Leaving the Country of the Black Mountain and cycling into the Land of the Eagles.
02.12.2008 - 08.12.2008 12 °C
My plan was to continue from Cetinje down towards Lake Skadar (Skadarsko Jezero in Montenegrin, Liqeni i Shkodrës in Albanian), passing through some river landscape and along the western side of the lake (along some pretty high mountains which separate the lake from the adriatic coast from), which both seem to be very beautiful. But because it was raining and I couldn't see much of the beautiful landscape anyway, I took the less interesting but also less challenging (shorter and less hilly) route passing near Podgorica (avoiding the center as it doesn't seem to be too interesting), and following the eastern side of the Lake Skadar, before leaving the country of the black Mountain and entering the Land of the Eagles - Republika e Shqipërisë (or short Shqipëria), better known as Albania.
Before getting to Albania, I've read some quite bad things about the mad traffic and bad state of the roads there. Lonely Planet also has a short paragraph about cycling in each of the countries in the area, and for Albania it basically just says don't go there by bicycle - even though bicycles are quite common in local traffic, longer distance cycling is not known and the roads are simply not up for it. After about a week in Albania, I can say that the bad news is that a lot of it is true - most of the time either the road is in a very bad state, or traffic is very high and fast - sometimes even both. But the good news is that it's not always as bad as expected. It seems that some new roads have been built recently, and some older roads are being improved. But Albania is still far from being an ideal country for bicycle tourists.
So it didn't surprise me too much when about 10km before the border into Albania, the road suddenly changed from the usually very good state in Montenegro, to a very old and bumpy one. And of course, after the border it got worse! The first stretch through the country - about 35km from the border to Shkodra - were really hard, with the road being more a patchwork of holes with bits of road in between. Cars were usually driving in the middle of the road, because it's slightly better than on the edges. Of course I tried to stay on the middle too, but had to escape to the side each time a car approached. So cycling became a combination of dodging deep potholes, large puddles (with possibly potholes underneath), and fast cars at the same time. Actually not all the cars are fast - some are old and very slow (I even had to overtake some), sometimes there are horse carrigages... and of course there's always someone overtaking someone else, which doesn't make cycling much safer. Apart from that, my mileage counter stopped working after only 3 km into the country - it seems that some water got inside on this rainy day, which probably combined with the strong shaking negatively affected the electronic circuits. So my measured distance stopped at 1979.8 km - mostly annoying because I would have passed the 2000 km mark later on that day. From now on it's a rather rough estimate of the cycled distance on the maps etc.
Despite these small problems, I got to Shkodra before it got too dark. If you can't find Shkodra on a map, look for Shkodër instead... I guess it's time for some notes on the Albanian language (called shqip) and its grammar. Of course, after a few weeks of learning some basic words in Croatian, which can also be used in Bosnia and in Montenegro, it was now a complete restart from zero. Dobra večer (good evening) is now mirëmbrëma, the casual adio! or bok! (bye!) is now lamtumirë!, and a simple hvala (thanks) is now a tongue breaking faleminderit. And for example šesnaest (sixteen) would now be gjashtëmbëdhjetë. They only really start to confuse you though when asking somebody if this is the road to some town (reading the words from the Albanian for beginners booklet), and all they say is "po, po" while shaking their head and smiling friendly. Ok but if this is not the right road, where is it then? At this moment I remembered reading somewhere that shaking the head means confirming in Albania, and "po" actually means yes. So after looking puzzled for some moments, I managed to say a "faleminderit" and "mirupafshim" (good bye) and continued...
Apart from the slightly complicated words and not always easy pronunciation (after Croatian being quite straight forward once you've learned the rules, for example that "c" is always pronounced "ts" - practise in Cres, Crna Gora, Podgorica...), also the grammar adds to the confusion. You might have already wondered what the correct spelling of the Albanian capital is - sometimes it's written Tirana, and sometimes Tiranë. Well both are correct, but it depends on the grammatical situation. Every location name has two versions - one for defined and one for unedefined grammatical forms. So the normal version would be the defined form, Tirana (basically meaning "the Tirana"). Unfortunately "to" requires the undefined form, which is Tiranë. As most road signs directing to some place actually mean "to that place", the undefined is used there. Hence you would see "Tiranë" on a sign in Shkodra pointing towards the capital, but "Tirana" on the sign when you enter the city. Likewise, every Albanian location has two versions - Durrësi becomes Durrës, Vlora becomes Vlorë, Dhërmiu becomes Dhërmi and Gjirokastra becomes Gjirokastër. As the "to" version is more useful when you look for the way to a city, Albanian maps usually show this version, and international maps have adopted it. So most places (apart from Tirana) might actually be better known in there undefined "to" version, even though the defined version would be the normal one.
Luckily many people here speek English, or often some Italian or even German. So language problems aside, I continued from Shkodra to Tirana on the next day. There's a new and unfortunately also very fast road connecting these two cities. Luckily traffic wasn't too bad at the start and I cycled the first bit on the new road. After a rainy start in Shkodra, it had soon cleared up and a nice wind from the back was pushing me forward. Traffic was starting to get worse, so I changed on the old road, which goes through some villages along the foot of some hills. Of course, there it was back to the old bumpy road type, but at least there was not much traffic. After about two thirds of the distance, I had to turn back on the main road, because it's the only way into Tirana. Now traffic was quite bad, and there was a new problem - the wind had turned and was now coming from the front but slightly from the right. Apart that it slowed me down and made the last stretch much longer than expected, sudden wind direction changes would also push me out of my straight line, which was quite dangerous with cars and trucks passing at high speed. It got cloudy again and when approaching Tirana the rain started over - quite heavy on the last bit. I was completely wet and quite cold when I got to Tirana, and searching a place to sleep took quite long because I couldn't find some places I was looking for (addresses in Tirana are not very clear). But all worked out in the end.
Tirana is an interesting, colourful and very lively city. The influence from the Communist time during the second half of the 20iest century is still visible in the style of the old buildings, squares and boulevards. But lots of the old grey Communist era houses have been painted in different colours - sometimes in soft pastel shades, sometimes with bright and abstract shapes. Mosques (and a few churches) are reopening or being rebuilt after all religion was banned at constitution level by the communist leader Enver Hoxha. On the day, there are markets and people selling things (mobile phones, shoes, food and anything else you could imagine) at every corner, old men sitting on squares playing Domino, and a cafe full of people every few steps. In the evening, there's a lot of nightlife with bars, pubs and clubs open until late or very late. Tirana also feels quite safe to walk around even late at night - the biggest danger here are missing manhole (gully) covers, leaving holes that are sometimes more than 1m deep... you have to watch your step all the time, or you might get seriously injured! Also don't trust too much on cars stopping at red lights or paying attention to stop signs or one-way streets!
Apart from that, people in Tirana seem very friendly and it's easy to meet and talk to them - I had some interesting conversations, and some invited me to join them for the next bars and a late night tea/coffee stop. The nightlife is also the reason why I ended up staying for three days, not just I one day or maybe two as planned... I think one of my main problems with a bicycle tour is that going out at night is not compatible with cycling on the next day, especially not in this season when sunset is already at 4pm and you need to leave early to get anywhere before it gets dark (cycling at night in Albania is definitely not recommended). So as I was up until quite late in the evenings, of course I didn't get up very early on the next morning... but as my planned bicycle tour with some sightseeing along the way, has long turned into a sightseeing tour with the bicycle as main transport, I had already decided not to worry about the final destination that I could reach anymore, and wasn't in too much hurry to move on anyway. It's not about the destination, it's about the journey!
Pictures to follow (some day...)