traversée des balkans à vélo : itinérance VTT
#1 transalps
#2 swiss alpine bike #3 dolomites ready #4 balkans

#4 Crossing the Balkans
5825 km, 126,350 md +, 4 months on the bike, 4 days of rest

Fourth and last stage in the Alps: from the Dolomites to Ljubljana. Finally, we do not miss the Dinaric Alps ... mountains never stop! Let's go to Istanbul.

Italy & Slovenia
Venice - Cortina - Ljubjana
800 km / 18,200 m+ / 17,450 m-

Leaving Venice for a bike trip ... what a funny idea! Impossible to walk the cobbled streets or navigate on a gondola, the goal is to reach the heart of the Dolomites (trip # 3) with more than 6000 meters of elevation gain. The Alpine passes are such mythical and sublime: Monte Grappa, passo Rolle, Valles and di Giau (2236 m). Hard to hold the wheel of a race bike with full panniers: such good things to eat ... Climbs after the climbs, the sun leaves us to stay by the sea: the weather is downright bad! It rains when it is not snowing, it is just cold and humid. In Cortina d'Ampezzo, the weather announces 15 bad days, we have to go on. We fastly get used to strong efforts, elevation gain and winter conditions of a month of May. Passes Sella Ciampigotto and Sauris are closed: forced to slalom between snowdrifts and stone blocks scattered on the road. Bitumen gradually gives way to forest tracks, the adventure can begin ...

In Bovec, Slovenia, the atmosphere becomes more mineral. The road that cuts into the Julian Alps is steeped in history: 25 km and 50 bends built by Russian prisoners. Hell in paradise ... The sun shines the crystal clear waters of the Soca up to the Vršic pass (1611 m), the place is unreal. After a quick visit to Bled, the Triglav limestone park gives a break around Lake Bohinj (Bohinjsko jezero), nothing like a hike to stretch your legs. Here the valleys are peaceful and the traditional wooden huts add charm to pedaling. The weather becomes capricious again, not a day goes by without rain until Ljubljana. The end of the Alpine arc ends gently: what a personal satisfaction, this trip started 4 years ago ... Geneva-Nice! A dream of a bike-traveler ...

After a day of rest in the Slovenian capital (visit on two wheels of course), the ride is finally set to the south to open the door to the Balkans. The landscapes become more hilly and the villages picturesque: few tourists in this beautiful countryside of medium mountains.

Better, faster, stronger !
Snowdrift at Vršic pass
On the road to Bosnia

Famous bridge of Mostar on Neretva river
Croatia & Bosnia Herzegovina
Cabar - Delnice - Otocac - Senj - Makarska - Mostar
920 km / 13,050 m+ / 12,375 m-

Croatia is the relaxing and touristic part of the Balkan crossing: 300 km of coastal road from Senj to Makarska, only bitumen, few climbs ... though! The sun is strong in the morning, the days start at 5 am to take advantage of the freshness and the little traffic. Turquoise blue sea, multicolored butterflies, historic cities (Starigrad, Zadar, Sibenik, Togir, Split), long breaks in the shade: everything is there for paradise holidays! At the north, national parks punctuate the route. Risnjak is made in emergency, head under the pancho. No time to spot a lynx or a bear: the forest is not very inviting. Plitvice (Plitvicka jezera) gives a deep breathing with a nice hike between lakes and waterfalls. The north Velebit park (Sjeverni Velebit) is a karst revelation: the whiteness of the limestone contrasts with the Adriatic. The wooden cabins bring a little warmth and comfort, hot near the stove and in a cozy bed. Further south, Paklenica reveals a magnificent climbing site wedged in a narrow canyon. Often, the remains of the breakup of Yugoslavia are still visible 30 years after the war: ripped houses and antipersonnel mines reported by the roadside. Impressive!

The welcome in Bosnia is fantastic. There are very few tourists, so the arrival of two bikers is a real event. In Mostar, the bike jumps on the cobblestones of Stari most, this famous medieval bridge destroyed by the Serbs and rebuilt in 2003. The mosques and their minarets suddenly replace the churches ... the bike trip allows you to plunge into the heart of religions and the history of this little piece of Europe. The roads are strangely deserted and the uphill climbs are suffocating. No shade! The green gorges of the Zalomka river provide access to the Gacko plateau, at over 1,000 meters above sea level. The mountains of Montenegro are around, the country is five kilometers as the crow flies, but look at the map, the border post extends by at least 150 km from the north ... A path does exist, he cuts across fields and a few broken wooden huts. The border is marked by a simple sign, no barrier or guard. Easy to illegally enter the country ... will it be the same to get out?

Montenegro, Albania (1) & Kosovo
Pluzine - Zabljak - Savnik - Nikšic - Ostrog - Danilovgrad - Cetinje - Kotor - Podgorica - Plav - Rozaje - Pejë
925 km / 24,725 m+ / 25,575 m-

Montenegro is the kingdom of cycling, especially since the country is developing beautiful mountain bike circuits. The arrival by the Durmitor park and the Tara canyon is an explosion of happiness: the wild and preserved place is worth the detour alone. Few cyclists must take our route, it rises very strong every day on paths that are not even indicated on tourist maps. The experience is great! Sometimes you have to push the bike, often you have to put on the poncho ... here, the storms are violent and fast. We barely escape the hail in a providential stable: the landscape turns white in a few minutes. We will be less lucky on a path transformed into a torrent by raging waters: the expression "being soaked" takes on its full meaning. Truly incredible moments! Traveling by bike means accepting uncertainty, relative discomfort and feeling of being left to yourself. The contrast of colors is striking with the surrounding mountains: the Bobotov Kuk, culminating at 2,523 meters, appears snow-capped between two clouds. The bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska) at 6 a.m. is resplendent, especially with 1200 m of vertical drop made in the cool ... happiness within reach of pedal! This 30 km fjord tears a deep blue rugged and tormented massif; the road around the two peninsulas (Luštica and Vrmac) allows you to breathe a bit in a Mediterranean atmosphere between olive trees and crickets. The traditional villages with their fishing port and their church alternate with tourist spots and seaside resorts: one thus rolls from the very trendy Budva to the postcard Sveti Stefan ...

After a day of rest in Bar, the mountain stages bring us back in 3 days to the north-east of the country via Lake Skadar (Shkodër) and the magnificent alpine valley of Kelmend in Albania. New panoramas between 1,000 and 1,800 m pass by: the meadows (Katun). Some barracks have been built in the middle of nowhere and stand the test of time, just like these shepherds and lumberjacks who live far from all modernity. No roads, no electricity, no water even less tourists. The bike meeting is exceptional: you just have to take the time to stop. At the background Kosovo appears to be dug between the mountains, the country is surprisingly flat. The welcome is as always warm, especially since the rain is there. Culinary specialties such as kefta kebabs or byrek puff pastry require a next trip.

Sun is out!

Storm is coming!
Carbon MTB & vaude panniers

Wild hapiness
Albania (2)
Bajram Curri - Fierzë - Fushë-Arrëz - Burrel - Divjakë - Fier - Vlora - Orikum - Saranda
640 km / 15,000 m+ / 15,500 m-

Albania is a real surprise for those who do not limit themselves to the Adriatic coast, the Albanian Riviera. The hard mountain paths are reserved to adventurers and allow to cross the country from north to south without touching the asphalt. The Valbona valley gives directly the mood: the initial idea was to reach the Valbonës pass at 1,795 meters to reach the Theth valley ... it is finally on foot that we will hike in a round trip: the trail is not for mountain-biking! The itinerary adapts day by day according to the relief, the weather and the meetings. Communication is quite good despite a very limited vocabulary ... "rüga problem" is essential: the departmental roads that cut the country east / west are broken tracks. All Albanians complain about politics and corruption: the feeling of misery and abandonment keeps coming up in conversations. Speaking of France, some bright eyes hoping to change their lives, others cry in memory of a stay in Calais! The shepherds of the Lura park (Parku Kombëtar Lurë) live in shelds open to the wind, built up with 4 poles and a plastic tarp as a roof. Their daily life is punctuated by the milking of their goats: the milk is transported in the valley by donkey. Life is both beautiful and so hard, a terribly emotionak moment!

To the east, the Qafë-Shtamë park avoids the traffic jams of Tirana and joins the town of Elbasan. The run down track badly encountered arms and equipment: the rear wheel axle breaks. The repair is a miracle because no part is in stock for a "recent" MTB! Twice, the path no longer exists ... swept away by landslides. Getting around an obstacle is paid for by great efforts, but providence brings a luxury bivouac under the stars or an unforgettable encounter: you are never immune to an invitation, an Albanian coffee (do not say Turkish coffee) and a shot of raki ... both at the same time, even at 7 a.m. In the south of the country, the sand tracks at the seaside tire more than the mountain passes: on rolls even on the beach ... the chain of the bicycle still remembers. In Saranda, it is time to take a ferry to reach Greece, Corfu: let the holidays begin!

Greece, Albania (3) & North Macedonia
Corfu - Igoumenítsa - Trikala - Metsovo - Konitsa - Kastoria - Presta - Bitola - Demir Kapija
1,100 km / 24,775 m+ / 24,600 m-

The Corfu tour is a moment of relaxation by the seaside; the ascent of the great Pantokrator (900 meters) is the only mountain stage on the island. The bivouacs are posed facing the Adriatic under the olive trees, in the wild grasses and the smells of summer, the beach is never very far ... paradise! The vegetation is scorched by the sun, at 11 am it is already very hot even in the shade of the Orthodox chapels. The return to the continent is tough: the sweltering heat makes the climbs exhausting. Hard to get back on the saddle before 4 pm. The Pramanta stage is difficult but grand: each turn of the wheel is a victory over the pebble, the turns are linked in pain to the pass at 1,800 meters. Up to Kalambaka, chaotic paths follow one another at a hellish pace! In Meteora, the tranquility of monasteries suspended in the sky disappears under the flood of tourists dumped by whole buses. The place remains magical and full of mysterious legends. These giant pudding seems to come out of the imagination of the Gods of Greek mythology ...

Istanbul is in the east, yet the course is set in the west to join the Pindus and Tymphe parks, more than 100 km to bike in the opposite direction, nothing to understand ... especially as the rain returns in a greek summer! After Kastoria, Albania opens its borders again for 50 km. The shepherds are always there for a helping hand: a rusty wire fence will secure my luggage rack until arrival. Thank you artists! At Lake Prespa, Macedonia turns out to be a great feelings of the Balkans: the locals speak with pride of their country and their life: Ottoman presence, religions, First World War, migration, the breakup of Yugoslavia, everything is there. I forget the crossing without border post at the top of Mount Varos (2,524 m), the situation is very tough with the Greeks: forced to improvise a new circuit to the Bulgarian border. Some souls live in lost villages, time has frozen! There is no bitumen and the paths are difficult to ride, little used ... especially full of water!

Formes fantastiques des Météores

Trafic fluide
Never stop biking !

Devil bridge
Bulgaria et Greece (2)
Pétritch - Melnik - Bansko - Pamporovo - Plovdiv - Velingrad - Smoljan - Rudozem - Dzhebel - Komotini - Alexandroúpoli
850 km / 22,375 m+ / 21,900 m-

The Bulgarian part is intense and extremely varied. A geological curiosity due to erosion, Melnik is a typical village surrounded by sandy mountains. Crossing a tunnel dug in sand which crumbles with the passage of the hand, that's ... scary! The track goes up north along the Pirin park; the locals explain that it is impossible to reach Bansko ... then the GPS helps to locate in a maze of dead ends and indications in Cyrillic. The entrance to the Rhodopes massif is magical: the place is just beautiful even if the glaciers posed at more than 2900 meters look pale! It's mushroom season: the chanterelles ooked in the casserole dish give a special flavor to the fast-cooking pasta. The water springs are everywhere, what a joy to get fresh water several times a day. But the main advantage of the Rhodopes is the presence of shelters ... more or less luxurious. We will find at least a roof, benches and tables, a barbecue. Some are real jewels of wooden architecture, you can even cook there or spend the night ... From Dospat, a beautiful 8-loop is being prepared: the passes and the valleys follow one another. You have to get lost on the trails to visit the monasteries and inaccessible villages. The bike is set down to discover the Trigrad gorges, the Trigradska and the natural arch of Cudnite, marvels of eroded rocks. The lakes of Batak and Chiroka allow you to share the Bulgarians' holidays, caravanning, bbq, fishing, techno music ... life in all simplicity!

The axle (broken and repaired with hammer blows in Albania) makes the bike tremble again, the wheel will be changed in Pamporovo in the only sports shop in the region, and luckily ... the owner is a former Downhill mountain biking champion! South of the Rozen pass, the Turkish influence becomes visible again with its mosques and minarets pointing towards the sky. After 60 km of winding road along the Arda river, the bivouac is placed near the Devil bridge built in the 16th century ... the night is mild contradicting legends of yesteryear! Back in Greece, the Aegean Sea lights up our days so the thorns pierce the inner tubes: when there is no more patch, there is always a bagbiker meeting! The pedal strokes in the forest of Dadia Lefkimi brings a last shade of greenery to the trip; the river of the Balkan peninsula, the Maritza marks the entry into an arid plain ... Turkey.

Turkey
Ipsala - Gelibolu - Lapseki - Bandirma - Istanbul
590 km / 8225 m+ / 8825 m-

The crossing of the Turkish border gives the atmosphere: it's hot! The sun beats down strongly on the first kilometers, where the overloaded cars wait with more or less impatience in front of armed soldiers ... The dust of the tracks flies away under the wheels: no asphalt, no air, no shade ... except on the terrace of cafes where men congregate. The tranquility of the villages stops for a short while we pass: hands are raised and conversations are raging. Impossible to leave without a bottle of fresh water or a bag of vegetables, what a kindness! The canals irrigate large desert fields ... nobody dares to venture there during the hottest hours of the day. Up to Gelibolu, the seaside is less monotonous and more mountainous, the atmosphere is more festive. To avoid the hellish traffic of Istanbul and 100 km of urbanization, the southern shore of the Marmara Sea seems to be more "pleasant". The Asian main road allows us to pedal fast on a highway ... a few meters from the noisy cars! Few variations are possible up to Bandirma, where the ferry leads to the heart of Istanbul effortlessly.

Constantinople is obviously wonderful, the history of the world is played out before our eyes. The bikes are put down with relief: hard to regain the rhythm of walking because fatigue is felt after 4 months strenuous on the saddle. It hurts everywhere. The visits are rich and endless, Grande Sophie, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, Ortaköy district, Bosphorus bridge, etc.
Istanbul is an open door to Asia ... see you soon!

Highway to paradise!

 

 

All pictures of the Alps crossing by mountain bike

Maps & daily GPX / GPS tracks

 

# -2 : danube & black sea

# part 1: transalps
geneva - nice

# part 2: swiss alpine bike
geneva - davos

# part 3: dolomites ready
davos - cortina d'ampezzo

# part 4: balkans trip
venice - cortina - ljubljana - istanbul