Balkans part 2 – Athens to Prague

Travel

After more than 3 weeks in Athens, it was time to head back north. Coincidentally, another heatwave was just about to hit, which will have caused one of the worst wildfire episodes of recent Greek history in the upcoming days and weeks.

As usual, I started my journey with a map dotted with points of interest, mostly in Greece and Albania this time, partially inspired by the TET route (Trans Euro Trail), I gave myself up to 12 days to get to Prague, the limiting date being my scheduled second Covid vaccine.

The TET is a community managed off-road route that zig-zags throughout Europe, each country is managed by a dedicated local volunteer. I definitely plan on doing more of these in the future, but with better tires and a personal rescue beacon. 

<Greece>

Day 1 – Mount Parnassus, Delphi, Artotiva bridge 

I depart from Athens early in the morning on Saturday to try to make it as far East as I can. Initially, I thought I could even make it all the way to Lefkada (point 7), but that was a far-fetched dream.

The first stop was Mount Parnassus, a mountain hosting a popular ski resort where Athenians to go enjoy themselves in the winter. The top reaches an impressive 2,457 meters, and you can get just a few hundred meters below the summit with a 4×4 or a motorbike.

From the Mountain, I headed south through the historical town of Delphi, which sits on the southern slope of Parnassus. The town of Delhi, previously known as Pytho, was the seat of Pythia, the oracle famous in the ancient world and consulted by kings on important decisions. Some might remember it from the movie 300 when King Leonidas goes up the mountain to ask what to do about the advancing Persian army. I made it to the Artovita bridge (point 4), where I found a small beach on the Evinos river with a nice cafe-bar and a place to camp.

Soon after reaching the Bay of Corinth and traveling along its northern shore, I saw my first wildfire consuming the hills across the bay, it spewed a thick smoke that traveled through the entire length of the bay. Witnessing water bombers flying around had already become a common sight, but this was the first time I saw them actually dropping water onto the fires.

The evening was already approaching when I reached the Artotiva bridge, secluded in a valley with nobody around. I made the decision to camp by a nearby beach next to a cafe, as the next part of the trip was “the ridge” which was entirely offroad and I was not sure how long it would take. I ate dinner at the cafe and set up my hammock just before nightfall. Turns out this wasn’t the best location, as the cafe turns into a late-night bar popular with locals, especially on a Saturday night.

Day 2 – Ridge ride, Lefkada

One of the photos on the TET website for Greece was a really cool-looking mountain ridge with a road going along the top of it. I reached out to the author of the Greek TET path who told me this isn’t along my route but recommended a similar ridge. This was the main point of interest for today, crossing the ridge and making my way towards Lefkada.

The road to get up onto the ridge was pretty rough from the start but the views all around were stunning, especially in the early morning hours. I even managed to fall off the bike after riding into a big ditch next to the road when I was enjoying the scenery instead of on the road. The rear wheel slid from underneath me and the bike slid for a few meters, making a 180-degree turn. The exhaust muffler got a small dent in it and the spring came off the side stand. I managed to fix it and keep moving.

The ridge itself was magnificent, covered in soft golden grass (apologies to any botanists), spanning into the distance. I bumped into a shepherd who, I assume, doesn’t get to see other humans very often. He shared his entire life story, or something, not sure, it was all Greek to me. He let me fill up fresh mountain water straight out of the ground, we chatted a bit (mostly using hands, drawings in the sand, and facial expressions), and then he proceeded to take out his flute and played a song (although I suspect it was an improv).

I set out onto the route along the top of the ridge, which was mostly grass and you could tell it was only driven by 4x4s and enduro bikes occasionally. Normal people take the longer route along the side. The road was stunning, with the exception of the shepherd, I don’t think I met a human for about 4 hours. Which was a bit worrying as some parts of the route on the ridge were very steep and consisted of loose rocks and dirt, I was honestly surprised that I made it up some of them without falling, and equally surprised to have made it down with my worn down tires (mostly with the rear wheel locked!).

I had to take a quick nap on the way to Lefkada, as I was so exhausted I started falling asleep on the bike. I didn’t realize this was even possible prior to this trip. But few days of minimal sleep proved me wrong very quickly. After my power nap, I drove the remaining 1-2 hours to Lefkada, to a beach I found on Park4Night where I would camp for the night. The beaches were very busy on Sunday afternoon, but very quickly cleared up as everyone left from their weekend trips and went back to work. I laid down my tarp and sleeping mat on the pebble beach right under the stars, enjoyed a few Gin & Tonics at the cafe while watching the sunset over the horizon. Sleeping on the beach under the stars was not on my bucket list, but definitely added it retroactively.

Day 3 – More Lefkada, Vikos Gorge, Meteora, Larissa

Woken up by the light at around 6 in the morning, I packed up, mounted the bike, and headed to a famous beach just further south on the island of Lefkada. Turns out it isn’t very popular at 7AM, and I had the entire beach to myself, minus the four people who came with me and a guy who was sleeping in a tent there. The beach was mesmerizing, the water was beautifully light blue with the white rocks beneath it. After a brief swim and a lot of looking around with amazement, I dried off and headed towards Vikos national park near the Albanian border, with a quick stop for morning coffee first, of course.

Vikos was a wonderful place, definitely not what I would have imagined I would find in Greece. Driving into the park, the tall vertical cliff faces started to surround you and were hundreds of meters tall. My first stop in the reserve was for a swim in the cool waters of Papingo rock pools, a manmade cascade of pools filled with spring water. From there, I drove to the Oxya Viewpoint with a great view of the Vikos Gorge, a valley claimed to be the deepest in the world with its 490-meter cliff walls and depth of almost 1000 meters. One could spend a whole week accommodated in the stone villages around the valley and making tours throughout the park! I’ll save that for my next visit.

The final destination of the day was the city of Larissa, where I had a rendezvous with a classmate from high school in the evening. Along the way, the main point of interest was Meteora, a set of monasteries built atop of tall rock formations on the edge of the city of Kalabaka. It isn’t an exaggeration when I say that driving into these rock formations and seeing the monasteries tower above me were some of the most impressive sights I have witnessed in my life. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that watching the sunset from the mountain behind the monasteries is a popular activity, as the sun sets behind the monasteries. There were people waiting alongside the road and climbing onto cliffs to get a good view. The photos don’t really do it justice!

Day 4 – Mount Olympos, Lake Polyfytos

Larissa is not the place to be in the middle of a heatwave. It is the hottest area in all of Greece as it is essentially a big flat valley, temperatures were hitting 45 degrees celsius at their peak. Therefore I didn’t wait around and after breakfast with my classmate, I headed towards Mount Olympos and quickly started ascending the side of the mountain along the only path that leads to a refuge near the top. The road was pretty rough and I was not looking forward to having to go back down it, but then I couldn’t help but feel like a wimp when I bumped into an elderly french couple near the top with their 30-year-old converted van. On the other hand, life goals, am I right? They earned my respect.

The refuge sat below the peak of Skolio (2911 meters), a peak just a few meters lower than the tallest summit of Mount Olympus – Mytikas (2918 meters, apparently it translates to “nose”). Mytikas was at least 2 hours beyond Skolio and climbing to the top without proper gear isn’t recommended, so I settled for Skolio which took just a bit over an hour to ascend. I was starting to feel the exhaustion and lack of sleep over the past few days, so I made it to the top with a leisurely pace, and then headed back down to the refuge and made my way north towards Albania.

I made it to the manmade lake of Polyfytos, where I set up my hammock near the shore in a secluded area and enjoyed the sunset. A water bomber picked up water from the lake right against the sunset as a backdrop and flew off into the distance. Once the sun had set, the tranquility of the night was disturbed by fighter jets flying above the lake for about an hour. Their lights were off so one could only hear the loud noise moving left to right.

<Albania>

Day 5 – Pogradec

After a couple of very exhausting days, I decided to take it easy and drove only a few hours, crossing the border into Albania and booking a nice hotel in the town of Pogradec on lake Ohrid. The place is very popular with locals who come here for the beaches and venues that span all around them. I spent the afternoon here taking a nap and enjoying the views and food.

Day 6 – National Park, “Castle” BnB

From Pogradec, I headed north through the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, my route going along the TET Albania path for a while. I was a bit worried about what will come when the main regional road going up to the park turned into a wide dirt road. Further up in the park, I bumped into three compatriots on quadbikes, we chatted a bit and they recommended me the accommodation from which they were coming that day.

After about an hour driving, I arrived to the Hupi Guest House where I Luli, the owner, gave me a warm welcome together with mama Sofia. I can really recommend this place, they are both very lovely and friendly people. After talking with Luli about all sorts of topics over a small snack from nearby farmers, I took a shower and went for a walk with the house dog, Lassie. We went to a nearby waterfall just above the village, I was really saddened and unfortunately not surprised by the amount of trash everywhere.

Day 7 – Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia

Albania had a lot to offer, wild and vast mountains, incredibly friendly people, a window into a very different way of life. What really left a bitter taste in my mouth was the trash. Everywhere you look, you will see trash, and people throwing their trash out of the window of their car. It is going to be one hell of a job to clean it all up.

From the Hupi guest house, I drove towards Shkoder, where I was hoping to make a two-day drive to Theth village. But I decided that I was already quite overwhelmed with all the things I’ve seen, and the route was very remote and rough, so I would prefer to do it next I am here with better tires and more equipment. The village of Theth and the Theth national park in the north of Albania is definitely a must-see (yes, I realize I did not see it).

I headed north towards Montenegro, and just a few kilometers from the border, I saw an interesting spray-painted bunker not too far from the road. I turned the bike around and went to check it out. Turns out this is a local dude who is a painter and a tattoo artist (and a bit of a conspiracy nut, but in a nice way). He showed me his art and we chatted for a while. He recommended me that I take the route through the village of Hot for a great view, I took his advice and went his recommended longer route. No regrets. The view, the road, and the river in the valley were all stunning.

FYI if you are ever in the Cemi river valley, then you need to visit THIS resort hidden under the rocks by the river.

Day 9 – Transit through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria

The only pictures from this day will probably be from speed cameras along the way, but I haven’t received them yet.

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