After having spent two weeks in Skopje, Macedonia, I cycled east and out of the city. Without a proper map, I made a wrong turn almost immediately. After nearly an hour’s worth of cycling I finally realized I had ventured too far south… and if I continued on the road I was traveling, I would soon wind up in the middle of nowhere.
At a small village bus station I approached a man of 30 who was standing on the curb and waiting for the bus. I asked if he could speak English and he could… quite well in fact! He said that I needed to turn left about one tenth of a mile up the road and climb over a small hill before venturing across a long dirt road that would bring me back to the road he believed I needed to be on. I thanked the man and then followed his directions, turning left on the next road, climbing a small steep hill, and rolling onto a long dirt road that stretched off into the horizon.
Cycling on dirt roads is typically something I try to avoid, but here in the middle of Macedonia, where drivers can be a bit psychotic, I was glad to finally be on a path that was traffic free. After a short distance the road split in two directions and I picked the route that went to the left.
As I cycled on, the road became more and more difficult to ride across. There were huge waves in the road where the dirt had been pushed down and then thrust back up upon itself. As I cycled over wave after wave of dirt and rock, I found myself enjoying the ride more than any other part of my European adventure thus far. It was like surfing, but on a bicycle, in one-hundred degree heat.
Eventually the road ended and I hit the freeway. I turned to the right and cycled south along a small frontage road that lined the Macedonian highway. For a few miles I followed this long, windy road as it passed through acres of farmland, hills, and dirt. In one area, an entire field was filled with yellow sunflowers, making for a few spectacularly memorable moments.
But then, just when cycling in Macedonia seemed to be too easy, the road came to an end as I was forced into a small town. Once again, I found some people hanging out at the bus stop and asked them for directions. They said that I could not ride through the city without crossing over a series of large hills, so they suggested I continue south on the freeway.
“Are you sure?” I asked them. “Am I allowed to ride my bicycle on the freeway?”
They insisted it would be okay. I, of course, was skeptical. But with no other choice, I jumped on the shoulder-less freeway and cycled south.
Lucky for me, the freeway was relatively flat and there were few cars darting down the two lane road.
I’ve spent considerable amounts of time riding my bike on the freeway, so this was nothing new, but freeway riding is not something I particularly enjoy. With cars dashing past at incredibly high speeds you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings. I used my helmet mounted mirror to watch for approaching cars and trucks and used every highway pullout as an opportunity to stop, catch my breath and rehydrate.
About 10 miles down the freeway I happened upon a speed-trap, where Macedonian police were positioned beside the road to watch for speeding motorists. As I pulled up on my bike, I knew I would either cycle past without incident or I would find myself in a heap of trouble for riding my slow moving bicycle on the fastest road in all of Macedonia.
To my surprise, the police didn’t say a thing as I cycled up. As I approached, I pulled my bike over and said hello. One of the officers spoke perfect English and I asked him if was okay that I ride on the freeway. He said it was not a problem. In fact, he suggested I ride on the freeway the entire way to Thessaloníki (Greece). I, however, had different plans. Nevertheless, I thanked the officer and continued on my way.
Tip: If you are ever unsure as to whether or not you should be riding on a particular road, just ask the local authorities. Since they are the ones you will get in trouble with if you are wrong in your assumptions, they are usually the best people to ask. Don’t always trust the locals. Take their advice into consideration, but don’t always trust it.
After 30 miles of freeway riding I took the exit and turned east on a small two-land road. I immediately hit a hill and took my time climbing the sucker. At the top, a bus had pulled to the side of the road and its passengers were standing around just outside the door of the massive white vehicle. As I cycled up the passengers stared at me and my strange red bicycle. A man around my same age (25) called at me in broken English and asked me what I was doing here in the middle of Macedonia on such a strange looking bicycle. I told him all about my trip and what I was doing… and he seemed quite impressed.
“For someone like me, this is very interesting,” he explained.
I wished the passengers luck as I waved goodbye and cycled down the road while they waited for a new bus to come and pick them up. I would see them later (about three hours later to be exact) as they zoomed by me in a brand new bus.
It was getting dark now and I needed to find a place to spend the night. I passed a small hotel, but it looked deserted and scary, so I cycled on, looking for a place to camp instead.
At sunset, I found a large patch of trees and moments after a cop passed by in his patrol car, I jumped off the bike and carried it off into the trees.
It was a tree farm of some kind and there were rows and rows of trees stretching from the road to far up into the hills. I climbed up about 8 rows of trees and then pitched my tent in a dark secluded area where I ventured it would be difficult to be found.
I’ve had some great stealth camping locations over the years, but this was one of the best. As the sun set, the weather was nice and I had a great night’s sleep out under the stars.
In the morning I was surprised to hear a car pull up outside my tent and voices mumbling off in the distance. Somehow, against all odds, a couple driving a small blue compact car has pulled off into the tree farm for a morning make out session and they had parked their car no more than 50 feet from my tent. I don’t think they saw me at first, but as I began taking down my tent and packing up my bike, I assume they saw me. Lucky for me, the couple never said anything and after packing up my bike I rolled out onto the street and continued on my way.
It was another hot day in Macedonia and even with 4.5 liters of water on my bike, I still found myself feeling a bit dehydrated. Luckily there were a series of well-spaced gas stations along the road I was traveling and I’d stop at just about every one to buy a new bottle of water (and sometimes an ice cream cone or two). All day long I’d cycle on for a short distance and then duck into a gas station to re-hydrate and re-fuel. The roads were flat, the cycling was great, and the cars were few.
Before leaving Skopje, I had been told time and time again that this area of Macedonia was nothing but mountains and that riding a bicycle through these parts would be nearly impossible. But here I was, not only making great progress, but having the time of my life. It was, quite honestly, the best bike riding I had done over the past few months.
There was one long hill I had to climb, but it wasn’t steep. I didn’t even have to drop into my lowest gear. Plus, the climb was wedged between two steep cliffs, which shaded me from the sun, keeping me cool and relaxed. As I reached the top of the pass I looked back and laughed. “Is that all you got?” I thought to myself.
Near the end of the day I cycled into the city of Strumica. On the map it looked like a tiny village, but in reality it was a whole lot bigger than that. It was early enough in the day that I could have kept cycling if I had chosen to, but the place looked nice, so I decided to stop and find a place to stay.
After a few failed conversations with the locals, I finally found a hotel on the city’s eastern side and booked a room for 20 Euros. I locked my bike to the black metal gate behind the hotel and checked into a small, clean hotel room on the second floor. Strumica was my home… for the night at least.
More about Strumica and the rest of my adventures in Macedonia will be posted in an upcoming article. Stay tuned…