Category Archives: Europe

Dizzying temperatures and a foaming maniac

Balkans Cycling Trip – Days 35-36

9-10 August 2017: Sidari – Ksamil
We leave Sidari and head back to the capital of Corfu. This time our timing is better and we manage to squeeze two days’ distance into one despite the dizzying temperatures. It’s great to be back in Ksamil for one more relaxing day.
Distance: 92 km
Total distance: 1622 km

View of the eastern coast from the pass

Back to Albania

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!

 

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

The last sunset we enjoyed in Sidari
The last sunset we enjoyed in Sidari

A better route

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

One of the quiet villages on the mountainside

Village church with the belfry
Just one of the many pretty villages in North Corfu
Landscape in the morning haze
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
Enjoying the peace and quiet in the bar of Scripero
The "busy" centre of Scripero
The “busy” centre of Scripero

Crossing in comfort

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 11, 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…

Goodbye, Corfu!

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
Pushing hard before the border
On Albanian soil again
On Albanian soil again

Same village, same campsite

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.

Magical sunset near Butrint

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 experiences 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 the whole coast is precisely 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.

Puncture after flat tire and a little sightseeing

Balkans Cycling Trip – Days 31-34


5-8 August 2017: Igoumenitsa – Sidari
We wake up on the sandy beach and miss the early boat because of a puncture (followed by another one not long after). We spend hours in downtown Kerkyra (Corfu City) before cycling up north to Sidari. A modest distance but tough hills and yet another puncture slow us…
Distance: 52+40 km
Total distance: 1530 km

Amazing sunset over Sidari 's bay

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
Our tent on the beach near Igoumenitsa

Hardships begin

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

Great sightseeing in the last 15 minutes of the ferry ride

A little sightseeing

In Corfu City, 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. 

Windows in Corfu City

The old town has so much more than just souvenir stores

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 tire. This time the inner tube burst and there was a 5 mm long cut on the inner side near the valve. Exactly like the first burst tube on day 1 (by the way, both tubes were from Decathlon…) I tried to mend it in vain but we still had new ones so we could set off before 5. 

The back streets are surprisingly quiet

Change of plan

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 a 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.

The well-deserved view after the uphills and the puncture

The third puncture

We were not more than 10 km from our destination when I had the third puncture of the day. The same tire 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 could happen again as I performed the routine tasks. We did all this in front of a house, where 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 🙂 We suddenly felt much better.

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 place. He is an enthusiastic 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.

Tourists for a few days

Now we have spent three 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 lush 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
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 before all the tourists arrived.

The real Corfu is just a few kilometers from the resorts...

Our favourite village in Corfu

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

Greek coffee and tons of mosquitoes

Balkans cycling trip, Day 30

The day starts with a romantic ferry trip and breakfast in a forgotten village. Then we finally cross the border and arrive in Greece! Roadside dinner, mosquitoes attack us and we take a shower under the stars on our 30th day.
4 August 2017: Ksamil – Igoumenitsa (Greece)
Distance: 65 km
Total distance: 1438 km

Rural idyll near Butrint

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

Canned fish for breakfast?

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

On Greek land

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. Then 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.

On Greek land at last
On Greek land at last

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. We slept, listened to music and ate the water melon we bought at the greengrocer’s down the road.

Miniature church by the road
Instead of crosses, they have miniature churches as shrines (kandilakia) 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. There we had real Greek frappe in a small bar and bought the ingredients for our dinner spaghetti in the attached shop.

A challenging evening with mosquitoes

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 (Drepano Beach), 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 mosquitoes...
The lagoon in the evening. Beautiful but full of mosquitoes…

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 mosquitoes 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 knee-deep in the water. We had a quick shower in the moonlight (without the men) 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 mosquitoes. (By the way, there is an official campsite nearby if you prefer comfort to adventure.) The next morning we had to get up early if we wanted to reach the 7 o’clock ferry to Corfu.

Stray dogs and rooftop camping

Balkans cycling trip, Days 28-29

2-3 August 2017: Qeparo – Ksamil
A short day’s cyling along the picturesque Albanian Riviera and coffee stops in some lovely villages on the way. Then another day by the sea – perhaps we’re getting lazy? Rooftop camping in Ksamil is highly recommended!
Distance: 52 km
Total distance: 1373 km

Borsh, a lovely village by the sea

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
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.

The Albanian Riviera

Pretty villages along the way

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.

Walking home

Luckily, the road turns downwards after Sen Vasil and from there it was an easy ride as 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.

Saranda

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. 

Ksamil

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
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.

The seaside in Ksamil late in the afternoon

Rooftop camping is fun!

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
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

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

 

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.

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.

Shivering and lazing

Balkans Cycling Trip, Day 11

Just a cold, rainy day when we all we did was wait for the sun to appear from behind the clouds.
16th July 2017: Plav by the lake

Distance: 0 km
Total distance: 658 km

This was the first day the bikes didn’t move a metre; they stayed chained to a bench as we left them the day before. The weather in Plav was so unfriendly, cold and windy all day, that we preferred to walk the 2 km to the foodstore and back.

The lake was just a minute’s walk from our tent

Still it was good to have a break from cycling and at least we could walk a bit around the lake. The views were superb in the evening when the clouds gave way to some lucky sun rays.

These mighty cherry trees mean the home for hundreds of birds and the fruits were ripe in mid-July!

The plan was to reach Shkoder the next day, which means over 100 km across two difficult mountain passes. We hoped the weather would change for the better as we went to bed quite early.

Lake Plav greets us after tunnels and rain

Balkans Cycling Trip, Day 10

Another light day cut short by the rain. We ride our bikes towards the Albanian border in a hidden corner of Montenegro. As we pass through dark tunnels, we enjoy the stunning landscape and the atmosphere of small towns. And the views from our campsite by Lake Plav make us stay longer.
Day 10 (15 July): Bijelo Polje – Plav
Distance: 68 km
Total distance: 658 km

A lilttle sun in the afternoon makes a lot of change

Start the day with rakiya!

We woke up to a cool morning under the fruit trees and soon we were sitting with our host family drinking coffee in the shade. This time we met Jelena’s grandfather and great-grandmother, too. The (not so) old man had been up since 5 scything near the house. He was very friendly and, of course, he offered rakiya to me, which, of course, I had to return. So another day started with short drinks…

Coffee with our Montenegrin friends
Coffee with our Montenegrin friends

We quickly packed our things and thanked the family for their kindness. They left for the raspberry field to pick the fruits. My son also joined them for half an hour while we prepared for setting off.

 

Bridges and tunnels

The road gradually ascended towards Plav, following the river Lim. The scenery was gorgeous. Lush forests on the steep mountainsides and the turquoise colour of the water with its foaming rapids.

Railway bridge over the Lim
Railway bridge over the Lim

When we had to cross a tunnel, we always put on our headlights. But there was a really long one where the old road was still passable so we decided to try it. All the fallen rocks were a bit scary but we were rewarded by a unique view of the river at the other end. And we could take a photo of all of us in the old tunnel as there was absolutely no traffic.

Looking to have more adventures

Then we reached Berane, a city that reminded us of our home town as there was a huge factory complex in the outskirts, apparently out of use. 

The chimneys of Berane
The chimneys of Berane

Where history still lingers on

Then came Andrijevica, where we had a drink in a roadside bar and then forgot to buy food at the last shop. So we had to carry on though we were getting really famish. We carried pedalling and in the end we didn’t stop until the tiny town of Murino. The main square was skirted by a row of bars and shops with tough-looking people wearing warm clothes. The buildings were average, if not ugly. Still the place had a very eerie atmosphere so it was nice to spend half an hour there, watching the world go by. 

The main square of Murino on a rainy day
The main square of Murino on a rainy day

Murino has a very interesting history. In the 1850s it was proclaimed an independent French principality as a means of protecting it from the Turkish army’s violence and it was a very important crossroads between Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. Then in WWII the area was badly hit by the aggression of the Nazi forces.

While we were enjoying our sandwichces and wondering why there were so many cars with American number plates in this remote place, it got very dark and cloudy so we got back on our bikes. Plav was only a few kilometres away and we arrived quite early at famous Lake Plav. It was now less colourful but we could understand why it was once more popular than the Montenegrin seaside resorts. The town has a splendid location with the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Lake Plav
Lake Plav

Tent with a view of Lake Plav

We found the campsite by the road and for a few minutes we were wondering if we should stay or go on to Gusinje. But the weather convinced us to stop for the day. 

The campsite is located in a grassy area near Lake Plav and there are wooden tables and benches for the guests to use. The toilets and the shower could be improved and the WiFi connection is dead slow but the staff is helpful and friendly.

Next time we'll try rowing on Lake Plav

Just as we put up the tent, it started to rain so we spent the next hour playing cards. Later as it got a bit better we discovered the rather unimpressive town and shopped for dinner but otherwise the rest of the day was quite eventless. We just hoped it would get a bit better as we were going to spend another day by Lake Plav to relax.