I cycled east out of Strumica and through a vast stretch of farmland and quickly dehydrating greens. Along the way, I passed the entrance to the Kolesino waterfall, which I had heard was quite spectacular, but did not have the time to see for myself.
After what seemed like no more than an hour’s worth or riding, I casually pulled up to the border station that separated me from the great nation of Bulgaria.
As I approached, I could see that the lane hugging the border station was blocked and covered by two painters who had laid out a large brown tarp over the street as they worked to paint the overhang of the security booth. There were no other vehicles at the border station and besides the painters, who were busy at work, there was no one else in sight.
I pulled up to the border station, just short of the brown tarp that was laid out in the street, and dismounted my bicycle. I peered inside the dark tinted windows of the guard shack, but couldn’t see a thing.
Suddenly, two men in dark uniforms emerged from a small hut behind me. They said something to me in a language I could not understand, so I held out my passport and removed my sunglasses.
The men took my paperwork and returned to their booth.
“How long were you here?” One of the men asked me, as the other typed my passport number into the computer.
“About three weeks.” I told the men.
“Three weeks!” they said. “What were you doing here this whole time?”
“Just exploring, I guess.” I fumbled over the words, not knowing that the correct answer might be.
“Where did you stay?” One of the men then asked me?
“I stayed in Skopje and in Strumica.” I responded.
“Do you have the paperwork? To prove where you stayed?”
I didn’t! I had rented an apartment in Skopje, through a personal website I had found on the Internet and the owner had given me no paperwork or receipt of any kind to prove I had stayed there.
I did, however, recall being given a document by the hotel in Strumica, so I told the men that I did indeed have the paperwork, but that it was buried way down deep inside my panniers.
The men understood and told me to step to the side of the road, just in case a vehicle were to come at some point in the future.
For the next five minutes, I dug inside my panniers, dripping sweat as I searched for this single piece of paper, which I wasn’t even sure I had held onto. But then, just as I was about to give up all hope of ever finding the document, I found it!
I jumped up with the little white piece of paper in my hand and ran it over to the men.
The tallest of the two men looked at it and said, “This is only for one night.”
I was in trouble! I didn’t have any other documents to prove where I had stayed or whether I had paid the proper taxes, etc.
Finally, the man spoke again and said, “Don’t worry about. Go ahead.” He then waved me on and said I was free to leave the country. Whew!
As I returned to my bike and began packing up my things, the men walked over to me, obviously bored, and started asking me about my trip. They wanted to know where I had come from and where I planned on going after leaving Bulgaria.
I told them that I had started the trip in Switzerland in December and that I had a little less than two months left before I would fly home from Athens, Greece.
I then gave them my business card, directed them back to this website, and promised that I would one day write a story about them. Well, here it is guys. You’re famous!
Entering Bulgaria was a joy. It was hot, but the land felt peaceful and relaxed.
For the first ten miles or so, the scenery was a complete contrast, divided by the road running right down the middle. To my right was a warm, swampy mess of trees and bushes – much like that in all of Macedonia. To my left, however, was a mountainside that made me feel as though I might be in the hills of Northern Arizona.
After an hour of cycling, I came across a shady patch of trees and stopped for a drink and snack.
Minutes later, a tiny red car pulled up and three of the oddest looking men you’ve ever seen emerged from it’s tiny doors.
The men took a single glance at me sitting there on the side of the road with my bicycle and then processed to simultaneously pull down their pants and urinate within mere feet of me.
After a good shaking of their you know whats, the men climbed back inside their car and drove off. I would see them two more times before I left the country.
The rest of the day was spent cycling though small Bulgarian towns. I stopped to fill my water bottle up in what I believe was a city park and made time to pet a donkey that was casually sitting on the side of the road, completely unattended.
In the cities, I spied multiple individuals hanging out on sunny balconies, completely in the nude. In the photo below you can see a large naked man taking in the afternoon sun.
I had been in Bulgaria for little more than an hour, yet I had already seen at least half-a-dozen naked men.
I eventually ran into the road that would take me south out of Bulgaria and into Greece. The road was much larger than the one I had been riding on all day, but after a short stint I found myself at the border of Bulgaria and Greece.
I had no problems leaving the country this time and was easily allowed into Greece.
Just past the border stop, I met a dark young man with dreadlocks (not much older than myself), who said he was from Israel and was traveling around the world with a BMW 1200 motorcycle. We talked for a while and he expressed his frustration at not being able to find a girl who shared in his passion for world travel. I told him I understood… and I really do.
By this time it had been just a few hours since I left Strumica and I had already hit three different countries in a single day. I knew that I could rest here, or push hard and reach Thessaloniki the following day. With this in mind, I rode on and cycled hard. The weather was hot and I spent a lot of time riding on the freeway.
Only as night drew closer did I exit the main road and start traveling through the farmland of northern Greece.
At one point, covered in sweat and suffering from one nasty sunburn, I dipped my empty water bottles into a raging irrigation ditch and covered myself from head to toe with the cool brown water. Mere moments later my clothes were dry and I was sweating yet again. It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit and I was drinking gallons of water each and every hour. I’ve never drank so much… and peed so little!
In each town I passed I would stop and refill my water bottles and buy an ice cream cone or two in an attempt to re-energize. I had been in Greece for less than a day, but already I could tell that the prices were steep – nearly twice what I had grown accustomed to paying in Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
That night, as the sun fell, I pulled my bike onto a dirt side-road and lifted it up a steep hillside embankment covered in high green bushes. Here, I set up my tent and made camp for the night. I slept with the rain fly off of the tent and enjoyed a peaceful night out under the stars.
In the morning I quickly packed up my things and returned to the main road for a long and painful ride up a step mountain pass.
By this time, I felt sick (likely from all the ice cream I had eaten the day before) and this climb, which I would have normally tackled with ease, seemed to stretch on forever.
However, I did eventually reach the top… and it was all downhill from there!
Still riding on the freeway, I expected to have a run in with the police at just about any moment. I wasn’t sure if it was legal to ride on this particular road, but I didn’t seem any other choice, so I just kept cycling.
Eventually, the freeway ended and I was pushed into a small hillside town. There was some sort of accident on the road ahead and the because of this, the traffic was at a stand still. At a police attended intersection, I was waved through and was forced to climb (as fast as I possibly could) up a steep windy road with little to no shoulder.
At the top of the hill I was forced back onto the freeway – this one completely filled with cars, trucks, and motorcycles making their way into downtown Thessaloniki.
I nearly vomited making my way to the top of the hill, the whole time trying to keep speed with the cars around me. From the top of the hill, I could see what appeared to be straight shot into downtown Thessaloniki, but it was a lot further than I imagined it would be. The city was huge!
If you don’t know, Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city (Athens is the first) with a population of approximately 1 million residents.
I wanted to take the freeway all the way into town because I knew that was the shortest way there, but I knew the road would be dangerous and likely quite unfriendly for a guy on a bicycle. With this in mind, I took the very first exit I could find and started slowly making my way into the city through a maze of side streets and thoroughfares.
Like a mirage that magically appears in the desert, I suddenly found myself on the beach.
I spent an hour or two looking for a boat that would take me from Thessaloniki to Athens, but soon thereafter found that the boat I had planned on taking was no longer making the trip. After visiting the train station, I discovered that the bus was the only way I would be able to transport both myself and my bike to Athens. I needed to wait a day for the trip south, so I hung out in the city for the next 36 hours and got to know the city as best I could.
Here are some of my highlights from Thessaloniki:
I stayed at an excellent little hotel just a few blocks east of the train station. I can’t remember the name, but I could find it in a heart beat if I were ever to return. The man at the desk was extremely nice and the room had free Internet, which I always appreciate!
While stopping to check my email at an Internet cafe near a small indoor shopping mall I saw the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I had heard that the women in Greece were beautiful, but this woman took the cake. I’ve honestly never seen anyone so good looking.
As I walked along the shore, I wondered why there were no people swimming. I then saw that there were thousands and thousands of jellyfish in the water. They ranged in size from just a few centimeters to a few feet in length… and they ran for miles down the coastline. I have never seen so many jellyfish in all my life. No wonder there wasn’t a single person in the water!
On the south side of town I found a small outdoor skate park. I spoke with some of the kids who were hanging out there and tried to jump my touring bike on the quarter-pipe. As you can tell by the photo below, I didn’t get too high!
On the way back into town I stopped at a book store and bought the first book in the Twilight series. I had been hearing about the book/movie for months now via the World Wide Web and I had watched the first film on a pirated DVD copy in my Skopje, Macedonia apartment. The book was one of just a few books in the Greek bookstore that were written in English, so I grabbed it and immediately began digesting the story of Bella and Edward.
Back near my hotel, near the train station, I came across a crown of men (apparently on strike) who stormed a policeman who was directing traffic in a crowded intersection. The men waved signs, yelled and chanted, and refused any cars or vehicles to make their way through. Not able to understand what the men were saying or what they signs they were carrying read, I retreated back to my hotel room, where I ordered a pizza and waited for night to fall.
Later that night, I returned to the ocean front and found it crowded with teens and couples alike. As I would soon discover once I arrived in southern Greece, this country is a place where the people really do come alive at night – and Thessaloniki was no exception. The shoreline was alive with lights and people… and the music of the city lulled me to sleep, so I could wake the next day and prepare myself for the long, overnight bus ride into southern Greece.