“Don’t Miss Albania”

The weather cleared up and we were able to leave our prison of Virpazar, finally! As we were cycling out of the little village we stopped and stroked a lovely young dog. Well, the dog seemed to like the attention, as it followed us for around 25km right to the top of the mountain. By this time we had grown quite attached to our friend and had even given him a name – Snowflake.

He was a super friendly dog and he even stopped other dogs from chasing us. We were a bit sad when we got to the top of the pass and started rolling down the other side – Snowflake was running and running, but he couldn’t keep up with us. We hope he wasn’t too sad. It was better for him that he couldn’t keep up with us, because he would have ended up on the main roads and dear knows what would have happened to him. We hope he decided to go back home where at least people would feed him scraps and he would be reasonably safe.

Shortly after we got back on the main road at the coast at Bar, we stopped for a snack and much to our surprise another couple of heavily laden cyclists pulled up. We always get excited when we see other cyclists with panniers. It gives us a chance to compare notes and find out about how other people, who are going through a similar experience to us, are getting on. These two were Chris and Jasmin from Germany. They had left Germany on October 1st and were on their way to Beijing. We chatted for a little while and as they were heading in the same direction as us, we headed off together toward the town of Ulcinj. We found a great campsite right on the beach – amazing sunset included.

After spending a couple of hours with Chris and Jasmin, we realised they are a perfect example of the German efficiency that everyone is always talking about. These two cycle in unison and in time with each other, one goes shopping while one looks after the bikes, they know exactly where they are going and when they get to a campsite the tent immediately comes out and is pitched. They both have their jobs and stuff gets done! Now compare that with us; we don’t cycle in unison. One of us is stopped having a drink, while the other is off in the distance. Then someone is having a pee in the bushes or someone wants to stop and take off or put on an item of clothing. A couple of minutes later we stop again because someone is hungry, a picture needs to be taken, suncream needs to be applied or we are lost and we need to look at the map. When we stop to go to the shop, we stand out in front of it for half an hour discussing what we need or don’t need for today’s and possibly tomorrow’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When we get to a campsite, I put my hands in my pockets and wait until the tent is up. We seem to have no rhythm or travel coordination! Apart from being super efficient, Chris and Jasmin are fun people to hang out with. They cooked us dinner and we just chatted for a few hours telling each other how we came to this point, where we wanted to cycle a really long way on our bikes.

The following morning – after they waited for us to take our tent down – we said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again in the future.

Myself and Monika were feeling a little bit anxious about Albania, as we had heard a few negative stories about it. We are in contact with a French couple who are cycling (and climbing) around the world. We had been exchanging experiences and plans about our trips, via email. They had previously gone through Albania and had moved onto Greece and Turkey. At the bottom of one of their emails to us, they wrote “Don’t miss Albania”. This always stuck in my mind. Travelling isn’t about going to the easy, well developed countries. It’s about going outside your comfort zone and seeing places and people that are different to what you are used to.

After a couple of hours of nervous cycling, we crossed the border into Albania with no Albanian Leks (money) and no map. We cycled and cycled but couldn’t find either. Eventually we found an ATM. I walked over ready to get money out and suddenly it lifted off the ground and was put on the back of an orange truck. I don’t know if it was broken, being moved or being stolen – I didn’t hang around to find out. We cycled along the main road into Lezhe, where it was chaos. Cars everywhere. Lots of noise and just general mayhem and of course we were the stars of the show in town. There are no real road rules in Albania, you just drive where you see a space and as long as the other person coming the other way has a space to go, then it’s all good. We stopped at the first hotel in Lezhe and after asking the receptionist to call her manager, we got the price down to an acceptable level and so we stayed, relieved to get out of the madness. The next day, there was another storm so we stayed another day to avoid being washed away.

We wandered around the town a couple of times in the rain. We stuck out like a sore thumb as we walked round, but looking at the madness in the town was too much to resist. It’s not the sort of place that I would like to live, but I’m glad that I was able to experience what daily life is like. It seems to consist of sitting in a car honking a horn…

After tracking down a map we were able to depart the next day toward the town of Burrel. The route through a canyon was fantastic.

Lovely scenery and autumn colours. At some points the road turned into an obstacle course. No tarmac, mud, rocks, massive potholes all made progress painfully slow – even when we were going downhill.

Burrel turned out to be not the sort of place that we wished to stay the night – it was a bit grim. With the help of some policemen we were directed to campsite a few kilometres down the road. The campsite turned out to be ridiculous! It was the same price as a hotel and the facilities, such as shower, kitchen etc. costing extra, so we left. We pedalled on a bit more until we were invited to pitch our tent behind a restaurant by the son of the owner. We pitched our tent, then we were told by the father to take our tent down and come and sleep inside where it was warmer. So there we had it, we spent the night in a room with a freezer full of frozen meat!

The next morning we spent almost four hours climbing up a seemingly endless hill. There have been very few moments that I have wanted to sit down and give up, but this was one of them. The hill just went on forever and we seemed to be making no progress at all, which is always frustrating.

When we made it to the top, we went into the next town to buy some milk and bread. The whole town seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at us. It’s a very unsettling feeling indeed. I’m not sure what these people do with their day, but standing about seems to take up a large part of it. We didn’t feel threatened at all, but we aren’t used to be stared at by so many people at the same time.

Over all we had a very positive experience of Albania. We said hello to thousands of people. All the cars gave us friendly toots of their horns and waved at us. The people seem genuinely pleased to have foreigners in their country. All the kids are curious, want to shake your hand, say hello and ask where you are from. Even the teenagers and young adults will smile and wave – which would be the demograph you could expect would give you most trouble (or not care at all) in Ireland. Chris and Jasmin had some stones thrown at them by kids, but we didn’t experience anything like this. It is clear, however, that Albania still has a lot of work to do to make the country a tourist destination.

If I had a week off work and wanted to go for a holiday, I wouldn’t choose Albania – because it’s hard work and not at all relaxing, but we are both very glad that we had the chance to cycle through it and see the rawness of society – and beauty – for ourselves.

We moved into Macedonia in the evening and ended up in Debar, just a few kilometres from the border. We knew there was a hotel in town, but finding it took an hour! When we did, the price was so far out of our price range – it was laughable. We knew there was another hotel at a gas station just down the road, so we found that and discovered that it was closed. Mmm, what to do? We were a bit stuck.

Slowly but surely on this trip, we are losing our inhibitions about going up to random people and asking for directions, shops, accommodation or anything else that we are looking for. You might not be successful the first time, the second time or even the third time, but if you ask enough people, you will get what you want. How many of us have gone into a strange town (even in your home country) and driven around for ages looking for something that your map told you was there, because you are too shy or embarrassed to ask a stranger for help? Well if we tried that approach here, travelling would be so much tougher – maybe even impossible. We are learning that most people are friendly and helpful if given the opportunity.

So we asked a guy on a bike if he knew of any other accommodation – he didn’t – but another cyclist stopped and he didn’t either. But two people on bright yellow bikes with lots of bags hanging off the frame (us), tends to draw a crowd and when we are stopped and speaking to a couple of locals, other people tend to get more interested and come over and join the group. A crowd always draws a crowd. In these cases, we enjoy being the center of attention, and are glad that these people come over to find out what this discussion is all about. A teenager in the group knew of another motel above a gas station, not too far from where we were, and so one of the original cyclists told us to follow him to the gas station. See – sorted! We thanked everyone involved and moved off to our home for the night. The place was dirty, stank of cigarettes but it was cheap and we were very glad to have a roof over our heads for the night. We were very glad that we stopped and asked the question and drew in the crowd.

We went back into town to get some dinner and found a pizzeria – which is the best meal to look for when hungry and tired. There were three sizes of pizza on the menu, but when the waiter came, we ordered the flavour and he asked us if we wanted small or medium. We said ‘large please’, to which he said ‘No they are too big, they are family pizzas’. We insisted that we were hungry and wanted two family pizzas. He rolled his eyes and gave a look as if to say we were a bit dim. The pizzas were indeed huge, but they were no match for two tired, hungry cyclists! Maybe our pictures are now on the restaurant wall!

When we were in our gas station motel, we were wondering who on earth stayed in this sort of place. Well it turns out that quite a lot of people stay in these places! People kept coming during the night making loads of noise – including a motorcyclist who was travelling around the world. He arrived just before two in the morning. Who knows what he was up to until that time!

We had an easy 55km cycle to Struga the next day from Lake Debarsko, along the river Crn Drim to Lake Orhid and found a really nice apartment for buttons.

So that’s where we are currently – Struga. Next we will be going a bit further east towards the mountains in Macedonia. I’m pretty sure we will regret that later though…

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Crna Gora i Crni Oblaci

It was Monika’s birthday while we were still in Zaton. It would have been difficult to find a nicer spot in which to stay to celebrate. Our apartment was overlooking a quiet little bay, the sun was shining, the views of the surrounding mountains were quite spectacular.

There was a water supply outage for the entire day, so Monika had to wait until the evening to get her birthday cake. The lack of any sort of cooking utensils, an oven and even ingredients made the birthday cake quite a challenge, so in the end I went for a ‘pancake cake’. I am led to believe it was worth the wait…

We spent our last night in Croatia with a host from warmshowers. His name was Marko and to say that Marko was an interesting chap is an understatement to say the least! He was born in Dubrovnik, left home at seventeen to make his own way in the world, moved to Canada where he lived for 48 years, before coming back to Croatia to try and promote tourism in a tiny little village where his mother was brought up. He told us about a huge number of business ventures he was involved in – everything from building housing for the workers of the Alberta oil sands project to collecting money on behalf of Che Guevara. He is the sort of guy who sees ideas, opportunities and ways to improve things everywhere, but more importantly does something about them, rather than sitting and waiting for someone else to come along and do something about it. He was a very inspirational guy and it’s a shame that we didn’t have the chance to spend more time with him. If you are a backpacker or a cyclist travelling from Croatia to Montenegro or vice versa, do not miss Marko in Mikulici!

The following day we packed up our tent, said our farewells to Marko and freewheeled (almost all the way) to the Montenegrin border. The border is perched on top of a hill next to the sea with quite spectacular views of the sea. Even if you have no desire to cross from one country to the other, it’s worth going to the border just for the views.

We were a little sad to be leaving Croatia. We felt like we had gotten to know the country over the last three and a half weeks. It had far exceeded our expectations. We had fabulous weather, met some great people and cycled through amazing scenery. We would definitely recommend it to anyone – please just don’t come in a cruise liner or a bus!

The road from the border crossing takes you into Kotor Bay, which is lined with quaint historic towns, one of which is Herceg Novi, where we met a fellow cyclist called Ian.

He is South African and set out on his latest bike journey from England in March. He is living on a tiny budget of around €6 per day, doesn’t eat much hot food and spends virtually every night in a tent regardless of weather. Seems like an extreme way to travel, if you ask me, but he seems to enjoy it. He was in Albania previously and wasn’t even planning on heading northwards, but someone recommended Dubrovnik to him, so he took a detour to go and see the place. His plan is to head south for the winter months – similar to ours – so I’m sure we will meet up with him again in the future.

After lunch with Ian, we continued on our path around Kotor Bay and we decided to stop in Orahovac and ask if we could camp in someone’s garden. Initially we were allowed, then we were to be charged €20 for the pleasure! She was an old lady obviously looking for the chance to fleece a couple of ‘rich’ travellers. We agreed on a price of €6, but in all honesty we should have said ‘no thanks’ and continued on our way. Another lesson learned.

The next day we passed through Kotor – which is supposed to be huge attraction in Montenegro, but again, cruise ships, thousands of tourists wearing neatly pressed knee length beige shorts with socks and sandals ruined the experience. We weren’t allowed to take the bikes into the old town (probably in fear of us knocking down the tourists), so I stayed outside while Monika went in to take the necessary pictures.

I was quite happy to be leaving Kotor Bay and the tourist trail. Our destination? – The mountains. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. All day it was up, up, up. There wasn’t a single section of flat or freewheeling all day. The views from up above were quite spectacular – made all the better by the fact that we had pedalled all the way.

This was a tiny mountain road with cows walking up the middle of the road, so you can imagine our surprise when a couple of tour buses squeezed past us! Is there anywhere those things don’t go?

After camping behind a mountain restaurant and shaking the ice off the tent in the morning, we set off to get over the mountain pass. We started off in freezing temperatures, but soon after the sun came out, making the last 300m climb, to the pass, warm and pleasant.

After a bone chilling two hour descent we were back at sea level right in the heart of the mountains. Life was very different in this part of the world. The villages are almost cut off from the rest of the country, with only tiny mountain roads as a means to get in and out. Buildings and houses are very few and far between and the ones that are there seem to have an abandoned look about them – even though there are people living their lives behind the walls and in the surrounding land.

We came to the village of Virpazar, right on the edge of Lake Skadar. It looked, from the start of the village, big enough to occupy us for a couple of days, so we decided to stay. Unfortunately we ended up staying for four nights, as thunderstorms rolled in one after the other. One of the storms knocked out the power and water supplies for eighteen hours or so. The rain was constant and torrential. There just didn’t seem any point in attempting to cycle in that sort of weather. As I said the village looked big enough to entertain us, but it wasn’t. It’s absolutely the smallest place you can imagine with an ATM! It has a shop, a bakery and two cafes and the previously mentioned ATM. I think I have been suffering from cabin fever. We have been out a few times, but as the village can be roughly navigated in a five minute period (we have done that at least four times), it doesn’t occupy us for long. Most of the time it’s been lashing, so venturing outside isn’t even an option. The tv has about three channels all of which are filled with stuff I can’t even imagine Montenegrins watching!

The weather looks better for Tuesday, so we plan to be off again on our bikes, heading towards the great unknown – Albania. We have received my conflicting reports about Albania. Some love it and wouldn’t miss it, others are so afraid of the reports that they cycle 180km a day just to get through it as fast as possible. I wonder which column we will put our names under…