The International Writers Magazine: Travel Across Three Continents
*Now published as Slow Road to Tehran 2022
|Podgorica, Montenegro to Serbia/Kosovo border
(26 Sep – 14 Oct)
Total miles cycled: 1,340 (2,157km)
Thigh status: pygmy hippopotamus
‘Politics, problem!’ says the man, handing me a spoon of home-made honey. ‘Corrupt-zion, problem! Arsenal, problem! Arsene Wenger, catastroph!’
P and I are at Lake Skadar, Montenegro, sampling a few of the local grapes during a week-long, bike-free holiday that my buttocks are already embracing wholeheartedly. Our host invited us in on our way past his winery and is now plying us generously with his wares. He doesn’t seem entirely happy, however, either with his country or the plight of Premiership football.
‘Mourinho, problem!’ he cries, throwing up his hands. ‘Money, big problem!’
To avoid adding thankless tourists to his problems, we buy a bottle of strong, creamy Vranac – a dry red unique to Montenegro – and extricate ourselves before the third round of rakija. We are on our way back to Virpazar from a lakeside beach in Murici, 25 km to the south. The road there was breathtaking, snaking high through the lush, luminescent hills. When we arrived we found the place almost deserted, save for a Russian in a provocative pair of speedos, some frisky goats and a tortoise.
We could have stayed longer, but sunshine and Slavic tackle is no match for our baser British instincts and we return to watch the England vs Wales rugby World Cup match. After setting up my laptop in a bar, we are joined by a couple from Leeds – and, later, by some locals intrigued by P’s unpatriotic roars of support for Wales. ‘If it was Serbia vs Montenegro, you’d never get two men at the same table supporting different teams,’ one of them says. ‘They’d kill each other!’
One of the men tells me he’s an investigative journalist. He used to work for one of the private TV channels, he says, but lost his job after producing a series exposing corruption in government. ‘This place is a disaster zone,’ he slurs tipsily. ‘Everyone leaves if they can.’
What a shame to be forced out of such a place, I think to myself. The country is tiny, with a population similar to Glasgow (620,000). Yet packed inside is a greedy abundance of natural treasures, including lakes, mountains, gorges, forests and a coastline described by Lord Byron (with just a hint of hyperbole) as the earth’s ‘most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’.
P is equally enraptured, it seems. ‘Bloody hell,’ he says as we work our way through the vigorous greenery en route to the coast. ‘Blood-dee hell.’
||The picturesque old town of Perast on the Bay of Kotor, with 17 Baroque palazzos and only one road (where visitor cars are banned).
The problem with having such riches at your disposal, however, is the temptation to dispose of them. And the government’s intentions are clear: turn the country into a luxury mecca for the super-rich. Porto Montenegro, an extravagant marina development part-owned by Oleg Deripaska and the Rothschilds, benefits from generous tax breaks, while the country’s show-piece hunk of real estate, Sveti Stefan, is now a five-star resort boasting rooms that would set the average Montenegrin back several months’ salary.
P and I consider staying at Sveti Stefan, but empty our pockets and realise we only have £15, some Halls mint Soothers and a puncture repair kit between us. So we go instead to Perast in the Bay of Kotor – an achingly charming town deeply influenced by its 380 years under Venetian rule – and from there move onto Tara Canyon, in Durmitor National Park.
|View of the Tara River Caon from ?ur?evi?a Tara Bridge. It’s the deepest canyon in Europe (1,300m) and runs for 82km along the Tara River.
On our way to the canyon, we are flagged down by police for speeding and hit with a €50 fine. They clocked us doing 78km/h in a 60-zone, the officer says. No arguments. To pay we have to go to the nearest big town, 20km back the way we came.
It’s clear the guy’s a maverick. There’s no way we were doing 78km/h, for a start; we were doing at least 100. But what to do? Before starting my trip, I’d made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t contribute to the crooked dealings of any country I passed through. I’m a moral person, after all, and much of my journalism has focused on corruption and fraud. I know the terrible impact it can have.
‘Can we just pay here?’ I say, handing over two €10 notes. ‘We’re in a bit of a rush.’
Minutes later we’re zooming along the road again, back on track. I watch the policemen recede in the rear-view mirror, along with the tattered remains of my integrity. Hypothetical ethics are so much easier than real ones, I mull to myself. What strength it must require to keep your hands clean. Or at least a degree of tolerance for moderate inconvenience.
At Tara Canyon – the deepest gorge in Europe (1,300m), running for 82km along the Tara River – P and I hit the canyoning trail and spend a fantastic day scrabbling our way through a magical, craggy underworld of cerulean pools, rivulets and rocks. Our guide is a PE teacher, but tells us he’s trying to get a visa for Australia. He’s desperate to leave, he says. ‘Everyone hates the government, but there’s nothing you can do. They control the jobs. You speak out, you lose everything.’
After P returns to the UK, I rekindle my strained relationship with Maud, who was cruelly abandoned in the boot of the hire car for the duration of the break (P is not an enthusiastic cyclist). Then I hit the road again towards Albania. As I leave Podgorica, I pass protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic – curiously one of the richest leaders in the world, despite his £1,000 monthly salary. I then follow the Civjevna river through the mountains, beside moss, spruce and fir, while the sky burns electric blue overhead. It’s a beautiful ride and I feel the lethargy seeping slowly out of my pores.
||Then, after about 28km, the road suddenly stops (see pic). I look around in panic. Where the hell has it gone? Has a mountain been built on top of it? Has Donald Trump taken over border control? I storm into a nearby house to demand answers. ‘Ah,’ a woman says, looking apologetic. ‘It hasn’t been finished yet. The only crossing is down south, by Lake Skadar.’
Oh crap, I think. Lake Skadar? That involves going almost all the way back the way I came. I look around frantically for some hapless soul I can bribe or cajole to take me through. It’s not like I have any awkward scruples left to worry about, after all. But it’s futile. The route is completely, irredeemably blocked. And I’m completely, irredeemably buggered. Note to self: best check border road has been built before cycling 28km to get there.
So, with a heavy heart, I turn around and go back. Hoping I’ve learnt my lesson but knowing I almost certainly haven’t, I finally make it to Tuzi, near Lake Skadar, where I get chatting to a man in a cafe. I shouldn’t attempt to cross today, he tells me, because there’s nowhere to stay on the other side and it’s inadvisable to camp. ‘The place is full of thieves,’ he says. ‘Even locals don’t go out after 10pm.’
I’m sceptical – few prejudices are more overblown than those between neighbouring countries – but he offers to buy me lunch and I’m starving. It’s clear his motives are not entirely pure, but that’s one of the great advantages of being a woman: the exploitation of randy men. If they want to throw in their chips on the faint off-chance there’ll be a payout, that’s their gamble. They should really examine the odds more carefully.
‘The protests in Podgorica won’t come to anything,’ the man, L, says over lunch. ‘It’s just a few thousand people with nothing to lose. But most people have everything to lose. If you don’t vote for the government, you’re spent.’
It’s a strategy that seems to be working; the Democratic Party of Socialists has won every vote since the first multi-party elections of 1990. They control the politics and the courts. They control the money. ‘It’s better not to have kids at all then bring them up here,’ L says, a little fiercely.
After declining L’s selfless offer to find me a motel, I book a cheap room in town and bed down early. The next day, I leave at 8am and finally make it across the border without a hitch. In Albania, everything suddenly seems poorer; the goats scrawnier, the grass scrubbier. I meet a eight-year-old boy with bare feet who is clutching a packet of Malboro, and a leathery old crone on a bicycle who gives me a toothless grin and a carrot.
|And then I see it: my biggest adversary to date. A gruelling humdinger of a hill that marks the beginning of the Prokletije mountains. The road zigzags steeply up the side of the valley for about 5km, before disappearing ominously over the top. I feel apprehensive, and stall for 20 minutes to eat my carrot and listen to a man talk unintelligibly about his chickens. Then, finally, I succumb.
For the next two hours, the hill and I do battle. It’s a true bun-burning thigh-cruncher of a climb and my body is on fire from the start. Every half-mile I stop for a short(ish) rest, but I am determined not to dismount and push. It feels somehow significant, this hill; if I can manage it, I think to myself, I can finally call myself a bummler. I can finally grow some balls and a dram of self-respect. So on I go, slogging, sweating, steaming, swearing, up and up for about 18km. And slowly, very slowly, sometimes almost moving backwards, I manage it.
At the top it feels good. Very good. And the reward is magnificent. Opening out before me is a broad, verdant gorge, and the most fiendish set of hairpins I’ve ever seen. After a well-earned breather, Maud and I rocket down with joyful abandon, only narrowly avoiding coming to a calamitous end at the bottom among a flock of errant goats. We did it, I crow jubilantly to myself! We bloody well did it!
About an hour later, however, I’m struggling again. The tarmac has run out, along with my food and water, and my wheels keep spinning hopelessly on the gravelly track. Suddenly I decide I’ve had enough, and barge into a nearby fish farm to bribe someone into taking me the final 25km to Vermosh, on the northern Albanian/Montenegrin border. They don’t understand me at first, but a simple yet sophisticated annotation seems to do the trick (see below), and eventually the man agrees.
At the next village, after firmly refusing all payment, my kindly saviour hands me over to another man who is going all the way to Vermosh. He already has three hitch-hikers in the back — an Albanian man and Israeli couple — but happily adds me to the clan. And thank god he does. It’s raining hard now and the road is just rubble, hemmed in tightly by cliffs and plunging ravines. Progress is slow, and we stop regularly to wait for bulldozers to clear the way.
After a nail-biting, two-hour drive, we finally arrive at a remote limestone farmhouse in Vermosh, where our lovely driver bids us goodbye. It’s now pitch-black and pouring, and the owners greet us warmly with a wonderful meal of homemade beef stew, goats cheese, bread and shopska salad. Then they bring out the obligatory bootleg rakija, which briefly gives me the ability to speak fluent Albanian before knocking me out for the best part of eight hours.
||The century-old guest house, with metre-thick limestone walls. Inside it’s decked out with colourful, elaborate Catholic paraphernalia (NW Albania is majority Catholic, while most of the country is majority Muslim).
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast and a tour of the century-old farmhouse’s charming ‘ethnography museum’, I hit the road again towards Berane, in Montenegro. Or would if I could find one. The grounds seem to comprise one vast, lumpy, crevasse-laden mud-pit and I am forced to half-push, half-carry Maud for most of the way. Eventually we reach a small stream with no way across, and I feel myself perilously close to a tantrum. Sighing deeply and self-pityingly, I bend down and remove my socks and sandals (stop that sniggering, please — fashion is a social construct) and wade miserably across.
I’ve just dried myself off on the other side when it starts to rain, first lightly, then like a sheet. It soaks me so thoroughly that my padded underwear (I said stop that) eventually takes two whole days to dry. In the meantime, I manage to cross into Montenegro and take refuge in a small, grotty cafe in a village called Murino. As I wait by the wood-burning stove for the deluge to abate, a man approaches me with his phone. ‘Rain three days continue,’ he says, via Google Translate. ‘I take you home, protect you?’
A few hours later, I finally slosh my way to Berane. The town seems to have nothing at all to recommend it, so I set off the next morning for a very hilly ride to Rozaje, which seems slightly worse than Berane. In Rozaje, I check into Motel Milenium (sic) for a highly reasonable £10, for which I get a dynamic fuchsia pink colour scheme, dirty carpet, no curtains and a broken toilet, plus a smattering of blood and hair on the wall for no extra cost.
The next day, I tear myself away from this idyll for the final schlepp to Kosovo. It’s a lovely, soul-rejuvenating cycle, punctuated by the occasional pitch-black tunnel of doom, and I reach the Serbian border quickly. Here, for the first time, the police stop me and take me aside for questioning. They go through my passport three times, saying the name of each country slowly and quizzically. ‘Uzbekistan?’ (I nod). ‘Japan?’ (I nod again).
Then one of them taps his knees invitingly and I freeze. Oh my god, I think. He wants me to sit on his lap! I am weighing up my options — slap him? scream? oblige, then crush him with my leviathan thighs? — when he reaches over and drapes a coat across my legs. ‘Brrrrr, no?’ he says, mimicking the cold. Yes, I nod eagerly, desperately relieved. So not a sexual deviant at all, it turns out, but a considerate young man. Sometimes it’s so hard to tell them apart.
And my legs are chilly, now he comes to mention it. It’s now 14th October and winter is snapping at my heels. My plan is to keep abreast of it until I hit sunnier climes in the south, like those protagonists in films who successfully outrun tsunami waves or giant fissures in the earth before being whisked off to safety, but I clearly need to up the pace.
With this in mind, I hot-tail it the final few miles across Serbia to the Kosovo border, where I encounter the cheeriest border guard I’ve met so far. ‘Very good!’ he says approvingly, looking at my bike. ‘You will love our beautiful country!’ And seeing his big, beamish grin, I suddenly have the feeling I will.
Next post: Serbia & Kosovo. Follow my journey on Twitter or Facebook.
Kostajnica, Bosnia to Podgorica, Montenegro
(20 – 28 Sep)
Total miles cycled: 1,118 (1,800km)
Thigh status: Mini-Zepplin
The best thing about camping is the joy you feel when you don’t have to do it. My first night in Bosnia is spent in a cheap motel, under a firm roof and some powerful leopard skin linen, and I awake fully refreshed. By 9am, I am en route to Prijedor, 65km away along the river.
I feel the country become gradually poorer as I ride. Houses often comprise just half-finished jumbles of brick, their windows a cluster of black, sunken eye-sockets. Farmers in flat caps pass me on horse and cart, while decrepit Ford Fiestas hoot greetings as they thunder by and veer cheerily into oncoming traffic.
It’s lunchtime by the time I pull up in Prijedor, the third largest municipality in the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). This covers the northern and eastern regions of Bosnia and is predominantly Serb Orthodox, I learn, with a minority of Bosniak Muslims and Croat Catholics. The rest of the country falls under the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising a majority of Bosniaks with a minority of Croats and Serbs.
Prijedor seems fairly nondescript as I nose briefly through the centre. However, the city reflects some of the country’s most troubling hangovers from the past. Around 5,200 Bosniaks and Croats were killed or went missing here in a mass genocide perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, while thousands more suffered in hellish concentration camps.
Today the city is sunny and peaceful, but I’m told that ethnic clashes have been on the rise since the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in July. I don’t hang around long to investigate, however, as I need to find a camping spot and it’s already growing dark. I berate myself for again leaving my search so late. It would take an adolescent chimp less time to learn from its mistakes than me, I muse as I frantically scan the roadside in the dimming light. And it could probably cycle faster too.
For my second night, I find a cosy spot to camp behind a half-built church. A little spooky as night descends, and I turn deeply religious for the best part of eight hours. Eventually I spot what seems to be a derelict church set back from the road, and I wheel in for a look. Despite a prowling rabid mutt clearly on its third line of coke, it’s not bad at all. So just half an hour later, I’m snuggled deep inside my sleeping bag supping a nightcap of Kutjevo Grasevina 2013, a highly drinkable Croatian white (and then another — an abandoned churchyard at night is no place for abstinence).
For the second time in three days, I awake what seems like minutes later to the deafening roar of a tractor. It’s 6.15am and I stumble bleary-eyed into the daylight to find a couple of builders staring at my tent in bewilderment. I brace myself for an unpleasant exchange. What happens to trespassers in Bosnia, I wonder? Should I make a mad dash for it across the fields? Before I have time to collect myself, however, they have administered their punishment, harsher and more potent than I could have possibly imagined: a large mug of home-brewed rakija that dissolves the oesophagus and pickles the innards like a shot of sulphuric acid. Early morning alcoholism, I think – where have you been all my life? I vow only to be completely sober from now on if the situation truly demands it.
It’s a short, pleasant ride to Banja Luka and I arrive by late morning. The city is the de facto capital of Republica Srpska, with large green spaces, wide boulevards and a bloody history etched deep into its masonry. Dominating the central square is the impressive Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour recently rebuilt after being destroyed by Croatian fascist forces in 1941. Over 2,300 Serbs were subsequently massacred and the rest sent to concentration camps.
During the Bosnian War – the conflict resulting from the country’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 – the tables were turned. Serbs expelled nearly all Bosniaks and Croats, and razed all 16 mosques to the ground. Viewing such conflicts objectively, which repeat and repeat and repeat, can we ever truly claim to be anything more than tribal beasts?
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Banja Luka was completely destroyed by Croatian fascist forces in 1941, with Serbs, Roma and Jews ordered to carry out the demolition. The rebuilt church was completed in 2009.
Fiendishly expensive shoes in Banja Luka. Apparently people pay top whack here as a means of showing off their wealth and status.
In a park beside the citadel, I stumble across a Bosnian army recruitment drive. I try out a few of their machine guns and feel a frightening surge of bloodthirsty zeal course through my veins. Humans, in all our hubris and godly aspirations, should never hold the trigger between life and death, I think to myself as I eye up a couple of howling infants in my sight-lines. It’s far too tempting to act on it.
On my way home, I bump into one of the officers, who voices his view of his country. ‘We have lots of problems,’ he tells me. ‘But your democracy is 1,000 years old. Ours is 20 years old. We just need time.’
I take a brief detour on my way to Zelenkovac Ecological Movement to see the pretty waterfalls of Krupa River. Following a night at the ambitiously titled ‘Smile Hostel’, I set off for Zelenkovac Ecological Movement, an ecolodge-meets-art-gallery-meets-jazz-festival recommended by friends and bummel mentors Max and Emily. The ride is stunningly beautiful from start to finish, first along a river – where I take a brief detour to see the lovely Krupa Falls (pictured) – then up up up into the lush, forested hills where the air is electric and permeates the soul.
Zelenkovac proves every bit as odd and enchanting as I’d hoped. The main log cabin is a Brothers Grimm masterpiece, lovingly built up over the past 30 years by owner Borislav Jankovic. Inside is a cosy bar/gallery containing an eclectic range of Jankovic’s paintings, and surrounding the lodge are a handful of charming wooden huts for guests. As I warm myself by the fire, I am chatted up by S, a Serb who manages the place with a French couple. They all arrived several years ago and never left, he tells me over a rakija. It’s run as an NGO with grants mainly from the US, while the Bosnian government gives just enough for an occasional opportunistic photo op.
Serbs are very warm-hearted people who feel, says S. They talk to each other in bars and buy rounds for strangers. Here, when a bell is rung, everyone in the room gets a drink. What are relations like between Serbs and Bosniaks these days, I ask? ‘We are brothers,’ he says. ‘We have shared so much.’ But you were at war so recently, I say. ‘Everyone is at war sometimes,’ he replies. ‘Even the English and Scottish.’ Yes, I think. And look how that’s going.
The most important thing to him is family, S says. Next comes his country. But not the politicians, he stresses, or the policemen who have regularly beaten and arrested him since the 1990s. In his view, Serbia killed its last good president in 2003: Zoran ?in?i?, the man responsible for extraditing Slobodan Miloševi? to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 2001.
We get onto women’s rights. He is not a feminist, he says, grimacing. He’s a ‘modern Serb’. He cooks, but refuses to wash up. ‘You think a woman can cut wood? That’s man’s work. The woman is better at other things [mimics cleaning and decorating].’
I obviously disagree, but I do partially understand the logic. In a world where manual labour dominates, it makes some sense for the man to toil outdoors while the woman pulls her weight at home. Though how hard can chopping wood be? I’m fairly sure I’d choose it over a life of domestic drudgery, given the choice. And there’s the rub, of course. Women are rarely given the choice.
Like everyone else in the Balkans, S is a smoker. As we talk, he puffs his way through an enormous box of dirt-cheap bootleg cigarettes. The warning on the packet seems to encapsulate the precarious, petty fault lines of the country perfectly: to maintain ethnic neutrality, it is written in all three national languages, Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian — despite the fact the first two are identical to the letter.
I find St Mary’s Church, Jajce, believed to have been built in the C12th. In 1582, it was converted into a mosque and named after the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It later burnt down several times, leaving behind nothing but walls.
In the morning, while the men are out banging their chests and wafting their testosterone around the woodpiles, I leave for Jajce. It’s another dazzling, delicious ride and I feel thoroughly revitalised by the time I arrive. It’s just as well, as I discover that the town has an intimidating 24 ‘historic monuments’ on the tourist trail. This seems a little greedy to me. Why not focus your attentions on one or two good meaty monuments, leaving scope for a restorative snifter at the end?
Usefully, however, the merit of several attractions has already been quantified for me by experts, saving me the bother. The 22m Pliva Waterfall is ‘one of the 12 most beautiful in the world’, I am informed, whereas the medieval fortress displays some of the ‘most impressive views in Bosnia’. The catacombs and underground church are rather good too, but by this time I’m exhausted and decide to leave the final 19 sights for another occasion.
After a fitful night in the freezing cold campsite, listening to stray dogs howling and mauling each other to death outside my tent, I hit the road for a hefty 110km marathon to Visoko. The ride is spectacular, but involves a tough climb up a truly gargantuan hill and takes me the best part of seven hours. I am enjoying a brief rest face down on the roadside to celebrate my arrival when, as if by magic, a couple in a van pull up and ask whether I’d like a ride to Sarajevo. Why yes I would, I say! And we churn up the final 20km in minutes.
In Sarajevo, I stay with a German woman, F, who is investigating how women in the region reconcile being Muslim with being European for her PhD. ‘The interesting thing,’ she tells me, ‘is that there really isn’t any tension at all.’ A brief tour around the city, where the vast majority are Muslim, seems living proof of this hypothesis. Here, hijabs and high heels live in easy harmony, with most women dressed in modern Western attire.
Severe problems lurk beneath the surface, however. Homeless people beg on every street corner, symptomatic of the deep dysfunction at the heart of government. Corruption is rife, unemployment disastrous (27%, according to the IMF) and the economy on the verge of collapse. Everything comes at a price. ‘Bribery is completely normalised,’ says Z, a local academic. ‘People pay for university degrees and surgical procedures. To get off parking fines. To have babies.’ She adds: ‘The big malls you see here are not a sign of prosperity, they’re a sign of political deals. Nobody wants them.’
What about the looming Avaz Twist Tower, a glistening 176m phallus built in 2008 to house Dveni Avaz, Bosnia’s largest newspaper? Do people want that? Some, depending on which side of the political and ethnic divide they’re on, says B, a former editor-turned-translator. Avaz is owned by Fahrudin Radoncic, who leads the second largest party in the Federation. According to an indictment by prosecutors in Kosovo, Radon?i? and drug trafficker Naser Kelmendi were responsible for commissioning the murder of mafia don ’ Delali? to prevent him undermining their business interests. Radoncic has stressed that he himself was not indicted, but only named in the indictment as a member of a criminal organisation, which he firmly denies.
‘Politics and the media are both drawn along ethnic lines, and almost all of it is dirty,’ says B. Boundaries were far more fluid before the war, he believes. ‘People were more tolerant then. Now the country has no identity, so people search for it in their ethnicity and religion.’
The Bosnian political system was created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement that brought an end to the war. It’s a viciously complex arrangement, involving multiple layers of bureaucracy and autonomy, which nobody I meet seems entirely to understand. What people do agree on, however, is that it’s in desperate need of reform — starting with the abolition of the three separate presidencies for each ethnic group, which only serves to institutionalise sectarian divides.
According to E, a British investigative journalist, the threat of Bosnian Serb secession is very real. ‘And that would be a disaster. It would imply that the land you win through war crimes can be rightfully yours.’
One of the many ‘Sarajevo roses’ throughout the city: mortar explosion marks filled with red resin to show where one or more people died. The explosions occurred during the Siege of Sarajevo by the Army of Republika Srpska, from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.
I leave the next day for Podgorica, Montenegro. I have agreed to cut short my Bosnian trip to meet my boyfriend there for a holiday, so cycle 11km out of town to catch the bus. Only minibuses are making the winding, treacherous journey, it transpires, but after some persuasion the driver agrees to squeeze a dismembered Maud into the tiny boot. To celebrate, I spend my final Bosnian marks on a bar of Milka and packet of chocolate hobnobs.
Ten minutes later, the driver comes to ask for another four marks for the bike. Ah, I say apologetically. I’m afraid I’ve eaten it. I try to offer him my remaining three hobnobs, but confectionery clearly isn’t accepted as official currency on Bosnian buses. Just as I’m debating the horror of having to disembark, an old woman reaches into her purse and pays on my behalf. It’s not a small amount for her, I know, and I feel deeply touched. I give her a hug and thank her profusely. She smiles, touches her hand to her heart and says ‘Muslim’.
Craggy hills and deep turquoise lakes en route to Montenegro through the Tara River Canyon.
The next few hours are spent on an exhilarating romp through the magnificent Tara River Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe. Jam-packed inside the sweaty bus, we recklessly rattle and swoop beside stomach-churning drops with no security barrier and often no proper road. To my surprise, however, I reach Podgorica intact and on time, and manage to cycle the final 10km to the airport before my boyfriend arrives. Success, I think exultantly! And due in no small part to my kind Muslim friend. So thank you again, lovely lady, wherever you may be. I hope life brings you all that you deserve.
© Rebecca Lowe March 2016
Three continents -Twenty countries - Rebecca Lowe's
Bicycle Blog to the Middle East
Kostajnica, Bosnia to Podgorica, Montenegro
Bregovi, Serbia to Tran, Bulgaria (11 – 22 Oct)
Total miles cycled: 1,650 (2,655km)
Thigh status: Rubenesque
Out now 2022