We said our goodbyes to the lovely Gezim Gjoshi family and headed north-east out of Belsh up towards Elbasan. We soon needed to decide which route we were going to take to Lake Ohrid and the Macedonian border – a choice between the shorter dual carriageway which was sure to be busy but good quality road, or the south route which would see us follow the Devoll river past Gramsh and come out at the South of the lake at Pogradec.
We didn’t fancy more busy roads and despite the possibility of poor quality surface we opted for the longer quieter route. It turned out to be a good choice.
We stopped for lunch at a picturesque reservoir – made by one of the huge dams I talked about in an earlier blog. The road has been perfect so far and very quiet so we really enjoyed the cycle. We then kept close to the Devoll river heading up a spectacular valley. The scenery reminds us both of a small version of China…
We camped near the water and woke to a heavy rain shower the next morning which slowed our progress. We ended up staying in the tent to see out the shower and then manage to pack everything up before the skies opened again.
The scenery was still nice despite the weather which turned worse in the afternoon. We kept following the river through an impressive gorge before the road led to another huge dam project which is in its infancy, Ok – NOW it really feels like China!
Here the asphalt disappeared and we had an afternoon of rain and a slightly bumpy ride.
After five hours on the bike cycling through mainly deserted communal farms and wet valleys we suddenly cycle past a nice looking taverna and decide to call it a day. We order a plate of five huge lamb chops and a whole fresh fish accompanied by fried potatoes, salad, bread and a big plate of Albania’s version of tzatziki. All washed down with four well deserved beers. This whole epic meal costs us £12.60, and the lovely owner lets us pitch our tent under his porch after we were done!
The next morning we wake to more drizzly weather but with the restaurant’s undercover eating area to cook breakfast in we’re very happy, especially with the prospect of reaching a new country that day. Macedonia here we come!
We had a good morning on the dual carriageway and managed 70km in just under three hours. After lunch this main road fed onto a smaller A road which was very pretty but busy with traffic.
Now we’re back in the countryside we cant help but notice the strange homemade mascots that Albanians like to hang near their veg patches and small fields. We can only assume that they are acting like a kind of scarecrow but we realise that most of them are surely too small to scare away birds:
We can only assume that they have some other superstitious purpose as once we start noticing them they are suddenly everywhere – even hanging from garage ceilings and incomplete building projects.
After being on the busy A road which was stressful for Paddy but at least the drivers gave us plenty of room and there wasn’t too much frustrated overtaking, we turned off onto a more rural route. The countryside here is characterised by rolling hills and we cycle through lots of villages. It’s a Saturday so there are lots of people out and about, tending their gardens and walking to the local shop.
It feels much poorer here than on the coast and we see a lot of donkeys and horse and carts being used. People harvesting using scythes and a lot of the houses have a home built feel. Lots of people grow their own vegetables and keep chickens etc. However we do see a number of very nice looking new houses too so some people out here are obviously doing well.
We know we’re getting close to Belsh when we start to cycle past lake after lake. The area here is home to 84 lakes in total – all natural. Belsh itself is an incredibly picturesque town which sits right on the end of one of these lakes. As we cycle down into the centre we notice a huge regeneration project taking place – the whole waterfront is enjoying a huge makeover with polished white stone plazas and piers being laid down right round the water.
We stop in town and start looking for a restaurant. Paddy wonders into a bar to get directions and here he meets Endri, a local 27 year old who currently works for the tourism department of Belsh and who has perfect English. Endri ends up taking us to his cousin’s restaurant which boasts great views over the town and good food. Endri is quite the character and starts telling us all about the regeneration project happening in Belsh. We’re very happy to sit, eat and listen.
‘Belsh used to be a quiet town you know, nobody knew about it but then a few years ago the government noticed it – like an unpolished gem you know – and now they are investing millions of pounds into this building project. It will be good when it’s finished I think’
After we’ve finished eating Endri insists that we come and stay with him at his families home that night. A quick call home to his mum confirms that a bed will be ready for us when we get there. We don’t know what to say at this unquestionable hospitality from a woman who hasn’t even met us yet…
We have a super evening with Endri, his mum, dad, sister and two nieces. They have a lovely house which has been extended upwards to create a brand new apartment for Endri and his new wife who he will marry in the summer.
We have a great evening with his family drinking homemade Raki. The generosity we received was overwhelming especially when we were presented with gifts from the family’s little jewellery shop at the end of the night and Endri’s dad drew a picture for us with his contact details on.
We enjoy a vast breakfast the next morning of brac (Albanian pastries) pasta, eggs, sheep cheese and salad washed down with fresh milk mixed with honey. Then we head out with Endri for a Sunday morning coffee.
Like many of the other countries we have visited on this trip society still feels very patriarchal in Albania and the next morning Endri confirms this over coffee by telling us that men dominate society here. For example Endri who is younger than his sister was sent to a private school in Terana but his sister attended the local state school. Endri confirms this over coffee; ‘That’s just the way things are here‘.
We also talk a lot about how the fabric of society is also based on connections and relationships. If people don’t emigrate they normally stay very close to where they were born and you will often find generations of families under one roof. Everybody knows everyone else in Belsh and Endri explains the importance of paying respect to your friends and allies. He alludes to the fact that you get ahead by calling favours when you need to.
What we get most from Endri is that he is very proud of Albania and when talking about Albania’s neighbouring countries you feel the underlying rivalries that still exist between the various Balkan states. The Albanian-Serbia Euro football match of last year is a good example of this.
It was so amazing to have such a personal insight into a country. Endri’s family were so warm and we will now be leaving Albania understanding the country so much better.
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.
So we crossed into our first Balkans country – little Albania which has a pretty interesting history, a strong national identity and plenty of good scenery to lap up.
This small country of just over 3m people was one of the few Balkan countries that wasn’t part of former Yugoslavia.
In antiquity it was populated by the Illyrians and then later was split into parts between several Roman provinces. The Ottoman Empire conquered Albania in the 15th century and there it remained for the best part of 500 years. After the Balkans war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Albania declared Independence on the 28th November 1912; the day remains an important national holiday.
After the Italians and then the Germans invaded during WW2 the country turned to a communist ‘People’s Republic’ under the leadership of the infamous Enver Hoxha who is widely regarded as a paranoid, unhinged dictator. Consequently, Albania remained closed off from most of the world until the early 1990s.
Hoxha was a strong support of Mao rather than Stalin and interestingly Albania was the only ally that Communist China had after the 1960s. In the book Wild Swans the Chinese protagonist recalls that her only glimpses of western culture in her youth were via Albanian films. Hoxha built his republic on the China model where ‘class struggle’ was strictly applied. Religious freedom was curtailed and state assets were nationalised and redistributed through cooperatives.
Throughout the Cold War period Hoxha became increasingly paranoid that a military attack from the west was imminent; and with no budget to upkeep a decent army he ordered the building of 700,000 concrete bunkers instead. Almost impossible to move, these concrete domes litter the countryside to this day – they are literally everywhere. Most are now used for storage or animal pens but some even form quirky extensions to new houses.
Another unusual policy of Hoxha’s was the strict control of motor vehicles. The majority of the country still used horse and cart right up to the collapse of the communist state – even high-level government officials needed special authorisation to own a car. As a result the road system is still playing catch-up and a lot of the smaller road routes in Albania really aren’t necessarily built with two way traffic in mind. We have climbed some the of the steepest roads of the whole trip here!
That leads me nicely into the next big thing of note about Albania – it’s mountains – and there is a lot of them! The ranges generally spanning the length of the country from north to south.
Albania has the same feel to Armenia and Georgia and not just because of the shared ex-communist history, mountainous terrain and brutal concrete architecture. It feels like a country which is still opening up and very much in development. A lot of the towns still feel rundown, some of the roads are in bad condition and you see quite a bit of poverty in the countryside. However we have also cycled through towns and villages that are in the midst of a complete makeover, with huge state sponsored development taking place. Big infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams are being supported via private foreign investment and these, as well as smaller projects funded through American and EU aid, are helping to slowly transform the country.
Albania is a really beautiful, we particularly enjoyed cycling across the rural middle section of the country but the coast was also very nice. The amount of rubbish which litters the country is the only downside – it’s even worse than Greece where dumping is also a big problem…
The Albanian hospitality is renowned for being some of the best in the Balkans. Perhaps this has something to do with its Muslim roots; also, Albanian culture is steeped in what is generally known as the kanun of Leke Dukagjini; a set of cultural rules which emphasise the importance of hospitality and family allegiance. As a result, people still take hospitality and community spirit very seriously. This means we are constantly met with beeps from car horns, shouting and frantic waving.
Travellers are still fairly ‘rare’ especially in the more rural areas here so we often experience a lot of gapping and staring from people before they suddenly remember to smile and return our badly pronounced Albanian greetings.
Lots of Albanians particularly the younger generation have decided to immigrate to neighbouring countries or even go further afield. Lack of jobs and prospects is the main reason but Albania once owned territory in what is now Macedonia, Kosovo and Greece and so large, longstanding diaspora communities still exist there too.
So there’s a general intro to Albania. A roundup of where we actually visited in the next one!