Grumpy conductors and night cycling in Belgrade
Balkans cycling trip, Days 42-45
16-19 August 2017: Korçë – Ohrid – Belgrade – Subotica – Szeged
We say goodbye to Albania and get a taste of Macedonia in the lakeside town of Ohrid. Then we struggle with grumpy conductors and bus drivers and ride a bike in Belgrade at midnight. After long bus rides we enjoy the last 50 km on our bicycles back to Hungary.
Distance: 74 km + 13 km + 52 km
Total distance: 2024 km
A group of teenagers were gathering at the hotel early in the morning to start their training. They all wore brand new cycling gear and sporting road bikes much better than ours. It seemed we couldn’t have found a better place to stay in Korçë…
We knew it was our last real day of cycling and this made us a bit lazy so we had our breakfast comfortably. I booked a room in a pension in Ohrid and so we didn’t leave before 10. Korçë lies at an elevation of 850 metres (our hotel was well over 900!) so it wasn’t really hot. But the road to Pogradec is just mildly interesting, especially after the dramatic landscapes we enjoyed for days.
After we left the Morava Mountains behind, we continued in the fertile highland plain until the significant drop just before Pogradec and Lake Ohrid. There, just before the switchbacks, you can see an interesting waterfall right next to the road. I seriously thought it was just a broken water pipe, it looked so unrealistic. (Well, it did have an offish smell but that’s no surprise in Albania…)
Lake Ohrid, our last stop in Albania
Then we arrived in Pogradec and soon found the grubby road where we looked for minibuses many years before. As this place is rich in cheap eateries, we had a quick gyro and then looked for a supermarket to buy some souvenirs.
The border is just a few kilometres from Pogradec and it was still early afternoon so we took a detour to see the beach. What we remembered was a pretty lake with dirty, smelly water and lots of domestic holidaymakers.
Now the water seemed much cleaner but otherwise it was the same: kilometres of beach with parasols and playgrounds but much less crowded than Ksamil or Durrës.
A quiet road leads from Pogradec to the Macedonian border. We still had some leks and hoped we could spend it on a cola but there was absolutely no place open beyond the city. Then we entered the 6th country of our trip and just started the serious uphill that takes you high above the lake when Aron had a flat tyre. We all really wanted to arrive and relax so I reluctantly repaired the inner tube and we kept cycling but the tyre was flat within 500 metres… the glue didn’t stick. I repeated the same process now with another tube (we had plenty waiting to be repaired) and hoped this time it was OK.
This section is pretty hard until you reach the top, from where you can enjoy great views. But the real problem with this road is that it is only 5 metres wide. There is a warning sign every few kilometres but motorists speed like madmen. So we had to stay in the middle of the road before dangerous bends to prevent them from overtaking us… Even so a woman almost hit Aron in a town and I had a little exchange of hand gestures with her husband.
The good thing is that around 5 km before Ohrid you can escape the highway and continue by the lake. There is a pretty promenade with lots of pedestrians… still much better than the crazy drivers. We arrived in the centre of Ohrid just in time to see the sunset.
Lazing by Lake Ohrid
Then we found our pension (Julija Guest House). We were totally satisfied with the location, the price, the room and the owner, Julija, is a helpful, cheerful person, just like her mother. Then we had a delicious dinner at a traditional Macedonian restaurant in a side street near the lake (Fontana, Jane Sandanski Street).
We decided to spend a day in Ohrid before starting the long bus ride to North Serbia. Next morning we wanted to go to the bus station to buy the tickets so I asked a young woman in the street for directions. I really don’t like stereotypes but this was the first in a long row of bad experiences with Macedonian and Serbian people. Here’s our conversation, I remember every word:
– Excuse me, can you tell me the way to the bus station?
– You can’t just walk to the bus station. It’s too far. You need to take a cab.
And that was it. She turned away and left us there. It took seconds for us to register what happened.
Anyway, the second person we asked was much more helpful and we walked to the bus station in 15 minutes (it was that far). When the women in the ticket office heard we had bicycles, her smile disappeared and we had to ask two other companies but the last one could take us as far as Skopje next morning.
We spent the rest of the day walking in the old town and taking photos of the pretty Ottoman buildings that were nicely renovated. In the afternoon we even had time to swim a bit by the old port, where the water is deep and crystal clear.
Repairing bikes till the last moment
While Anita was making dinner, I prepared the bicycles. I decided to trash Aron’s bike rack and divide the contents of his panniers among ours. And I managed! Then I noticed his front tyre was flat again so I had to fix the inner tube in the hotel room. When I put back the wheel and I started to inflate it, the top of the valve broke off, meaning that if it had another puncture, it couldn’t be used any more.
On Friday morning we caught the bus and easily fit the three bikes in its storage area, though the driver frowned when he saw them. It took more than 3 hours to do the 200 km journey to the capital.I was surprised to see that lots of village and town names are signposted in Macedonian and Albanian; apparently, the western part of the country has a significant population of ethnic Albanians.
We had more trouble in Skopje with the bikes. When I asked the woman at the ticket office, her answer was that we couldn’t take bicycles in the bus and we should take the train, Then at the train station I was told that the fee for the bikes will be decided by the conductor in the train (there’s no fixed fee, I guess it’s the conductor private income).
When I returned to the bus station and asked again, another woman said I should find the driver and ask for his approval before I bought the tickets as there was no refund. So, to sum it up, if you want to carry a bicycle by bus in Macedonia (or Serbia), ask the driver first and buy the ticket next. Even then you can expect the bus conductor to hate you and your bike…
To cut it short, we finally arrived in Belgrade around 11 pm. I managed to charge my local SIM with some Serbian dinars with the help of a kind guy at a bus station (online payment didn’t work) so we had a hotel room waiting for us, though it meant cycling 6 km on the streets and bridges of the city at night.
The next day we rode back to the station and got on another bus to Subotica (Szabadka) in the north. This time we didn’t ask anyone just showed up and there was no problem at all. From there it was another 50 km back to Szeged, where our car was waiting for us.
In 6 weeks we visited 6 countries and though we spent all our money we came home so much richer with the memory of the amazing landscapes, the unforgettable adventures and, most of all, the friendships we made along the way with all those wonderful people.