I left Albania behind and crossed the final mountain. A lake appeared, lined by rural homesteads, orthodox churches and potato fields. In the distance, beyond the haze, I could see Ohrid. The first town in south west Macedonia. I rode around the lake to reach the waterfront, staying for a couple of days in a cheap and empty hostel, in a beautiful town which I saw little of.
On the third day in Ohrid I managed to tear away from the town. Then, at the edge of winter, the sun was setting early and, though I only had a few hours of light left out of the town, this sunset ride became one of the most beautiful days in all my time through Europe, rivaling even the early days in Switzerland, which felt like, and were I guess, so many weeks ago, crossing mountains in the late summer haze.
The world was brown and yellow, dotted with white human structures. The shadows grew long and far in front. The sun became intense and warm. The road turned away into a snaking, tight valley full and ancient and overgrown with oak trees and bramble rows. The dying leaves were going up flames. The trees, the mud, the dirt, the branches, all dry and flaky, were like gold.
The further into the valley I travelled the quieter it became until I was just drifting through a sea of flickering, shining color. The land was so rich, shimmering to the point where my eyes began to hurt from looking. In everyday life the seasons can be easily forgotten, taken for granted. But, when your out there, in nature, for weeks on end watching it change around you, you are reminded that it’s power is greater than any man made concept, any fictional notion.
Frost began to form, began to sparkle across the hillsides, where smoke rose from out of the oaks and elms. Somewhere out there people lived. Chopping wood to warm their homes in the forests. The sun dropped behind the tallest peak. Darkness crept across the sky and wild dogs began to bark throughout the woodland. The truth is, I was scared. But, I have always been scared of rational fears – deep water, tall heights, wild forests. The woods here was so stark, so cold, so medieval, so lightless. A numb acceptance washed over me. I was vulnerable, A small, helpless figure riding alone through a wild and untamed landscape. I just accepted the fear.
Then the strangest thing happened. Something I will never forget. In the fading twilight, riding the last and highest of the woodland passes, three shapes appeared, moving amongst the trees beside me. Shadowy figures drifting along the forest edge, cloaked and hooded.
As they dropped to the road side I realised they were monks. Heads bowed, holding candles, moving as if in slow motion. My jaw dropped. It was like I had crossed through the mountains and into another world or time. I rode by them, their heads never lifting, unnoticed. I stared until the figures slid back into the forest and were gone.
Did that just happen? Were there monasteries within these hillsides? I asked myself, my mind whirling with ideas, with stories and histories and cultural questions, before descending into the valley beyond. In the valley was a town, smoky and rural, beyond it a field, frozen and hard. I slept in that field, amongst the iced up long grass and an icy brook, the sound of wild, howling dogs growing nearer and nearer, circling the surrounding fields, as the night grew colder. I closed my eyes.
Dawn had fallen upon the frost field and with it a world of glistening colour. It had been a restless nights sleep, jumping at every wild dog bark that echoed in the surrounding tree line. I was in the heart of the old Balkan Country and the wintery farmland I woke in was wild.
There were national parks and wild, forested hillsides on route to Bitola. Pine trees, christmas like and prickly. Thinner, taller trees, stripped of all life, all colour, rising like pylons across the hillsides, dried out and sharp. Another beautiful autumn experience in Macedonia.
A few days passed and I crossed beyond the Greek border. There were flatlands, farmlands, drygrass, mudfields. Hedgerows returned in a country more tamed and it felt like France all over again, France but in winter time. Today was the day I would reach the home of Tasos, who I’d met back in Ljubljana in Slovenia. I sent through a few messages online and pushed on to reach his home in Kozani, where his family were living. It suddenly occurred to me that not since Dubrovnik, already four weeks ago, had I spent time among regular people. There had been Mickey’s place in Kotor, but that had been cramp and damp and complicated. My beard was now grown. The adventure had become wild.
Around eight in the evening the air really started to bite. I put on more layers and pulled my hood down. My route had been blocked by a motorway and I’d found myself riding through total darkness, in Greek backcountry. Eventually I reached a small town, lights lined the streets, red and blue and green. Squinting through the wind, the cold, I looked closer. They were christmas lights. Twinkling Santas and sparkling trees, sleighs and presents and reindeer all neon and pulsing. It was late November. It was nearing Christmas and it was a strange reminder of a world I’d left behind.
After Mediterranean sunshine, after rainstorms in rundown Montenegro and the Muslim mountain lands of Albania, I had forgotten about Christmas and of life in England. Back home, right now, people must have been out shopping for the first presents or putting up chocolate calendars.
Greece was full of wild, dogs and, as I began to scale the pitch black backroad of the hill Tasos had mentioned would take me around the motorway to his house, from out the darkness, half way up, came the violent sound of barking. Barking so vicious and loud and so close that it caused me to spin my bike around and fly back down the hill that had taken so long to climb. The barking followed me down the hill for a hundred metres before returning to the farmhouse or kennel or den it had come from. I could see the top of the hill. I could see the lights of Kozani beyond it! It was just a few hundred metres and violent hound away.
A car pulled up beside me, the window slid down. A man started shouting things at me in Greek. Waving his hands as if to say Don’t go up there. Eventually he found the word he was looking for…Dog! Dog! And, with that, he drove off up the hill. Frustrated, I began to pedal back up the hill. You can do this, I kept thinking. That thought vanished as soon as the dark shape of a huge dog moved into the road ahead of me, barking, howling, snapping its teeth and running towards me.
Two hours later I had retraced the roads back to the motorway and ridden the highway at high speed for dozens of extra kilometres, scared of being caught by police again, with my lights down, head down, way beyond a hundred kilometers of cycling achieved that day, all thanks to one dog! I was picked up outside Kozani by Tasos and his Sister Di. They stuffed my bike into the back of the car and drove me to their home. By the time I was alone, staring into the bathroom mirror, razor in hand, I realised that I had crossed the Balkans, that I was in Greece and that I looked like a total hobo. I began to shave off the beard.