Tuesday, 28 June 2011

On the Olympus

Location: 200m below Mytikas summit, Olympus Mountain, Greece
Altitude: 2,800m
Day: 64
Total distance: 5003 miles

I’m stuck. I can’t climb any further. I’m trapped in a narrow rock chimney, vertical, scrambling my way up to Mytikas summit. My right hand is jammed in a small crag, my left arm is stretched sideway, pressing against the rock for balance. I must find a good hold for my legs, quickly, as my heavy rucksack is dragging me down.

And it’s heavy indeed: 3 days worth of supplies; food, water, warm clothes, waterproofs – enough to get both of us up and down the Olympus mount, ‘the Home of Gods’ and the highest peak in Greece. Crackling shoulders, rapid heartbeats, heavy sweating, extreme pulse, aching muscles; I must find the strength to push upwards.

I’m taking a deep breath and looking down for a short moment. 20m below me the mist is hiding the bottom – mystical and terrifying. I’m trying to work out what will happen if I’d lose my hold, say, lift my hand for a second – how long will it take before I’d hit the ground below?

It looks like a long way. Down there somewhere there’s the footpath. We climbed at least 150m since we left it. Even the footpath, though, won’t stop me. It’s too steep. I’d probably roll over it and shoot straight down a few hundred meters through the cliff. That would be a mess.

a day earlier
25 minutes earlier

I’m completely alone now; Jens’ sweet tuchas has disappeared more than 5 minutes ago above the overhanging boulders. She’s agile and fast on those rocks and always preferred to scramble than walk. Sexy. I’d love to open the straps and let the rucksack slip down, but we cannot afford losing the Nutella. Tough.

It’s not too bad being stuck here, though. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to answer some of the most frequent questions we’ve been asked during our journey and since I’m not going anywhere, why won’t you just sit comfortably while I tell about the two most basic elements of our voyage: accommodation and food.


We love Boudicca, our mighty Land Rover, and I would be singing a love song to her right now if I wasn’t short of breath. Until now she’s been an excellent vehicle (touch rock) and a cosy home. We have spent most of our 64 nights sleeping inside her snug interior.


Well, when you get a chance, have a look into a Discovery 3. Imagine it without the middle seats and with a risen wood platform on the floor instead. You’d spot a bed shape and it’s indeed one of the best places in the world to position a bed.

Before we left England Jen made curtains and I built hidden compartments in the wooden platform. We placed our old futon on it, packed 2 sets of bed linen and hung a photo of the queen on the ceiling. Bedroom’s ready.

(*) Since we’re already in the mood for technical details, here are other essential facilities:
  • ·        Shower: 25L water tank on the roof and a hose attached to a shower head
  • ·        DJ desk: Sony Walkman plugged to external HD with 1T of music
  • ·        Electricity connection: 12v – 240w converter with UK/EU/US adapters sockets
  • ·        Kitchen kit: 2 gas stove burners, a set of pans & pots and utensils packed in a large Stanley tool box   

Now, we’re completely self-sufficient, we can camp nearly everywhere: on mountain tops, in flat fields, along rivers, by the sea, in hidden forests or truly innocent, in town centres. Boudicca, the glorious machine, is the key to our freedom. Example:

Day 47, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Planning to drive through Macedonia in a day, we stopped by Lake Orhid for a quick picture. A cliff above the clear lake, a bed of flowers and a secluded little beach – the deepest, oldest and biggest lake in Europe is also a pretty one and we decided that despite the early hour of the day this is where we shall spend the night. Easily done with Boudicca.

In the morning we went for a swim. In noon we hiked around the hills and by evening we found a little fishermen village with a small Taverna. Then other travellers joined to the cliff community so started a traveller’s party.

Eventually we stayed on the cliff above Lake Orhid for a week. – Freedom.

View from our cliff-site 1
Our cliff-site

View from our cliff-site 2

I’m finally able to place the tip of my toe on the rock. I’m pushing my body upwards. I’m swinging my left hand up and reaching a tiny angled stone on the rock face – but the stone is loose and I’m losing my hold. The rucksack is too heavy, I can’t find the point of balance around my mid body and I’m slipping.

The jam in my right hand is opening up. I’m losing the lock. I’m now hanging in the air. Only two fingers are stopping me from falling and I’m thinking about food.


Food and travelling always work together. The equation is simple: We love food; we love any opportunity to try good food and there are many opportunities to try good food when travelling, therefore, we love travelling.

Candy stand in Istanbul

Good food can be found nearly anywhere; we just need to know how to find it and where to search for it. The most important ingredient is Freshness. Let it be fresh.

This is how we keep it fresh. During the day we hunt for farmers markets, stands by the side of the roads, bakeries in little villages and stalls in big cities. The treasures are priceless: Tomatoes, carrots, apples, cherries, peaches, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, bread, cheese, ham (for me), fish (for me too), nuts, dried apricots (fresh?), dried figs, pickled berries, garlic, honey, oranges for juice, lemons for salads, cookies, spices, olive oil, pasta, herbs, wine, coffee, little bitter unknown green thingies or whatever else is in season. Only the nutella must be bought in a supermarket (and brought up a mountain in a heavy glass jar).
The whole lot is snacked throughout the day or cooked in the evening.

Occasionally we will spy a hungry-looking local and follow him (or her) until they lead us to their local eateries. Also here the discoveries are endless: pizza, Slovaki, Burek, traditional veggie pot, shishliq kebbab, goat steak, lamb steak, beef steak, musaka, ravioli, local wine, local cheese plate and the expected-but-welcomed local salad. No matter where we are, geographically or topographically, there will be good food in there. Example #2:

Street coffee in N. Italy

Day 42, somewhere in north Albania

It was out of nowhere, night time, when we saw that place. It didn’t seem like the kind of a place we should stop at. It definitely didn’t seem like the kind of a place we’d want to eat in. In fact, in any other night we wouldn’t even spare an inch of attention on that place, but that night we were in the most lethal state: tiredness and hunger. So we stopped and walked in.

We ordered everything from the menu – namely, oriental soup, local salad and pilau rice – and waited apathetically to see – and probably taste – our poor catch of today.

We waited for an hour before food was finally served.

The soup was rich. It’s been cooked in various fresh roots and unidentified spices. A small dash of chilli perhaps, complimented with cream or yogurt. The salad was simple: chopped tomatoes, garlic and herbs, served with crusty bread and olive oil. The rice was pure white, escorted by a lemon and green onion. It was divine.

Locals joined us and we all cheered (and then cried) Manchester United playing the European Championship final. We stayed in there, camping in the back garden, just so we can have breakfast in that unexpected place too.

let it be fresh

(*) The Special Chef Award goes to Neil and Lucy from the Backpackers hostel, Berat, Albania, for feeding us so well while we were waiting for the Russian Letter of Invitation (and been the best friends we could have hoped for!). Guys, we still have enough space for you.
(**) Jade & Andie, we love you too - learn how to cook!


Still on the rock, but I’m feeling a lot more energetic now. Stretching my left leg, I’m placing my weight on the crag and securing my right hand. Lifting, switching balance, securing and lifting again; rucksack is feeling free. I like it. Repeating. There are good holds here. Repeating. I’m moving fast again, enjoying the rhythm. I got it. Now it’s easy.

Higher and higher, another several moves and the rock face becomes wider, gentler and flatter. And here’s a cone – a pile of stones, marking the summit. Summit! Jen is here, sitting, observing, resting on the highest rock in Greece, waiting for me.

Next on our journey: rafting, trekking and chilling out in Yusufeli, Turkey, before taking the (illusive?) ferry to Sochi, Russia: possibly the most challenging border crossing in our journey  

Jen & Noam



Sunday, 5 June 2011

To Fushe Lura, Albania

Fushe Lura was like a rumour, a myth. We’ve read about it somewhere, ‘the worlds 501 most wild places’ book perhaps; a short story about a hidden village, completely forgotten, up on the mountains in Albania. Disconnected from the world, it’s nowhere in the maps or any other conventional guide we searched in but the description of the place, together with the mystery, appealed to us. We wanted to check it out. First, though, we needed to find it and get to it.

We only knew 3 things: (1) it’s somewhere seriously remote in Albania. (2) There are no maps or sign posts in Albania. (3) The closest town is called Peshkopi, which is a cool name for a town anyway. We thought it was enough to start with so we went on.


Day 44
Weather: warmer, drier
Total mileage: 3100
Soundtrack: Classic rock (Abbey Road, Ziggy Stardust, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley)

Early morning. We’re entering Albania and immediately there are several life threatening situations. We’re driving south, on an Albanian ‘highway’. We’re sharing it with drivers who want to die on the road today, but not alone. It’s hard; at any given moment someone is doing something really stupid that can finish this trip for us. And the rest of our future trips too.

After a while we’re turning east, leaving the suicidal highway. The road’s narrowing. On the right there’s a sheer cliff, on the left high rocks. We’re climbing. Often the rocks clear way to fields where farmers are working, the whole family together, with scythes and sickles. When we’re passing they all stop, smile and wave.

It’s quiet and pleasant around. I like it; it feels like... an earthy smiley place.

The tarmac road is ending and we’re now following a dirt track. The day is getting hot and the air dusty.

A couple of sheppards ahead leading their flocks down the mountain. They see us and immediately smile and wave. We’re waving back and asking how far Pashkopi is. They are both thinking and nodding, one is showing 3 fingers, the other 4. 

Where is Fushe Lura?

We’re driving for another few hours before entering a little town. It’s buzzing. Everyone’s out, it’s market day today; women in head scarves are selling honey and cheese, elders with Qeleshe are loading goats into pickup trucks, young men standing, smoking and staring  – A ram is running into the road! – emergency break! Everyone’s stopping to stare at us. We’re waving and the whole street waves back.

Albania has been isolated for years. The country was separated from Yugoslavia right after the Second World War and applied a strict communist regime. Their only outside partner was Russia but after they were betrayed they’ve had to ally themselves with 60’s China. Good days. Until the 90’s the country was completely sealed, when every spare penny was spent on fortification of the borders. Bunkers are still visible anywhere.

Then, during the 90’s, the country suffered a series of economical devastations followed by heavy corruption, food shortages and the expected violent riots. Its not a main tourist attraction and only a small number of visitors enter the country each year. Even nowadays, locals cannot ignore our presence. Wherever we go, they’d stop and look.  

Midday, we’re arriving to Peshkopi. Cradled between high peaks; it’s a busy little town. Heavy traffic of pedestrians, rusty cars, horses with carts and donkeys. We’re crawling through the streets; shops with no signs, streets with no names, traffic lights without any meaning. We are stopping, asking for directions. A crowd of people instantly gather around us, staring and smiling, trying to figure out who we are. A translator’s being called, a young boy. He’s running towards the gathering, his friends are following. “You from England!” he’s shouting, announcing to the crowd. “To Fishe Lura you need drive up mountains! 3 hours” – and he’s showing 4 fingers.

We’re leaving the town for a quiet bendy road again. Farms dot the slopes ahead, old woman is pulling her donkey in the middle of the road, a pile of hay attached to its back.

The road forks. We’re stopping, again, waiting for someone to pass and point the way. A happy group of kids is jumping down from the trees. They’re selling cherry and immediately reaching to our window. “You from England? I speak English! I sell cherry!” We’re getting our directions and buying a bag of that wonderfully juicy fruit, 70 pence for 2 kilos. Sweet.

We’re driving for another hour or two without seeing a soul.

Afternoon, the dirt track is turning into a rocky path, disappearing further up above the peaks. It’s a challenging off road drive. Large rocks lose stones and tough terrain; we’re being banged and thrown from side to side, fearing for a suspension fault or worse, a puncher.
Progressing slowly we’re crossing another mountain pass. The path has now disappeared completely, becoming an endless field of boulders and razor sharp rocks facing upward. It looks to painful, for us and to the car. We’re stopping. It’s silent. The wind is hauling and it’s getting chilly. A debate: should we stop and set camp here or better, give up and retreat back to the valley, to wonderful Peshkopi. Suddenly, an engine sound from far behind. A car’s approaching.
It’s another off road vehicle. An old face is smiling at us from the dusty, muddy window. Stopping next to us, a short man, late 50’s, is jumping out. We’re trying to make a conversation with him, using broken words, hands signs and pantomime.

The 'road' to Peshkopi
What is he saying? Is he suggesting we’d follow him to Fushe Lura? Is there really such a place, Fushe Lura? And, more bizarrely, could we possibly DRIVE to there, through this terrain? The man is jumping back into his car and starting to ascend. We like his style so we’re obviously following.

It’s tough, but no worries people. Land Rover, this time, got it right. Our Disco 3 (have I introduced Boudicca already...?) has 2 chassis. The first one is the boring one, and it’s for normal road driving. The second chassis, though, is for off road. It feels solid but agile. I would never dare jogging on this terrain myself but Boudicca does it naturally and loves it.

Furthermore, the whole system can be lifted to create that clearance that is needed to get to those remote places such as Fushe Lura. In a hard off road driving this gives a relaxing comfortable feeling that all guts of the car are far enough above those mean rocks and we’ll probably be able to get out of this place with everything intact.

So we’ve made it. It was only after another 4 hours but finally we are here.
First feeling: this was a fucking excellent trip! Second feeling: we’re not sure we really want to stay here. This village is not only remote, it’s isolated. It feels like it, and it doesn’t feel good.

The inhabitants, only men, are all staring at us through doors and windows. There are heavy bars on the windows. Those folks are not smiling or waving, they don’t seem happy. Now they are gathering around, suspiciously. Third feeling, naturally: are we being welcomed here...?

We’re looking around for our jumpy old guide. We need to make a quick contact with him, so the rest will maybe figure out we came with him. Now the people from the crumbly cafe are coming out too, circling the vehicle. There are about 200 men in this little street now and they all look hungry for something.

– There he is!
We’re calling him to thank him and asking if there’s any hotel around. This village seems too hostile for wild camping. He’s pointing up. There, on the hill above the cafe, stands a beautiful shinny hotel. It’s all looking too freaky now but still, our instincts are shouting at us: ‘do NOT camp around here!’ – So we are getting up to that hotel and checking in.

We’re in. The hotel gates are being closed and locked behind. We’re being advised to lock our doors and to never leave the lobby door open. Welcome to Fushe Lura, such a lovely place.


Day 45

In the morning, fresh and meditated, we reflected. It was the best drive so far and we’ve made it to here so we should at least give the place a chance. After our breakfast we booked another night and went for a walk around. We climbed on the spectacular Lura mountains above the village, explored and met a few locals.

We met a Sheppard who offered his cigarette. He was confused because we’ve been married for 7 years with no children. He has 5, and another 31 hungry goats.

We met the horseman. He walks the long way around to get wood. He doesn’t know where we are going to but he’s happy to give us directions.

We met Illy. He finished school at 11, works at the hotel, likes hip-hop from England (but never saw a map before) and adores our Land Rover. He also really needs to be introduced to a tooth brush, but I didn’t feel like taking that role.

Finally, we met Daniel. He’s 10 and he’s the village phenomena. He speaks fluent English and runs the hotel. He likes maths, plans to go to university and dreams of being a pilot. I liked that kid.

We’ve had a long chat and Daniel told us about his village. In his 10 years of experience it’s never looked too good. There are 700 hundreds people, few have anything to do. There’s no income and no jobs here. Those who could, left, including all the young women, hoping to marry someone in the city. The closest school is in Peshkopi, 4 hours down that path we came on, and anyway, there are only 10 cars in the village. 

Perspective; lesson learnt. On the surface some places, just like people, can be looked intimidating, unwelcoming, dodgy even. However, we are not going to let that initial uncomfortable feeling hold us back. Instead, we’ve decided, we’ll stick around, get to know the place and understand it. This is, eventually, a fundamental aspect of travelling.

Thank you Fushe Lura!

Above Fushe Lura

Next on our journey: A dip in Lake Ohrid in Macedonia; the oldest, deepest and biggest lake in Europe. Then we’ll climb on Olympus, the ‘mountain of gods’, and do some olive picking in Greece. In between we’ll jump again into Albania, mainly because we really liked it. Stick around!

Jen & Noam