Germany via river bike paths, radlers and ice cream

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Small roads and bike paths through Baveria

The border between Austria and Germany was just a sign saying we had entered the state of Bavaria. Nothing else really changed, except maybe the number plates of the cars now had more D’s than A’s. Due to our rest day in Linz, we had two big days in front of us in order to reach Donaustauf. This was okay with us. Often we feel that a full rest day is worth the long riding days. Plus we have the sun on our side now. It stays light until 10pm. Amazing.

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Beer break in Passau

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Bike traffic lights!

We pushed on along the Danube bike path for the next two days with seemingly the entire population of over 60’s from Austria and Germany. The path took us through a picturesque narrow valley, passed fields of wheat and through beautiful old towns. Our first night camping in the most populous country in Europe we scored one of the best free camps of the trip. Right on the banks of the Danube, hidden by bushes from the bike path and with views of church spires and the pink hues of the setting sun. We even had an otter swim right by us.

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Our camp spot right on the Danube

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Sunset. An otter swam right by us here

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The days were hot and long and by the time we reached Donaustauf we were both quite exhausted. We were welcomed with open arms by Barbara’s (a friend from Melbourne) parents Ingrid and Hans. We were wined and dined and then taken up to the ‘Walhalla’ to enjoy the views and the balmy summer evening. Life really felt perfect. Summer is here!!

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Bikes and beer!

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Taking a break

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Heading towards Donaustauf

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The Danube

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Hans and Ingrid our wonderful hosts.

The next day we made a tour of Regensburg with Hans and Ingrid (with me badly translating from German into English for Astrid). We also took our bikes to Feine Fahrrader, a bike shop thankfully familiar with our kind of bikes. They replaced my front light (not working since western China) and checked my dynamo. Astrid’s rohloff was sent away to be replaced (free) and the bike shop rebuilt her wheel for a fee. For anyone on touring bikes, I would recommend this shop.

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Exploring Regensburg

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Knodel and sauerkraut plus beer. Yum

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Hans in a wealth of knowledge

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After our brief stay in Donaustauf it was time to head to Prague to meet my sister. Although we had initially planned to cycle there, this didn’t work out. Mainly because the flange failure meant that it was more sensible to go to Germany first and get it fixed. It’s always a bit difficult to make medium distance plans when travelling by bike.

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Scrabble in Prague

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Prague never fails to impress me

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Stunning

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And some more

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Beer in a medieval tavern

We spent a wonderful 10 days with my sister in Prague and Berlin. The cities were familiar to all three of us and we revisited favourites sites, discovered a few new ones and played a lot of scrabble. It was a delightful, relaxing period, more about spending time together than rushing around to look at the sites.

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Brandenburger Tor. I simply love Berlin.

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The wall

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Ampel man says stop!

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Scrabble in Berlin

Then, before too long it was time to say goodbye to Mish. It was hard, but I know it won’t be so long before she is on this side of the world again. Astrid and I also packed out bags and headed back on the bus to Donaustauf. Our short life as backpackers was over.

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More scrabble and wine

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Scrabble takes concentration! And beer in the park.

Arriving back at Donaustauf felt like home (it’s funny how quickly this happens on the road!) and it was wonderful to return to Hans and Ingrid. A day and a half later Vari arrived pumped for another adventure with us. We went out and helped him choose a bike from a bicycle mega store that even had a practice track. Then we with our repaired and replaced parts and Vari with his brand new bike, were ready to face the bike paths of Germany.

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Bike tube vending machine.

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Vari and I heading along the Danube path

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Just another amazing castle

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Upside down swam. They completely crack Astrid and I up

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Very civilised. A campground for Vari’s first night.

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Preparing pesto pasta

We hugged and kissed Ingrid and Han’s farewell (as well as the extended family). What utterly wonderful hosts they have been. The time we shared was so warm and heartfelt, it was difficult to leave. It’s funny how in this cycling life people we have never met reach out to us and treat us with such kindness and acceptance. It’s something I will never forget.

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Seemingly endless quaint towns

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My old i phone needs to be charged all the time. How cool is this free charger?! Also for electric bikes!!

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Forest camp. Free camping is so easy in Germany.

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Another perfect summers day

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A stone bridge, many hundreds of years old.

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Cycling in the evening when it gets cooler is often the best time

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Another lovely forest camp

The next few days we followed the German Rivers of the Danube, Altmuhl and Tauber. It was lovely riding, along bike paths that took us through fields, forest, small villages and medieval towns. We slept sometimes in campgrounds, but often in the forest and found it surprisingly easy and picturesque to free camp. Sometimes we saw deer, we picked wild strawberries and swam in lakes. In the mornings we stopped for coffees, in the afternoon for radlers (beer with lemonade, don’t laugh!). It’s refreshing and delicious. Night fell late, around 10pm and the best cycling was before 8am and after 7pm because of the heat. It grew hotter and hotter until we were having consecutive days of over 35 degrees Celsius. It felt like Melbourne!!

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Medieval Rotenburg Ob der Tauber

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More Rotenburg

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This creeper had tar poured through his mouth onto attacking enemies, Rotenburg Ob der Tauber.

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Rotenburg is so well preserved

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Fields of wheat in the heat

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Vari is tough! Coping amazingly well in the summer heat.

At one point I made the decision to split from our little group of three in order to make it to my very good friends birthday party (Janne who visited us in Istanbul) as well as visit my uncle and aunty. In a way I was excited about travelling alone, but also sad. Astrid and I have hardly spent anytime alone since beginning this trip. This is actually why a solo leg was probably a good idea. It’s important to do things alone every now and then.

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Cute village overload!

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Looking good!

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Beware frogs!

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Schloss Aschaffenburg

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More schloss action

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Super impressive

I set off from our river campground at 5.30am and meandered along the undulating Tauber River cycle path. It was gorgeous with steep wooded hills rising up from the valley floor, which at this point was quite narrow. The air was fresh and cool, with a little mist still rising from the water. Astrid and Vari would follow me a few hours later and continue on this path until it reached the Main River. I on the other hand turned off after only around 15km on a short cut that took me through hilly countryside that meandered through fields and woods, alongside freeways and finally into the Main River valley. By the time I reached the Main it was mid afternoon and over 37 degrees. I didn’t realise the toughest was yet to come. From the Main I climbed for over 10km in the blazing sun. At one point I crawled into a pub, dripping and bright red. I gulped down a radler and continued, knowing I still had a way to go. Finally I reached the Spessart, a Bavarian forest I had once visited as I child. It was a little cooler and sweet down hill followed. Unfortunately this was followed by unrelenting undulations that almost reduced me to tears.

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It’s hot!!

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The long flat road

Finally exhausted and starving I rolled into Aschaffenburg 12 hours after setting off. It was pretty close to being one of my toughest days. I was welcomed with open arms by my uncle and aunty who I had not spent time with since I was 17. We spent a wonderful evening and morning together and I felt like the big push had been well worth it.

Another scorching day dawned and I limped by way along the Main River towards Frankfurt. From there I caught a train to Bad Nauheim and rode the remaining kilometres to Janne’s mum’s house. I was greeted with open arms, handed a glass of champagne and told to put my feet in a bucket of cold water. I had once spent a wonderful lazy summer almost exclusively in Bad Nauheim eight years ago. It was magnificent to be back and felt like almost no time had passed.

The following day an exhausted and overheated Astrid and Vari rolled into Bad Nauheim. Jutta (Janne’s mum) and Janne coaxed them back to life with food and cold drinks. In the evening, when the worst of the heat had dissipated we sat on the balcony and enjoyed cool crisp white wine and conversation. It was really special for me to be back here and to share it with Astrid.

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Mainz, where the Main and the Rhine meet

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Crossing the Rhine

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Flowers!

It was not long before we needed to leave again, although I don’t think it will be eight years between visits this time! The three of us retraced our steps back to the Main river on the train and then continued where we had left off. The Main eventually flows into the Rhine which is flanked by bike paths and train lines on both sides. We followed this route, enjoying views of castles, icecream stops, picnics on the river bank and very civilized camping. It really was rather idyllic but also a little dull. I came to the realisation that river bike paths are not for me. Well, not for weeks anyway. After coming through the countries we have with the challenges of high passes, bad roads, weird food, and unfamiliar culture, somehow bike paths along rivers seem a little tame. And a little too easy. Once the novelty of being away from cars and being able to stop in cute towns and drink a radler every 10km had worn off I longed for something more. So, Europe I think when I next tour though you I will search out the mountains and your more wild places.

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Views from the Rhine

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Swimming in the Rhine

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Vineyards and castles!

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Beer o clock

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Camping along the Rhine

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And there is rain. Heading towards Belgium

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In the National park

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A few days of Rhine cycle path and then much to our relief and perhaps Vari’s horror we turned off it and climbed out of the valley. I cannot tell you how good it felt to climb! Astrid and I were both extremely happy with the change of scenery. We crossed through farmland and forest and finally into the Eifel National Park which borders Belgium. It was gorgeous cycling along forest paths and then along this picturesque narrow valley towards the Belgium border.

Germany really has been a pleasure to cycle in. Their infrastructure for cyclists and the attitude of the car drivers is the best we have experienced so far. It is a country I am fond of and hope to get to know better in the coming years when I no longer live so far away from it.

Awesome Austria

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The Tunnel to Austria

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We reached Austria through a tunnel built in the 1940’s by Nazi prisoners of war. It was rather sobering. The ruins of the buildings that housed the prisoners were still just visible not far away and we walked through the area grateful that Europe is now a very different place. The deserted border post between Slovenia and Austria was another sign about how the times have changed. I hope there is never a time when that border post needs to be used again.

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Deserted border post

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What remains of the prisoners camp

From the forest we dropped into a river valley and then followed a bike path. At a lake we stopped for a swim and it seemed that everyone was out and about. At first we thought – wow Austrians must have a great work/life balance but later we found out it was a religious holiday. I didn’t know what to expect from Austrians but their super friendliness surprised me. Wherever we went people wanted to know our story, sometimes take our photo and invite us for ice cream or drinks. This interaction was enhanced by the fact that I could speak German and Austrians at least in theory also speak German. They often speak in a dialect, especially the area we were initially cycling through and this can be challenging for me to understand.

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Bike paths! Loving Austria

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Swim time!

Our first day in Austria was full of good surprises. In the afternoon we accidentally crashed a church event, looking for food and somewhere to charge our phone. The ladies immediately rustled up some delicious left overs and a young guy bought us beers and then helped us navigated out of town. Oh and his mum made us sandwiches to take with us. In the evening after a beer at a very cute pub I asked if there was anywhere in the area we could put up our tent for the night. The owner offered up his pristine lawn and insisted we come for buffet breakfast in the morning. Austria you are rather amazing.

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Being given food

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Beer!

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The garden in which we were allowed to pitch our tent

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The buffet breakfast we were given the next day

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Outside the place where we were treated so kindly

The next day we stumbled on the Heindrich Harrer museum – the guy who the film Seven Years in Tibet was based on. Turns out it was the village where he had lived (Huttenberg) and that the Dalai Lhama had visited many times. While eating lunch in the square the supermarket attendant was so excited by our story that he bought us an ice cream and then before too long the whole village knew our story and we were invited in for beer by a friendly guy and his wife. I think we spent about 4 hours in that one village.

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These guys invited us in for drinks

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Lunch time!

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BlondVieh! (blond cattle)

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Castles

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Loving the valley and bike path

Our route took us through valleys where we often stumbled on bike paths, up into the mountains where in the distance we could still see snow on the peaks and through beautiful villages. We drank refreshing radlers and I had many conversations with locals. At one point we realised that the climb ahead would be our last decent ascent of the trip. It was all river valleys from then on. We took a moment at the top to reflect on all the amazing passes we had climbed over the last 2 years. I am going to miss the big climbs.

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Climbing up

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Austrian’s are very kind. Here we were invited in for tea

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Villages nestled in the valley

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The top of the last climb

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Loving the mountains

After our last mountain we descended into another river valley and began to follow the Enns bike path. It’s an on and off road cycle way that follows the Enns river. It’s very beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when some Germans on bicycles invited us to join them for a side trip. This involved putting our bikes in a trailer and driving to the top of a hill and then following a disused rail way path down, through forest and tunnels. So much fun!

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The Enns

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The surrounding mountains

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More Enns

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Radler break!

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Forest camp

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Bikes get a trailer ride to the top

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20km of down hill!

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The tunnels were impressive

The weather had been quite humid and hot with the occasional thunderstorm that rumbled and crashed through the landscape. Usually we had the tent up before it rained but one night we got caught out in a town, chatting to some guys who had bought us beers once they learnt about our story. Usually, being in a town as night is falling is not where you want to be. It’s better to stop before or go through a town if you are looking to free camp. On this night we got caught in a town and a thunderstorm. Of course my phones battery went flat and we were struggling to navigate through the heavy rain and suburban landscape. It’s one of those moments you wonder if you are going to have to succumb to paying for somewhere to stay. Luckily we found a town park and in the almost darkness were able to pitch our tent easily, stuff down some pasta and climb into our shelter.

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Pedalling through town

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Don’t head butt cars

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Gorgeous clock towers

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Towards the Danube!

Our last days in Austria had us reach the Danube. This was the river we had originally been planning to take almost from the Black Sea across Europe. However, over time our plans had changed (I am so glad they did) and at one point we didn’t think we would make it to the Danube at all. Now they had changed again to incorporate a small section and we were quite excited to have reached it. We took a moment to take it in. Then, along with every European over 60 we cycled towards Linz. Seriously, the Danube river path is full of older groups on bikes. It’s great to see.

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Danube!

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Made it to the Danube!!

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Linz

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So many bikes in the square in Linz. Lots of people cycling the Danube trail

At Linz we had organised to stay with a host. We arrived early and hung around the city, before heading to Daniel and Vesela’s place. The apartment was lovely and huge and we met two Korean’s on a cycle tour of Europe and a Brit cyclist who were also staying there. We made food and enjoyed the long summer evening in the garden together.

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Rest day breakfast!

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Don’t drive into the river!

The next day Astrid and I only left the house once to go shopping. We briefly thought about leaving to make the next day’s cycle easier but just couldn’t face it. Sometimes you just need total time out to reset.

We felt much better the next day – ready for Germany!

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Along the Danube into Germany

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River bike paths are hard work. Must stop for a beer.

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Approaching the German border

Slovenija

Rupa (Croatian border) -> Ljubljana -> Bovec -> Ljubljana -> Lake Bohinj -> Ljubelj (Austrian border)

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The border for Slovenija snuck up on us as we were too busy enjoying the riding to notice how quickly the kilometres were passing.  A small back road led to the large border patrol area that divides the Schengen zone of Europe from the rest of Europe.  Turns out there are a myriad of zones in Europe, each with different functions and reasons, and we were just getting our heads around it.  There is the European continent with all her countries, there is the European Union which includes a majority of European nations but not all, there is the Euro zone which is based totally on currency, there is the Schengen zone based upon border protection, and the borders for all of these zones are different.  We had recently learned that we could only stay for a total of 3 months in the Schengen countries during a 6 month period.  That’s 3 months to travel through 20 countries and then you must be out.  The border official eyed our Australian passports with scrutiny and after checking with his boss that we were on the list of ‘okay’ nations we were waved through.  Our three month countdown started now.

Welcome to Slovenija!

Welcome to Slovenija!

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Our route.

We had chosen to try and push the whole way to Ljubljana that day, as we were excited about catching up with our lovely friend Spela.  The distance was similar to what we had covered the previous days, but the wiggly lines on the map left us unsure of how quickly we would actually get there.  It was time to find out.  The road narrowed down and quickly dove into a lush green forest.  We soon realised that Slovenian drivers are far superior to their Croatian neighbours.  Within an hour I felt relaxed and began to ride less defensively.  Each little village we cycled through was more adorable than the previous.  The forests that divided them were full of spring blooms and birdsong.  Such enjoyable riding built up my hunger and for some reason I started to dream about omelettes.  We pulled over in the next town and hit up the Lidl for supplies and cooked up an egg-straviganza.

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More deer signs, unfortunately despite being a country with bears we saw no bear signs.

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One also needs to look out for falling motorcyclists.

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First tea/coffee break of the day.

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Hoorah for bike lanes!

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The much needed omelette break.

We still had a way to go and the lady at the tourist info centre let us know that a train that takes bikes regularly goes to Ljubljana.  Did you read that – a train that takes bikes…  It was tempting but we chose to continue on.  After a little more undulating the first squiggle on the map began and it was straight down into the valley below.  We covered the kilometres in no time, free wheeling and laughing the whole way.  In the valley we meandered along the backroads, the fields full of irridescent pink, yellow and purple flowers, the green of the grass glowing in the sunlight.  For every hill we climbed we were rewarded with large sweeping downhill sections and by late afternoon Ljubljana was within our sights.  We shoved a few more pastry treats into our mouths and pushed on.  To our delight a dedicated bicycle path had been (mostly) built for the last 20 kilometres into town.  I was quickly falling in love with this country.

Greenery all around.

Greenery all around.

Stunning views - no not me.

Stunning views – no not me.

Cute villages.

Cute villages.

Fields abloom with spring flowers.

Fields abloom with spring flowers.

Such stunning riding.

Such stunning riding.

Apiaries - Slovenian style.

Apiaries – Slovenian style.

Needing a rest from too much downhill.

Needing a rest from too much downhill.

The magical bike path into Ljubljana.

The magical bike path into Ljubljana.

Arriving at Spela and Anita’s apartment that evening was magical.  The hard riding of the last few days was forgotten as we shared a celebratory beer and then washed away the thick layer of sweat and dirt in a hot shower.  Later we shared food, wine and stories of what has happened in our lives since we last saw each other over a year ago.  As you can imagine there was a lot to talk about.  The next day we were given a royal tour of Ljubljana – we wandered her streets, gardens, canals and markets, we drank her delicious beers, tasted her delectable food and ended the night with a wander up to the castle battlements to see how the lights of the city twinkled below.

Excited to have made it.

Excited to have made it.

Looking and feeling tired, but not enough to skip drinking a celebratory beer.

Looking and feeling tired, but not enough to skip a celebratory beer.

The following day we caught a bus to Spela’s hometown of Bovec. What no one tells you about cycle touring is that one of the side effects can be the development of motion sickness as your body has learnt to travel across this world so much slower. Needless to say we both suffered as the bus sped through to the town of Idrija where Mercury was first discovered and mined, before it wound its way through the Soca River valley. The scenery was jaw dropping and I think we both secretly wished that we were riding along that road instead of being stuck sick in a bus. The silver lining at the end of the cloud was Bovec and the haven that was Spela’s parent’s home. We were treated like family from the word go and were spoilt with kindness and Spela’s mum’s incredible cooking.

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Spela and Jude on an evening walk.

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Wild strawberry anyone?

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Looking for tasty forest food.

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Wild strawberries and elderflowers.

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Sharing knowledge about the healing properties of everything around us.

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Relaxing at the water’s edge.

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So much natural beauty here.

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Yep, it’s a close up of a waterfall.

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Excited to be at Spela’s parent’s home.

There are a myriad of beautiful walks that start at their doorstep and we took full advantage of such glorious sunny days as we had. As we walked we picked wild strawberries, savouring the burst of intense flavor that came with every mouthful. Spela pointed out and picked whatever plant she recognized for either its edible or medicinal qualities. Waterfalls captivated us as their waters crashed into the azure blue pools below. We meandered along the edge of the Soca River following her well-worn path through the mountains. Back at home we dipped the elderflowers that we had picked into a batter and fried them sweet tempura style.  My love for Slovenija was growing deeper by the day.

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If only every day could be this perfect.

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The Soca River.

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The gorgeous Soca.

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Swing bridge fun.

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Surrounded by green.

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A nice stroll through the forest.

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We even found the bunkers from the first world war.

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Excited about Slovenija, or doing some yoga.

We caught a ride back to Ljubljana with a guy who worked for the bomb squad and was a DJ to boot.  If that wasn’t cool enough, the quickest way back was to actually drive for 30 minutes through Italy on the way home.  The scenery was draw dropping and I was planning our cycle tour through the area within minutes.  Back at home while Spela and Anita were packing for their hiking trip to Portugal, Jude and I were deliberating our future plans.  Big changes and a difficult decision was afoot.  Our destination of Glasgow, for this leg of the trip, no longer seemed relevant now that we were going to be working in London as paramedics.  Could we change it now?  What would changing it mean?  Did it really matter if we changed it?  In our goal driven society such a change would be almost seen as a failure, but our journey has taught us that better options can present themselves, change is a constant in life, and to let go of things that are no longer useful or relevant is healthy.  It took a few days of soul searching but with peace in our hearts, we finally decided that our new home was going to be London, so it made sense to ride there.  Sorry Glasgow but you will have to wait for another day.

As I mentioned, Spela and Anita were heading to Portugal for some hiking.  They offered for us to stay in their flat for as long as we wanted, and the idea of having a home for a few days appealed.  We pottered about doing things everyone at home takes for granted.  We also lay under trees in the parks reading books and meditating, we tasted some of the best Slovenian cuisine and beer at the Open Market run on Fridays in the centre of town, we bought new panniers of clothes at a charity shop that was selling everything for 2 Euros, we cycled through the streets smelling the spring flowers and looking at the graffiti, and doing this we found the first place outside of Melbourne that we could see ourselves living in.

 

Being a domestic goddess.

Being a domestic goddess.

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Fresh milk daily.

Reading, one of may favourite day off activity.

Reading, one of may favourite day off activities.

Open Market day.

Open Market day.

Loving a Slovenian micro-brewed beer.  Pity it has to be brewed in Austria due to government protection of the two big multinational breweries.

Loving a Slovenian micro-brewed beer. Pity it has to be brewed in Austria due to government protection of the two big multinational breweries.

Padlocks on the bridge of lovers.

Padlocks on the bridge of lovers.

Dragons guard the bridge.

Dragons guard the bridge.

It was hard to drag ourselves away from our home for the week.  Having a base for a while was lovely, but the road was calling and we longed to be in the wilderness again.  Cycling along the back roads out of Ljubljana we headed first for Skofja Loka before continuing on towards Lake Bohinj.  We had hoped to make it to the lake side for nightfall but the mountainous roads had a different idea for us.  Luckily the 3km of 16% gradient wasn’t as crazy as it could have been and the golden sunlight made the mountains and valleys glow.  As evening approached we picked wild thyme as a break from the continuous switchbacks, collected water from the ski resort at the top and settled into a grassy gap in the surrounding pine forest.  Visions of the 600 wild bears that roam the country entered my mind, but the only wildlife we saw were deer, and Jude in her fantastic glam-ping wear.

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The bridge over the river at Skofja Loka.

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Happy to be back cycling.

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That’s one long, hard climb to come.

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But the scenery is enough of a distraction.

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Seeing the road we climbed far below.

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Jude is a glam-ping queen.

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Back to our tent home heaven.

Summer lovin’ kicked off the moment we laid eyes on Lake Bohinj.  Set at the end of a valley with spectacular views all around, it was the perfect place for a multi day cycling-hiking-paddling-swimming fest of fun.

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Our first view of Lake Bohinj.

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Exploring by bike.

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On our way to the waterfall.

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Basking like a lizard.

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Swapped the bikes for some kayak fun.

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Loving summer.

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Swimming and beers to follow.

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Our home for the nights.

A morning’s cycle delivered us to the tourist infested Lake Bled, where we enjoyed a spontaneous barbie on the shore.  That’s one of the many beauties of carrying your whole life with you…  We also indulged in a little secret shame we developed during our time in Slovenija – Radlers (otherwise known as a shandy).  Cycling in the heat produces a great thirst that water sometimes can’t quench.  Riding drunk can be fun, but not daily.  So the answer we discovered was the Radler, and in Slovenija the extensive choice of citrus flavours were happily sampled.

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Morning mist and meditation before setting off.

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On the road to Lake Bled.

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Taking a break on the banks of the lake.

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Enjoying a spontaneous barbie and Radler party.

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Radler-liscious.

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The beautiful Lake Bled.

As you’ve probably guessed we’re not that much into large groups of people and tourist towns, so after cycling a quick lap of the lake we headed off along the 658 hoping to hit the road to Austria at some point.  It was another stunning afternoon as we wound our way along the foothills and through the picturesque villages.  We picked more wild strawberries, drank from mountain streams and enjoyed the feeling of our bodies moving.  From Trzic the old road climbs to the Slovenian/Austrian border pass (cyclists are forbidden from riding on the new road) and as the sun sank behind the mountains turning the peaks a pale purple we found the perfect pitch for our last night of camping in Slovenija.

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Getting changed as the temperature kept rising.

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Hay drying along the side of the road in the small villages.

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Enjoying a roadside view and snack break.

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The perfect pitch – our last camp in Slovenija.

Rising with the sun we continued our ascent.  After a while the old road petered out and we were forced on to the new road with all its traffic.  Bend after bend followed and as we have done very little hill riding over the last few months, this climb would be a good introduction for the Austrian Alps ahead of us.  Leaving a roadside rest stop, we noticed a sign leading to a clearing a few feet further.  Mauthausen. Jude realised the dates corresponded to those of the second world war and this piqued our interest.  Nothing was noted on any of our maps, so what was this place?Well, unknowingly we had stumbled upon a concentration camp.  We wandered about the ruins and remembered history as we read the memorials.

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One final push and we were at the mouth of the tunnel that divides Slovenija from Austria.  The border is about 700m along signed with some lights and some signs.  It was time to say goodbye to wonderful Slovenija.  It’s a country that you could ride across in 2-3 days, but that would be doing Slovenija and yourself a great disservice.  The spectacular scenery, the friendly people, the relaxed atmosphere, the vibrant capital and the good cycling all make this a great country.  But there is something a little deeper and special than all of that and having spent time here we discovered it.  Thank you Slovenija, thank you!

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Island hopping in Croatia

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We’re back in the EU!

We were stamped into Croatia late in the afternoon and continued on a rather undulating road towards Marko’s place. Marko is a warmshowers legend. He lives in a simple abode on a small coast road that has stunning views out to sea. Cyclists, hitchers and almost anyone really can put up their tent in the space behind his house. He is a fascinating guy with miles of life experience and a myriad of interesting opinions. It was a tough last couple of hours to reach his place but well worth the effort. I was enchanted by his stories and could have listened for hours. It was only when my eyelids began to close of their own accord that I took myself off to bed.

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700m of hogs

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On our way to Marko’s

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The view from his place

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Marko’s

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Marko, the German’s and us

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Towards Dubrovnik

Following breakfast with Marko and the other cyclists (a German couple on the long road east) it was time to head towards Dubrovnik. The ride was a mix of quiet roads through beautiful scenery and crazy busy coastal highway with the mad Croatian drivers. I was certainly glad when we reached the campsite just outside the old town of Dubrovnik. What I was not glad about was the 45 euro they charged us for a piece of dirt on which to pitch our tent. Lame.

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Path down to the beach

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Morning relaxing post swim

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The view towards Dubrovnik

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The next day we were up super early and caught the bus into the old city. Anyone planning to visit Dubrovnik – go early!! It’s a tourist nightmare after 10am. We got to the city when it was still quiet and I could get some sense of the magic of the place. By now we had seen a fair few old towns, but Dubrovnik still gave me the wow factor. Before it got too busy and hot we walked around the old city walls, marvelling at the architecture and views out to sea.

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Dubrovnik

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Morning quiet

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Walking on the wall

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Quick cider on the wall

By the early afternoon we had returned to camp and packed up. It was time to go to the long anticipated Croatian Islands! Aside from wanting a bribe for our bikes (is this Europe or Asia!?) everything ran smoothly and we were soon deposited on Mijet, a small island off the coast of Dubrovnik.

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Beautiful Mijet

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Exploring Mijet

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Loving the view

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Cooking on the beach

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More sweeping views

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Our home. Not bad.

Here we enjoyed quiet roads and natural scenery of forest and the occasional village and field. We camped on the beach the first night and spent the following day exploring the 2 lakes in the national park. We wild camped right near one of the lakes, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of island living. Reading, sipping beer and watching the dusk fall.

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The National Park

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More beauty

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Enjoying the sun

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A quick stop

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An island in the lake

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On the island. We had lunch here

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Exploring the island monastery

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Being a tree

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Camping on Mijet

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Cycling around one of the lakes on Mijet

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More lake loving

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Heading to the ferry

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Quick stop at the blow hole

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On a calm day you can swim here

Retracing our cycling but this time taking the off road route we caught the evening ferry back to the mainland, although further up, on a peninsula. Owing to the impending darkness we took the easy option of a campground. The next day we cycled along the ++++ peninsula. Our progress was slowed by the fact that this peninsula has many wineries! We had our first wine tasting at 9.30am and did not reach the port till late afternoon.

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Wine tour begins!

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First wine tasting of the day

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Fresh oysters on the way!

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Wine!

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Vineyards

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Ferry to Korcula

From here it was a quick ferry ride to Korcula. Again, due to the impending darkness we found a campground to stay at. Our lazy island living continued the next day. We explored the old town of Korcula, wound along small coastal roads, stopped for beers in picturesque bars and camped on the beach. We built fires and shared wine, read books and wrote in our journals.

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Korcula old town

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Beautiful narrow alley ways

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Our beach


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This all sounds very idealistic, and it was, but I can’t say that I totally adored the islands as much as I thought I would. It’s all quite touristic and it seems a lot of the Croatians are jaded from tourism and just out to make a lot of money. Also, got to see that the clean face of these islands isn’t so clean at all. Because we were free camping we stumbled upon a river choked with trash. Obviously a lot comes from the sea but it was interesting to see this hidden place where probably no tourists ever come was not deemed worthy enough to keep clean.

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Farewell lunch for Brooke

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From Korcula we took another ferry to Split on the mainland. Sadly time was running out. Brooke had decided to take the train to Amsterdam for a final relaxing time before flying home and we wanted to get to Slovenia to meet our friend Spela before she went to Portugal on holidays.

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Goodbye Brooke!

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View looking back towards Split

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So our final night together was had in Split and then it was just the two of us once more. Astrid and I had set ourselves a challenge. Four Hundred and eighty kilometres in 4 and a half days on not flat terrain. We felt pretty confident that we could make this with a bit of effort and set off in high spirits around noon.

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Ice cream stop

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Beer at the end of the day. Feeling positive about making it to Ljubljana

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Our camp

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Pasta and pesto. Yum.

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Before the rain

That first day we made good kilometres, it was a lovely sunny day and we actually felt happy to be in the countryside and away from the coast. The next day was a different story. Torrential rain slowed us right now because we couldn’t see where we were going. By evening we reached the coast again and it was super windy. We pitched our tent in a small forest and hoped the weather would improve.

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Lunch in a bus stop sheltering from the rain

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Are we lost? Trying to get my phone to charge and sheltering from the torrential rain

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A short rain break

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The weather is coming

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Hoping the weather will improve

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It didn’t. We woke to rain and wind so loud we thought a tree might crush us. Our start was delayed for several hours. Finally we pushed out onto the highway and found we were alternatively pushed up hill by the wind and almost blown off the road and having to push our bikes. Progress was painfully slow, exhausting and a little scary. Ljubjana was feeling like very far away. At lunch time we almost succumbed but somehow decided to push on. Because we were so high and exposed, we got the full force of the wind and `I was often getting blown across the road. Lucky there was very little traffic!

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At first it’s not so bad

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This ones for you Karl! (-:

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Pushing my bike because the wind is too strong!

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Sheltering in a bus stop

By 5pm it was getting so scary and difficult we decided to call it quits. We found a semi sheltered area and pitched our tent with difficulty in amongst some scrub. Once inside we felt it necessary to finish off our bottle of whiskey. Later I somehow managed to cook us some dinner without getting blown away. It had taken us all day to do a measly fifty kilometres.

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We give up. It’s time for whiskey in the tent

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Where we hid from the wind

We woke to a much calmer morning. Maybe we could still make it. We pedalled all day along the undulating coastline, taking short breaks and pushing hard. By evening we had reached Rijeka. This seemed like an interesting city, maybe the most interesting one we have come across in Croatia. It feels edgy, a little industrial and there seem to be many students. Sadly we didn’t have time to get to know it. After spending the last of our Kuna in Lidl we turned northwards towards the mountains. The landscape and feel of the place changed quickly. The houses were different and there was forest all around now. It felt more like Slovenia already. We cycled on till after 8pm, finding a beautiful forest in which to pitch our tent. With 140km under our belts Ljubjana was within striking distance. We shared our last Croatian beer as the forest grew dark around us. Tomorrow Slovenia awaits.

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We wake to a much calmer day

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Some blue sky!

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Amazing views and we aren’t being blown off the road

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Hot chocolate break

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Heading to SLO

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We found this slug on our spoon

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She is large!

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Towards the border we go!

From Albania with love.

Kakavia -> Sarande -> Himare -> Vlore -> Divjake -> Tirana -> Shkoder -> Montenegro border.

Welcome to Albania!!

Welcome to Albania!!

Our route.

Our route.

All that I knew about Albania was that it has the largest number of (?stolen) Mercedes Benz per capita and that Jude had allocated us 5-6 days to cycle through it along the coastal route.  That alone had startled me being Australian – can you really cycle through a whole country in 5-6 days?  So to remedy my ignorance, the night before we entered Albania I lay in the tent and did a quick internet search and it was fascinating.  Independence from the Ottoman Empire since 1912; under an enforced and brutal Communist regime and isolation from the rest of the world from the end of World War II until 1992; home to 700,000 concrete bunkers countrywide due to Hoxha’s paranoia; the world’s first atheist state – it now has the highest degree of religious tolerance and intermarriage in the world; currently struggling against high unemployment, corruption and personal debt; through stage one of the application to become a member of the EU; and now quickly becoming the darling of independent travel.  And cycle touring.

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A is for Albania.

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The valley that leads into Albania from Kakavia.

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Mosques and churches dot the countryside.

Entry was easy and the ladies at immigration were more interested in gossiping with each other than stamping our passports.  The money changers shouted greetings as we cycled passed and I knew we were going to have fun here.  The sun broke through the clouds as we cycled up the valley from Kakavia and the humidity reached a high as we began our 2km climb up the surrounding mountain range.  It was a lovely climb and even the bad drivers could not dampen my spirits as I gazed down the valley and then up at the pass.  While waiting for the other two to arrive I watched the first cows I had seen in months.  As the dark clouds gathered overhead, we had a picnic in the rain before the fun of freewheeling started.  We shot passed stone villages that looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries and spring flowers bloomed on the surrounding fruit trees.  Through the shrubbery we spotted some iridescent blue below.  What could it be?

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Looking down the valley.

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Climbing to the pass.

Cows and dark clouds at the pass.

Cows and dark clouds at the pass.

Stone houses and spring blooms.

Stone houses and spring blooms.

Speeding down we almost missed the turn off for the ‘Blue Eye’.  Bumping our way along a severely potholed track we initially discovered a bright blue lake and further on its source.  A torrent of crystal clear water spewing from a deep cave with the bluest colour I have ever seen.  It’s actually a natural spring that comes from an underwater source of unknown depth, pumping out around 18,000 litres per second at a temperature of 10 degrees Celcius.  Being the water nymphs that we are, we found a place among the huge lilly pads and jumped in for a quick, icy cold dip.  Yes there was squealing. Then the heavens opened and we ran for cover on a pontoon with a leaky thatched roof.  Cups of tea were required as we waited for the skies to clear.

Our first view of the blue lake.

Our first view of the blue lake.

Such beauty.

Such beauty.

Blue Eye

Blue Eye

Posing at the viewing platform.

Posing at the viewing platform.

Being a water nymph.

Being a water nymph.

Hug a tree day.

Hug a tree day.

Waiting out the rain on a pontoon.

Waiting out the rain on a pontoon.

A break in the rain provided the perfect opportunity for escape and we shot along the river valley and then the canal, outrunning the black clouds that chased us.

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Cycling beside the canal.

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The black clouds that were chasing us.

After climbing one last hill, we dropped down into the coastal town of Sarande.  An apartment with a sea view was acquired and we were soon enjoying cold beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.  Unpacking for our first shower in a week, we discovered that our panniers were full of rainwater, so everything was hung out in the late afternoon sun to dry.

The coastal town of Sarande.

The coastal town of Sarande.

Beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.

Beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.

Slow walks along the promenade, shopping at the second hand stores, a little sightseeing, tasty ice creams and drinking wine while looking over the sea were the perfect activities for a rest day.

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Rest day fun.

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Hug a tree day – again.

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Some sightseeing.

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Drinking cold wine on a hot day – refreshing.

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Jude practising her ninja skills.

Then it was time to hit the coast road.  I had mistakenly assumed that the ‘coast road’ would be relatively flat, with consistent views of the water and lots of places to swim.  Well you know what they say about assumptions.  We climbed and dropped, and climbed and dropped.  The road never reached the shoreline and to go for a swim we needed to detour off the road for a couple of kilometres.  The sweat poured out of us.  We drank water like it was going out of fashion, snacked on bakery treats, and then repeated the whole process again.

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There was a lot of climbing with fantastic views of the sea, but little opportunity to actually get to the waters edge.

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We made a 4km round detour to have lunch and a swim at this beach.

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Jude enjoying the cool waters.

In the background you can see the road rising and falling along the coastal cliffs.

In the background you can see the road rising and falling along the coastal cliffs.

In the late afternoon the climbing settled and whizzing along we spotted some ruins on an island off just off the coast.  Turns out Ali Pasha had built a castle here too and with torches we explored the beautiful ancient ruins.  Walking out we noticed a cycle tourist cycling up to the ruins – it was Nate.

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Spotting the ruins on the island.

Entry to the castle.

Entry to the castle.

Exploring inside.

Exploring inside.

Views from the roof.

Views from the roof.

Posers.

Posers.

More inside exploration.

More inside exploration.

That night we camped together on a field covered in concrete bunkers and olive trees.  Goats bleated nearby and a hundred fireflies danced all around us.

Camping under the olive trees in Himare.

Camping under the olive trees in Himare.

Jude with a concrete bunker.

Jude with a concrete bunker.

We must have collected some bad water the previous night as Jude was struck down with a stomach bug the following morning.  Not good timing as the climbing was to skyrocket.  We undulated for a few hours before the switchbacks up the mountain came into sight.  Seven major switchbacks climbing to the peak above.  It was going to be a long day.

Good morning sheep with a she mullet.

This sheep with the 80s hairstyle had me in fits of laughter on the roadside.

Climbing out of town.

Looking down from another pass.

One of the many villages we cycled through.

One of the many villages we cycled through.

Our first view of the switchbacks on the far mountain.

Our first view of the switchbacks on the far mountain.

The ladies with the road ahead up the mountainside.

The ladies with the road ahead up the mountainside.

It took us around 3 hours to reach the top.  With a few rest breaks on the way :).

Rest break one.

Rest break one.

The road behind and ahead.

The road behind and ahead.

Looking down on where we had climbed.

Looking down on where we had climbed.

Another rest break.

Another rest break.

View from the top.

View from the top.

Going down was the next challenge.  A steep, potholed, winding road dropped us back to sea level on the other side.

View down the other side.

View down the other side.

We arrived in Vlore near nightfall and decided that we needed an ice cream.  And a place to camp.  After declining the waiters offer for drugs, we did take note of the forest that he mentioned would be a great place to camp.  We stocked up on few 2 litre bottles of beer (it was Saturday) and headed into the pine forest just out of town.  As darkness set in the fireflies started their nightly ritual.  I have seen some stunning sights, but this vision of hundreds of thousands of fireflies flashing in formation – like currents of electricity running through a brain – was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Our campsite in the pine forest where the fireflies put on their magical show.

Our campsite in the pine forest where the fireflies put on their magical show.

We decided to brave the motorway to cover some distance the next morning and we sped along in our peloton covering almost 30 kilometres in an hour.  There was no traffic, a big shoulder and no one cared that we were illegally there – winning.  Where the motorway ended, we stopped for a fruit break and it was the first and only time in Albania that we were ripped off for being foreign.  I can’t wait for such behaviour to cease when we enter Europe proper.  After a fast food sandwich of chips and sauce in a roll and some internet access, we hit the road again.  Wanting to avoid the insane driving, from Fior we kept to the back roads and it was incredible.  It was while we were cycling that I realised what I really loved about Albania – it was a mix of every region of the world I had visited.  A small microcosmos of the world wrapped into one lovely country.

Looking at directions along the back roads.

Looking at directions along the back roads.

Loving the lack of traffic on the back roads.

Loving the lack of traffic on the back roads.

Cruising with Karavasta lagoon in the background.

Cruising with Karavasta lagoon in the background.

Hello from the scarecrow.

Hello from the scarecrow.

In Divjake, we had organised to stay with Paulina (a lovely host on couch-surfing) and were we spoilt.  As the smell of citrus blossoms wafted their way up to our rooms, we cooked delicious food and listened to music.  We went for a giro (local evening activity of walking together) and followed it up with a hot chocolate you could stand a spoon up in.  The following morning we cycled out to the lagoon and enjoyed a pot of bird and fish watching before hitting the road again.

The citrus garden in full bloom.

The citrus garden in full bloom.

Cooking dinner.

Cooking dinner.

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Cycling through the Divjaka-Karavasta national park.

Cycling through the Divjaka-Karavasta national park.

The ladies taking a rest by the side of the lagoon.

The ladies taking a rest by the side of the lagoon.

Some bird action.

Some bird action.

The idea of visiting Tirana had been floating in our minds for a few days and when Evan, a cycle tourist who has been following our blog, contacted us to see if we wanted to meet up – it turned out the capital would be the ideal place.  We pushed hard that day to make it to the Trip’N’Hostel by early evening.  Arriving in town the streets and cafes were crowded with people, the repainted buildings glowed in the golden sunlight and the smell of delicious food filled our nostrils.  Meeting Evan was a joy and we spent a couple of days talking bikes and tours, checking out the sites, drinking icy cold beers and doing some much needed bike maintenance.  It was during one of these sessions that we discovered my Rohloff had a flange failure.  I guess German engineering isn’t as indestructible as it thinks.  Not like the concrete bunker engineer who put himself in one and had a tank fire live ammunition at him.  Now that is trust in your own product.

Arriving in Tirana.

Arriving in Tirana.

The Piramida aka the former Hoxha museum aka the Internation Cultural Centre in Tirana.

The Piramida aka the former Hoxha museum aka the Internation Cultural Centre in Tirana.

Enjoying the view from the top of the Piramida - boy was the climb up and down its walls a little tricky.

Enjoying the view from the top of the Piramida – boy was the climb up and down its walls a little tricky.

Evan and I hiding in a bunker.

Evan and I hiding in a bunker.

Part of the Berlin Wall in a Tirana Park.

Part of the Berlin Wall in a Tirana Park.

Anyone for some AFC?

Anyone for some AFC?

Enjoying a beer in the revolving restaurant.

Enjoying a beer in the revolving restaurant.

Views over Tirana from the revolving restaurant.

Views over Tirana from the revolving restaurant.

The mural on the History museum.

The mural on the History museum.

Bike tools for everyone to use on the side of the road.

Bike tools for everyone to use on the side of the road.

Instead of a mad dash to the border, the small town of Shkoder had caught our attention.  Despite the suggestion of following the back road route, we spent the day cycling along the main road, music in our ears to drown out the roar of the traffic.  The first thing we noticed about the town was the number of people on bicycles.  Everyone was riding.  Groups of men coming home from work, mothers with their kids cycling to after school activities, older couples out doing the shopping, kids out having fun and the three of us on our way into town.  No wonder Shkoder is known as the cycling capital of Albania.  Staying at the Green Garden hostel we met another amazing cyclo-woman, Sara, on her way home from Palestine.  Our lovely host Mikel took us out to explore his must see sights – the museum of memory, the ethnography museum, the Marubi photo exhibition and a trip to a stunning swimming hole up in the hills.  Even a local political rally was thrown in for good measure.  And some communist cake.

Sharing a meal at the Green Garden hostel.

Sharing a meal at the Green Garden hostel.

Shkoder Mall.

Shkoder Mall.

Albania's religious tolerance and integration is incredible.

Albania’s religious tolerance and integration is incredible.

The ethnography museum.

The ethnography museum.

The biking capital of Albania.

The biking capital of Albania.

The stunning swimming hole.

The stunning swimming hole.

In for a dip.

In for a dip.

A pretty old bridge.

A pretty old bridge.

Sara getting some puppy love.

Sara getting some puppy love.

So as you’ve probably realised our 5-6 day dash didn’t work out quite as planned.  Albania had caught our hearts and minds.  But change is a constant thing and it was time to follow the road to Montenegro.  A short morning’s ride in our cycling gang placed us on her doorstep and we were ready for the next adventure.

All my love as always,

Astrid.

Our first sign to Montenegro.

Our first sign to Montenegro and beyond.

A glimpse at Montenegro

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Just over the border

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Loving Montenegro

Montenegro is a relatively new (2007) independent nation nestled between Albania, Croatia and Serbia. It is a country rich in natural beauty and seems steps ahead of it neighbours in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness and environmental attitude. We could have cycled through in a day and a half, but it begs for more time.

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on our way

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Beautiful coastline and mountains 

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Some ruins to explore

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Exploring some ruins

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Like it’s European neighbours, Montenegrin immigration is a piece of cake. In fact the Albanian and Montenegrin border post is combined, one of the first of it’s kind in the Balkans. We were quickly stamped in and let loose to enjoy the stunning beauty that is Montenegro.

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Old town, Kotor

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Stunning views

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And some more

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Ruins at the top, above Kotor Bay

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Exploring

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Part way down the road we bade Sara farewell. She was off to look for a burial site of a Rabbi further down the coast. We continued on through farmland, olive groves and small roads that gave us glimpses of the coastline below. It was a perfect sunny day and it felt amazing to be alive and cycling through this delightful landscape.

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Enjoying the beach

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Indeed

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The island is privately owned. Something like 3000 AUD a night!

In the afternoon we descended to the coast. Here we lunched and dipped in the ocean, discovered a ruined castle and accidentally stumbled upon a beat. We were wondering what all the half naked men were doing, sunning themselves and moseying about, and refreshingly paying us no attention. You never know what a day of cycling will bring!

Night time bought us to Budva, where we found a very cute hostel nestled right in the heart of the old town. The hostel was much better value than the campground we had looked at further up the road and soon we were sharing beers and conversation with the owner and other travellers. A note for anyone travelling through the Balkans, the hostels here are super nice (the ones associated with the Balkan Backpacker thingy) and affordable compared to other parts of Europe. Usually we wouldn’t stay at hostels, but ever since the great experience we had in Tirana, they tempted us. They are not part of a big chain and appear to be owned and operated by locals.

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View from our hostel, Budva

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Old town exploring

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Heading to the beach

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View from the beach, Budva

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Walls of Kotor old town

One day in Budva is not enough if the weather is good. After a look around the quaint old town in the morning we headed to the beach to swim and relax. The evening was spent chatting to other travellers once more.

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Kotor

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Old town, Kotor

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Astrid and I explored and got lost in many of the small alley ways in Kotor Old Town

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A visit to Montenegro is not complete without visiting the stunning Kotor Bay. It was a short pedal up the coast to Kotor the next day and we spent the afternoon exploring the old town and climbing up to the ruins high above the city. From here to you have stunning view of the surrounds.

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Kotor from above

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Kotor Bay

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Wall around Kotor old town

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Churches, Kotor

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View to the old town

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Enjoying the view on the way up

 

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At the top

Our last day in Montenegro saw us deciding to add 20km to our day by cycling around Kotor Bay. Well worth it! We also decided to treat ourselves by going to Catovica Mlina, a restaurant half way between Kotor and Herceg Novi. It is rated as one of the best restaurants in Montenegro and just happened to fall right on our path! They even had bicycle parking. We quickly changed into some half decent clothes in the car park and went and enjoyed a really delicious meal. It felt rather indulgent, considering what we usually eat but I certainly don’t regret it. The food was delicious and the atmosphere really lovely.

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Kotor Bay

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The fairy and I enjoying the view

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Can’t belie I am eating this

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Tasted amazing

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On the road to Croatia

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Croatian border

From here it was a picturesque afternoon cycle to the Croatian border.

Much love

Jude

Glorious Greece

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We reached Europe!!

Ipsala to Kakavia via Thessaloniki, Vergina and Meteora

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How else would we celebrate but with wine in a cup?!

Entering Greece was always going to be epic. Although we had been on continental Europe for about a week, we were still in Turkey. Now, as we pushed our bikes up to the final passport check and were stamped in, we had officially cycled from Australia to Europe. It felt surreal.

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Loving the Spring!

I must admit I knew little about Greece, and even less about northern Greece. The news was all about the economic crisis, much of what we had missed because of our limited access to media. We more or less went in blind, without a Guidebook or any idea of what to expect. More and more I am finding this the best way to travel. Even though it is nice to read about a country’s history too. Especially when you visit ancient sites. I guess ultimately it’s good to have an open mind and a balanced approach.

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Camping on the beach, loving life

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The view

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No one seemed to mind our campfire – not that there were many people around!

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Enjoying the view along the small roads we took

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Backroads are the best

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We find ruined churches

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And ancient trees

Greece was also where we finally said goodbye to the Muslim world, which we had more or less been in since Western China. I was going to miss the call to prayer, which at its best can send shivers down your spine. Now it was time for church bells and religious shrines on the side of the road. Greek society immediately felt different, somehow more open. More people on the street, more women out and about, more life spilling out from cafes and bars and suddenly alcohol freely available everywhere. Although Western Turkey is not that conservative, it was still a marked difference.

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Beer is cheap. And has a funny name.

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Who wouldn’t love a country where the bread is bigger than your head?

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Back roads sometimes have challenges..

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But there is always an alternative.. Well, in Greece anyway.

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Perfect places to camp

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Amazing sunsets

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Flamingoes

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They are so beautiful

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Lakes

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Funny trees

Then there was the beauty of Greece, which utterly astounded us. Barely a day went by when we did not exclaim, “what is wrong with this country?! It’s so bloody beautiful!” This was intensified by the fact that we really had left winter behind, everything was green and the sun shone almost everyday. I felt alive and so happy. Anyone who has spent a large part of the winter living in a tent, cycling through the elements with day after day of rain, will know what I mean. Spring I think brings joy to all of us but for me this year it was even more potent.

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Lovely lunches by a river

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DSC_0083 Our camp kind of on a cliff edge

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But we had a stunning view

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Morning swims!

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Abandoned towers

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Amazing views

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This was our lunch beach

Our first few days were spent cycling along the coast. With Brooke’s excellent navigation and use of google maps we found the tiniest dirt roads, with sweeping views out to sea. We camped on beaches and built fires and no one seemed to care. Our route took us through deserted holiday villages (the off season or the crisis?) and along high cliff roads. One day we found hot springs, now deserted due to the economic situation. We luxuriated in the hot water and Brooke even managed to catch a fish. It felt like we were on this endless blissful holiday. There were always plenty of places to swim, the drivers had markedly improved, the roads were good and the tiny villages really rather picturesque. And to us Greece seemed so clean! It is a sad fact that most countries since we left Australia have a trash problem. Here we really noticed the shift in attitude and it was a relief to not see rubbish everywhere. Europeans we met said that they thought Greece had quite a lot of rubbish around compared to their countries, but to us it was a huge improvement.

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More of the beach we had lunch at

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Pushing the Fairy up from the beach

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Free hot springs!

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Another great camp

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Astrid doing yoga

Greece was also were Lidl begins. Lidl for anyone who is not familiar with the brand is a German supermarket chain, similar to Aldi. It is CHEAP and GOOD. You will often find cycle tourists outside of Lidl stores. This is true! The first time Astrid and I went inside a Lidl we freaked out about the range and price (especially beer!). Normally I actually don’t like supermarkets. At home were there is a dangerous duopoly, where farmers and small business suffer, I make it a point almost never to enter a supermarket. I am lucky because in inner Melbourne I have that choice. Here, on the road in Greece with limited funds, cheap supermarkets are too great a temptation. Maybe some people think I am crazy, but to me (and Astrid) being ethical about food is important. It often takes us 10 mins to choose a peanut butter (does it use palm oil? has it travelled far? Is the company ethical? Price?). Maybe it would be easier not to think about all these things, but I guess it would also be easier to take a plane to Europe rather than cycle too.

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Lion of Amphipolis. A good morning tea spot

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The lake we camped near

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Lake sunset

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More beautiful sunset

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Astrid cooking

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Our great camp spot

Our first real city stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We explored some of the ruins, including ones from Roman times and stayed with wonderful WarmShowers hosts in their cute apartment right in the city. Thanos and Areti were the first Greek people we really talked to and like usual we were full of questions. They said that the crisis was bad but that in a way life just went on, which is what we observed when we visited a crowded Taverna and tasted the most delightful Greek food. They also said people in cities suffer more than those in the country, who often grow their own food and live in family homes. Makes you think about how important growing your own food is. How if one could be sustainable by growing food and bartering with neighbours, you can just step out of this broken system we have. Perhaps growing our own food is one of the most radical things we can do.

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The White Tower, Thessaloniki

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Bike gang at the Rotunda built in Roman times

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Thanos and Areti our wonderful hosts took us out for amazing Greek food

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Exploring Thessaloniki

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Amazingly preserved

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Back streets, Thessaloniki

That night, although tired, we went out to experience the Thessaloniki nightlife. Astrid and I were really treated to a unique experience, as there was a party on at one of the Taverna’s. Returned immigrants dancing the night away to Greek music. We were served ice cold beers (and tapas, which comes free with beer!) and then invited to join the dancing. Astrid picked it up quickly and I kind of stumbled around the circle, trying to get my feet to work. It was fun.

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Old city walls

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Exploring the city walls

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Camp, first night out of Thesseloniki

From Thessaloniki we headed inland, towards Vergina (yes, lots of jokes were made about this name) an archeological site of significance and World Heritage listing. It was a site of an ancient Macedonian capital and where Alexander the Great’s father’s (Phillip the II) tomb was found in 1977. I found it quite an amazing museum as it has kind of been built into the hill and around the tombs. The objects and artifacts found are in really good condition and the whole experience well worth it. I mean by now we have seen a serious amount of ancient stuff, but I was impressed.

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Yes, we are immature!

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A good beer!

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Inside the museum where the tomb is.

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Looking for a camp spot

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Jackpot

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Some awesome views

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Loving the down hill

Our route than took us through more Greek countryside, along small roads and into tiny villages. Some looked like they had suffered the blows of the economic times, with boarded up shops and barely a soul in sight. Others appeared empty, only to discover the entire population (it seemed) in a small tavern eating and drinking Raki (a holiday?). We climbed through farmland and dropped into river valleys, always finding lovely places to pitch our tent and enjoy a quiet beer at the end of the day.

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Camp among the pines

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Bike and tents. Our whole life.

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Cooking on a fire is best

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Sunset

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View from our pine camp

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Such lovely weather

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Spring!

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The village where everyone was in the bar

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You must go down!

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Gorgeous views

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Deers are coming

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Theses are everywhere in Northern Greece

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Another lovely camp. We even swam here

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We reached the famous monastic site of Meteora from a back valley and were rewarded with sweeping views of these incredible monasteries, perched high on the sandstone rock pillars. Exploring them was amazing, winding our way up the narrow stairs and through the many rooms, often exquisitely decorated. I especially liked that ancient kitchen and the cellar where they kept the beer they brewed.

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Meteora

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The surrounding countryside

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Still some snow!

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How amazing are these

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Paintings inside

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More of the valley

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Happy to be here

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Beer barrels!

By this time we were well overdue for a rest day and gratefully collapsed into the rather nice campground (swimming pool, bar, restaurant, wifi, cooking area). Here we not only met Chris and Pete two English cyclists travelling from Greece back to the UK, but also Miriam and Francesca, two Swiss girls on a cycling adventure, and two Spaniards also exploring Greece on bikes. It was quite a merry group that first night, as the wine and stories flowed freely.

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Breakfast pancake cook

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Dinner mashed sweet potato and hallumi on a bed of rocket.

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Breakfast again with Nate

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Four ninjas and a tree

We bade Chris and Pete farewell the next day with a prolonged breakfast party involving pancakes and copious amounts of coffee and other food. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and catching up on emails, and shopping as the next day was Sunday (shops are not open on Sundays here). While checking my emails I came across one from Nate. Turns out he was just down the road and we would be seeing him in half an hour! It was lovely to see Nate again and we exchanged stories, drank wine and Astrid cooked a rather gourmet meal for everyone. Another fabulous night with friends new and old(er).

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On the road

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The fairy and I

DSC_0401 Waking to Church bells as the sun rises with a promise of another lovely spring day was quite charming. Now we were a group of 5 as the Swiss girls were going the same way. We cycled up an easy gradient, chatting and laughing and meeting the occasional cycle tourist going the other way. In the afternoon we took a road which was blocked to cars as there was still snow on the pass. Not only were we surrounded by mountains, forests and cyclists, but there were no cars! My idea of heaven.

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Sign says NO. We say YES!

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STOP

We found the most wonderful place to camp, with sweeping views of the valley and mountains. After setting up camp, we noticed to figures, moving slowly on the road below us. Using the zoom lens of Astrid’s camera revealed the Spanish! Now we were 7 cyclists, camping on the side of a mountain, the sun setting and our little campfire burning. Life was good.

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Communal camp

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Relaxing

The following morning, leaving the Spanish sleeping we headed the rest of the way up the pass and pushed our bikes through the 200m of snow at the top. Then it was down hill to ‘cheese town’. It was a village famous for it’s motsovone cheese. Here copious amounts of cheese were purchased, along with wine and bread. Then we met Nate who had arrived earlier in the morning. He joined us for a picnic cheese marathon in the park.

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Break time

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A road with no cars is the best kind of road

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Ninjas!

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The pass that stops the cars but not us!

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The last snow we will see for some time..

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Going down

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“Cheese Town” (Metsovo)

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Picnic time!

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Cheese should be taken seriously

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So yummy

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Campingin a field

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Resting at the end of the day

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The sheep are coming

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Watching the sheep

The 6 of us continued on towards the border with Albania. We had one more communal night of camping in a field where we were visited by a herd of sheep before we parted at Lidl (where else) to go our separate ways.

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Rage against something – the wind? I can’t remember!

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It’s almost over. Shopping at Lidl

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Ninja goodbye!

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On the road towards Albania

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On the way to the border

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Goodbybe Greece

Thank you Greece, you were amazing.