved the road, it wasn’t fast, but it was totally enjoyable and the landscape was incredible, the colours of autumn, the complete silence, the gentle breeze, I didn’t want the road to end, but also knew we have a long way to go to Bitola.

We saw a ski lift on the side of one of the hills and as soon as we were discussing how people would even get there to ski the dirt part turned into a paved road… that’s how. We stopped for some food and water and to throw a last look at the beautiful plateau. 

Semi-wild horses grazing
Now it was time to get down from the mountain!

On one of the turns the green tunnel opened and uncovered the most spectacular view! We had to stop and do a photo session! In the distance you could see lake Prespa and the borders between Macedonia, Albania and Greece.

I love mountains!

After a very, very long and fast descent, with multiple pot holes avoided successfully we found ourselves cycling on the coast of lake Prespa and heading North and then North-East.

The road went through small villages, beautiful houses and hundreds if not thousands of apple trees ready and ripe with fruit.

It was the harvesting season and there were apples everywhere. So, sneakishly I had to grab one. Well, it wasn’t very sneaky, I just stopped and grabbed a few. What… they had many…. I just wanted to try them… to see if they were good for harvesting!

Two seconds after taking the photo I hit a pothole… safety first much

We were tired and had another 40km to go, but we needed some rest and food. When passing through one of the villages Sasho (of course) spotted a restaurant on the side of the road (believe me, that place looked as closed as it could look, but it was open… that guy has a talent!).

The owner was inside with a friend of his, both their wives and his younger son. They took us in, prepared us some amazing food, exactly what we needed, some beer and home-made rakia. The food was incredible and in fact, the owner himself made it. He told us that for him the quality is the most important and not simply to make a profit. The restaurant is called Klarite and is a throw away from the Prespa lake.

He told us how many cyclists pass through there and in fact one had passed the year before and was headed toward India! It was November and the guy had just gone through a rain storm and was very cold. The restaurant was closed (for real then), but they took him in nevertheless, made him food and gave him a room to sleep.

At restaurant Klarite near Prespa lake

Klarite felt like a home, like a place that had a strong community around it, everyone knew each other and worked together to upkeep it. The owner son picked up his guitar and played masterfully for us while we ate the delicious food his father had cooked.

It was getting very late and pretty dark. We had two more hours to go at least, with a 500m-ish climb to do (which was a lot after everything else earlier). We said our goodbyes, put reflective clothes on, turned lights on and went off into the dark.

The food we had really made a difference. It gave me a burst of energy, like rocket fuel! I was thankful for it, because what followed was a 3-4km long climb in the dark. I was a bit cold in the beginning, but quickly that changed into pouring sweat and an open mouth gasping for air.

The problem with climbing in the dark is that mentally it is much more difficult. You have a tiny (in the grand scheme of things) light spot and your whole concentration is on the road and avoiding the next pot hole. You lose perspective of the distance and what’s ahead, what’s behind and what is passing around you. Single metres become tens of metres and time slows right down. Thankfully, I was not alone and while talking to each other we helped each other to get the time to pass quicker.

Eventually we made it to the top and there was a brightly lit up church building. We stopped next to it to put all our clothes on for the equally long descent that was in front.

Descents are supposed to be relaxing and even enjoyable, I mean, that’s why you work for them so hard on the uphill. Not this one. Descending in the dark means you are holding on the brakes all the time, your concentration is even more alertly focused on the next pot hole (which comes much, much faster now) and not to underestimate the coming turn. Combined with the rough road surface that downhill seemed an equally long eternity. Thankfully, eventually we made it to the plains and very close to Bitola.

We had booked a room when we stopped at the restaurant Klarite. Rolling into Bitola was more enjoyable as it was downhill on well lit streets. A bit of navigating through the small, narrow and old streets and we were at our new “villa diamond”…

I left Sasho at the entrance and went to the reception. On the way there I had to navigate around twenty or so cats. I had never seen so many cats in one place, they were jumping out of all places. I do love cats, but that was too much even for me (including the tiredness). The lady, who seemed like the owner, said that she doesn’t know of any booking. She also said they had no rooms. I was just staring at her, she wasn’t saying that, to me, now.

I took my phone, opened my booking confirmation email and showed it to her. “Aaah, ok, no problem”. Really?

She showed us an adjacent building and we locked the bikes there after stripping them from the panniers. Then, we followed her into the “villa”, got two beers and went into our room. It was next to the road, it seemed awkwardly shaped, but it would do. I went to get some cash to pay her, then went back, showered and collapsed in bed with the beer. What a day!

Tomorrow, we would be crossing the border over to Greece and starting our final dash on towards Thessaloniki.

You can see the trip on Relive here:

Relive ‘Ohrid to Bitola through a hiking trail and dirt roads #adventure’

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