We woke up early again today, perhaps 05:15am or something like that, so after catching up on a few emails we walked across the road to the beach and had a refreshing swim in the sea, before returning to our beachside apartment and sorting out our packing. It was nice listening to the little village start to wake up and come alive as we sorted out our things. Breakfast was included in our room rate, no choice was given and before long we were presented with a spicy sausage omelette and coffee outside the restaurant below us. Whilst seated outside I watched two guys whiz past on a scooter, the pillion dragging a small swordfish along side him, held on tightly by its pointy nose.
After loading our bike and riding it back through the restaurant and out onto the street, we headed south towards Sarande where we would leave the coast and head inland towards the border crossing into Greece.
The coastal ride south was scenic and enjoyable – the road twisting and turning along the hills overlooking the sparkling sea. Occasionally we’d enter small villages and get squeezed down to a single file road that wound its way around the houses, before opening up as they dropped away behind us. In some places the road dropped down level with the sea, and we could see people fishing off old jetties.
The road climbed up over a range and then dropped down on the inland side, with the temperature rising accordingly and the land looking more barren. The landscape was quite surreal, as if we were looking at an ancient sea floor that had been folded up and twisted on its side. We dropped down to the plain and quickly picked up the main road running south – the SH4, and we followed this out to the border with Greece.
The midday sun was beating down on us as we queued patiently behind a small line of cars waiting to be processed by the Albanian border guards, and after our turn we followed the cars down the road a short distance to the Greek border entry. A couple of tour coaches had already pulled up here and I could see that a Greek customs officer was getting all the passengers to offload their luggage, and was signalling for some items to be taken away with their owners for further inspection.
Whilst this was happening Karen was receiving sightseeing tips and other useful bits of information from the Greek border person processing our passports. At all previous border entries Karen has been able to remain on the bike and hand over the passports and green card, but at this station she needed to alight and go visit a booth adjacent to the line of cars and motorbikes. With a bit off practice we now have a workable system in place – we ride up close to the checkpoint and I stop short, allowing Karen to get off the bike and get our passports and green card out of the top box. She then remounts and we ride up together, sometimes she ends up walking through the boarder, and once we’re through to the other side we stop and replace things back in the top box.
A small cafe just beyond the Greek checkpoint beckoned us for lunch, so we pulled over for a drink and a chance to look over our maps. Karen’s getting really good at not being too sure about what food she’s buying – now she just points to something and orders, and so we both enjoyed a cheese-filled pastry for lunch, and a coke.
Without a map of Greece we pulled together a bit of our Albanian map and a bit of our Bulgarian map to work out a plan. Unfortunately our time is running a bit short so we knew we could only spend two days maximum in Greece – nowhere as much as required, so rather than try and squeeze too much in too short a timeframe we opted to blast through north-west Greece and whiz through Thessaloniki enroute for the border crossing into Bulgaria.
The road improved as soon as we started riding away from the Albanian border, and when we got to the A2 heading east it was fabulous – if you need to do some big miles and still have a scenic view then the A2 is a great choice, as this road wound its way around and through the hills, before dropping down to a valley, only to re-enter more hills. We passed through heaps of tunnels carved in the hills, dropping down from the A2’s 130kmh speed limit to the 100kmh limit in many tunnels, and we had this high speed road all to ourselves for most of the afternoon.
At one stage Karen’s jacket unzipped itself in the wind and so we pulled off the motorway to find a fuel stop, though as I’d misread a sign we ended up cruising a few km down a side road before finding a dusty little servo. I didn’t need any fuel so we just bought a couple of drinks and a packet of wafers from the vending machine inside the small shop, and the owner had to shake and shove the machine to get it to dispense the wafers as they jammed just as they were about to drop. We enjoyed our snack and drinks at a small table outside in the shade, and the servo owner came and offered us a plate of fresh cherries, which we gladly accepted and munched down quickly as they were delicious and refreshing. He couldn’t speak any English and we can’t speak any Greek, but we both thanked him for his kindness and shook his hand, and then we rode away, both of us with crushed hands as he had the strongest handshake I’ve ever felt! The generosity he showed was really touching, and Karen and I chatted about this as we rejoined the A2 and bolted towards Thessaloniki.
Whilst our initial planning – performed months ago now – had identified Thessaloniki as a suitable overnight stop, I was keen to avoid the mayhem of a large city and so used the GPS to plot a course bypassing the city and sending us north towards Serres, the last decent-sized town on the Greek side of the border crossing with Bulgaria. The afternoon wind howled across the flat plain and constantly buffeted us, causing me concern as we were now mixing it up with a fair bit of traffic on our three lanes of road heading east to Thessaloniki.
Most of the traffic took off-ramps that led into the city, whilst we swung north and headed towards Serres. It had been a long day up to this point and Karen would have been happy to have found a hotel nearby, but we had to knock off the last 60km into Serres before the GPS found a hotel nearby for us to check into. Signs pointed to two adjacent hotels, the Alexandra and the Acropoli, and we followed a short road out of town and up a hill to the hotels. The Alexandra looked old and tired and was all boarded up, but just above it on the hill was the four star Acropoli, and for fifty euros we checked in for the evening and unloaded our luggage before riding back into town to find a restaurant for dinner.
We could see a few restaurants on the long main street as we rode along it, but they were all on the other side of the road so we looped back and pulled up outside a suitably Greek-looking restaurant. The owner could speak some English, and we ordered some Greek salads, souvlaki (for Karen) and meatballs (for me). The food was delicious and so fresh. Karen went to pay the bill (20 euro including drinks) and came back with complementary ice creams – the generosity of the Greek people we’ve met today has been lovely.
Back at our hotel it was time for a quick dip in our spa before bed. It had been a long day with approx 500km in distance clocked up – including about 80km of low-speed, technical riding along the coast and hills of Albania and a lot of high-speed riding, and some strong cross-winds to contend with, and we were both a bit worn-out, but the big push today has set us up for an easier day tomorrow as from Serres its now only 40km to Bulgaria. We’ll need to come back another time to explore Greece and do it justice.