We were nearing the end of our summer stage cycling across ten countries in Europe when we entered Greece at the Dojran lakeside border with Macedonia, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as Greeks know it.
There were two goals in mind for touring this country:
1. Allowing time for celebration at Niamh's end point in Thessaloniki.
2. Meeting my folks at the border with Turkey in 10 days time.
The land quickly turned parched again after slipping away from the lake, and the punctures came think and fast. We were pushing ourselves to get to Thessaloniki, not because we needed to for time, but because the prize was in sight and we would be able to enjoy our extra effort even more when we arrived. We sure did. The Whisky and Craft Beers tasted even sweeter, knowing that we had managed to get from northwestern Italy to here ahead of schedule. We enjoyed some retail therapy and acted like we were on holiday, on a holiday for a few days. We even splashed out on a hotel with a pool and some treatments that scraped the remnants of abuse off our feet.
It was soon time for Niamh to fly home to Ireland, so I dashed out on my bike earlier than normal to avoid the inevitable awkward dragged-out goodbye. Except that back-fired when we realised that I had somehow packed her lovely new blue leather jacket, so I had to divert to the airport. We are both rubbish at parting, so I barely stopped for an embrace, rolling through the airport terminal fully loaded and out again in seconds.
I tried to make up for the unusual start to the day by pushing hard to get up and over the three fingered peninsular that the city is positioned to the southwest of. I spent the rest of the morning panting, as I rounded a bend to find another hill, constantly maneuvering across the road seeking shade from the blistering sun. I quickly discovered that Greek dogs do not like cyclists one bit. Each village had packs loitering on abandoned plots; no doubt the leftovers of the financial crisis, which had hit over-extended Greek's particularly hard. It was almost enough to ruin my cheap coffee and cake breaks for goodness sake. I dealt with them in the same way I always had - sprint away and scream. I later learned a better tactic in Georgia years afterwards (see Georgia chapter).
I finally made it to the other side of the peninsula just before sunset, which I settled down to watch on the balcony of a bargain guesthouse, hosted by someone who really cared about her guests. Stavros was a lovely spot and I enjoyed relaxing there for a moment or two. That was until I heard that Niamh’s flight had been delayed, meaning that her connecting flight back to Ireland had gone without her. She was still in Greece; her bike was nowhere to be seen. Neither of us had internet access, but I was kindly given permission to use the hosts computer, who could see the look of concern on my face, so didn't need to speak to communicate. I managed to book another flight but only for the next day with another stop in London. I finally got the message to Niamh before midnight, but she had been stuck at the airport all day with no idea what she could do. It must have been horrible, especially as her bike had disappeared.
Amazingly, a week later her trusty steed arrived at her home, almost unscathed. I'm writing this because the idea of flying with a bike puts some people off of touring. I understand the concern and the hassle that goes into dismantling and re-assembling for packing into a box. But after doing this dozens of times now, when the bikes finally arrive, there is normally no major damage. Airlines usually follow through on delivering to an address if they do not get the bike on the planned flight, and with plenty of 'Fragile' labels, and cunning box choices (TV boxes are best), they handle them with some degree of care. We have recently invested in proper bike bags, with re-enforcement and locks. These are proving to be great, but of course are no use if you are cycling onwards from an airport. You can't carry the bags and they are far too expensive to throw away. In summary - believe that people will care and be patient.
After that little drama, I woke early and hungry, so ventured out for some breakfast at a beachside hut. I returned to realise that I had locked the keys in the room. I was so angry with myself, but I used my by Spidey-skills. I scaled the drainpipes, shimmied across guttering and jumped the balcony. The wrong balcony I might add. There I was trying the slide-door to someone else's room. They were not well dressed, understandably as they were partly in bed. The guy woke, looked at me and simply closed his eyes again. Strange, but it seemed that I had not been detected, so not only was I acting like Spiderman but I was Doctor Invisible too. I confidently hopped onto the next balcony and to my relief saw that the slide-door was ajar. I was in, and ten minutes later, on the road, transformed into a wannabe Supercycletourman.
I spent the next few days feeling like an alien riding through package tour and lager-lout paradise. Except that I was one of them really. Ok, so I came here on a bike, preferred craft beer and wore cycling jerseys instead of wife-beater vests, but I was still a Brit on tour. Once again, I was embarrassed that people probably perceive me in a certain way, but pleased that I was a little different. I wanted to get away from the orange-red glow of buttocks on the beach and develop my own red-butt from cycling. So I re-routed to follow an old Roman road. This was a great call, as all those years ago, they had stopped at intervals each day the matched mine, so there was a settlement, or at least somewhere to pitch a tent in relative quietness. I had swapped the cursing clientele on the sticky dance-floors of resort towns with cursing domino-playing old men on sleepy village squares. Swapped the Lager for Grappa, and the Egg & Chips for locally grown veg.
My final night was spent in a lovely village near Alexandroupoli, a few hours west of the border with Turkey. I had planned to meet my folks on the other side, in a petrol station at an agreed time. Remarkably, the border was a breeze, and I crossed the carriageway to enter the station forecourt at the exact time that they rounded the corner in a car, so we arrived together. Smooth as a babies bum, and much smoother than mine at the time.