Macedonia & Albania by our friend Leigh.

Ciao all, our friend Leigh is our guest writer/rider for this month sharing is experience.

I had never considered a trip to Macedonia or Albania before. In truth I don’t think I could have even pointed to them on a map. So when my colleague Alex mentioned he and his friend TJ were heading to both countries on a cycling holiday my interest was piqued. With only an outline plan in place it was not too much trouble having me along so I decided to invite myself. Pretty sure they were cool with it.

Flights from Luton to Ohrid were around an unbelievably reasonable £8 per person with Wizz Air. Unfortunately bikes were a further £25. TJ did suggest it was easier booking 3 extra seats each and taking the bikes on board with us (would have saved all the sweaty stressful work of dismantling and ...errr... remantling the bikes) but this idea didn’t fly with the airline. Ohrid is not, as everyone joked, HORID (That joke gets really old after 7 days by the way). The town is actually very beautiful. One of the oldest human settlements in Europe, it boasts a maze of tight, steep cobbled streets and is squeezed between towering mountains and the crystal clear lake that shares the town’s name. There’s a lovely fort, amphitheatre, many picturesque churches and incredible views of the lake and mountains. There’s also a paper museum!

It was only on day 2 when it dawned on me this was not a cycle tour at all. After a lazy morning strolling the streets of Ohrid, visiting the sites, we rolled out of town for an epic 20km ride. That’s right, 20km. We followed the lake South to Trpejca through torrential rain. The rain didn’t dampen our spirits ... much. We still had beautiful scenery all around us and the enthusiasm that comes with the first day of riding on a cycle tour in new lands. We were happy just getting to Trpejca that day but before we did we stumbled across a random museum called the Bay of Bones. With such a promising name we decided to investigate. It turned out to be a replica prehistoric village on stilts on the lake. You can walk out on to the platform and go in the huts and see how the other half live. There was a diving school too but we were wet enough.

As a vegetarian I wasn’t sure how I would manage in Macedonia and Albania. Turned out I needn’t worry. Mainly because I like cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese. And pizza. They also do beans. The best trademark Macedonian huge bowl of beans dish I had was on Day 3 in Macedonia’s number one tourist attraction, Plaoshnik. This historical site is where the Macedonian Orthodox Christian Faith was first founded in the 9th century AD by Saint Clement the first Bishop of Macedonia. It is now mainly a hotel surrounded by a large number of peacocks. Weird. 3 days under our belt and we were getting even worse with our cycling, only 18km this day. But we were progressing. This time in to Albania and Pogradec. Pogradec is a lakeside resort that felt a little down at heel. Still you can’t argue with 50p beers and £8 each for a room and breakfast in a hotel with sauna, swimming pool and gym. True the swimming pool was more like an ice bath or plunge pool, and the sauna had a gap under the door, but beggars can’t be choosers. The highlight was the lakeside entertainment. Much like English seaside towns there was the usual medley of peddle boats, swing boats, and dodgem like cars advertised as Formula Uno. We decided it would be a good idea to swap bikes for Formula Uno for one night. Needless to say it was a close and electrifying race.

It was Day 4 when we really picked up the pace. We raced through Albania past horse and carts, and waving kids back into Macedonia. We were tackling a 70km route heading over the hills to Stenje on the shores of our second massive lake of the holiday, Lake Prespa. I found my first Strava segment on route SH79 just before we left Albania. A beautiful climb through a quarry with some great switchbacks. Unfortunately being on a fully laden touring bike meant I didn’t place too highly on the KOM list.

Now up till this point we had thought everywhere had been pretty dead and quiet. We put this down to being out of season and the fact we were in Macedonia and Albania. But Stenje really was deserted. It was a beautiful setting on the lake’s edge but there wasn’t much to do. We had a very lazy rest day here where we went to an old palace of Tito’s built by political prisoners and now in disrepair. We also attempted a visit to Snake Island which sounded exciting. Unfortunately our boatman was not the bravest and decided the waves were too big for us to get there. Oh well, more cheese then back at our guest house.

The highlight of the trip for me came on Day 6. It was time to tackle an alpine pass. We’d seen the pass on Google maps back when we were discussing the rough route in our dreary London office. I had been dreaming of the climb and descent ever since. The day was only going to be 45km or so but roughly 800m of climbing. The climb did not disappoint. We zigzagged up from lake shore to mountain top. Well mountain pass top to be precise. The climb started in shade through dense woodland with only glimpses back to Lake Prespa. As we climbed higher we emerged from the greenery to be met with staggering views back to the lake and last night’s accommodation. What added to the beauty of the climb was the fact we felt like the only people on the road. There were a few German camper vans and one biker gang but apart from that it was deserted. Climbing the mountain we had always been looking back for the lake views, so it was with great delight we crested the pass and found our old friend Lake Ohrid before us in all her glory. Our descent should have been straightforward. A wonderful collection of switchbacks down to the lakeside. However, I thought I saw a short cut off one of the switchbacks to our accommodation that night. It was marked as a MTB route but hey how bad can it be? Four punctures, roughly 20km and a whole heap of mud and rock later, my fellow adventurers were ready to mutiny. Luckily for me when we finally arrived, our lakeside accommodation was probably the best of the trip. Plus there was always beer to bring the team back together.

Day 7, and following an ice cold swim in the lake (our only venture into the lake on the holiday) and watching a romantic sunset the previous night, we were refreshed and ready to make the most of our final day in Macedonia. We hadn’t ventured East of Ohrid yet so we decided to see what Struga was like. Struga is just down the road and probably nearer the airport, but it hadn’t received rave reviews online. Lucky for us it was much nicer than expected. It wasn’t as historic and picturesque as Ohrid but there were plenty of restaurants and cafes and it was probably the most lively lakeside resort we visited. We went out with a bang that night visiting Ohrid’s premier jazz club following a plentiful amount of beer and spirits. Needless to say a rip roaring night was had by all, although we don’t really know what happened to TJ, last seen wandering around on stage trying to offer band members drinks while they played.

With heavy hearts and heavier hangovers we departed Macedonia vowing to return (I’m bringing the road bike next to tackle that Strava segment and probably create some more on the many fantastic climbs in the area). To sum it all up; beautiful scenery, gorgeous lakes, fantastic mountain climbs, cheap food and beer, friendly people, interesting history, and Luton airport sucks.

Thank you Leigh for this amazing piece of art.