20km from the border with Greece is the town of Gjirokaster which is nestled into the side of a mountain along the flat, fertile plain of the Drinos river. There are three UNESCO world heritage cities in Albania and Gjirokaster makes up one of the trio – we’ve also heard it’s the best!
On our approach, the city didn’t appear to offer much as we pass dilapidated industrial buildings and lots of petrol stations on our way in. The lower town is made up of uninspiring concrete apartment blocks all in different states of repair, but as you climb up out of this modern section, the concrete slowly gives way to Gjirokaster’s architectural treasures and you suddenly find yourself transported back to an 18th century Ottoman town, winding your way through confusing cobbled streets and catching your breath outside beautiful slate tiled houses.
The best views are from the impressive 19th century fortress which overlooks the town from a craggy outcrop. We spent a nice hour exploring the maze of thick walls, old clock tower and museum.
As we wonder back down we have time to let first impressions of the Albanian people settle into our minds. People have a look that’s both Slavic and Mediterranean – hardly surprising when you consider Albania’s geography… Most men over 60 here still dress in suits and a trilby. Many of them finish off this look with dark glasses which makes the streets look like they are full of retired Albanian gangsters… Leather jackets are popular with younger men.
We enjoyed a good rest day exploring the city, staying in a new campsite 2km walk away. There we met Lui and Steffi, a Swiss couple who have just started their two year campervan trip. Their plan is to visit every European country – some 50+ over two years. Their vehicle was very cool – an old converted van complete with gas hob, fridge and double bed. It has given us ideas for a new project when we are back… We had a great evening with them.
Albania is incredibly cheap compared to Greece so we shouldn’t have any problems keeping to our budget here which is good news. Albania’s currency is the Lek and the exchange rate is around 150 to every £1. A bottle of beer is generally 100 Lek and a fresh loaf of bread 60-70 Lek…
The next day we double backed on ourselves and headed back south so we could turn right and head over the mountain pass towards the coast. Near the top of the pass we met three guys from the capital Terana who were touring the country on their own bikes. They were really nice guys and we ended up following them down the other side of the pass to the Blue-Eye reservoir. The scenery on this side of the mountain is much more spectacular than in the other valley.
We had a nice cycle up to the Blue-eye which is a reservoir made from a natural spring which flows out – seemingly from nowhere – at the bottom of the mountain. The outflow creates a fast flowing river right at the source. It made a nice spot for lunch and we linger a little too long perhaps.
More downhill after that. We pass a Gypsy community on outskirts of Sarande before taking a right turn to carve our way north towards the coast. Then we hit some steep climbs before pulling tandem off the road to camp amongst some olive trees.
The next day we continued to head towards the coast and hit our first beach by lunchtime. We can see Corfu from our lunch spot and we realise just how close to the border we still are. The day was characterised by some ridiculously steep climbs one which was between 11 and 12 % for 2km. Even with our new gears we grind up this at 3.5km m… Luckily we had some great coastal views as our reward and we even enjoyed a quick refreshing dip in the sea at the end of the day.
We know we have a humdinger of a pass to complete the next day so we get as close to the bottom of this as we can before scouting out for a camp spot. Trouble is we’re sort of in the centre of a town and we don’t want to freewheel down to camp on the beach 300m below as it will add an hour to our climb the next day… In the end we settle on pulling the bike into a tiered olive grove and just hope the owner won’t mind.
While we’re setting up our tent he appears, waving frantically before grasping both our hands and handing over a packet of crisps for us to munch away on. He doesn’t speak any English but we manage the usual ‘where are you from, where are you going’ exchange. He then disappears for a while and comes back leading his donkey who we hadn’t noticed tethered up at the bottom of the grove. He’s very fond of his donkey…
The next morning we set off early and started to tackle the 1000m pass. It was steep but not too bad and we keep up good spirits with the speaker blasting out our favourite tunes and regular 30 minute tea and snack stops. We manage to reach the top by lunchtime and have a great view…
The drivers are pretty good here and we haven’t seen to much crazy overtaking. Surface is good so we cruise down comfortably to the coast again and reach the large town of Vlore by 4:30pm where we find a supermarket and stock up on supplies. Vlore sits along the beach front and the whole pier (3km) is under huge renovation. It will look very swanky when it’s done – a beach front to match the many new hotels and apartment blocks which have gone up in recent years.
We don’t linger in Vlore and instead continue out towards the headland called Zvernec where we had seen there was a little Byzantine monastery perched on the tiny island off its coast. The island is connected by a long wooden bridge.
We find a great camping spot overlooking the bay and cook up a curry. In the morning take an hour to explore the monastery. The wooden bridge is more than a bit rickety and the last 200m have disappeared completely so the man living on the island has to come over in his boat to pick you up. It’s a nice place and we both enjoy strolling around the small church as well as taking photos of the fat turkeys… Albanians seem to be fond of turkeys because we see (and hear) them a frequently when passing people’s gardens.
Here we will leave the coast and head inland towards the town of Belsh which is 100km away. We hope to complete this in one day as most of the miles will be eaten up by steaming along the hard shoulder of the main dual carriageway – very flat and good quality road.