On the last day of 2019 Lisa and Bodil completed the Via Egnatia trail, a historical route from Durrës in Albania, across the Macedonian mountains, into the wide Greek plains of Thessaloniki. They became the first people to run the 500km trail, which reopened in 2014, completing it in 12 days.
Designed and built by the Roman army more than 2000 years ago, the full Via Egnatia road runs from Albania all the way to Istanbul, although only the first part to Thessaloniki is currently open.
The Roman soldiers needed a fast and safe route to travel between the key parts of their empire, and so built their roads avoiding wide open plains where they would be vulnerable to the enemy. In order to pull horse carts, the road could not be very steep, which leads to some amazingly runnable trails in the mountains. Further, a Roman soldier could march 25-30 miles a day, meaning that towns are naturally spaced this distance apart, making the trail perfect for running from town-to-town.
Little did the Romans know that, 2000 years later, the Via Egnatia would be the perfect Christmas fastpack adventure for Lisa and me. Neither of us had experience travelling in any of the Balkan countries, which made the trip extra exciting. Arriving in Albania, we soon realised that the relatively short flight might have given us a false sense of “closeness” to home. We nearly failed on the first day at finding the right bus stop to the start of the trail!
You start the run near Durrës, the second largest city in Albania. After leaving the coast your surroundings slowly turn more rural and in our case, muddy! As we mud-slid our way down the hill, we quickly learned that any warning of “very muddy”, “overgrown path” or “hard to cross river” in our guidebook needed to be taken seriously. Twenty-eight miles (46km) and several bramble-bush attacks later, we arrived at our first overnight stop. After a cold shower and a home cooked meal by our slightly eccentric host, I lay awake in bed with aching muscles, wondering how we were going to manage another eleven days.
As I have learned from previous multi-day adventures, it is amazing how much your body can recover overnight. After a breakfast heavy in feta-cheese we hit the road again – well, railroad, to be precise. There are only one or two trains a day on this line, so the locals use the railway tracks often as a public footpath. We passed our first historical sights, including a small bridge that survived since the Roman times.
The Albanian countryside showed itself in full glory now, with horse carriages and a lot of turkey herding. Christmas was just around the corner and we kept wondering over the next couple of days how many turkeys would be left at the end of the holiday season! I picked up a niggling foot injury this day, which would haunt me until the end of the trip. It forced us to re-shuffle our schedule to make it over to Thessaloniki in time for New Year. Lisa was a massive help, offering to carry my overnight bag to take some weight off the inflamed tendon.
The next couple of days we travelled through more Albanian countryside and across small mountain ranges. The people rarely spoke any English here, but were the most hospitable of the whole trip. We were invited into so many family homes, just because the route passed their house. They generously provided us with traditional Albanian coffee – which is very sweet and strong – and were fattened up with apples and walnuts from their garden.
When we crossed the Macedonian border on our fifth day, we felt sad to leave this country we knew nothing about before this trip. However, a strong storm had been shadowing us for this first part of our trip, so seeing Lake Ohrid bathed in sunshine as we ran into town on Christmas Eve made us excited the wet days might be over. With a sunny forecast for the entire week ahead, we couldn’t wait to keep our feet dry for a change!
After Ohrid, we needed to do a long road section, which we prefer to forget about. We are fell runners after all, and the monotony of the road is hard on me. We then climbed to the highest point of our journey: a mountain pass 1700m above sea level. The sunny days brought with them a bitter cold spell, which made me wonder why I had even bothered taking shorts on this trip. Merino wool tops, and sometimes even our waterproofs, were needed to keep us warm! Macedonia was immensely beautiful with long stretches of snow- capped mountains and many apple orchards, which made for good running snacks if we were lucky.
Our Christmas dinner consisted of a plate of spaghetti with a take-away pizza to stave off the pre-bedtime hunger. Running 20-30 miles each day makes you an ever-hungry caterpillar! The waiters in the restaurants we ate often looked at us slightly puzzled when taking our order – how are they going to finish two mains each? Our running snacks were bought in small corner shops along the way and an all-time favourite was the chocolate-filled croissant. Anything chocolate related went down easily when we did not really feel like eating as much as our bodies were needing.
Nearing the border of Greece, mountain villages become more frequent, and on the day we were to cross into Greece, we picked up a friendly dog who wanted to run with us. Dogs in villages are often able to roam around freely, and dog ownership is only loosely defined. Our furry friend however did seem to upset every single dog we passed from other farms and the dog barking and near-attacks became quite scary. In later days, even without the stray dog, we seemed to get packs of dogs running up to us defending their territory. We developed a little strategy to deal with them which consisted of some shouting and arm waving from me while Lisa snuck past the pack without them noticing her. I am still not sure how we could have better avoided the dogs, but can only say no dog actually attacked us on the trail.
Entering Greece, the landscape flattened out as we approached the fertile plains of Thessaloniki. The weather was still bitingly cold, and on the higher passes we even encountered quite a bit of snow!
Since Thessaloniki is now much bigger than it was in the Roman era (it is the second largest city in Greece), the book described two alternative endings to the route. We chose the shorter option which included a bus ride into the city, mainly because we did not have time for the longer ending and did not fancy an extended road run. Our adventure finished on 31 December, but any plans for a New Year’s Eve party in the big city were overruled by our tired bodies. After some Prosecco sipped from espresso cups overlooking the fireworks from our hostel window, we were fast asleep by ten past midnight.
After 11 days and 4 hours (FKT time) of running through these Balkan countries, we can safely say these are some of the most underrated countries in Europe. If you are inspired to give the Via Egnatia a go, you can buy the guidebook on their website.
We will also publish another blog post in the near future with detailed information on our logistics for the trip.