Although we had not planned to cycle through Albania this time round, neither of us minded coming back, and even retracing some of our cycle from 2015. Albania is a place close to our hearts. It’s like nowhere else in Europe we have been, and reminds us a little of everywhere we have travelled.
It’s always interesting when you only cycle in a country for a short amount of time, don’t speak the language, or have much meaningful contact with locals. Sometimes that just happens, and in a country, particularly one as seemingly obscure as Albania, one can be left with somewhat confusing impressions. Many things don’t ever quite make sense.
Why does Albania have so many car washes, for instance? Seriously, every few kilometres you find them. And sometimes a few grouped together. Men (with perfectly coiffed hair) either sit around on their phones waiting for business, or carefully soap up already shiny black Mercedes. Another thing; there are so many fancy German cars in this country. Mainly Mercedes, but also Audi’s and BMW’s. In a country that obviously has problems with poverty, it seems quite crazy. I’ve heard some of them are second hand from Germany, brought here because they last longer on the bad Albanian roads. Staying with the car theme, there are also a phenomenal amount of petrol stations. And quite a few abandoned shells of petrol stations. Was there some kind of petrol station fad? Get rich abroad and come back and buy a petrol station? I have no idea. Sometimes it’s fun to make up stories as to why things are the way they are.
Albanian drivers unfortunately haven’t improved much since 2015. The roads are generally narrow and people drive fast. It is certainly a country gripped by the status of the car. Safety and road rules are not a thing. I was nearly reversed in to, and it is standard to talk on the phone, pull over suddenly, use the horn furiously, or use the street as a car park. We saw quite a few amusing arguments as people parked their cars in what up until then had been a lane to drive in, blocking all traffic behind them. The constant feeling of being a second class citizen whose right to life on the road was only temporary, was exhausting and we took breaks sometimes just to get out of the traffic. Thankfully after Tirana, things became better.
The landscape we cycled through was initially flat and dusty, heavily cultivated and dotted with eccentric large pink houses (built by rich Albanians?), petrol stations, car washes and random shops and small villages. We saw a woman herding turkey’s in a field, men driving what looked like pimped up wheel barrows with a motor, and quite obscurely, one person in a wheel chair, on a highway, going backwards. Go figure, it’s Albania.
The gap between rich and poor appears immense here, the corruption is almost palpable. Men in shiny black sports cars, big shopping malls, huge houses. This is interspersed with families travelling by horse and cart, barefoot children begging outside supermarkets and shanty towns. We received some candid stares and shouts, one manchild threw a bottle at Astrid’s head. Women had faded into the background of life here, and it was mainly men we saw – washing cars, driving cars, drinking coffee, milling about. Still, by and large people were kind to us and I feel no animosity towards Albanians. It is a country still coming to grips with its identity after a tragic and frightening past, running head first into capitalism and all the problems that come with this very flawed system.
At one point there was a no bicycle sign on a motorway, but all we got was a smile and nod as we cycled by the police. Later, on another motorway we wanted to ride through a newly built tunnel. Here the traffic man became quite insistent that it was dangerous. I became quite irate; not riding through the tunnel would mean a climb up a narrow road that had already proved dangerous. After days of exposure to bad driving I was having none of it and refused to comply. He said he would call the police and I told him to go ahead and rode off. Poor Astrid had no choice but to follow me. Ironically, pedalling on the footpath of the tunnel was the safest we’d felt all day (possibly in the whole of Albania). We then flew along the newly built motorway at top speed, with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. Either we outran the police (unlikely), or they were never actually called.
From camping hidden in people’s orchards on the crowded agricultural lowlands of Albania, our path took us into the mountains. Here the air was fresher, the landscape wilder and more beautiful. We followed a river upward towards the border with the Republic of Macedonia. Our time in Albania this time was brief, but I am sure it won’t be the last time we visit this unique country.