After almost three months in North Macedonia it was time to leave the country. Literary, because my tourist visa would expire after ninety days. I choose to head towards Kosovo, partly because I wanted to leave the option open to go for a hike in Prokletije, but mostly because I wanted to ride through Durmitor National Park. Although I was still far from light weight packed, I felt ready to give the mountains another chance while biking from Skopje to Mostar.
This blog post describes the third part of my biking trip through the Balkans where I’m leaving Mavrovo for an insanely hot ride to Herzegovina, to Mostar. For those of you who want to more Biking the Balkans blogs check out part 1: Biking from Zagreb to Sarajevo and part 2: Biking from Sarajevo to Mavrovo. For more detailed information about the route, have a look at the Outdooractive map at the end of this post. Or click here.
Every time I had a new one-more-thing-I-want-to-do-before-I-leave, “can’t leave Macedonia without going to the Matka canyon”, right? Thought doing something touristy (yes really) would be a nice way to say good bye to my friends Dimitar and Cosima who’s home has been my base for nearly three months. A bloody hot 😵 but good GOOD BYE.
And when you go to Matka, why not going up to Vodno? Okay I admit, we took the cable car, because hot, late and lazy 😋 but I can check another MUST DO before I leave from the list.
From Skopje I followed a quiet road towards the mountains, to Šar mountain. Last stop in North Macedonia was fantastic. At the foot of Šar mountain in Vratnica I found this super sweet hostel, Hostel Kitka. It’s basically at the trailhead of the Makedonska Transverzala, but also part of the High Scardus Trail. So, thE place to be. After a nice evening with like minded outdoor lovers I left North Macedonia with a big big smile on face. Ready for Kosovo.
I knew I didn’t take the easiest route, but biking through a steaming hot valley isn’t particularly pleasant neither. So, I choose mountains. The road from Štrpce to Prevallë was tough for sure, but the forest is so so pretty! In Prevallë the crowd of kind of shocked me though. People everywhere! Apparently this is an extremely popular place to have a picnic and I see why.
While figuring out where to camp a guy in a car started to talk to me. With a “leave me alone” look on my face I sort of answered his questions. Turned out he lived in The Netherlands during the war and invited me to join him at his campsite. Although that was the last thing I wanted to, I also thought it would be good to give this guy a chance. In the end it was me being tired and he who was just very friendly.
After a warning that I wouldn’t be partying, drinking or anything like that, I followed him. The campsite was of course not an official camp, but a place where he decided to put up his tent for the summer. Yes, the whole summer. Luckily there were other tourists as well. Once I got over me wanting to be alone, I could actually enjoy this beautiful place. The guy assured me I was safe and he would personally chase away every dog or man that tried to closer. How sweet?
It was a good evening. I sat and stared at the mountains, watched the sheep going home and enjoyed the cold beer I bought in one of the kiosks down. When it started to rain I crawled into my tent. Listened to the thunder, counted seconds. Figured there’s was nothing to worry about and fell asleep.
So many times I wished I took a photo every time someone gives me something to snack, but usually I finished it before the thought of taking a photo even crossed my mind. On my first day through Kosovo I finally did capture the what I call “road magic”. Extra Magic! When someone opens the passenger seat window (while driving) and hands you an ice-cream.
It probably wasn’t the smartest idea to take the main road from Prizren to Peja. For sure it was flat and fast, but the heat, the stink, the noise and the asphalted ugliness around the cities surely made me wish for steep quiet mountain roads. Men, how can people live in this polluted oven? I guess not everyone has a choice, but if you do, like when you’re riding your bike through Kosovo, the main road from Prizren to Peja is a bad choice I’d say. After Gjakovë I took a bunch of smaller roads through little towns which made it a bit better, but yeah, I definitely admit that this was the not so nice part of the route from Skopje to Mostar.
On the road from Peja to Rožaje, I faced the second serious climb.
Someone told me that after the border crossing there would be no climbing anymore. It was 13.30 when I started. What this person didn’t tell me is that between the border checkpoint in Kosovo and the one in Montenegro there’s still 10 kilometers of going UP UP UP. And me lazy as I am, didn’t have a proper look on the map. So when I thought it was time to fly down, 16.00, I had three more hours of climbing to go. Maybe a little less, but I’m afraid I really was that slow. Another cyclist who didn’t have enough gears to actually bike this mountain pass had to walk and he was faster than me. Much faster. Hmpff.
In the mean time it started to rain. I wished for a car to stop and take me to the top. Nobody stopped. Because my GPS switched off somewhere in Kosovo, I had no clue how much further I had to go. After every turn I saw the road curving up even more. I really REALLY underestimated this road. At one point I started to cry. Simply had no energy left. I cried. Got back on the bike. Screamed. And then nothing. Still had to go up the freaking road.
At the very end of the climb, but still not at the border, I got stopped by the police. They stepped onto the road and gestured me to get off my bike. I had to follow them to the car. They didn’t smile until they handed me a can of Coke. Owww just what I needed. WoW!
And from there on I could finally fly down into Montenegro.
Durmitor, roads and camp sites
In Montenegro I made three decisions. First I would no matter how hard or steep make a detour via Durmitor National Park. Secondly I told myself it would be okay to stick to the main roads. And decision number three was that I would opt for campsites rather than wild camping.
Durmitor was beautiful as always, the roads not as bad as I feared and the campsites, what to say? It’s love and hate, but for sure it gave me a better rest and most importantly it made me feel safe most of the time. But more about that later. Let’s talk about the roads and my route first.
So basically my route through Montenegro was not all that special in the sense of I didn’t explore any exciting undiscovered mountain roads. No, I just biked the most obvious route from Rožaje to Berane, Bijelo Polje, Mojkovac and all the way up to Žabljak. But it was beautiful. Kind of got the feeling that it doesn’t matter what route through Montenegro you choose, it will always be pretty. Of course I started to fantasize about (ultra) lightweight bike packing, but for now I did the best I could and this climb to Žabljak was definitely a challenge. Think it was the highest climb so far.
About going by bike
I admit it does frustrate me a bit that my whole ride can be done by car well. What’s the point of going by bike? Suffering? Maybe it is. Maybe it is the fact that you feel every kilometer, that you have to sweat for every altimeter. The knowledge that you cross a country using your own strength. That you pushed yourself up on that mountain ánd the reward of flying down. You feel so much more. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it really really sucks, but in the end it does give me a damn good feeling to go through all that. And in a way I kind of need the pain to feel the pleasure even more.
So yeah, even while biking the main roads, I’m convinced it’s better than driving a car. For sure. Also I don’t like driving, but that’s a different story.
UP & down
When the road is tough biking can be a struggle. There are days I don’t feel the spark. Sometimes it’s the circumstances, sometimes it’s me. Or maybe it actually always is me since I’m the one reacting on those circumstances. Lack of good night rest, dusty roads, a lot of traffic, crazy weather, flat tires, mosquitoes, flies, dogs. It ain’t fun all the time. But these are the downs I’m willing to live through. They’re part of the adventure and probably part of life in general. Strangely I can kind of enjoy these difficulties. Sad moods and extreme emotions can be real pretty, even when they hurt. What I cannot handle is the primitive behavior of men. It makes me furious.
This was the downside of biking through Montenegro. After the first night camping in a garden (beautiful garden) of a restaurant (great restaurant) I decided to go for regular campsites for a while. The owner has been very friendly and nothing bad happened, but I just don’t like it when there’s always an arm around my waist or an hand resting on my shoulder. Innocently, but still. I don’t like to be touched by strangers, even when I camp in their garden. I don’t like to hear that I’m so pretty and should get married and then having to refuse to sleep in the same bed. There’s nothing wrong with my tent.
Next day on a campsite exact same story. “Dude I’m paying to sleep in my tent, leave me alone.” No privacy for me on that campsite. Then the road came. Damn what’s wrong with these guys here? I do get it that it’s not that common to see a female solo biker, but it’s also not that rare. I do get it that people honk, but I can’t say I like it. It makes so much noise and never sounds friendly. But okay. What I don’t understand is that there are guys having the nerve to follow me, drive next to me, try to stop me and ask if I want sex. WHAT DO YOU THINK? Oh yeah, me and my sore sweaty ass can’t wait to get laid. NO!
It pisses me off, but also I do feel uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe. No matter if I wear rain clothes or shorts, I had to hear comments and ignore horny men the entire day. Days. It effected my mood and I couldn’t and can’t find the pretty side.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
I know I always said that Bosnia and Herzegovina stole my heart, that I can’t explain why, but that this country somehow manages to put a smile on my face. Time and time again. Maybe that’s a self fulfilling prophecy, but hey, I don’t mind fooling myself whenever it makes me feel good. No, that’s not true, not at all, but in this case I leave it for what it is.
After crossing the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina a brand new, amazingly smooth asphalt road took me down into the valley in no time. Near Jazina I found a campsite next to the river, also brand new, where I could pitch my tent under heavenly smelling pine trees. Without thinking I ordered a cold beer and changed into my swimming wear. It was a long, hot and dusty day with miles and miles of construction work, heavy trucks a not a single sign of water. I always thought Herzegovina is dry, but the stretch through Montenegro from Šavnik to the border might have been worse. And thus I ordered beer. Without thinking and without Bosnian Marks. It didn’t cross my mind for one single second that I left the Euro zone. These days you can pay almost everywhere with Euro’s, they often even put the (slightly higher) price in Euro’s on the menu. Not on this campsite.
Not sure what I looked like when I found out, but the owner of the campsite started laughing and gave me big hug. I felt so bad. This place deserved to be paid for. This beer was a treat to myself, worth every penny. One could call it luck, but I felt stupid. Very stupid.
On the last stretch to Mostar I picked up the Ćiro trail near Trebinje. A recommendation! The Ćiro trail is a beautiful route along the old railway from Mostar to Dubrovnik. Very little traffic, mostly flat and with all the signposts and information tables it’s almost impossible to get lost. I would say it’s family friendly and if you don’t like sketchy bridges there’s a safe way around. Although it was hot as hell, I had a great great ride. Hello Herzegovina, that’s what I call a warm welcome 🙂
Buna, Mostar & Planinski dom Fortica
Before biking up the last hill to Planinski dom Fortica I stayed a few days on my favorite campsite in Buna: River Camp Half Island. Every year I stop by at least once or twice to say hi to my friend Gaga, the owner of the campsite. He is such a positive person, it’s impossible to not like him. So yeah, I took a few zero’s to prepare myself for the next adventure: volunteering at Planinski dom Fortica. More about that in the next update.