It takes some water, toasted bread, and a few nibbles to recover from the night before and my hangover. There are two routes to Lake Ohrid, each about a three-hour ride. I plug the shortest into my GPS and bid my cat and friends at Royal Winery Queen Maria goodbye.
Because of construction and lack of signage, I cannot find the ramp to the highway that will take me north. Confused and driving in circles for about ten minutes I turn down what should be an access road, but it’s a ramp on to the highway going south! This would be okay if I were heading to Greece. But no, I’m heading toward Albania and Lake Ohrid. Now I’m locked onto Macedonia’s main highway, and there are few exits. I must travel more than thirty kilometers before I can pull off and ride those same thirty kilometers, though I get excellent views of the Demir Kapija gorge. But the circle jerk steals over thirty minutes of precious time.
Soon I’m passing the exit for the winery when construction signs guide me off the highway and on to the access road I missed earlier. Oh well.
The ride to Ohrid takes me across this vast valley laden with a diverse selection of agricultural crops. The occasional slow-moving truck is the only bleep in the rhythm of my riding. That is until I come to a massive construction crew and a confusing intersection with a new but not yet opened bridge. Part of the crew is paving the road, while the other part of the crew works on heavy equipment scraping the tarmac from the other side of the intersection. But which way do I go? My GPS is silent. I stop and ask one worker which way to Ohrid. He doesn’t speak English. So I use my best sign language and shrugs and just repeat “Ohrid? Ohrid?” And point. He waves me on.
Now I’m on the rough part of the road, loose rocks, dirt and chewed up tarmac. As I motor on there are several sizeable fifty-five-gallon barrels blocking part of the way. Two-by-four planks cross over them. Yet I see a car driving toward me on the other side of the makeshift barricade. So I pass the barrels. One construction worker motions with his hands, I feel he is calling me stupid or an idiot. But it’s too late. I’m committed, so I motor on and leave him in the dust.
The road sucks. What should I expect, right? I know the crew will pave this soon, but my bike and body vibrates and shakes as I bounce over the road. I fear that one bottle of wine might fall off the bike, but not really, I have them secured.
This road has me twist up and around mountains. That’s when I notice a new road and more construction equipment. It’s on the other side of the river. I try to piece the puzzle together as the other road seems well engineered and with new tarmac. Then it stops, and there’re more signs of grading and excavation. There are no cars on either side of the river.
An hour into this ride as I crest a mountain I see a vast town sprawl in a valley below. But up here it feels like a war zone. Smoke from burning trash on both sides of the highway obscures my view. A few young men on bicycles congregate and converse on the roadside. It’s series, and it smells. This hill is where locals must dump their garbage. Strewn all over the road and down the mountain to my left, and on the banks of the mountain to my right. Garbage. And it’s burning.
Some ten kilometers later, I find myself on new and likely never driven or ridden pavement. It’s a relief from the jostling of the rough road I’d been on. Later I come to another intersection. More fifty-five gallon drums are blocking the way ahead of me. I realize that this is not to keep me from continuing, it’s preventing others from driving onto the road that I’m cruising.
I must hop over a median to get on the road. Now I back with light traffic, roadside stands, and signs of activity. With my phone in my pocket, I have no idea how far I am from my destination. I hesitate to stop, I just don’t want to take the time. I restore my confidence when my SENA prompts me to bear right at another intersection. The road twists and turns, and with each bend of the road, I see orchards and orchards of apple trees. The colors of burnt amber, orange, red, and bright neon green. It’s late afternoon and the magic hour of light bathes the surroundings in a seductive glow.
I pass trucks loaded with apples and other fruit. The small towns I cruise through remind me of northern New England near where I grew up. Soon I’m winding down the hill and riding into a large village. There’s more traffic.
I ride toward the shore of the lake where I’m hoping to get a room at the Hotel Aleksandria. To get to the shoreline road, I must pass a gate operated by an officer of sorts. I tell him “Aleksandria,” and he lifts the gate.
I’m in luck. There is a lakefront room available. And it’s almost sunset. I find secure parking, get out of my riding suit, and find a table just steps from the water. It’s time for a cold beer. As I snap a few photos and sip my beverage, I get a WhatsApp message from Mahsa. She’s thirty minutes away.
Soon I see two riders motoring down the shoreline drive. It’s Mahsa and Gerald. They secure a room in my hotel, park their bikes, and meet in my room where we celebrate our rendezvous here on the shores of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia while watching the sunset and gazing toward Albania on the other side of the lake. Yes, I finally can share one bottle of wines I’ve been carrying. In preparation, I’ve been chilling the Ivan Buhac Chardonnay that Domagoj gave me when I was in Ilok in Croatia a couple of weeks ago.
It’s been almost eight days since Mahsa, born in Iran and living in Spain, started her journey. Gerald, from Austria, is just three weeks into his adventure. They met in Albania. Tonight the three of us will dine and drink more wine and compare stories.
Gerald doesn’t speak too much English. But we communicate, and Mahsa fills in the blanks when needed as she speaks German. This is not the first time Gerald has been in Lake Ohrid. He takes a month motorcycle trip most every year. Usually traveling from Austria to Greece. He knows of a great restaurant, Gostilnica Neim, on the pedestrian zone in this little town of Ohrid.
I convince the owner of the Neim restaurant to open my second bottle of Ivan Buhac—a cabernet sauvignon—if we purchase an additional bottle. It is the first time that the owner and server in the restaurant tried Croatian wine—once again sharing and opening eyes to possibilities.
We connect with another diner in the restaurant, a woman from Central America, but now living in Europe and here in Ohrid for a short retreat. After three months of Greek and Slavic languages, I finally can speak to someone in a foreign tongue that I know—Spanish. We share wine, and before we close the place, the owner is pouring everyone glasses of Rakija. For a moment I worry that this could turn out like last night. Thankfully, it’s tamer.
I get such a thrill and plenty of joy when meeting someone for the first time—someone who I have been in touch with over several months. And though I’ve never met Mahsa or Gerald, to me, they seem like old friends. Sharing dinner, smiles, stories, and dreams. Sure, it can be lonely traveling the world like I do. But I’m never alone. There’s always someone there. And tonight I revel in the thrill of making new friends. OUr time is brief here in Lake Ohrid, but our friendship and connection will last a lifetime.
After dinner, we head back to the hotel and to bed. Except I cannot sleep. There is a group of kids, servers from the hotel restaurant, and their friends. I get out of bed and head downstairs and ask for a beer. The bar is closed, and they do not have access to the booze. But the unmistakable waft of weed permeates the space. They hand me a joint. This will do.
We all share stories, and soon, I’m back in bed.