A flight to ISPP would have departed at 6.00am in Gothenburg and I would have arrived at 12.20 in Athens. The same day. Gosh, that would have been so easy. And sometimes, when we climb a mountain, when we don’t find our way, when we’re sweating in our tent late at night, we look up to the sky and see, between all the stars, a flight taking people from Sweden to Greece in 6 hours.
But we do and like these cycling trips. One of the reasons I love them is that you cannot get around feeling the country. You feel its temperatures, meet its people, get a sense of how even or hilly it is. We sometimes sit in a restaurant or in front of our tent in the evening, asking ourselves what changed during the day. Where exactly is the point when green Swedish forests turns into brown Greece mountains?
Of course, there is not one particular moment but a gradual process of nature becoming drier and hillier, and there are many other steps in between (Hungary, for example, turned out to be flat as Northern Germany, something that I had not expected). We like observing these slow changes that are impossible to grasp and impossible to overlook.
As for nature, these changes occur with other stuff, too. One observation concerns animals. In Sweden, people own a dog or a cat. So they do in Germany. In Hungary, they may have two. In Serbia, we first did not notice any pets at all. At some point, however (exactly, it was in Backa Palanka), we met some stray dogs, which soon started chasing us when we were cycling down the high road. This was a scary phenomenon, being chased and even attacked (one dog jumped on one of my bike bags), took about 300km until Niš. After this city, we continued to see stray dogs but they were less aggressive or at least less active. Researchers may argue that this could be due to temperature, weekdays, random effects (rather than region) but whatever it is, flying far above a country will hide this tiny element of Serbian culture. People who do not fly over but live in this region got used to animals (including dogs, cats, hen, horses) on the street.
A second change is food. We know and love the Greek cuisine a lot. It starts with simple treats like tasty sun-grown tomatoes. Compared to Swedish supermarket tomatoes, they just offer a lot more taste. Where does tomato taste shifts from waterish to real taste? And what do people do with their tasty tomatoes? During this trip, we fell in love with Sopska Salat, a salad made with tomatoes, cucumber, and cheese. This is very similar to Greek Salad but the way they prepare it, the kind of cheese, is different. Noticing these small differences in how people prepare their local food is fun in every new restaurant we dine in (same for Frappé, which tastes different in every restaurant).
A third change is religion. We didn’t notice any religious signs or practices in Hungary. Serbia is full of churches and monasteries, we visited the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade, and approached the church in any village we passed (the church was the center of the village). When entering North Macedonia, you quickly notice the multitude of mosques and walk through the old Islam Bazar in Skopje. When flying from Sweden to Greece, you travel from one (more or less) Christian country to a Christian Greek Orthodox country but will miss the Islam and the several forms of Christian religion in between.
These are just some of the changes we notice. Some of these things are more complex and thus not suitable for a late-night written blog. For example, we noticed that different regions seem to have different ways of showing hospitality. Likewise, the Balkan countries are poor and we observed that people’s priorities for what they afford varies between city and village, countries, and regions. What most people have in common, we believe, is that everyone tries to show some wealth and status, may it be with rich flowers in front of churches, lots of meat in city restaurants, cars in Belgrade, or excessively decorated buildings in Skopje.
We, by the way, are incredibly proud of having it made to the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje. From here, we can almost smell the Mediterranean Sea.