Saturday, May 12, 2018

Shkodra, Albania: The Grand (De)tour

It was just a few hours before we and our bikes boarded the plane to come to Europe that John read about a ferry in Albania that travels the length of Lake Koman, a long, skinny lake that passes through a gorge. So he made a cursory look at the map and saw that we could connect roads to get to the east side without too much alteration to the schedule, and we would get to spend time in Macedonia and Kosovo, too. That change brought us through some of the toughest cycling of our touring career.

Cloudy skies threatening rain hung over us as we moved through the Albanian countryside east of Berat.
The weather changed on our last night in Berat. Thunder and lightning and rain all evening into the night. It was a misty humid morning when we took off, and the stormy pattern continued for several days. So we stayed in hotels along the way. They were cheap -- 25 euros a night, with breakfast. A couple of nights we just got inside our room before the rain started to come down. Such a comfort! Our bikes and neon clothes broadcast tourist like a siren, and in the bigger towns people came up and asked if we needed a room, reeling us in like fish on a line. Breakfast was a treat, usually eggs and fluffy white bread and the saltiest feta cheese, best sliced into thin pieces and eaten with a bit of the tomato and cucumber also included in the plate. One place had fresh warm milk, so rich that a layer of butterfat formed on top as it cooled. The best milk I have ever had in my life.

Abandoned concrete bunkers dot the countryside at strategic locations, a remnant of previous times.  This is a particularly large one, but we would often see little domes on a hillside, just big enough for one or two guys.
Albania is the poorest country we have biked through. The roads varied greatly in condition of the pavement. A major road could be rough and potholed, and then a short stretch would be new pavement, and then it would revert back.  Donkeys and carts would share the road with cars.  Garbage along the road was a constant, and often in piles in ravines or ditches. Car washes ("lavazh") are common, generally consisting of not more than one guy with a pressure washer, a low initial investment in order to earn some money. Goat and sheep herders were everywhere, and the sound of bells and barking dogs is evening music. But food and good water were never hard to find, and shops usually could be found open all hours, even in the smallest town. And people waved to us as we passed by, the kids especially loved to yell "hello", "what's up", always smiling. Sometimes they would ask "how are you", and we would reply "fine, how are you?", and then we would get a blank look. Like the dog that chased the car and one day caught it, and didn't know what to do with it. Macedonia and Kosovo were slightly more prosperous, Montenegro even more. When we finally reached the coast of Croatia with all the traffic and billboards and chain grocery stores that we realized what a special experience it was to travel in Albania. We always felt safe and welcome.

The grind up the pass to cross into Macedonia was a tough day.  There was lots of traffic.  Trucks hauling goods and mini buses, the primary form of public transportation, would give us a couple of warning honks as they would pass, many times on a curve with traffic coming the other way, accelerating to get by and leaving us in a cloud of black diesel exhaust.  And we could only get so far to the side of the road, limited by what I called the "Trench of Death", a slightly sunken backfilled excavation on just about every major road in the country which we assume was for fiber optic cable.  It was always a choice to cross the trench or risk getting really close to a passing truck.

Leaving Albania and entering Macedonia.  Border crossings became a bit routine.  We spent the night in Macedonia, crossed back into Albania for a couple of days, then into Kosovo for a night, and then back to Albania.  We had no issues.  The border guard would barely look at us, take our passport, punch some numbers in a computer, stamp the passport, and hand it back to us without a word.

It was a misty morning in Macedonia cycling along lakes north of Struga. 

It was a Sunday morning with virtually no traffic and flat terrain, a relief from the stress of getting over the pass the previous day.  Look Ma, no trench!

In less than 24 hours we were back in Albania.  Note the change in pavement conditions.

Some new friends we made outside the food market in Peshkopi.  They surrounded John as if he were a rock star while I was inside, intensely curious and excited to practice their English.

The morning of the day we left Peshkopi with a clear view of the mountains we thought we would be able to skirt around.  There were two possible routes, but the lower one turned out to be a dirt road, wet and muddy from a few days of rain that we did not want to tackle.  So we took the fork in the road that went up and through the mountains. 

It was a long morning of uphill, taking us through several deep canyons bringing us closer to the snow-capped peaks.

A washout made an already narrow road into single lane.  In typical Albanian fashion, there were no warning signs, traffic cones, or evidence that repairs were even being considered.  You are on your own out here.

We would descend deep into a canyon to river level, just to have to climb out again on the other side, cross a ridge, and repeat.  The joke is that the road was just a paved goat trail.  Don't let the hairpin turn fool you -- we had to push the bikes up several grades that were to steep for us to cycle.  Sometimes there would be a sign saying 10% grade, even when it was clearly steeper.

We thought we were near our high point by lunch.  We made a picnic at the side of building in a tiny, remote village.  A little boy, maybe three years old, sat down on a rock 20 feet away and watched us until his mother called him away.  They lived in an aging stone house with just a sheet for a door, and she had to walk to the village square to fill water bottles. 

It was mid-afternoon when we started what we thought was our descent, only to see we had another big climb to get out of the deepest canyon we had yet encountered.  We thought we had enough energy left, but also no alternative since we did not have food for dinner and wanted to get down to Kukes in the valley beyond.

Almost to the top of the ridge, looking back to the location of the last photo.  There was a roaring hydroelectric plant at the bottom of the canyon and also a hotel, but we stubbornly pushed on.  But when we got to this point we were a quite spent and the clouds were threatening.  We came around a corner, and saw a gas station on one side of the road and what looked like a modern castle on the other.

The castle turned out to be a hotel with restaurant, and we inquired about a room.  25 Euros a night.  We were in.  Every thing about the room seemed brand new,  But when we tried to use the shower, there was only cold water.  When we inquired, we were told there was a problem with the hot water.  Oh well, a sponge bath will do.  Then we went down for dinner at the restaurant, and found out they are not serving food yet...they have yet to find a cook.  We ran into the manager, a young Albanian who spoke perfect English, since he lived in the UK for many years.  He was running the hotel for his cousin, and it was due to fully open in a couple of weeks.  He also ran the gas station across the street that also sold some food.  So we were able to make a dinner from some tuna, peanut butter, eggs, and cookies.

The next day we dropped the remaining few kilometers into the town of Kukes.  Thinking we had just crossed a part of Albania that never gets visited by bike tourists, we ran into a Finnish cyclist on his way up to do the dirt route we had rejected the day before.  Leaving Kukes we hoped to avoid the main highway leading to Kosovo, only to find the alternate road was no longer passable having been washed out and replaced by a multi-lane bridge still under construction.  But the highway was fine, with a passing lane and a shoulder. 

We stayed in a lovely hotel in the old part of Prizren, Kosovo.  Our room had a view of the back side of the Sinan Pasha mosque, which we thought was pretty cool.  Until the chanting for the call to prayers started at 4:30am.

We barely made it to the fortress at the top of the hill as the sun set over Prizren.  In the foreground is the new bridge over the river that divides the town, and behind it the Old Stone Bridge dating from the 16th century.  The town was crowded with teenagers from local villages, milling around the old downtown much like American teenagers do at the mall.  We had dinner in the old town, and the restaurant owner made a point to tell us that Kosovo has great respect for America.  The memories of the war and the involvement of the US to bring it to a quick end has not been forgotton.

Just down the highway as we left Prizren we encountered another fascinating old bridge, which an internet search has identified as the Terzjski Bridge, also dating from the 16th century.

On this day we crossed back into Albania to the town of Bajram Currie.  We knew about Valbona, a mountain town nearby, but thought we did not have the time to visit.  The deep canyon on the right leads up to the town, and we were intrigued.  So we decided to stay an extra day and try and get up there.

We landed on a website run by Catherine, an American expat living nearby, and a couple of email exchanges with her revealed that there was no easy way to get a bus to the mountains.  So we packed a lunch, removed the panniers, and made a day of it to get up the canyon. 

It was a gorgeous ride along the turquoise-hued rapids.  There were several small hydroelectric plants along the river, and a few others under construction.  We have since learned that Catherine is actively protesting the construction of 11 additional plants along this wild river.

Near the end of the road were scenic views of the high mountains surrounding Valbona.  This area has quite a few hiking trails, a popular one leading over the mountains to the village of Theth. We had our picnic lunch, turned around, and halfway back to our hotel it started to rain.  We were able to keep from getting too drenched by hiding under a tree during the worst of it.  Back at our fancy hotel we were able to dry out, because the next day was our ferry ride through the gorge!

It was a short ride to the dock at Fierza.  We loaded our bikes with a variety of cars, vans and motorcycles for the 2 1/2 hour journey on the lake.

There were sections where the lake was trapped by steep walls of the gorge, and other sections where it was wider.

The ferry stopped a couple of times along the way to pick up passengers in villages only accessible by the ferry.  One guy got on at the first stop with some plastic bags that looked like miscellaneous pieces of mutton, and then got off on the next stop, along with a few of the bags and the cases of coke and beer that were piled up at the stern of the boat.

Here the turquoise waters of Lake Koman mixed with the water of a tributary river, muddied by the recent rains.

The ride ended when we reached the dam, late in the afternoon.

The next morning we still followed various reservoirs along the same river.  We have since learned that Albania gets almost all of its electricity by hydroelectric power. It was slow going since the road was terrible -- rough with potholes and steep grades in and out of canyons.  But next to no traffic, and the views were outstanding.

Our last night in Albania was spent in a campground in Shkodra, right at the base of the hill with the Rozafa Castle on top, ending our string of hotel stays  Here we were just a few kilometers from the border with Montenegro and the highway that would take us north to Croatia.  It was a busy place, far removed from the remote region of Albania that we had emerged from.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Berat, Albania: A New Country, One Week In

We wasted no time in the morning that we crossed the border from Greece to Albania at Kakavia. We were there by noon, in line with the semi-trucks.  Our passports were stamped on the Greek side without fanfare, and the Greek customs didn't seem to have any interest in inspecting our pannier contents.  I would have gladly shared my dirty laundry.  It was not more than half a kilometer of no-man's land, where we passed the duty-free store and the duty-free gas station, topping our bottles off with what was both duty- and cost-free water.

Goodbye, Greece...hello, Albania!
There were two very young men in the Albania station, and they were cheerful and friendly, and informed us that our passport required no stamp to enter the country.  We were unsure of what to expect from Albania.  We heard only good things from a fellow cyclist we met a few days earlier, and the only warnings we had were from people who never visited the country.  But the Greek truck driver ahead of us in line indicated by winks and nods to be careful, watch our stuff.  We just this point we had already jumped off the diving board into the pool.
We had a five kilometer killer climb to get over a mountain range of tilted beds with little vegetation. It was not so much the steepness but the afternoon heat.  Lots of cars passed us with honks of support. One guy coming from the other direction slowed down long enough to hand John an ice cold bottle of water, which we promptly emptied in big gulps.

Once on the other side we descended steep switchbacks.  From here you can see the difference in the geologic strata -- the top obviously less hospitable to vegetation, the lower half lush.

We ended up at Blue Eye Spring, a designated natural area with a spring of icy, clear water bubbling from the limestone.  An amazing place, off a 2 kilometer dirt road with a restaurant and cabins at the end.  It did not keep the tour buses out, though.  We found a hidden place to camp overlooking the lake formed by the spring, and we heard buses straining along the road until 7 at night.

One more cycling day and we were camped at the world's best campground in Ksamil, south of Sarande.  We arrived hot and sweaty and were immediately escorted to a deeply shaded campsite with a table topped with a vase of flowers.  And just a short walk away was the crystal-clear water of the Ionian Sea, in which the aforementioned hot and sweaty body was cleansed.

Our reason for being here was to visit the archeological site of Butrint, a site occupied since prehistoric times.  This tablet dates from the Classical Greek period of the 5th century BC.
The Romans came later and built a theater.

After the Romans came the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans.

Here is the gate to the spring, constructed of marble...

...and bearing the marks of thousands of hoists of buckets on ropes.

There are remnants of a Byzantine cathedral.

Many mosaic floors were found throughout the site.  But they are covered in sand to protect them, and uncovered only a couple times a year for viewing.  In the church there is just enough exposed to offer a tease of what is underneath.

We left Ksamil just after dawn, to beat both the heat and the traffic.  We were heading north, trying to get to the base of a 1,700-meter pass that we would need to climb the next day. 

But to get there was a long day of steep climbs out of river valleys to high points overlooking what is called the Albanian Riviera.  Albania is still a young democracy and one of the poorest in Europe.  But tourism is a great hope for the future of the country, and this region with its white sand beaches is one of the targets. 

In the late afternoon the mountains we had to cross the next day came into view.

Here is an example of the heartbreaking view we often encountered...we see the town (this is Borsh), and the road steeply climbing up outside of town.  The worst was outside of Himare, where there were several pitches of 10 percent (so the signs said), but were so steep we could not ride, but had to push the bikes up.  At one point a fully-loaded cement truck was coming down the other direction, creeping in its lowest gear at a rate not much faster than we were going up, preserving the brakes.

We found a lovely campsite in a very old terrace olive grove to rest for the next day, which would be equally challenging.  Believe it or not, we got strong 4G cell coverage from here.

Our approach to Llogara Pass was a bit intimidating.  Six major switchbacks, over 10 kilometers, 3000 feet up, and no shade.  We found a spring just before heading up where we both soaked our shirts, which kept us cool over the two hours it took to get to the top.

An abandoned structure on switchback three.  Maybe someday there will be a Starbucks here.

Making good progress!

Near the top our new friend from Switzerland, Suzanne, that we met in the campground in Ksamil, caught up with us.  It was a hot and sweaty reunion!

And as dry as it was on the switchback side, the other side was lush mountain forest.  We crossed the pass on May 1, which is a national holiday in Albania.  And it seemed like all 2.8 residents of the country were on the road trying to get a piece of the mountain air.  It was noon when we reached the top, and by then it was a constant stream of poorly tuned diesel cars and trucks laboring up, loaded with families headed for restaurants along the route.

We reached the flats on the coast, and holiday revelers were out enjoying the day there, too.

Thankfully, the next day the ride between Vlore and Berat was flat through largely agricultural and industrial area.  A typical scene throughout the country -- goats, sheep, and half-finished or abandoned buildings. But it was crazy busy with cars, buses, motorbikes, and cars that passed us at high speeds on blind curves.  I did my best to take a Zen approach and not let it get to me, but we were both frazzled by the end of the day.

A typical farm vehicle, where the horse has been replaced with an engine.

Our refuge from the chaos was the campground near Berat, operated by the sister of the proprietor of the campground in Ksamil.  Wonderfully friendly and generous, we were served an ice-cold frappe upon arrival.  We took a rest day and visited the fortress town of old Berat, on top of a knob of a hill.  People still live within the fortress town walls, and walking in the alleyways was like going back hundreds of years in time.

And from the top were excellent views in all directions.

The Osum River flows through Berat, and from the castle we looked directly down on the houses and church built on the river banks.

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