I watched as they danced in my rearview mirror, bobbing up and down like marionettes. Glancing just in front of my face, I saw a cloud of them targeting my eyes, lips, and ears. The ears were the worst. Despite my self-imposed safety measures, I inserted my left ear bud to silence the noise. I rode one-handed, swatting the air in front of my face like a windshield wiper with my free hand.
Up ahead, I could hear Dave moaning and blowing what sounded like raspberries. He had less tolerance for them than I had.
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The culprits behind our misery: bugs. Tiny, swarming, interminable creatures that followed us for two days in a cloud near Lake Prespa in Macedonia.
To worsen the situation, our travels took us either up and over a very long and steep mountain pass or uphill, over cobblestone, which slowed our pace to a crawl, the perfect feasting speed for these insolent pests. Further, Dave and I produced a spectacular amount of sweat, thanks to the searing 100-degree temperatures. Guess what these nuisances love most? Salty, sweaty humans.
The menaces foiled plans for wild camping, as the thought of spending an evening outside swatting and swearing didn’t exactly sound enjoyable. I had spent the previous night blowing up my dying air mattress twice every hour anyway.
The horrible creatures alighted upon Sora’s eyelids immediately upon exiting her trailer, five of them lined neatly in a row, calling shotgun to the moist perch. Our poor dog could barely pee on account of the little vermin.
There’s a reason the words bug and pest are synonymous with annoy.
We knew little about Macedonia prior to arrival. Aside from learning about an infestation of bugs near the lakes region, we discovered plenty more fun facts about this beautiful country.
Up, Down, Up, Down
Macedonia welcomed us with a massively long downhill after summiting an equally massive uphill chock full of 10% inclines that took us from Albania into Macedonia, along the shores of Lake Ohrid. We enjoyed the downhill while it lasted, as Macedonia is no flat land. A predominantly mountainous region, the average terrain elevation sits at 850 meters and some 80 per cent of the country consists of hills and mountains. With the scorching temperatures, this made for some incredibly slow cycling.
Sadly, Those Aren’t Brussels Sprouts
As we cycled into the city of Prilep, tractors toting piles of some sort of leafy greens rumbled past. Hunched farmers lined the rows of the fields of said leafy green harvesting the plant. I had never seen the plant before, though it looked like some kind of Brussels Sprout. As a lover of the mini cabbage, who giddily awaits its annual arrival with, I grew excited and dreamed of the ways I would cook them over my camp stove.
It wasn’t until the universe sent us on a kitty rescue mission in a park that my dreams of Brussels Sprouts were squashed. In a field next to the park, home to a resident goat and donkey, sat rows upon rows of greenhouses drying the mystery greens. Upon further inspection, I learned that my Brussels Sprouts were actually tobacco plants. Turns out that this particular region has produced tobacco since 1873.
I much prefer Brussels Sprouts.
Home to the World’s Worst Hotel
After a long day of hills and heat, we arrived in the town of Kavadarci, whereupon Dave plopped to the ground completely drained and unable to think or move. He instructed me to inquire about rooms at the hotel across the street. I made a deal with the staff and we lugged our belongings across the street.
Not only did they charge us €5 more when they noticed Sora, despite my clearly indicating that we traveled with a dog, they made us pay in cash, on the spot. When Dave wondered whether we had enough cash, the manager said that he would not allow us to go to the ATM across the street to pull out more money. I’m not sure what would have happened had we not been able to muster the funds in a combination of Euros and Macedonian Denar.
At the hotel restaurant for dinner that evening, our server became so frustrated with us as we tried to communicate a question that he left our table in a huff, did other work for several minutes, then beckoned me to follow him inside where I would give our order to a woman on a phone who spoke English.
Exhausted from the day’s ride, we wanted nothing more than to sleep, but our hotel had other plans. Around 10PM, we awoke to what sounded like a chorus of hippopotamus and thumping bass. For two hours, we struggled to sleep before I stormed out of the room to complain.
As I exited the room, I was blasted with noise, cigarette smoke, and a parade of scantily clad women clopping around in high heels. It seems the hotel hosted weekend parties without first informing their guests of the hours of hippo screaming they would encounter as paying guests.
“Yep,” I replied. “Is your manager here?”
No, I was told. She would be back in the morning. At 7AM. The music will stop in 15 minutes.
It didn’t. It went on for several hours longer.
And the manager didn’t show up until 10:30AM. We waited, because I wasn’t leaving without a refund.
After lies from the staff and ridiculous claims like “if you wanted your money back, then you should have left in the middle of the night,” the manager finally arrived. She screamed at us (granted, we were yelling as well), informed me that she had actually, in fact, been there when I came downstairs the night before, told us that we think because we’re American we deserve certain things (like sleep, in a room for which we’ve paid). A man came running over and told us to go ahead and call the police, then we’d have a place to sleep for three days. The hotel refused our refund. With little leverage and no credit card transaction, we had no choice but to cede.
I informed her that she needed to tell her guests of the nightly parties and she told me that she did not.
You can see my review of the hotel on TripAdvisor. Do not stay there. No matter how exhausted you are from cycle touring up hills in 100-degree heat. It took every once of self control not to destroy the hotel room as we left. Our cooler heads prevailed knowing they might just run us over down the road.
Grapes, Grapes, Everywhere
Much to our delight, we learned that Macedonia produces quite an abundance of wine. After tobacco, wine is the country’s largest agricultural export, selling some 60,000 bottles each day overseas. Ranging from homemade table wines to boutique wineries, the small country is putting itself on the wine map. Truckloads of grapes caused traffic jams, as we had arrived in the middle of harvest season. With completely new to us wine varietals like Plavac, Kratosija, and Zilavka, we indulged in the drink and made friends with the tractor drivers who routinely offered us very tempting rides in the grape mobiles.
Were it not for annoying visa restrictions, we likely would have stuck to Western Europe during our cycle tour. Looking back, we’re grateful that the visa forced us to places like Macedonia, a country to which we would likely never book a vacation.
As a cycle touring destination, Macedonia delivers in terms of scenery, generosity, vegan and organic food options, wine, and courteous drivers. We particularly enjoyed the lively town of Bitola, which featured a huge park in the center of the city. It was the first time in awhile where we had seen city folk given a place to spend time in nature, running, walking their pets, or cycling with their children. As much as we complain about the Schengen Visa, we’re sure grateful it introduced us to Macedonia.