12th October 2012

Macedonia, Into Greece and briefly home

Next morning after my adventures in Kosovo and ragging through the backstreets of Macedonia, Donkey and I woke up feeling quite refreshed and ready for action!  After a brief breakfast featuring some revolting Turkish coffee which tasted like petrol that had leaked into a silty puddle, we set off down a beautiful regional road towards the lakeside city of Ohrid. It was a truly beautiful ride through high but gentle curving roads lined with tall trees and lovely views of various different lakes.  I followed a minibus for most of the way, which would ordinarily have been very frustrating but in this case I decided it was quite a handy front-runner in the face of any oncoming traffic on the twisty sections.  In general there seems to be a fairly linear correlation between the further South I get and the commitment of drivers to stick to their correct side of the road, whether on a straight section or on a sharp bend.  Its not that these drivers are trying to overtake anything, more that they seem to lose interest in the right hand side of the road and fancy trying out how it would feel to drive on the left instead – quite surreal and definitely alarming!!

In any case, once we’d arrived into Ohrid we rocked up at a guesthouse and negotiated a room for the night with the owner, a keen gardener who had trained a huge kiwi tree to grow across a large frame which spanned her driveway.   It really was very attractive and heavy with fruit; an ideal safe place to park Suzi for the night, though rather strangely the garden did carry a serious pong of cabbage.  Could a brassica based compost be the secret to a copious kiwi harvest?  Either that or my whiffy boots had developed their own mature Macedonian musk strong enough to overpower the natural scent of an entire garden.  Gritty times!  Later on that day I took a stroll around Ohrid, a pretty town resting on the shores of the eponymous lake.  It’s a whopper, covering 358 square kilometres with a maximum depth of 288m, but apparently lacking a Nessie-style monster.  The town itself has become quite touristy (especially after the places I’d been to recently) so next day I decided to power on to Greece. 

It was another baking hot day but everything went quite smoothly at the border.  That afternoon was spent rolling through the lovely scenery of an autumnal Greek harvest, the fields bathed in a soft yellow light, dotted with tractors working the fields and farmers hitting olive trees with sticks, shaking off the precious loot into the nets below.  The scenery seemed to stretch for miles and it was wonderful to have the road to myself again.  I think it was this easy comfort that led me to think that, with Thessaloniki only 100km away, I should power on that afternoon (despite it now being about 4pm) and find one of the many campsites that had been recommended to me in in nearby Halkidiki.  This turned out to be a highly regrettable decision for several reasons.  Firstly and most obviously, I shouldn’t have tried to polish off a distance that I would usually take most of the day to do so late in the afternoon when tiredness was already starting to creep in.  Secondly the 100km mentioned was almost entirely on a superfast highway where yet again, I found myself clinging to the hard shoulder praying for survival as some rather speedy cars went tearing past – not a road any responsible rider should subject an underpowered Suzi or a nervous Donkey to.  Thirdly and most disturbingly, the Borec (filled flakey pastry, Balkan sausage roll type thing) that I had bought in Macedonia several hours earlier for my lunch was about to fight back.  I can tell you there are few things more horrendous than being stuck on an apparently exitless motorway, juddered and jostled at high speeds on a very hard motorcycle seat, with suffocating waves of heat creeping over your body and the growing discomfort of very tight tummy cramps signalling that something very, very bad is about to happen.   Suffice to say it was a highly bleak and unsavoury experience and I shall never be more grateful than the moment that I spotted Thassos’s Petrol Station ‘n’ Restaurant looming in the distance.  Enough said.

 The road conditions became progressively more challenging the closer we got to Halkidiki, not least because we had to ride through central Thessaloniki to get there.   If you can imagine approximately 10 miles worth of Brompton Road at peak rush hour traffic in 35 degree heat, but with even taller buildings to trap in the soaring temperatures and pollution, you’ll start to imagine what riding through Thessaloniki was like.  Suzi was getting very, very hot and with traffic lights every 100metres we weren’t able to get any decent speeds up to get some wind chill through her (or me for that matter).  I found myself repeatedly sitting at the front of queues of traffic, staring up at the lights and just willing them to change to green so we could set off again – both Suzi and I were melting!  Once we had got out of the city we started to head out of Thessaloniki towards Halkidiki.  The road was an unmarked 3 lane monster and it felt like the whacky races.  Alas at this point something went wrong with the cable that I use to charge up my Iphone from the 12v socket on the bike, so another hour or so was then taken up searching for a shop that might sell a replacement, as I couldn’t risk 2 nights camping with no form of communications given all the admin I was going to need to do over the next 2 days.  Somehow time had rolled on a little further and it was suddenly 7pm and very quickly getting dark.  I rejoined the (unlit!) 3 lane monster road and headed off in search of the campsites of Halkidiki, but alas each one was shut “for the winter” (despite it being 30 plus degrees celcius and September!).   There were no guesthouses or hotels to be found anywhere. Donkey was becoming increasingly frightened as to what would become of us and slumped down so far on his perch that his smile completely disappeared out of view.  Truth be told I think he may have even shed a tear.   Things were looking bad.

Growing desperate, partly out of tiredness but mostly out of fear given the driving conditions, I fired up the sat nav and thought I’d try one last option.  It suggested that there was a campsite 4 miles north back up the road I’d just come down.  With nothing else left to try, I got back on the bike now in the pitch black, double checked that Suzi’s tiny front light was actually switched on (it was, its just really not that powerful), took a big gulp and headed off once again into the black of the night, trying to stay out of the way of the buses and lorries which roared past.  After ten minutes or so, I pulled up outside the “campsite” and groaned.  Of course, it wasn’t a campsite at all but a very flashy and modern looking 5* hotel , which claimed to have won numerous awards for being perfect, gorgeous and (one imagined), so expensive that at least one vital organ would need to be sold to cover a night’s stay.  Parked up outside in the darkness, I remained sitting on Suzi and took a moment to decide what to do next.   I was completely and utterly frazzled and knew it wasn’t safe for me to get back on that road tonight to look for an alternative.  I needed to rest and eat and sleep.   And wash.  The bright lights of the hotel twinkled invitingly.  I looked at Donkey, who looked almost as grubby as I did but now appeared to be back sitting upright and was beaming up at me with his appealing grin.   “Donkey”, I asked, “Do you think this might be a Mastercard moment?”.  He nodded vigorously. Mercifully on enquiry it turns out that there is a flip-side to every Greek crisis with a single room at this infinity-pooled palace going for only 99 Euros, so Donkey and I checked in and made ourselves at home.

In the end our time spent at this beacon of 5 starred excellence was rather less sublime than one might have hoped.  Its hard to be sure why – I think my weeks of camping and simple living has carved me into one who is entirely out of her depth with such high-end hotels.  It wasn’t just the sterile environment or forced smiles of the staff, I simply wasn’t cut out to stay there. Perhaps the clearest example of this was the balcony incident.  The morning after check-in I decided to read a book on the balcony of my room and had slid the door behind me so as not to deactivate the air conditioning in the bedroom.   Now it has been suggested in the past that I don’t know my own strength, but somehow during this absent-minded sliding process, I managed to set the door into motion with such momentum that it shut completely and actually somehow engaged the locking mechanism.  This was a nightmare scenario as from the balcony side  there was no handle whatsoever on this sliding door, so I had to try to gain some sort of purchase on the glass by splaying out my hands across the pane and encouraging the door to slide back the way it came.  Alas try as I might, with a growing sense of panic and despite repeated attempts at various positions on the glass, that door was going no-where.  I soon realised that all I was achieving was a pretty good impersonation of one of those mime artists who pretend that they are trapped behind a sheet of glass. Except in my case I actually was and going no-where in the baking heat.  In any case after an embarrassing phone call to reception from my mobile, I was duly liberated from my balcony prison by a receptionist who struggled not to laugh (and who could blame her).

By this point I knew that next day I needed to find a Suzuki dealer/workshop in Thessaloniki where I could get Suzi fully serviced and stored while I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks for my sister’s wedding and assorted other activities.  One of my Macedonian KTM riding pals had recommended an outfit called Terzi Brothers.  Once I’d looked them up and established that they were on the main road back into town (nice and simple, or so I thought), I decided to go for it.  Alas it transpired that the Via Egnatia is not only one of the largest streets in the city but also one of the busiest – again its effectively a dual carriageway that passes for several miles all the way from the suburbs into town, where busses and cars clog the busy streets, making it hard to spot a small shop front over the other side of the road in moving traffic.  I tried my best to yell enquiries over the hubub of traffic at my fellow motorbike riders as the traffic stopped regularly at lights, but the conversations generally didn’t get off the ground.  Each attempt ran very similarly:  Me:  “hello, do you know where TERZI brothers is?”  Them: “What?”  Me: “Do you know where TERZI Brothers is? Suzuki?  Workshop?”  Them: “Where are you from?”  Me: “England. London. But do you know Terzi? Where around here? Workshop? Suzuki?”  Them: “You travel all the way here from London? Congratulations!”  Me: “Yes, thanks!  But do you know Terzi?”  Them:  blank faces then “What?”  Me: “TerZI?  TERZI?  TERzi brothers?  Suzuki?”, repeating the name with every possible variation in intonation in the hope of some glimmer of understanding, rather like a checkout assistant repeatedly scanning a dodgy barcode label.  Alas in my case we never did achieve a beep of recognition, the traffic lights would turn green and I wobble off again, none the wiser.

At last after what felt like 50 farcical repeats of this conversation, I eventually found a Triumph dealer who pointed me in the correct direction, and at last I arrived.  After I explained what help I was looking for, the manager couldn’t have been more helpful and even let me store a few things at the shop.  Suzi is going to get the full works while I’m in the UK including (hopefully) a much needed clean out of the carb – thanks Suzuki!!

Next day, after a few strange looks, x-rays and searches of my “irregular” luggage (I was using my Giant Loop bag as hold luggage), I boarded the plane back to the UK and within 3 hours, I had covered the same distance that had taken me well over 3 weeks.  It’s a very strange experience to do that and one that felt more emotional than I’d expected.  4 weeks on the road doesn’t sound very long but a lot had happened over that period and I just felt hugely grateful for the experiences I’d had and all the characters I’d met, without whose kindness the trip would have certainly been much harder, or perhaps even impossible. 

Just before we landed the young Greek man sitting next to me asked me if I knew where a good place to rent a flat in London might be.  We started talking and it turned out that he had boarded the plane with the intention of starting a new life in the UK with the hope of breaking into the world of theatre production.  Only thing was, he didn’t have a job lined up, or a flat to live in, or even a room organised for that night and he was on a pretty tight budget –  he was prepared to wing it, to try his best and leave things up to fate to decide.  I thought this was incredibly courageous and brilliant and told him so, sharing my experience that people are generally much kinder than one often gives them credit for and generally lucky encounters can happen when you least expect them but need them the most.  I gave him my card and told him if he needed any help while he was in London to get in touch.  Later on that night as I was having supper at my sister’s flat, I received a text message.  He told me that he’d got talking to a Greek guy during the lengthy wait at baggage reclaim who had ended up offering him a room for the night – fortune really does favour the brave and I was thrilled that the Gods of Adventuring had taken him under their wing too.