The cheerful Albania

Rock ‘n Roll Albania

Our welcoming point in Albania was to be a warmshower in the city of Shkodër. One of the few in Albania one should say. Chuck and Susan have been hosting cyclists travelling this side of the world for a couple of years now and their place has became a cyclist hub and meeting (and resting) place.

We felt at home straight way, Chuck and Susan made sure of that!! Bicycles parked away and a corner of the house to put our bags, we were soon treated with a delicious homecooked dinner and the chance to explain a bit about our trip and ourselves.

Besides a good hot meal, as the name suggests, every warmshower host knows what cyclists also need is a good warm shower! Chuck and Susan were well aware of that. After washing off many sweaty kilometres and quite a few days of cycling dirt away, we were ready for a good night rest.

We planned to take some time off, rest our legs and heads and also take care of our two wheeled friends. Susan and Chuck, as the good hosts they are, promptly gave us our bearings and pointed out the highlights of town and Chuck even chapperoned us a bit across town to show us the main points we needed : where to buy bike parts and where to buy food.

One thing we missed on this trip (or even back home sometimes) and that we always appreciate, is a good food market. Shkodër was not short of them. Close to the town’s famous big tree were several vendors with fresh fruits, veggies and eggs and even questionably live chickens and ducks.

A special treat, suggested by Susan and Chuck, were the sock ladies. Several old woman, sat in the main corners of town, were knitting warm and cosy socks all day long. They were so cheap we felt we had to give more than asked. Several pairs of socks became upcoming Christmas gifts and each of us added a pair to our clothing gear – they would be appreciated during the freezing cold nights we had been experiencing.

At last, a day off is not complete without some sort of cultural or historical entertainment, so we made our way to the castle on the outskirts of town. It was a bit of a walk to reach it, but it gaves us some good overview of town: while walking there, and once there, from above. From the top, we couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the developing town and the green sparse mountains all around.

Another (huge) conquest of the day, was when entering a supermarket we found at last the holy grail of camping we had been intensively searching ever since we entered the Balkans: cooking alcohol!! Of a good quality percentage!! And cheap even!!! We couldn’t help but rejoice in glory! Despite now having one whole litre of meths, our eyes had become so well trained with all the searching, that we couldn’t also help but keep noticing every hardware shop and paint shop, even if we didn’t need it anymore!!

The next day was time to attend to our rides and lots of bolt turning, spokes tuning and brakes and tyres swapping, was performed. It seems, our tyres had caught up with all the kilometres and off-trail riding in the mountains we have done, and although we expected them to last longer, they seemed to be demanding either attention or replacement, given the many consequentive punctures we had had in the past few weeks.

While we finished up on our maintenance session, Chuck announced that two other cyclists seem to be trying to escape the cold and were aiming to their warmshower refuge. Shortly after Elsa and Hans appeared at the door excited to have a shelter and, perhaps even more, to meet two other on-the-road cyclists.

Both started independently in Scandinavia but eventually joined together on the road and changed their courses to head jointly towards Istanbul. It was a lovely night, as a bunch of multi-generational cyclists sat around the table exchanging their cycling and traveling experiences.

We left the next day and had decided to explore even if only a bit, the North of Albania by aiming to catch a ferry we found could allow us to have some cyclists fun in those parts. We left Shkodër, wishing happy travels and good health to the Scandinavian couple and saying many thanks to Chuck and Susan for all their kindness and hospitality.

Keeping truth to ourselves, shortly after we left town, we made a detour and were soon cycling in gravel and sand, in the dry river beds on the outskirts of town. We passed several shepards (both of sheep and turkeys!) and it seemed that this big city wasn’t just there round the corner.

As we eventually returned to the paved roads towards the ferry departure point, Albania quickly proved itself to be both one of the most friendly and also “rock & roll” countries we had cycled in…

Never had we had so many honking drivers and passers-by waving, as we cycled or had our usual lunch by the side of the road. The road to the ferry was winding and the quality of the pavement… interesting. But eventually we reached what turned out to be one of our more amazing campsites.

We aimed to sleep next to the ferry harbour to ensure we would accomplish the early departure time. Just before it we saw there was a campsite after the bridge over the local river, and aimed for it. When reaching it, the owner, called Marco as we would soon find out, points us where to camp and then gestures and says to come inside, “beer? Fanta? Lemonade?! on Marco!”.

We setup the tent, as sheltered from the strong wind as possible and put our dinner going. As we are doing so, Marco appears again and insists on us going inside. We are burning the remaining of the old slow alcohol so dinner will take a while anyways, plus the sight through the window of a fireplace inside compells us even more to go in.

Once inside Marco opens the fridge door and tells us to take whatever we want from inside “on Marco”. We comply and sit by one of the tables by the fire place, enjoying the warmth and our drink. Above our heads the ceiling seems to be a strange mix of concrete slabs and beams.

Shortly after Marco brings us a restaurant paper table cloth. We are thankful but somewhat surprised as it didn’t seem necessary just for a drink. However he then follows to bring us a set of plates and cutlery. At this point we are wondering what is going on and curiosity at what he might bring next. That happened to be a tray with an entire roasted chicken, being chopped in two with scissors before our eyes as we insist that we don’t need or want the chicken.

Any attempt to explain that no no we have dinner, no need, or even that we are vegetarians, goes unheard and taken simple as politeness… “On Marco” gets repeated and we are left contemplating two halfs of a chicken in front of each of us.

Without going too much into details, for the sake of respect and hospitality, I increased highly my flexibility for non-veggie food and tried to make the tray seem that both of us had had our share, as Sarah salivated for the dinner cooking outside… Half a chicken consumed, we then left for our tent retreat with further ensures that it had all been “on Marco”.

The next morning, while realising the concrete slabs on top of our heads were actually the bottom of the bridge we had passed the previous night, we paid a very unrepresentive amount for all of what we had. To be exact we paid the equivalent of 6€ for a night of camping for two, one beer, one fanta, half a chicken, a pile of bread and two coffees!!

We pedalled up the remaining hill and aimed for the ferry excited for the idea of sailing through the Albanian mountains. Shortly after we were seated on what seemed more like a floating bus, our bikes (hopefully) holding on outside.

The views as we floated through what seemed more like fjords, were nothing short of amazing, as were the apparently totally desolate places along the way, where the boat would dock to let other passengers off.

On the way, we shared some conversation with the ferry captain and ended up being offered some very local and very tasty rakija that the driver was also having… (in moderate amounts!!)

We reached the other end of our journey as the sun started to go behind the mountains, devoured quickly our lunch before the cold got to us too much, and cycled off towards to the mountains we always crave to contemplate.

We reached the foothills of the Valbona mountain range just as the day turned into dusk, our tent giving us front row seats with privileged and amazing views. The night certainly matched our mountain setting, and we woke up to semi frozen bicycles which we had to “hang” in the sun before we could use them. It had been one of coldest nights so far, but our winter camping gear and new socks were still keeping us _mostly_ warm.

Bikes unfrozen we went back to the road, trying to have our fingers and toes equally unfrozen ss we (hopefully) warmed up while cycling. It would be a short cycle – our aim was the town of Kükes, where given the bad weather forecasted (to be taken more seriously when in a mountain region), we planned to take refuge for the night.

Once we found our rather comfy bedroom, we raided town in search of food and fresh veggies. The night in the room was interesting. After re-arranging some furniture, we turned the bathroom into a laundry room and then into our kitchen, and perhaps more interestingly, we heard what seemed to be several gun shots outside… We tried not to think too much about it….

An interesting finding on our half day-off retreat, was the explanation for all the high-end Mercedes and left-hand drive cars we had seen. Apparently stolen cars from all over Europe are “relocated” to Albania and considered untouchable once inside. The Albanians appear to have a great taste for Mercedes… To the point that there are more Mercedes per capita in Albania than in Germany. I wanted to have asked a local about it but perhaps it was one of those things that it was better to ask Google instead.

It has to be said seeing a kid in what you expect to be the driver’s seat is more than a little disconcerting when you see it for the first few times.

The next day, after a most delicious and fulfilling
breakfast (at least for me….), with fresh cheese, yogurt, fruit, bread and pastry, we headed out of town, contemplating the snow line up in the mountains, that had fallen the previous night.

We were about to enter, what we knew to be, the hardest stretch of our North Albania cycle. The elevation profile in our app and the descriptions we had read were not lying. The road was so crazy steep in places that we had no other choice than to push (or gasp and suffer). However, with patience and some breaks to enjoy the view, we eventually reached, albeit late in the day, the top.

After the cold night in Valbona and after seeing the snow line while leaving Kükes, we had hoped to camp after (and therefore below) the highest point of the stretch. But the demolishing slopes we had to face meant we were still quite high when we camped that night.

It wasn’t an easy night. Soon after lying in our sleeping bags, we began to hear rain and then thunders in the distance. The light and sound they produced was becoming increasingly stronger, and apparently closer, and it was hard to fall asleep and avoid thinking on the physics and probabilities of lightening hitting. Luckily none ever did.

At some point in the night the rain must have turned into it’s icy cousin. We woke up to a snow covered tent and snow filled mountains all around us! We couldn’t help to be excited with the idea, although also somewhat contemplative as to how exactly we would cycle out of there. Even pushing the bikes out of the field proved to be challenging, as the wheels and mudguards clogged up with all the snow.

As we left the field and entered the road, a local passed by but seemed unfazed of our presence there. However, when we entered a cafe, after sliding a few hundred metres down the hill, there was some feeling of curiosity or surprise and the owner insisted on offering the coffee we took to warm us up besides the fireplace.

Fingers and toes defrosted, we gradually continued our slide down the road, eventually below the snow line and back to snow-cleared but still quite cold paved roads. The next stretch would present another interesting chapter of our Albanian history: Albanian kids (in the north east atleast).

At first we had a small cyclist that somewhat bravely accompanied us up a hill. Initially we were impressed with his pedal power, however after a while he started asking/demanding pretty much the entire contents of our bicycles. What started with the bicycle computer, evolved into the bell and soon after to the whole bicycle or at least the camping tent. We rushed up the hill with hopes he would surrender to tiredness.

After this episode we had a pair of kids, that without much hesitation or negotiation, requested a ride down the hills sitting on our frames. We were more than willing to comply. However the next set of kids we found along the road, stopped their street football match to push us a bit and lob their ball at us… Not so nice… To counter back again, the next kid we encountered, actually came along side us on horseback, but was friendly and only seemed to want to practice his (maybe scarse) english..

We arrived to the next town on our map, Peshkopi, that given the time would end up being again another stopping place. We headed to the campsite in town and were surprised to be greeted by a business savvy 7 year old girl, Samantha, with perfect English.

The campsite was run by a family, and they couldn’t have been more friendly. As soon as we arrived they placed wood in the fire oven and we were offered their living room to spend the night along with all sorts of homegrown fruits. Samantha on the other hand, offered a display of her acrobatic skills right there in the middle of the living room floor and sofa encouraging us to take part too.

That night we shared dinners between ourselves and Samantha’s grandparents and went to bed with a feeling of Albanian hospitality. We left the next day, treated with even more fruit and snow covered mountains and only one more puncture, as we headed towards the border and the next country we would cross on our journey.

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