In May 2019, we rolled two heavily laden bikes out of my girlfriend Monica’s house. It was pouring, but we were too excited to notice. I had handed in my dissertation and flown to meet her in Germany. She was coming to the end of year’s work placement in Munich. Both of us were ready to leave our old routines behind and try a completely new, transient way of life.
We started riding south, and we weren’t planning on stopping for the next 3 months. Our destination was Thessaloniki, Greece, chosen for two reasons: the route there was varied, and the flights home were cheap. That hastily-made decision would see us riding to Venice, along the Dalmatian coast, through the heart of Albania, and through northern Greece.
Eight countries, five languages, and thousands of kilometres lay ahead. Rain couldn’t dampen our spirits…
Cycling Through the Bavarian Alps to Venice
Or so we thought – for that first week in Bavaria, the alps, and the dolomites, we battled with bad weather. We rode with lidl shopping bags shoved down our leggings, and socks on our hands. But when we were blessed with a few hours of sun, we were blown away by the beauty of the mountains, which were often dressed with a moody layer of fog.
Hardened by the weather and the altitude, we cruised down from mountainous northern Italy to the lowlands of Venice. With each kilometre, the clusters of industrial buildings became thicker, until we were in the hideous city that neighbours Venice.
Thankfully, the towering concrete and steel structures shrink from view as you cross the causeway, and they are forgotten once you’re lost among the beautiful old city. We spent two days roaming, in awe, while cruise ships loomed over the orange-tiled roofs like great whites skulking past a coral reef.
Riding Through Slovenia and the Dalmatian Coast
From Venice, we headed east. The north eastern corner of Italy is a region of flat marshlands, large factories, and vicious mosquitos that completely polka dotted our skin. We were glad to leave after just a few days, as we followed the coast into Slovenia, which clings to the mediterranean with a single arm of land like someone trying to hold their place in the queue for a busy bar.
That transition into Slovenia marked a change in how this coastline, the same one we had followed from Venice, looked and felt. From Slovenia, and right through Croatia and Montenegro, the coast would be forged from volcanic rock, and strewn with pretty fishing towns with flagstone floors.
Every few days we would come across an ancient city, each with its own set of ruins from an extinct empire, a cluster of ice cream parlours, and a vague connection to the filming of Game of Thrones. Subsequently, we found that large sections of this coast were dressed up in parasols and pimped out to tourists: beaches were packed; ancient towns were clogged with walking tours.
But between these hotspots lay the in-between places that only cyclists see up close. Red soil fields scored with cabbages and vines. Quiet coves, where volcanic rock formations inhale and exhale the water as it rolls into their crevices and filters back out.
Rural villages, where the elderly sit silently on plastic chairs as goats shake the bells around their neck. Where ancient tractors move so slowly through fields that they seem to be frozen in time. We slowed down too, exchanging cycling shorts for swimming trunks, and meandering from pretty cove to beautiful bay, cycling for only an hour or two a day.
These were the best few weeks of the trip: we were relaxed, content, and completely happy in each other’s company.
The Final Stretch From Montenegro, Albania to Greece
Montenegro would forever be etched into my memory as a nation of socialist architecture, terrible supermarkets and aggressive dogs if it weren’t for the inner sanctum that unfolded before us as we rode through the narrow inlet that guards it from the open sea: the Bay of Kotor – a large bay, surrounded on all sides by mountains, and lined with ancient villas, villages, cities and churches.
Everything in this bay, whether manmade or natural, is beautiful. The water is mirror-like, and in the centre are two tiny islands that sit so low to the water they appear to be floating. It might even have been more beautiful than Venice.
We rode around this stunning bay before climbing out of the bowl of mountains and into Albania, which sickness prevented me from really taking in – for two days I pedalled in agony. After limping into the capital, Tirana (the final 20km of which, we did in a taxi), I holed up in a hotel to recover. I remember clearly the feeling of isolation and helplessness as I suffered in that gaudy hotel room, in a strange city.
It was three miserable days before I ventured out to wander the architecturally confused streets of Tirana, a mix of fascist neoclassicism and communist utilitarianism. Albania was communist until 1991, and it seems they’re playing catch-up with consumerism: our hotel was full of fake pillars, heavy fake velvet curtains and garish coloured walls.
We continued through beautiful, mountainous rural Albania and into northern Greece, where we were struck by the apparent poverty and disorder: by comparison the organised apple farms of Albania looked highly sophisticated. But two months of travel had worn our sense of adventure thin. Cycling was a struggle. Our bikes, legs and backsides had taken a beating and we were ready to go home.
The concrete sprawl of Thessaloniki presented itself on the horizon one afternoon, and before long we were deep within the towering apartment blocks. We had reached our finish line, and it was incredible to look back at that line on the map, which stretched across borders, coastlines and mountain ranges. The real world was calling us from the UK. University was over; the trip was over; new challenges and commitments lay ahead.
The Unique Experience Of My Eurotrip
When you spend 3 months living outdoors, you experience the full range of emotions on the regular, but both of us hit our lowest ebb surprisingly early in the trip. The rain and cold in the first week was truly miserable: we lay in the tent one night, soaked and freezing cold, wondering when, or if, we would start enjoying this trip.
Then, the next day, my wheel cracked – a completely unforeseeable mechanical failure. I was fuming. We walked to Innsbruck, where a bike shop saw our desperation, rebuilt my wheel, and put us up for the night.
Ultimately, the innumerable hiccups were worth it for Venice, the Bay of Kotor, Dubrovnik and the rest. And I would endure all the frustrations ten times over to experience the good times again. Like in Croatia, where, from stunning coves and ancient towns, we let the days roll past with a nonchalance I now can’t even imagine. We ate ice cream and drank cheap red wine from plastic bottles, and developed a breed of shamelessness that can only come with impermanence
We didn’t care if we were seen getting changed, cooking on our stove in a town square, or playing hide and seek in museums and ruins. Life was perfect.
To summarise a trip like this, you’ve got to make countless omissions: the stray puppy that followed us for an entire day; the tortoises we saw having sex by the road; the hilarious comments we overheard from groups of American tourists. But the resounding feeling, when I look back over this life-changing adventure, is that I really should start planning another.
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He has recently worked a summer season in Vassiliki on Lefkada Island (Greece).
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