We cycled towards Greece with dreams of sunny warm weather, maybe even of swims in the Mediterranean. As the days and nights got colder and colder in the Balkans, we kept saying to ourselves as motivation: “let’s go south, let’s go to Greece, it will be warmer…”
The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth… The day we entered Greece snow rocks fell from the sky and the entire week we spent travelling to our hibernation cave in Thessaloniki was wet, cold and rainny.
On our last day in Albania, a cold wind mercilessly blew ice flakes in our faces as we aimed for the border through the Albanian countryside. After enduring it for a while, perhaps moved by the thought of that swim in the Mediterranean, we decided to take shelter in a cafe, to warm up by the wood stove and assess our options.
In the end we decided to try and find some kind soul that would either invite us in our at least let us camp in their garden, but after a few failed attempts (maybe more out of language barriers than unkindness), we progressively found ourselves closer to the border.
When we stopped at yet another gas station and were told by the people running it, “Greece? It’s just there! What’s your doubt? Just go!”, we rolled up our sleeves (not really, it was quite cold!!) and gave ears to the encouraging advice, and just went for it.
When we crossed the border, at dusk light and under a light cold sleet, we were entering our 13th country, our destination country for this stretch of the trip. After the obligatory picture by the Greek flag, we quickly aimed for the first bordering town to try and find someone willing to go give us shelter or some space for our tent.
Already in town, we asked in a guesthouse if we could pitch the tent in the garden, but were re-routed to the grass field just in the middle of town, in front of everyone’s eyes… Unexpectedly, the preferred second language seemed to be German, so Sarah’s rusty linguistics came to use again. Second attempt, in a cafe, we were again re-routed, this time to the police station to ask there (which happened to be just by the grass field we were originally pointed to).
At the police station, after some confusing translations and sign language, the on duty policeman pointed us to the garden of some small school, where we finally ended up spending the night. It was still at the eyes of everyone in town, but with the police consent, we didnt care.
The next morning we headed to the nearby cafe and, after being asked by the local people inside how we had survived the cold (because naturally they knew it had been us camping in the tent in the middle of the village), we asked for a comforting warm cafe.
After spending quite some time in their cafe infront of their wood stove, warmth and energies recovered, we headed towards Kastoria, a town nearby a big lake. As we cycled around the lake it was getting dark and time to find a place to stay and I spotted a hill with what seemed an decaying chapel on top and we decided to stay there. We had to tiringly push our bicycle ups but the views over the lake were amazing.
As I contemplated them and took some pictures I notice Sarah kneeling down next to some poo. Wisely so, she thought that a poo of bigger dimensions than human and clearly not belonging to a horse or a cow, was worth researching. She started some detective work and concluded that the poo was most likely of bear…
Needless to say that we did not camp there afterall and quickly returned down the track, back the way we had come and (naïvely we later found out) camped next to lake Kastoria on the other side of the road instead…
We thought we were far enough away – no bear would cross such a busy road and head to a lake, would they? It was December after all… They should be hibernating… However as we cooked dinner we decided to do an online search of the words “Kastoria” and “bears”. The results showed several local news stories: “Mother bear hit by a passing car (the one we had crossed thinking it meant safety) weighing 300 kg is biggest brown bear found in Europe in the last something years”, “Bear cubs walk into town unimpressed by humans and play in the nearby children park”, “bears spotted walking on top frozen lake (the one we were just camping next to)”…
It was already dark and there was no certainty of how far we would really would have to go to find another camp spot to cycle out of this bear-zone we had found ourselves in. Let’s just say we spent the remainder of the night 1) putting all our food (and toothpaste) into separate panniers and left them a good way from our tent; 2) using an old fence to build a wall around our tent… We might have been a bit paranoid but it meant we slept (a bit) more relaxed.
The next day we woke up (some better slept than others), collected our food pannier bags and escaped happily to have all of our limbs and with promises to never ignore bear warning signs (did we mention we had seen multiple “bear crossing” signs during the day?!) or to camp next to their poos.
In need of a relaxing break and even though we were trying to quickly cycle south, towards the warm Mediterranean weather we dreamed of but didn’t seem to exist afterall, we decided to make our own warm environment.
Given that we were ahead of schedule for the hibernation stop, we decided to make a detour for a location further North instead, but with hot water springs! 🙂 A cyclo tourers well deserved reward when arriving at its destination country in (toe) blistering cold winter.
After soaking in water for a good couple of hours, we aimed at last South, towards Thessaloniki, with mountains getting further away and civilization closer, we spent our last wild camping next in a cotton field with beautiful sunset light.
Arriving to a city, especially after so long in the mountains and the countryside, is always tricky so the next day we tried to find the quietest possible roads into town and to our suprise we found ourselves in the middle of a bird sanctuary, just outside the city, filled with flamingos and other interesting water birds.
After six months on the road and 7300km later, we arrived at last to Thessaloniki, the end of this first European stretch of our trip, and home to our first hibernation over winter.