We gotta get outta this place
Today we left Albania.
Along the way we met some guys with watermelons, we bought some cherries from them- really good, had a chat, and they gave us some nectarines. Thanks guys.
After lunch we followed map down a road that was supposed to lead us to Montenegro, a bit of a 'short-cut' I guess. The road looked nice, bitumen not to bad, but after a couple of kilometers it turned into a bumpy, rocky mess.
We wondered whether we should turn back, but decided, after seeing a headless cow on the street, that we shouldn't turn back... So we kept riding, slowly, slower than we would up a steep hill.
And then, just as we were running out of water in the Albanian wilderness (or so we'll pretend), we found a little shop, playing Tupac, and serving ice-creams, and we even got a free one, nice old Albanian man.
Sitting here, on the step of the corner shop, we wondered why we were leaving Albania, its mountains, its people, they'd been good to us, so what if they'd tried to rip us off a few times, they'd done it good naturedly, well most of the time, and what about the cheap hotels, and the beautiful mountains, rivers and ocean views. No where else, we thought, would be quite as strange, and yet oddly endearing as Albania.
But it was time to leave, Montenegro was waiting we thought.
More bumpy roads...
The roads on the map don't exist... our shortcut is foiled.
A man in a Jag takes us back onto the main road. Buys us each a drink, invites us to his house, we think. More Albanian hospitality beckoning us to stay.
We find the border. A few jibes about the Germans beating England and we're across. Montenegro.
A beautifully paved road. Winds up a mountain. Then we coast down the other side. The evening air is cool and the road is quiet. Sweaty bliss.
The sun is setting when we reach Bar. How hard can it be to find a cheap room in a big city? Hours later we are hungry and exhausted. People keep pointing us towards Hotel Sidro but it is hard to find. We eat. And then we find it.
50 euro for a room and breakfast. And this is the cheap place?! But it's after 10pm so we have no choice. At least they have wifi.
First room stinks, another one has huge mosquitoes (someone left the balcony door open) and the third has no water. Up and down three flights of stairs each time. Legs so tired. Man in reception, would like to give him a piece of my mind, but ahh, too tired...
Midnight - collapse on bed, sleep is good, so very good...
Resting weary legs
Distance: Day off
Hung out in Frushe-Kruje.
Super tired legs...
Not heaps to see here, the usual cafe's, bars, mini-markets.
Into the wind
We had spent the night outside Fier in a small clean hotel above a restaurant and bar. We had been worried about possible noise but the reassurances of the owners proved correct - we didn't hear any.
In true Albanian style the wind was strong and in our faces. The whole day I stayed behind Sam as he peddaled furiously to keep up a good pace.
At lunchtime we stopped at a small mini-market for some much needed nourishment. The lady spoke no English, but we managed to buy a third of a loaf of bread off her and some cold meat, plus she threw in some cheese.
While we sat on the steps in the shade her daughter came down from the house upstairs. She was a senior about to do her final exams at a Turkish school in the capital. Her lessons were all taught in English so her English was great!
For more than an hour we talked with this bright, intelligent girl about her studies, ambitions and life in Albania. She was hoping to be one of 200 students accepted into the only medical course in Albania, but she was aware that other students cheated. She had written to the Minister about the problem but received no reply. She considered visiting his office but decided not to waste her time as she knew the door would just be shut in her face. She has applied to study in "half the countries of the world", as she put it. But can't get a visa because she is Albanian.
We were sorry to leave our new friend but she had to return to the books and we had to head back into the wind.
It was a fairly sleepless night on the mountain, and we got an early start to roll to the bottom.
I was worse going down than I had been going up. I was terrified of the edge. And this got worse when I misjudged a bend early on and ended up in a pile of gravel. Gravel this time, the rocks below next time?? When three angry dogs circled my bike and snapped at my heels - one connecting with a rear pannier - I was upset and thought I'd never make it down off the mountain. I fought to hold back the sobs welling up in my throat.
Sam gave me some descending tips - about feeling confident and leaning my body into the curve- and we headed down again. Luckily the road became straighter after this, and I was able to safely (and fairly happily) make it to the bottom.
We stopped to take off our jackets and noticed another cycling couple riding towards us. I looked forward to warning them about the mountain, but they didn't stop. Despite our waves and friendly "hellos" they just smiled and kept riding.
We made it to the seaside city of Vlore in the mid-morning. We stopped for a swim and to rest for a few hours. It was a strange beach - more dirt than sand. Yet people were sunbathing and kids were playing soccer as if it was nice sand. There was also a lot of broken glass on the dirt. We had to pick our way amongst it, and clear a spot just for sitting. It was like the beach equivalent of the grocery store we have in Melbourne 'Not Quite Right'...
In the late afternoon we headed out. The city of Fier was just 36km away and we thought we'd easily make it before dark. But the 'road' returned to the rocky, patched up state we'd experienced near the border. And the wind was so strong. I rode behind Sam the whole way, mostly protected, but couldn't avoid the ups and downs afforded by the road. The traffic was heavy and the driving terrible - it almost felt like we were back in Indonesia - where we ended up on the train in an effort to preserve our lives and our bikes.
When we got to Fier we found just two hotels, and both too expensive, so we kept riding...
A couple of British riders we met heading south confirmed it.
'You’ve got the big Llogara Pass coming up. The road winds up the mountain, and though the signs say 10% gradient, we don’t think they have any other signs. The road is like this,' they indicated an almost vertical ascent with their arm.
Between the coastal Albanian cities of Vlore and Himare is the famous Llogara Pass, a winding alpine road, rising to 1,027m and overlooking the Albanian riviera. It is the highest point of the spectaculair coastal road between Vlora and Saranda.
It is an impressive site – the mountain starts at sea level and you can see the road winding its way up – until you lose it in the clouds.
This is the site that greeted us as we came around the bend of a smaller mountain. We’d already climbed to 385m and thought we were nearly halfway there, until we started going down again. By the time we found the real pass we were almost back at sea level I hoped we would stop at a hotel in the town at the bottom and gather our strength for the next day, but Sam had other plans.
We were going up.
So, late in the afternoon we started cycling up the climb.
For the most part, the gradient, given my exhaustion, was just rideable, I got in my lowest gear and kept grinding away. But often there was no barrier to protect us from dropping hundreds of metres. This was made worse given the terrible head and side winds screaming down the mountain, threatening to throw us from the face of the road. It’s bad enough riding up a mountain without the wind trying to push you back down, or over the edge.
Just hours before riding up the mountain Sam informed me that Albania has the most road deaths in Europe, and we tried to control our imaginations when we rode past all the memorials placed on the sides of the road, where people had smashed through whatever small barrier had been there and careered down to their deaths below. I was fairly certain I was going to become part of the statistic.
We’d already ridden up numerous smaller, steeper mountains during the day and our legs were tired before we started this one. But we kept going. Sam had to call on all his persuasive powers to reassure me at times, and stop to feed me chocolate he’d bought at the bottom. But the views each time we stopped were spectacular.
As we neared the top the wind got worse, the temperature dropped dramatically and the gradients became steeper. But we knew we were close. We could see the road flatten out above us and some buildings. We were in the clouds now – thick fog was all around us – and our body temperatures were plummeting.
When we made it to the top there was little time for celebration, a storm was approaching, blackening the horizon, and quickly we could see almost nothing.
I was getting a bit hysterical by this point. It was cold and I hated the steep, winding downhill. I was more worried than ever about going over the edge and just wanted a hotel and a hot shower.
We decided to eat at a restaurant (although it might be generous to call it that). Sam set up the tent across the road while I negotiated with a 10 year old boy for our meal. This kid was well trained and kept trying to add extra items to our order. He also kept trying to up the price. But eventually I had ordered a salad, bread, chips and fried eggs for 550 lek (about AU$5.50).
I went to check on Sam – the eyelet on our Black Diamond Bibler Ahwahnee $1300 tent, which has been giving us constant trouble, was broken again and he was trying to fix it, but it was so cold he was struggling to get his hands to work well enough to repair it... I just wanted to crawl into a sleeping bag.
It had been a tough day, and we desperately wanted and needed sleep. But, as so often is the case, the barking dogs had other ideas.
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Rain in the mountains
Our planned sleep-in was disturbed by some people jackhammering the road outside the hotel. It forced us out in pursuit of food. The small shop across the road had some basics - so we ate more Kos and unripe nectarines.
When the noise stopped, we went back to sleep. Our legs still ached and the bed was so comfortable.
We had a choice - stay another day, but ride down the mountain to the town get food and ride back up to the hotel; or ride down the other side and keep going. We decided to hit the road.
It was a late start, but it had been raining and stormy for a couple of days so the air was cool as we wound our way around and up and down through the villages along the road. Luckily the road was paved. We (and our bikes) were grateful.
As we rode we could see the beautiful coastline, but we were too high up to be able to enjoy swimming or camping by the water. As the rain fell constantly all afternoon, it didn't really matter.
In the late afternoon we stopped in a small mountain village and asked around for a hotel. We negotiated a price for a room and ate cereal and boiled eggs for dinner.
Luckily we chanced upon a cheap (and sometimes you get what you pay for...) hotel, 2000 Lek, or about $20 Australian dollars. Maybe we could have gotten an even better deal, but it was dark, and we were both exhausted, so we were happy to settle.
We spent the following day exploring Sarande and its many Banks, we've never seen this many banks anywhere... Another thing that amazed us about this seaside Albanian town is the bizarre proliferation of unbuilt houses and hotels here, its as though people come up with great ideas, begin building them and then suddenly get bored (or run out of money) and just pick up and leave.
Being so close to Greece, many hotels and restaurants here have been styled in a Greek format, and Greek food, although in its own special Albanian variation is common. We found a small place by the beach where we had two big ice-cream/gelato's, and three gyro's, think kebab in Australia for about five aussie dollars, cheap by any standards.
And after we'd feasted, whilst riding along the coast I spotted a gym, packed with people staring at each other, (or was it just the one guy who tried to kick me off a weight bench he wanted...) but the first gym I'd seen since China (where the only gym I found wanted to charge me $36). Fortunately this place was a bargain, these guys only wanted 200 Lek ($2)- so I spent the next hour and a half killing myself...
It was a bit of a reality check, 'aint what she used to be' I guess. Despite this it was great to get back in the gym, and when we left we picked up some Kos; a plain Albanian yogurt- a little like Greek yogurt but I think better, that seems to be almost everywhere here, and for only 50 cents a tub.
We rode back up the 10-15% graded hill, again in the dark, and stayed up late.
Distance: 85km Shanna; 118km Sam
Dried our things in the morning, wind and sun came out and made it easy! Fantastic! Boiled some eggs. Cranberries, hazelnuts and nectarines. But still hungry...
Cycled back to Igoumentia 'whatsitsname...' city. Milk with cerial, yoghurt- really good yoghurt!! Went to an internet cafe to try and figure out how to get to the Albania border, googlemaps pretty useless... Eventually decided we'd have to just try and ask people (we have maps of Albania and Greece but neither is detailed enough, and they both contradict each other).
Eventually, after asking around 15 people we made it onto a road that turned onto another road that, hmmm, where the hell is Albania, no signs anywhere, more turns, still no signs. Anyway, finally we got to the Greece/Albania border, not really anyone here, told that Greeks don't like Albanians, maybe that's why there's no signs...
Went to take out our visas and I realised I'd left the wallet back in a town we'd stopped at for some drinks about 17 kms away (and back down a few big hills). Damn it!!! Take all the bags off my bike and cycle back to the town as fast as I can. Feels amazing to ride without bags on the bike, but can't think about that, worried about finding the wallet... Phewww, a nice lady at the unopened '____' (nothing open here in Greece in the afternoon) picked it up, she says something like 'speaken de Deutcher'? No, but thanks all the same I say. Thanks, thanks.
Shanna is waiting at the checkpoint. We meet a man here who kindly gives us some water, cold water, so much better, says he's been to Newcastle, but doesn't like Albanians, he says 'they takes the jobs.'
We say good bye, and we're in Albania...
Amazing, scenery, mountains, beautiful road.
And then, no more road, only rocks, for the next 25 kilometers, bone jarring rocks, I never even rode a mountain bike track this rough, wow! Another thing, everyone drives a Mercedes, almost everyone, truck, car, van- all Mercedes.
Finally we're approaching the town, but not sure- it's dark now, sweating profusely, exhausted, arms jarred, it's really dark, and shots ring out into the night, gunfire, seems right next to us... Crap, are they firing at us, no,its OK, maybe gangs, cycle faster into the town, cant see much.
And suddenly we realise, we're in Albania!
Wow, this place is awesome we both say to each other... a little scary though!!
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia