A Work In Progress
As we were now bicycle touring Albania, Shkodra was the first city from the border and welcomed our foursome with open arms. There in front of us lay high rises and low rises and every possible collection of farm animals in some strange arrangement next to homemade structures being looked down upon by houses and hotels and mosques alike. The singing of the qu’eran was still ringing soulfully in our ears as we rode towards the first sign that said ‘hotel’. After working out a relatively cheap price we settle in and set off in search of food. Unfortunately we flew by the little shops adorned with signs reading ‘fast food’ after assuming the worst (we later discovered the brilliance of this foreboding-sounding fast food – most commonly bureks or meat and salad stuffed wraps) but still managed to discover tasty food and new friends.
On the first night – late and then the next morning at 4ish and 6ish Kat was rewarded for her light sleeping with the most exquisite song of prayer – blasting at us from the minaret behind our hotel room – Kat was so moved by it, she felt filled up with the music, so full that her heart felt wretchedly small and incapable of beating enough blood around her body to manage listening to it. It was quite an experience.
Shkodra presented us with the Rozafa Fortress steeped in film making opportunities bemusing tales of female sacrifice within its walls – unfortunately Albania is no different from most countries: not a stand out in women’s rights – its history doesn’t often light favourably the path for women.
Alleykat left one day after Team America who braved the appalling weather (straight after learning the tale of Rozafa and the holes that were left in her tomb for her to suckle her babies through) in search of a quicker passage through Albania. They braved wind and rain whereas we had luck – after saying goodbye to our kind hotel hosts who gave us the ‘how to say’ for a good number of Albanian words, a tail wind and some sunshine were our welcome compatriots as we rode an easy passage through rural but well-maintained roads. We met a French tractor tourer named Claude and after the obligatory beer and banter were back on the road only to meet some more French travellers in the form of four best friends riding their bikes on a world trip for charity, much the same as us! Read about their charity (and ours!) and our french foray HERE.
Riding with another sixsome was delightful, we basked in the enthusiasm of nearly every waving Albanian we passed and spoke sweet nothings and engaging everythings as we pedalled to a small off-the-beaten-path lake where we set up wild camp for the night. Wild camping it was indeed – we were joined for much if the night by a whole hoard of Albanian boys and men, kept warm by their uncle’s fire-building skills and learned a lot about Albanians and fast friendships. The next morning we were expertly led by one of these lads up and out of our now rain-drenched and sinking muddy camp site and after a slow start began riding towards the mountain-top village of Krujë.
After a good slog up 600 metres we had lost the fast Frenchies but were reunited over some fast food. Alleykat discovered by accident the best bread in all of Albania and perhaps The World and booked in for one night in a strange only open for us foreign types hotel. After collectively photo posing, we bid the French men good bye and good luck (their goal was much further afield than our hotel) and had a wander around the steep city. We accidented our way into having the most awkward guided tour of the old city with a man who didn’t leave even as Alleykat was Alleykat: we set up long-exposure photos and played on playgrounds.
Heading to Tirana was next up and short of being the terrifying ride into a terribly crowded city it was an easy slow-moving endeavour which ended in meeting up with none other than Team America once more. We convinced Travis and Jordy to stay as long as we could (and maybe delayed their departure by an hour) and they convinced us to stay in Hostel Albania where they’d just exited.
Tirana was a place full of noise and traffic and youth and colour and popular culture and regressive culture and everything good and bad about cities. We made a video about just how much we loved it: the strange pre- and post-communist history, the sunny attitudes of the people, the slow, heavy, almost impenetrable traffic, the bursts of colour and the contrast from rich to poor. The vehicles we watched drive by ranged from horse-drawn trailers full of fruit or junk to Mercedes McLaren SLR. At the hostel we met Vilma a stunning, bighearted, small statured Albanian lass who opened our eyes to the real Tirana and made our stay infinitely better, more interesting and more difficult to end, we formed one of those intensely close and familiar relationships that happen occasionally while travelling. At the hostel we ate magnitudes of free mandarins hanging from their orchard of citrus trees and also met Joe, the Englishman who entertained us and gave us English-friendly advice.
After a long-ish stay in Tirana we scooted past Dürres, a seaside city with an unjustifiably bad reputation and continued on up the unsurfaced roads, four-lane highways and slightly neglected asphalt stretches (where Kat had a small fall watching a supremely cute donkey instead of the road in front of her) all the way to Berat.
The Museum city of Berat inspired visual poetry in us with its steep cobbled streets and surrounding hills flanked with traditional white houses. We stayed at a homestay with Lorenzo who was well meaning but a busy body and ended up showing his true prejudiced colours when we spoke about the world. There was marmalade in all flavours to be enjoyed – a sticky quince version made by Lorenzo’s mother “Mama” and our favourite kind: Shonny the tiny marmalade kitten. Upon exploring the town we enjoyed the quiet surroundings and discovered the greatest crepes in history at Café Shpëtimi 2. We visited no less than five times in two and a half days. Alee rode his bike on a shockingly smooth road around the hills and was so surprised after the roads we’d ridden previously that he had to document it.
We stopped momentarily in Fier, continuing our preference for flat food (more crepes) and stayed at a funny ultra cheap hotel where an enormous Albanian-style (read: kitsch and loud) wedding was taking place before making our way to Vlora, half way down the coast.
In Vlora, we walked the main streets and visited the self-appointed Sultan’s temple on the hill overlooking the town. There were clouds of pollution that occasionally alighted onto the city but the shorefront was close to being appealing. Kat got the flu for a week and spent time with the inside of her head and the cute little hotel room we stayed in.
After negotiating with retracting sickness and approaching good weather we set off on the famous route from Vlora to Saranda. We tackled the Llogora Pass the first day and made a movie because it was so epic and enjoyable. In a perfect end to our movie we scaled down the switchbacks on the mountain into Dhermi and booted up a 40% driveway into the first hotel we encountered. After patting Nikki the gargantuan German Shepard pup and setting up our room with a view, home made pasta Albanian-style with fresh tomato, garlic and basil sauce was served to us in the hotel’s restaurant.
The next day was a sunny stunner, the beach below invited us irresistibly and so we went down the 350-metre drop without complaint. Here we got ourselves into a sticky situation with Alexi’s dog – who adopted us for a full 24 hours after following us around the small beach towns near Dhermi and back up to our hotel. Our accidental adoption adventure made it to film and so too our regretful escape from the lovely canine the next day. But we had to continue our journey dogless.
We rode in blessed sunshine on beautiful but frustratingly steep roads and made it as far down the road as Lukove. Again we had luck and were treated to a magnificent apartment-style room for cheap money and made friends with a local girl, Paula almost instantaneously. What was going to be an overnight stay turned into a four-night family affair, we checked out the nightlife with Paula and her brother Milto, relaxed in the small town and made a documentary about olive picking and the land ownership disputes rife all along the Albanian coast.
Rain and wind plagued the day we were meant to leave but after a wet start, eventually we made it to Butrint after a detour into Saranda. In Butrint National Park we were astounded at the sheer age of the ancient city and the recent discovery of such a massive area. Our wandering bumped us into magnificent mosaics hidden under a layer of protective material and sand and also into Fabian and Marlis – an Austrian couple four wheel driving their way around the globe. We get to know them over a local dinner, only after being reunited thanks to small town awareness (we’d left Butrint separately and checked into a hotel after missing each other in the town. Happily and strangely they only needed to ask one local and we were given away immediately by our cycling about town antics – they got directions to our exact location).
After saying goodbye we headed towards Gjirocaster with The Blue Eye in our mind’s eye as a recommendation from Paula and Milto. A vague sign signalled left from the main dog-heavy road (there were farm dogs, guard dogs and stray dogs; all equally hell bent on eating us or at least chasing our scallywag Alleykat tails). We followed and were followed by a number of less excitable dogs along a dirt road – a road so potholed we were not sure if we’d taken a wrong turn, but all too soon we were rewarded for our intrepid exploration: the brain-boggling electric blue eye stared mournfully up at us from her deep lonesome setting.
The Blue Eye is clearly a summer destination with two small cafe/restaurants carelessly concreted onto her banks. We set up our tent on a balcony and hunkered down with the mesmerising murmuring sound of the blue eye spring next to us. Suddenly our peace was shattered by a guard turning up, turning on the flood lights and his television and trying to communicate with us in louder and slower Albanian for a few minutes. He stayed all nights as did the rain and the sick hungry dogs. The next morning Alleykat were both sick in the stomach and were made to feel sick to our stomachs after a dog ate Alee’s poo out of the unflushable squat toilet. We set off for our barely 40-kilometre long journey over a little mountain to Gjirocaster.
Gjirocaster demand we explore his fabled and foreboding streets so despite being having bellyaches we declined to bellyache and miss out on exploring the historic castle and streets. Of course, we ended up staying much longer than our original one afternoon, one night, one morning plan – Kat’s stomach bug turned from bad to a bloody pain in the arse and we paused for nine days in total. During our stay Alee rode his bike, Kat fasted in bed, but then together we enjoyed local food, locals practicing their English with us and a thorough dumping of snow on the magic mountains surrounding us.
The snowy mountains back our departure from Gjirocaster and the sunshine warmed our cold backs as we crossed the border (finally, after almost a month and a half in Albania) into Greece. The Greek roads were supremely wide and smooth and wonderful to wander our bikes around on.
Written by Kat Webster
Bicycle Touring Albania Gallery
Click HERE for the full series.
Bicycle Touring Around The World
01. Bicycle Touring The Netherlands
02. Bicycle Touring Belgium
03. Bicycle Touring Germany
04. Bicycle Touring Austria
05. Bicycle Touring Italy & Slovenia
06. Bicycle Touring Croatia & Bosnia
07. Bicycle Touring Montenegro
08. Bicycle Touring Albania
09. Bicycle Touring Greece
10. Bicycle Touring Turkey Part 1
11. Bicycle Touring Turkey Part 2
12. Bicycle Touring Turkey Part 3
13. Bicycle Touring Georgia
14. Bicycle Touring Azerbaijan
15. Bicycle Touring Iran Part 1
16. Bicycle Touring Iran Part 2
17. Bicycle Touring Iran Part 3
18. Bicycle Touring Turkmenistan
19. Bicycle Touring Uzbekistan
20. Bicycle Touring Kyrgyzstan
21. Bicycle Touring South Korea
22. Bicycle Touring Japan
23. Bicycle Touring The Philippines
24. Bicycle Touring Cambodia
25. Bicycle Touring Vietnam
26. Bicycle Touring Laos
27. Bicycle Touring Thailand
28. Bicycle Touring Malaysia & Singapore
29. Bicycle Touring Australia