(Greece) – Saranda – Vlorë – Berat – Devolit Valley (Albania) – Ohrid
(Macedonia) – Peshkopi – Bajram Curri – Komani Lake – Shkodër (Albania) –
Cycling in Albania is tough, but certainly feasible. Expect lousy road conditions including open drains, some abysmal driving from fellow road users and roads that barely qualify for the title. (Lonely Planet: South Eastern Europe).
Always up for a challenge, we just had to check itout! And withmore people speaking Albanian in Switzerland than Romantsch, the 4th national language, we had an added incentive.
To avoid backtracking, we flew to Corfu in Greece, a short ferry ride from the southern Albanian border, and flew back from Podgorica in Montenegro, across the northern border.
Old fort, Corfu town
having been to Corfu before, we cashed in on the opportunity and did a
loop of the scenic northern half. Despite its long history of tourism,
Corfu still has a laid back atmosphere, with quiet roads hitting charming
beaches and coves, offering a refreshing break from the 32- degree heat.
We’ve taken note for a future island hop in the Ionian Sea!
|Canal d’Amour, Sidari||Nissaki|
Washing day in Corfu old town
St George’s church, Corfu town
|On arriving at the ferry port in|
Albania, we were greeted by an Albanian family based in Dublin. They
reassured us that our stay in Albania would be our best holiday ever.
The standard was set!
|In 2003, the first hotel was built|
in Saranda. Now some 13 years later, there are probably 10 hotel
beds for every local resident. However, the spacious promenade and
numerous beaches somehow soften the blow. It has become the holiday
resort for all the neighbouring Balkan nationals, who take to strutting
their stuff every evening around sundown, in what has become known as the
xhiro. Dressed in their finery, the object is to see and be seen…
some doing the circut two or three times to be sure, to be sure!
The Roman baths
|Just south of Saranda, on the Greek border, |
Butrint is not to be missed. This UNESCO World Heritage site, dating
back as a trading post to the 7th century BC, was in subsequent use by
Ilyrians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. The ruins
and mosaics remaining today aptly reflect these various episodes of
|The Albanian Riviera comes at a price.|
Unfortunately, the coastal road that links the beaches together is
not as flat as the water! Add 33°C and you have a real work out.
Beach umbrellas and sunbeds were on offer for midday siestas, and there
was no shortage of restaurants en route. Less accessible beaches, like
Gjipe, with 4X4 access, made for perfect quiet camping. The northern
exit was through Llogara National Park and a 1027m pass.
Camping on Gjipe beach
Quiet country roads
|Just as we were cycling though|
a quiet country area behind the coast, Darina was greeted by two sets of
snarling canine teeth. A serious adrenaline rush kicked in and luckily
they only managed to dig their fangs into her panniers, albeit leaving
their mark. Kurt is considering the wisdom of a barking recording to
increase Darina’s average speed…. and perhaps sense of adventure
Vlorë, now the second biggest city in the country, is where Albania was
declared an independent republic in 1912, after 5 centuries of Ottoman
rule. The passionate multilingual guide at the Independence Museum left
no doubt in our minds as to the rightful place of Albania in the League
of Nations! The map displayed in the museum showed a more extended
version of the Albania we know today, including Kosovo and parts of
Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece. This is what was proposed by the
independence movement reflecting ethnic realities, but not what was
granted by the London Conference.
On our way inland, we cycled through the biggest
onshore oil field in Europe. Rusty old pumps where squeaking away in
the background between the haystacks and olive groves. The Chinese
recently bought the rights to the Albanian oil fields, but we’re not
sure if it was the scrap metal or the oil that they were interested in!
Kurt in Berat
Pleasant rolling hills were the order of the day into
Berat, one of the oldest cities in Albania. It was famous for
wood carving in the 18/19th century and is now a world heritage site. The castle
hill is densely packed with houses dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Their endeavour to maximise on light earned Berat the title: The city of
a thousand windows.
7-arched bridge, Berat
Next on the cards was Devolit Valley. The
cycle to Gramsh was both pleasant and diverse, but what made it all the
more worthwhile was a closed road, just for us cyclists. The construction
of a hydroelectric plant and access roads offered us the chance of a
test ride before the locals. Runway material!
A road to ourselves!
health and safety employee of the Norwegian company building the plant,
actually speed tested us en route and insisted that we should be wearing
high visibility vests in this construction area. A bit of Irish banter
was all that was needed to relax his adherence to the rules, and we
reclaimed the road!
Friendly locals in high vis. vests!
After Gramsh, the landscape became more spectacular and
although the road was less than runway material, it was well worth the
Albanian independence was short-lived as during World
War 2 it was occupied by the Italians, Greeks and Germans. Then, in 1946
Enver Hoxha proclaimed the People’s Republic of Albania, starting 40
years of communist rule. Obsessed with the idea of another foreign
invasion, he ordered the construction of a few hundred thousand
bunkers, which appear like clusters of mushrooms, especially in
Rusty reminders of communist times
Throughout Albania, there are remnants of
communist industry, but 30 years of inactivity was enough to turn
them into rusty reminders of the secluded, insular society that was
forced into self-sufficiency under Hoxha rule.
The Albanians are an exceptionally friendly and
welcoming folk. Our local lingo extended as far as the typical
greetings, numbers and questions, which at times was unfortunately a hindrance when
communicating with the older population.
In 1967, Hoxha declared Albania the first atheist
state in the world, demolishing or closing all existing Muslim,
Catholic and Orthodox establishments. Religious practice was strictly
forbidden and punished with extended jail sentences or execution. As a result,
the locals today have a refreshing and accepting à la carte approach to
religion, if any at all.
Crossing the border into Macedonia, the presence of a
multitude of Orthodox churches and mosques reflects the milder communist
approach of ex-Yugoslavia. Our first stop was the monastery of Sveti
Naum, a popular place of pilgrimage on Lake
Evening Xhiro in Ohrid
itself, is a real jewel dotted with churches, traditional houses, bars,
markets and anything else a tourist might need. Michael O’Leary has even
spotted its potential and has added it to Ryan Air’s destinations.
The ride along the Black Drin River back to Albania
was an absolute delight. The mountains were left and right of the road,
as the Macedonians are not shy when it comes to building bridges!
Albania, the north east, bordering Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, is
both beautiful and spectacular, as well as a real challenge. The bridges
here are about 15m long, and they are often a long way down!
50,000 km later
One of the biggest tourist attractions here is the
boat ride on Komani Lake. The 2.5 hour trip takes in wonderful
scenery, through a gorge carved out by the Drin before it was dammed for
Views from the
Hotel/Restaurant under the bridge
We camped near the power
plant at the end of the trip, where you also have the unique opportunity of sleeping in the
hotel… under the bridge! We can highly recommend the restaurant
Speaking of food, we ate like kings throughout Albania, and
portion sizes were well fit for hungry cyclists.
Our hotel breakfast was typically an omelette
|The coas t|
has fabulous seafood, while inland there were more goat and lamb meat
dishes on offer. Of course, stuffed aubergines and peppers were a common
fixture on menus, as was burek (stuffed pastry). Generous salads
and bread accompanied every meal. Kurt discovered a few local brews that
proved delightful rehydration therapy after a long slog in the mid 30s.
|One of the|
local specialities is intestine soup, which is actually quite tasty!
Accommodation was sparser in the north east, but every town had a basic
Kurt saved suicidal turtles on a daily basis!
a historical castle town, was home to the democratic movement that
brought an end to communism in 1992. Situated near Lake Shkodër, forming
the border with Montenegro, it was a lovely place to while away a couple
of days. And judging by the number of weddings there, it’s obviously
treasured by the locals too.
|We did a|
day trip by bus to check out the busy capital city, Tirana. It
was a good move considering the traffic we encountered en route .
In an effort to cheer up the place in 2000, Edi Rama, the then local
mayor and now Prime Minister, introduced the Clean and Green project,
planting trees, creating parks and painting the facades in bright
Street art in the Blloku district
area, formerly reserved for the communist high and mighty, is today a
colourful, buzzing centre full of cafes, restaurants, clubs and
thought-provoking street art.
Street art in
The central square, surrounded by government
buildings, is dedicated to Skanderbeg, the local freedom fighter.
Active in the 15th century, he managed to keep the Ottoman Empire out
for 25 years.
|Albanians boast about the|
wonderful international relations they have with the USA and there is
even a street in Tirana named after George W. Bush.
St. Teresa- most famous Albanian
probably wondering if you know of, or have ever met, any Albanian. Well ,
the most famous Albanian worldwide is Rome’s most recent Saint:
(Mother) Teresa of Calcutta. Born in present day Macedonia in 1910, she learned
English in Ireland at the tender age of 18, before spending the rest of
her life doing missionary work with the poor in India. Statues and
plaques to her memory are dotted all over Albania.
The highlight of our trip to Tirana was the
Bunkart museum. Located out of town in a huge bunker built by Hoxha
for himself and his parliament, it took a good 2-3 hours to stroll
through the 5 underground stories. The various rooms now contain fascinating, educational and
eye-opening exhibits and art installations relating to the resistance
movement during the second world war and the communist era afterwards.
In memory of Hoxha
When Hoxha died in 1985, his daughter and son-in-law
designed a pyramid-shaped museum dedicated to his legacy. On it s
opening in 1988, it was considered the most expensive building ever
built in Albania. However, it’s shape had an unnerving resemblance to a
dark chapter that had yet to unfold.
In the 1990s, just as Albania was recovering from its
communist seclusion, a number of dodgy investment companies were happy
to receive deposits from the general public. Most of this money had been
sent home from the 400,000 Albanians living abroad. These investment
companies turned into a pyramid scheme, complete with money
laundering from drug and weapon smuggling, and involved the whole
Considering its grim past, Albania has come a long
way. In 2016, it is still regarded as one of the poorest countries in
Europe, with unemployment hovering at 17%. Considering that, the
absence of beggars says a lot about local pride and the extended family
as a successful social system. Foreign investment is helping with
Albania’s economic recovery and hydroelectric power plants will soon see
Albania self-sufficient, as far as electricity goes.
Poor roads – a thing of the past
Planet needs to work on an update. On our 900km route, we encountered
just 35km of unpaved stretches. There are loads of newly built
roads and the traffic was far from dramatic. As far as tough goes? That
has become our middle name!
| Albania boasts amazing natural beauty and true genuine|
hospitality. Beyond the coastal stretch, the Albanian Alps and a number of bigger towns,
tourism is pretty much non-existent. This is certainly something that
will change in the not-too-distant future, thus creating jobs and
improving the GDP. Go check it out– it may even be your best holiday