Macedonia, in the countryside
Even though I still had a fair bit of pain in my ankle, getting out of Skopje and being back on the road again almost made me forget that. We followed the main road west out of the city towards Tetovo, then turned south for Ohrid. In between, we visited the Mavrovo national park, since it was almost on the way, just had to climb a bit extra for
Balkan hospitality on power mode
Camping was super easy, and once again we were amazed by the immense hospitality of the people there. One striking example was on the second day out of the capital; we were preparing dinner in a small town’s square, and trying to decide where to sleep. There were some old guys around us, and naturally the usual talk started with questions and disbelief, since it’s not an everyday thing to see bike tourists at these remote places. Coffee was offered of course, with a waiter coming to us from a nearby café to serve it, which took us by surprise.
While we were finishing dinner, a man invited us to camp in his garden and gratefully we accepted. Luckily he could understand us a little, because his son was living abroad, so we had a nice talk with plenty of refreshments and biscuits. He was also adamant about giving breakfast to us in the morning: a huge omelette with fresh veggies straight from his garden was a real treat, and we couldn’t thank him and his wife enough for being so kind to us. We even received some extra food for the road.
Our next stop was Mavrovo, the national park I mentioned in the beginning. It lays around an artificially created lake at a smaller mountain area, and we decided to stay three nights, giving some rest for my wound. We found a big free camping site right by the lake where we could relax, greatly enhanced by our hammock. The only drawback was the large amount of litter all around the site (more about it here) and the quality of the water, and although I could do something about the former, there was nothing to do about the latter, barring us from enjoying some swimming and bathing.
I would emphasise that this is in the middle of a national park, and when I asked the rangers camping close to us for a big trash bag, they looked at me like I was from another planet, and there were several cases when people threw some plastic packet right on the ground in front of me. I was really outraged and did the only thing which could make a difference, picking quite a few big plastic bags full (most of them were also lying in the grass), clearing out mainly our surroundings, because we couldn’t stand the sight. It is maddening how people treat their own environment. A former local told me it was way different a few decades ago, when the markets were not filled with huge amounts of packaging, showing how much of this problem is the manufacturer’s fault. Ok, zero waste rant done. 🙂
New plans and arriving to Bitola
Before going to Ohrid, we came up with a plan to leave the bikes behind somewhere and continue on foot for a while. We heard that hitchhiking in Albania (and generally the Balkans) is super easy, and in the heat of August, we thought it would be a better choice. Also, apart from my ankle I had a broken finger (I just can’t take care of myself, can I?), and while it was possible to cycle with the cast, walking would still be the best option. Luckily, one of our warmshowers request came through, and we decided to go there first and then Ohrid came after.
Goce’s house was close to Bitola, the second biggest city in Macedonia near Greece, and close to Pelister national park, another beautiful mountain area which we couldn’t miss out. The hospitality of his family was mind-blowing, we were free to take anything growing in their vegetable garden, totally crazy! He invited us to a grill party at the foot of the mountain with his friends, with the intention of sleeping there and do a hike the next day. It was a really nice experience, and we were glad we could socialise a bit with people who could speak English, and tell us more about the country.
Goce accompanied us only on the first day of our two day hike, then went back to the campsite, which made us feel more secure about leaving the bikes there. Also, this is the other reason we would want to do hitchhiking for a while. Although it’s possible to hike with hiding the bikes at the foot of the mountains, it’s not ideal. The fear of losing them is always in the back of our minds, since our trip would be most probably over without them, and they are like a family to us. Having them means we can’t really do through-hikes either. We wanted to visit the Peaks of the Balkans in Albania and do exactly that.
Pelister, and blueberry heaven
We really enjoyed discovering Pelister. The highest point was over 2600 meters, and there were two crystal clear mountain lakes at the top, with several steep paths and ice-cold springs criss-crossing the whole area. Even before the thickness of the trees started to fade out, we already discovered our first blueberries, and it kept coming so frequently and abundantly after, that you could just reach out of the trail you were walking on to get a handful. They were growing underneath evergreen bushes all the way up, and on the last few hundred meters of elevation, wherever you looked you saw blueberries, and some locals picking them. Goce told us that they were only able to sell them a bit over 1eur/kg, and considering how hard it is to gather a considerable amount it was not an easy or lucrative job. To think how much you have to pay in the store for them… it was a goldmine for us, and felt like nature provided refreshments stations for our hike.
At first we were thinking about going to the top, but as it was getting late, we decided to put up camp next to the larger of the two mountain lakes, laying at around 2100 meter. After fixing dinner, we did a little walk though, because we didn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset over Prespa, another huge lake below next to Ohrid, clearly visible from there. The light and the colors were magical and a bit surreal, and I remember feeling how fortunate we are to be able to travel freely and see these things.
Returning to the house, feeling that our bikes would be safe with him, we asked the family to let them stay there for a few weeks. Finally, we packed our backpacks for a minimalist trip (if you want to know what we brought with us, check out this page), although since the cheap phone stopped working, and the new phone was still on it’s way, we had no choice to carry the laptop to be able to communicate and check the map, adding a fair amount of weight. Nevertheless, we were eager to start, and with a bit of anxiety to leave the bikes behind for so long, we set out on our first backpacking experience.