Greek atmosphere in the Vjosa Valley
Balkans Cycling Trip, Day 37
11 August 2017: Ksamil – Gjirokaster
Thanks to the delicious ice coffees, we set off to cross the mountains full of energy. There are some hard parts to cope with but we reach the pass quite easily, despite the smoke from the forest fires. The second part of the day on the plain is much more difficult due to the scorching heat. We find a taverna with Greek atmosphere and walk around old Gjirokaster.
Distance: 67 km
Total distance: 1689 km
To cross the Macedonian border at Lake Ohrid we had to tackle the mountains that separate the coastal areas from the alluvial plain of the Vjosa river. Once again we said goodbye to the rooftop camping area (the owner says it will be covered with artificial grass soon and more shade will be provided by some special bean type). If we ever come this way again, we’ll surely stay at Ksamil Camping Caravaning even if we don’t spend any time on the beach…
After the professional frappes (any trendy bar could be green with envy for them) we were back on the road before 7. We quickly reached Saranda along the highway that runs past the lagoons. They were a pretty sight at this early hour.
Mountains and forest fire again
We avoided downtown Saranda and turned right towards the Southern Mountain Range. 8 years ago we already visited the main attractions of the area (the Blue Eye spring and Mesopotam) so we tried to reach the pass on the top as fast as we could before the hottest part of the day. (We considered taking a detour to the Blue Eye but when we saw that it was still the same dusty gravel road we quickly changed our minds).
The difficult part here is 7-8 km long. Although there are some really steep sections it wasn’t that bad altogether, thanks to the trees and the fresh air (well, mostly). There are a couple of springs with cold water and two bars near the top (plus one at the highest point). Back in Ksamil, we met a friendly South African couple, who were on their way to Barcelona by bicycle(!) They are a few years older than us but still full of energy and optimism, which was really inspiring. They told us that there was a forest fire in the area and as we climbed higher we could see and smell the smoke. Later we also saw the helicopters they employ to combat the flames.
Going downhill was a piece of cake; we just had to be careful not to overheat the brakes and from time to time we had to let the jeeps and trucks overtake us on the narrow road.
Greek déjà vu
We were almost down in the valley when I noticed a fig tree with beautiful ripe fruits by a bridge. We stuffed ourselves full before we turned left towards Gjirokaster.
It was around midday and we had a little more than 20 km to do so we preferred not to take a break this time. The road itself is very good quality and wide enough here with a bearable amount of traffic. If only it had been a little less hot.
The names of the villages are signposted in two languages south of Gjirokaster: in Albanian and Greek. It is because these villages are among those recognised by the Albanian state as “minority zones”, a term created in the Communist era.
Ethnic Greeks from these villages can enjoy certain rights and benefits but the issue is a source of bitter emotions on both sides to this day.
We spotted the sign of a restaurant from the road in one of these villages and stopped to check it out. It was a lively Greek taverna with mixed (but mostly Greek-speaking) guests. We ordered sausages and chips with Greek salad (of course) and soon we knew we made the right decision. The food was generous and excellent and the service was friendly.
Tensions under the sun
But we couldn’t afford to linger too long if we wanted to reach our destination without boiling our brains. So we said goodbye to the kind waitress and continued our way on the rather boring straight road. We had some technical problems, then a little row with Aron. Finally Anita said (2 km before Gjirokaster) that she could simply not go on without a cold cola. We finally arrived in the city around 3 pm.
Although there is a campsite near Gjirokaster, I wanted Aron to see the old houses and we all deserved proper beds for a change. So I booked a room in the new town when we stopped at the first bar in the morning. But I didn’t tell Anita so she was really happy when we stopped at the Eden Hotel and I asked for the room.
The place was almost empty but the elderly couple managing it were extremely (perhaps a little tiringly) helpful and kind and the price was unbeatable. Another benefit was that we were only a few hundred metres from the old town and the neighbourhood was full of bars and restaurants.
Mesmerised by Gjirokaster
We had a quick shower and a long nap. Then we got ourselves together and took a walk in the old town. I was happy to see that Gjirokaster hadn’t changed much since our first visit. The old houses were still crumbling but not in ruins and the whole place still had the unique atmosphere that captured us in the first place.
We had our dinner at a small taverna named Laberia just outside our hotel. The owner, a strongly built forty-something man, was very happy that I knew the region he was from although his village was not in the valley we visited earlier. Then it turned out that his passion was cycling and he loved the way we travelled. He had a degree as a chemistry teacher but the 150 EUR salary he could have earned at the time was enough for nothing so he opened his little eatery but now he has no free time. He has to pay the rent for every day of the month so he cannot afford a single day-off. A typical Eastern-European fate.