We are now, very defiantly in the donkey, horse and Porsche area of the world. ” it is like Monaco this little town. The boy drives a Ferrari and he works as a carpenter, how is that possible? ” Bobby has a point. We sit and wait for the insanely hot Macedonian coffee to be cool enough even to touch the cups. A Merc and a BMW go by. They are black, they are always black. ” €6,000 for a Ferrari, and they come in through Bulgaria, that’s how “.
Bobby went to the USA when this was still communist Yugoslavia. ” I worked so hard, a big house and three cars, never once went in the swimming pool, not once. Is that a life? ” Bobby gave up the ‘ life ‘ in Palm Springs and came back home to Strumica.
Monday morning, and it is forecast to be the hottest day of the year. We need to get north just as quickly as we can. Getting anywhere in the direction we want to go proves challenging. It is not that we were unprepared or stupid. Thessaloniki is difficult. Viewed on the gps screen it reminds you of an exotic Tartan. We pick a road that should take us to a right turn onto quiet roads. We are ‘ one too early’ and it is impossible to get off the fenced highway. Kilometres in the wrong direction and in the darkest of bleak moods.
Eventually we pick up the 65, but it is anything but the quiet road that we had predicted from Google Map. There is no logic to the traffic here, none at all. I am starting to wonder if they are all on the run from the police. By mid day it is 40’c, but the good news is that we have done a good distance, some of which is in the right direction. We take a break in the hill top town of Kilkis. It is a prime spot. Strategically important for centuries, with a view over the plains it has witnessed great armies and the rise of civilizations. It is a good place for a kebab, which is what we need.
A few lazy hours drift by as we sit out the heat. Back on the bikes we head towards the border of Macedonia. We had always said, to any Greek that had asked ” we are going north to Macedonia “. It is the wrong thing to say. To a man they will point out that ‘ you are in Macedonia now! ‘. The subject is a little contentious, and it plays both ways. In the breakup of Yugoslavia , the historical name of Macedonia was up for grabs. Alexander the Great had pushed the borders of Macedonia as far as India and Egypt. Most of the known world was under the rule of the Macedonian king. Grabbing the name gives you access to a fantastic back catalogue. They wanted the flag as well, but the Greeks said ” NO! ” and they did a bodge compromise.
What they all want is Alexander’s legacy. In a days time we will meet Bobby, who will have his own version of history. ” Alexander was born in the hills above the town here in Strumica, we all know that. History is wrong, but hey don’t want to admit it and everyone knows that”.
A left turn, and before we know it, the border is in front of us. Stamped out of Greece in 30 seconds, including the waiting time to find the right page in the passport. On we pedal in the ‘ no-mans land ‘, that curiously includes a well manicured football pitch. One minute to stamp into Macedonia concludes our fastest border crossing ever. We have gone back in time 30 years.
Within the first kilometre we could write the Wiki for Macedonia – Friendly people, crap road surfaces. The path along Lake Dojran is beautiful. It should be mobbed, this being June 17th. The bars and cafe spots are open and eager for trade, but few people are here. It is perfect, absolutely stunning.
We find a bit of grass between vegetable plots and pitch the tent inner. Two horse drawn carts clop their way up the road and we settle down in our tent. We can see the world through the bug mesh and just before the light fades a Nightjar flys silently over the tent. The black wings beat as ghostly slow as an owls. This is a first for me.
Sweat drips off our noses as we eat breakfast. We are dehydrating and we have done nothing, not even got on the bikes. We are heading towards Strumica, but have a beast of a climb first. If you do not swallow for a few minutes, then when you do, it is like trying to swallow a fur ball. Hot, dry air desicates your mouth and throat, it is painful, very painful. The climb is a sod of the first order of magnitude.
The town of Strumica is ringed by the homes of Romanes. They have their own style completely and are a sort of mid point between a tent and a permenant home. There are horses and bright coloured clothing. It is one of those National Geographic moments. Dark skinned people stare back at us as we try to take it in. The camera stays in the bar bag.
Who would believe it could be too hot to camp. Well it is and we need to get out of it and into a room in a hotel. The little town of Radovis does the job perfectly and we almost cry at the joy of being under an aircon unit. The morning begins with a ride through lush green fields and then trees.
The winters here are cold and often wet or with snow. Spring, when it comes must arrive so fast and then it is mad temperatures that will have you hiding in the shade or getting up in the night to work.
We stop for a coffee. There are always enough German speakers for us to get a bit of an understanding of life here. It is usually a story of 10, 20 or even 30 years out of the country and then a return to the family village. A pension pays for the days of drinking beer with the old guys and a good twilight year or two, after the hard graft of their ‘ Gastarbeiter ‘ years.
Our first Macedonian Tortoise, and quickly a second. This one is smaller and out in the road and there are signs of casualties near. We do not want to be anywhere near a fatality. Esther thinks she would probably be sick witnessing such an explosive end. We try not to dwell on it.
The town of Stip. It is tucked away in the folds of the hills like something lost in a duvet. We are so close before it opens up into what is obviously a large town. Again, the thought of camping in this heat is too much. We hope for a cheap hotel, but there is a Porsche and a brand new Aston Martin outside the only hotel. We need not have worried. Strange economic rules are at work here.
Two and a half days in Macedonia and we just realize that the clocks are an hour back. I keep mine on Greece time – we need to get on the roads early – this may help. It does not, at 8.00 in the morning it is 30’c. We pick up the 27, which is a new and busy road.
When ever you come across a new road, it is a good idea to look around for the safer and almost unused old road. For quite a while it keeps us away from the trucks that are heading for central Europe. In the end we are in amongst the madness. It is narrow, pot holed and busy. We have some of our most dangerous riding of the whole trip. It is impossible to avoid without tripling your distance with a ride through the remote villages.
We are on a vast plain that holds onto the 300 to 400 metres contour. Corn and wine stretch to the horizon and ahead there is a mountain range with the last of the snow held in dark, cool corries.
There is a toll road ahead. We drop down towards the town to pick up the old road. Luck is with us. We are told that the old road is terrible and would destroy our bikes. The guy makes a few calls to police he knows. ” Go on he toll road, it is a €30 ticket but no one will stop you “. We still need to get by the toll booth and yesterdays 45 minutes of bureaucracy to post a parcel is fresh in our minds.
It all works out. If you are riding this way then use the toll road and save yourself the heartache. Esther is almost in tears of relief as we are waved through and onto the toll road. There is mostly a wide shoulder, but even here the surface is often rubbish.
Up goes the road, a 4% grade that goes on for an eternity. I know I go on about the heat a lot and possibly too much. Here again it is the limiting factor. You have to hold back, drop a gear and take it as easy as possible on any climb or you will be in trouble. My meter shows 44’c.
The minor road we are taking into Skopje is minor in name only. Eventually we are up on the pavement as it turns into a fast dual carriageway and the last few K’s into the city are a toil. We get two stupid quotes from the first two hotels we try. I am boiling over in the frustration of it all. I come from a climate described in my school geography textbooks as ‘ Temperate Maritime ‘, and am not doing well here, in what Google describes as ‘ unique ‘. The climate of Macedonia in summer, it goes on to describe as ‘ sub tropical ‘.
We get a stroke of luck just when we are about to give in. Alex, the tour guide comes to our rescue. He darts into hotels trying to find a deal. Even he is beaten at the first two. Eventually we get a €50 ‘ deal ‘ by which time we are too worn out to care.
Skopje is undergoing a bit of a boom. It has a frightening amount of imposing statues, many of which you may have guessed are of Alexander the Great. If you think you have a busy life go and look up stuff about him. Better still, get the BBC series by Michael Wood. You have under achieved by comparison, of that you can be sure.