Across the mountains to Korce, Albania

Balkans Cycling Trip, day 41

15 August 2017: Gërmenj – Korçë
What seems a piece of cake on the map turns out to be a challenging day with several mountains to climb. We approach Korce with aching bodies and disintegrating gear…
Distance: 75 km
Total distance: 1885 km

Hairpin bends leading to one of the remote valleys east of Korce

Optimistic plans

One more delicious breakfast by Farma Sotira and we were out on the road again. We were planning to camp in the wild for one last time because I found absolutely no information about the campsite in Kamenice, marked on my Locus map. I thought we might even get as far as Korçë, only 12 km further down the road. 

This side of the mountain is much greener with pine and oak trees
This side of the mountain is much greener with pine and oak trees

The first 10 or 15 km were mostly downhill through evergreen pine forests and the road was good enough. When Anita asked how difficult the day would be said medium but certainly not too hard. Well, later I had to correct myself. Perhaps it was because we had been cycling on and off for nearly 6 weeks or it was the three high passes we still had to climb, I don’t know. But by the end of the day we were all finished.

Abandoned church above 1100 metres
Abandoned church above 1100 metres
Great views accompanied us all day
Great views accompanied us all day

In the middle of nowhere

The road took us to sparsely populated valleys with villages where only old people seemed to live (we drank a cola in a pub in Barmash, for example, and it really felt like the end of the world).

WWII monument in a valley by the road
WWII monument in a valley by the road

Ersekë, an Alpine town of around 4000 people and one of the highest settlements in Albania at 1050 metres, was where we finally had a little break. We found a friendly Greek gyro eatery in the freshly paved main square, perfect for a quick lunch. My son clumsily dropped his plate on the floor but the owner immediately brought him another portion and then he wouldn’t accept any money for it. 

The main square of Ersekë
The main square of Ersekë
And a nicely renovated building (a museum)
And a nicely renovated building (a museum)

We bought chocolate for the difficult uphills that were still ahead of us (I went back to the Greek bar and gave the owner some bonbons in return for his kindness) and then we even stopped for a cake at a confectionery (near Rina Park, highly recommended) before we continued our journey.

All holes fixed

It was there on the terrace of the confectionery that I noticed the soles of my cycling shoes got loose (in fact I had almost lost one of them). I used the good old insulation tape to fix the problem and I hoped they would last for another 100 kilometres…

The entire sole of one shoe came off but the insulation tape did wonders

It was an easy ride as far as Mollas but then after we crossed a river there was a 5 km climb to 1070 m, the highest point since the mountains in Northern Albania. We had another drink at a restaurant 4 km after Mollas. It must be really popular with locals as it was almost completely full early in the afternoon. Based on the sight and the smells (and the satisfied crowd) I believe it is a fine restaurant, if only there were fewer dogs hanging around the tables. Guests had the privilege to eye-witness their sexual life until somebody threw a glass of cold water at them…

Perhaps our 100th coffee in Albania, always perfect.

One last pass to conquer

The uphill that followed was tough because our legs really didn’t long for any more intensive training and not so much because it was so long or steep. To make it worse. the asphalt was missing at places due to recent landslides. Then we conquered the last of the passes and we were soon speeding downhill towards Korcë. 

One of the relaxing bits

It turned out that the tent icons on the map indicated the site of a road construction company because a brand new highway is being built from Korcë to Ersekë. The whole area was full of trucks and workers, making it impossible to find a place for camping, so I quickly booked a room at Kristal Hotel in Korce. It also means that if you’d like to enjoy the low traffic and the narrow winding road, you should hurry because it will likely be replaced by a much straighter and less exciting strip of asphalt soon.

We did the last 15 km to the city in less than an hour and headed to the centre to see how much it had changed since 2009 and to get hold of some alcohol to celebrate our arrival. The Kristal Hotel is located high on the mountainside so we knew we wouldn’t come down again once we had pedalled up there. 

The last difficulty was to get up to the hotel...
The last difficulty was to get up to the hotel…

Korce surprised us in many ways

Well, Korce has changed so much that we found it hard to recognise any part of it. It has become much cleaner and, probably, much more livable with cycling paths, roundabouts, tasteful new buildings and much less dirt. We loved our hotel, too. At first it seemed like a survivor of the Communist era (which it probably is) but the friendliness of the staff and the comfort of our room after weeks spent in our tent more than made up for that.

The houses of Korcë in the evening sun
The houses of Korce in the evening sun

When we arrived in Korce, we asked the young receptionist-waiter if they could put our bottle of champagne in their fridge (they did of course) and then when we were having dinner on the terrace of the hotel’s restaurant, he asked if we wanted to drink it there. Surprised, we said yes but we were even more surprised when he brought our champagne in a huge ice bucket! Sure, we invited him for a glass for his kindness.

The view from our balcony at the Kristal Hotel
The view from our balcony at the Kristal Hotel

Then we watched the lights of the city from our balcony for a few minutes before we went to bed to be ready for our last long day of cycling the next day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.