Sasho was unhappy, we had the habit of sleeping with our window open to keep the fresh air coming in, but since our room was right next to the street, which was adjacent to the main square there was a lot of traffic. Early in the morning (around 6:30am) a car had stopped and two guys were “talking” (read shouting) to each other about something. I was blissfully drooling with my headphones on.
We packed everything and got ready (yet again). For many, including Sasho it seemed, packing and unpacking every day was a pain or rather it felt unnecessary part of the journey. For me, it was the time to get mentally in the state necessary for the day ahead, to focus and review my gear, to make sure everything was in order. I like arranging my things, like a puzzle, it’s meditative, but I can completely understand the other perspective.
We rolled out of the “villa” and went through Bitola’s city centre both to explore and in the search for breakfast (hoping to find some of our favourite and cheap biureks). We found a little pastry shop and ordered a bunch. They were a decent size, very delicious but a bit more pricey than what we had been having. It was a sign for what was to come in Greece.
Bitola is a beautiful town. We went down the main street all the way to the end where it become a park lane and then joined the main road which took us through the industrial zone.
Our bikes were covered in fine red dust from the day before when we were in the mountains. They were very dirty and most importantly the chains were too. This was not good technically, because the chains would slowly clog up, there would be more friction as the oils get absorbed and that can reduce the strength of the metal over time. Even purely for aesthetic reasons we wanted to clean the bikes and not long after Sasho saw a car wash place, so we stopped there.
The owner agreed to do it for a couple of euros (as we were out of Macedonian Dinars and didn’t want to withdraw more just before the border).
With an immaculate attention to detail, the worker soaped the bikes up and washed them from every angle possible, every detail with pressurised water.
Needless to say, the bikes we shining like new after. The next main thing was to oil the chains as now they were just went and that wasn’t much better.
We left and after a few smooth kilometres found ourselves on the Macedonian side of the Greek border. The weather was absolutely gorgeous – sunny, warm, but not too much, perfect for cycling!
The passport control officer scanned our passports and let us through without a fuss. We continued over to the Greek side of the border. The queue there was split in two – EU / Macedonia. The EU lane was practically empty and pretty much flying through. The Macedonian one was resembling a traffic jam and it didn’t look like it would move much soon.
A key detail there was the statue of Alexander the Great, right next to the control point holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. We interpreted that in the context of the political relationship between Greece and Macedonia and the claim Macedonians had that they were descendants of Alexander and he was in fact Macedonian. Obviously, the Greeks didn’t take this well and the statue was the first
We flew through the border almost without stopping. They just opened our passports and handed them back.
We were in Northern Greece.
First stop was at the petrol station right after the border. Toilet and most importantly bicycle chain oil (can’t believe they had one). The oil canister must have been the first and only one they got, because it was so dusty you could leave your handprint on when holding it for the first time. However, it worked a charm. It was late, so we pushed one through the plains of Northern Greece.
A quick pit stop in one of the villages for a coke to refresh and get some energy. The owner knew almost perfect Bulgarian (Macedonian), but his son didn’t understand a word, so he just greeted us in English.
It was late in the day now, noon had passed and the days weren’t as long as in the summer, so we had to keep going. At a railway crossing we saw an old man sitting on the side of the road. I greeted him in Greek with “Kali mera” and rode on, Sasho was after me and habitually greeted him in Bulgarian. The man replied to me in Greek and to him in Macedonian and shouted something after us, so we turned around and decided to talk to him a bit more. He was “Macedonian” as he explained in an (impeccable Bulgarian, purer than the one we spoke) and the whole village (behind him in the distance) where he was living was Macedonian. He talked about the memories of the Greek oppression after these territories were taken away and said “We hoped for freedom when the Turks left in 1912 (the Balkan wars), but in fact it got worse…”
At the end we asked him if it was ok to take a photo with him, but he refused. I could see that same spark in his eyes, the one we had seen in baba Sabia’s, in the old ex-convict on the coast of Ohrid. The spark that tells you there is a fire burning in their hearts, that they have unwavering conviction and a belief, that they belong to an idea bigger than themselves and have lived a life full of intense experiences. We thanked him for his time, wished him a great day and rolled on.
We knew that the flats will be over soon and we would have to get over a mountain to descent to Edessa, but had been going through the whole day just on a breakfast, so it was time to stop for some proper food. We turned right from the main road and entered the town of Sitaria. It was empty. We went down into the centre of the place and looked through two or three restaurants, but they were all closed… it was just after lunch time and they were all closed? How do these people turn any profit? Luckily there was a local pub open and I entered to ask if they have any food. The place was filled with a thick wall of cigarette smoke, I almost chocked and re-energised my asthma. People were just staring at me, no one even replied in the beginning and just a shy waiter boy came and told me “No menu, we just have meat”, “Ok, that’s great great, we will sit outside”… dizzily and with a headache from the smoke I made my way out and we sat on a table. The weather was unbelievable and yet everyone were crammed inside, behind doors and windows, living in darkness and a self-made cigarette-fumes-gas-chamber…. go figure.
The owner suddenly came out as well and cleaned our table and chairs, the waiter boy put a cloth and we made our order. The food started to come in and my appetite with it! It was absolutely delicious, exactly what we needed – some vitamins, loads of carbs and protein!
However, it was the end of the cheap times we had in Macedonia, the era of the Euro and the land of tourism was here. Our pockets would feel the difference soon. Loads salad, some meat and a beer later we were ready to move on. The owner also spoke very decent “Macedonian” and chatted for a bit with us. His son was in fact the waiter boy from earlier and he said the kid was due to go and do the mandatory military service all males had to in Greece. They gave us a coffee for the road and we left them.
Greeks are friendly, Macedonians more so, but the friendliest, most hospitable of them all were the Albanians we met, they couldn’t be challenged with their natural friendliness and spontaneous curiosity, and respect for others.
The hills were here, but luckily our fuel tanks were full too (and thankfully not too much).
The climb was very, very long for our tired legs and felt like a never ending organic chemistry lecture.
Finally, we made it to the top of one of the passes and had a long way to roll down, so we stopped to put some clothes on. The sun was now very close to the horizon and the shadows elongated. The light was a beautiful golden and lit equally beautiful views around. This was the time for which you go on trips like these, totally enjoyable.
We then had to tackle some pretty steep climbs and fast downhills. The problem with them is that you are either too warm or too cold.
The sun was now behind the horizon and we had at least two more hours to go.
And then, I looked at the map and realised… I had gotten the road wrong…. What?? No! Not now please!
I zoomed out on the map and checked where we were in reference to where we should have been. Actually, we had taken a better route, one that would be a little shorter in total, but would take us more on main roads. We didn’t have much time, so we took the option as it was.
A few hills later and on a small road (parallel to the main one) we saw a herd of sheep grazing in the mountains. Suddenly, a low base bark was coming from behind the bushes. We saw three, four, five massive shepherd dogs running towards us (O,o) (:o) (:x)… “Come here, come back, OI, COME BACK!!!” The shepherd was shouting at them in the back and very reluctantly the dogs stopped and just surrounded us like a pack of wolfs. The guy came over and started chatting. He asked us where we were from and when we said “Bulgaria” he replied back in Bulgarian. In fact, he was from the Rila mountains region, the town of Rila (same name). What a coincidence! He said he had arrived two days ago to do the job as it was better paid and there was no work where he was from. Sasho remembered a group of horse owners that we had met in Rila around 2006 and asked him if he knew them. In fact, he did, they were from the same area and knew each other well. What a coincidence! Sasho poured him a little bit of the rakia he had (the guy’s eyes lit up a little) and he gave us some apples that he had collected. We thanked him, said goodbye and carried on in a rush. I turned back for a final gaze and saw him downing the rakia in one go. The dogs were still unhappy about the whole situation.
We were running out of water (just a few hundred millilitres left between us), the sun was pretty much hidden now, our lights were on and we had a whole our to go to Edessa without any accommodation booked as none were available online. We were hoping to stop and asked at people’s houses if we could camp in their gardens as wild camping is illegal in Greece.
On the way, right on the side of the main road we saw a restaurant and crossed the road to get some water and ask for potential sleeping options or campsites. Sasho went in while I kept the bikes.
He came back out and said “We’re sleeping here”. “What, where?”, Sasho explained that the owner had said that they have plenty of space and we could sleep anywhere around the restaurant.
And this became our “bedroom”:
It was fairly cozy as it was under the veranda roof, so moisture wasn’t going to be a problem. Also it was fenced and the table protected us on the other side which felt safe. We settled in…
We went in the restaurant and the owner told us the main options on the menu. We explained that we had no cash (his cash machine was broken) because we had just paid for food earlier with the only money we had and didn’t see a cash machine to take some more out. He said “Don’t worry, no problem”. O,O
He brought us a beer each and soon after the food arrived onto the table.
Once we finished our meals he invited us on his table where he was sorting some accounts out. We got another beer each and started chatting.
Vangelis (as his name is) was a very calm and smiling man. He was also very religious as was evident by the icons on the walls and the bible on the counter. As the conversation progressed we asked him how he had achieved all of this success with such a great restaurant (and other businesses he told us about). He explained to us how he had gone through a rough part of his life and had turned it around overnight once he got his belief “and then” he said “everything came into place and started working well without me trying”.
While we were talking, a group of Macedonians came in and sat down. He got up to serve them and shortly after started playing Macedonian music, to sing and most importantly to play the clarinet masterfully!
The Macedonians were enjoying it, to say the least! He literally turned the quiet atmosphere into a party in seconds. What a host! The group had a coffee and some water and were on their way.
We managed to make a bank transfer using Revolut and paid him for the food. Then, as we were tired, we prepared for sleep and went into our improvised beds.
Another adventurous day, without knowing where it would end, everything aligned for us too as it had been for Vangelis. Soon we were asleep.