A Travellerspoint blog

Albania's Ionian Coast and Corfu

Cycling down through the last part of Albania, and finishing the tour with a few days in Corfu

sunny 12 °C
View Cycling south east on luzian's travel map.

This is a quick temporary update. After cycling along the beautiful Ionian coast in the southern part of Albania (and some more adventures on the way), I have reached Saranda which is near the border to Greece and the last city in Albania - and decided to stop cycling there!

After a visit (by bus) to the ancient city of Butrint, I took a ferry over to Corfu, where I'm now spending a few days (without cyclng) before returning home. The way home will be a ferry to Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland, then another ferry to Italy (Ancona) and then hopefully home by train (a bit complicated because the Italians only allow bicycles in the slow regional trains...). More details probably when I get home.....

Posted by luzian 13:13 Archived in Greece Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

More adventures in Shqipëria

Continuing the not always easy bicycle journey through Albania!

sunny 7 °C
View Cycling south east on luzian's travel map.

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.......

Posted by luzian 11:25 Archived in Albania Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

From Montenegro to Tirana (Albania)

Leaving the Country of the Black Mountain and cycling into the Land of the Eagles.

rain 12 °C
View Cycling south east on luzian's travel map.

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...)

Posted by luzian 08:04 Archived in Albania Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Through the country of the Black Mountain

Heading into Montenegro after two weeks in Croatia - visiting the amazing Kotor Fjord, going up to Cetinje and then continuing towards Albania.

semi-overcast 16 °C
View Cycling south east on luzian's travel map.

After two days in Dubrovnik, I continued cycling through the last bit of Croatia, going uphill along the coast with beautiful views back on the old town of Dubrovnik, then passing Dubrovnik Airport before crossing the border to Crna Gora a.k.a. Montenegro (both meaning as much as black mountain - good idea to go cycling there?). Montenegro only gained independence from Serbia in 2006 and is the "youngest" member of the United Nations. What I didn't know is that it has also adopted the Euro as official currency, even though it is not (yet) member of the European Union - actually already in 2002, after splitting up from the Serbian Dinar and used the Deutsche Mark since 1999. The country seems to be undergoing major rebuilding work supported by international funds, with signs of the "European Union Agency for Reconstruction" already at the border crossing from Croatia. The fast economical development shows for example in the cars, with many brand new upper middle class cars (preferrably German ones) alongside the typical small Eastern European cars from 20 years or so ago. I also noticed soon that everything got significantly more expensive in the last two years - many prices listed in my travel guide (which is from 2006) have doubled or tripled in the meantime, raising them to pretty much standard Western European level... seems that the economy has made a big step in this short time!

Church in Herceg Novi

Coming in from Croatia, the first town on the way is Herceg Novi, a neat small town at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor (or Kotor Fjord). From there, the road follows all the way around the winding fjord towards Kotor. Apart from the great view over the fjord and the surrounding high mountains, there are a couple of interesting things on the way. First what might be the shortest river in the world (I think it's called Sopot spring) - an underground river rushing out of a big hole in the karst mountain, passing under a bridge under the road, and then pouring over a waterfall into the fjord, after only 20 meters or so from where it first came out. Then there are two "floating churches" built on two small islands, of which one is natural and one artificial - apparently built during centuries by throwing out stones over an underwater rock every year on 22 July, and helped by descending some captured or old boats filled with rocks. Accordingly the church on the artificial island is called Gospa od Škrpjela, meaning "Our Lady of the Rocks". Near the two islands, there's also a nice small town called Perast.

Perast and the Kotor Fjord

Kotor itself has a very beautiful old town, with an amazing fortress built on the hill behind it. The fortress walls start down in the old town next to the fjord, and go up on the mountain behind the old town up to 280m above sea level, with fortifications, walls and castles all over. They basically transformed the entire mountain into a fortress - most of it built about 500 years ago! The first settlements in Kotor go back to the Ancient Roman time, and the Kotor Bay was always a very important strategic area since then. Apart from the Kotor fortress, there are also quite a large number of old forts and ruins of castles from other times scattered around the mountains surrounding the bay.

Kotor - View over fjord, old town and fortress.

After a day of visiting the old town and the fortress, the weather forecast looked bad for the next day. Because my planned route was going up through the mountains towards Cetinje and I didn't want to do that in heavy rain and possible thunderstorms, I just stayed for another day. Thinking about what would be the most out of place thing to do during a bicycle tour, I rented a car for a day and went exploring some other nearby forts from the Austro-Hungarian time, including a quite mad one which used to have a huge steerable gun overlooking both the outer and the inner part of the bay, and with lots of underground tunnels, bunkers and outlooks, connected through speaking tubes to guide the gun aimers. I also almost got caught in a thunderstorm up somewhere on one of the mountains - glad I wasn't on the bicycle on this day!

Kotor - Old church high up behind the fortress walls

On the next day, the weather was better, so I continued on a road going up on the steep mountain behind Kotor, over a 1100m pass to Cetinje, with spectacular views over Kotor and the fjord on the way. The road actually goes up part of the Lovćen mountain and National Park with its highest peak at 1750m, which apparently gave the name to the country because it's covered in dark pine trees and can look, depending on the weather, quite black. The road up is actually not all that bad - it goes high up but due to the way it's built, it's never very steep. The road winds up in 25 serpentine turns to a first 900m pass, and a couple more turns to the main pass. The distance "as the crow flies" (Luftlinie) from Kotor to Cetinje is only about 13km, but the road stretches it out to over 45km, making the gradients not too hard even for cycling with luggage. And the views on the way up are simply amazing!

Then a great downhill, perfect for cycling (small road with almost no traffic, lots of turns but good overview of the road ahead from above) before reaching Cetinje, the historical capital of Montenegro (which is still at around 600m altiude). There's not extremely much to see in Cetinje, maybe the most interesting feature is a large 3d relief map of entire Montenegro. Unfortunately it was closed for access, but I could get a glimpse (and a picture) from outside through the window...

Some more pictures from the Kotor Bay area (more in the gallery):

"Floating" Churches (in the Fjord near Perast)

Kotor - Inside the Old Town (Stari Grad)

Kotor - Town wall at night

Kotor - Fortress built on high rocks

Kotor - Steep view down on Stari Grad (Old Town)

Posted by luzian 13:37 Archived in Montenegro Tagged bicycle Comments (0)


Two days in Dubrovnik!

sunny 14 °C
View Cycling south east on luzian's travel map.

Dubrovnik - call it "Pearl of the Adriatic" or whatever you like - a beautiful city in any case!

I'm not going to write much about it here, just post some pictures! I spent two days there - the first very sunny, the second partly overcast and rainy. Just a side note, the ancient name of Dubrovnik is Ragusa - connoisseurs of Swiss Chocolate may have heard that name before...



Posted by luzian 13:36 Archived in Croatia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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