THE BALKAN ADVENTURE

Things never go exactly the way we plan. Even though we work hard and devote our entire time and energy into our passions, it is, sadly, not certain that everything will go smoothly. We had a great dream and an ambitious plan to set off to Argentina last winter, yet we are still here. What has gone wrong? Many little things, few big obstacles and one huge wedding which took place at the end of August. We have decided to postpone our big adventure and start in the forthcoming fall. It’s been a hard and bitter choice but it had to be done. It took us a while to accept the situation and move on. There was only one way to make the upcoming months count; we had to hit the road again. Quickly and without many discussions we made up our minds and unanimously voted for Albania.

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The route was very ambitious and included passing through the Switzer and Austrian Alps,the Italian Dolomites and a huge part of the Dinarides (also know as the Dinaric Alps). It included passing by Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, the coast of Montenegro, and into Albania. On the way back to Germany we had to pass through Macedonia, Kosovo, East Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. All in all, we cycled through 11 countries which took us 72 days. The distance covered was almost 5000 km. We climbed 20 mountain passes including the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (2571 m. a. s. l.) which was the highest point of this trip concerning both the altitude and the awesomeness level! We had one flat tyre, which is totally understandable, as it happens after approximately 12,000 kilometres of cycling (on and off road). Our tandem is very heavy and the maximum load of 120 kg on our unbreakable Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour Schwalbe Tires was far exceeded.

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The past journey through Northern Europe was nothing compared to this challenge. We climbed or descended most of the time. It kind of felt like the road would be a vertical ride most of the time. We had a little break and an AMAZING ride in Italy; 180 km downhill from the High Dolomites to Bolzano, a super flat route between Podgorica and Tirana and one relaxed day between the Bosnian-Croatian border and Zagreb.

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The Sun and warmth, except from the times when we were literally melting in the heat, made it slightly easier for us. Especially for Marta who becomes the most cranky person in the world when she is cold. It spared us a few ugly fights which we couldn’t avoid while cycling through cold France in October or in windy Iceland. However, there were also low points- a few severe headaches (despite keeping hydrated), the need for a daily shower and the lack of appetite at times.

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There were some real highlights of this trip. The first of them was The Black Forest in Germany. The calmest and most soothing place to cycle through and a perfect beginning to the adventure. The next and best one was the Alps. It’s not a revelation to say the landscapes there were just breathtaking and every push was worth it for the view at the top.

Our first mountain pass, the Flüelapass, was a hard one though. It was snowing, the road was covered with ice and the wind blew with an incredible force. It was mentally draining as we expected the end after every curve but found yet another snowy serpentine. It somehow braced us before facing the upcoming passes. The downhill part was unbelievably hard as it was sleeting which made the road very slippery and visibility very limited. It was not only a frightening situation for Ben but also for the stoker Marta who had no control over the heavy loaded bike at all.

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The Italian Dolomites were a pleasant discovery. We had heard South Tirol is beautiful but never expected it to be that gorgeous! The sharp, rocky mountain peaks were so different from those we had seen in Switzerland. Definitely a place to come back to over and over again!

We went from Bolzano all the way up to Val di Fasso, visiting the Carezza Lake and even had a chance to see the Giro d’Italia! Everything was pink, just like we like it! No matter if people say that it’s nothing special to see cyclists passing by for one minute, we were really excited! It was also very rewarding to climb up mountain passes with other amateur cyclists who gathered, to train together on the occasion of the Giro and hear them cheering us on and admiring our efforts from their super light racing bikes. We even got thumbs up from motorbikes and car drivers! It would have been much harder without all the support.

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After only one day of cycling along the Croatian coast we decided to skip this part and evacuate to a calmer part of the country. The traffic on the coastline is absolutely unbearable and we strongly dissuade this route to any cyclist. Instead, we would encourage you to discover the unknown parts of Croatia; the mountains, waterfalls and the crystal clear lakes.

We hit the coast again in Montenegro where we cycled through the Kotor Bay. A great spot to visit, apart from being full of tourists. From there we pushed through the steep roads and up another mountain towards Podgorica. It was a real disappointment for us and a city which, if missed, would not be a regret for anyone travelling through Montenegro.

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The road conditions were gradually getting worse as we travelled south. The amazing bicycle paths in Germany and Switzerland were replaced by road sides in Italy and overcrowded coastal routes in Croatia. Most drivers in the Balkans don’t make it easy for cyclists. As ‘Kings of the Road’, they rule, and expected us to immediately leave the road whenever they passed. The approaching sound of vehicles at speed and the sometimes frightening honking of, at times, very large trucks, we are just grateful that they let us coexist at all!

We hit the bottom in Albania where except the main, busy roads there were not many other asphalted ways to get to the main cities. Did we find ourselves cycling on a side of a highway at one point? Yes. Did anyone care? No.  There were no rules and nobody in charge. Luckily this country had some great qualities which made up for it pretty quick.

Everyone should visit Albania. We mean it. Every person who has the chance needs to go there. Not only because of the pristine and undiscovered mountains or genuinely delicious food. If you ask us today where the kindest people in Europe live, without hesitation we will point to Albania (and Macedonia, where over 25% of the population is of Albanian origin). Don’t get us wrong, there are beautiful people everywhere, but this country is full of them! Albanians are generous and respectful to tourists. We travelled for two weeks in this country and one day did not go by without getting invited somewhere. People invited us into their homes, offered help when we were sick or lost and fed us until we could no longer eat anymore! All the prejudices we’ve heard and all the warnings we’ve received were just the opinions of people who have not much knowledge about Albanians. Sadly, this country is considered by many to be dangerous! We however, had a great encounter with Albania and hope to go back one day.

In Macedonia the highlights were definitely the Ohrid Lake and the Mavrovo National Park. We crossed into Kosovo and cycled through Shar Mountain National Park. After deliberately skipping Pristina we headed towards the border with Montenegro through the National Park Bjeshkët e Nemuna. A completely overwhelming place. We arrived there during a sunset which made the mountains even more breathtaking. It layered on the horizon looming over the fields and villages. We spent one night there taken in by a, yes, Albanian family! The route back to Montenegro was really tough as we had to climb over 2000m in one day. On the way, we even met three huge boars sprinting in our direction. Luckily they were separated from us by a high cliff so eye-to-eye contact was avoided. We ended up totally exhausted on the Montenegran side of the mountain right on time to celebrate the last day of Ramadan with the locals we met on the street. Welcomed with the best and richest flavour of baklava ever, we were treated like family. Even though we lacked a common language, our long conversations didn’t end until the late evening.

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The eastern and northern parts of Montenegro are just like Kosovo and appeared to us very remote and undiscovered. It seemed like time had stopped there and people lived their uncomplicated lives, separated not by kilometres but by years from the fast life in big agglomerations near the coastline. We enjoyed this simplicity immensely and found it more attractive than any big city.

After leaving Sarajevo in Bosnia, we had our first ever bike accident on our tandem. We slid down the road on a curve and were scratched and bruised. Cycling in this condition was impossible so we hitchhiked a couple of kilometres, like during all good times, to the next destination together with the tandem. It took us five days to recover as Marta’s leg was badly swollen and made her absolutely incapable of pedalling. The whole experience was a bit scary and certainly inconvenient but everything happens for a reason. Now we know better in how to react in the case of an emergency and we have improved our sense of teamwork as well.

Cycling through the northern part of Croatia we paid a short visit to Zagreb and headed immediately to Slovenia. Full of vineyards and hop plantations it seemed like a perfect holiday spot for all enotourists!  We strongly recommend everyone to climb up the Golte Mountain and take a trek there as well as to visit the Bled Lake which really is as beautiful as in the pictures!

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Austria was from the beginning all about the Grossglockner. The highest mountain in Austria located south from popular Zell am See (which is seriously awesome, we totally get the appeal!) became our goal and obsession. We checked the weather, ate extra well and tried to get as much rest as possible in order to make it. Not everything went perfect. We were so excited we couldn’t really sleep the day before the ascent and the rain was chasing us until we ended up soaking wet after the curvy ride downhill. But. It. Was. Worth. It. The views were absolutely extraordinary from the beginning until the end and heavy dark clouds covering the sky added even more majesty to the mountains. As a reward we had a huge dessert that evening which looked like a mountain itself, the Salzburger Nockler, a must try while visiting Austria.

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The last few days of the journey were calm and peaceful. We enjoyed the Bavarian countryside and its calmness. Motivated by the vision of sleeping in our own bed, we sped through the country in no time. We made it right on time to visit Oma and Opa and have some good laughs with them over a home-made cake.

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We are Marta and Ben, a Polish-German couple currently traveling the world. We’ve met last year, both with specified and fixed plans, following two different paths. And even though it seemed impossible, we decided to be together against all (so many!) odds. Since then we travel together, share big and small dreams, live great moments and face troubles. We laugh loud and argue loud, we cry, smile, party and have fun together each day. We live in constant need to visit new places. We share the urge to discover, learn and understand new cultures, traditions and customs. We crave to see all world’s wonders. We want to meet beautiful people and get to know their stories. We would like to listen to local music, taste delicious food, swim in different seas and sleep under different skies. We wish to speak various languages but sometimes just stay speechless. We want an adventure. Our dream and plan is to travel from Argentina to Alaska on a tandem bicycle and visit all the countries of South, Latin and North America. This means that we are going to cover the distance of 30 000 km in three years time.

3 thoughts on “THE BALKAN ADVENTURE

  1. It seems you had great time during the trip and you have visited beautiful and picturesque countries. Albania is one of my favorite Balkans destinations.
    Another interesting cycling route you should have in mind is along Danube. It is a very popular one. Try it, you won’t regret 🙂

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  2. Incredible! By far one of the best posts I’ve ever seen about the Balkans. To be fair with you I didn’t read all of it but I’ve put it on my favorites for later. Excellent pictures you guys have! Best regards 😉

    Like

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