Catha's Seat

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Days 60 to 65: Camping inside and out - Greece

If you read "the Route" post you will notice that we were now well off the planned map. Riding into Greece was grim - a full day of heavy rain and a slow start on the mud track Nazi road in Macedonia. We spent most of the day on the main road into Thessaloniki worried that  we may be picked up by the authorities for riding on a road signed just for motor vehicles. Luckily there was a good way to pass the time by deciphering the road signs using our Physcis knowledge of the Greek alphabet (I knew my degree would come in handy one day!). 

A steep hill obscured the horizon us just before we hit the city and after the struggle we were treated to a superb dusk view of the lights going into the darkness of the Mediterranean sea. It was difficult to enjoy though, as the rain was still driving into us and we were sitting on the brakes concentrating on making it down the hill in one piece.

The kindness of people came to our rescue: A nice chap called Morris helped us with directions when our "smart" phone touch screens weren't responding to our soaked hands, pointing us in the direction of our couchsurfing host for the evening. Gael had exceedingly kindly agreed to take us in even though he had 5 other bikers staying with him at the same time. His other guests had prepared a feast of fajitas for our arrival and we were quickly reconstructed and sharing adventure stories. 

Gael is a long distance cycling pro. His 3 year trip around the remotest parts of Russia, Europe and Asia with his photographer girlfriend Elena really put our little jaunt to Istanbul in perspective. A French man, he found lab work at the University in Thessaloniki, and has hung up his cycling shoes living with his cat Dennis whilst Elena is on long term project in Siberia. Dennis was a stray cat and contrary to its name is actually a female! (Photo right taken by EA Gow)
When we had a chance to survey our surroundings we found we were in a 25sq metre flat, Ortleib bike bags covered the balcony (lucky they are properly waterproof as the wind had picked up a gale and was battering the rain into the hilltop building). Settling down for the night was literally like camping inside and we had to manage some impressive tessellation to fit everyone in! Considerable thanks to Gael who was so relaxed at having his flat taken over - a true Samaritan. 

Surprisingly it's difficult to find chick peas in Greece! Cooking curry for the camp at Gael's. Bottom picture (taken by Peter Ehresmann) from left to right; Lindsay, Peter, Devin, Tory, Alex, Gael and me.
I woke up before everyone else on our day off in Thessaloniki. As I mentioned before; days off were tricky mentally; whilst not moving I felt like I wasn't achieving and it gave me a strange lookout point to consider my position. I lay next to Alex's toes and thought for an hour trying to make sense of why I was doing this trip, why I hadn't had any realisations about what I was going to do with my life and career. The main struggle is discovering what I "want" to do rather than what I "ought" to do. I see people doing things, in advanced positions in their careers or travelling, achieving goals and I think, gosh, I "ought" to be doing that - a horrible inadequate feeling of guilt. The momentum of "ought" though, I feel, can only pull you so far through life. I realised that much against everyone's advice I had put considerable weight hoping that going through a "life changing" trip (the longest time I have spent outside of work or structured education since I was 2 years old) would churn me out as a confident, structured and motivated person who knew what they "wanted". So far the magic still hadn't happened and we were only a week from reaching Istanbul.

Once the camp had arisen my mind was quickly taken to the tasks for the day; bike shop visit, Scott repairs and preparing to make a monster curry. The others staying in the flat were Peter, Lindsay, Devin, Tory and Prija. All friends from the USA, the 4 had been cycling together from Germany through to Istanbul and Prija had come to visit whilst on medical placement in Oxford. Unfortunately Tory had sustained an injury and with Devin they were in the process of shipping their bikes around to various stops on the trip. Peter knew Gael when they bumped into each other in India on his previous cycle trip. He and Lindsay were still at the beginning of their adventures as they are now in India and both furthering their studies abroad; Peter in China and Lindsay in Africa. They also had two others in their crew who, by the time we arrived, had taken their tandem on to the Greek islands. All together they had brought their musical instruments as a band of merry, travelling Troubadours looking to boost their travel finances by busking and also entertain their hosts.

Pictures clockwise from top left; these mini chapels line the roads in Greece - we assume they are small shrines for people that have lost their lives in motor accidents on the road, Alex tucking into a giant sandwich in Lidl's car park, sunset swim time at our beachside camp spot no.1. (Photo bottom left taken by EA Gow)
After a steep exit to Thessaloniki we crossed the peninsular to follow the coast around to Turkey. Our plan to follow the warmer weather and get some camping in had paid off and our home was in the tent for the rest of our time in Greece. We had two glorious nights with views of the sea and one disastrous camp in the hedgerow between two farmed fields. A cheeky Australian/Greek chap we met in Kavala had warned us off this area "Nah, mate, that's where I live. Nothing going on there!" and he was right. Reclaimed flatlands a bit like Romney Marsh in Kent (near where we are from) - field after field, little villages filled with scrapped cars in the driveways and that blooming headwind was back with a vengeance.

In Greece it's wise to avoid saying you are going to Istanbul - the Greeks maintain the city's older name, Konstantinoupolis (Constantinople). (Photos top right and left taken by EA Gow)

Bottom picture is of us with Antoine and Sarah who were cycling back to France from China. They had a pretty tough start to their 7 months (to this point) having their bikes stolen while still in China.

One thing to mention is that Alex and I had particularly enjoyed our camp cooking on our previous tour - we would stop at a Lidl and line up a decent sized feast with a bottle of wine to wash it down. In Greece we developed another classic using a local rice shaped pasta called Orzo, adding butter, anchovies, parsley and olives.

When procuring the supplies for our masterpiece in a small local shop I thought I overheard Alex asking the shop keeper for some water. He scuttled off to the back room and brought back a 5 litre tank of what looked like what had been requested. As he started to decant this this into 500ml bottle I thought to myself "thanks for the gesture, but 500ml isn't going to get us far"! He twisted the cap back on and took out a marker pen. He put an "X" on the cap, wrote 50% VOL on the side and handed it back to Alex cheerily saying "Ouzo"!! One whiff and you could tell it was a vicious home brew! Some Dutch courage perhaps for our next day, when we would reach our destination Country, Turkey!

Food and Drink in Greece: Clockwise from the left...the local shopkeepers and the bottle of 50% VOL homebrew Ouzo, a good sweaty Gyros in Kavala, Calamaris in Lagos, "The Party's Wine" and our masterpiece Orzo dish.

The last photo in Greece just before the border with Turkey- Image 1,313 of the trip on my camera! (Unlucky for some?)

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Days 54 to 59: Banished History in Bulgaria to Modern Monuments in Macedonia

Some roads on a long trip are better forgotten - such was the road from Pirot, leaving Serbia and taking us to Sofia. Basically on a motorway passing rows of derelict factories and power stations we felt cold and grey. We pulled into a petrol station cafe we chatted with the lady in charge. A native Bulgarian, she had the opinion that joining the European Union had ruined Sofia, leaving it overrun with "crime and gypsies" and generally giving us the impression we shouldn't bother. She and her Turkish husband were planning an exit within the next year.

When looking on the surface Sofia was very much in contrast to her description; bohemian, cosmopolitan and buzzing with life - a Berlin of the Balkans. The thing you notice however, is that; perhaps some of the old soul has been flattened by the EU franchise, where the corporate door has been opened and branded coffee joints, posh burger bars etc are flooding in.

Maybe though, this is a young Sofia putting the past to bed and welcoming in a new future? All of the communist propaganda art in Bulgaria has been annexed into a small museum on the outskirts of the capital, a place seemingly unknown to the locals. We were the only people there, apart from the despondent staff that dutifully took our cash and put on an introduction video.

Statues of Dimitrov and Lenin at the Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia. (Photo right courtesy of EA Gow) 
Later in the day, on the fantastic "Free Sofia Walking Tour", we saw where the socialist monuments used to live. The Star had previously adorned the Government buildings and the statue of Lenin had been replaced by the city's patron Saint; Saint Sofia. Our tour guide Niki was quick to point out that the capital is not named after her, but rather the Hagia Sophia Church. 

Although we found out that the Bulgarian symbol is the lion due to their courageousness, unfortunately it appears they haven't always been successful in fighting off invaders. The places of worship of the various rulers; Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim, meet in the so called "triangle of religious tolerance". 

Hambara in Sofia - a candle lit hideout for poets and artists oppressed by communism. (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)

The "Art Hostel" in Sofia ranks among the top 10 boutique Hostels in Europe. The party never stops at the bar downstairs and the thumping basslines start up again at 9am so you feel like you are waking up at a music festival! Here we are pictured with friends we met on the "Free Sofia Walking Tour". Either side of Alex are Christian and Marie who are Erasmus students studying in Istanbul (of all places!). Next to me is Renato; a chef from Mexico, who had been on an internship in London and was looking to ride out the rest of his European adventure somewhere slightly cheaper!

One of the most frequent comments in my diary was "late start". Usually a result of over-ambitious planning and our ride out of Sofia fitted that norm. An proud local Bulgarian graffiti artist on his way over to London from our trendy "Art Hostel" recommended a traditional breakfast of Burek and Boza. Having not encountered any foodstuffs up that point we didn't like, when presented the option of a big bottle of Boza for 10pence more, we jumped at it. The fermented, wheat based drink had the consistency of gloopy medicine (calpol or gaviscon) and made us wretch! The same graffiti-ist reassured our will to go the "Boyana" or Bosnian  Church, what seemed like the 1,000th UNESCO world heritage site we had encountered. He mentioned that the Frescos were pioneering for their time, heralding a return to more figurative depiction with depth and perspective from the 2D times of Medieval period.

The journey onwards was a chore - perhaps we needed two days off the bikes. We reached our camping goal; a small lake in the mountains near Izvor. Between us and getting our tent on, was a yellow sign with red cyrillic writing. We guessed at the translation; "trespassers will be shot", "minefield, watch your step!" and in the end we concluded it probably wasn't going to be safe so decided to push on into the night to the next big town, Kjustendil. What a lucky strike; firstly we were treated to a sublime descent into a huge valley lit up like a Christmas tree and when we arrived at the only hostel we could find online, it was right next to the town's natural hot spring baths. This time hot meant hot, and we soaked until closing! 

Derelict factories just outside of Sofia. (Photo bottom courtesy of EA Gow)

The next day we crossed into Macedonia, from an exhilarating downhill to a gentle river valley incline after the border. 20 miles in and the landscape changed almost instantly - we went from the heavy grey scraggy rocks and dark greens of the tight Balkan mountains to a much more Greek feel with expansive ochre mountain ranges and rows of tall, harshly vertical and sparsely foliated trees. Foggy chill turned to late afternoon sunny warmth. 

Modern Monuments - taxpayers in Macedonia appear to be forking out to turn their capital into some sort of Alexander the Great theme park! (Photos courtesy of EA Gow)

Alex was confused. Was that a London "Routemaster" bus in Skopje? That must be where Boris offloaded 'em all to!
The hostel in Skopje was one of the best; another "Art Hostel" with a handy 25% discount for bikers, however, the city itself did not take us. Most of the centre is part of a vile building programme spending taxpayer money, which would be better spent improving welfare, education and healthcare, rather on Vegas style Greek temples, a ridiculously large statue of Alexander the Great and a football stadium the size of Wembley (for a nation that have a population less than 4% of England's and frankly aren't that good at the sport!). What was even more odd were the fake Routemaster buses, which just proliferated the Vegas feel. 

It was on our day off in Skopje where we noticed the motivation had seeped out of us. There was a feeling we "ought to" be out finding adventures and seeing the sights but we just wanted to relax. The tension between these emotions really started to grate on me and the anxiety extended to "what am I'm doing on this trip" and "have I achieved anything". I think I had hoped for some magic change where I would feel like a new, confident and fresh person with a solid roadmap for future life; a life challenge under my belt. Not so, I was very lost.

From our hostel we could see the Vardar river, whose powerful flow ran all the way down close to our first destination in Greece; Thessaloniki. We fantasised about being able to build a raft and let the river carry us! 

Our journey towards the coast was a struggle. What looked like decent highways on the map quickly descended into rarely driven stony tracks, which Scott was allergic to. After one pinch puncture I knew I had to push him, and push we did, for 5 miles until the tarmac returned. The last day in Macedonia we followed an old road built by the Nazis. The steep cliffs and narrow gorge made it a strategically beneficial position to hold. This was once again poorly surfaced, resulting in very slow progress. The real kick in the teeth was that after 15 miles of intense concentration riding gingerly, avoiding the big stones and walking where necessary we were 5 miles back on the tarmac and another puncture reared its ugly head. Considerably behind schedule we sat in the stirrups, with a grimace and ploughed on into the driving rain towards the border.

Giving up on the stony tracks gave us a stunning campsite location on our last night in Macedonia (near Demir Kapilja). Like camping on the balcony looking out over a massive natural Piazza. (Photo bottom courtesy of EA Gow)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Mum's Bike Bench Update: Research & Development

Another exciting Friday down in Kent last week! Please see the pictures below that explain what we were up to. Sheila also had some photos and documentation from the original survey works with Mum that I have also included.

An email has gone out to the route 18 works project manager at Kent County Council to get advice on who the landowner is and how to approach them. Please keep your fingers crossed for progress at this crucial stage.

As dad would say we were "having a look, see" at Sheila's family seat on the Great Stour Way section of route 18. The seat has been designed with influences from old railway sleeper designs on other Sustrans routes, but now with an optimised seat height, lower back rest and curved top to mirror the railway bridge arches that the seat looks at. This installation has been a massive success with people constantly using it, and even some users practicing Yoga or sunbathing on the back section.

Meeting in Folkestone with ARC creative design - from the right Chris and Phil. Specialising in Tourism and Interpretation they brought together the installation of Sheila's seat. Village people might also be interested to check out one of their case studies from the Wye Downs
The meeting with ARC helped us set the scene and the guys helped get our creative cogs going; Dad excitedly expressed his desire for the concept of our bench to be about making the user feel they are elevated out of the Downs - perhaps like they are on a balcony. When we have the permissions locked in we will be arranging a full site survey with ARC so we can develop the design.
Back in '96. Mum in action surveying the route on her trusty red brompton folding bike. This is just on the outskirts of Ashford where the M20 crosses the Stour behind the Henwood Estate.

Original proposed route submission - Canterbury to Godmersham stretch
Original proposed route submission - Godmersham to Ashford stretch

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Rules of Yugo vs Lada

During our travels through the former Yugoslavia we noticed an abundance of two types of car, the Serbian Yugo and the USSR stalwart; the Lada. On our hangover day riding out of Krusevac we couldn't really muster a conversation so we reverted to basic car counting. Alex had been developing an obsession for the Lada Niva so he was assigned Lada whilst I got Yugo.

Yugo and Lada. The Yugo player has to be careful however as the brand was dissolved after the fall of the former Yugoslavia, to be replaced by identical cars with the Zastava brand. Zastavas do not count to the score!
The game developed such that the final rules were as follows:
  1. The game starts once you have seen at least one of each brand;
  2. Both members of the game need to see the vehicle - whilst riding you may signal the presence of your vehicle to your opponent by use of a fist pump or such like;
  3. Players keep a mutually agreed running total together;
  4. There are no bonuses for seeing multiples of the same brand simultaneously;
  5. You can count derelicts on the side of the road;
  6. The game ends when both players see a Yugo and a Lada simultaneously;

Alex was desperate for points and slightly bending rule 2 he took a picture of this double Lada! (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)
I don't like to blow my own trumpet but.... Yugo swept the board with Lada only winning one game. There is still, however, an ongoing game with Lada having a considerable lead. Unfortunately we did not see any Yugos after we left Macedonia and therefore rule 6 could not be implemented to close the round.

Police car Yugo - such a rarity that we agreed on 10 points!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Days 47 to 53: Welcomed with open arms and plenty of Rakja: Serbia

Another picture round for Serbia, which turned out to be the warmest, most welcoming Country on the trip. We were invited in, shown the sights, sounds and tastes with such generosity. Everyone was happy to take time out of their normal routine for us - many thanks to everyone in Serbia!

We met Inge in Mokra Gora, just over the border into Serbia. She wins the prize for the most equipped bike, and when we met her she was actually pushing it along with a walker friend Ken! They had a dog that had followed them all the way through Bosnia and reading her blog it sounds like she has become a travelling animal rescue service We had a similar companion Alex called "Ralph" that followed us up into the mountains, through a 1km long tunnel but couldn't keep up on the downhill. Well done Ralph!

Still in our floaty state from the Hamam, the trip to Uzice took longer than expected. These beautiful scenes were the prelude to our first, awful night ride; tired and hungry in the pouring rain we held tightly to our brakes all the way down the steep and perilous main road, which felt like you were jumping off the balcony into the town! 

Luckily our Couchsurfing host in Uzice, Zoran, gave us a warm welcome and rebuilt us with what could be probably be considered the world's most sinful snack! The "Komplet Lepinja" consists of a large, robust bread roll baked with scrambled egg and a kind of clotted cream cheese called "Kaymak". When it comes out of the pizza oven style cooker it is drenched in a meat dripping and covered with the lid of the roll. You dip the lid into the molten mixture at first and then tear the rest of the bread limb from limb. It is intensely salty, meaty and creamy all at once, giving you the immediate feeling that your arteries are more clogged than Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. They serve it with a yoghurt drink, which I can only presume is meant to aid the considerable digestion problems!!

Zoran is a well travelled guy. He took us to the club where he DJs  (see Video) on the first night and to an old Orient Express carriage for dinner the next night. Many thanks to Zoran for his hospitality and a great time in Uzice.

Day trip out to the Zlatibor mountains. By complete chance when we were trying to hitch a lift into Uzice a bus came right past Zoran's house that took us straight there. Out of season the chap in the tourist office was the least enthusiastic person to grace such a position. He said; "If you have to walk up a mountain, try that one over there, it's the easiest!"

While Alex was in the shop buying lunch in Kraljevo a chap came up to me on his bike, almost drunk with excitement at seeing some cycle travellers. After our initial hesitation, we took up his offer and followed this friendly fellow, called Vlado (the man with the beard in the pictures), to the town mountain biking club where we met the club captain/professional bike mechanic Veljko. We ended up spending the night with Vlado and his Mum, who makes the best Ajvar (roasted pepper paste) we had tasted. They fussed over us all the time we were there, making sure we were comfortable, well fed, and had clean clothes for our onward journey. We also made an evening visit back to meet Veljko's family, who were lovely. His daughter is a talented violinist and needed very little prompting to play us a tune. They have invited us back to join them sometime on the Ciker Mountain Bike Marathon, which goes cross country from Kraljevo to the coast of Montenegro.

My parents had once told me about an adventure they had to the south of Italy where they had been taken in by the locals even though they had no common language. I don't know why, but this had stuck with me as the pinnacle of a travelling experience - the ability to let go, trust people and have a truly spontaneous time. I wrote to Eliza that night that I was finally going "Off Piste"!

We understood from later conversations with my friend Bojan's cousin Marko that it is part of the Orthodox religion to welcome in travellers. Even so, the welcome and generosity shown to strangers in Serbia is second to none in my experience. Many thanks to Vlado, Veljko and their families for taking us in. 

Veljko is a serious bike mechanic. This tool wall is pornographic, and we spent a good hour in the evening checking out his bikes and his workshop.

Another day, and another random encounter with a friendly Serb! We went to the main spa at Vranacka Banja. This is located in the Hotel Merkur, which looks like a James Bond villain's hide out; 7 storeys of concrete and glass sweep an angular crescent around a steamy glass dome in the middle (where the missiles must come out!). There was much promise of the magical spa waters that are supposedly right at body temperature, making them pretty unique. Unfortunately, we must have got there on a bad day and the pool was freezing, so we spent most of our time in the sauna, where we got talking to Miki. One of the few people we had met in the area that spoke English, poor Miki had just been made redundant from his job in the bank. He's a keen cyclist too, so we had plenty to chat about and after the spa he offered to take us to his favourite traditional Serbian eatery. We later found out that he had skipped the beginning of his Mother's birthday party, and was in trouble with his wife as a result!! Undeterred by this, he offered to meet us the next morning to take us on a ride up in to the mountains. 
Fuelled by a classic Serbian breakfast of Burek (meat, cheese or spinach encased in filo pastry) we set out on our way up to Goč mountain, which is a stone's throw from Serbia's biggest ski resort at Kopoanik. Still getting unbelievably lucky with the weather for the time of year (it should have been snowing!), we had a quiet but steep climb with a long descent - the best combo for cycling! Miki was going to join us the whole way to our next destination, but peeled off early thinking he should appease his wife to some extent! We rolled through the valleys, and then past fields of haystacks (as pictured) into Kruševac. 

Bojan, a good friend from our studies at Imperial College, comes originally from Kruševac and he kindly hooked us up with his cousin Marko there. Marko is a hard working chap and although we arrived on a Saturday evening he was still running errands and in another ridiculous stroke of luck we bumped into him randomly as we entered the town! Marko is on the far left of the picture. We spent some great times hanging out with his family in the living room like this - their house is open and a hive for various family members to pop by; cousins popping in to watch the football to Bojan's Aunty and Uncle coming over from Uzice for afternoon tea. I felt like we were in a Serbian version of the Royle Family! One of the most interesting sofa conversations was with Marko's grandmother who gave us an insight into the "good times" under Tito in the former Yugoslavia.

Marko took us out for a night out on the town in Kruševac, which strangely started off in the betting shop! Unlike those at home in the UK, Serbia's houses of financial ruin are actually relatively comfortable bars where you have screens showing all the football, rather than just the game you don't want to see! The night went on and after finding no space in the packed clubs we hit one of their friend's bars playing music the locals like! We were expecting this to be drum, bousouki and trumpet driven balkan folk like the sounds of US aficianado "Beirut" but instead we found out that they are into their "Romans". These sound like a fusion of Italian crooning mixed with Eastern vocal embellishments, and in this case supported by the subtle sounds of a programmed electronic keyboard! Cracking night out - many thanks to Marko and his family for their very generous hospitality.

On our last night with Marko, his cousin Dejan invited us over to try the family's own spirits and wine selection. It being a Sunday, we thought it would be a quiet, just tasting affair - how wrong! We started with a generous helping of the pear Rakja, which was so velvety it was like licking the furry outside of the fruit! The "small pears" that go into this come specifically from the Zlatibor area, and you have to be in with locals there to get your hands on 'em. Next up was the Quince Rakja and then a barrel aged Grape Rakja, both very fine. Dejan is  an keen Artisan of this trade, proud of the fact that they can make their own without tedious EU regulations. Each year they make enough for the family, with some backup if they have a bad year; this amounts to a couple of thousand litres of wine and spirits!!!!!!!! Anyway, round two, and we had to pick our favourite for another shot, with a glass of their wine to chase it.....and, then...., another shot of Rakja for the road! Luckily, the Serbs are prepared for such states of inebriation and do a good range of stodgy late night food to soak up the booze - we smashed back two such snacks! The next day on the bikes was quite special, and we had use a coin toss to help us decide our route! Thanks to Dejan for introducing us to the true delights of Rakja.

Not much to report from hangover day, we stumbled into Niš and had a night off! The picture above shows the day after Niš where we were committed to using the damned tents (!) we had been carrying around by taking the backroads up to the Zavoj Lake in the Stara Planina National Park. After passing a Priest on a scooter, google maps started worrying us - in these pictures we were looking for a Bridle-way type track to the right!  

Luckily the cliff ended...eventually and we turned right onto the track to find the bridge had been washed away!!

The reservoir turned out to be another James Bond style adventure. A row of uninviting, stark fluorescent lights lined the way to a security guard hut, complete with barking dogs. The water was low and, with night falling, we pitched up out of sight down in an area where the water level had been before, surrounded by washed up lake rubbish. We cooked up the old Sainsbury's cous cous by red light, surreptitiously, and hit the hay early! 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mum's Bike Bench Update: Site Survey on Route 18

As I mentioned right at the start in the post "What's it all for?" my Mum was heavily involved in the planning of National Cycle Route 18 between Canterbury and Ashford. As I write this, one of the most crucial and beautiful sections is being developed, which is much shorter than the current route and avoids the steep climb to the Compasses at Crundale. 

We are planning to install a cycle bench at a suitable viewpoint on this section in memory of Mum's work, and we have been receiving funding pledges from people that are looking to be part of the project. To date we have pledges amounting to £800 of the expected £5,000 cost so many thanks to those who have got in touch so far. It's not too late to get involved - just send me an email or reply to this post on the blog with how much you would like to commit. No cash for the moment though please - I will be in touch to collect funds when we place the order. For more detail and a bench example picture, head to the "What's it all for?" post

Also, many thanks to everyone that participated in the total cycle tour distance and average speed competition. Prizes are en route to the winners. Competition participants know the final stats but others will have to wait until the blog catches up!!

Anyway, back to the topic: We had a very exciting day last Friday when we went to visit the new section of the cycle route looking at options for bench location. There was one stand out spot, shown in the panoramic picture below and I have also attempted to map out the section of the route with a marker for the bench location on Google maps ......

Panoramic view of the proposed bench location, which looks, on the right, towards Chilham Castle and Village,  and on the left to the Downs that lead to Godmersham Park (where Jane Austen was known to frequent!). (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)
It's going to be stunning! A surfaced 3 metre wide Bridle-way (don't worry environment lovers - it won't be tarmac) will make its way through rolling hills and woods of the Stour Valley with glorious views of the Downs and Chilham Castle. We had quite a struggle navigating the path on the day as it is currently a mixture of muddy Bridle-ways and Footpaths. Although initially seeming like an odd idea, Alex's choice to bring his new trendy, lightweight single speed, turned out to be ideal for the numerous stiles we had to carry over. Everything certainly looked promising though - the clearing and fencing works appear to be off to a good start and the Council have indicated that completion is due in April / May. 

Sheila, Dad and I pouring over the maps at the Mystole Lane / Pickleden Lane end of the Bridelway known as the "Old Wye Lane". Soon to be resurfaced and become part of Route 18! (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)
This Friday I will be visiting the family seat of Sheila Webb (Mum's collaborator in planning route 18), on which we are planning to base our design, and also meeting the company that designed and managed her project. After this we are looking to meet the resurfacing works project manager at Kent County Council to secure his buy in and find out about land ownership.

The locals admiring Alex's trendy single speed! (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Days 42 to 46: A first taste of the Middle East - Bosnia

Up until this point the only new country I had visited was Slovenia, and that was only for a couple of hours. Bosnia hit me as quite a change; from the insistent “no photo” warnings at the border to Cyrillic script and first Minarets, I felt somewhere quite alien for the first time – how exciting!

The beginning of day 42 was characterised by small oranges – countless stalls sold the fruit I had previously assumed only to come from the Iberian peninsular on our continent. One of the joys of cycling is the ability to stop and take in the local produce, so we stopped at the display with the richest colour. After catching us for a pretty touristy price the seller spotted our tents. He mentioned how he had been in the war and now had problems with his joints, limbs and back from camping in the freezing cold. The last war here, and associated soreness is still omnipresent in the area as we would encounter over the weeks to come.

Small oranges and tales of the war

After visiting Počitelj; a 15th Century Ottoman settlement complete with Castle and seemingly very little in the way of health & safety regulations, we ploughed on towards Mostar until ….pop, Alex’s rear tyre exploded. This was somewhat ironic considering that the last week had been filled with discussions about whether he should bring me a larger set of tyres for Scott to avoid a continuation of the spate of pinch punctures I was having with the thin 700x28 tyres. Investigation showed a sharp rock had split the tyre and Alex, a geologist, cursed, “I know the rock type, I should have known it was sharp!”

Views of Pocitelj (photos courtesy of E A Gow)
Mostar was one of the places that had really inspired me when planning the trip; a stunning bridge across a deep gorge dividing Muslim and Christian parts of the city; a focal point of news reports in 1992-93 when the bridge was destroyed. The atmosphere did not disappoint although the bridge was somewhat smaller than I had expected! At the hostel I encountered a strange coincidence; after playing europop the guy behind the desk put on a relatively obscure Pink Floyd song (“Coming Back to Life” from the album “The Division Bell”) that I had been singing to myself all the way down the Croatian coast. Although I tried to impress upon my fellow PF appreciator how “bump in the night” this was he wasn’t interested.

View of the Mostar Bridge - "a little smaller than I had expected" - but still it's got to be about 15 meters high and they hold regular diving competitions!!

With the weather looking good we decided to skip the planned day off and head straight to Sarajevo. Our host there – Alma - had rightly been worried about our intention to cycle into the capital city considering it had snowed heavily the previous week and we would need to take the main road across a relatively high mountain pass. She had sent relentless communication encouraging us to take alternative transport. Luck was on our side though; it was warm, calm and quiet on the roads. 

Cycling through the "Valleys" to Sarajevo - it looks a bit like Wales! (photo left courtesy of E A Gow)

The final stretch into the centre however, was not so kind. As mountains surround Sarajevo, thick smog engulfed the city and the route we had chosen followed 3 lane carriageways filled with impatient Saturday evening traffic. We passed the “Holiday Inn” we had seen repeatedly on news reports during the siege in the 1990s, swerved across tramlines and finally arrived, completely worn out at the Sebilj monument as dusk fell. Around the monument it was buzzing; being the Asian side of the city and more specifically the Bazaar area. Alma found us drinking “Bosnian Coffee” and quickly helped us find suitable accommodation. Filled with Persian rugs, rustic brickwork and tiled floors the hotel certainly had an Eastern appeal. One surprise was that there was no hot water and as we would later find out no water at all at certain periods; the infrastructure must be still recovering.

Alex and I with our host Alma looking over Sarajevo from the Castle (photo courtesy of E A Gow)

Alma, a friend of Bojan, had kindly taken her weekend out to show us around her hometown. The most gracious host, she insisted on inviting us for everything. We got stuck in immediately by trying a local delicacy, Çevapçiçi, which are small spiced lamb meatballs formed into a short sausage shape, served in a flatbread with chopped onion and optional yoghurt. 

A welcome day off the bikes began with the Ottoman fry up – eggs sunny side up with either spinach or meat served in a small cast iron pan. Alma showed us the sights with some notable highlights:
Not too far from the corner where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the First World War, there lies the city library. The building of the original library in the 18th Century had caused some friction; a proud homeowner refused to give up his home to make way for the new construction. Even with the best financial offers he stubbornly stayed put until eventually a deal was reached with that involved the city arranging for the entire house to be dismantled and reconstructed on the other side of the river. Now a traditional Bosnian restaurant we were able to enjoy local specialities sitting in an octagonal window box overhanging the street.

Bosnian Coffee with the bike journal & lunching with Alma in the place used to be on the other side of the River - many thanks to Alma for being a fantastic host for our time in Sarajevo (photo left courtesy of E A Gow)
The second highlight was a trip on a tram to the South West of the City to take a relaxing Sunday walk through a straight, tree lined road to the source of the Bosna river, where we were able to drink pure, unadulterated mountain spring water.

The next day was another Monday back at the office. Leaving Sarajevo we plunged quickly back in-between sparsely populated mountainous landscapes that we joked had reminded us of Wales.

We met Randy and Joris on the way to Visegrad - they are travelling to Singapore and were using water pistols to fend off the stray dogs!

After a stop in a particularly rural joint for lunch, we descended at pace on smooth, damp roads. Following Alex at over 30mph I suddenly lost control of the front wheel and I was on the floor, still clipped into Scott, sliding against the tarmac. Shocked, I finally came to a halt with luckily very little damage, apart from the sad loss of the cover of the pink bell given to me by Romain and Caro. The rest of the day continued through valleys and unlit tunnels, beside wide rivers that occasionally broke out into lakes, until we reached the border town of Visegrad; home to the “Bridge on the Drina” made famous in Ivo Andric’s nobel prize winning book of the same name. It turned out the Bosnian film director Emir Kusterica is a fan of the book is in the process of rebuilding the old town as a set for a film. He has also installed a Cinema, which in a ridiculous stroke of luck we found out was playing the new James Bond “Skyfall” that Alex and I had been talking about trying to see just the day before!

The Bridge on the Drina at Visegrad - subject of Ivo Andric's Nobel Prize winning book (photo courtesy of E A Gow)

Our last day in Bosnia greeted us with sun and blue skies. With only 35 miles to our next destination we took the morning off at the thermal spa at Visegrad Banja. Not really knowing what we were in for we climbed up a secluded road to a 60s soviet looking building with staff in white coats; a rehabilitation centre by all accounts. In broken language and signals we were shown to the Hamam. 

Hamam...time! (photo courtesy of E A Gow)
A magical small, square, domed Ottoman building; ochre walls covered in a patchwork of green and blue algae with rays of light penetrating through around a dozen holes in the dome and cutting through the steam like spotlights at a show. After soaking in the spa water for an hour we floated back onto our bikes and off towards Serbia.   

Inside the Ottoman Hamam (photo courtesy of E A Gow)