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A Modern Rome to Jerusalem Pilgrimage: Part 2 – Croatia to Greece
On 27 April 2018, Day 27 of my pilgrimage and a rest day, I was exploring the old historic walled city of Split in Croatia. I had walked 650 kms from Rome to Venice (see last CC), initially on the Via di San Francesco to Assisi and Gubbio, visiting the many still operating Franciscan sanctuaries on route, and then following the Adriatic coast north through the ancient cities of Rimini, Ravenna and Choggia. After Venice, I cut the corner across the northern Adriatic Sea on a discount airline to Split, established by Roman Emperor, Diocletian, in the early 4C AD when he built an enormous palace for his use later in life, containing his domed mausoleum, temples and luxurious living quarters. Later, his mausoleum was converted to a Christian Cathedral which is still operating today. Diocletian was the last Emperor to persecute Christians as after his death the Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine in 313 AD granting full tolerance to Christianity and all other religions in the Empire. Christians now had freedom of movement and started to make pilgrimages to Rome to visit the tombs of St Peter and St Paul. It would be many centuries, however, before pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Santiago became popular like those to Rome.
About to cross the new bridge into Dubrovnik
The next day I set out with some trepidation on the second stage of my journey across Europe, following various paths from Split to the Greek/Turkish border (see map). It would be about twice the distance I had walked so far and I would be walking through the former Communist countries of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. I had done enough reading to know that it was safe to walk through these countries in 2018, but nevertheless I still feel a slight unease when venturing out on my own into new countries where I have not been before. Fortunately, I always find that this unease is quickly put to rest by the friendly, generous and very helpful local people that one meets along the Way. The paths I was following were a combination of main roads, minor asphalt roads, dirt or gravel tracks. At times I was walking close to the Adriatic Sea and at other times I was further inland, often on the side of the mountains running the length of the Dalmatian Coast giving me spectacular views along the coast line. One morning, I mingled with half marathon runners on a charity run along the coast, enabling me to receive bottles of cold water and fruit at all the refreshment stations! I was cheered on by the supporters in the same way as the runners, and reaching the finish line with the last very slow runners, I was welcomed in for the end of run party lunch. I quickly found that telling the locals that I was from Australia favourably disposed them towards me so that I was more likely to be given a bed for the night. I walked into Bosnia and Herzegovina for the 20 km wide stretch of land that cuts through Croatia to give Bosnia access to the Adriatic Sea at the port of Neum, where I overnighted. Interestingly, the price of food and other household items in Bosnia, which is not in the European Union, is about half that in Croatia (in EU), so Croatians regularly cross the border to do their shopping. After seven days I reached Dubrovnik, crossing the wonderful new, part pier, part suspension bridge into the city. I found a room in a private house just outside the old city for two nights as I was keen to explore old Dubrovnik the following day. I visited the Cathedral, the city walls, the first pharmacy opened in Europe in 1317 AD and a very moving museum commemorating hundreds of Croatian soldiers and civilians killed during the war in the early 1990s with Serbia and Montenegro.
Good views along the Dalmatian Coast, after Dubrovnik. My path is the winding road.
A few days later, I walked into Montenegro and found I had to switch off roaming on my phone as being outside the EU all my credit was being quickly consumed! Fortunately, it was hard to get lost as I was basically following the coast to the south-east. I had a delightful half day and evening in old Kotor. I climbed up the steep mountain behind Kotor to see the Venetian fortifications built to protect the town from any attack from the rear and also to take in the spectacular views across Kotor Bay. With no backpack on, I was surprised how I climbed the many steps to the top with ease. After Bar, a container port town, I headed inland over a day to the Albanian border and was taken aback by the rubbish lying everywhere, including household and industrial waste. Later on, I saw the same wilful dumping of rubbish on roadsides in Albania and Macedonia. Lack of organisation of waste collection is one cause and corruption is another as there is money to be made from the illegal dumping of waste. While this lack of concern for the environment is shocking to the Western traveller, for the local people many of whom are poor, the priority is to earn a living in order to have somewhere to live and enough to eat to survive. There are signs of improvement, however, with local programs for cleaning up villages and environmental awareness being introduced in schools for children. All three former Communist countries have also applied to join the EU and this is focusing their governments to clamp down on corruption and illegal dumping of waste as improvement in these areas are pre-conditions for EU entry.
Old Elbasan town wall, Albania
On entering Albania, I immediately saw men walking cows along the side of the road and people riding horse drawn buggies. Now a little wiser, I bought an Albanian SIM card for my phone at the next town and then after crossing the very wide Bojana River near Shkoder I headed south on the main road to Tirana, the capital of Albania. It was a warm day and I was frequently asked by the locals if I needed any water. I was the lone walker as I had been ever since Split. One man stopped his car, ran across the road and gave me two bottles of cold water and a chocolate wafer biscuit! I was told there were no hotels until Lezhe and so after 30kms, I turned off the main road to try my luck for a bed in the small town of Dajc. Lezhe was still 17kms away. After enquiring at two houses I was told that there was nowhere available but one man kindly gave me a lift on his scooter back to the bus stop on the main road, waited until the mini-bus arrived and told the driver I needed to go to a hotel in Lezhe. The next morning I was on a mini-bus again going north to Shkoder as I needed to go back to the main road by the Dajc turn-off to complete my walk into Lezhe. It was important to me that I walk every section of my chosen route to Jerusalem, apart from the major concession of the two airline flights to shortcut the pilgrimage from 6 months down to just over 3 months and to avoid walking through Syria and Lebanon.
Just west of Elbasan, I joined the Via Egnatia, the Roman road built between 146 and 120 BC from Durres on the Adriatic Sea to Thessaloniki. Later it was extended further east all the way to Constantinople (now Istanbul), when the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire was founded in 330 AD. The VE runs through the centre of old Elbasan and is still signposted Rruga Egnatia. The walls of old Elbasan have been restored and rebuilt many times over the last 2,000 years and in one very good section of 8 m high wall on the western side, one can easily see the three different periods in which the wall was built, the lower dark part is Roman, the middle light part is Byzantine and the upper part is Ottoman. I enjoyed wandering around old Elbasan with its old churches and mosque as well as its markets in the new town that sold live hens, ducks and other birds and an amazing range of vegetables and fruits. Back out on the VE trail, I passed through small towns in the river valley and later climbed back into the mountains on remote tracks. (I had crossed a scenic mountain range the day before on a long 43km hike from Tirana to Elbasan, there being no accommodation along the way.)
My guide book mentioned that the Via Egnatia Foundation had negotiated home stays in two houses in the nearby small village of Polis 1. I found one of the houses and asked whether I could stay the night. The wife with two children and a grandma said yes! Samir, the husband, was away working in Greece and so Lule, the owner of the second house, came and joined us for Turkish coffee and then raki and talked non-stop, mainly in Albanian. He was reminiscing about when the VE Foundation came through in 2011 and 2012 to establish the VE walking trail and hired Samir and him as guides. He asked me a few times if I needed a guide as he said the route through the mountains was difficult. I politely declined saying I wanted to walk the VE alone. I didn’t get to wash until 9.30 pm, three hours after the electric hot water heater had been switched on. At 10.15 pm we all sat down to an excellent three course meal cooked by the wife on her wood fired stove. That night I slept on a comfortable pull-out sofa in the lounge room. After a big cooked breakfast, I set out to find the best preserved section of the old Roman road on the whole VE trail. After a few wrong turns (too much Turkish coffee!) and climbing some steep slopes, it was very exciting to find these good sections of the VE in the mountains, built at an altitude of a third to a half of the mountain height and following its contours to stay as level as possible. This made the road suitable for both marching Roman soldiers and horse drawn carts and chariots. Further on, the VE disappeared under red soil washed down the mountain and the walking path narrowed considerably because of wash outs. It was scary progress here as I was walking on loose soil on a slope with a steep drop down the mountain on my left side. I contemplated turning back but then realised that I was too far in and it would be just as difficult to go back as to go forward. After negotiating this dangerous section, I met a shepherd with his herd of goats. He indicated to me that I should hurry along as a storm was approaching. It soon began to rain and became very misty causing me to get lost. Checking my compass I found I was heading NE instead of SE so I took refuge in a large concrete storage cavern in the side of the mountain used by the military in the Communist era. I thought if the rain doesn’t stop I could be spending the night in this cavern! It was quite dry in there and I was able to read the route description in my guide book very carefully. I found where I had taken a wrong turn and after an hour and a half in the cavern the weather eased, so I back tracked and made my way down the mountain to the village of Babje where I was able to find a second home stay, which was even more welcome and enjoyable than the first, since the owners spoke English fairly well and I had just completed one of the most difficult days walking of my pilgrimage. I had two more nights in Albania, the first in my third home stay in a row and the second on the mountain pass into Macedonia in a country hotel where being, the off-season, I was able to get a room for 15€.
Meeting locals on VE path in Albania
I then walked into Macedonia and followed the path down through pleasant woods to the shore of Lake Ohrid, a very large old lake with deep and hence cold water. I followed the lake around past Orthodox cave churches and a monastery to the attractive town of Struga, overnighted there, and the following day walked on to the very old city of Ohrid, also on the lake. Here I spent three hours exploring several old churches, one with fine 12th C frescoes, the city walls, the fort and some old Ottoman houses. I then headed to the Monastery of Sv Petka and was given a bed in a small dormitory for the princely sum of 5 euros, no meals but it did include a cup of Turkish coffee! I was their only overnight guest but quite a few locals dropped in that evening, visited the small chapel with frescoes, said a prayer or two and then came and had a coffee overlooking Ohrid and the lake. It was very peaceful place and I enjoyed my stay there. In the morning, I was back on the VE trail climbing a steep hill to enter the Galicica National Park. My guide book said this was a difficult stage climbing 700m at first, 1000m in total ascent, and then walking through overgrown forests that may require pruning to get through. Use of GPS waypoints and a compass was mandatory to keep your bearings! I could see I was going to get lost a number of times on this stage! In addition, the guide book said there were bears and wolves in the park in the remote areas! I was therefore very pleased to turn a bend and meet the only other pilgrims I saw on the entire Via Egnatia – two Slovenian ladies, Irena and Jela, who were walking from Durres to Thessaloniki. Reassuringly, Irena had a GPS wrist watch with all the VE waypoints downloaded. They were also pleased to meet me and have a man walk with them. We struck up a friendship and walked on together to Thessaloniki over the next 11 days. We overnighted in Resen and the wonderful old Ottoman city of Bitola with the ruins of Herakleia, the old Roman town, nearby. As well as good walking companions, Irena and Jela were also my interpreters in Macedonia, as by speaking Serbo-Croatian that they had learnt at school in the former Yugoslavia, they could communicate with the locals who spoke Macedonian, a similar Slav language.
Irena with GPS watch and John near Pella, Greece
We crossed the border into northern Greece at Niki and were back in the EU, so I was able to reinsert the UK SIM card in my phone. It worked a treat after being topped up with more credit! There were no hotels in Niki, so we had to taxi to Florina, 20kms away and then taxi back again to Niki in the morning to resume our pilgrimage. This taxiing to a larger town with hotels became a regular feature of walking the VE in northern Greece as the whole area is predominately agricultural with few large industries. The walking, however, through this part of Greece was very invigorating as there are mountains everywhere with plenty of water to grow a wide range of crops and after Kella stone fruit orchards. We gorged ourselves on beautifully ripe cherries day in day out as well as on some apricots and nectarines that were still ripening. In this region there were also beautiful natural wet lands with many bird colonies. One day we came to a creek crossing where the water was waist deep so we diverted, climbed up a railway embankment, walked down the line and crossed the creek on the railway bridge. Further east as we approached Thessaloniki, the land became drier with open crop fields like in Australia. Before then we walked through the old towns of Edessa and Pella where Alexander the Great was born and the Macedonian kings built a huge palace and a city that was the capital of their kingdom.
We walked into Thessaloniki on 2 June 2018 (Day 63) and found a small hotel, appropriately located on the modern Egnatia St. The Roman Via Egnatia was long lost many metres underground. Thessaloniki has thrived since antiquity when it was founded by Phillip II of Macedonia because it has the best natural harbour in the Aegean. The Romans made it the capital of their Province of Macedonia and later the Byzantines made it the second city of their Empire after Constantinople. The Ottomans ruled here for five centuries until defeated by the Greeks in 1912. To capture some of the town’s long history we stayed two nights and visited many of the old city’s sites on our rest day. My two favourites were the Rotunda (originally a Roman temple, then converted to a church at the end of the 4th C, then a mosque in the Ottoman period, back to a church in 1912 and now a museum) and the White Tower (built by the Ottomans around 1490 AD as a prison at the corner of the eastern city wall and the sea wall and now the City Museum). With Irena and Jela flying home to Slovenia the next morning, it was unfortunately time to say farewell so we had a good meal at a local restaurant and reminisced a little on our walking days together on the VE.
Ottoman White Tower and sea front in Thessaloniki
The next day I set out on my own again for the Greek/Turkish border. The VE Foundation had yet to publish its guide book for the second part of the “Via Egnatia on foot” – Thessaloniki to Istanbul. I did have their route descriptions electronically but without the accompanying maps or a GPS, I decided I was not going to find my way. So it was back to Google Maps to help me select a suitable route each day after I had given it my destination town. On this first day, it selected a great route starting with an easy no major roads departure through Thessaloniki to the north/north east which brought me to old northern wall of the city. I walked beside this 8m wall for a kilometre and soon after I was climbing a mountain through a pine forest. Later I followed remote dirt tracks for about 10kms through undulating terrain with good views over a large lake below. In the afternoon, I had some main and minor asphalt road walking into Lagkadikia, where I found a bed in the only hotel in town. This pattern repeated itself for another four 30-40 km days as I walked along the shores of large lakes and through more open terrain to Kavala, a very vibrant city on the Aegean coast. The VE had been mainly walking on tracks off road, whereas now I had much more road walking which brought back the blisters! I found that I could contain my blisters if I did not walk more than about 22-24 km per day on asphalt roads. I would seek out dirt or gravel tracks heading in my direction, often requiring me to walk further than the direct route. With this plan, the blisters eventually turned to hard calluses and gave me no more grief.
After Kavala, I was back inland for a further 5 days to Alexandroupoli, also on the coast. On the last day of this section, I walked across a mountain range through a Conservation Park to keep off-road. Google Maps had me on a good track through the forest till a 3m high fence with barbed wire on the top! I had to veer off searching for a way to get back on track. An hour and a half later I was still searching. There is a Camino saying that when you are off-track and looking for a way to get back on track, stay positive and a path will open up for you. I have found that this strategy works about 75% of the time, presumably because there are usually multiple paths going in your general direction. On this occasion I was starting to get impatient and began calling out, “When is this bloody path going to reveal its self!” A little further on I scrambled down a steep gully to a creek bed which was dry but I found that there were steel flapper gates at the bottom of the fence designed to open when the water level built up. I was able to push open one of these gates, prop it open with my backpack and crawl through! Following the pebbly creek bed for some distance took me back to my path through the forest. I did have to scale another high fence later to get out of the park.
Two days later I reached the Turkish border and was now just under 300kms from Istanbul.