The eve of the Balkans

I’m in Dubrovnik, and have found a campsite with a free internet cafe, where I decided to stay for a few days, convinced it’ll actually save me money in the long run, given how ruinously expensive internet cafes are and how much catching up I have to do. I’m rather dismayed about how long I’ve spent sitting here, but I have to admit it’s been useful. Not only have there been literally dozens of emails to catch up on, and my replacement Kindle to organize, there’s also the next leg to research – and the one after that, which involves Eastern Turkey, where it will apparently be a) cold, b) geologically unstable, and c) full of Turkish soldiers bombing the crap out of PKK insurgents.

Yes, I am slightly concerned, but I can only think so far ahead, and in the meantime there’s the Balkans to worry about. And I must confess, I have been fretting a bit. The Croatian coast has been gloriously beautiful, and also gloriously easy. It’s low season now, so it’s occasionally been difficult to find campsites that aren’t closed for the winter, but the people are all very used to dealing with foreigners, the weather’s still warm (although not by local standards – I was regularly advised it would be ‘too cold’ for cycling), it’s been easy to get by with my rapidly improving German, and there are decent roads, and regular Lidls.

But tomorrow I push off into the Balkan interior, where I’m informed there are bears and wolves, bad roads, and also lots of mountains. I haven’t even begun to untangle the mysteries of Albanian and Serbian, and until the last couple of days I barely knew how Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia fitted together. By the way, I hope you don’t have the impression I spent the twelve months before this trip memorizing the atlas, planning every kilometre of my route country by country. I didn’t have time. All I did was draw a mental line across the map, check that it didn’t pass through any obvious war zones or other unhospitable territories, and then assume that the details would work themselves out as I went along.

And they have, thank goodness. Every time I begin a new chapter of this ride (so far usually demarcated by geographical boundaries such as the Channel and the Alps, although the political boundary of Europe and Asia will be a big one) I start out feeling quite unashamedly terrified. (I was frightened of France, for god’s sake, and I’ve been there countless times over the years.) Then I start to get a better idea of the territory. This might involve buying a map, furtively leafing through guidebooks in a bookshop, or just reading the blog posts of all the other cycle tourists who’ve passed that way recently. Today I’ve done all three. (I’ve found some superb blogs – have a look at the website of this French family, who are riding the silk route with two children. If they can do that then I can definitely cross the Balkans on my own.) And this afternoon, after a happy hour in a bookshop in Dubrovnik’s old town, where I found a copy of the wonderful wonderful Bradt guide to Kosovo (couldn’t afford it, so hid behind a bookcase and read it in situ), I found that I was suddenly excited about the road ahead, and couldn’t wait to get moving again. Of course – we’re only ever scared of the unknown.

And, as I’ve learned by now, everything is always wonderful the moment I get on the bike. No matter what else happens, cycling makes me happy, and the bike Ryan built me is proving even better than either of us expected. In over 2,000 miles, all I’ve had to do to it is fix two (entirely predictable) punctures and change my brake blocks. Unlike any of my previous rides, it doesn’t give me a back-ache, or sore shoulders, or anything like that, even after several hours in the saddle, and I’m even finding I no longer have the urge to stretch out at the end of the day. So, no matter what else happens, as long as I’m on the bike, I think I’ll be fine.

Oh dear – I was going to tell you all about how beautiful Dubrovnik is, and all about the torrential rain that nearly swept away the tent the other night, but the lovely Korean couple I met in Zadar have just turned up, so I think it’s time for an evening of socializing and story-swapping, rather than yet more hours at the computer. I’m sure you’ll understand.

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