Swimming with village lads and feeding a baby sheep

Day 38 (12 August): Gjirokastër – Permët
Distance: 65 km
Total distance: 1754 km

It wasn’t easy to leave the comfort of the hotel room and we had to do it early. According to the weather forecast, this would be the last day of a heat wave. The overwhelmingly kind lady wanted to help us carry the bikes out to the street and then she oiled her hands trying to help me to put back the chain on Aron’s bicycle. Then we waved goodbye with black fingers and looked for a place to have breakfast. At the end of 18 Shtatori Street there is a fine confectionary, where we bought some cakes and ate them with a coffee in the bar next door.

The road after Gjirokaster isn’t too interesting but at least it is generally flat and wide enough. We progressed fast upstream in the valley of the Drino and the landscape got more and more beautiful with cultivated land by the river and majestic mountains in the background. 

I fixed the camera on Aron’s bike to ktake some photos of us on the road 🙂

About 10 km after Gjirokaster, there are some springs by the road, where locals are selling honey and olive oil. We stopped to fill our bottles and take some photos when a young man came over to us. He explained he loved the idea of long-distance cycling and wanted to know everything about our trip. He works for a company selling coffee so at last we could praise Albanian espresso to a professional.

Honey of all kinds for sale
Posing with Indrit, the coffee man

Not long after the springs the road forked right to Përmet. We crossed an old steel bridge and continued on the much narrower road. At this point, the Drino flows into the Vjosë (Vjosa), which we followed for the next 50 or 60 km until Çarshovë. 

The River Drino just before it flows into the Vjose

 

These rivers must be much wilder in early spring
Crossing the first bridge, over the Drino

Another picturesque bridge took us to the right bank of the river and then the road rollercoastered, offering great views of the valley.

The beautiful bridge over the Vjosë under Tepelenë
Love these old bridges!

The quality of the asphalt is changeable so we had to be careful with the potholes but there was very little traffic so it was really enjoyable. We had our lunch in a park in Këlcyrë, a small town with a busy centre. As many other towns in the region, it receives a facelift as its high street and main square receive new tiling and furniture so it looked a bit chaotic when we were there. 

Roof of a nice old building (Teqeja e Këlcyrës) with a “new” block of flats in the background

 

We carried on but it was getting really hot so we were looking where we could get closer to the inviting blue of the river. Just before the village of Piskovë, there was a short steep dirt road. We pushed down the bicycles, put on our swimming gear and we were in the water in a minute. Then I saw two boys coming down the same road, followed by a small truck with half a dozen other youngsters from the village. 

Our swimming spot

They told us there was a whirlpool under the rapids where we were coolling our bodies but there was a nice swimming area a hundred meters downstream. We let the current take us there and joined them for half an hour. The river was a bit deeper there and these boys bravely dived into the water head first. They encouraged us to do the same but Aron and I only jumped in foot first (I hit mine in the rocks so there were no further attempts). 

It was refreshing and amusing to be there by the river with the village kids but I must say that the river was far from being clean. We realised that the amazing blue hue was partly due to the soap or detergent in the water…

We arrived in Përmet within another hour. We bought some fruits in the only shop that was open on Sunday afternoon and looked for a quiet shaded spot in the park. We were just about to leave after our siesta when Aron saw he had a flat tyre… another half an hour in the park.

The pretty centre of Përmet

But at least we didn’t need to go far because we found a campsite called “Eco Camp” by its owners. They are a middle-aged couple – the husband is a mountaineer, who organises treks and rafting for tourists. We were happy we could stop for the day but the truth is that the place was very very basic. It’s a pity because this part of Albania is still little visited, while it is extremely rich in natural (and also cultural) treasures. I would love to return to explore the surrounding mountains in less hot weather, for example.

The surroundings of the Eco Camp near Përmet
And the bathroom 🙂

We almost remained hungry this evening. It turned out that I bought the wrong type of gas cannister back on Corfu so we had to make a fire. Aron was happy, of course, and he could try bottle-feeding a baby sheep called Marika.

Another pass and some Greek déjà vu

Day 37 (11 August): Ksamil – Gjirokaster
Distance: 67 km
Total distance: 1689 km

To cross the Macedonian border at Lake Ohrid we had to head to the mountains that separate the coastal areas from the alluvial plain of the Vjosa river. Once again we sad goodbye to the rooftop camping area (the owner says it will be covered with artificial grass soon and more shade will be provided by some special bean type). If we ever come this way again, we’ll surely stay at Ksamil Camping Caravaning even if we don’t spend any time on the beach…

After the professional frappes (any trendy bar could be green with envy for them) we were back on the road before 7. We quickly reached Saranda along the highway that runs past the lagoons. They were a pretty sight at this early hour.

We avoided downtown Saranda and turned right towards the Southern Mountain Range. We had already visited the main attractions of the area (the Blue Eye spring and Mesopotam) 8 years ago so we tried to reach the pass on the top as fast as we could before the hottest part of the day. (We considered taking a detour to the Blue Eye but when we saw that it was still the same dusty gravel road we quickly changed our minds).

Still before the steep section

The difficult part here is 7-8 km long and though there are some really steep sections it wasn’t that bad altogether, thanks to the trees and the fresh air. There are a couple of springs with cold water and two bars near the top (plus one at the highest point). Back in Ksamil, we met a friendly South African couple, who were on their way to Barcelona by bicycle(!) They are a few years older than us but still full of energy and optimism, which was really inspiring. They told us that there was a forest fire in the area and as we climbed higher we could see and smell the smoke. Later we also saw the helicopters they employ to combat the flames.

A village in the smoke
Half an hour later the smoke was gone

Going downhill was a piece of cake; we just had to be careful not to overheat the brakes and from time to time we had to let the jeeps and trucks overtake us on the narrow road.

Interesting geology as we descend into the valley of the Vjose

We were almost down in the valley when I noticed a fig tree with beautiful ripe fruits by a bridge. We stuffed ourselves full before we turned left towards Gjirokaster.

It was around midday and we had a little more than 20 km to do so we preferred not to take a break this time. The road itself is very good quality and wide enough here with a bearable amount of traffic. If only it had been a little less hot.

The names of the villages are signposted in two languages south of Gjirokaster: in Albanian and Greek. It is because these villages are among those recognised by the Albanian state as “minority zones”, a term created in the Communist era.

One of the Greek villages set in a dramatic environment

Ethnic Greeks from these villages can enjoy certain rights and benefits but the issue is a source of bitter emotions on both sides to this day. 

We spotted the sign of a restaurant from the road in one of these villages and stopped to check it out. It was a lively Greek taverna with mixed (but mostly Greek-speaking) guests. We ordered sausages and chips with Greek salad (of course) and soon we knew we made the right decision. The food was generous and excellent and the service was friendly. 

The Greek taverna near Terihat village

But we couldn’t afford to linger too long if we wanted to reach our destination without boling our brains so we said goodbye to the kind waitress and continued our way on the rather boring straight road. We had some technical problems, then a little row with Aron and finally Anita said (2 km before Gjirokaster) that she could simply not go on without a cold cola. We finally arrived in the city around 3 pm.

One of the few streets unaffected by tourism in Gjirokaster

Although there is a campsite near Gjirokaster, I wanted Aron to see the old houses and we all deserved proper beds for a change so I booked a room in the new town when we stopped at the first bar in the morning. But I didn’t tell Anita so she was really happy when we stopped at the Eden Hotel and I asked for the room.

The place was almost empty but the elderly couple managing it were extremely (perhaps a little tiringly) helpful and kind and the price was unbeatable. Another benefit was that we were only a few hundred metres from the old town and the neighbourhood was full of bars and restaurants.

A nice old hotel sign in the old town

We had a quick shower and a long nap. Then we got ourselves together and took a walk in the old town. I was happy to see that Gjirokaster hadn’t changed much since our first visit. The old houses were still crumbling but not in ruins and the whole place still had the unique atmosphere that captured us in the first place.

We had our dinner at a small taverna named Laberia just outside our hotel. The owner, a strongly built fourty-something man, was very happy that I knew the region he was from although his village was not in the valley we visited earlier. Then it  turned out that his passion was cycling and he loved the way we travelled. He had a degree as a chemistry teacher but the 150 EUR salary he could have earned at the time was enough for nothing so he opened his little eatery but now he has no free time. He has to pay the rent for every day of the month so he cannot afford a single day-off. A typical Eastern-European fate.

Dizzying temperatures and a foaming maniac

Days 35-36 (9-10 August): Sidari – Ksamil
Distance: 92 km
Total distance: 1622 km

As so often during our travels, we changed our plans again on our last day on Corfu. Originally we were going to head to the mountains directly from Igoumenitsa and reach Leskovik, high in the Southern Mountain Range of Albania, after two or three days spent on Greek land. But this would have meant 2 or 3 nights camping in the wild, not so much fun in this incredibly hot weather. Besides, we wanted to spend more time in Albania before returning home.

For this, we had to get back to the mainland and then backtrack all the way to Ksamil. Not so exciting but we were motivated by the extra day we could spend by the sea and the outstanding campsite at the end of the way. A long trip, because we planned to do two days’ distance in one!

After a quick breakfast (which even included a Turkish coffee as I wanted to squeeze out some more gas from the old cannister we didn’t carry on), we started the 12-km uphill leading to the pass and the tiny village, Trumpettas. 

The last sunset we enjoyed in Sidari

We expected something extremely exhausting but in fact we tackled even the hardest sections with ease, thanks to the mild temperature. Also, this time we chose a different and more direct route, which was much more attractive than the one we took a few days before, with small villages and cute little houses.

Just one of the many pretty villages in North Corfu
Landscape in the morning haze

After the mountain the road passes through one such village, Scripero, with mostly traditional buildings and old men drinking frappe in its bars. On our way down we stopped at the bar opposite the church for a quick drink. Perhaps it was too early for the old men because we were alone but it felt great to relax a bit after pedalling so hard.

Enjoying the peace and quiet in the bar of Scripero
The “busy” centre of Scripero

Then we took the main road to Kerkyra to save as much time and energy as possible. We bought our tickets in the port and we caught the 10.30 ferry to Igoumenitsa (leaving around 10, of course). We were all tired and still sleepy so we ordered a coke and spent the whole time lying on the seats in the AC saloon…

It was pretty hot again by the time we arrived in Igoumenitsa but we were determined to make it as far as the last Greek villages (where we relaxed a few days before). We had a quick lunch outside a supermarket and left the city. It must have been well over 40 degrees when we finally arrived at the roadside tap with the benches. Exhausted and feeling dizzy, we lay down and had a little sleep. But this time we were less lucky: three cars bumped into each other in the nearby junction and spent an hour in “our” refuge discussing the details. Then a man appeared from the fields and kept soaping his hands for half an hour (we decided he was a maniac of some sort). In the meantime we prepared and ate a salad and set off again around 4 pm.

Pushing hard before the border
On Albanian soil again

From there we followed exactly the same route as earlier. In Albania, we stopped in the same village (Xarre) as before for a coffee and a snack (the children and the shopkeeper remembered us) before we took the Butrint ferry as the sun set.

We arrived in Ksamil after 8. The friendly hosts were happy to see us again and we could hardly wait to enjoy our free ice coffees. As it turned out, almost all the guests have changed but the kind artist couple were still there so we could tell them about our experences in Greece. 

Needless to say, we felt we deserved a resting day after the long distance so the following day we walked to the main beach with the white sand. It was a huge disappointment to us after the memories we had from 8 years before. At that time there were only 2 or 3 bars and very few people. Now each metre of the coast is divided between a dozen or more bars and restaurants. There are parasols and holiday-makers everywhere and, of course, people collecting the money for the parasols. In the afternoon we preferred to return the small beach near the campsite, where we could at least have fun diving into the deep water.

3 punctures and a little sightseeing

Days 31-34 (5-8 August): Igoumenitsa – Sidari

Distance: 52+40 km
Total distance: 1530 km

Sleeping on the beach was not as peaceful as we expected: we were woken by stray dogs and the waves several times but at least we were ready to go shortly after 6. It was important if we wanted to reach the 7 o’clock ferry to Corfu.

Our tent on the beach near Igoumenitsa

The beach was only 10 km from the port so the plan was realistic. Then I felt something was stuck on my rear tyre and when I removed the small ball I saw it was a thorn… It took me half an hour to change the tube so we missed the ferry.

No worries, we thought, at least we’ll have time to have breakfast. A nice cycling route leads into Igoumenitsa and we quickly found a small bakery. The bureks we bought were smaller and more expensive than in Albania but they were tasty and filling.

In the end we took the 10.30 ferry (there is one in about every hour). The journey to Kerkyra, the capital of Corfu, was hot but fast and as we arrived we sailed past the picturesque old town.

In Kerkya, we looked for a shady place where we could survive the hottest hours. Our choice fell on a small square with a church and tall trees. Later we managed to change our clothes in one of the nearby houses (the gate was open) so we took turns and looked around Kerkyra a bit. 

I preferred the less busy streets without all the English signs and flashy shop windows but we couldn’t walk for long it was so hot. We left the small square about 4 pm. Not the city, because in 5 minutes I had my second puncture in the same tyre. This time the inner tube burst and there was a 5 mm long cut on the inner side near the valve. I tried to mend it in vain but we still had new tubes so we could set off before 5. 

I spent a few days in Paleokastritsa some 25 years ago and my first thought was to go there again. Then I read very good reviews about the Dolphin Campsite in Sidari so we changed the plan at the last moment, as usual.

The shortest route to Sidari leads across the central hills of Corfu, which look harmless on the map but in fact it was strenuous 90-minute uphill struggle to reach the pass. There we enjoyed the views a bit and continued towards the sea because it was getting late.

We were not more than 10 km from our destination when I had the third puncture of the day. The same tyre and exactly the same cut on the tube, only a few mm farther from the valve. I had no idea what happened and I was a bit worried if it will happen again as I performed the routine tasks. All this happened in front of a house and the family were having dinner on their terrace. Soon the daughter called out for us and asked if we cared for a fruit juice. A taste of Greek hospitality 🙂

When at last we arrived in Sidari it was nearly 9 and getting dark. We found the campsite with a little detour and then Babis, the owner showed us around the site. He is an enthusistic ex-journalist from Athens, who got fed up with the rat race 35 years ago and bought the olive grove of a monastery. He has never looked back since.

Now we have spent three or relaxed days in (or next to) Sidari. We spent our time basking in the sun or swimming in the water on the tiny beaches in the east (they reminded us of Thailand with the steep rock faces covered in vegetation) or hunting for figs nearby. In the evenings we chatted with the kind Hungarian family we met at the campsite.

The tropical-looking beach in Sidari

On the last day we cycled to the next village, Karusádes. It is just a few streets with old houses that look like time stopped here in the past before all the tourists arrived.

We tried the traditional black bread and took some photos. Then we returned to the campsite for a last night beer and raki party with our new friends before leaving the island.

Greek coffee and tons of mosquitos

Day 30 (4 August): Ksamil – Igoumenitsa
Distance: 65 km
Total distance: 1438 km

Our last night in Ksamil was anything but ideal. Two groups of guests arrived at the campsite around midnight         and it took them nearly an hour to to put up the two simple tents. Then, when we were trying to go back to sleep, one of them started to snore like a freight train until I got fed up and woke him with a well-targetted kick in the ass. By then it was 2 am and we had precious little time left to sleep.

After such a night we couldn’t wake up as early as we planned and we were still sipping our free ice coffees at 7. We had three more hours of pleasant weather and tried to make the most of it. This part of Albania is pretty flat so we advanced fast and reached Butrint in ten minutes. The view of the hill with the Byzantine town and the surrounding agricultural land was beautiful from the road and it was fun to cross the canal on the little ferry we only saw from the pier in 2009.

The canal with the hill of Butrint on the left
Anita and Aron with the Venetian fort across Butrint

Then the road meandered a bit and our energy levels were getting low; after all, we only had that one coffee in the morning. The road goes past Xarrë, a sleepy village on a small hill, and we thought it could be a good place to have a bite to eat. The local foodstore had fresh bread and one type of canned fish and we could eat on the terrace of the central bar.

Grazing sheep near Butrint

We said goodbye to the kind bar owner, a heavily built middle-aged lady, and the local kids who gathered to check out our bikes. We rode past pretty Mursi, situated by a small lake, and from Shkallë we continued on the SH97 towards the border.

Mursi and its lake
One last glimpse of Albania from the pass

We stopped in Konispol for our last Albanian drinks at a roadside pub, full of alcoholics. I helped the young assistant to mend the large crate where she held the watermelons and we started the last long uphill before the Qafe Bote pass, which is the entry to Greece. There was a huge queue of cars but we didn’t want to risk the sun stroke so we just overtook them all and in 5 minutes we were on Greek land.

After a quick photo we were back on our bicycles again and descended from the pass to the sea level and the first Greek village, Sayada. From there, I was planning to take some back roads to avoid the traffic but some of them were covered with gravel and there weren’t too many cars anyway. We could withstand the heat until we left the next village. There was a tap and some shaded benches by the road, where we stopped and spent the next 3 or 4 hours, sleeping, listening to music and eating the water melon we bought at the greengrocer’s down the road.

Instead of crosses, they have miniature churches as shrines by the roads in this part of Greece.

The temperature was more bearable after 4 and we tried the minor roads again, this time with more luck. After some kilometres past olive groves and orange plantations we found ourselves under Kestrini, where we had real Greek frappe in a small bar and bought the ingredients for our dinner spaghetti in the attached shop.

Then we cycled towards the lagoons and the sea, suspiciously watched by the grazing cows and the enormous stray dogs, which were too lazy to run after us, fortunately. There is a long strip of sandy beaches next to Igoumenitsa, the city from where the ferries go to Corfu. I thought it was probably possible to sleep there somewhere behind the bushes when the people have gone home. 

The lagoon in the evening. Beautiful but full of mosquitos…

It was good to see that there were some free showers but the beach was full even after 8 and we were dirty and hungry. In the end we looked for a quiet place on a hill to cook our dinner, hoping the place would be deserted by the time we returned. It was, especially because it took us much longer to get back to the sea. As we were trying to avoid the potholes in the semi darkness, I had a puncture. I changed the inner tube as fast as I could but we were under constant attack by fierce mosquitos and it was still so hot I sweated like a horse. 

Then we returned to the beach, where only two men were having a romantic chat in the water. We had a quick shower in the moonlight and then put up our tent in the sand. It was far from idyllic but at least we could sleep and we were away from the mosquitos. The next morning we had to get up early if we wanted to reach the 7 o’clock ferry to Corfu.

Stray dogs and high jumps

Days 28-29 (2-3 August): Qeparo – Ksamil
Distance: 52 km
Total distance: 1373 km

The day before the owner of the apartment house warned us to leave before 9. Normally I would have found it far too early but we wanted to make good use of the cooler hours of the morning so we didn’t mind. We managed to leave Qeparo around 7 after eating up the remaining pieces of the martabak I “baked” last night. 

Saying goodbye to Qeparo

We knew there was a long uphill stretch between Qeparo and Borsh but we had no idea it continued so long and with such a gradient. The air didn’t move as we slowly climbed higher and higher above the sea level. At least we had great views.

We stopped for a drink in Piqeras and then another one in Sen Vasil, which surprised us with its cosy central square shaded by a plane tree. Old men were talking on the benches and a cow was just returning home.

Luckily, the road turns downwards after Sen Vasil and from there it was an easy ride s far as Saranda. Otherwise, I don’t think we could have carried on without a long break because the first 25 km were extremely difficult.

If there was a road, we would have avoided Saranda altogether. It is an overgrown resort town, one of the worst examples of uncontrolled development in the region. Many years ago we spent a few days there to use it as a base for our excursions but, all in all, it was forgettable.

We were hungry, though, so we headed to the heart of the city, the seaside streets, and found a fast food restaurant. They prepared decent suflaqe with xaxiqIt was almost the hottest part of the day but we knew we had only about 15 km more to go so we carried on. 

The road between Saranda and Ksamil is more or less flat and there is a spring with fresh cold water somewhere in the middle. You can see the valley below and the mountains in the distance so the views are fine. The only memorable event was when five stray dogs attacked us in a bend. Fortunately, by this time the “dog routine” was second nature to all of us (get off the bike on the other side, pick up or pretend to pick up a stone) so we could fight them off easily.

Old church overlooking the valley – no photo of the dogs…

The map showed four campsites in Ksamil, unusual in Albania. The first one didn’t exist but we still had three to check. The one named after the setting sun is basically a car park with some facilities. There were hardly any free spots, all of them in the sun, so we tried the other two.

Finally, we chose Ksamil Caravan Camping and I can highly recommend it to anyone who looks for friendly service and a full range of facilities at an affordable price. What’s more, you can experience what it’s like to camp on a roof! Because of the lack of space, the inventive owners turned the roof of the main building into a camping area, where you can put up your tent on carpets in the shade of vines and beans. 

Rooftop camping in Ksamil

But the real draw of the place is the hospitable couple who run the campsite. We received undivided attention at all times and free frappe every day of our stay and even before we left. Add to this that you can use the gas cooker, sandwich makers, coffee makers, hand mixer and fridges free of charge and you’ll understand why we were sorry to leave after two nights.

Two nights means that we had another lazy day here. We mostly spent it on the nearby private beaches, jumping into the deep water from 3 metres high. A great program for eternal children!

Fig jam and careless days

Days 24-27 (29 July – 1 August): Qeparo
Distance: 0 km
Total distance: 1321 km

We felt we deserved a few days off cycling after the hard days through the mountains. Anyway, Qeparo was one of our main destinations apart from Greece because we had spent very pleasant days in this small seaside town in 2009 and 2012. 

A few years ago, there were lots of bunkers on the beach in Qeparo. Today only 2 are left in the less crowded part
The tastefully designed new seaside promenade

The four days were really only about lazing and doing nothing in particular. When we got a bit bored we could always think of something interesting. One day we collected figs in the vast olive grove behind the beach and then prepared our own home-made fig jam in our apartment. Another day we prepared the fresh figs in an unusual way: we fried them in breadcrumbs and they tasted fabulous! 

Home-made fig jam for breakfast 🙂

We “discovered” a little cove near the main beach, where we spent most of the day on our own, playing in the water or building dams to stop the water of the ice-cold springs that emerge from the rock all along the coast of Qeparo.

Our secret beach in Qeparo, only accessible by sea!

It was hard to leave once again but I’m sure we’ll return in a few years time!

A valley to discover next time

 

Forest fires and Albania’s worst road

Day 23 (28 July): Kotë – Qeparo
Distance: 53 km
Total distance: 1321 km

We expected to be woken by grazing sheep, a shepherd or his dog in the morning but it was the sun and the growing heat that didn’t let us sleep any longer. Then a man appeared, looking from some stray cows, and he invited me for a coffee but I didn’t want to leave the other two in the tent (they were still half asleep). 

We left our emergency camping place around 8 and had to start cycling without any water or food left. The next village was only a few kilometres away so we knew we’d survive, especially when we could continue on the old but decent tarmac road.

We had our morning coffee (and Ivi) in Gjorm’s only bar. The village has a wonderful setting, nested at the foot of a rocky hill that must be great fun to climb in less hot weather. There were some men playing a chess game on the terrace and a guest arrived on a mule while we were drinking there. 

Then we filled our bottles with cold water and carried on cycling. We just passed through the next village, Lepenicë, though it was equally pretty and inviting. The terrain was easy as we followed the course of the river and before midday we were in Brataj, where there is an inn at the beginning of the village.

A rock with the Albanian flag and the name of Brataj

We thought we’d buy food in the village and just drink a coke here but we saw there was a kitchen so we asked the woman behind the counter about lunch options. At that moment a young man came in from the terrace and asked us in English if he could help with the translation. He was from the village but worked in the US. He was on his holiday, drinking beer and talking to his friends outside.

 

With his help, we learnt that the only food available was “fresh” chicken. We knew what it meant so we asksed if the woman could prepare omelettes and salad for us. The American Albanian explained the recipe to her (they don’t prepare eggs that way here, he said) and half an hour later we were enjoying the delicious, juicy omelettes in the shade of a huge tree.

We were almost finished, when the man came over to us and asked if everything was OK and if he could invite us for another drink. We chose beer and more Ivi for Aron. I wanted to thank him for his kindness so I asked the woman for 5 small glasses and offered them the rest of the palinka from Hungary. They loved it and we told them a little about our trip before we said goodbye.

The scenery remained the same: a not too wide valley surrounded by forested mountains and meticulously cultivated land with canals and scattered houses. The people in these villages are very proud of their history. A number of important battles were fought nearby in the 19th and 20th centuries and the names of the heroes are still an important part of the local identity.

One of the many memorials remembering the heroes who fought for the land

Just before Kallarat, there is a scary-looking footbridge, one of the main attractions of the area.

We had to stop for some photos so we just left the bikes by the road and walked down to the bridge. I only dared to step on the edge of it because two of the four cables holding it were broken.

When we walked back up to the road, a policeman was examining the bicycles. He was worried what could have happened to their owners but he just smiled when he saw us and drove on.

In the village, we had an ice-cream by the shop near the petrol station. The policeman was there, too, so I asked him about the road to Kuç and he said it was fine but after that it was very very bad to Borsh. We’d have to go avash-avash (slowly), he said.

I told the others the not too good news and hoped the road wouldn’t be all that bad. We still had another 14 km before Kuç so we tried not to worry about it.

The fertile Shushica valley

Then as we climbed on top of a smaller hill and stopped to get some air and enjoy the view, we caught sight of thick smoke in the distance ahead of us. It was clearly forest fire and not a small one.

It looked like a volcano eruption and then we noticed the forest was burning in at least 3 other locations. But cars were coming and going and their drivers seemed relaxed so we carried on. 

At that point the sun was really strong and the canal along the road too tempting not to have a quick dip. After this refreshing stop we got back on the bikes and we couldn’t believe out eyes. Suddenly everything turned orange. Then we saw it was the smoke that changed the colour of the sun rays. The lower part of the mountains is covered by evergreen forests and shrubs in this region and now we saw one of the hillsides was burning intensively to the right, just a few dozen metres from us. At first I wanted to stop and take a photo but then I found it wiser if we escaped as fast as we could. 

Children walking carelessly home hundrends of metres from the blazing forest

Kuç is situated high above the valley and for once we were happy we had to climb. It felt safer to leave the valley with all the smoke behind us. It was weird the people in the gardens, streets and bars didn’t seem to take notice of the imminent danger. They behaved as if it was quite normal that their village was now sieged by fire from three sides as the flames spread quickly in the strong wind.

No wonder we didn’t stop at the shop and the bar at the beginning of the village but struggled up to the man square with the statue of the local hero. Kuç lies in the heart of Labëria, the region of Southern Albania. The people in these valleys are famed for opposing all sorts of conquerors throughout the centuries, whether it was Venetians, Ottomans or others. We truly hope they eventually managed to cope with the forest fires, too, without any injuries.

The hero of Kuç overlooking the smoking forests

We had a big cup of icecream in the bar and then left the village behind us.

Like a volcano eruption

Just as the policeman in Kallarat said, the asphalt road disappeared with the last houses and we had to continue on an ancient-looking mountain road. First we had to reach the pass where the road forks in two directions: you can choose to reach Borsh via Çorraj or Fterrë.

Feeling victorious on the pass after Kuç

There is no difference in the quality of the roads but the first one is 3 km shorter so we turned right. 

Rruga keq – bad road after Kuç

It was hart to imagine worse conditions but this road could always surprise us. We moved painfully slowly and it was past 5 when we arrived in the isolated village of Çorraj. The old part of the settlement is picturesquely perched on a rocky outcrop but those houses all seem abandoned. The few people who still live here are mostly over 70.

We quickly understood why as we left the village and descended 300 metres along the hairpin bends under the last houses. The road was so bad here that it was absolutely impossible to ride our bicycles so we pushed them for about an hour or more because then we had to climb back to the same altitude where the pass was after Kuç. To make things even worse, we were stopped by a group of cows and their calves that blocked the narrow road and were unwillig to move in any direction. It was mind-bogging to see the sun slowly setting as we tried to convince the animals to go.

The sun sets and we are still high in the damned mountains!

They finally did and we luckily reached Borsh in complete darkness without accidents. From there we had to go another 3 km to Qeparo, the seaside resort we had visited twice n the past. This time the plan was to stay here for 5 nights and forget about cycling a bit. It was shocking to see the number of cars parked by the beach but we soon found a nice apartment in a good location and at an affordable price so we could wash down the dust of the road and relax. 

Fresh chicken and a man of odour

Day 22 (27 July): Greshicë – Kotë
Distance: 50 km
Total distance: 1268 km

We couldn’t say goodbye to our friendly hosts in the morning but at least I left a post on his FB page because the evening before we quickly friended each other. We waved to his friends, already sitting outside one of the closed restaurants, and continued our journey to the south.

The plan was to turn left and take the SH100, marked with yellow on the man, which seemed to be a guarantee of a decent paved road. Then the asphalt gave way to gravel in a bend and we realised there had been a landslide recently. We struggled to reach the end of the temporary section only to see that the SH100 was just a dirt road as far as the eye could see…

This meant a detour of a couple of kilometres via Damës, from where we could take the brand new SH4 for a while. We expected another semi-abandoned village so we were truly surprised to see that Damës was crowded with people and cars and all the bars were full. There was a fair that day and sellers were offering all sorts of goods from second-hand clothes and tools to vegetables. We bought some peaches and then targetted one of the bars to have a morning coffee. The waiter apologoised and pointed at the lights: there was no electricity. Five minutes later he served coffee to another table. It turned out that they could prepare Turkish coffee on a gas cooker but he thought the foreign tourists wouldn’t like that.

While we were sipping our coffee and I was slowly feeding my phone with the solar charger, it suddenly got dark and started to rain. It was a pleasant change after more than a week of hot weather and it was still raining when we got back on our bikes and started to speed downhill on the new highway. 

Posing by the Vjose river

We didn’t need to pedal at all for the next ten kilometres and my two team members were quite sorry to leave the perfect asphalt for the narrow gravel road towards Pocem. It is actually just a group of houses near a mineral water bottling plant by the Vjosë river but it seemed to be a popular spot as both restaurants were still open! A family was having lunch in one of them and we also sat down to order something because the next town was nearly 20 km away, which can mean hours on a dirt road.

Finishing the chicken killed for us

We ordered chicken (I know the word in Albanian) with some salad and French fries. Minutes later a man appeared from the bushes with a chicken in his hands and took it to the house. When we heard the gurgling sounds, we knew we’d get a whole chicken and it would be very fresh…

The women in the kitchen worked real fast and in 20 minutes the poor chicken was on our table. We finished everything equally fast, paid the exorbitant bill (it must have been one of their favourite pets) and continued our fight with the strip of stones they call a road here.

The incrediblly green water of the Vjose

Soon we crossed the Vjosë and we had to stop on the bridge to watch the sheep and the local kids jumping into the water of fantastic bluish-green colour. Then we followed the course of the river for a while before we started the long uphill stretch that took us through the hills towards Peshkëpi. 

These 2 kilometres took nearly an hour in the burning sun. I switched bikes with Aron because his chain jumps in high gear so he took all the big bags and I pushed the bicycle most of the way. I was still the fastest and I stopped to wait for them when a shepherd waved to me and started to run towards me. I don’t know if I have ever met a man more dirty and stinking than him. He talked to me in a language I didn’t understand (I’m not even sure it was Albanian) but I quickly understood he wanted money. Now this time the change was in Anita’s pocket so I had to wait and stop the man from hugging me in every two minutes…

The hairpins from the top

 We finally reached the top and started to ride downhill when we saw that the car that passed us a little before was standing by the road and a young foreign couple was trying to change its wheel. An Albanian man was helping them but their spare tyre was also flat and they didn’t have a pump. We lent them ours, amused that we helped out a motorist. Unfortunately, the spare tyre of the rented car was also punctured but the Austrian couple didn’t think much. They got back in the car and jolted along the bad road to the next village.

We said goodbye and Anita jokingly said we may meet again when we have a puncture and then they’ll help us out. Well, half an hour later I was changing the inner tube on my bike…

Then the tarmac gradually returned (first it was just the gravel road covered in a thin layer of asphalt, which is not much better, then a proper paved road to Vllahipë). I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an old Hungarian petrol pump at the tiny gas station of the village!

Nothing interesting happened until we reached Peshkëpi, which came as a dissapointment because we expected a city with supermarkets and a string of bars and we found a town of two streets with two pubs and a tiny foodstore in a garage. We had our usual drinks (coffee for Anita, Ivi for Aron and a small beer for me), washed off some of the dust from our legs and arms in the bathroom and set off again.

In Peshkëpi, we had to make the final decision whether to take the new coastal road or the unknown inland road to the southern beaches and our destination, Qeparo. Five years earlier we had chosen the former and we still remembered how hard it was to conquer the 1027 m high Llogara Pass starting from sea level so  we opted for the latter.

Fighting the dust and our tiredness near Kote

The road was supposed to be good at least as far as Kotë, from where we had to follow a minor road towards Kallarat and Kuç. Back home I checked the photos available on the net and I saw that the road is paved in Kuç, which is only about 15 km from the coast, so we were optimisitic.

Then, just as we left Peshkëpi, the tarmac disappeared like it did so many times on this trip and we saw an endless dusty gravel road ahead of us. The old road was too narrow and this was the temporary solution before the new one was built.

Sheep in the main square of Kote

We still didn’t want the coastal road with the pass so we continued, hoping the construction didn’t affect the other road from Kotë. We reached this small town around 7 pm and headed to a central bar. We had another drink and filled our bottles with water, while sheep and goats crossed the little square and a man parked his donkey outside a shop. We followed him to buy some chocolate got back on the bicycles,

Mountains painted red by the setting sun

By that time it was getting really late but I wanted to see the road to Kuç. We reached the fork-off only to see that the old asphalt road continued to the left and we had to continue on the same gravel surface…

I had to put down my bike to chase away two angry dogs

We were all exhausted and we had the first row as Anita got off her bike and said she wouldn’t go a metre more. But it was just not possible to camp there so I carried with Aron on to find a suitable place and then sent him back for his mother. We put up the tent in complete darkness near the road. Then we had a “shower” (each of us  had one bottle of water to use) and cooked our dinner. We went to sleep hoping the road was not that bad all the way to Qeparo.

Forgotten roads and moonlike dust

Day 21 (26 July): Ura Vajgurore – Greshicë
Distance: 70 km
Total distance: 1218 km

Crossing the central mountains of Albania is not an easy feat unless you have a 4-wheel drive beause there are very few paved roads. This was the reason why I abandoned the plan to continue from Ulez through Burrel to Tirana. Now we were about to reach Ballsh through Berat without taking the highway to Fier and eventually get to Vlorë county in the south. The map showed that it was possible but I didn’t know what those roads would be like.

Berat, the city of a thousand windows

We had our breakfast in a small byrek bar in the centre of Ura Vajgurore and then we wanted to go on to Berat via Veternik and Velabisht but it soon turned out that this road was again of very bad quality so we chose the highway instead. After all, it’s only 10 kilometres and the traffic was not so bad in the morning,

You would never guess what he first thing we had to do in Berat was. We had to find a bicycle repair shop because… because of the same problem again. This time I didn’t have to ask anyone as we rode past the small workshop. The elderly owner removed the pedals and fastened the bolts but then he said there was somethinmg wrong as it didn’t turn smoothly. Soon his son arrived and he could speak English because he spent 3 years working in a London fast food restaurant. He removed the monoblock and declared it dead.

With our saviours in Berat

Apparently, the mechanic in Lezhë made a big mistake: he took the new part apart to add extra grease, which is something you just don’t do to a monoblock. So now they replaced it again after only a week but at a much lower price. While his son was working, the owner ordered coffee and fruit juice for us from the nearby cafe. It was fun sitting on the steps of the workshop drinking our coffee and answering the questions of curious passers-by.

Century-old houses on the hill in Berat

The bike was ready around 9 but we didn’t want to leave Berat without admiring its beauty so we rode into the centre and sat down for a drink. It was good to see the old town is still intact and the high street has been turned into a pedestrian zone. When we were here in 2009 it was only closed down from traffic in the evenings.

After the drinks and a few photos we found the road that leads out of the city and started the long uphill to Mbreshtan. We were gaining elevation fast and we had to stop by a supermarket to get some energy before we carried on towards Sadovicë and Paftal. 

The road was still very good, thtough very difficult at some places. We could see the valley and Berat below us and the weather was very pleasant: for the first time since Shkoder there were clouds and a cool breeze.

Berat embraced by the mountains

Then we arrived in Sinjë, where the road turns right to continue in another valley, and saw that the asphalt was replaced by gravel… By now it was way too late to turn back and we hoped it wouldn’t be long so we carried on.

The struggle begins

Apart from the few uphill bits, it wasn’t that bad and we quickly reached the tiny village of Mbjeshovë, not more than a collection of old houses and a lake, where the local children can play. And cows, goats and sheep everywhere.

The roof of an old house in Mbjeshovë

Then as we moved on to the southern flanks of the mountain the road changed once agan and this strech was extremely dfficult: the road was covered in 10-15 cm of very fine dust. We couldn’t see the rocks under the dust and we knew the chains and cogwheels weren’t happy, either.

One of the easier streches
At least we found a spring with refreshing water

We got tired and hungry and Anita had the idea to see what food we had left and try to cook something. Fortunately, we had some vegetables, pasta and a package of spaghetti bolognese powder base. We even cooked Turkish coffee for dessert.

Just a few hundred metres from our lunch spot, we had a pleasant surprise: the asphalt road started again! It felt great to ride on the smooth surface but our joy didn’t last long. It soon turned out that only a short section was paved and the damned gravel road returned just as the road started to descend steeply.

We could hardly move our fingers when we finally reached the main road and it was no question that we deserved a coke. Then we continued to the industrial city of Ballsh. I will always remember this city for the piercing smell of fart that accompanied us everywhere: past the ageing factory, into the centre, where we bought food for dinner and out to the south.

The source of the smell

We passed several bars and restaurants but they were all closed and the whole region looked like it was in a Cinderella dream. We thought maybe the odour had to do with this or perhaps the oil wells dried up.

We were hoping to find a brook or a spring where we could camp for the night but it was getting late and in the end we asked some young guys at one of the closed restaurants. They said we could put up our tent anywhere but t was either concrete or thich shrub there. Finally, one of them, Emiljano, offered to take me to his closed restaurant to see if the terrain was better there. There was a pleasant spot behind the building so we decided to stay.

We were busy preparing the place for the tent when Emiljano’s sister arrived with three cups of coffee and a big bottle of ice-cold water. She spoke some English so we could ask her why the area looked so abandoned. They experienced the story of Cars in real life: this route used to be frequented by people heading to the southern beaches but then a new road was built by the coast and all the restaurants and motels had to close.

We cooked our dinner, marvelled at the stars in the sky and hoped one day these people will be visited by ther McQueen…