Biking the Balkans

Kosovo? Montenegro? Why not? It had been on my list for some time, and the possibility to bike across the Balkans was a tempting one. Not that I’d ever really been on a real bike tour before. But I had the bike, so that made things much easier. From there it was a question of learning about how to pack my bag so that it would still be functional upon arrival, and draw out a rough plan of my itinerary. To make things more interesting I decided to fly into Kosovo and out of Croatia, thus making it a linear route, and forcing me to actually get pedalling!

After finally dragging my bike-containing cardboard box out of customs, I looked around the small Pristina airport. As I’d only slept two hours on the plane since the previous day, I decided it was coffee time. Sipping my espresso I wondered about the days to come. First, set bike up. Second, get rid of cardboard box. Third, find a way out of the airport. Fourth, start heading towards Magurë, the first village on my route. With my fully loaded bike I had decided to stay out the capital, Pristina, and start heading directly toward Peja, in the mountains. Setting out along the road bordering the airport, there was barbed wire along the sides, and a military looking helicopter flew overhead. I then cycled past a control post. After this, I was in the countryside, lush and green. No signs of past war, only little villages grouped together, cows and flowers by the side of the rode. The rolling landscape is beautiful, and lends itself to cycling. Climbing a small rise, I had a magnificent view across the valley. The red-tiled houses contrasted with the green of the fields. Trying to find my way using my 500K map, asking directions and taking some pictures I made slow progress. Realising I needed to get going I took the most direct route, along the motorway. I decided to call it headwind-highway. Fighting the strong gusts pushing me back, I would shake as huge lorries flew past me. At one point, where the route divides to go to Albania, I was on a four carriageway. Hoping this was not going to set the pace for the rest of the trip, I continued on. It didn’t. Following huge road works, I even had several sections to myself. Stopping now and again for food, finding my legs was tough. The terrain changed, becoming more mountainous. Finally, almost without realising it, I arrived in Peja. Getting to my hostel, quietly tucked away in the backstreets, was great. My host, Emin, was very hospitable, and gave me a demonstration on the Santour, a traditional Iranian instrument. It was great to be on the road again!

Over the next couple of days I discovered the surroundings, such as the markets (including the cheese one!), archaeological museum, the Orthodox Church and the Rugova canyon, which I cycled up. The church is a Unesco world heritage site, and due to ethnic tensions (it is a Christian-Serbian church in Moslem-pro Albanian region) it is walled off and protected by UN troops. The Rugova canyon took me deep into the mountains, which are definitely alpine in character. The little villages and ski station would not be noticed in an Austrian landscape. The food in Peja was great, dead cheap and easy to find. I definitely appreciated my hosts Turkish coffee, the kebabs (nothing to do with what you get in France or Germany…) and my market bought cheese. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to a meal by a local guy, Dardan. Him and his friends talked to me about the region and gave me some tips. You could definitely see they were all very proud of their homeland. Saying my goodbyes, I prepared for the subsequent leg of my journey, over the mountains and into Montenegro.

Next day turned out to be one long hard grind. I’d under-estimated the climb up with my saddle-bags. The stamping of my passport by the Kosovo border guards gave me false hope:  I was nowhere near the col that would take me down into Montenegro. Finally getting my second stamp I was able to glide down other side and take in the gorgeous landscape. I was not feeling well. After stopping to buy some water and coke I looked at the time and my planned itinerary. I was hoping to get to Plav, a small lake-side village. With only a few hours of light left, it would be Plav or bust! With my last motivation I climbed the last km’s up the valley, thinking about my non-existent sleeping arrangements. I had thought about camping next to the lake, but with the fading light it might be hard to find a good spot. Slowly rolling into Plav I knocked at the first hotel I came across, a delightful place called Lakeview. The old couple spoke some German and were extremely friendly. I didn’t hesitate, and I had soon dropped my panniers and had a long shower. This was followed by a quick meal and a beer. The food was once again simple grilled meat, yogurt drink and some salad. Like Kosovo it was also very cheap and good value. I liked the place so much I decided to stay an extra day and rest a bit.

After a relaxed day touring around Plav lake (Plavsko jerezko) and sitting in the sun, it was time to continue my journey. Breakfast was bread, cheese, honey and Turkish coffee and the hotel owner soon had my bike waiting by the door. I was off, down the valley to Andrijevica where I turned left to start a long and beautiful climb of 1000 m’s up to a col. Some beer and biscuits gave me fuel to descend. The rest of the day was spent cycling up and down the mountainous terrain, following rivers and forests. My rhythm was only broken by two incidents. The first was a truck, turning around a tight corner. I threw on my brakes, but the sand on the road was not having any of it. I glided slowly into a horizontal position and almost ended up beneath the engine. Dusting myself off I realised everything was fine, and was able to wave to the distraught couple who though they’d just killed some random cyclist.  Soon after, a couple of dogs barred the route, barking and biting at the car in front of me. Backtracking slightly I re-climbed the slope to get some speed. Then peddling as fast as I could I charged at the two animals, ready to kick out at them if necessary. Luckily they were still busy trying to assault the car, so when I flew past they didn’t have time to react. From there the countryside changed radically, and in the span of one descent I went from lush Alpine forests to barren Mediterranean bush. I could see the sea far off in the distance, hidden in the dust that covered the lower plains. A few hours later I was in Podgorica. The guide books state it as a young European capital. I suppose it is, but is also not very interesting to visit. On hindsight I would have preferred to stay in one of the small villages on the route than spend the effort of cycling through the city.

My next stop was Kotor, a gem of a town placed on the Adriatic, hidden at the end of a long fiord. To get there I took the more mountainous path, and due to road works soon found myself cycling along an empty motorway. Stopping in Cetinje for a meal and a snooze, I rested through the hottest hours of the day. Getting on my bike again, I had a few more climbs to go. On one of these I met a Dutch couple who had been going by bike for over a year, all over Europe. They were the first other cyclists I was able to speak to on the whole trip! We went together until the descent down to Kotor. This road really deserves mentioning, as it is a cyclists dream, made up of switchbacks and hairpin turns, pilled one on top of the other, all with an incredible panorama below. After having had to wait for around an hour for a car race that had closed the roads to finish, I made it to my hostel. The old town is small and perfectly preserved. It is popular with tourists, but not completely packed (at least not in May). I walked around, before having a bite to eat and sharing a bottle of mead I’d bought in the mountains with a Singaporean from the hostel.

For the final step of the ride I had to get to Dubrovnik. By following the winding roads along the fiord, I keep the sea next to me and saw  the many fishing and pleasure boats gliding past. Halfway along I entered Croatia, along one of the less used roads. Completely alone, I went past farmhouses, surrounded by vineyards and Cyprus trees, making it feel like I was in the heart of Tuscany. Cycling through the midday heat was not easy, and getting into Dubrovnik the traffic was awful. Being overtaken by buses on the busy road, I was very happy to get to my hostel and set my bike aside. Having glimpsed the old town from above, I didn’t lose time to change, grab my camera and head out. Going through the huge gates, I went down the main street. It is definitely an enchanting place, with winding streets and steps going up to the alleys beneath the ramparts. It was packed with people though, flocking into the bars, pizzerias, sweets and jewellery shops. After the calm of the Balkans, I was shocked to be surrounded by this frenzy of people, click-clicking and ogling at the buildings. Interestingly though, climbing up into the upper parts of town things calmed down a bit, and it was possible to enjoy the view. There are some nice bars, perched on the rocks, outside of the walls, above the sea. I stopped for drink (spritz!) with an American I had met at the hostel. Getting back, I still had not found a way to pack my bike up for the next day!

Up and early, I set out on my mission for cardboard boxes. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I made for the main street in the old town. Yes! There were piles of the stuff, as the shopkeepers had thrown everything out and I arrived before the disposal services. Picking up as much as I could carry, I headed back to the hostel. After several hours of tapping, I was done. All that was left was to get to the airport and I’d be back in Grenoble! Of course not. After a good flight and a great evening with Jose & Irene in Geneva, it turned out there was a French train strike (surprise!). This meant I finally got to fulfil one of my personal challenges of cycling Geneva-Grenoble. On a touring bike!

Cycling tips and advice.

Bike-packing:

Packing my bike was one of the big problems for me. I was flying in and out of different airports. Also, on the way out I was leaving Geneva, which demands bikes be in a box. Easyjet demands bikes in a box or bag. I therefore got a used cardboard box from Decathlon and packed it before leaving. For the return it was much harder, as there are no bike-shops in Dubrovnik, or so far out of town as to be useless. I managed to find some cardboard by getting up early and going to the shopping streets in old-town before 7 am. I’d already bought some packing tape and that was that. Speaking to a guy at the airport, he had just put it in a see-though bag bough in a hardware shop. I’d read about this online and apparently it works well. As the bike is coming in, there is no problem at Geneva airport. So a good possibility if you are stuck, but it means you can only pack just the bike.

Relative to packing, you are only supposed to put the bike in the box, but as the weight limit is 20 kg, you can stuff it with other kit. I only put in bike related items, such as tools, saddle bags and holders… But nobody checked, so I would probably put more stuff in next time.

Very few bike shops along the way, so remember to take spares! That being said I had no punctures at all. J

Bike riding:

My experience was very positive, and I found that motorised vehicles did give me enough space. Of course there were some near passes, and I didn’t enjoy the ride from Pristina to Peya along the M9. The same can be said for the roads going into Dubrovnik. Montenegro was uniformly great for ridding. That being said, in both Kosovo and Montenegro there is a lot of road works going on, so some of the roads will become too busy to cycle along soon; in that case it will be necessary to find other, alternative routes. One item I would have added to my bike is a wing-mirror. I didn’t have one and I think it could have been useful to determine how much I needed to pull over in case of large vehicles.

The mountain regions are pretty steep, so take that into account when planning. Google earth is perfect for that as you can generate vertical profiles. Otherwise, things remain much flatter by staying near the coast of Montenegro or the interior of Kosovo.

Navigation is easy if you have a smartphone, just download the offline google-maps of the region you will be going through and use the GPS.

To stay:

I’d definitely recommend:

Peja: hostel Sarac. It’s the only hostel at the time of writing. Nice garden, beautiful large rooms. Good coffee! 10-11€

Plav: Lake Views. A small hotel, all built in wood. A lovely elderly couple look after it. Quiet, no problem for the bike. I got a three bed room with bathroom for 15€.

Food:

Great! Cheap and easy to find, it’s perfect for cyclists. (if you’re not a heath nut). You can find beer everywhere too, and refill on groceries in the Mini-markets along the road.

Many many thanks to Angel and Rodri for giving me my bike “Skelf” and getting the pieces going round! It’s a great steel framed bike, which I’ve used for both commuting, mountain biking and now touring! Gracias amigos!

One thought on “Biking the Balkans

  1. Pingback: Which way is Norse? – Epic Works

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