Beginning your day riding up a steep mountain road is not everyone’s idea of fun. In fact, it’s not mine either. But, come nightfall, you feel strong, invigorated and it’s likely the mountain climb would have triggered a long days ride. I road away from the derelict building, from the Balkan valleys and from Albania, up over the last pass and across the Macedonian border.
The air cleared. The sky brightened. The day was fresh, but autumn cold. A lake appeared, lined by rural homesteads, orthodox churches and potato fields. In the distance, beyond the haze, I could see Ohrid. The first town in south west Macedonia. Once again, the world had changed after the border crossing; all dry and hay and yellow. A cleaner landscape, less muddy and it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. I rode around the lake to reach the waterfront, staying for a couple of days in a cheap and empty hostel, in a beautiful town which I saw little of.
On the third day in Ohrid, late in the afternoon, I finally managed to tear away from the town. Nowadays, at the edge of winter, the sun would set early and, though I only had a few hours of light left, this sunset ride became one of the most beautiful days in all of Europe, rivaling even the early days in Switzerland, which felt like, and were I guess, so many weeks ago, crossing mountains in the late summer haze.
I cycled down a long straight road out of Ohrid. Simple buildings. Rural. Rundown. The world was brown and yellow, dotted with white human structures. The shadows grew long and far in front. The sun became intense and warm. The road turned away into a snaking, tight valley full and ancient and overgrown with oak trees and bramble rows. The dying leaves were going out in style, up flames. The trees, the mud, the dirt, the branches, all dry and flaky, were like gold. The further into the valley I travelled the quieter it became until I was just drifting through a sea of flickering, shining color. The land was so rich, shimmering to the point where my eyes began to hurt from looking. I have, simply, never experienced Autumn with such intensity as I did then. In everyday life, the seasons can be easily forgotten, taken for granted. But, when your out there, in nature, for weeks on end watching it change around you, you are reminded that it’s power is greater than any man made concept, any fictional notion.
On through the evening I rolled, round tight and winding hills, climbing into the last of the Balkan rises. Frost began to form, began to sparkle across the hillsides, where smoke rose out of the oaks and elms. Somewhere out there people lived. Chopping wood to warm their homes in the forests. On the road, it was like an empty world. This may sound strange, but as I crossed a bridge through the darkening forests, a great river below and reddening hillsides in all directions, I howled like a wolf, so overcome by the wilderness, by the isolation, so in awe of nature and cycling through it’s colours at high speed.
The sun dropped behind the tallest peak. Darkness crept across the sky and dogs began to bark within the forests. The truth is, I was scared. But, I have always been scared. Of deep water, tall heights, gloomy forests. Throughout Europe I had been scared, worried about where I would sleep, how I would cope should something go wrong, thinking on problems that hadn’t happened yet. The forest here was so stark, so cold, so medieval, so lightless that my fears just, sort of, washed away, replaced by a numb acceptance that I was vulnerable, A small, helpless figure riding alone through a wild and untamed landscape. I just accepted the fear and kept my eyes open for a camping place. This time, I told myself, I will not ride until midnight. I will set down somewhere.
Then the strangest thing happened. Something I will never forget. In the fading twilight, riding the last and highest of the woodland passes, three shapes appeared, moving amongst the trees beside me. Shadowy figures drifting along the forest edge, cloaked and hooded. As they dropped to the road side I realised they were monks. Heads bowed, holding candles, moving as if in slow motion. My jaw dropped. After all the intensities, after reaching the top, after being so alone for so many hours, it was like I had crossed through the mountains and into another time. I rode by them, their heads never lifting, unnoticed. I stared until the figures slid back into the forest and were gone. Did that just happen? Were there monasteries within these hillsides? I asked myself, my mind whirling with ideas, with stories and histories and cultural questions, before descending into the valley beyond.
The view from the top had been a mixture of forming fog, glistening frost and a dim glow from the unseen sun that had fallen behind the brownlands. Rolling forests in everyday direction. In the valley was a town, smoky and rural, beyond it a field, frozen and hard. I slept in that field, amongst the iced up long grass and an icy brook, the sound of wild, howling dogs growing nearer and nearer, circling the nearby fields, as the night grew colder. I closed my eyes.