So the bolt on my rack, repaired by the local Albanian mechanic, snapped and flew off and forced me into a guesthouse in the dusty Greek border town of Bitola, where I was able to get another rescrewed into the frame. The weight on the back wheel had proved too much for it. Where the Albanian had drilled into the frame, only an uneven hole remained. He had actually sliced right through the metal itself. Thank you for drilling into my bicycle. Now, it seemed, as if the whole vehicle was slowly dismantling itself.
Before arriving in the city, earlier that morning, I’d woken in the frost field. Dawn had come and, with it, a world of glistening colour, sparkling and crispy. 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.
Beyond the Greek border, after leaving the guesthouse, 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. I remembered the golden fields and green woodlands of that France. In that moment, riding through Northern Greece, it felt like such a long way away.
I continued through the empty fields, past smoking factories and electric lines for hours. 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 Kozani, where his family was living. It occurred to me that not since Dubrovnik, which had already been a four weeks ago, had I stopped in a normal environment, with people I got on with. There had been Mickey’s place in Kotor, but that had been cramp and damp and complicated. There had also been the hostel in Tehrani, but I had kept to myself, kept to my writing and photography. I road into the night to reach their home.
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 London town. Back home, right now, people must have been out shopping for the first presents or putting up chocolate calendars. Strange.
The First Dogs
There had been dogs all day, barking from the farmhouses. There had been dogs through the night too, jumping out from the roadside. Greece was full of them 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! I was a few hundred metres 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. I was late for Tasos, scared of being caught by police again, 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.