Continuing the not always easy bicycle journey through Albania!
08.12.2008 - 12.12.2008 7 °C
So far, the general direction of my tour was quite easy to work out... down along the coast through Croatia and Montenegro, with a few side trips inland and over islands, but not many options to go into a completely different direction with the Sea on one side and high mountains on the other. But from Tirana, I had two main options to continue: either down south, along the Albanian coast towards the Ionian Sea and into Greece near Corfu, or east into some mountains towards Korça and Lake Ohrid, going through Macedonia before crossing into Greece somewhere further east (with the original idea of possibly continuing towards Turkey if I had enough time, but that was unlikely now). I was quite undecided as both directions seemed very to have very nice landscape and places to see. So I started working out a plan to go up and around Lake Ohrid, maybe over to Korça, and then back down to the coast - the only problem was that I would have to come the same way back down as I had gone up, in order to avoid some even higher mountains (near 2000m) on the other route back to the coast, risking to get into snow up there.
So a couple of days (and nights) in Tirana, I started cycling towards Elbasan which is at the foot of the valley going up towards Lake Ohrid. I knew that already the route from Tirana to Elbasan would go over some hills, but they were actually a bit higher than expected... don't know the exact altitude but my GPS claimed I was at about 750m above sea level. It was a sunny but cold day and I could already notice that it got even colder at the slightly higher altitude. The views were great though - up towards the higher mountains on one side, and over some soft hills covered in trees on the other side, and then a fast downhill through nice olive groves towards the plain around Elbasan with quite a lot of not so nice industry. With a late start in Tirana and my legs still tired from not too much sleep in Tirana, the 50km over the hills to Elbasan were just enough for the day. On a side note, my mileage counter had halfway come back alive after drying out in Tirana for a couple of days and replacing the battery... halfway because some digits don't display properly, and one button doesn't work anymore... so I can't reset or adjust it properly anymore... but at least it gives an estimate of the distance cycled.
On the next day, I started to cycle into the valley going uphill towards Lake Ohrid. But a strong and freezing cold wind coming down the valley didn't make it easy - and going higher up, it would only get colder. I was probably also still slightly more tired than usual from Tirana, and was reaching a point where I wasn't really motivated to continue. So after barely 10 kilometers, I already stopped the second time to drink some water and eat something sweet to fill up sugar levels. I was in a small village and after a short time, a man approached me and asked if I didn't want to come for a tea because it's cold - of course there was a small cafe just 50m away (there's always a cafe nearby in Albania!). The short stop ended up being a 2 hour stop with tea, food and some conversations in mixed Shqip, English and Italian. As I was still not more motivated to continue up against the cold wind, I finally decided to abandon the Lake Ohrid idea, turn around and head back down to the coast!
Back down to Elbasan was of course much quicker and easier than uphill, also with the wind now in the back. From Elbasan, I took a smaller road towards a town called Lushnjë which is back on the main road from north to south, again trying to avoid the traffic on the bigger roads. But it was not a great idea in this case... the road that was bumpy but relatively ok for the first 25km suddenly turned into an unpaved road. Now I had the choice of going back about 10km and then take a 55km detour to Lushnjë, or trying to make the 23km left to Lushnjë (according to the map) on the unpaved road. Hoping that it would turn back into a paved road at some point, I did the latter... probably would have been faster to go all the way around though. The road got rather worse than better, changing between some mud, loose gravel, bumpy rocks and large puddles. At some point I must have missed a turn (road signs aren't that frequent in Albania, and on small 'roads' like this one there are none at all), because the road lead me into some village that shouldn't really have been there. Asking for the way to Lushnjë, they pointed back to where I came from. So I looked on the map for some other possibly nearby towns on a bigger road, and they confirmed that I could continue to another town, Peqin, following the "road" out of the other end of the village. But after a while, the road, which had now turned into a smaller path covered in loose rocks (quite difficult to cycle through), went towards a river and ended next to it. I was getting slightly desperate, but when I turned around, two young guys on a motorbike who had seen me going into the dead end path waited for me. After trying to answer some questions about me and my bike (of course in Albanian), I tried to explain them that I was looking for the way towards Peqin. They struggled to explain me where to go, but after a while, they made me signs to follow them. In the meantime, they were joined by another guy on motorbike, and as I really had no idea how to get back to the road, I had no other choice than to trust and follow them. So they escorted me around many more apparently random turns, up and down some hills, through a route that I probably would never have found on my own until we finally got back to the main road. Thanks guys!!!
In the meantime, it got slightly late, so I wouldn't make it to Lushnjë anymore before dark... luckily I found a hotel near a small town on the way, Rrogozhinë. The guy working in the hotel/restaurant was very friendly and has actually worked in Greece, Italy, France and England, where he lived for 5 years in Archway, one tube stop from where I lived in London (only a few years before me). He cooked dinner for me even though the Restaurant was officially already closed, and even though I was just running out of Lek's (Albanian money) and didn't even have enough left to pay the full price of the meal. Then he took me on a tour around the small town, inviting me to some tea or rraki in each cafe (of course he knows the people working in each one). When we were on the way back from the center to the hotel, we were stopped by five men in police uniforms... but it turned out that they are the local prison guards just returning from their shift trying to get a lift to the place where they live. Of course he knows them too (seems that his boss, the owner of the hotel, is currently inside the prison because he used to allow prostitutes in the hotel, which is a bigger crime in Albania than in most western Europe countries...), so we played taxi for the policemen (going back and forth because of course they didn't fit all into the car) and then got to a final tea with the night guard in the hotel, before I could finally go to bed.
On the next day, I continued finally through Lushnjë and then continuing a bit away from the coast to visit the beautiful old town Berat (or Berati). The way there was quite uneventful, apart that I had to cycle about 15km on a nearly motorway type road (actually it had explicit signs forbidding bicycles, but there was no other options and there were even people walking along it...). Berat has a big fortress on a steep hill which partly dates back to the old Illyrians (Albanian ancestors during the ancient Greek time), and lovely Byzantine style houses in three parts of the old town (one inside the fortress, two down on both sides of the river). The old houses are built on a steep slope with each house overlooking the one in front of it, giving Berat the name "Town of a Thousand Windows". The town has also recently been added to the UNESCO world heritage list, and is set in a nice landscape, with the river passing through a narrow gorge, and in the background Albania's second highest Mountain area going up to around 2500 meters, with the top covered in snow. Through a friendly castle tour guide, I found a place to sleep in a nearby restaurant where they are about to build or rebuild some rooms as hotel - the room was partly filled with stuff from other rooms and there was no hot water, but otherwise it was all ok and much cheaper than the hotels in the centre.
After a short tour around the other old parts of the town in the morning, I continued cycling, which meant first going back towards Lushnjë (again!) because there's no direct road to the coast (there are mountains in between), but then turning off towards Fieri which is back on the coastal road. After another short tea stop (this happened already a few times in Albania - a car slowed down next to me and the driver started talking to me, this time in German, sometimes in English, and invited me for a tea in the next cafe...), I continued, but a few km before Fieri, there was suddenly a cracking noise on my rear wheel. Checking what happened, I noticed that two spokes had just broken. Nevertheless I continued almost 40km to Vlora (Vlorë) because I wanted to get there before dark. Luckily I had the right replacement spokes, and thanks to the crash course in intermediate bike repair given to me by my brother before leaving, I knew how to replace them, including removal of the cogset/cassette (Schaltung), which is where repairing spokes are most complicated - unfortunately spokes also break there most frequently because they are slightly shorter and have a higher tension. But the operation was successful and all is now back in working order!
Today I stayed in Vlorë - to recover from the bumpy and tiring Albanian roads before starting a major uphill (>1000m) on the next stretch south, and because the weather was quite bad (strong winds, probably even stronger up on the mountain, with rain and some thunderstorms...). Planning to continue tomorrow into the last part of Albania - towards Himarë and then Sarandë on the Ionian coast, before crossing into Greece (either over land or by ferry to Corfu).
Pictures to follow, sometime, probably, maybe.......