Amsterdam to Athens: #3 On Touring Bikes. Growth is not Found in the Comfortable. The Balkans.

Comfort Zones

We started at the North Sea, we rode the Rhine and crossed the Alps, we saw the Dolomites, we took a ferry across the Adriatic Sea, we experienced the Balkans, explored the Albanian coastline and the Ionian Sea, we smiled through Greece, and cheered in Athens as we arrived at the Aegean Sea.  

This epic tour would take us through Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, and we soon realized each country would serve as its own individual tour filled with unique languages, foods, architecture, cultures, and currencies.

Team A2A

We rode unsupported for one week, then one month, then two months, we logged 1,000 miles, then 2,000 miles; celebrating each milestone together.

There’s absolutely no way to detail 52 days of riding without boring the most interested reader. Luckily, each day is forever recorded on Strava. Strava is an internet service, which uses Global Positioning System (GPS) data to track physical exercise. We can look back and see our starting and ending points, mileage, moving time, elevation gain, and average speed.

Each day we found ourselves smiling our way through Europe. Some days were long, and some were short. Some days were cold, and a few days were hot. Some days were hard, and some days were not. Each day was a blessing!

Although we were on a two-month bike trip, which would take us through eight European countries; Western Europe was comfortable, it’s a place the four of us once called home having worked and traveled throughout this part of Europe.

In fact, all of our children were born in Germany. Needless to say, our return was emotional, reminiscent, and fun as heck!

Our first border crossing of the trip, Holland to Germany

Yet, we were comfortable.

Revisiting Western Europe

Our comfort zone; as we rode through Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, we were comfortable. The first half of our two-month trip was filled with memories as we returned to towns, we once lived in. We also enjoyed visiting several areas we never had the chance to explore years before. We enjoyed our favorite food dishes and wines and hit the Oktoberfest as planned. The retirement trip of a lifetime was as wonderful as you can imagine.

Garmish – let’s do this!

We camped our way through Holland, Germany, Austria, and half of Italy while celebrating birthdays in Nijmegen and Venice.

Camping in Germany – usually too tired to take pictures

We survived crossing the Alps in Austria via Brenner Pass and stumbled upon the Jewel of Ravenna, Italy. As the camping season came to a close, we retired our tents in Italy and took to the Airbnb scene.

It’s getting real – Brenner Pass ahead

We were still comfortable.

The Balkans

As we prepared to leave Western Europe, our excitement grew as we boarded the Ferry to Croatia. However, with each passing hour on the ferry, I felt my comfort level shrink. I sensed my husband felt the same, but together we had the confidence to continue.

Our ferry to Split – the Marco Polo
Stowing the bikes on the ferry for the 11-hour journey across the Adriatic

In addition, you don’t know what you don’t know. I did know this area had once been part of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, and I recalled the wars which took place during the 1990’s. I also knew Croatia was known for its beautiful beaches and how tourism plays a significant role it its economy, yet I had no idea what to expect.

Eleven hours later, at sunrise, we arrived in Split. It was magnificent. The morning sky was on fire; brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow lit up the ancient harbor, which is perfectly balanced between the old and new world. Just off the harbor rests the ruins of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, which dates back to the late 3rd to early 4th century A.D.

Split

I was excited and calm and ready to roll. Croatia is an absolutely amazing and beautiful country; words cannot describe the tranquility of the turquoise sea. As we pedaled through the small towns and villages, my comfort zone once again expanded. It really wasn’t much different from the rural areas of Italy. The architecture was a bit more Byzantine but very reminiscent of the Italian city of Ravenna.

Croatian Coast

Once we reached Dubrovnik historically known as Ragusa, I was simply speechless. I’ve seen castles all over Europe, but the Walls of Dubrovnik, which are massive defensive stone walls surrounding the city left me speechless. These walls are considered to be amongst the greatest fortifications of the Middle Ages and were never breached by a hostile army during said time period.

The Walls of Dubrovnik

Montenegro is just as breathtakingly beautiful. We were once again climbing as we had in the Austrian Alps; this time huge coastal mountains, rising from the sea, with ascents seeming to last for miles, and descents reaching the speed of light. Each village seemed to be separated by a monster climb, a massive downhill, followed by another killer climb. The mountains challenged me and grew me. The town of Budva is 2,500 years old, which makes it one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic coast. I felt so alive!

Can you see those hills?

As we rode through Albania, we saw a country still in transition following the end of communism in 1991. The countryside is still riddled with the remnants of over 170,000 bunkers built by Enver Hoxha, an authoritarian leader who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985. As odd as these bunkers appeared to me at first, I soon grew comfortable with them and eagerly looked for them along the route. To me, they no longer exhibit a threat, they are simply relics of a time; now crumbling and overrun by nature, some have even been turned into works of art — camouflaging the ugliness.

Camouflaging the ugly

Life truly changed for me when we tackled Llogara Pass, a high mountain pass within the Ceraunian Mountains along the Albanian Riviera. We rode for 15 miles up a very steep mountain pass, which to me was more taxing than crossing the Alps in Austria via Brenner Pass. The reward was then 12 miles of steep downhill switchback thrill. I was scared for my life and for the lives of the rest of the group as we shared the descent with cars, camper vans, trucks, and motorcycles. We had made it so far without incident and these downhill speeds of over 40 miles an hour while holding the brakes was exhilarating but VERY scary. Albania to me was beautiful and raw and the cars were the most courteous and patient of the entire trip. I was on an endorphin overload.

Stopping to reapply sunscreen, and catch our breath
Top of LLogara Pass

As we neared Greece, I realized I was once again comfortable.

Was it the power of the group? Was it the fact Greece is part of the EU? Was it the kindness shown by the people we encountered along the way? Was it Greece smelled as I imagine Heaven will smell? Or was it simply — it just takes time to find comfort in anything new.

Arriving at the Acropolis in Athens

Growth is not found in the comfortable.

Looking Back

Looking back, I’m so happy we chose to leave our comfort zone and I’m so thankful for the opportunity of a lifetime. It was our first bike tour, but not our last.

Team A2A Amsterdam to Athens along the way – in spectacular Budva

As we prepare for this year’s tour and our return to France, I find myself seeking out the uncomfortable. What growth might I find in a country I’m comfortable in?

The bikes have been to the bike spa and are tuned up and ready to roll. Come June, we will ride as a pair — no mentors — no safety net. May our Jetboil light and our bed rolls inflate. May our lessons learned enrich our next journey and may my words inspire you to step away from your comfortable.

I had the time of my life, and I’d do it all again!

Growth is found in change.

Team A2A Celebrating in Santorini

Scenes from behind the postcard

Our beautiful Fuji bikes
Falling on day 1: my knee
Kinderdyke, Holland
Lunch on the road
Germany was wet…
Munich Marienplatz for the Glockenspiel’s performance
Before we upgraded our tires
Conquering Brenner Pass
Italy on route
Venice tide coming in
What it looks like when the police call the big orange van to come get you after fining you $75 each for crossing a perfectly good bridge.
Sunset in Croatia
Entering Montenegro in the rain – after heavy traffic from Dubrovnik
Just another amazingly beautiful afternoon
Can you see the castle in the mountain
Thankfully an uneventful border crossing
Albania, massive hill came out of nowhere. One of the rare times any of us walked our bikes
Anthony from England also riding to Athens
This road ran parallel to the main road for miles
Elevation Chart LLogara Pass
Once in the Balkans, the sea was on our right most days as we climbed up and down on our way south
The water was turquoise, and the cars were courteous
Team Crump climbing
Ionian Sea
I see Greece – looking off the coast of Albania for Corfu
Climbing
Corinth Canal
The Rio-Antirrio Bridge in Greece spans 2880 meters and crosses the Gulf of Corinth
Team A2A Arriving at the Moxy Hotel in Athens, 52 days (49 days of riding) after leaving the Moxy hotel in Amsterdam
Amazing Athens
Santorini – our reward
Train to Athens airport with bikes – there’s work behind all the play

Much credit and thanks to our teammates for many of the beautiful photos.

4 responses to “Amsterdam to Athens: #3 On Touring Bikes. Growth is not Found in the Comfortable. The Balkans.”

  1. Wow, what a fascinating read. Thank you for sharing your experience. I admire your perseverance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Hope all is well in Albania.

      Like

  2. Beautifully written. Glad my “we” had a trip of a lifetime!!

    Liked by 1 person

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