Turning inland from Montenegro's busy beach resorts which were full of Serbian holiday makers, probably still a bit peeved with the loss of their coastline, we knew that there would be a lot of hilly land ahead.
Arriving in Albania's 5th biggest city, Shkroder before 3pm, we couldn't believe what a pleasant ride it had been, along a country lane, across the border checkpoint and then down into the lakeside city. We immediately liked Albania but could not ignore the piles of rubbish everywhere. It must be a cultural thing catalysed by rapid economic growth and disposable living. We both swore never to litter again.
I was anxious about how we would make it from here to Kosovo and decent paved roads. I quickly learned during this trip that my road bike is just not tough enough for touring, so I feared what we would find. I was therefore keen to pick up the Koman ferry which would take us north (no closer to Thessaloniki where Niamh will finish her ride, nor Istanbul where I will).
The journey on the ferry was stunning, along fjord like water and steep sided 1000m valleys. Apparently the 3rd most beautiful boat ride in the world. I'm not sure of the others though. Arriving in Fierze we had a stroke of luck finding a van driver who would take us north across the Kosovan border. He was a nice guy, who charged a reasonable price and took us to a nice enough hotel ('Europe' see third country flag in photo) in the lovely city of Djakove.
Kosovo was a surprise to me. I had not really looked into this part of the trip much, so I didn't know what to expect. We discovered that Kosovo was buzzing with new found prosperity and hope. The people seemed happy and excited and so they should be. They have had their share of troubles and hardship.Prizren showed us that they intend to celebrate it, packing the pretty old cobbled streets full for Eid.
We also noticed the heat. Now we know that Togo is hot and sticky and Tashkent scorching and dry, but this was blistering from above and from the road surface. So the brief respite in the mountains to the East was welcomed. We conquered some tough climbs and sang our way down to a one horse village which miraculously still had an operating motel.
The next day we soared along fairly flat roads with the help of the first tailwind for 3 countries and crossed the border into Macedonia at midday. It got hotter still as we entered the capital city Skopje. I had a funny turn due to the heat and a long search for the apartment we had rented for the night. After a craft beer or three and a Chinese meal I was right as rain again. With clean clothes and after a quick visit to a clinic for Niamh's sun related ailment, we set off south again. It hit 40c before midday and continued to get hotter and hotter as we reached Veles and checked into an overpriced highway motel. We shouldn't have cycled to it being on the motorway, but needs must. 42c- nuts. We then woke early for a fairly short ride to Negotino, a small town in the Tikves wine region 44c- crazy. All we could manage to do in this heat was to eat bad pizza, drink local wine and sleep in our air conditioned room.
Today we woke even earlier, hitting the road before 7am and before the ball of fire in our faces started to hurt. Attempting to shorten the ride a little and to make a good start to the morning's km's, we were stopped by the police for being on the highway. Promising to get off immediately, we continued on the highway making good progress. Our sat nav system, which we have called Sally due to her bossy and righteous posh tone, told us to turn right, so we did. 20km's down a shocking dirt road we rejoyced tarmac again and made our way to a hillside hotel near Valandovo, where we are now chilling next to a pool with dodgy power ballads as a soundtrack.
Only a few more cycling days to the coast where we will rest for a few days before Niamh flies back to Ireland for her good friends wedding.
It now feels like it has been a long ride. In terms of continuous days it has indeed been my longest. Traveling together though has made it fun and even relaxing. I know that we have experienced so much and will no doubt have little visions flashing back images of random towns and things we have witnessed. It has been a pretty amazing journey.