Total to date: 3843km: Day totals: 87km and 980m of climbing
Today was a day of mixed feelings. We both felt sad to be leaving Albania, which as David said yesterday was a revelation and really enjoyed the country. Perhaps we will come back. But we also had the prospect of a new country and new experiences. We had not thought much about Greece in the planning as we thought we would only get as far as Thessalonika, which is now only a couple of days away. But having ruled out a round trip in Montenegro (too many mountains and too hot, even for masochists like us) we gained a couple of days and, given that our planning was “conservative” (and hopefully the only conservative thing anyone can accuse us of) we are ahead of schedule. We have now set our sights are now on Istanbul so we have the whole of northern Greece to explore.
We set off on a beautiful morning, skirting round the plain of Korca and turning off down a new valley. This was definitely more rural – we saw lots of shepherds with their flocks of sheep, horses and carts and lots of fruit trees. The road stayed mainly flat so we did the 30km to Billishiti, the last town in Albania, with ease. We shopped for some provisions and again were struck by the fact that this was another clean, busy, prosperous Albanian town, with shady avenues lined by cafes (not short of male customers). Albania is definitely a cafe society although we found places serving food much harder to find. Last night we had ended up with Pizza again in Korce (run by the first obviously gay Albanian man we had met). I doubt that this is a great place to be gay. Interestingly the only other people eating were a group of French tourists.
Out of the town, the flat road for the day ended and we started to climb. We crossed the 1000m mark for the first time and reached the Albania/Greece border after a few km. Again we held our nerve and cycled to the front of the queue, but passed through both border points very easily.
Another few km to the first village in Greece and we stopped for coffee. Already things felt different. We were back to euros but in the land of squiggly writing (cyrillic script!). Rather depressingly we zoomed downhill out of the village and lost all the height we had gained, dropping from 1080m to 857m. A lovely descent but we knew we had a big climb ahead so this added another couple hundred metres to it!.
At the ‘main’ road we turned towards Florina – a loop north over a mountain. I say ‘main’ but there was hardly any traffic. This clearly wasn’t a main route into northern Greece! We started climbing gently up a valley surrounded by tree lined slopes, following a little river, lots of butterflies but also a lot of pesky flies. I now know how a cow feels as the flies buzzed round our faces every time the slope got a bit steeper and we slowed down. As we got higher the flies disappeared but the road suddenly got considerably steeper. Heart pumpingly steep where it was an effort to get the pedals round and having to stop every km or even less to rest and get the heart rate down again.
With the weight David was hauling (3 times as much as me at least) I was surprised he wasn’t going backwards. Because it was a windy treelined road we didn’t even get the views that often keeps us going up difficult climbs. We stopped for a picnic to refuel and rest and fortunately after that the gradient eased a bit. We eventually made it up to just over 1500m (having started at 850m) at a small ski resort – must be one of the very few in Greece!
The top of the descent was tricky. It was unpredictably windy and in parts we travelled over a poor road surface. The road maintenance budget may have been a casualty of the economic crisis. But then the gradient eased to a good cruise down to the town of Florina. We stopped for a drink and after some debate decided not to go further today. As a result of the miracles of the internet, we booked a ‘deal’ on booking.com for a little hotel in town – and 10 minutes turned up to check in where the receptionist was ready for us and handed over the key!
After rest we have ambled into town, a perfectly nice, ordinary Greek town with a little river, lots of ordinary people in cafes and no tourists to be seen (or at least that we can identify presuming most tourists stick out like a sore thumb like we do).
You’ve guessed it and it is now ‘beer’ a clock (although I am trying an iced coffee which most people seem to be drinking and is delicious). We have already tracked down several tavernas where we can eat and will soon decide our refuelling stop. Tomorrow we will be out of the mountains, so today’s climb will be the last major one of the trip. Not the best or most scenic climb we’ve done but feels as if it has taken us over the mountain into new territory for tomorrow.
Two final points. First, can we gently remind readers that we are collecting for charity even though this is not a “charity bike ride” in the usual sense. The details are on the banner of the bloh and Walk for Life is a great charity. Secondly, we have a dedicated reader in Brazil who logs in every day. We have no idea who you are but if you want to break cover please let us know! Alternatively you may prefer to remain anonymous of course.