Category Archives: Bicycle trips

Cycling is a great way of travelling and if you combine it with camping in the wild you have the ultimate holiday. My two-wheeler has taken me to many places and I can hardly wait for the next adventure.

Fig jam and careless days

Balkans cycling trip, Days 24-27 

29 July – 1 August 2017: Qeparo
We thought we deserved a few days’ rest and Qeparo was the perfect place to relax. Lying on the beach, picking figs and preparing fig jam were the main programs during these 4 days.
Distance: 0 km
Total distance: 1321 km

Qeparo beachfront

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. 

Only 2 bunkers left on the beach
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 new seaside promenade
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 :)
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
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 fire and Albania’s worst road

Balkans cycling trip, Day 23

We get back the asphalt road for most of the day so we can concentrate on the picturesque scenery. At least until we notice the smoke of the forest fire. It drives up the mountain quickly and we spend the rest of the day struggling with the crumbling gravel road to the coast.
Day 23 (28 July): Kotë – Qeparo
Distance: 53 km
Total distance: 1321 km

We expected to wake up to the 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 for his stray cows. 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. It lies 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

Drinks given and taken

We thought we’d buy food in the village and just drink a coke here but we saw there was a kitchen. 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). Half an hour later we were enjoying the delicious, juicy omelettes in the shade of a huge tree.

We were almost ready to go when the man came over to us and asked if everything was OK. He also offered to 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.

Entering the land of heroes

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 had 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. 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

Escaping from the forest fire

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 a 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. There are evergreen trees and shrubs at the lower part of the mountains  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 lies 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.

The hard part begins

No wonder we didn’t stop at the shop and the bar at the beginning of the village. Instead, we struggled up to the main 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 famous 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 hard 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.

Cows in the darkness

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. They just wouldn’t 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 in 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

Balkans cycling trip, Day 22

27 July 2017: Greshicë – Kotë
We enjoy the rain and Turkish coffee in a small village and later cause the death of an innocent animal because we want fresh chicken. After crossing the Vjosa River we struggle hard to cross the hills on terrible roads before Peshkepi only to find an equally bad road to Kotë. We have our first real crisis and I almost end up in the canyon of another river.
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. (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.

Dirt roads again

The plan was to turn left and take the SH100, marked with yellow on the man. This 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 it was surprising to see how crowded Damës was. There were people and cars and all the bars were full. It was the day of the fair 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. What a pleasant change after more than a week of hot weather! 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

Fresh chicken or the death of a bird

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. We knew 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 and paid the exorbitant bill (it must have been one of their favourite pets). Lucky for the pigs that I didn’t know the Albanian word for them! Then we continued our fight with the strip of stones and gravel they call a road here.

The incrediblly blue water of the Vjose

Soon we crossed the Vjosë and we had to stop on the bridge. We watched 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. 

2 kilometres that felt like 20

These 2 kilometres took nearly an hour in the burning sun. I switched bikes with Aron because his chain jumps in high gear. So now 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. He seemed very excited 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 I had to 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. A little later the car that passed us 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 also had a hole on it 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 witha thin layer of asphalt on top, which is not much better. But then there was 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!

Unpleasant surprises

Nothing interesting happened until we reached Peshkëpi, which came as a dissapointment. What we expected was 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). Then we washed off some of the dust from our legs and arms in the bathroom and set off again.

In Peshkëpi, we finally had to decide how we wanted to reach the southern beaches. Shall we take the new coastal road or the unknown inland road to our destination, Qeparo? Five years earlier we had chosen the former and we still remembered how hard it was. We had to conquer the 1027 m high Llogara Pass starting from sea level so  we now 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 there we had to follow a minor road towards Kallarat and Kuç. Back home I checked the photos available on the net. I saw that there was a paved road in Kuç, which is only about 15 km from the coast, so we were optimisitic.

Sheep and dogs

Then, just as we left Peshkëpi, the tarmac disappeared like it did so many times on this trip. 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 ready.

Sheep in the main square of Kote

We still didn’t want the coastal road with the pass so we continued. Perhaps the construction didn’t affect the other road from Kotë. We reached this small town around 7 pm and headed to a central bar. After another drink we 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

Balkans cycling trip, Day 21

26 July 2017: Ura Vajgurorë – Greshicë
My bicycle is finally repaired properly and after a short stop in historical Berat we continue south across the mountains. The route offers a row of surprises, good and bad, as we learn to ride our bikes on roads with 
potholes and huge stones covered with ten centimetres of fine dust.

Distance: 70 km
Total distance: 1218 km

Green hillsides near Berat

Crossing the central mountains of Albania is not an easy feat unless you have a 4-wheel drive because 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 Bellsh 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. (If I’d known, probably I would never have gone that way.)

Berat, Albania
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.

Beautiful Berat

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 (Ani’s Bicycle Shop). The elderly owner removed the pedals and fastened the bolts but then he said there was something wrong as it didn’t turn smoothly. Soon his son arrived and he could speak English because he had spent 3 years working in a London fast food restaurant. He removed the monoblock and declared it dead.

Ani's Bicycle Shop in Berat
With our saviours in Berat

Waiting with an espresso

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 least 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.

Ottoman houses in Berat, Albania
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 wine (apart from its well-preserved old town, Berat is famous for the local wine). It was good to see the Ottoman houses are 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.

Pedestrian zone in Berat, Albania

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, though 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.

An easy section

Berat in the valley
Berat embraced by the mountains

Gravel and dust

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.

Gravel road from Berat to Bellsh
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.

Roof of a rural house in Albania
The roof of an old house in Mbjeshovë

In a small village

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.

Heading south from Berat (dust everywhere)
One of the easier streches with a little less dust
A spring with fresh water
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.

Lunch by the road

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 (and the dust) returned just as the road started to descend steeply.

Struggling uphill

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.

Old factory in Bellsh, Albania
The source of the smell

Lightning McQueen wanted

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 it was either concrete or thich shrub (or bloody dust) 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 their McQueen…

Rural idyll and smell of oil

Balkans cycling trip, Days 19-20

24-25 July 2017: Golem – Ura Vajgurore
More visits to repair shops, donkeys, lovely lakes and delicious cakes. A long and tiring but also relaxing journey from the bustling tourist resorts and industrial cities to Central Albania’s farming country with a drop of oil.
Distance: 102 + 10 km
Total distance: 1148 km

To our surprise, there was thick fog in the morning by the sea and it also meant that it was a little less hot. I had to start the day with some maintenance: I noticed a big cut on my saddle so I tried to sew it.

We had a substantial breakfast in one of the central eateries and started our long way towards Berat. The first town we crossed was Kavajë, where I had to find a repair shop once again. It was like a nightmare you can’t get rid of: the middle axis of my bike was getting loose again and I knew I couldn’t attempt the mountains after Berat like that. 

The pretty main square of Kavajë

I asked a man in a cafe and he just pointed at the street behind us, where we found the humble workshop. The mechanic quickly understood the problem and took off one of the pedals to fasten the bolt. OK, he didn’t have the right tool so he hammered the pedal a bit but at least I could continue without the nerve-wrecking sounds. When I asked him about the price, he said it was just a faleminderit (thank you).

Road problems

We could have taken the SH4 but we still preferred the low traffic over speed and comfort so we got to the next town, Rrogozhinë, through some small villages and we could enjoy the excitement of Albanian gravel roads, too.

We almost hauled the bikes up and down dozens of steps on the overpass when we noticed there was a handy rainwater canal under the road…
Not much traffic on the roads

After a coffee in the town centre we wanted to keep to the rural roads but the impossibly bad surface and the hills forced us to turn back this time. It was a good decision because the road we followed from Rrogozhinë (the SH7) was much less busy. 

In Peqin, we took a longer break to hide from the sun. First we had icecream for 30 lek (0.20 euros) each and then suflaqe in a small restaurant near the park. The owner was so happy to have guests (no one else entered the place while we were there) that in the end he offered us free icecream and lots of cold water to carry with us.

A remote petrol station

We left the SH7 after Pajovë to continue along the course of the Shkumbini river. The landscape and the villages changed: this is agricultural country with orchards, vineyards and lots of tractors on the roads.

There were plenty of hills to climb and we were all getting a bit tired. I wasn’t even sure we could reach our destination, a campsite not far from Berat, before sunset. Then, to make things worse, I had a puncture but at least it was a “slow” one so it was enough to pump it up a bit every 15 kilometres.

One of the appealing villages near Belsh

As we carried on, the landscape changed again and now we were riding among forest-clad hills towards the provincial town of Belsh, prettily situated around a small lake. We had delicious Albanian cakes by the lake, then we were “attacked” by the local kids, who happily posed for a photo. 

The cakes…
…and the kids

Doubtful suggestions

Exhaustion set in as the sun was about to set but everybody preferred the idea of an official campsite so we speeded up a bit with all our strength. The villages before Kuçovë smelt strange. At first we suspected it was the tractors but then we noticed that there were oil wells in almost every garden.

The source of the foul smell. It was shocking to see that in some places oil was released into brooks or a lake.
Though many have been removed, you can still see bunkers in impossible places throughout Albania

We just whizzed through Kuçovë and it was already dark when we arrived in Ura Vajgurore, where the map marked two campsites, one in the centre and another one 2 km to the west. Of course, the first campsite didn’t exist, there was a police station in its place. Anita was getting really nervous because by that time it was totally dark so we asked a family. The daughter spoke some English and the father, a local policeman, suggested we should camp in the nearby hills. He said it was a bit dangerous area but if we took care it would be OK. We decided to check the other campsite instead and in 10 minutes we found it. Berat Caravan Camping is perfectly equipped, the bathrooms are spotless and the owner family does everything to keep the guests happy. We quickly decided to spend another day there and relax a bit.

Back streets and parasols

Balkans cycling trip, Day 18

23 July 2017: Vorë – Golem
A light half-day ride to the crammed seaside resort Golem just south of Durres. We stop in a sleepy town where the red star is still a central element of the main square, survive the deadly holes on the road and marvel at the contrasts of an impossibly planned Albanian holiday paradise
Distance: 35 km
Total distance: 1036 km

View from a small hill near Durres

We knew we had a short distance that day so we weren’t really motivated to get up early. We had the bananas  left over from the day before, stuffed our things back in the panniers and left the hotel. We were still in the busy triangle of the three largest Albanian cities, Tirana, Durrës and Elbasan, so it wasn’t easy to get away from the trucks and buses but we managed to find some quiet back roads and sleepy towns along the way. 

Hairdresser's with donkey, Albania
A hairdresser’s parlour with a donkey hiding in the shade

We had to follow the SH55 as far as Maminas, where we turned left towards Koxhas and suddenly we were back in rural Albania. We had our morning byreks in the main square of Shijak, still adorned with a Communist monument, and then continued past reservoirs and sleeping towns to the outskirts of Durrës. The growing amount of rubbish dumped by the road showed we were approaching a large city.

Albanian small town with Communist symbol
The main square of Shijak

A disappointing beach

I would have preferred to avoid Durrës altogether but I only found a minor road that was probably unpaved so we headed to the popular beach of the city just to have a quick look. We didn’t really like what we saw: kilometres of sandy beach crammed with parasols, people and litter. The beach is backed by hotels of various sizes and standards, seemingly built without any control. I took a photo and we were back on the road to reach our destination, a resort town called Golem, and stay in one of its two campsites.

Durres beach. Albania

This time we had no choice but the dual carriageway SH4. There was very heavy traffic, of course, and we couldn’t even use the hard shoulder because, in Albania, there are treacherous potholes scattered along the highways without any cover or warning signs. Then a bus got stuck in our lane and we could enjoy an empty road until we got to Golem.

It is a curious place because it is a low budget resort frequented by middle-class Albanians and characterised by dirt roads and cheap fast food eateries but it also has some of the flashiest hotels of the Durrës coast. Imagine sitting by the king size pool of a five-star luxury hotel with waiters serving cocktails to the guests, enjoying the scent of the sea, laced with a whiff of urine coming from a side street.

We found the only campsite (Mali i Robit) quickly and agreed on the price. It is located under giant pine trees in the southern end of Golem. The bathrooms could do with some refurbishment (only one shower worked and there was no hot water at all) but we liked the shady area and the relaxed atmosphere.

Durres beach at night
The lights of the beach at night

We spent the afternoon on the beach, cooling in the water and watching people. And we thought of the southern Riviera, where we hoped to find fewer people and less litter…

Dust and getting lost

Balkans cycling trip, Day 17

22 July 2017: Ulez – Vore
From the green mountains down to the plain. A long and exhausting day with a little from everything: crazy traffic and deserted dirt roads, big city crowd and goat herds, getting lost and luckily finding a nice hotel in the end
Distance: 84 km
Total distance: 1001 km

Rickety bridge in Albania

I was woken up by the sound of cowbells before sunrise and I didn’t feel like going back to sleep. I sat down on the concrete wall over the lake and watched the fishing boats on the lake. Later a woman led her goats to the lake to drink and the sun slowly rose over the horizon. 

Fishing boat on Ulez Lake
Don’t you envy the man in the boat, who only needs to worry about the day’s catch? I did.

I exchanged a few words with the two fishermen who came home after spending the night on the water and then the others got up, too. We washed in the water of the lake again, packed in and pedalled back up to the main square. The old man in the small bar was very happy too see us and he invited me for a raki. No, not a shot of raki, I got a small glass of the strong drink but at least it gave me energy for the morning.

 

Then we bought a couple of things for breakfast in the shop across the road and started our way back on the same route along the Mat river. The lights, the colours and the views were just as beautiful as the day before and we were sorry to leave this green valley too soon.

The gorge on the Mat River

Aron gets fresh water from a spring. The monster on the right is my bike.

Back on flat land again

Then we followed the main road as far as the bridge to Lezhë, where we turned left and rode to Laç along quiet country roads. It was already getting hot when we reached the small town but we pressed on because our plan for the day was to get as far as the seaside near Durrës, a distance of more than 100 km.

Farmhouse by the Mat River
A family’s home by the Mat River

Then after another 8 km we gave in to the heat and sat down in a small park in Marmurres to have a rest. It was a neat little park but, funnily, none of the benches had seats so we occupied the small wooden table and the stools around it that were placed in the shadow. Just as we started playing cards, four elderly men arrived and watched us with great surprise but they let us stay. They sat on one of the broken benches instead. After an hour we gave back the table to the old men and had a drink in a nearby bar because it was still boiling hot. 

We wanted to avoid the busy Shkodër-Tiranë highway (A1) so my choice fell on a minor road in the west connecting Kapinadaj with Vorë. The first problem was that I missed the turnoff so we had to backtrack about 2 km. But getting lost was just the beginning of the hardships. We found the rural road and it seemed a great decision as the quality was fine and there was hardly any traffic. But when we crossed the A1 (with great difficulty, it was so crowded), we saw that the next 6 km would be on a shaky gravel road…

 

Gravel road in Central Albania
It always looks better in the photo

So now it was not just hot but we also had to go much slower and more carefully, plus we were gradually turning yellow from the dust. We thought we would never reach the other end as the quality of the lane turned from bad to worse. We had to cross some ancient (I mean Communist era) bridges and ride through a whole flock of sheep but then we arrived in Kapidanaj and its nice paved road that took us almost as far as Vore. Of course, we stopped for drinks and a whole melon again along the way.

Cows, goats and sheep on an Albanian road
We were actually happy to meet them becasue it meant the village wasn’t that far away

From bad to worse

I didn’t want to risk our lives on the dreary A1 too long so we left it for another rural road (this time paved!) a few km before the city. By that time my telehone with the map was getting very low and I just couldn’t charge it with the solar charger. Later I found out that its micro-USB socket had broken, which was to be a big problem in the following days. Ten minutes later I wanted to check where we were becasue I suspected we were getting lost again and I saw it had switched off. So there we were in some village near Vorë and I had no idea how we could reach the centre of the city. I remembered it was tricky because Vorë lies by the A1 so by bike you have to take a service road and then find an underpass to reach the city proper. 

Boy with cows
A boy with cows – at least he knew where he was going

We did in the end but it took very long and now it was clear we couldn’t make it to the seaside, more than 30 km away, as it was nearly 8 pm. Just after Vorë, we saw the sign of a small hotel (Atlantic). We tried to bargain a bit with the owner-chef and then stayed for the night. I must say the chef did a great job with our spaghettis and the local wine was also delicious.

Goats and bridges

Day 16 (21 July): Shengjin –  Ulez
Distance: 50 km
Total distance: 917 km

The last night in Shengjin I checked the map and our route once again and I noticed that the road we wanted to take was not just very low category (meaning that it could easily be a gravel road) but it meant having to climb from 200 m to over 1200 m again, a deadly combination. So I changed the route at the last minute and decided to reach Berat from the plain instead. The problem is that this area is where the capital and the second largest city (Durres) are located so it has the worst traffic. But now it seemed it was possible to avoid the worst roads and we could even spend another day by the sea near Durres.

The less attractive face of Lezhe
And one of its leafy streets

I was sorry to leave out the mountaneous part and because we won a day with the new route I thought we could take a little detour to the reservoir by sleepy Ulez. It was another place we wanted to show Anita and when we were there on our way back from the mountains with Aron we just had a drink by the water. This time we were going to sleep there.

 

But first of all, we had to find another bicycle mechanic because I felt my pedals were loose yet again. So once in Lezhe, I bought a local SIM card to have internet wherever we needed it (I chose Vodafone and its weekly 1GB package, which only cost 400 lek or roughly 3 euros) and then asked around for a servis

The one we found was run by two brothers across the road from the police station. They agreed to repair both bikes out of order at an agreeable price. Mine got a new monoblock and they replaced Aron’s worn 3-ring crank with a used set of only 2 rings but in fine condition.

A short break on the bridge in Lezhe

This meant that we had to continue cycling in the hottest part of the day but it felt great that there were no annoying sounds any more and Aron didn’t have to pedal like mad to keep a decent speed.

After Lezhe we had to cross the Mat river, the historical heartland of Albania. There is an unofficial way to reach the other bank through the now closed old bridge. Today it is mainly used by local kids who jump into the water from its arches out of boredom. 

Of course, they loved our bikes and wanted us to take their photos. Then one of them showed how he could jump headlong into the not so deep water. Knowing how Albanians treat rubbish (they simply dump it in or near a river), we knew it was far from being clean but we couldn’t resist the temptation.

We left the bridge and the boys and looked for a more quiet place to spend half an hour cooling down in the fast-flowing river. Luckily, Aron noticed the dead dog (sheep?) in the water at the last moment so we walked a few metres upstream from it.

Our midday pool

Our relaxed moments were cut short by the arrival of a truck laden with all sorts of rubbish. Two men jumped off and quickly heaped it all on the river bank. It was time to leave.

For a few kilometres we had to take the highway to Rreshen but then the Burrel road forked off to the right and soon we were back in the mountains again. We still followed the Mat, or its lower reservoir (Liqeni i Shkopetit). It is a beautiful valley.

There are several springs along the way to keep you fresh and you can see some old footbridges. The colour of the water is mesmerising.

Another team of brave boys

It was only another 20 kilometres to Ulez but we moved ahead a bit slowly because we simply forgot to have lunch. And the last 4 km just before the village were killing… 

Ulez is not what you’d expect to find at the end of such a narrow mountain road in Albania. It looks more like a Spanish town with its pretty main square, bars and church.

We sat down to empty a big bottle of Tirana beer (and an Ivi orange for Aron) and answered the curious owner’s questions. We bought some basic ingredients for the dinner and descended to the lake to see where we could camp for the night.

Fishing boat on the Lake of Ulez

To our surprise, the lake was about 10 metres lower than earlier. Later we met a young man from the village, who explained in fluent English that this is quite normal as the rivers can’t carry that much water in the summer months. He was really interested in our tour and had very modern views about society and economy. 

We also met our “neighbours”, an elderly woman, who returned home with her cow and goats and her husband, who just returned from the lake, where he spent the day fishing.

When we were alone again, we put up our tent, cooked our dinner and when it was completely dark, we walked (or stumbled) down to the shore and had a starlit bath. A  great way to end the day!

Watermelon and grubby workshops

Days 14-15 (19-20 July): Shkodër – Shengjin
Distance: 65 + 20 km
Total distance: 867 km

Three years ago when Aron and I were on our way back to Montenegro, we spent two days on the beach in Shengjin, a popular holiday destination for Albanians. We liked the laid-back atmoshphere and the campsite, where hens, pigs, ducks and turkey were running around our tent so this time I included it in our route to relax there after the mountains.

 

It was supposed to be an easy ride with no hills but I was nervous because we needed to find a solution to my bike and Aron’s could also do with new front plates. I knew Shkodër has the highest number of bicycles per capita in Albania so I hoped to find a well-prepared repair shop.

Houses and mountains near Shkoder

We had one last look at the lake and left the campsite along the terrible 1.5 km long gravel road. Soon we were in the chaotic main road of Shkodër and I spotted a bicycle workshop in what looked like a small garage. Dressed in filthy overalls, the owner was changing the inner tube in a boy’s bike. There were ancient parts heaped on shelves and in the corners and I knew I would never trust our bicycles on him. I asked if he had a celës angles but he didn’t. He pointed towards the next street, though, so we looked. 

The lovely high street of Shkoder, lined with cafes and bars

There was a bicycle parts shop there but Anita’s bike badly needed a new pair of brakes so I bought two. They cost less than 20 eurocents each. Unbelievable! Then I asked the people in the queue if they knew a good repair shop and a man directed us to another nearby street, where we finally found a more promising garage. The bald little man quickly fastened the loose bolt and said he accepted no money for it. He pointed at a faded photo on the wall, showing bicycle racers, and said he was one of them, looking at me meaningfully. I shook his hand and thanked him and we went back to the centre.

We wanted to have something for breakfast (it was to be byrek with meat) and then we couldn’t leave without tasting the traditionally prepared ice-cream with a drink made from corn flour. It’s called akullore me boze and it is speciality of North Albania.

One of the places selling akullore me boze

After filling our stomachs we rode along the tastefully renovated main street of the old town and headed towards the castle to continue our way to the nearby beach and have a little break.

The road to Lezhe was way too busy and felt dangerous so we took the first opportunity to leave it and use back roads instead. Luckily, even these less important roads are of acceptable quality here. It was getting terribly hot by about eleven and this time we didn’t want to stop for hours to have more time to enjoy the sea.

We bought a watermelon from a seller by the road and ate it there. Then finally we arrived in Lezhe, from where Shengjin is just another 10 km. 

Shengjin is highly popular with Albanians, especially people from Shkoder and Lezhe. Prices and quality are generally low with plenty of rubbish everywhere (but this is sadly true of most of Albania). Still, the sea is refreshing as it is cooled by cold springs located under the water just a few metres from the shore.

The beach late in the afternoon

We found the old campsite easily although it had changed a lot: as we were told it had new owners, which meant that the animals were gone and the old bar was given new, flashy glass walls. What they didn’t change was the shower (yes, one!) and the toilets (two). They were barely usable back in 2014 so I was surprised that they still functioned now. I must also add that the price reflected the state of the infrastructure: we paid only 5 euros per night. The name is Torino Camping if you are on a tight budget.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach opposite the campsite and did the same the next day. We found a nice pizzeria nearby and the only exciting moments were when we had to chase off a crazy dog with stones every time we wanted to return to or leave the campsite.

Hairpin bends and helpful priests

Day 13 (18 July): Vermosh – Shkoder
Distance: 89 km
Total distance: 782 km

After a wuthering day of doing practically nothing, we were all ready to cross the mountains although we knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride. Two passes were ahead of us. The first one, 1355 m over sea level, seemed to be the the easier one because Vermosh itself lies at 1050 m. But the road then zigzags down to below 300 m just to climb back to over 700 m again, before heading downhill to the sea.

Houses scattered along the riverbed in Vermosh

We had a quick coffee in the other bar in the village centre and reached the crossroads quickly. It was sunny but still fresh and the mountains looked gorgeous.

Traditional wooden roof with crosses on top

 

As we were about to turn right towards Shkoder, we met two hikers heading to Vermosh. It was two French guys and while we were discussing our plans and experiences a third Frenchman arrived by bike from Montenegro. He was going the same direction as us and was planning to stay at the same campsite. 

We said goodbye and left the three talk in their own language as we knew we would meet the other cyclist on the way. We gained elevation quickly and it was not as bad as we’d expected but then  heard a funny clicking sound from my pedals. At first it only occurred when I stood up and only when I pushed the pedal with my left leg so I thought it was the pedal. Later the clicking sound could be heard at every turn and by the time we reached the pass I knew there was something very wrong. Although I was nervous, we stopped several times to admire the surrounding scenery.

 

Gorges, rocks, ravines and foaming creeks everywhere

There was a small foodstore on the top and the shopkeeper, a young woman, kindly prepared a delicious salad from the vegetables we bought, adding some local  olive oil as extra.

We had a nice lunch in the shade, drinking spring water and then I tried to fix the bike but I missed the right tools.

From the pass, we had around 20 km downhill and now the brakes were put to the test. We had to stop frequently to let the rims cool down and our hands needed a break, too.

This place deserves days if not weeks

Somewhere midway, we met two Polish couples, who were toiling their way up in the opposite direction. We didn’t envy them at all because it was much harder that way and the temperature was already well over 30 degrees.

The first sizeable village we reached was Tamarë. We bought something to eat and drink because the second and more demanding pass was still ahead of us.

Just as we started to climb the first harpin bend, I felt that the pedals were not turning smoothly and now I knew the problem was that the middle axis had got loose. I had this problem at home but then managed to tighten it. I even took the bicycle to a mechanic before we came but after three days he said he couldn’t do anything because it was an old system and then I was running out of time.

Rocks near the pass

What I needed was a large çelës angles (spanner). I learnt the word from the people in the first car I stopped and I don’t think I’ll forget it soon. By that time I was just pushing the bike not to cause even more damage. Then came some German motorbikers who wouldn’t stop at all (danke schön!) but the next car did. There were two local priests in it, who spoke good English but had no tools. They said someone could surely help in the next village, 4 km up. Then they moved on but reversed back after a few metres and asked if they could take me and the bike.

I had to accept the offer. I explained Anita and Aron where they would find us, we carefully tetrissed the bicycle, the panniers and myself in the car and left.

It was sad to see the hairpin bends and the amazing views from the car; I felt cheating a bit. There was a container on the top by a bar; its owner kept all sorts of tools in it. The priests found this man and explained my situation. He found a spanner for me and we managed to tigthen the bolt more or less. He wanted to use a chisel and a hammer to finish it off but at that point I had to gesture no. I thought it would survive until Shkodër, where it should be possible to find a repair shop.

Drinking coffee with my saviours

We sat down in the bar with the priests, who didn’t let me pay for their drinks. Instead, they invited me for a coffee. We talked about religion and politics. They were really well-informed about the Hungarian situation.

Anita and Aron arrived shortly. They were breathless after the long climb but proud, too. We had another drink together and then started out last long downhill ride towards the plain.

In Koplik, I changed money and we bought food (of course, you can always pay in euros but you lose that way). Then it was another 8 or so kilometres to the campsite we knew from three years ago. There we met the French cyclist and talked a bit before we took a well-deserved shower and prepared our dinner.

It was relieving to be at this professionally run, sparkling clean establishment although it was too late to swim in the lake. But we knew we’d reach the sea the next day.