Kakavia -> Sarande -> Himare -> Vlore -> Divjake -> Tirana -> Shkoder -> Montenegro border.
All that I knew about Albania was that it has the largest number of (?stolen) Mercedes Benz per capita and that Jude had allocated us 5-6 days to cycle through it along the coastal route. That alone had startled me being Australian – can you really cycle through a whole country in 5-6 days? So to remedy my ignorance, the night before we entered Albania I lay in the tent and did a quick internet search and it was fascinating. Independence from the Ottoman Empire since 1912; under an enforced and brutal Communist regime and isolation from the rest of the world from the end of World War II until 1992; home to 700,000 concrete bunkers countrywide due to Hoxha’s paranoia; the world’s first atheist state – it now has the highest degree of religious tolerance and intermarriage in the world; currently struggling against high unemployment, corruption and personal debt; through stage one of the application to become a member of the EU; and now quickly becoming the darling of independent travel. And cycle touring.
Entry was easy and the ladies at immigration were more interested in gossiping with each other than stamping our passports. The money changers shouted greetings as we cycled passed and I knew we were going to have fun here. The sun broke through the clouds as we cycled up the valley from Kakavia and the humidity reached a high as we began our 2km climb up the surrounding mountain range. It was a lovely climb and even the bad drivers could not dampen my spirits as I gazed down the valley and then up at the pass. While waiting for the other two to arrive I watched the first cows I had seen in months. As the dark clouds gathered overhead, we had a picnic in the rain before the fun of freewheeling started. We shot passed stone villages that looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries and spring flowers bloomed on the surrounding fruit trees. Through the shrubbery we spotted some iridescent blue below. What could it be?
Speeding down we almost missed the turn off for the ‘Blue Eye’. Bumping our way along a severely potholed track we initially discovered a bright blue lake and further on its source. A torrent of crystal clear water spewing from a deep cave with the bluest colour I have ever seen. It’s actually a natural spring that comes from an underwater source of unknown depth, pumping out around 18,000 litres per second at a temperature of 10 degrees Celcius. Being the water nymphs that we are, we found a place among the huge lilly pads and jumped in for a quick, icy cold dip. Yes there was squealing. Then the heavens opened and we ran for cover on a pontoon with a leaky thatched roof. Cups of tea were required as we waited for the skies to clear.
A break in the rain provided the perfect opportunity for escape and we shot along the river valley and then the canal, outrunning the black clouds that chased us.
After climbing one last hill, we dropped down into the coastal town of Sarande. An apartment with a sea view was acquired and we were soon enjoying cold beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen. Unpacking for our first shower in a week, we discovered that our panniers were full of rainwater, so everything was hung out in the late afternoon sun to dry.
Slow walks along the promenade, shopping at the second hand stores, a little sightseeing, tasty ice creams and drinking wine while looking over the sea were the perfect activities for a rest day.
Then it was time to hit the coast road. I had mistakenly assumed that the ‘coast road’ would be relatively flat, with consistent views of the water and lots of places to swim. Well you know what they say about assumptions. We climbed and dropped, and climbed and dropped. The road never reached the shoreline and to go for a swim we needed to detour off the road for a couple of kilometres. The sweat poured out of us. We drank water like it was going out of fashion, snacked on bakery treats, and then repeated the whole process again.
In the late afternoon the climbing settled and whizzing along we spotted some ruins on an island off just off the coast. Turns out Ali Pasha had built a castle here too and with torches we explored the beautiful ancient ruins. Walking out we noticed a cycle tourist cycling up to the ruins – it was Nate.
That night we camped together on a field covered in concrete bunkers and olive trees. Goats bleated nearby and a hundred fireflies danced all around us.
We must have collected some bad water the previous night as Jude was struck down with a stomach bug the following morning. Not good timing as the climbing was to skyrocket. We undulated for a few hours before the switchbacks up the mountain came into sight. Seven major switchbacks climbing to the peak above. It was going to be a long day.
It took us around 3 hours to reach the top. With a few rest breaks on the way :).
Going down was the next challenge. A steep, potholed, winding road dropped us back to sea level on the other side.
We arrived in Vlore near nightfall and decided that we needed an ice cream. And a place to camp. After declining the waiters offer for drugs, we did take note of the forest that he mentioned would be a great place to camp. We stocked up on few 2 litre bottles of beer (it was Saturday) and headed into the pine forest just out of town. As darkness set in the fireflies started their nightly ritual. I have seen some stunning sights, but this vision of hundreds of thousands of fireflies flashing in formation – like currents of electricity running through a brain – was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.
We decided to brave the motorway to cover some distance the next morning and we sped along in our peloton covering almost 30 kilometres in an hour. There was no traffic, a big shoulder and no one cared that we were illegally there – winning. Where the motorway ended, we stopped for a fruit break and it was the first and only time in Albania that we were ripped off for being foreign. I can’t wait for such behaviour to cease when we enter Europe proper. After a fast food sandwich of chips and sauce in a roll and some internet access, we hit the road again. Wanting to avoid the insane driving, from Fior we kept to the back roads and it was incredible. It was while we were cycling that I realised what I really loved about Albania – it was a mix of every region of the world I had visited. A small microcosmos of the world wrapped into one lovely country.
In Divjake, we had organised to stay with Paulina (a lovely host on couch-surfing) and were we spoilt. As the smell of citrus blossoms wafted their way up to our rooms, we cooked delicious food and listened to music. We went for a giro (local evening activity of walking together) and followed it up with a hot chocolate you could stand a spoon up in. The following morning we cycled out to the lagoon and enjoyed a pot of bird and fish watching before hitting the road again.
The idea of visiting Tirana had been floating in our minds for a few days and when Evan, a cycle tourist who has been following our blog, contacted us to see if we wanted to meet up – it turned out the capital would be the ideal place. We pushed hard that day to make it to the Trip’N’Hostel by early evening. Arriving in town the streets and cafes were crowded with people, the repainted buildings glowed in the golden sunlight and the smell of delicious food filled our nostrils. Meeting Evan was a joy and we spent a couple of days talking bikes and tours, checking out the sites, drinking icy cold beers and doing some much needed bike maintenance. It was during one of these sessions that we discovered my Rohloff had a flange failure. I guess German engineering isn’t as indestructible as it thinks. Not like the concrete bunker engineer who put himself in one and had a tank fire live ammunition at him. Now that is trust in your own product.
Instead of a mad dash to the border, the small town of Shkoder had caught our attention. Despite the suggestion of following the back road route, we spent the day cycling along the main road, music in our ears to drown out the roar of the traffic. The first thing we noticed about the town was the number of people on bicycles. Everyone was riding. Groups of men coming home from work, mothers with their kids cycling to after school activities, older couples out doing the shopping, kids out having fun and the three of us on our way into town. No wonder Shkoder is known as the cycling capital of Albania. Staying at the Green Garden hostel we met another amazing cyclo-woman, Sara, on her way home from Palestine. Our lovely host Mikel took us out to explore his must see sights – the museum of memory, the ethnography museum, the Marubi photo exhibition and a trip to a stunning swimming hole up in the hills. Even a local political rally was thrown in for good measure. And some communist cake.
So as you’ve probably realised our 5-6 day dash didn’t work out quite as planned. Albania had caught our hearts and minds. But change is a constant thing and it was time to follow the road to Montenegro. A short morning’s ride in our cycling gang placed us on her doorstep and we were ready for the next adventure.
All my love as always,