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!
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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…