Our ride into Albania is at the end of a brutal day. (Post about Montenegro coming soon). We´ve just completed a long descent, stopped at a service station cafe for a cool drink and about 5 km later, crossed the border. In fact that means we have been ´checked-out´ of Montenegro but there has been no official entry into Albania; we´re just there! We have 20 km more to ride and it is flat all the way to Shkoder. We stop for a phone card, and a city map, and easily make our way to Green Garden Hostel, where Warmshowers guests are welcome, and offered the first night camping for free. (Warmshowers is an international group of cyclists who host, or are hosted by, other Warmshowers members). We are told there are still rooms available, and because we will be in Shkoder for two nights, and we like comfort; we skip the free back-yard camping and choose a room.
Statistics for a brutal day: 71km, 5:42hrs, 1154m ascent, 1161m descent.
A day off the bikes! We don´t want to do too much as we´re both tired. We take a walk into Shkoder centre; passing vendors who have set up temporary stalls on the edge of the wide footpath, beside the road. Typical wares for sale include fruit and vegetables, knick knacks, plastic wares, piles of tobacco, filters and paper, second hand clothes, and shoes. We also pass two streets of market stalls piled deep with second-hand clothing. It appears that all of Australia´s Goodwill bins have been sent to Albania!
We have another three days off the bikes, as we take a minibus to Theth and hike from Theth to Valbone and then a ferry on Lake Komani. See photo below. You can read about that trip here.
After much discussion about temporarily lightening our loads by storing our camping gear and warm clothing, having studied maps, terrain and altitude, we have decided to head south tomorrow; with everything! Nev had suggested we consider returning to Montenegro and we did so briefly, but I know I´ve been influenced by talking with other people about their experiences, and am keen to see more of Albania and what will unfold. I am very conscious that there will be hills, but will worry about that later. We’ve had a few days off the bikes, one in Shkoder recovering from the previous three days of riding, one day travelling to, and one day travelling from the mountains, with a tough day of hiking in between. I’m thinking I’d like another day in Shkoder to get organised for the days ahead, but in reality I’m just delaying because, in spite of what I said earlier, I feel like I’ve lost the confidence to be a nomadic cyclist! Difficulties will be the climbing and the heat, now forecast at over 30C that is typical for this time of year. In reality, what is there to organise when your home is in the panniers, there are shops along the way, and the washing can be dry in two hours?
We’re on the bikes at 8 a.m. looking forward to a comfortable, yet long day. Around 85 km of mostly flat riding. The easiest route south is the main highway. While we had travelled in the minibus, I’d felt like I would not want to be riding these roads. In reality it’s like canoeing a fast moving river; everything’s flowing in the same direction and you’re only aware of what is immediately beside you. As we moved through the rural landscape of cornfields, and small farms, the traffic was mostly courteous; giving plenty of room as they passed and many trucks and buses gave a gentle warning toot. It was helpful to have the mirrors and keep an eye on what vehicles were coming from behind.
We’re coming up to a motorway section and turn off just before it, because we want to access a minor road. Somehow we’ve missed the road we have been looking for, and find ourselves on a secondary road flyover, with the narrow road below us. We can’t be bothered returning 5 km to the turn off we missed. There is a very steep gravel path (something the locals would have made for a shortcut) from the flyover we are on, down to the road we want. The bikes are unloaded. Slipping and sliding we make numerous trips to transfer everything from one road to the other.
This minor road is more to our liking. There were many “hello” calls from children and adults on the roadside, there are few vehicles and many give the occasional honk of greeting with the peace sign offered out the window. We pass through a couple of villages that have acres of buildings and brick chimney stacks, in various stages of ruin. Evidently when the country was under the Communist regime, there was a lot of industry; steel, woollen, and cotton mills. Now it is long gone, and some urban areas are looking quite forlorn. There is a lot of unemployment in Albania. There was also a boom in high rise accommodation that was built for the people who came from the countryside to work in the factories. These unattractive buildings on the outer suburbs of most cities are still used as housing.
We had regular breaks and by lunchtime we’d covered 50 km and still feeling good. Nev went to Booking.com and found that the room that appealed to him last night was still available at Krujë. Even though I know this will mean our ride will finish with a climb, I’m sucked in by the romantic notion of a room directly overlooking the castle, and so the booking is made.
The afternoon heat continues to intensify. I’m deliberately not checking the temperature on my Garmin hoping that by not knowing, I’ll not be affected by it. I don’t need to see a number to know that it is very hot; it’s hot enough that after lunch I pull into a car wash (hand-done here) and am given the hose and am able to give myself a thorough wetting. Later a very loud “hello” hailed from the shade of trees at a Bar/Kafe is a good excuse to stop for a cool drink, and chat (via charades and google translate) with a couple of men who are interested in where we have come from, how did we get here, and the bikes, particularly the gear-box, (most people think they are e-bikes, which is a bit disappointing)!
The road surface fluctuates between new seal and potholes, then to newly laid, firm, pressed rock, and later deteriorates further, to many kilometres of potholes and road works. Finally we’re at the turn-off to Krujë and the beginning of the climb. There is a car wash ahead, so I go in for another drenching. There´s a sign showing 8 km to Hotel Panorama. With a name like that, it must be high. We’re not staying there, but we know our accommodation is at the top of the hill, so it will be at least that far. The climb is almost immediately horrendous, waivering between 5 and 9%. It isn’t long before we’re stopping after each kilometre, to give my heartrate the opportunity to drop, to snatch some water, and get the fortitude to continue. It takes us 1 & 1/2 hours to cover nine kilometres. We’re finally in the town but still have two kilometres to go, and the road narrows, continuing up. I’ve been telling myself how amazing my body is to get thrashed like this and keep going, when I round a switchback corner to where Nev is waiting, and see the gradient increases. Wracking sobs overwhelm me! While wiping my eyes, I realise I don’t have any glasses on. I always wear glasses! Because we’re experiencing intense sunny days, today I wore my prescription sunglasses. They had often annoyed me as I rode, slipping down my nose, and I’ve got no idea if I’ve been so stressed I didn’t notice them slip off. Also I reckon Nev must have looked at me, at least each time we stopped; surely he noticed my glasses missing, There’s no way I’m going back to look for them.
To get to our accommodation, Nev suggests that he’ll continue upward, and then come back for me. Nev rides on, and I begin pushing my bike. Suddenly it’s rolling easier and a man has grabbed the carrier and continues to assist me for about 500 metres of the steepest section. I am so thankful for his kindness! I’ve regained the strength to ride, and find that the top of the immediate hill is followed by a short descent. Nev has parked his bike at the bottom, on the castle cobblestones, and is trying to decide which of the three directions is the correct way. A car pulls up and a young man asks if he can help. It happens he is from Emiliano where we are staying. He phones his brother, who comes to guide us. My bike is taken from me and I have no way of keeping up with the young man’s pace as he pushes my bike and I walk freely, to cover the final 150 metres to our accommodation. We are shown to the shady garden, given a ‘welcome’ beer, and just go “wow!” Behind, across a valley, is the rocky face of a mountain with some homes clinging to the surface and situated higher than the hill we are perched upon. The other three directions are uninterupted views of at least 30 kilometres, out to the ocean, and south to beyond Tirane. We are at the top of a hill, within the perimeter of an old castle, staying in a family home that is 300 years old, and being served by the fifth generation of inhabitants.
Today we will not be riding. We both feel weary after yesterday’s effort, so relax by exploring Krujë Castle, built in the 5th or 6th Century. The National Skanderbeg museum there, gives a good perspective of Albanian history. Albania has been inhabited by people, the Illyrians (Indo-European tribes) from antiquity. More recent history shows Albania has been ruled at various times over the centuries (1200´s to late 1800´s) by the Venetians, Sicilians. Serbians, Ottomans, Italians, and Greeks. In 1922 Albania was admitted to the League of Nations as a sovereign independent state. Even up to the 2nd world war Albania was being carved up and dished out to neighboring countries.
We learn of Albania’s National Hero, Skanderbeg, who served the Ottomans but deserted in 1944, along with hundreds of Albanians under his leadership, and became the ruler of Krujë. He reconverted to Christianity and for 25 years he lead many rebellions against the Ottomans, that continued even after his death. He has been recognised as a hero in many Western European countries as a model of Christian resistance against Muslims!
The drop from Krujë should have been a ripper of a ride, but we take it easy, checking each corner where we had stopped while climbing a couple of days ago, to see if my sunglasses have fallen to the roadside. They don´t show up so at the bottom, I pull into the Lavazh where I’d given myself a cool drenching. A man immediately waves, and with his fingers circled before his eyes, demonstrates he has my glasses. He indicates for me to wait, goes up the road beside the car wash, and returns with them. I am so grateful, and he will not accept any thanks other than the words, and the kiss that I blow in his direction as we ride away.
The route to Tirana (the capital) is quite straight-forward. Through the city centre there is a designated cycle path, although navigating some of the roundabouts is challenging. Soon we are out the other side. We are not stopping as we will be coming back this way. We stop at a bar/kafe just before the countryside and have a Coca-Cola and a cheese pie that we purchased from the bakery downstairs. Not very satisfying food but we appear to have passed all shops, other than bakeries. We have a climb out of Tirana and onto a secondary road through Rolling Hills. This is a new suburb with grand houses and an International school nearby. The suburb´s name is not true! The climbs are really steep! Nev doesn't seem to know where we are. We end up following the course that he created using the Komoot APP, and end up bouncing our way down a trail that would be suitable for tractors, eventually dropping into Mullet. It is still not clear what road we should be on, but we can both see a motorway on our right; and that is where we are heading.
Our navigation shows we’ve got a couple of climbs before Elbasan (we are not actually going to Elbasan, but in that direction) so we’ll decide later how far to ride today. We’re on SH3, and there is a lot of traffic. For much of the morning, my view has been of the bitumen immediately before me, making sure I keep as close as possible to Nev in front, to minimise overtaking time for vehicles, and also as close as possible to the white line delineating the road edge. There are constant quick glances at the rear-view mirror to check what is coming from behind. Decisions then need to be made. Can the vehicle overtake us easily. If there is on-coming traffic, will we need to move into the gravel for those coming from behind to overtake, or will we need to stop completely. Nev pulls into a lay-by for a drink from his water bottle. I’m surprised to see that he too, is not game to take his hands off the handle-bars, for fear of losing his line.
We are almost at the top of the climbing for today. There is only a little blip left on Nev´s graph. We pull into a bar/kafe just beyond Ibe. I´ve already had Coca-Cola today and a bottle of sweet electrolyte drink, I feel like something not sweet, so I order a beer, and Nev does likewise. I´m going to celebrate the end of the climbing and enjoy the refreshment. We are also each given a huge glass of iced water, that dilutes the alcohol significantly. Sitting in the shade and high in the hills we´re able to feel a light breeze; bliss!
Back on the bikes we´ve decided to stop and find accommodation at Mushqeta, at the bottom of the hill, only another five kilometres. As we begin to drop into the valley there is a sign about a tunnel. Tractors and bicycles must not enter, but are to take the road towards Gracen. The road to Gracen completely bypasses Mushqeta and begins with a climb, and then continues climbing for 12 km. We pass a few grand residences, that appear to have been abandoned. Finally we get to the restaurant, that, when we turned onto this road, a bill-board had displayed as being 3 km! We take the opportunity to fill up all of our water bottles from the fountain in front of the restaurant. Evidently we still have 23km to go to Elbasen! It was only 22km to Elbasan from the tunnel! The road continues undulating along the ridge, with stunning views and then at last we begin descending.
The long 12 km descent follows a ridge only as wide as the road, so we have views on both sides, when we dare to cast a peripheral glance. We ride with some care, as we share the road with goats watched by their herders, donkeys rolling in the dust, the occasional horse grazing, chickens flapping roadside, and the pair of cows that each rural family appears to own, being moved for milking. There are also a few switchback corners that keep us from having a blast, and the occasional pothole that has been repaired to overflowing, so large bumps of concrete are bounced over. Nevertheless it’s a great way to finish a very long day and we roll into Landis Bar Camping at Bradashesh, and pitch the tent in the company of the kennelled family dog, a rooster and batch of very shrill chickens calling to the hens. Our host at Landis offers us a very large beer and his wife makes us a simple meal. We are happy to make our way early to the tent and leave our host with his family who are celebrating a birthday, in the bar. In Albania there are many bar/kafe businesses that sell only alcohol, soft drinks and coffee. Bar Landis is unique as it has camping on the side as well as offering locals the opportunity to have a drink while their car is being washed (by hand). Albania is the home of many bar/kafes, many car washes, and many very shiny, black Mercedes!
We left Landis Bar Camping at 6:05 because we want to beat the heat but it´s 26 degrees already. We take the main road out of Bradashesh, and it´s an easy 15km to the next reasonable sized village, where we decide to stop for sustenance; we haven´t eaten yet today. Breakfast of Pilaf and Fried Eggs hits the spot and we are off again for a couple of kilometres in the wrong direction before Nev realises we should have turned off. I haven’t got a navigation system and find it exceedingly annoying when Nev gets it wrong. This will be rectified before we ride another day! With our course corrected we continue on main roads. There is little traffic, the road is wide and there is also a wide shoulder. The climbs are long and steady, the surface is usually good, in fact some of the bitumen is so new, there are no road markings, and I feel like I might be the first person to travel on it. One of the descents is memorable because it was so long, with few corners, and at a gradient where we could roll at quite a good speed without ever braking. It brought a smile to my face on a day that fascilated between negativity and positivity, probably in accordance with whether I was climbing or descending hills
Our travel is through a few small villages. There is a noticeable number of abandoned houses. In some places there are many new, partly built houses. Some of these are quite grand. We are later told that many Albanians live and work in other countries, and send back money to family, so building progress is likely, subject to these contributions. We pass many homes with the cut bushes of what smells like thyme (possibly mountain tea), drying in the sun on tarpaulins spread on the roadside, sometimes taking the space to the centre line! Occasionally a car doesn’t pass widely enough and sweet scent wafts around us as we ride by.
Our progress is good, traffic is light, surroundings are interesting, all the while the day gets increasingly hotter until by 11:30 it is 36 degrees. We stop briefly for photos of nodding donkeys. Some are very old, looking neglected and appear to not be operating. Some have muddy oil around the structure. In one village we rode through, one is nodding away in the centre of the car-park area. Evidently Albania is rich in petroleum and gas resources.
At Kucove, Nev’s route has us turning from the town, continuing along the base of the hills with what appear to be a number of little climbs. We’re facing a small road that climbs at a gradient I’m not interested in riding right now, and then repeating for the next little while, so I opt that we go back to the main road, and fortunately that gives a perfectly flat ride for the next ten kilometres. We’ve hardly stopped today apart from breakfast, a few photos and purchasing a couple of bananas at a market. The heat is intense so just 5 km from Berat we take a long break to sit in the shade and buy cold water that we drink in copious amounts.
We arrive in Berat around 1 pm. Nev suggests lunch but I’m too hot to eat so we have a snow freeze. We think our accommodation is in the old town. Sure enough it is but not down near the river, the road looks to be quite near the top of the hill on our left. We check Google maps for directions and choose what appears to be the most direct route. It certainly is! Immediately it is slippery shiny uneven flagstones, so we dismount and walk. Pushing the bikes is relatively easy at first but then the gradient becomes so steep that we park one bike and both push the other. Park that one, return for the first and repeat, and repeat and repeat, all the while thinking ´we must be almost there´. Eventually we get to tarmac and Nev reckons he can ride, so he sets off with the intention of finding the guesthouse and then returning to help me. When he gets back, much later, he has still not found the guesthouse, but he has phoned them. Evidently our accommodation is within the castle, not the old town as we had thought. Nev has parked his bike at the castle gate and returned about 700 metres to me. Nev takes my bike and rides, with me pushing for as long as I can keep up. We pay the castle entry fee and are directed to take the middle road. Guesthouse Vasili is at the top!
Nev’s shirt is sodden with sweat. It could be rung out. I’m in awe that he rode the gradient on both his own, and then my bike. What was supposed to be a moderately easy day of cycling; turned to custard at the end. We are shown to our room and the adjoining shaded balcony offers a place for recovery with a small breeze. The two night stay we have booked at Guesthouse Vasili is a highlight of our time in Albania. Freddie and his wife Nina are very welcoming and their neighbour and life-time friend, Mickel joins us for each breakfast and evening meal and is our personal translator. We pass two evenings sitting outdoors, eating Nina´s delicious home-cooked food, to the point of bursting, and hearing of what life is like living within a castle in heritage listed houses, as well as life in general in Albania.
Freddie drives us down to Berat city via a route much easier than the one we took (evidently our route was the second steepest way), and we visit the ethnological museum and walk the main streets. There is no noticeable tourist population and it is refreshing to note that shops appear to be more to meet the needs of the locals. Later we catch the local ´mini-bus´ back up to the castle. The castle dates back 2,500 years and is unique in that there is a well inhabited village within the walls; homes such as the one we are staying at. We have an interesting explore of the fortress perimeter walls, wander around the exterior of a mosque and byzantine church, check out the water cistern and visit inside one of the Orthodox churches that is home to 16th Century iconic paintings by Master Onufri.
We have decided to head north and hopefully find cooler riding. With that decision made we decide not to stop in Tirane on our way to Shkodra, even though we change buses there. The large bus from Berat station is very suitable because it has a large luggage compartment underneath. Even so, Nev has to remove the pedals, turn the handle-bars and bag the bikes, in the idworx bags he has been carrying for such an occasion. At Tirane he puts the bikes back together so that we can ride the seven kilometres to the Shkodra bus station. Google maps, pops up a photo ‘welcome to the Shkodra Bus Station’ but it has lead us astray. We find ourselves in an empty gravel space. There is a small shed and a man there calls someone over who speaks English. Soon we are back on the bikes returning half the distance we have already ridden to a parking area where there are only mini-buses. Making the connection work for us from Tirane to Shkoder is very challenging as Nev and the driver complete the puzzle of stowing our bikes and gear along with that of other passengers in the very full mini-bus.
The day passes quickly with a very easy journey from Berat to Shkoder, where we return to Green Garden Hostel for the third time. Tomorrow we will leave early and ride to Montenegro.
In conclusion we had a wonderful time in Albania. In July, the heat combined with the hills made the cycling too challenging for me. We would like to return, maybe in April/May. We chose accommodation at the lower end of the market and it was always well presented and our hosts were very friendly. Some Albanians have never left Albania, and they are as interested in our home (Australia) and lifestyle, as much as we are in theirs. We loved the fresh fruit and vegetables. Food is presented as is in season. We found it unusual but not distasteful to have cucumbers, tomatoes and white cheese at every meal, including breakfast. On leaving we were surprised that it was near impossible to change Albanian currency, so it’s best to spend all cash, or change money at an Albanian bank before leaving.