Thirty six hours through Montenegro

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Signs are there to be climbed!

After climbing all morning through the beautiful mountains of Bosnia, the first thing I thought as we free wheeled down the road on the Montenegrin side was; it’s not as beautiful as I expected. Kind of harsh I admit! The landscape was rocky, dry, and quite bare. Not the Montenegro I remember of 2015. Of course, first impressions are often wrong.

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Happy to be back in Montenegro

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Overlooking a dam on our way into Niksic

After snacking on left overs, we rolled into Niksic in search of potato burek (second lunch) and an ATM. We found both, with the potato burek possibly being the best we’ve ever had (big statement I know!). While in the bakery, unashamedly scoffing our second helping, a guy came over to talk to us. Petar was a local Warmshowers host, and after chatting for a bit, he offered to show us a scenic route to Podgarica. We happily accepted.

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Petar showing us the way

What followed was up there with some of the best and most scenic cycling we’ve done. We followed Pieter up a small, smooth road (Montenegro has ridiculously good roads) as it wound itself gently up the mountains. The views were magnificent and I felt dwarfed by the sheer beauty of nature all around us. By the time we reached the Ostrog monastery it was late in the day, making Podgarica as we had planned was looking unlikely. It was one of those moments where you choose just to embrace the moment and go with the flow of what is being offered up. Petar showed us the church and explained a little bit about his religion. Although neither of us are the slightest bit religious, I do appreciate the sacredness of churches, temples, mosques, and the beauty of the architecture and art work. The icons in orthodox churches are impressive. And it has an air of mysticism I did not expect.

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The amazing road

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So fun and so beautiful

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After Petar had a quick chat with a priest, we all ended up being invited in to eat in the monastery dining room. I can only imagine this is where the monks eat? There was some praying and then we were served up delicious food, including quite a lot of wine. Some people joined us, and it turns out the woman was an Abbott from Russia. So that’s how we ended up sharing wine and food with a Russian Abbott and some monks in an orthodox monastery in Montenegro. You never quite know how your day will turn out on the road…

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A church at the monastary

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At the Monastary

Later on we explored the high monastery, which is impressively cut into the stone. It is a really beautiful and spiritual place and a site of Pilgrimage for Christians, as Saint Basil of Ostrog’s body is there (rather creepily in an open coffin). He is apparently the saint of Miracles.  Petar, being the generous and humble guy he was, organised for us to stay in the monastery dormitory that night. He also stayed as he is currently in between jobs and had no plans. I love how he could just spontaneously join us. We spent the evening drinking tea and talking; about religion, the difference in our lives, relationships, travel, anxiety, love…Petar is not one to waste time on trivial matters and it was refreshing to talk to someone obviously so smart and interested in everything.

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The high monastary, built into the rock

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Impressive!

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Exploring by night

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Outside the monastery where we slept

In the morning singing from the church reverberated over valley in a wonderful and other worldly manner. The sun shone, promising another perfect autumn day. It felt like we were outrunning the bad weather again. The three of us left early and headed down the mountain and valley into Podgarica, the Montenegrin capital. Here we ate lunch in a park by the university that Petar had once attended.

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The road down

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more beautiful road..

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On the road to Podgarica

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Podgarica

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Outside the church Petar showed us in Podgarica

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Church and bike posing..

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Inside the church

It was now time to head to the Albanian border, just over 20km away. Petar decided he may as well join us right to the border. Unfortunately he hadn’t brought his passport, otherwise I think we would have continued cycling with us! The road out of Podgarica was awful at first, fast and busy, but luckily improved as we began climbing out of the valley and back into nature in the late afternoon sunshine.

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Looking towards Albania..

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Towards the border

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Lovely in the late afternoon!

At the border we said our goodbyes. Meeting Petar was certainly the best thing that happened to us in Montenegro. It made our brief 36 or so hours here so much richer, and showed us places we would otherwise not have seen. We may lead very different lives, and come from very different backgrounds, but this ride was a reminder of how human’s are kind and open, given half a chance.

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Thanks for everything!

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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.