Day 86 – Pehcevo to Strumica (Macedonia)
Probably due to the luxurious room, we took our time getting ready to leave Pehcevo (apparently it’s a city but we struggled to find even a shop) and eventually hit the road at 10.30am; by which time the temperature had already risen from 4 to 12 degrees Celsius and the sun was high.
We had 7km to the town of Berova and it was all downhill. We did not need to use our pedals for the first 20 minutes of the ride…sweet!
As we had enough food supplies there was no need to venture into the city, so we kept on following the Eurovelo 13 route (actually it was the only road) south towards Strumica, which was our target destination for the day.
The mainly quiet road gradually climbed up through long peaceful, sweeping valleys with beautiful auburn colours. We saw colourful beehives, rocks painted as giant frogs and the odd road sign with bullet holes (used for target practice during the Balkan wars) before we reached the first of 2 big climbs for the day.
We both sucked a ‘Werther’s Original’ for the necessary energy boost during this winding climb of around 2.5km. Half way up we paused to catch our breaths and drink some water. A kind hearted truck driver pulled over and gestured to offer the 2 of us and our bikes a lift to the top. We declined but were grateful for the offer.
We stopped just before the peak of the 1167m high ‘Prevedena Pass’ to have lunch at a picnic table next to a water fountain , which would have been perfect but for the proliferation of rubbish strewn around…At this point we need to mention that we were saddened by the extent of roadside rubbish we had encountered in this part of Macedonia.
Heading off again with appetites satisfied, we had 2km of steep downhill before immediately heading uphill again, at an 11% gradient, for the second climb of the day. Mapsme showed this second climb peaking at around 1150 metres, whilst the Eurovelo guidebook suggested this climb went up to 1394m. Thankfully Eurovelo got it wrong (although there was a monument at the top as it had advised).
We were both pretty relieved to have finished the climbing for the day. All that was left was a rapid descent of nearly 900m in altitude over 15km towards Stremica, which was both enjoyable yet nerve racking, as it included several hairpin bends. Vanessa was grateful for having replaced her rear brake pads a couple of days before and we both kind of wished we had more spare pads to replace the others.
We stopped on a couple of occasions on the way down to admire spectacular views over the valley but within 25 minutes had covered most of the descent. Approaching Strumica, which is at the much lower altitude of 235m, we cycled through hoards of insects) luckily we both had glasses on but we needed to keep our mouths closed or risk swallowing them.
For the last 3km into Strumica, we had to join a busy main road. With traffic streaming past, and us getting hot and dusty, we were glad to find a restaurant/guesthouse with rooms available, about 1km before the city proper.
We enjoyed a cold drink and relaxed as the sun set, having covered 63km of varying gradients today. We tried for an early night’s sleep but there was a family birthday party gathering in the restaurant downstairs, so we weren’t overconfident that it would be a restful one.
Day 87 Strumica (Macedonia) to Chuchuligovo (Bulgaria)
We were keen to get going today, but before we set off we needed to do a food shop, so we thanked our hosts for their hospitality and headed to the fruit and vegetable store (which had the tallest leeks we’d ever seen), then across the road to the general store.
Fully loaded we were ready. We knew we had a busy 3km stretch of road, so we put our heads down and went full steam ahead. Before we knew it we had reached the turn off towards Bansko. We were pleased that it was sealed and quiet too.
We were cycling straight towards some impressive mountains, as well as alongside the fruit and vegetable plantations mainly growing peppers, courgettes and cauliflowers.
Bansko is famous for its thermal pools, with the water temperature never going below 72 degrees celsius. However, we didn’t try too hard to find them but instead stopped at a few streams to test the water out.
The quiet country roads meandered through several small quaint towns. We harvested a few kiwi’s in one town. There were a few undulating hills but nothing too hefty.
In Smolari we knew from previous research of the area and via Mapsme that there was a waterfall. Jon was keen to ride up to it, whilst Vanessa wanted to reserve some energy for the rest of the day (which turned out to be a good call, as we did around 75km).
Jon headed off, whilst Vanessa caught up on some blog writing. Jon rode up sealed road for 1km, then 200 metres dirt road and finally 400 metres steps all uphill and relatively steep (15% incline). He snapped a few photos then returned the same way.
We set off again, ignoring the Eurovelo recommendation of turning off towards the main road, as we were really enjoying the beautiful scenery and the abundance of fruit trees. This turned out to be the wrong decision.
5km later we reached Staro Konjarevo. Where Mapsme indicated there was a sealed road, there was a path but not sealed. We initially tried to bump our way down the rocky path but soon gave up and pushed our bikes. Luckily for us it was all downhill, but for 3km.
We slowly pushed our bikes and something that should have taken 15 minutes, took us almost 45 minutes, but it was slightly more adventurous.
Back on sealed road, we decided it was time for a break for lunch and sat at a picnic table to eat, before heading off towards the Bulgarian border.
It was a short cycle to the border with hardly any cars. The Macedonia border control officers checked their computer systems then bid us farewell and the same on the Bulgarian side.
We were very pleased with how quiet the roads were, we therefore made good progress.
Jon spotted 4 large pillars on the hilltop and wondered what they were for. This was immediately answered, when we stopped at the Samuilova Fortress sign. The fortress is situated between the Belasitsa and Ograzhden mountains next to a river. We paid 2 Lei each and went in. We saw traditional underground huts, a statue of Tsar Samuil (The king of the Bulgarian empire back in 1009-1013) and strolled up to the remains of the castle/lookout tower. It was well worth a stop and the views were impressive too.
We still had 25 kilometres to go, so we pushed on, the roads were relatively flat and smooth so we made good progress and reached Petrich within 45 minutes. As we approached the city, the traffic intensity increased (which is expected in cities but always takes us by surprise). We considered our options for a short while and decided that it would be better to be closer to the Greek border and to the three possible train stations. This meant cycling on relatively busy roads, with no hard shoulder for 15km, but with the goal of reaching Greece in mind, we managed to find that last bit of energy needed for this stretch. Luckily for us, it was mainly flat or downhill with the occasional slope up. We did have a few inconsiderate truck drivers pass us very closely, which is never a good idea!!
Reaching Chuchuligovo, we checked into the only hotel in town, set about cooking dinner, checked the various possibilities for tomorrow’s entrance into Greece and went to bed.
Day 88 – Chuchuligovo (Bulgaria) to Thasos (Greece)
After 3 months of cycling, we fancied a short break from the Eurovelo 13 and felt that a 5 day sabbatical on the Greek island of Thasos would be s a good way to recharge.The weather forecast for the next few days was perfect for mid October (sunny, low 20’s)…but how to get there?
We didn’t fancy the idea of leaving the bikes in Bulgaria for a week and also we felt we would probably need them to get to train/bus stations etc. so we decided to take them with us.
With panniers fully loaded, we set off from our Bulgarian hotel at around 8.45am. The hotel manager informed us that the only train from Bulgaria, across the border into Greece, ran at 6pm in the evening. We didn’t want to wait all day for that so we decided that we would cycle across the border to a nearby train station in Greece, for an onward connection from there.
We were only 3km from the Bulgaria/Greece border and got there in no time at all. Surprisingly, the border checks were non-existent and we would have whizzed straight through, had it not been for a dog on the Greek side of the border patrol, which barked persistently and forced Vanessa to dismount and walk the bike for a while.
Safely back on the bikes we cycled a few hundred metres into Greece and then came to toll-barriers for entry onto the main road south. We stopped at the toll booth and told the helpful lady that we intended to cycle only until the first train station. We hoped that she would allow us on the road (as there weren’t any alternatives) and also that they took either credit cards or Bulgarian money, as we didn’t yet have any Euros. As it happened, we needn’t have worried. She let us onto the road without paying the toll (probably because there was no fee shown for bicycles), although we had to do a limbo-type manoeuvre under the toll gates with our bicycles.
Better still, once on the dual carriageway, we noticed it was perfectly smooth with a hard-shoulder wide enough to cycle without worrying about the passing traffic. Plus the added bonus of a stiff following breeze meant that we flew along.
We initially set our sights on a train station in a town about 15km south but on reaching the town after only half an hour’s easy cycling we discovered there was no easy way to get off the dual carriageway. After a minute or two discussing options, Vanessa suggested that as the road was very good and the wind was in our favour, she was happy to cycle another 30km south to the city of Serres, where we were sure there would be more options of trains and busses towards Thasos. Jon (pleasantly surprised by Vanessa’s enthusiasm) agreed with the new plan and we set off again.
All went well for another 15km but then the Greek government’s money must have run out (hence the toll) because the signs told us in advance that the lovely, smooth dual carriageway, with the wide hard shoulder was about to end and sure enough it did. Leaving in its place an average, busy, sealed road with nowhere safe for cyclists to ride. We pulled off the road and, with the help of Mapsme, managed to come up with an alternative route on secondary roads which wasn’t too much longer.
This ‘plan B’ turned out pretty sweet, as it turned out; we cycled through some quaint Greek villages, past the odd church, saw many Greek flags, the occasional goat and countless olive trees. At one stage we got over-excited at the prospect of potential free olives and decided to pick/try one…Bad idea! They were clearly a few weeks from ripe and needed to be marinated too. The aftertaste was pretty bad!
We arrived at Serres train station shortly after 11.30am. We had surprised ourselves, cycling 53km in about 2 and a half hours (thanks mainly to the wind). The helpful young man at the ticket booth spoke good English and was in the process of issuing us 2 tickets for the first train (6pm) to Drama, where we would change trains towards our destination; when we asked him if busses also travelled in that direction? He advised ‘Yes’ and told us there was a bus station nearby.
We set off the very short distance to the bus station and struck it lucky, as a bus left at 3pm direct to the the port of Kavala (2 hours), from where we could catch the ferry to Thasos. They were also happy taking bikes on the bus (insert smiley face here).
In the knowledge that we would probably make it to Thasos today, we logged onto the bus terminal wifi and booked last minute accommodation there for tonight and the following few days (no luck from Couchsurfing or Warmshowers), then sat around for a couple of hours waiting for our bus, during which time we ate lunch and spotted that Vanessa had a flat tyre (fortunately it had not gone flat whilst we cycled), so we changed it.
Shortly before the bus left, we checked the ferry timetable and only then did we discover that Kavala is not the closest port to Thasos. Most ferries to Thasos leave from the port of Keramoti, another 35km from Kavala. Our bus would arrive in Kavala too late to catch today’s ferry (bugger!) and we would need to travel onwards to Keramoti to catch the 7.30pm ferry from there.
The bus ride from Serres to Kavala was great. The driver helped us stow the bikes, we had front row seats, with terrific views of the Greek countryside and spectacular mountains and it arrived on time. In Kavala we had only a 20 minute wait until we caught another bus (with bikes) for the half hour or so journey to Keramoti. Things were still looking fine (so we thought).
The relatively short bus journey to Keramoti went a slightly longer route than we expected. After 45 minutes it stopped at a small terminal in a town (name unknown), where the driver said something in Greek and most of the passengers started to get off. The man sitting next to Jon advised that to go the remaining 15km to Keramoti we had to change to another bus (definitely not mentioned when we bought the ticket). We were not happy bunnies! To make matters worse, that bus was about to leave…This prompted 2 minutes of bedlam, as we manically tried to move 2 bicycles, with front wheels removed, 8 panniers, a tent, 2 handlebar bags, water bottles etc. plus ourselves from one bus to the next. To make matters worse, we had an impatient bus driver who wasn’t helping us and an almost full luggage compartment!
We crammed everything in and hoped it survived the short bus ride to Keramoti. When we arrived at the port, the sun was setting. We opened the luggage compartment and half a dozen other passengers watched us as we off-loaded all our gear before they could get their own. We then grabbed a ferry ticket, cycled on to the ferry and waited for it to depart, which it did (on time).
We enjoyed a smooth crossing taking approx. half an hour, with beautiful sunset views over Thasos. When we docked in Thasos town, we cycled off the ship but as it was dark and we had no idea of the road conditions we agreed not to cycle the 12km to our accommodation at Golden Beach. Instead we would padlock the bikes, grab a taxi and bus to collect the bikes the following morning.
Jon was in the process of padlocking the bikes when Vanessa asked the driver of the only taxi around for a ride to Golden Beach. Much to our surprise, he advised that he was happy to put our two bikes in the boot of his cab (this required 2 bungees) for no additional fee. 15 minutes later we arrived, complete with bikes and all our gear, at the Blue Sea Beach Apartments. We gave the taxi driver a couple of extra Euros for being so helpful, locked up our bikes, checked into our room, ate some 2 minute noodles and crashed after a long, eventful day. We were very grateful for having made the journey in one day with all our belongings intact, and were looking forward to a few days break from cycle touring.