Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

The humble fare

As a teenager, before I had enough money and time for exotic adventures overseas, I would hitch-hike wherever and whenever I could. For me this was a source of adventure. I would hitch to festivals and to visit friends, to go on holiday and sometimes just to see where I would end up. As any seasoned hitcher knows you meet many colourful characters along the way. Aging hippies, who are returning the favour after years of thumbing it themselves, are the hitcher’s staple. I have met my fair share of born again Christians who would often try to convert me en route. Some drivers want to talk, some to listen, some are comfortable with silence. Occasionally I’d be privileged to hear someone’s life story and at other times I would take on the role of a makeshift counsellor, my job would entail listening to the story of the driver’s latest relationship crisis. Once I was even privy to explicit phone sex when the driver’s girlfriend, who was on speaker phone, failed to realise her boyfriend had picked up a hitch-hiker. I have kept all my old cardboard signs to remind me of this time in my life… “M1 north”, “Glasgow”, “Glastonbury” and for emergencies “Anywhere”.

Hitch-hiking gets a bad press, there’s no doubt about that. Joe Public seems convinced that hitch-hikers are all potential axe murdering sociopaths. A quick survey of my friends and a unanimous verdict, not one would pick up a hitch-hiker. I can’t help but think that the demise of hitching is a symptom of the increasingly paranoid world in which we live. The sensationalist mainstream media (and American B movies) must be partly to blame but you probably have as much chance of meeting a sadist or psychopath on a social networking website or on the bus than you do when hitch-hiking. Only once have I encountered a problem on my travels around the UK when I got into a car, glimpsed a half empty bottle of whiskey in the foot well and quickly realised my driver was blind drunk. So clearly a small risk does exist and I am never afraid to refuse a lift if my instinct tells me to. Aside from the perceived dangers the other obvious reason as to why less people hitch-hike now is the ease of travelling around Europe via Eurorail or Easyjet and the ilk. Hitching may be a free way to get around the continent but I don’t hitch just to save money, it’s an adventure and dare I say it, I think you can learn something about human nature on the way.

I’d never hitched in Europe but I had heard that “autostop”, as its known, is an easier task than in the UK and I was keen to try. Although I was homeward bound I was also chuffed that I could cling onto some sense of adventure now that I couldn’t continue my journey by bicycle. I would swap my enemies… dogs, punctures and headwinds for boredom, the police and the ubiquitous axe murdering psychopaths that everybody at home knew I would encounter frequently en route. Due to the ash cloud emanating from the Icelandic volcano there was a huge backlog of passengers in Istanbul waiting to return to the UK and I would wait ten days if I wanted to fly home. I suspected I could hitch back within this time. I had no imminent deadlines, the operation on my knee is scheduled for the end of May, so I said goodbye to Belinda, my bike, glad that at least for her it will be an unbroken journey around the world, and set off. How long would it take? I honestly didn’t care.

The first challenge would be getting out of the immense sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world. On my way in I had cycled for eighty kilometres, all within the city limits, just to find the house I was due to stay at. I started to thumb it from just outside the old town. After forty five minutes a car stopped and I jumped in. The occupant, Apo, was a perfume seller and producer in his late 30s, and he would be my first lift. The cloying scent of his perfume “Candy” filled the car and he told me his story. He was originally Kurdish but had left Turkey in his early 20’s to move to Germany where he had managed to work without a VISA for 10 years. Eventually he was discovered and deported but on arrival in Turkey the military police arrested him, this time for skipping his military service, and he was sent to the army for two years. After finishing this stint he had started up the perfume company with his brother and they were doing well. He brought me as far as he could and then bought me breakfast before I thanked him and moved on. In the end it took me eight separate lifts, each of just five or ten kilometres to finally breach the city limits.

In the neighbouring Turkish city of Tekirdag I had my first lucky break. Hussain, a Turkish lorry driver, stopped to offer me a ride. He chain smoked Winston’s and spoke to me in broken Italian whilst I replied in broken Spanish. Mostly we understood each other. That night I slept on the dusty floor of an old church near to a truck stop. I woke during the night to convivial shrieks and cheers from the inebriated Turkish drivers, who stayed up until the early hours drinking Raki. The next day I found Hussain and we continued the journey together but it was salt in the wound as Hussain drove down the exact same roads I had cycled along almost a month before. After waiting for three hours at the Turkish border whilst the lorry was checked we entered Greece and travelled the breadth of the country. For a reason I didn’t understand the Truck drivers were not allowed to drive me the last twenty kilometres to the dock where we would catch a boat to southern Italy so I began to hitch again.

The twenty kilometre stretch of road led to a port on the Greek mainland from which boats come and go to the party island of Corfu. ‘Boy racers’ sped past me, a brand of soul-destroying bland house music blaring from their expensive sound systems. When looking for a lift you begin to recognise your target demographic. The typical driver who stops is male, aged about 20-40 and usually on their own in the car. The exception to this is the ‘boy racer’. Young speedsters driving VW Golfs with blacked out windows. They virtually never offer a lift. They belong in the same category as mums on the school run and people who drive hearses, Ferraris or milk floats. They are a long shot. As I waited, thumb outstretched, they shouted abuse at me from the windows. One stopped, only to speed off as I approached. From another an empty plastic bottle was hurled in my direction. Most would put their thumbs up and flash me sardonic grins whilst speeding past. I was being mocked by idiots. And the worst kind of idiot. An idiot in white jeans, a Ben Sherman shirt and with terrible taste in music. Eventually I got a lift with an elderly couple to the port and took the nine hour ferry to Bari in southern Italy.

At Bari I spent most of the day in a lorry park where a couple of hundred vehicles were parked in rows. Turkish, Iranian, Polish and Greek drivers congregated, each playing music from their respective homelands at full volume and drinking copiously in the sunshine by the dock. The Turkish band of drivers found someone going to Naples for me. I got the impression that if I desired I could get all the way to the UK by being passed from one Turkish driver to the next at these lorry parks, but I had never visited Naples and I was curious, so I decided I would leave the truckers behind when I got there. I got a lift with another burly Turkish truck driver called Louis, a friend of Hussain. I knew only two things about Louis. First that he was driving to Naples and second that “he really likes Raki” as I was reminded again and again by the other drivers. Things would be fine, I decided, as long as his passion for Turkish liquor and the fact that he’s driving an 18 tonne truck along the Italian motorway didn’t get horribly intertwined.

I semi-reluctantly joined up with the tourist hoard in Naples and Rome and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, although my attention was elsewhere. I found it hard to concentrate on all the museums, monuments and churches. The Colosseum was impressive but it had nothing on the Italian girls and I frequently found myself distracted. I began once again from outside Rome and hitched to a petrol station north of the city in the countryside just off the motorway. I ate strawberries as I waited for nobody to stop. I discovered that the strawberries had stained my hands blood red and that probably wasn’t giving off the best impression. That’s when the police arrived. I wasn’t sure if they had been called or if they had spotted me by chance, either way I began to think the world has it in for hitch-hikers.
One officer addressed me

“No autostop here. This highway” and he pointed at the section of tarmac on which I was stood, well away from the motorway.

“No highway. This petrol station” I retorted and pointed at the same spot.

“No. This highway” He replied with asperity.

“No. This petrol station” I chanced.

We were at a deadlock.

“Look” I said pointing to a vehicle ten metres away “He’s parking on the highway. Arrest him!”

Not even a smirk. They glowered at me before turning to leave. What could I do? I was in rural Italy surrounded by grassy fields, the highway and this petrol station. There was no chance to catch a bus or train. I banked on this being one of those situations where the police were forced to give me the official line, but knew I was in an impossible position and so would turn a blind eye if I continued. I had no choice but to keep hitching. Just in case, I mentally rehearsed my defence. I decided to pretend their instruction got lost in translation.

During a five hour wait for my next lift two questions swam around my head “What the hell am I doing?” And “why don’t I just fly home?” Eventually a car pulled in and I was heading towards Genoa. On my route through Europe I have made lots of friends, I remembered I knew some in Genoa who I could call in on. The day after the night before started with a vicious hangover and perhaps I was not hitching enthusiastically enough but after another five hour wait at the port I still hadn’t found a ride. To my shame I cheated this time I took a short train ride to Turin, not far but I wasn’t waiting another day, I had to move on. The next day in Turin was the 1st of May or “workers day”. A procession paraded through the town. It was a curious mix of union members, protestors, communists, anti-capitalists and out and out anarchists. There was a party vibe as they made their way down the main streets. Towards the end of the parade I watched a girl, dressed as the pope, stand aloft a large truck waving majestically from a giant model vagina at the laughing crowd below.

I waited again for several hours by the roadside outside Turin. The traffic eventually thinned out and I realised I’d missed my opportunity for catching the rush hour. Every time someone made a hand gesture to signal that they were turning off or turning around I began to think “I don’t believe you”. Hitching in Italy I realised is near impossible. People eyed me up and then actually began to take aversive action! They drove in wide loops around me, perhaps worried that if they got too close I would use my telekinetic powers to force them to stop or that I would actually dive in through their windscreens. As I waited I noticed a large poster looming opposite me. It was an advert for Easyjet. Flights from Rome to Milan for just 22 Euro it boasted. What the hell am I doing? I kept thinking. After four hours finally a lift. He was a Swizz 6 foot 5 inch ex-basketball player on a nine hour mission from Rome to Lausanne to deliver coffee machines. More often than not hitching a lift is less a blag and more of a trade. My role in this instance was to keep the driver awake so we chatted away in broken English and French for several hours.

I debarked, thanked my driver and began again, hoping to find a lift over the French Italian border. People gawped and stared as if I were an ancient relic on display or the start of some alien invasion. Perhaps they were looking for clues as to where I had concealed my axe. What’s more it was a Sunday and most of the cars were full of families with no spare seats. I prayed for VW vans and old hippies, but none came. I was losing my faith in humanity. People I decided were either paranoid or selfish or both. I was entering that hitcher’s vicious circle. The more I waited the more miserable I became, the more miserable I became the more miserable I began to look and the more miserable I began to look the less chance I had of getting a lift and the more I waited. Yet again I wondered why I was making life so difficult for myself.

Eventually a car stopped to take me across the border to France. In my mind this represented the Promised Land, a veritable hitcher’s paradise, and as it turned out France did prove to be easier than Italy. Men and women often stopped to give me a ride and then from outside Lyon another lucky break, a lift all the way to Normandy. I would probably be back in Blighty before midnight I realised. The swarthy, tumultuous sky opened up and it began to rain. I knew England must be close. Rain is never a good omen for the hitcher. You might expect that a dejected hitch-hiker clutching a sodden cardboard sign saying something like “M1 north” might inspire a smidge of sympathy in your fellow man but in reality people just don’t want the inside of their precious cars to get wet. Luckily there was a brief respite from the rain between lifts.

After the ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth I decided a train would be the sensible option as it was already dark and I thought my chances of getting a lift poor. But I decided to give hitching one quick last shot. Within ten minutes a truck driver stopped and offered me a lift to my mum’s front door in Oxford. He had a thick Yorkshire accent. When I asked if he’ll be watching the world cup on tele he replied “Maybe I will when one of them footballers comes to watch me drive my lorry”. Although not exactly glad to be home, his answer made me not too miserable about it either. On the way to Oxford I watched a film on the small TV he had in the cab and finally reached my destination, ten days after setting out from Istanbul.

I’ve returned home to deadlines and to-do lists and dates have already started to accumulate in my diary. But I am trying hard to avoid anything resembling my old life. I don’t want to feel that I’m moving backwards. I will return to Istanbul, probably towards the start of August, after England win the world cup. Thank you to the 23 drivers who stopped, took me in and helped me out. Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored my mini-adventure home, and if you haven’t you still can, now that I have completed the hitch, by visiting my sponsorship page.


“Patience is the key to paradise” – Turkish Proverb
Patience may be a virtue but it is not one I am overly familiar with. Queueing and people who faff have the tendency to make me rage. I don’t like lie-ins and sometimes I wish people who walk too slowly in the street would be very promptly removed from society altogether. During my bike ride I always get riled if a problem occurs and I have to spend an extra day somewhere to sort it out. Impatience doesn’t seem like a personality trait very compatible with the life of a cycle tourer but actually when travelling by bicycle you get quickly used to the pace. I do suffer spells of boredom at times but as I ride I occupy my mind with many things. I re-live days in my past, I plan for the future and I daydream about the road ahead. I expected to cross Europe and reach Istanbul in four months, I have made it in three but despite this I have taken the roads less travelled en route. You could, if you wanted, cycle along dual carriage ways and make the journey even faster. Nevertheless cycling around the world can highlight the drawbacks of an impatient disposition and I have had to constantly strive to resist my inherent impetuous nature. I tell myself to stop trying to break my top speed on the downhills, just appreciate the rolling vista. In fact try to ignore the cycle computer altogether. Camp earlier. Look around more. Eat slower. Stop arranging ambitious rendez-vous on travel networking websites and then rushing to get there. I don’t need deadlines in my life. There is always time for a good photo and to write in my journal. Always take the route marked out as scenic on the map regardless of altitude or terrain and every so often cycle somewhere just because it has a funny sounding place name on the map.

I am still encountering the odd malicious mutt and I thank you for the myriad of suggestions of tactics to solve the problem put forward after my last post. I particularly liked Michael’s idea of improvising a handlebar mounted flamethrower using WD40 and a brake cable. Michael you have demonstrated intimate knowledge of how to construct a homemade explosive device and I am therefore slightly worried about you and whichever dissident militia you have become associated with. I have however stumbled upon not so much a weapon but perhaps a partial solution in the form of Motown. I have been cycling along buoyantly whilst listening to my IPOD and the vicious dog chase which followed just wasn’t as distressing. In the future I will reach for my headphones and put my faith in Marvin Gaye getting me through the ordeal.

On the road through Macedonia and Greece I was consumed by worry. My left knee which had swelled up in Italy had improved some but was still a real problem. I could still cycle but now I had pain walking, especially up or down stairs. I could feel a small curious mobile mass within the joint space which often got trapped causing me sudden pain. My medical sensibilities told me this was very bad news. I arrived into Thessaloniki in Greece with a plan to get some answers knowing this was not a problem I could ignore. I went to a particularly chaotic emergency department to be confronted by a overworked junior who glanced at my knee and wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medicine without laying a hand on me. I unashamedly played my doctor card. I needed to get this sorted out. A more senior physician appeared and after an innocuous looking x-ray and much debate there was only one option left open to me and I bit the bullet and shelled out almost my entire monthly budget for an MRI scan of the troublesome joint and the curious lump within. After the scan the grim-faced radiologist leafed through a medical textbook and pointed at the page entitled “Osteochondritis Dissecans”. I confess I wasn’t overly familiar with the condition but I knew enough to know that this was not a term I wanted to hear.

The curious lump migrating around my knee was a piece of loose cartilage sometimes referred to as a “joint mouse”. I wondered why it had to be given such a cutesy name and decided something like “joint wraith” or “knee plague” would be more fitting terminology. Repetitive micro-trauma from my cycle ride across Europe had caused the piece of cartilage to break off the end of my femur and this rogue chunk of useless debris was now roaming free inside my knee. He pointed out the 11 millimetre lesion on the scan blunting the contour of the lower part of my femur and I stared at it in anguish and disbelief. There it was. An unequivocal abnormality. It was worse than I had anticipated and the radiologist agreed this could be a serious problem for me. He made a call to a friend, an Orthopaedic specialist with a private clinic who would see me for free out of “professional courtesy”. The Orthopaedic doctor was thorough and detailed in his questioning, clinical examination and study of the films. I instantly had faith in his judgement.

Is there any doubt as to the problem? None.
Can I continue to cycle? It will almost certainly get worse.
Do I need a keyhole surgery? Yes you do.
How long after the surgery until I can cycle again? It will be three months. I’m sorry.

Gutted. Crushed. Heartbroken. I had developed a problem which affects just 15 to 30 people per 100,000 and my dream of an unbroken journey around the world by bicycle lay in tatters. It was a punch in the stomach that wouldn’t kill me but didn’t feel like it would make me any stronger and in an instant I plummeted to my lowest ebb. Had my inpatient nature been partly to blame? Looking back, I don’t know. I have had twenty days off my bike in the first two months before my knee became sore and I felt as if I was moving at a comfortable pace.

Before I left London a few things did worry me. Perhaps I would run out of courage and would not complete the challenge. Possibly. But I was more afraid that something entirely beyond my control would prevent me from continuing. It felt like my greatest fear was coming true and so early into my trip. I have to admit my impetuous character has made it hard to resist the temptation to carry on regardless, and perhaps if I was 3 or 4 years in I would, but I realise that soon I will have little access to scans and western style health care as my route takes me next into Africa and afterwards South America. In reality I have no choice but to return home to the UK and get the problem fixed. I have contacted doctors at my previous place of work in London who have reviewed the images and agree. I will fly back from Istanbul, head down and pissed off. Three months at home feels like an eternity. After the post-op recovery and some physiotherapy I will return to Istanbul and continue my world ride.

Perhaps some think I’m being a little melodramatic and perhaps I am, but mentally preparing myself to leave home for five years was not an easy task and neither is very abruptly and prematurely having to prepare myself to return. I will now probably miss the friends I had arranged to meet in Syria, Jordon and Malawi but it’s not a life-shattering problem, not even dream-shattering, just a set back. My proposed route took me through Europe twice so my goal remains intact. The journey can still be an unbroken trip across six continents as I’d planned. If I pass through Istanbul on my way home it will also still fulfill the criteria of a true circumnavigation of the world. But I know that these are trivial objectives. I’m not trying to break a world record.

Frustratingly although the knee becomes sore I am still able to ride, but to avoid further damage I took a flat unchallenging route to Istanbul and moved slowly, determined to at least finish my first continent. I tried what I could to eliminate the thought of the impending journey back to England from my consciousness and decided to try to decipher and learn the Greek alphabet from road signs en route. I passed through a lake district and stalks wading in the shallows looked on impassively as I weaved down the arrow straight roads trying unsuccessfully to dodge huge flurries of mosquitoes. I was due to collect my mosquito repellent in Istanbul and was therefore defenceless from the bombardment. In a cruel twist of fate the vast majority of bites I sustained were centred around my left knee. To boost my morale I decided I would take a boat from Alexandroupolis to the island of Samothraki, a verdant land where tourism has not yet taken over island life and nature predominates. I needed some time out to consolidate. The first part of my break did little to settle me. After getting on board the ship to the island we were all ordered to debark. “They think there is a bomb on board” remarked the passenger next to me with surprising nonchalance. People gathered on the tarmac giggling and laughing, there was not a sliver of alarm amongst the crowd. Another passenger informed me, with deep sincerity, that calling in a bomb scare usually happened when someone was late for the boat and needed to delay the departure. A few stragglers arrived and I wondered. The police were already there when we got off. An ambulance and fire engine soon arrived followed by a News crew. The gathered hoard were engaged in insouciant banter. The Police chatted wıth the Firemen who chatted with the Ambulance staff who chatted with the ship’s crew and the passengers talked amongst themselves. I tried to imagine what was being said and guessed it was something along the lines of “God not another bomb. Every damn Wednesday”. I chuckled at the fact that in Greece even bomb scares were treated with calm coolness.

In Samothraki I camped under a perfectly clear sky, strolled around the island, skinny dipped in river pools, clambered up to waterfalls and explored hidden coves. I regained some karma, cleared out my cluttered cranium and started to see the silver lining. Money was always a worry when planning to travel for so long and the Euro to Pound exchange rate has decimated my budget. I am very lucky that locum hospital work in London pays an hourly rate equal to a week’s living expenses in the developing world and I will take advantage of this fact after the operation when I am able. Perhaps after I set off again on my adventure I will not have to spend hours in local book shops trying to memorise sections of maps and guide books whilst feigning to consider making a purchase. Another plus is that I will now also miss most of the stiflingly hot summer in Syria, Jordon and North Africa and there is no rush to get to Patagonia as I will arrive comfortably after the winter. I will also be at home for the Football World Cup and not in the Sudanese wilderness. A small consolation at least. Slightly kinder weather, a bit more cash and a world cup on the tele… I would trade it all to continue. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason or not, but if it does at least I have some reasons.

After my short break I continued slowly to the Turkish frontier. Up until this point I had been without dilemma at the border posts and I was just contemplating this fact when I approached the Turkish border and had my first dilemma. The Greek border guards were all smiles, ‘Bravo’ and handshakes when they saw me ride up. I had grown accustomed to these pleasantries at the border. The Greek and Turkish posts were separated by a 200 metre long bridge, the start of which was manned by two soldiers holding rifles. Both very young, perhaps just teenagers, and both looked very unassuming even with their obvious armoury on display. ‘There are no bicycles allowed across the bridge. You must find another way across. I’m really sorry.’ One said despondently. I knew instantly what he meant by this other way. It was a 150 kilometre round trip. I pleaded and argued against this bizarre and irrational regulation, after all the border guards had let me through, there was virtually no traffic and the bridge was only 200 metres long. They called their commanding officer but the answer that came back was fırm and indisputable and I would not be allowed to cross. I returned to the border guards affronted and perplexed. There had obviously been some tension between the guards and the soldiers in the past because after I related the story the guards tutted and sighed and cursed the soldiers. One advised that I wait two hours, have some tea and try again when there would be new soldiers on shift. I doubted this would work. Then another piped up ‘lets smuggle him over in a truck!’. This idea was seized upon instantly and they all started tittering naughtily like school children about to play a hilarious prank on their teacher. Only five minutes later and a Greek Farmer and his wife pulled up in a truck with plenty of room in the back. There was nowhere to hide but I reasoned that it didn’t really matter and they drove me up to the bridge. Travelling by means other than by bicycle has been strictly against my religion but I told the purist in me to stop complaining, it would be 200 metres by truck or 150 kilometres by bike. I couldn’t resist waving at the soldiers as I passed by. To my surprise the once stern and obdurate senior officers on the other side of the bridge found it all very amusing and waved mirthfully as I crossed. I climbed off the truck after the bridge and cycled into Turkey to collect my first VISA. Two days later I reached Istanbul and stared across the Bosphorus to Asia with mixed emotions. Angry and upset that I could not yet continue my journey, anxious about what had befallen my knee and what lay in store at home but with one continent in the bag… a touch of pride.

In the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and with European air travel in chaos I realised that even though I must return home I am stuck in Istanbul. So I made a decision… My adventure will not yet be over. I will hitch-hike back to London from Istanbul. I found somewhere safe to store my bike and most of my equipment and scribbled the words ‘Volcano Victim’ on a sign I can hold up by the roadside. I will set off this week. I have set up a new Justgiving page so people can sponsor my hitch-hike home. So far people have been immensely generous and have donated almost 10,000 pounds to the charity Merlin for my bike ride. I hope that we can raise 2000 quid for my hitch-hike home. Every penny will go to the UK medical charity Merlin.

If you want to help me make the best of a bad situation please sponsor my mini-adventure back to the UK for my surgery by visiting to make a donation.

My memory flicks back to the sign I saw on my first day of cycling just outside London which read “don’t give up” and I know that a small problem like this will not get in the way. The three months I have spent on the road have flown by. I suspect the three months I will spend at home will not. But I remind myself that three months out of five years is a snip. I will be back riding as soon as I am able. This blog will continue and I hope you will still be reading. My trans-European ride has been more than magnificent and this is just a small bump in the road and another test of that elusive virtue… my patience.

So it’s one continent down and five to go. At the end of continent number one here are the Cycling The 6 European Awards… the best and the worst of the continent as I saw it…

Best food – France
How I still managed to lose weight during my Patisserie fuelled ride across France is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

Fastest Drivers – Croatia
I often think that the little flashing green man shown walking calmly at Croatian traffic lights should be replaced by a panic stricken red faced green man diving headlong towards the curb.

Toughest cycling – The French Alps
Spectacular and challenging. It was a love and hate relationship. I will never forgive them for what they have done to my knee.

Cheapest – Albania
“Byrek” – a cheese filled pastry purchased for the equivalent of less than 20 cents a pop washed down with 1.5 litres of Albanian beer for less than a Euro. Happy days.

Best Welcome – Albania
Salutes, waves, cheers and jubilation. It felt like a homecoming.

Fiercest dogs – Rural Greece (Turkey was a close second)
Chopper stay back! No Chopper! NO CHOPPER! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Favourite city – Thessaloniki, Greece

I stayed in Thessaloniki for ten days. It may not be the most beautiful but Thessaloniki has lots of history, friendly locals, great food and fine weather but most of all a young energetic heart and a quick pulse. Everywhere there are raucous parties and young people cutting loose. It’s a good place to have fun and I relished hanging out in the university drinking frappes, munching copious grub in Tavernas with traditional Greek music or dancing to techno in dingy squat parties.

And of course… The statistics

Distance cycled – 5000 km (I arrived into Istanbul on 4960 km. I had an obsessive-compulsive twinge and rode around until I had clocked up a nice round number.)

Countries cycled through – 13 (UK, France, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey)

Amount raised for the charity Merlin – Currently £9271. Thank you to everyone who has donated.

Accomodation – 99 nights (Slept for free for 80 of them)
Rough camped – 40
Couchsurfed (for the uninitiated CS is a travel networking website where local people put you up for free) – 32
Hostels – 18
Campsites – 2
With strangers who have invited me in – 3
With friends – 4
On my bike – not yet

Most expensive pint of Guinness – 6.80 Euro in Nice

Bike repairs – I’m one tyre, two sets of brake blocks and a chain link down

Punctures – Only one and brilliantly after just 20 km of the 5000 km outside Ashford in Kent.

Lowest temperature – Minus 19 in the Alps

Top Speed – 67 km/hr, coming into Gap, The French Alps.

Top altitude – Around 2000 metres, The Alps

Longest continuous ascent – Sea level to 1200 metres in Montenegro. 35 km of uphill riding.

Two things I lost count of – random acts of generosity from strangers and random acts of terrorism from dogs.

Paranoia and pesky pooches

At the border post I realised that I knew virtually nothing of Montenegro, the country I was about to enter. I quite liked this. I grew even more excited when I began cycling again and unfamiliar sights appeared by the roadside… a sign warning of wild boar and then a few kilometres later a dead one by the road. My plan for the day was another tough climb. From the ancient city of Kotor at sea level I would pedal uphill for thirty five kilometres, up to a height equal to that of Britain’s loftiest peaks, and at the top reap the reward… a view over Europe’s deepest fjord. I asked for some directions out of Kotor. “Its up up up” the woman kept saying gesturing wildly by turning her hand from left to right to mimic the road snaking up the side of the mountain. Is there any flat? “In Montenegro” said the man standing next to her “there is no flat”. And with that I bid them a hasty farewell before I talked myself out of it and I made up the mountain.

The ascent was a lung cruncher and after dodging the odd football sized chunk of falling ice on the way up I came face to muzzle with two huge sheepdogs that were waiting for me at the top. Wretched, savage looked beasts and despite their size they didn’t look very healthy. I tried desperately to remember if I’d had that third rabies jab. Their eyes were fixed on me and they were barking incessantly. I realise here a photo would be helpful but at the time I don’t recall feeling inclined to ready my camera. Farm dogs in Eastern Europe are fiercely territorial and since reaching Slovenia I have been chased around three times per day. It seems these menacing mutts had decided the road was their territory and it was clear what they wanted to do to the intruder. After a tense stand off I passed by with the assistance of the farmer who scolded Brutus and Chopper (I don’t know their names, I’m just guessing). I was unaware at this point that soon much worse would be in store from man’s best friend.

My route from the Montenegrin fjord would go northeast until I hit Bulgaria. That was the plan at least but I have got into the habit of making decisions quickly and only when I have to. That is not to say I don’t think them through, I just don’t worry about them until I’m actually at the junction, not hours or days beforehand. My first day of riding north and I was fighting against a vicious headwind. I had made just 10 km in over an hour. I’m not a patient person and this was frustrating. There’s a certain justice and fairness to the hills. Whatever I go up, I will eventually descend. Headwinds and tailwinds are more of a lottery and this was really pissing me off. I stopped in the road and weighed up my options. Continue or venture south to Albania. It was not like me to be plagued by indecision but I stood in the road and dithered.

Albania. I’d been warned not to venture into its interior and up until now I’d planned to take heed of this advice. “Albania is mafia country” I was told by a hostel owner in Dubrovnik. I was also warned of the poor quality of Albanian roads and I had even heard rumours of Albania being home to terrorist training camps. The UK foreign office site gave advice on travelling in Albania and did little to convince me this would be a sensible path to take…

“Gun ownership, crime and violence widespread”
“Driving can often be aggressive and erratic”
“Fatality rates from road traffic accidents are amongst the highest in Europe”
“Minor traffic disputes can quickly escalate, especially as some motorists could be armed”
“Risk of unexploded ordnance from the conflict in neighbouring Kosovo”

Even the Albanian flag, a black two headed eagle on a red background, to me looked decidedly sinister. I decided my idea of adventure probably stopped short of risking losing vital body parts in exploding land mines and on my journey I reasoned my legs would be quite useful accessories. I would get my head down and edge northeastwards.

I continued on, head down. Ten minutes later I paused again, intensely frustrated as another gust stopped me dead in my tracks. But I should push on… I looked up at the road in front and saw another farm dog yapping, growling and coming in my direction. In an instant I turned and was heading towards Albania. As I whizzed along with the breeze I thought about the perfunctory decision I had just made. The direction of the wind and a small dog would now shape the next month of my life. The experiences and challenges ahead would be dramatically different on this new route to Istanbul. I thought about Albania and my head was full of negative imaginings; a lawless land of landmines, terrorists and bandits. What was I getting myself into?

I crossed the border into Albania and immediately my fears were confirmed. The road became a hotchpotch of potholes and craters. But then what I didn’t expect, cheers and waves from Albanians out working in the fields. I was even saluted by some of the children as I rode past. People were clearly surprised to see me. Horses and carriages now shared the road with bashed up old Mercs and the occasional new one which I secretly hoped was occupied by the Albanian mafia. My first night in Albania was spent drinking vodka with a group of men in a metalwork shop. In fact Albania has been the most welcoming country of my journey so far and nothing better highlights the generosity of the Albanians than my experience near Elbesan.

I was on my way to the “Summer day” festival, a carnival with pagan roots which celebrates the end of winter. After my chilly start I was in the mood to cheer for warmer climes. I put up my tent on a small makeshift football pitch close to a few houses in the hills above the town. The local children seemed fascinated by this strange bearded curiosity camping under their goal posts and they watched my every move in silence. I was just settling down for the night when a man arrived with the cheekiest of the children, Albert. They couldn’t speak any English but it became clear that they wanted me to take down my tent and come into the house. This was an invitation and I followed them inside. The front room had a crucifix adorning one wall and a picture of Mary Magdalene on another. There were no other colours, carpets or decorations to be seen. Eight of them lived here, a Greek Orthodox family and clearly religious. Mum, dad, four children, the grandmother and the father’s sister who was profoundly deaf but knew a little English and I answered their questions in writing which she would then translate. She had suffered “nerve damage” and didn’t have enough money for the medical treatment for her hearing loss. The father was the only money earner after the grandfather died two months ago. The female members of the household were still wearing black. We took it in turns to ask questions. I established that the children wanted to be an economist, a nurse and Albert… a boxer. They had lots of questions for me, the usual regarding my family, whether I am married, whether I worried about travelling alone and finally to my amusement the sister wrote “Princess Diana. Accident or murder?”!

After the questioning I was led to the shower and afterwards sat down, watched intensely by the whole family and a small table was pulled up. They discovered my socks were wet so these were removed and a pair of the father’s socks brought for me to wear. A coat was placed over my shoulders. The women brought out food… sausage, egg, gherkins, yogurt, a nondescript meat dip, bread and cheese. Every time I finished the father would click his fingers and someone would scuttle off to fetch more. I refused and gestured that I had had my fill but he wasn’t taking no for an answer. When I persisted he looked suddenly dejected and gloomy. Even a bit frustrated. So I kept eating. They served me a plum spirit, beer, coffee and wine. Then at the end a cigar. “No thank you”. The look returned. I would smoke the cigar. I felt ridiculous sitting with a family who didn’t have enough money for basic healthcare, in a house where eight people slept in three rooms, wearing someone else’s socks, beer in hand, full to bursting with food and smoking a cigar.

The next day I got up early and went outside to my bike to find the plastic bag of food missing. The father looked upset as he showed me round to the back of the shed and there was the bag, shredded with food spilt over the ground. He pointed at the dog and started beating it. I had felt totally unworthy of such hospitality but now due to my stupidity by leaving my food outside they were feeling guilty. But one thing did cheer me up. I watched the dog getting whacked and couldn’t help notice that instead of flinching it was wide eyed and jumping around manically. I looked to the ground to find that the mutt had devoured several of my three in one coffee and chocolate sachets. I think he was having a little trouble handling the caffeine high.

In the capital Tirana I stayed in a hostel for a few days. One evening a figure entered in an immediately familiar outfit, looking I suspect, as ridiculous as I often do. A luminous workman’s jacket, trousers tucked in, glasses and helmet. It was another cyclist and the first I have met so far. Robin left England roughly when I did and had followed the Danube for most of his route across Europe. His girlfriend lives in Korea and being both English and a bit nutty he had decided the best way to get there would be by bicycle. I enjoyed winding him up by suggesting she wouldn’t be there when he arrived. We shared advice and tips and mused over maps. It was great to find someone who had their own woeful canine stories to tell and finally someone who was both excited and in awe by the sheer variety of Jaffa Cake-type confectionery in Eastern European supermarkets. He laughed at my inability to fully close two of my panniers due to the huge amount of useless tat I was lugging whilst I laughed heartily at his large rear pannier which was full to the brim with one commodity only… food. We walked through Tirana’s bazaars in the rain wearing the last of our clean clothes, indulging in the occasional impulse buy (me – a novelty horn for the bike, Robin – more food), ate ice cream and looked thoroughly English.

I had trouble leaving Elbesan after the festivities and found myself going in circles, riding down the same streets again and again. What was I doing wrong? I was navigating by compass as roadsigns had become a rarity in Albania. Then it dawned on me the problem. My novelty horn, mounted on my handlebars and next to my compass, was obviously made from iron interfering with the compass reading and leading me on a merry dance. I ditched the horn and finally crossed the border into Greece. In the vast rural emptiness of this region I had the most terrifying ordeal of the trip. I was travelling through a barren landscape which developed an otherworldly aura when the sun began to sink.

During the night I had heard barking nearby but the last farm I had seen was around twenty kilometres behind me. I was on the road for 6.30am. The day before perhaps one car had passed every hour but this early I knew there would be no vehicles coming by. As I cycled I caught sight of a small dog racing out of the scrub. No worries. I had a couple of stones ready to launch in its direction. Suddenly another larger animal appeared and then more barks from the scrub. Another two. Two more. Larger, barking relentlessly and bearing down on me fast. I sounded my mega-horn but there was nobody around to hear it. Now three more grizzly creatures, tufts of fur missing. Who could need this many dogs? There was no farm in sight. I chucked a couple of pebbles at the group to little effect. More appeared and by now I’d lost count. Certainly more than ten. Several were large and all highly aggressive. This felt different to my experience so far. Frenzied. It was as if they were goading each other on. The pack mentality seemed rife through the group. Two went for my legs and I kicked the air trying to fend them off. The road went steeply downhill ahead. I could out run them if I could get there quickly. In my effort to get away I pushed down hard on the pedals and the inevitable happened. “Clunk”. I looked down despairingly to see the chain lying limp against the crankset. I jumped off and started to push. The dogs were coming in to bite me and I jumped around wildly to avoid them. Finally I reached the incline and gravity came to the rescue. I freewheeled down the slope taking me away from the attack.

I have learnt two important lessons of late. Firstly I will try not to be so paranoid and will have faith in the world being a friendlier place than it is frequently portrayed or perceived. The foreign office I think is often over-cautionary. After all, it does have a vested interest. If a British citizen gets into trouble overseas if may be them who has to help, financially or otherwise. I will trust people more and listen to the doomsayers less. Secondly I am getting some proper protection from these troublesome mutts. A friend will bring me a Dog Dazer in Istanbul, a device with emits a high frequency sound, above that of the human range, but which is allegedly unpleasant for dogs and acts as a repellent. But this doesn’t seem enough. You get viciously threatened so what do you do? Make a loud noise? Come on. I’m going on the offensive. I don’t want to, no wait, I do want to inflict permanent injury on these pesky beasts but I empathise with those of you who think this may be a little heavy-handed. So bearing this in mind in the comments section below please leave your suggestions for weapons I can carry with me and use against aggressive dogs en route. Please include some sensible suggestions. This is not Doom 3 and I can’t imagine being able to get a rocket launcher or plasma gun across borders.