Category Archives: Albania

08 & 09 September 2015 – to Greece; Florina and Edessa

Routes and stats for the 8th and 9th September below. I’m still finding it a little hard to believe it’s September already!

After ascending nearly 1,500m again on 07 September, I was hoping for something a little flatter over the next couple of days, however I needed to get into Greece first, and knew there’d be a big climb involved there; highest point on my tour around Europe I think.

–> 08 September – to Greece and Florina
It was vaguely chilly first thing in the morning, and raining slightly; a bit of a change from the last few weeks, but nice to have a break from the heat. After a good wild camp I planned to cycle with Jorn, Clara and Tom again, over the border to Greece and on to the town of Florina, a distance of 85km, but with the highest point of the tour to tackle on the way at just over 1,500m.

After a yoghurt and long life croissant filled with jam for breakfast, we packed up an were on the road by 08.30, post pushing our bikes out of the field and past a horse and cart making their way down the track to collect hay. There were already a lot of people out in the fields, mostly working by hand, collecting fruit, sweetcorn, or cutting hay. Before pedalling off we paused to watch the sun come over the mountain.

We continued on yesterday’s pleasant road through the countryside, to Pojan, then Zvezde, before joining the main road again (SH3) to Billshit and the border with Greece. We met a German cycle touring couple on the way, also on their way to Istanbul; I guess I might cross paths with them a few times. I get the feeling I’ll run into a few more cycle tourers on my way through Greece and Turkey.

Despite Albania losing 1-0 to Portugal in the football; a very close result with Portugal scoring in the 93rd minute, the people of Albania were once again friendly, smiling and waving as we pedalled along, or coming over to chat when we paused for a break; one gentleman offered us the use of his toilet and water if we needed it. Upon reaching the border I was a little sad to be leaving this perhaps misunderstood country behind, and would have no qualms about coming back for a return visit; good luck Albania, thanks for having me, and maybe see you again soon.

To get into Greece we first had to cross the border. The queue of cars and buses was significant, however one of the guards beckoned us to the front and we were through in about 15 minutes, after a cursory check of our passports and some final smiles. One driver did get a little irritated with us being beckoned to the front, and nudged Jorn with his car, however we were only following instructions!

Shortly after the border we paused for a cold drink and snacks to build up our energy for the long climb ahead, over the pass and down to Florina.

We were already pretty high after yesterday’s efforts, so thankfully didn’t have to climb the full 1,500m to the top of the pass, however it still took a significant amount of effort to get up the mountain. I cycled with Tom for a bit, chatting about this and that; nice to pedal with someone else and it takes your mind off the effort you legs are putting in.

We paused for lunch in a nice meadow half way up, where Tom found a large Pelvic bone; we’re not sure what animal it comes from, maybe a bear! We thought about taking it with us but it was a little bulky, and I’m not sure customs would have approved.

It’s a bit odd to think of Greece as having ski resorts, however on the way up we passed a few ski runs and lifts, and Clara and I paused at the ski resort at the top for a cold drink; Jorn had already completed the ascent and was on his way down to Florina, and Tom was delayed by a puncture.

The view from the top down to Florina was pretty amazing, however it must be spectacular in winter when it snows. It was a lot colder up at the top compared with further down, and I’d go so far as to say chilly as we zoomed down the hill to Florina, a descent of about 800m, and lots of fun.

After a 10km descent we all eventually rendezvoused in the town centre, then found a cheap hotel to spend the night; €15 a head a good deal, and great to have a shower and a real bed for the night. After a thorough wash we headed into town for dinner, finding a great family run taverna for a meal. Again it was great to have good company and conversation, talking about past adventures and ideas for the future, from kayacking the Danube to cycling in South America and Asia.

Dinner out in Florina with Tom, Clara and Jorn

Dinner out in Florina with Tom, Clara and Jorn

After some free ice-cream at the restaurant, we wandered back to the hotel, stopping for an additional ice-cream because it’s important to ensure you maintain energy levels, and to check ice-cream quality in each country you travel through.

The plan for tomorrow is to head towards Edessa, possibly via a wolf/bear sanctuary. Not long until Thessaloniki now, then on to Istanbul; I might need to find some new tyres again in Istanbul as I think these ones are going to wear out pretty quickly, but they’ll do for the time being.

–> 09 September – to Edessa
I slept very well in my hotel bed, although I still woke up early as if in my tent. We walked to the bakery for breakfast, then stopped at the town market to buy supplies for the day; great market with lots of fresh fruit.

Breakfast bakery in Florina

Breakfast bakery in Florina

A chicken sandwich and cheese croissant set me up for the day, and we pedalled off about 09.30 on the road to Edessa; a bit of a cloudy day however it was quite nice to have cooler weather for a change.

We made good progress despite the drizzle setting in, turning off towards Nymfaio after a couple of hours to head to the wolf and bear sanctuary. We found the wolf sanctuary in Agrapidies, however the wolves were asleep, it being day time, and a driver told us the bears had a day off on Wednesday so it wasn’t worth cycling up the hill to Nymfaio. It was a nice spot for a picnic anyway, and we were all in high spirits with many a laugh being had.

After lunch we pedalled back to the main road to Edessa, which proved quite tough going with several long climbs, a headwind, and drizzle; it actually felt vaguely cold for a while. Jorn was unfortunately still feeling a bit under the weather, so we paused for several breaks as we rode along; nothing worse than pedalling with an upset stomach – I speak from experience! At one particularly ramshackle garage we met a very friendly puppy and his mother.

Along the way we bumped into another cycle tourer; Alen from Austria, who is also going to Istanbul. Alen had to abandon a ride to Istanbul a couple of years ago, after being hit by a car, so it’s great to see him back on his bike and trying again. Apart from Alen and a few cars, the road was mainly full of lorries transporting peaches, which smelt very appetising as they passed, or in one case as I passed a particularly slow lorry on the way down a hill.

We finally made it to Edessa at about 18.00, and found a cheap hotel right in the centre for €15 a night, bargain. On the way into town I made a new friend; a stray dog followed me down the hill, running alongside my bike, and then decided to sit beside me as we paused for breath. Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed in the hotel (Hotel Elena), which was probably for the best as I’m not sure it’d be practical him travelling with me; lovely chap though.

We went to a local kebab shop for dinner, then had a couple of beers in the Irish bar to relax. Yes, Edessa has an Irish bar, another town where I wouldn’t expect to see one, yet there it is. Alen also decided to stay the night with us, and it was great to have more company, however we’re going to have a day off tomorrow as heavy rain is forecast, whilst he intends to continue; maybe I’ll catch him up on the way to Istanbul, we’ll see. Alen lives in Vienna in any case, so I might bump into him again as I follow the Danube up into Europe; passes through Vienna.

After a good day cycling, with some different conditions for a change, we were all ready for bed fairly early on. Looking forward to a rest day tomorrow!

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.

04 & 05 September 2015 – a brief stop in Montenegro, then on to Albania

The country total is starting to mount up for this tour; Albania is number 17!

Routes and stats for the last 2 days below:

–> 04 September – to Montenegro (121km)
I’ve climbed over 1,000m on each of the last 3 days, and regularly well over 500m for the last 9, with one day exceeding 1,500m; the Croatian Coast is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s worth it.

Today I left Dubrovnik behind, after a good day off, and pedalled South East. On my way to the border with Montenegro I tried to use up my remaining Croatian Kuna; I did quite well, buying food and replacement toothpaste shampoo etc, but then found another 100 Kuna stashed in my panniers, so I’ve got about £20 worth left for next time I visit!

There was quite a queue of traffic waiting at the border, but I bypassed most of, pulling in beside some Austrian motorcyclists just before the checkpoint; hello’s duly exchanged.

Once in Montenegro the roads seemed to get a lot busier, and the driving more erratic. I don’t know in which countries it’s illegal to drive whilst on your mobile phone, but people have been using them all along the Dalmatian coast; makes me nervous. I’m also getting irritated with coach drivers, who all pass far to close for comfort. I know they could give me more room as I don’t have the same issue with lorries.

I cycled along the coastline around to Kamenari, where I could have got the ferry across the narrow stretch of water to the other side of the bay, and avoided an additional 25km haul, however I decided it would be for more pleasant to take the scenic route around to Kotor. It proved a good decision, with lots of small villages and some fantastic scenery. It looks like a lot of it has been redeveloped for the tourist industry, but it’s all been tastefully done, and hasn’t spoilt the bay. I loved Perast, where there were quite a few English people on holiday. I stopped for a break and an ice cream.

Once I reached Kotor I had to pedal through a long tunnel (1.6km), which was a nasty experience due to the traffic, fumes and dust. It did however cut out a long climb, and I made it through unscathed, joining the road to Budva.

Budva is a big tourist town on the Montenegrin coast, and is supposed to have a ‘kicking’ nightlife, not that I was likely or wanted to see it. I stopped at the tourist info on the way in and asked about campsites; they directed me to an open one, rather than the one I had intended to go to which was closed. I found Avala camping, which was a bargain at €6 a night, and set up. It’s a bit of a noisy campsite, as it’s next to the main road, but has a supermarket just next door, decent wifi, and a friendly owner. The only drawback was there were no convenient trees for my hammock, however I can’t be lucky all the time.

I grabbed some food and a few cold beers from the supermarket, then relaxed. Convincing Lobster to pose for a still life with the beer and cycle tour festival bottle was tricky, however bribery with chocolate always works. The Niksicko beer, although sounding unappealing, was very refreshing, and pretty similar to the others beers I’ve been sampling down the coast from Slovenia. I do miss a pint of ale though, and am looking forward to visiting the Fat Cat pub in Norwich when I get back, for several; think it just won an award for good beer again, brill.

–> 05 September 2015 – to Barbullush, Albania (111km)
One night only in Montenegro, then it was on to country number 17, Albania. I was keen to lay my fears to rest over what awaited, having been quite anxious about the route and where I’d be staying. Things almost always work out one way or another, with camping, wild camping, hostel or hotel opportunities, and people seem to live successfully in all these places, so what exactly am I worrying about?!

From Budva to the border wasn’t a particularly long way, however the road decided to go up & down all available hills along the coast, which proved pretty taxing. I stopped to buy a few supplies, and to get some more Euros out just in case ATMs aren’t working in Greece; could be handy in Albania too. To get to the border I had to turn inland, and climb up a fairly long pass, through some picturesque Olive groves and farmland, before descending to Albania; I stopped for an ice cream before crossing, just to keep energy levels up.

My sat nav and phone kept changing their mind as to what time it was as I pedalled along. I thought it was early afternoon, then it was before midday, however when I got over the border it was early afternoon again and seemed to stabilise; not sure what all that was about. No stamp in my passport for Albania; got one for Montenegro though – the only one of the tour so far 😦

I had the best greeting of the tour to date as I entered Albania; high fives from two children on the other side, waiting by the roadside. Pretty neat and something that would repeat itself several times over the next day or two. As I cycled along I noticed the cars were all a lot less expensive looking, aside from the tourist ones (Italian, Dutch and German mostly). There were also quite a few mopeds with large trailers attached to their fronts, transporting all sorts of things from whole families to farm goods, and in one case a bed; they looked a bit rickety to me. There are more modes of transport on the roads in Albania; cars, lorries, motorbikes, bicycles, combinations thereof, horses & donkeys, with or without carts etc. Everyone appeared really friendly, with lots of smiles and hellos; I lost count of the number of people who shouted hello today. Could Albania be the friendliest country so far?

 

I briefly diverted to Shkodër, a big town not far from the border, to withdraw some Albanian Leke, then continued South to Bushat, turning off the main road and heading for Camping Albania in Barbullush. I ended up missing the turning as I was too busy looking at Albania life going on, so had to back track, adding about 6 km on to my ride. Camping Albania is a good set up, with a large restaurant and swimming pool, and decent toilet block, and a grassy field to pitch in, bliss! Unfortunately the restaurant was closed due to a wedding, however that gave me the opportunity to visit the village and grab a few supplies; basic stuff but fine for dinner – bread, cheese, jam, crisps and a couple of cold beers, with sardines and a tinned couscous salad added from my panniers, a veritable feast.

Four Dutch camper vans turned up around the same time as me, so I spent some time chatting with them, before doing some planning; campsite has wifi, but it’s a bit intermittent, especially with the power cuts that kept happening. I think I’m heading for a hostel tomorrow, after what’ll be a long ride to Ebalsan. There aren’t any campsites on route until I get to Lake Ohrid, the day after tomorrow, and there don’t appear to be that many in Greece either, so there may be some wild camping coming up, however I’m more likely to go for a cheap hotel or hostel as I really value a shower at the end of the day, and that extra bit of peace of mind.

As I closed shop for the night the sky was being illuminated by flashes of lightning, quite along way to the North, and the wind was getting up. Could be in for a rough night so I deployed the guy ropes. Next update could be a few days away, depending on wifi.