Geneva to Rome via The Balkans #5
Some of our favorite, wildest and most memorable experiences have been in the last 500 miles through The Balkans. Deciding to cross the Adriatic Sea was probably the craziest traveling audible either Phil or I has ever pulled. As we planned this tour we assumed the natural course would take us mostly through Switzerland, France and Italy. Along the way with encouragement from other bikers we decided to alter our route and point ourselves toward Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania. At the last blog post we were about to bike from Trebinje, Bosnia to Kotor, Montenegro. It was a stunning ride that over time got increasingly mountainous taking us through another eerie abandoned and bullet splattered village. Phil has been using Bike Maps (a web based route mapping tool) for planning our routes, which has worked splendidly in some of the more bike friendly and often traveled areas. Unfortunately for us in less traveled countries, there is no way to tell the quality of the road especially if no satellite imagery exists. After hitting a particularly rough patch of mountain and descending into a valley we emerged in tiny village between the borders of Bosnia and Montenegro. There were about four houses in this village and as we pushed our bikes up a rocky hill an older man came out of his house and offered us a drink using hand motions. Assuming he meant water we decided to take him up on the hospitality. His son, who spoke a small amount of English joined us and the older gentleman came back with four shot glasses and a clear liquid in a plastic bottle. After a day of slogging up and down a rocky mountain the last thing I wanted was booze but with a shoulder shrug, Phil and I found ourselves taking shot after shot of a potent liquor called Raki. As the son roughly translated, we talked about their farm, American politics and even took a tour of their house (and their liquor operation). Phil and I eventually got out our instruments and played them a couple of greatly appreciated songs. Two hours later we bid them goodbye, wobbled our way up a 2k foot mountain into Montenegro, and pitched our tent in a sheep pasture. This type of thing happened often throughout our journey in The Balkans. People shared their food, gave us water, seemed genuinely interested to have a conversation, shouted hello from their houses, beeped and waved enthusiastically as we chugged along the side of the road. I can't help but think its because they aren't as jaded by tourists as people in Western Europe, but there is also a theme of generosity that I have only experienced in the poorer parts of the world. Funny that the less people have, the more giving they become.
The riding throughout Montenegro and Albania was incredibly scenic but had its difficult moments. Often, the roads were well paved, but there was not much choice in routing. Therefore, we spent a lot of time inhaling the diesel fumes and getting double passed by oncoming cars at top speed. If we decided to stray from the main road, we were in danger of the said “road” turning to impassible mud and rock. The upside to the lack of routes was that we ended up meeting a whole slew of other bike tourists. In Split, Croatia we met a couple from New Zealand who we biked with for almost all of our time in Albania. We also met at least ten other bike tourists in hostels or randomly on back roads. At one point there were seven of us from four different countries on the side of a busy highway eating lunch and exchanging travel stories.
I write to you now after traveling back over the Adriatic Sea on a particularly nauseating ferry ride. We sit at the house of our final Warm Showers host in Brindisi, Italy and are getting ready to to fly home from Rome after biking just shy of 1,600 miles. If you're reading this in awe thinking I've bounded up the mountains like a baby unicorn, think again. This has been one of the hardest journeys of my life. There were moments of despair as I climbed a seemingly endless mountain on burning legs. There were nights when we were forced to wild camp in a field and didn't have any food other than an apple and a handful of nuts. There was a day that we got lost on a mountain and had to push our bikes uphill through sticky mud for 6 Miles. This shit was hard and I'm incredibly excited to come home and nest in our beautiful new home. BUT..... I will grudgingly admit that that important lessons shouldn't and often don't come easy. For me, this trip was a lesson in being present. To ride a bike one must be aware at all times. You can't fall asleep or tune out only to wake at the next destination, you must actively take part in the journey from point A to point B. It is tedious at first, but over time you learn to sink into your environment; the smells, the sounds, the slow colorful visuals, the feeling of the road under the wheels. It's almost like meditation. It is this lesson in presence that I hope stays with me as my muscles shrink to their normal size and as I careen through life in my usual fashion. As years go by I will only have a numb recollection of the pain in my legs or the hunger I felt on this trip. I will probably most fondly remember sitting around drinking bootleg liquor with a bunch of Bosnians I will never see again, and that, for me, is what its all about.