Forest fire and Albania’s worst road

August 4, 2017 0 By Viktor

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. 

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