06 & 07 September 2015 – Albania; Elbasan and Lake Ohrid

I didn’t know what to expect from Albania, however it has proven an unexpected delight, with very friendly and welcoming people, and some great scenery, especially latterly.

Routes and stats for the 06 and 07 below:

–> 06 September – to Elbasan
It was a bit stormy overnight, with the odd rain shower, however I slept pretty well until 05.30. Then the dawn ‘chorus’ began, with donkey’s braying, dogs barking, and cocks crowing; the full works, no sleeping after that.

Seeing as I was awake I got up early and was on the road by 08.00 after bidding goodbye to the Dutch campers, and settling up with the campsite. It looked like it had been a good wedding party last night, despite the power cuts, with a solitary member of staff trying to make a start on cleaning up.

I rode South East from Barbullush, following the road I thought would take me back to the main route and Lezhe. It didn’t. The road got a bit bumpy, then stopped, with one branch ending in a river, and the other in a fence and earthen bank; I may have missed a turning, or more likely my map and Garmin weren’t in sync with Albania. My choices were to retreat, ford the river, or push my bike over the earthen bank on to the road which appeared to continue; I chose the latter.

This proved to be an ‘interesting’ decision, as the road didn’t strictly speaking continue, but rather enter the back of a military base. I thought it all appeared a bit army-like, however everything looked unused and decaying, so I thought it was probably a relic of the communist era, and there weren’t any warning signs. I pedalled on, before noticing a casually dressed bloke drinking water for a hose pipe next to one of the barrack shaped buildings. I stopped and asked if this was the right way to Lezhe, and he pointed around the corner and said gate, smiling slightly. Around aforesaid corner I arrived at a steel gate complete with soldier armed with a Kalashnikov; he looked very bored. Another couple of soldiers arrived on a moped, and after a brief discussion during which they laughed when I said I must have taken a wrong turning (they had rudimentary English), I was ushered through the gate and on my way, turning down what I hoped was the right road to Lezhe; I was somewhat relieved to get away from the guns.

There followed a rather uneventful ride to Tirana, during which I tried to stay off the main road which was exceedingly busy with cars and trucks. Unfortunately the side roads were very pot-holed, or un-surfaced, so it was bumpy and slow going, and a bit depressing with all the rubbish piled up.

I passed a lot of weddings; either convoys of cars going down the road with horns beeping, or big parties at people houses, with enthusiastic dancing going on to Albanian music; looked like a lot of fun was being had. I also passed, or had to dodge, a variety of from animals on the road, which just seems normal for Albania, along with the house/donkey drawn carts and fantastic old tractors. At one point I was startled when a snake slithered out from under a bush by the roadside and wriggled across the road, narrowly missing my front tyre; it made it safely but made me jump – must have been nearly a metre long.

The outskirts of Tirana were challenging to navigate, with lots of random and erratic driving, some of which was on a 3 lane road with no real order to it; anything goes apparently. I paused in the centre of the capital for a banana break, but didn’t stop long, as I still had a way to pedal to make it to Elbasan for the night, and several hills to vanquish.

I followed the SH3 to Elbasan, which proved a longer ride than it looked to be on the map; the road wiggled about a lot due to a long climb; another 1,000m plus day in ascent. I stopped in a small town called Petrele to grab some more water and a few snacks, and had a great chat with a young lad minding the shop. As with all Albanians I’ve met so far he was friendly, smiling, and interested in what I was doing and where I was going; he was fascinated by my bike and gadgets.

The road up the mountain was quite challenging, coming at the end of a fairly long day, with lots of switchbacks and three ambushes by roadside dogs; they barked a lot, chased me for a bit, but I either out-pedalled them, or they stopped when I got off my bike – quite good motivation for getting up the hill. I also received quite a few motivational high 5’s from kids by the roadside, on my way up the 750m ascent. The views on the way up and from the top were great, with an unexpected monument to a local cyclist right near the top.

Being up in the mountains, and with a bit of cloud cover, made for much cooler temperatures, which came as a welcome change and made the climb a lot easier, however it was still a relief to make it to the top and begin a great descent down toward Elbasan. The day’s trend for passing animals on the road continued, as I dodged around a herd of goats, several turkeys, and the odd donkey.

Elbasan is a fairly large city, but not quite as bonkers traffic wise when compared with Tirana. I made my way to Hostel/Restaurant Edlido, and despite not having booked received a very warm welcome. Edlido has a dormitory room with kitchen/lounge and bathroom, and is a perfect stopping point when cycling through the country; I could house Smaug in the kitchen area too. It cost €10 for the night, including breakfast, however I also chose to eat in the restaurant, and to enjoy a couple of cold beers after a long day cycling; 115km. I had a great chat with one of the owners, and I think it was his mother than cooked me up a simple dinner of chicken, cheese and chips, perfect. All the staff were really friendly, and the locals all said hello; big football match tomorrow between Albania and Portugal, so it was lucky I arrived today as hostel booked out tomorrow.

One other traveller turned up a bit later on, a Greek man travelling North. I think he may have been travelling up to Croatia or Italy in search of work; nice chap but language barrier prevented communication slightly, plus he looked shattered (think he was walking/hitching). After a great dinner and some planning I had an early night, keen to see more of Albania and make it to Lake Ohrid tomorrow.

–> 07 September – Lake Ohrid (112km)
Breakfast at Edlido, Elbasan, proved a treat; omelette, cheese, bread, butter and jam, and some warm milk because I don’t drink coffee. It was raining a bit when I got up, however it stopped shortly after I pedalled away, post bidding goodbye to my excellent hosts.

Leaving Hostel Edlido - sun coming out

Leaving Hostel Edlido – sun coming out

Thus started a long climb up the valley, following the river over the mountains to Lake Ohrid. The road continues rising for about 40km, a gentle ascent at first, with a few flat or downhill bits, before getting a lot steeper. The countryside was lovely, with verdant tree covered mountainsides, and lots of orchards and farmland.

I passed a lot of people waiting by the roadside for the regular minibuses that trundle up and down the road either way; I think demand outstrips supply, especially today – wondered if lots of people were heading to Elbasan for the football, or maybe I was seeing migrants making their way through the country to the EU. I passed through several small towns, stopping at one before the climb got a lot steeper, for a cold drink and ice-cream.

The last bit of the climb, completing a 1,000m ascent, was pretty gruelling, with lots of switchbacks and some heavy traffic in the form of lorries. Industrious car/lorry washing pull-ins were set up at regular intervals along the road, with water spouting from hose-pipes to advertise their presence; tempting to ride through them. They obviously do good business as lots of lorries had stopped to get the dust cleaned off their windscreens after the big climb over from Lake Ohrid.

At the top of the climb I paused for breath, and noticed three other cycle tourers doing the same in the shade of a restaurant. Tom, Jorn and Clara (English, Dutch, Swedish) are also on their way to Greece, and had been pedalling through Albania like me, with very similar experiences as far as the friendly populace goes. After introductions I decided it would be fun to travel with them for a bit; brilliant to have some company after quite a long solo stretch, during which I was starting to get slightly lonely. They are on their way to Thessaloniki, so I may well travel with them up until then, before continuing on to Istanbul.

After zooming down the hill we stopped for a swim in Lake Ohrid, a very refreshing experience. I’ve discovered I’m much more likely to do things like stop for a swim if I’m with company, and I think it’s the same for a lot of other people; shared experiences are often better, and if you’re on your own you just tend to keep on pedalling.

After cooling off we continued on to Pogradec, a largish town at the Southern end to the Lake, still on the Albanian side of the border, passing people selling fish by the side of the road. I could have opted to go through Macedonia, however the route down to Greece through Albania is shorter, and I was really enjoying the country; plus I had company now 🙂

 

We stopped to buy supplies in Progradec, which looks like it’s developing into a tourist spot. A few cool drinks, some crisps and an ice-cream restored energy levels, and we hard-boiled some eggs for later; they wouldn’t have survived transit. I’m going to have Albanian Leke left over I think, as it’s very cheap to live here, however I’ll just save it until next time I visit!

The road South took is up another steep climb, and with the sun beating down it was pretty hot.  Thankfully the climb wasn’t too long and we were able to turn off the main road and on to a smooth side road down towards the border with Greece. This road proved to be a highlight of the day (aside from the swim), with some beautiful scenery, several small farming communities and towns, and more high 5’s, smiles and waves.

We eventually found a spot to wild camp, in a fallow field about 100m from the road, and out of sight of the nearby village. It was also suitably far away from the barking dogs, of which there are many. To be honest people are so friendly here you’re more likely to be asked in to their homes to stay, and given food, than turfed off a wild camping spot; have heard this from several people. I think they are just happy to see other people visiting their country, and interested in who you are and what you’re doing.

After pitching the tents we settled down for the night, feasting on hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese and ham; I added a few condiments to the mix to spice things up a little – can’t beat a bit of mustard of chilli sauce to liven things up. It’s fantastic to have some company again, and was very pleasant to spend the evening chatting, laughing, watching the stars, and swapping stories. There was also a small wild-fire up in the mountains, which we decided must have been started by a dragon as not sure how anyone else would have got up there; will have to keep an eye on Smaug! Saw a greta shooting star too.

Dragon in the mountains

Dragon in the mountains

It looked like it might be a bit wet and windy overnight, so we battered down the hatches, and hoped Clara’s tent didn’t leak (it’s slightly broken), before having an earlyish night. On to Greece tomorrow; the border is only 30km away.

3 thoughts on “06 & 07 September 2015 – Albania; Elbasan and Lake Ohrid

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