Bikepacking the Balkans – 6 countries in 6 days pt 2

We left Montenegro for Albania and either side as far as the eye could see were rows of vines, only occasionally interspersed by a few fruit trees – this is Europe’s largest vineyard.
The whole operation is still in government hands, one of the few industry’s not passed over to the private sector post communism. If you’re going to keep one industry in government hands you might as well keep the one that’s making great wine! Montenegro are the only Balkan state to have the same government in power still since independence we were told, make what you want from that. This was day 3’s route on Strava, we went pretty slow it was about 36 degrees….

Finally with the mid morning sun already baking our heads we reached the Albania border. Unfortunately we were in a queue directly next to a dumper truck spitting out clouds of black smoke, the Albanians in the car behind found this quiet amusing. A simple crossing though and no stamps as we continued the straight road into Albania.

Albania was incredibly pleasant riding as we rode past fields of sweet smelling herbs being grown from, sage to lavender and then there were fields of tobacco like this one below:


Tobacco leaves hanging up to dry on racks all around us. We reached the town of Koplik. Here we needed an ATM to get some Albania cash. It was hard to know how much because everything was pretty cheap and we didn’t know where we would sleep. However we wouldn’t see another ATM in Albania so had to decide. We also found a restaurant to eat at. It was a struggle because most places are coffee bars with men sitting and chatting, they don’t serve food and there’s never any women in them.
We found a place with some help and the local Police man even acted as translator. Marion had spaghetti with tomato sauce I had lukewarm Pilaf with a mutton stew/soup – a distinctly central Asian feel!

It was soon onto the climb that never ends, from sea level in Koplik to a pass of 1800m in one day!


It was well over 30 degrees but a quiet and peaceful road. I stopped to investigate a cableway that had the sketchiest looking seat on it:

This rickety thing transported people way up into the mountain. It wasn’t for skiing and no idea why it was here, but you needed to pay me a lot to ride in it!

The views steadily improved as we climbed up the valley deeper into the Albanian Alps past tiny villages like Dedaj and Xhaj.

All the time we steadily gained height but with the sun so hot, it was tough going. The first place selling cold drinks we had to stop, a dark grubby ‘bar’ that mostly repaired cars, ther are few services up here but a cold coke, a seat and some shade went down pretty well.

Opposite was a graveyard perched on an out crop over the river a quiet spot. The next place of any size was Boga, the sign reminded us of the high gun ownership in Albania. It’s a country never to react with road rage, drivers are frequently armed here. The number of bullet holes in so many sign posts confirms this.

In Boga we stopped again at a place selling cold drinks. A 16 year old girl came out to chat and practise her English. She went to school down the valley near Koplik and spoke really good English, her brother was in the UK working in Manchester. Like many Albania’s they seem to spend time in the UK, generally working until they get deported, seemed to be the theme from people we spoke to! It seems a shame but I guess it’s good to hear the UK border agencies do something.

The final push meant hairpins up to the pass, the road to the top was now getting to the business end.

Off the other side of the the pass the 1000m descent was on a rough dirt/gravel road meandering its way spectacularly through the trees. This track is the best access to the entire Theth valley. It means that it feels wild and remote with limited development spoiling the natural surroundings. The riding was tough on 37mm tyres.

The views with the evening sunlight were never disappointing:

Finally we rolled into the village of Thethi, exhausted we stopped and spoke to a boy who walked past, again he spoke good English and said we should camp in his garden. It turned out to be a good choice! I asked for some food and was duly brought out a 4 course dinner including two chunks of delicious roast lamb, with sheep wandering past I felt a bit guilty but suspected it was free range and fresh! It was a fast expanding guesthouse business one of a few popping up here in the valley.

The next day was the big one, we hoped to ride a bit but mostly push up to Peja pass the pass between the Thethi and Valbone national parks and valleys. There is no road, just a foot path hence there is nothing marked on the map below, it was going to be a brutal slog up a vast hill.

It was unsurprisingly incredibly tough, we pushed bikes much of the way up and occasionally carried the fully loaded bikes up rocky slopes, but once free of the trees we could ride sections.

The Thethi to Vlabone Pass would be fun riding back down to Thethi on a mountain bike. We were on gravel bikes and going the opposite way. We debated renting a mule to put bikes on but decided it was a bit cruel and expensive at €50.
Others walking the path seemed to not mind loading though with loaded mules passing us at the only stop on the path.

This makeshift cafe was doing well with groups of hikers on tours; a German Group and a finnish one were walking alongside us. There guide seemed bored so followed us for a chat. He had worked in Scotland illegally for a while (until deported) as a tourist guide of some kind and spoke perfect English. He was proudly listening to the Braveheart soundtrack.

Before long we finally balanced on the scattiest narrow path and reached the top but the views were amazing. This remote hardly discovered route has been described as the best day hike in the world, probably by an Albanian, but still it was hard to disagree when we reach the top.

The descent started off well on smooth singletrack. Off camber and only a short grassy slope away from a cliff it was riding with consequences so we took it easy. Then the steep section came and carried on and on. A slog of hike a bike down a rocky series of zig zags. THe lower section was rideable until a cafe called Simon’s Place.
Here we stocked up with water before another hike a bike downhill.

It was a shame not more was rideable this direction to Valbone but we didn’t regret heading this way. The Tehti direction descent would have made better descending but unfortunately we were headed east to cut off a huge detour so had to go the way we did. After some perfect gravel riding along the valley the struggle was soon all forgotten (by Ed at least).

The next stop was a camp spot in a restaurant garden. After the villages of Rrogam, Valbone and Dragobi we carried on a bit. There was little flat land to wild camp on. This picturesque abandoned Church or mosque presented the first option. However we didn’t fancy getting in trouble for camping too near a graveyard so carried on, with a lack of options we saw a restaurant sign and they let us camp in the garden. It meant we had to buy dinner and we enjoyed fresh salad with homemade cornbread and local white cheese.

This was the abandoned mosque/Church:

Next stop was Kosovo, after a breakfast stop in Bjam Curri (note misleadingly there’s no curry houses) we head up a not too bad hill climb to the Kosovo border a Qafë Morinë – Gjakovë. We spent all the left over Albania money on cold drinks:

There’s still land mines apparently on the Albania / Kosovo border so not a good spot for wild camping. We saw no signs however.

This was the route:

Kosovo surprised us, it’s a peaceful place, more developed it felt than Albania with good local shops. Almost all houses looked brand new. Reconstruction of this area has been pretty busy and well funded it appeared. It was interesting to see way more Albanian flags than Kosovo with the large Albania population of Kosovo. The other noticable tension was the Serbian spelling on all road signs had been spray painted out at every opportunity:

It was fun to ride over and see a few historic bridges too:

The constant signs for bridges advising speed limits for tanks was one of the few other reminders of the 1999 war.

The towns were beautiful. Prizren a stunning place that is rightly getting put on the tourist map. A historic centre dotted with Ottoman ers relics.


In Gjakova we explored the narrow streets lined with wooden shops and workshops.

There were a few references to the Kosovo Liberation Army with the logo being seen in memorials like this one;

The big climb in Kosovo came as the evening light was starting to fade. From Prizren we headed fueled by Ice cream up into the “Shar Mountain” National Park. There were a few grand hotels here, one modeled on the US whitehouse was particularly fancy looking. Be warned many hotels are closed down, the boom in construction got a little ahead of itself it seemed. The villages we nestled in the hills and built around a central mosque.

Finally as it got dark we rolled into Prevalla. Some of the local honey sellers were playing some game around a stall will a single light bulb illuminating them. A couple walked over, there was no English spoken but one spoke perfect French so Marion chatted away. We could camp anywhere here, it was all safe, but Marion wanted a shower! So we went to one of the four or so chalet style ‘motels’ we ate a solid meal of bread and omlette with local spicy salami in mine.

The next morning the friendly locals posed for a picture as we ate Burek and pastries for breakfast from a little bread stall at the pass.

We started off on a gravel track, getting followed but luckily never chased by huge Kosovo shepherd dogs:

Today we headed onwards towards the Macedonia border and another big climb up to a border at Jazhince.
The climb was on a zig zagging road along the Lion highway, I was just thinking I’ve never been chased by a lion when I saw this sign:

Not much love for the EU here either it seemed:

Finally we hit the border town on yet another scorching day:

Once over we followed a network of back roads and dirt tracks to cut towards Skopje. Marion unfortunately had had a spoke snap the day before so was riding them cautiously. She uses Fulcrum Racing 5 wheels which are radially spoked, after 5 years of touring I guess it was always going to snap a spoke one day!

I really enjoyed this section, however back out of the mountains and nearer sealevel the sun was getting ridiculously hot, at water sources we soaked ourselves to cool off!

Finally we rolled into Skopje and followed the GPS to the bus station. We feasibly had time to ride to Sofia from Skopja but with Marion’s spoke gone and the straight pull spokes hard to find we quit but also the searing heat was getting a bit too much so we opted for a bus to save a 200km ride. It turned out only a mini bus ran the route. It was a tight squeeze but the drivers managed to get the bikes on board, much to the other passenger’s frustrations!

We rode across Sofia at 1am looking for a hostel. It seems this place is a bit of a party town on a Friday night, I swapped my helmet for hipster roadie cap and I fitted right in! After being turned away from 4 hostel options for being too hipster, we found a friendly hostel with bike storage. At 2am and 17 hours since we set off from Kosovo’s mountains we had a bed. We didn’t sleep much as there was a drunken fight outside our room. We moved hostels the next morning. We even found bike boxes for the flight home while wandering the interesting ice cream shops of Sofia!
Ryan Air flights home was the final struggle.
 

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