A Day in the Life…

*if you only read one of our posts, make it this one. There’s no details of tourist attractions, but there are several meal times.
I am continually disappointed in our lack of ability to keep up to date with things whilst away. Laundry, planning ahead, sleep, blogging, everything except eating really. How is this possible you wonder, given that we are on ‘holiday?’ I often think the same, but I promise that our days are packed full of stuff. To illustrate this I will share an average 36 hours with you. At the end you may need a rest.


Day 1: 7am

Wake up in tent to sound of waves. Jo has slept well, I had cold thighs. (Very specific coldness, strange). Eat slightly stale baguette with jam on beach with lovely red sunrise. It is beautiful. Jo takes many photos. Pack up tent, eat biscuits. Faff around filling water bottles, talking to Dutch people, etc.


9:30am

Have pedalled several kms, Jo decides we must take the longer scenic route via a sticky-out bit of coast. Perform inappropriate u-turn on medium sized road. We are both hungry.

11am

Find supermarket and I shop for elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, proper tea. Jo supervises bikes and worries about the route we are now on. There are hills.

11:30am

Beach snack stop, lovely. Jo takes photos.


12:00pm

Definitely hills. And swearing. And pro cyclists. Jo tries to take photos. We find only indiscreet places for number 1s but have to go anyway.

1:00pm

See a hardware shop, Jo goes in to buy meths for Trangia. I eat some 50% off spinach and cheese empanadas whilst reclining on one of the loungers for sale outside the shop. Good job I had got comfy as Jo later revealed her meths hunting tactic was to ‘look down every aisle.’ This place was huge. Good job the meths was near the start.


1:30pm

There are more hills. Jo takes photos.

2:30pm

Lunch on the sea front in a town beginning with M. Heading for Calpe, easy to see because it has a big rock. Pass more pro cyclists, and their trucks outside fancy hotels (that’s fancy hotels, not Danish holes, as autocorrect put in).


3:30pm

The Rock is very big. It becomes clear that because of the sticky-out bit we will not make Alicante today. Decide on Benidorm. Use a well known app to book a room in Benidorm for the same price as a campsite. Steal.

4:45pm

Try to catch pro team up in Altea. They keep getting tantalisingly closer when stopped by traffic lights, but then peel away when the light goes green. I am sprinting very hard. Jo later admits she was only at 92%. Have a snack by the sea and try to follow bike route. It ends.


6pm

Arrive on edge of Benidorm. Does it look familiar from university football tour? Not really. Visit sea and find accommodation. Turns out to be in gay quarter above bar (club opposite is called ‘brief encounter,’ lots of pics of men’s underwear in the windows). English Barman thinks we are mental. Carry bikes and bags up narrow stairs. This takes many trips. Store bikes on balcony. Wash selves and clothes. Research which cycling teams we saw today. Pointlessly tweet about this. Learn some more Spanish. Jo goes to nearby supermarket as directed by barman. Turns out to be not so close. Somehow she doesn’t get lost. We are both surprised. She buys only child cereal and milk. We are hungry.

8:30pm

Go for evening walk to sea. Return and cook pasta on balcony. Plan tomorrow’s route.

11pm

Sleep. Not much noise from bars.
Day 2

5:07am

The streets are cleaned in Benidorm. Back to sleep.

7:00am

The bins are emptied in Benidorm. It is raining

8:00am

Eat cereal served in glasses. Jo’s choice of coco pops. Enjoy boiling water in electric kettle. These are rare in Mediterranean Europe. Try to get excited about going out in the rain. ‘At least is isn’t cold’ ‘I’m going to wear my waterproof socks’ ‘the seats are wet from the balcony.’

9am

It is raining. Follow bike path along sea front. It ends. Join much larger road towards Alicante. The rain gets worse briefly. The shoulder is wide and the road smooth, but there is a headwind. Have I mentioned this already? We have had it since Barcelona. Yep, that’s over 500km now.


10:30am

A lorry cheerily toots at Jo (behind), and then at me, and I see what looks like a large quavers packet flying at me. Nice. Except it turns out to be a brand new hi-vis vest. Subtle hint. We put our own ones on, but keep the new one. It may be a useful swap in the future, in manner of early role-play computer game. (Meet local, give vest, get cheese, progress to next level?)

11:00am

The rain gets very heavy. We are at saturation point, even the goretex trousers feel like they might start letting water through, so we are very pleased to see a roadside bar. I get coffee and we order a sandwich to share. The barman thinks we are crazy. The ham is very good. He shows us photos of his road bike. It weighs about the same as my left rear pannier. He admires our bikes, and tries to pick mine up. ‘Forte!’ We discuss the bikes in limited Spanish. I have forgotten the word for steel which I learned yesterday. He tries a few bike frame materials and we agree on one that may or may not be steel.

12:30pm

I sing the Cure because it is Friday. We stop under a bridge on the shoulder of a slip road because we are suddenly on a road that doesn’t seem to be for bikes. (Lose all your spokes and return to the start of level 2). Jo takes a photo. We leave that road for a very slightly smaller one.

1:00pm

We are hungry. We find a supermarket on the outskirts of Alicante. I brave the ham cutting counter to get great ham. We have our second ham and cheese bocadillo of the day undercover in the supermarket car park. There is even a real toilet. The rain stops.


2:30pm.

Alicante is chuffing huge. The bike lanes are extensive but rubbish as they go up kerbs and have stop signs for driveways every 150m. We stick to the road, where there are roundabouts that are not really roundabouts. We are so nearly clear of the city and on a bike lane to Elx/Elche when we hit silt filled underpass that coats us and the bikes in mud. The wheels stick in the mudguards and our shoes sink as we drag the bikes through. We use our water bottles to squirt the worst off the moving parts. The bike lane is smooth after this though.

3:30pm

There are so many petrol stations in Spain, but none are on this road. We really need a jet wash. Eventually we find one and clean the bikes and ourselves. The cafe next door fill up our water bottles. We eat bananas.

 


4:30pm

Elx/Elche has a fine cathedral and fort thing. Lovely gardens too. Jo takes photos.


It also has endless industrial/retail areas that blur into the next town. It turns out Jo did not hear my rendition of Friday I’m in love earlier. I treat her to it now, and we sing Bon Jovi – Always and other favourites as we ride along the service roads.

6:00pm

The sun is setting and we are now riding slightly uphill into a headwind. We put the hi-vis vests back on.

7:00pm

We have visited a supermarket to get chocolate for our host this evening and find our way to meet him. An evening of lovely food and company awaits. We even stay awake for it all.
This is a tiring life, but we have a lot of fun. Lots happens every day. Was it clear that we cycled over 170km in the 36 hours above? It is brilliant having almost all your meals with awesome scenery. It’s great talking to people on the street that get really excited about our trip. Often we wish for more sleep. Always we wish for a safe road (and a tailwind). I wish for no saddle sores. We miss home sometimes, but an electric kettle just won’t have the same novelty there.

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Potholes, petrol stations and pastries: Cycling fun in Albania

To say we had been a bit apprehensive about crossing into Albania would be an understatement. All cycling blogs about the country read the same: fast and reckless driving, busy roads in poor condition, litter everywhere, dog chases… Anyone that we mentioned our plans to cycle there to responded with the same worried look.

The first evening in Shkoder began with confusion and ended with a very large pizza. Firstly, it did not seem to be essential to go anti clockwise around roundabouts, for cars or bikes. If you need the last exit, just turn left, it will probably be ok. Additionally cyclists should not feel constrained by the standard procedure to ride on the right. Either side is fine. Next, the hostel we had booked was actually closed for a public holiday (low traffic volume now making more sense), we spoke to a trainee priest outside about cycling and went on a hunt for somewhere to sleep. We rode into the well-kept centre, noticeably cleaned up for the national holiday – there was lots of litter everywhere else. Albanians strolled around and we settled on a sports bar called Liverpool for a drink to aid our search. I’m not sure a woman has ever been in the Liverpool sports bar, Shkoder. Time stopped when I entered, even the keenest Bundesliga betters stared at the weird English girl. Or maybe it was the cycling kit. By the time Jo had locked the bikes I had ordered coffee, fizzy pop and we even had a table to go with the strange looks. Finding a hotel was just as easy and the pizza even had some vegetables on. At least 1 of our 5 a day anyway.

Great view, awesome tailwind
Great view, awesome tailwind

We found our way out of Shkoder via a great bread shop following a man who was carrying cement bags on the back of his bike. We even went the right way around the roundabout. It seemed Albania was still recovering from the holiday weekend excess as there was hardly any traffic and, for the first time this trip, a killer tailwind. We had ridden almost fifty miles by 1pm, and had managed a coffee stop, a picnic lunch and two rounds of lovely people giving us fruit we didn’t know the name of. One of these stops we had to stop them from filling a third carrier bag as we just didn’t have room to carry any more! The fruit is kaki, maybe called persimmon at home? In season and everywhere.

Share the road!
Share the road!

Our rapid progress was unsustainable – we had left the highway where it became a motorway (following a sign for Kosovo, not something you think will ever happen), and although the detour was initially on an ok road this did not last. Once we had passed the last car wash in the town the road really deteriorated. In Albania if there is no petrol station and/or car wash every 500m a road just isn’t worth travelling on. This road was on our map, and looked to be a reasonable one, it had a number. It also had a lake. There had been many potholes and puddles, but this the whole road and some of the land either side. Handily, and enterprising local had put stepping stones along one side. We stepped but the bikes had to wheel through, and.were very grubby by the end. First 80km – 4 hours, next 8km – nearly 2.

The road got a little bumpy...
The road got a little bumpy…
...and became a lake.
…and became a lake.

Finally we rejoined a sealed road and began the climb to Kruje, a town in the mountains with a castle that we would be staying in. It was a 600m climb and even though the wind had helped us earlier the last few kilometres of 110 were a struggle. Castles here (and in Croatia and Italy) are not one big building, more castle outer walls with several smaller buildings inside. The view was amazing and we visited the very single minded museum of Skanderbeg the next day. You name it, they had it. Portraits, busts, diaries, poems, photos of statues of him in other countries, places with streets named after him, books where he might be briefly mentioned (Albania travel guide in German). That wasn’t even the best thing though. We were the only visitors at the museum that early, or maybe that day, and we were outnumbered by the staff 4:1. One guy took our money, one lady had a feather duster (an actual one), one gardener, and one security guard – presumably for the crowds. What the other four could possibly have been doing is a total mystery. Admiring the view from the majestic balcony? Playing bows and arrows with the fine selection of cross bows in the upstairs corridor? #communism hangover.

It was a great descent through Kruje, where most people still seemed to be on holiday. Returning to the highway was not so pleasant as yesterday. We had swapped a tailwind for some real Albanian traffic. Fast, too close, and predominately knock-off Mercedes. The first few times you have an oncoming overtaking vehicle driving straight at you are a little disconcerting/absolutely terrifying, but they do seem to cut back in just in time. Mobile phone use whilst driving was at an all time high, even worse then Croatia. As we neared Tirana the road got busier and unhelpfully for one entering a capital city, much narrower, one small lane for driving, one for parking/selling stuff/waiting for a bus. This would later become a ‘cycle’ lane. We were surprised to find a cycle lane in Tirana, a city not known for it’s sustainable transport solutions (*coughs in smog*). Even better for the cyclist was the jaunty smiley face that the cycle logos on the road had been made into. Smile cyclists of Tirana! You are having a great time cycling dodging potholes, pedestrians, goats, cars, buses, opening car doors etc…

Sad to see lots of litter, many places with much more than this.
Sad to see lots of litter, many places with much more than this.

Just like everyone says, Tirana had some colourful buildings, and impressively (surprisingly?) a march for World AIDS day made up of young people. It also had enough takeaways to satisfy our sudden chip craving, a piece of the Berlin Wall (‘what’s that graffiti?’ Jo), a massive statue of Skanderbeg on a horse and a water fountain shaped like an Arabian tea pot. We enjoyed seeing the innovative way a huge pothole near the Department for Transport and Infrastructure had been repaired. A palette over the top and hazard tape around the edge. This must have been official procedure as we saw this several times by uncovered drains.

Getting out of Tirana was easier than getting in, and to celebrate we ate three cheese pastry things sitting on the kerb outside a great bakery. When the owners saw us sitting there, they asked us to come over and got chairs and a small side table for us from their house. When we asked if they had coffee, we were given theirs that had just been brought over by someone from the cafe next door in some sort of bread/coffee exchange. They would not accept any payment for the coffee and stood with us in the sunshine while we enjoyed the baked goods.

Our friend the baker.
Our friend the baker.

We didn’t get far before we saw a football match going on at a pro-looking mini stadium. It was an age group academy game and was a good standard. There was a lot of spectators and in jumbled Italian we established what the score was and ordered some drinks. We also spent a penny in the most surprising toilets of the trip. Imagine standard football women’s toilets. 5 sinks on one wall, 5 cubicles opposite. Now remove the cubicle partitions. Yep, team peeing here. Weird, especially as they were finished to a very high standard, probably the nicest toilets in Albania.

Whilst in Tirana we had received a message about a Christmas work-stay we had applied to. This meant that instead of going to Greece we were heading back to Italy for a Tuscan Christmas. Sadly we decided that there were not enough days to ride all through Albania before getting a ferry to Italy. Instead we re-routed to Durres and had another chip stop to commiserate. We also found a great Souvlaki and our first Christmas tree. We would never had anticipated being sad to leave Albania. It was really fun, helped by the friendly people and the great weather! Not a place to try to get around quickly though, or have a relaxing mini break.

You are probably thinking that we must have been so mentally scarred by the vicious dog chases to write about them. I guess the mean dogs must hibernate in winter, or move to Montenegro for the skiing. Dogs barely looked at us, let alone bark or chase. We had to cycle around one that was napping in the hard shoulder. Dogs of Albania, not scary.

Calm down!
Calm down!

Blown away by Montenegro

It’s a strange thing in Europe that even though the countries are relatively small, and share lengthy borders with others that have similar geography and history, in many you can see differences as soon as you cross a border. Sadly some of these were not so much fun for the cyclist as we entered Montenegro – narrower road, bumpy surface, too fast/too close traffic. Some of the roads looked to be under construction, but I’m not sure what stage of road building is deep sand and stones. On the plus side people started smiling and waving at us again. Which was lovely, until it became apparent that all Montenegrins are the owners of crazy dogs that chase cyclists. Stop waving and control your hound!   
Outside of the towns, the roads were quieter and the scenery around Kotor Bay and between Budva and Bar was stunning. The latter section would have been even more enjoyable without the torrential rain and a hurricane. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a hurricane, but Jo did get blown off her bike and we had to pedal really hard to achieve speeds of 5mph going downhill. Somehow I have missed out that at 9am in Kotor we had a (second) breakfast of pizza and some sort of meat burek from a very busy bakery. It was amazing, and Kotor’s stray dog population also thought so. They patiently followed us around the town, but sadly even for friendly dogs cyclists do not share food. In another food adventure, when we got to Bar we went into a bar to dry out a bit and warm up with a hot drink. There was a small hurdle in that even in our best Serbo-Croat attempts they could not offer a hot drink that wasn’t espresso or cappuccino. Tea was not understood at all and hot chocolate met with a puzzled look. Coffee for Jo, the coffee hater, with a lot of milk and five sugars. She didn’t like it.

  
  
A rainy rest day indoors in Bar helped us dry out and we enjoyed making a Friends inspired Shepherd’s Pie, not quite to the same recipe, playing board games and styling a butternut squash into a minion pumpkin.
Sunday is the best day for cycling wherever you are, and Albania was waiting for us. The first snow of the year had fallen on the highest mountains, making the scenery even better. The sun shone as we rode through small hamlets and a kind Montenegrin man who saw us picknicking near his house brought over some mandarins from his garden. There was a big queue at the border but a handy small lane for pedestrians and push bikes so we didn’t have to breathe traffic fumes for long. Jo accidentally went into a secure area looking for a toilet while we were waiting for our Albanian stamps. Handily none of the people with guns saw. The sun was also shining in Albania and for the first time in ages we saw other people cycling between the villages. People waved just as much as Montenegro and the crazy drivers we had been warned about must have been having a Sunday off as everyone passed us carefully in their black Mercedes. The only hazards were people walking their cows and groups (flocks, ganders?) of geese crossing the road. Surely this could not be the country of so many warnings? ‘Don’t go to Albania, the people are bad/traffic is crazy/roads are terrible/you will be eaten by dogs.’ Not so far…