Left Sarajevo in the rain, woke up in snow. It’s May, but in the mountains it feels like Spring is still asleep. Alright, then I have another excuse to find myself an easier road. Not that I don’t like mountains, I love them, but it’s damn though and I’m not properly equipped. Or actually, I’m over-equipped with non-biking related equipment. I’m heavy and slow and a tiny little bit in a hurry, because the second week of May I hope to be able to help my friends in Mavrovi Anovi by looking after their house while they’re gone. And thus, I tried to find a relatively easy, but still very scenic route from Sarajevo to Mavrovo.
The route I choose took me along rivers, through canyons and little villages, into big towns, National and Nature Parks. I biked epic road-trip-routes, old mountain “high ways” and dirty, bumpy rural roads. It might not have been the high high mountains, but surely I enjoyed it. A lot. And most definitely I would recommend this route to those who need asphalt, but don’t like busy roads. To those who can do some climbing, but also appreciate flat stretches.
This blog post describes the second part of my biking trip through the Balkans where I’m cruising the crazy-cool canyons from Sarajevo to Mavrovo, North Macedonia. Here you can read part 1: Biking from Zagreb to Sarajevo, I choose rivers. For more detailed information about the route, have a look at the Outdooractive map at the end of this post. Or click here.
From Sarajevo I headed towards Trnovo, a nice road through Bistrica canyon. Sometimes with Bistrica river on my side, but mostly somewhere deep down below. It’s cold, windy and wet, but beautiful. The canyon got deeper and deeper until the descend. Usually this is my favourite part, now it was so cold I needed over an hour to get warm again. In this hour I spend my last Bosnian money on coffee, preparing myself for the next climb through the next canyon. This time with the river Drina on my side.
Road to Šćepan Polje
Green mountains everywhere, Bosnia is so incredibly green. I thought the road from Foča to Šćepan Polje would be busy, but so far the traffic is no problem at all. Wild camping is slightly difficult, but in Šćepan Polje I finally found a field where I could put up my tent. There are raft camps everywhere, but many of them only have little huts to sleep. Regular camping is not a regular business. Although I could use a warm shower, I’m happy to sleep in my tent somewhere in the semi wild. Hope the next days will bring back the sun, but if not, then not.
Four years ago I passed this road with two friends who picked me and my bike up in Cetinje for a mini roadtrip. I remembered the tunnels, there are MANY tunnels, but I totally forgot about how impressive the Piva Canyon is. Maybe it’s different from a car-point-of-view or maybe I was too tired too be impressed at all. Whatever the reason might have been, now I was blown away. So beautiful!
From Šćepan Polje I followed the Piva Canyon to Pivsko jezero. Another cyclist told me it’s super dangerous on the bike, because of the tunnels. I think it’s not that bad. Yeah, some of them are long and dark, but there’s enough space to walk on the side. I enjoyed the route a lot and definitely recommend biking it.
To Durmitor or not to Durmitor?
After Plužine I decided to stay on the main road. I simply had not enough energy to push me and my bike further up into the mountains. And it was kind of cloudy and rainy and cold. Besides, I could later take another turn to Žabljak – Durmitor – if I wanted to.
Although I took the easy road, it wasn’t easy at all. All roads go up. Totally exhausted I reached Jasenovo polje at the end of the day, short after the road up to Durmitor. I let the decision for the next day. Behind a restaurant I pitched my tent, not knowing they (the restaurant owners) had four dogs they let run free during the night. Damn, what a night. Really, I’d rather have bears than dogs running and barking around.
Last year I met a Russian couple who live in Podgorica. It was in Mokra Gora, Serbia, where our paths crossed. I was on the Via Dinarica Green Trail, they made a road-trip and also tried to find some hiking trails. This isn’t always easy if you’re not from here. We started talking, went for a beer and dinner and when they offered me a place to sleep in the apartment they rented, I happily accepted. I promised to get in touch whenever I would be near Podgorica. Four kilometres before Podgorica I found WiFi and texted them. Little late notice, but you never know. One hour later we met for coffee (beer) and another hour later I decided to spend the night in Podgorica.
The road to Danilovgrad
So, instead of going up to Durmitor I choose to descend towards Nikšić and Danilovgrad and Podgorica. I took the old mountain road, the one that more or less leads you to Ostrog Monastery. So happy I did, it’s freaking beautiful – the route, didn’t visit Ostrog, been there before. Also happy I didn’t have to ride it the other way around, because man, that will take you a whole day. I didn’t realise I had been climbing thát much.
After Podgorica I tried to avoid the main road to the border, which is doable, but I’m not sure if it was worth the extra effort. There are nice hills with nice views on the valley and the mountains around. And there’s lake Skadar. But it didn’t leave me breathless. Guess I just have to accept I can’t have it all. At least not all the time. What I did have, was a long long flat road ahead of me. Time to makes some miles, goodbye Montenegro
The mwahh side
My route through Albania started, let’s say mwahh. The first 100 kilometres I took two or three photos, because it was just not that scenic. The traffic around Shokdër drove me crazy, so I hurried on hoping to find a more peaceful place to take a brake. Didn’t find it. All bars were filled with man shouting things – don’t know what – and the side of the road is filled with garbage, everywhere. I understand that you can’t have it, all the time, but biking this route made me feel sad and angry.
Lezhë was the first nice place where I felt comfortable to stop. Unfortunately this town has no campsite and the hotel looked kind of dingy, so I went on to Milot from where I followed the road towards Peshkopi. The constant smell of rotten or burning garbage and road kills was disgusting. Seriously. When I saw an awfully ill looking dog eating from a carcass of something that probably must have been a dog as well, my stomach turned.
Fortunately the end of the day changed my mood. A wonderful canyon with the river Mat, a small road curving up and down and, and nice little restaurants with gardens and terraces at the riverside. After almost 130 kilometres I found a place where I could put up my tent. And that’s the beautiful thing, if you find the right place, it’s not just nice, it’s incredibly lovely. That’s when I started to take photos again
“You can’t go to Macedonia.” “Why not?” “Bad road.” “Aha.” What to do with this information? Nothing. The guy was right about the road, but he underestimated me. If someone tells me something is impossible I get suspicious. Especially when this person doesn’t even know how to ride a bicycle. Also, I feel this stupid urge to prove that I can do whatever it is someone tells me I can’t. And so, I did. I cycled from Burrel to Bulqizë, to Shupenzë, to Maqellarë and crossed to border at Bllatë. Hello Macedonia!
The road was though. Because of the immense chrome industry around Bulqizë there are many many heavy trucks damaging the road. I believe there’s permanent unorganised reconstruction work going on. It was hilarious, “Albania, Albania!” people shouted from their cars while pointing at the road. I could not help but laugh. In towns I saw people cleaning their cars, even while it was raining. Everywhere along the road they sell tires and offering car-wash service. It seems to be a good business. How come 😉
There’s a lot I don’t understand about Albania. In a way it makes me feel uncomfortable, but on the other hand it fascinates me. This country feels so different from it’s neighbours and then I’m not only talking about the language. How the towns are organised. Or unorganised. How the stores stall everything they sell in the middle of the street. How people randomly stop in the middle of a freaking busy road and don’t seem to be bothered by anyone or anything. Even the way people stare at me seems different. Super long and super intense with an expression I cannot read.
Unlike the days before I now enjoyed the ride. Which is odd, because it rained for hours and hours, I was soaked to the bone, but somehow it only made me go stronger. Mountains help. They help a lot. Can it be that there’s a different vibe in the mountains or is it just me feeling differently?
My legs burnt on the way up, toes were freezing off on the way down, but I smiled. All the time. These views! Those mountains. Incredibly green mountains. And I díd reach Macedonia. With still 50 kilometres to go and only two, maybe three hours of daylight left I knew it was going to be difficult to reach Ski Hut Gorica in Mavrovi Anovi. Normally I would stop, I don’t like to hurry, but something in me kept me going.
Road to Mavrovo
From Debar I cycled to Janče, surprised that the road wasn’t going up as much as I though it would. From Janče I went on to Bigorski monastery where I used the free WiFi to text my friend Dimitar, the owner of Ski Hut Gorica. “I’m trying to make it tonight!” No time to wait for an answer, I raced on.
Then the rain came. First a little, soon a lot. A LOT lot. It got darker and darker, but I also came closer and closer. When will the final climb start? I passed by Mavrovo’s rock climbing cave, I saw the road to thé hikingtrail-trailhead to Korab peak, I recognised so many places from last year, but I couldn’t remember the last part. The rain stopped, the road along the river went on. Still not going up.
I feared cycling in the dark. Climbing in dark. The lights on my bike didn’t work (anymore). ‘It’s not smart. I’d better stop.’ I didn’t. Finally I reached restaurant Trnica / hotel Korab from where it was only eight more kilometres to Mavrovi Anovi. I stopped. Looked at the minibuses. Shall I? Shall I ask if they can bring me?
Nope. Nobody was going to Mavrovo. Somehow the police – a whole group was having dinner at the restaurant – started to interfere. They clearly had an opinion about me, but I pretended not to understand. The waitress was annoyed by the police and tried to help me. Together with her boss, the owner of the restaurant they tried to find someone with a big car to take me and my bike up. Without success.
I got coffee and the WiFi password.
Dimitar immediately picked up his phone and jumped even faster in his jeep to pick me up. Couldn’t stop smiling. I was wet and cold and tired, but most of all SUPER excited.
After two weeks on the bike I (almost) reached the first destination where I will stay for a few weeks. Ski Hut Gorica, a mountain lodge in Mavrovo National Park. A place where I feel comfortable, with people who became my friends and rocks that scream to be climbed 🙂