Next up is cycle touring in Albania, it is an interesting country hugely different from even its neighbours Montenegro and Macedonia. However many people ask me if it is a dangerous country, and it certainly has a initial uncomfortable atmosphere when you cycle tour through the north. This area is just not set up for any kind of tourism and there is also an edge with the poverty which is a slightly disturbing contrast with the rest of Europe. Here every inch of land is used for farming or housing and wild camping spots were initially hard to find; making us further anxious. Organised crime is obviously an issue as I will discuss below, however we had nothing but kindness and friendly waves, bar the odd confused glare as we rode through.
We soon learnt that the secret to camping here was just asking around, despite the communication gap we were offered gardens and churchyards to use. That edgy feeling I mention was still apparent, for example one garden we used had large locked gates with huge security lights that were lit up all night. At the same place an English speaking friend was invited over for us to chat with, over some home made toxic spirit, which was all super fun, we were left with her comment of ‘don’t all the bad men around here scare you when cycling?’. With that ringing in our ears we felt like replying, not until now they didn’t!
The country is pretty much how you would expect after being cut off from the world and run by a communist government. An odd combination of disused bomb shelters like wild mushrooms are dotted about the country side, set against horse and carts that were being overtaken by flash 4x4s and Mercedes Benz’s. I don’t want to say these flash cars are all stolen or that they were anything to do with organised crime, but it does seem a bit odd, for example the UK left hand drive Mercs still have UK plates on and many are almost new…make your own conclusions….
The country is hugely varied from the stunning beaches in the south to the stunningly overdeveloped and ruined coastline in the North, the steep and high mountains in the east and the lush green remote rolling hills of the north. There are a lot of problems with limited rubbish collection across the country as well as over development and unfinished building sites in many places. Inland there were tons of rubbish simply dumped along the roadsides, this is everywhere. We passed rivers literally full with plastic, we saw verges on fire from just burning plastic. It brought home just how much even the least consuming individuals consume and waste.
From Montenegro we entered Albania into the large northern city of Shkodra a bustling mass of cars and cyclists all ignoring the road rules! It was a bit of a shock, so what do you do when shocked? Yep that’s correct find a cake shop!
As happened many times on this trip, we had no idea what the currency was, nor what the rate was and therefore how much cash to get! Luckily I hand gestured in a bank and was a)not arrested for looking crazy and b) somehow given the rates and currency, I then found an ATM to get cash out. It’s a good advert for Visa cards, it shows you can turn up nearly anywhere and land on your feet! Also, as a bonus, it was the first time in years HSBC managed not to block my account on an extended trip overseas!
We veered away from the coast for the first time on the trip and headed into the mountains the picture above was the start of a decent 800m climb, up past Ulez and Burrell. Burrell was famous for its hardline prisons during the Soviet era, the remains of the buildings can be seen on the approach to the town. It’s remoteness combined with the heavy weight of history created an eerie feel to the area, a sinister past hidden behind the pleasant rolling meadows.
Adding to the surreal, not far from here we were chased by a ragged, crazy goat herder, he wanted our brightly coloured bike helmets I concluded, but worryingly he ran along trying to grab Marion, who was behind me, fortunately a sleek new jet black Mercedes Benz appeared which scared him off. The car stopped and a friendly, but potential “gangster” who asked if anything here needed “sorting”, I gave the thumbs up that all was good, he smiled back two gold teeth reflecting in the sunlight and then drove off. I like to remember he had a gruff voice and casually pointed to a hand gun under his jacket when offering help, this didn’t happen but at least I guess organised crime has nothing against tourists and felt safer!
On this first climb we passed a number of reservoirs the one above separated a farm from the road. It looked like it was from the 18th century, the hay was being cut by scythe and carted by horse. The only access was by rowing boat across the lake. We saw from afar the ladies dressed in orthodox black dresses with white head scarfs bring out refreshments to the workers, I dreamily dazed that I was part of some Jane Austin era novel, clearly I would be the dashing newcomer arriving by bike.
Campsites are non existant, in fact our GPS map shows none in the entire country! We were fortunate to be offered a spot in a restaurant garden and a churchyard in a mountain village for the first two nights.
These traditional haystack were a common sight in late June which is prime hay season. It felt little had changed in decades expect the plastic sheeting used at the top!
Don’t text and ride, the guy in the picture above was texting as he carted down the road, good skills!
Below is a more modern scene in Albania with tractors rather than horses doing the work. Note the bits of plastic litter, a common theme.
After entering Albania again this time from Macedonia near Lake Orhid we stayed at a lake resort of sorts, well when I say resort it had these umbrellas. Sadly at 8pm the local sewage started being pumped out into the lake. It roared like a whitewater rapid and smelt well as you might expect.
The picture below is when we got a bit lost and headed up a random back road. It followed an old road littered with Soviet era missile bunkers and an old airstrip before the road ended! We had to cross a river on a plank and then a few dirt tracks to regain the highway, we got a few funny looks and a few much needed directions from the locals.
The view from our campspot in the churchyard in Suc near Burrell in the Albanian North East. The many reservoirs make for some spectacular views this one shows more of the haystacks that feature all over the countryside.
Albania was very interesting we never felt fully relaxed for the only part of the trip, but sometimes this brings a greater reward, it means you are exploring. On reflection the only real incident was being chased by the rock hurling goat herder and this was fairly unusual I suspect. The scenery was at times great at other times too ruined by the rubbish piled up or being burnt next to the road, it isn’t a stunning world class beauty spot but nevertheless an interesting place.