Albania. We hardly knew anything about Albania. It seemed like a lost world that goes by its own beat and we were excited for the unknown. We can now say that Albania is the most interesting and exciting country we have crossed on our trip so far. It is especially appealing for cycle tourists. Why?
1. The People. My word the people. Friendly, helpful, giving… We are now a firm believer that ultarism does exist!
2. It is Cheap. It was the first country we regularly stopped at cafes, bought treats and ate at restaurants.
3. FRESH fruit and vegetables, picked and sold on the side of the road.
4. Byrek. It’s everywhere and only 35 – 100 Lek (0.25 to 0.75 EUR).
5. Cyclists are everywhere – not cycle tourists, just regular Albanians of all ages. Albanian drivers are used to having us on the road.
6. The larger roads are well paved and wide. They also have a big hard shoulder that’s commonly used by horse carts, but also serves perfectly as a cycle lane.
The only negative points is that wild camping spots are hard to find in Albania. Trying to find and replace bicycle parts also proved difficult and there is a limited range of non-fresh food products in supermarkets. Saying that, you adapt fast and learn to live with what is available. The smaller roads are also in terrible condition – stay clear of these.
Entering Albania was like riding into the past. We found ourselves moving amongst two worlds – old and modern. Passing cars and cyclists are regulars on the road, along with horses and carts carrying watermelons, plums, wheat or nothing – just taking a ride into town. Cows and sheep also often frequent streets.
On our first full day in the country we were immediately struck by the kindness and generosity of Albanians. We stopped at a small grocery store on the side of the road to get some lunch. After buying a few items the young man came out and asked if he can offer us a drink. Not knowing what he meant, Simon followed him in and out he came with two cold, canned juices that the man gave us for free as if it was totally normal. We realised then that this is Albania – that’s just what people do here.
After exploring Rozafa castle and the Albanian side of Lake Skadar, we continued on our way towards the capital, Tirana and realised that our OSM app that we use to navigate was not that accurate for Albania. At times it sent us on non-existent roads and bridges. In the end, it was enough to get us through the country.
The other thing we realised is that roads that are considered ‘large’ on OSM does not always mean good. At one point we followed a large, well paved road that changed into a gravel road full of large potholes that we had to slowly dodge for a few kilometers. This then lead to the road being blocked by piles of concrete rubble and we had to carry our bikes over it. After continuing on we passed massive bunkers and an aeroplane runway…. Yip, we were in an old military base. The long trek ended in us staring at a large locked gate with no way around. Just then, two men appeared out of nowhere on the other side of the fence and they informed us that this is still a military base and called someone to get us out. In the meantime, in true Albanian fashion, one of the guys insisted we connect to his phone’s WiFi. “Take it! Take it!” he repeated and when we did, he seemed genuinely happy that he could give us something.
It was already dark at this point and we could find nowhere to sleep. Although wild camping is legal in Albania, it is very difficult to find good camping spots. Most of the country is mountainous and as with the Austrian Alps, everywhere that is flatter is used for farming or living. The mountains are not much better as there are hardly any flat places to pitch a tent. So, we had to push on through the night to the next campsite. On our way we stopped at a festival where the local crowd started dancing in three circles, all with linked arms and each circle dancing around at a different speed. One of the songs was so fast that we’re surprised at the general fitness of Albanians. Respect.
The following day we headed for Tirana and found a cafe to stop at for some coffee and WiFi. When it was time for us to leave, Simon went in to pay and the man just said to Simon: “No problem, brother, it’s on me”. Simon insisted he’d like to pay but the waiter would not take the money. Dumbfounded at his generosity, we thanked him and went on our way.
We stopped at the next small town and ordered some Baklava from a cake shop. Jackpot! We’ve gotten slightly addicted to Baklava ever since Bar in Montenegro. As we were leaving the shop, Tanya looked behind her and the sweet lady from the bakery was running after us, trying to talk in broken English, “please, please!”. As we didn’t hear her at first, another man helped her and shouted over to us, “Waaaiiiiitttt!”. She gave Tanya a parcel of home made fig jam cookies. When Tanya thanked her, she said, “nothing, nothing,” which some Albanians use to say “not a problem”.
In Tirana we stayed at a very cool hostel called Milingona City Centre Hostel. The owners are very nice and we were able to camp in the hostel garden with our tent. They even had a resident turtle and some very cool art around the place.
Tirana, compared to the rest of Albania, is a very modern city. The roads are wide, the buildings modern and it is clean. We visited the Bunk Art museum, which is actually a massive bunker that was built for the dictator Enver Hoxha, the parliament and military generals in case of a war with pretty much everyone. The bunker is extremely large, even having a big parliamentary hall in the centre. Bunkers were not new to us, though, as there are over 160 000 bunkers across Albania. They can be seen wherever you go – on the side of the road, on someones front patio and even one turned into a smiley face.
We visited the local markets and other sites around the city including the Et’hem Mosque and the Pyramid of Tirana which is a building that people can take a steep, slippery walk up to get a view of the city. No way in hell would this building exist in London or Munich!
The streets of Tirana are lively with a vibrant atmosphere. In fact, most of the towns in Albania, whether it is a small village or a city, has this vibrant atmosphere. People love to socialise here. And they love coffee. There are coffee shops everywhere. What we noticed is that Albanians like to be outside, walking around and chatting with each other. There was never a quiet or dead town.
What was also a big observation for us was that, except for cities, most of the time there were only men out on the streets. There were only men driving between places, walking the streets, at coffee shops and drinking beer in the evening. While biking between towns we saw plenty of kids or teenagers on the streets with their bicycles or playinig around, but again – no girls or women, only boys or men. This was and still is a very strange phenomenon for us and we haven’t yet figured out the reason.
From Tirana we headed into the mountains to Elbasan, where we wanted to follow the Devoll river. The ride into the mountains was beautiful, with the roads snaking around curves in the hill. We had panoramic views for many kilometers on top of the mountain before decending down to Elbasan to find a place to wild camp.
Passing Elbasan we entered a small village called Jagodine. The first street we entered had groups of small kids all along the street and men playing cards on tables outside. As each of them spotted us riding past – they all shouted and waved – almost like a Mexican wave of surprise and elation.
Finding a place to wild camp proved to be more difficult than we thought. Even after passing the city, the valley was full of houses or farmland. We eventually found somewhere next to a dried riverbed and were pretty pleased with ourselves… until later. Opposite the river was a factory and some buildings, but it was a Saturday and no one was around, so we didn’t even think twice about it.
Then after it got dark, we heard some aggressive shouts over the river and then we saw some massive trucks heading over the river directly to us! They started digging up gravel along our side of the riverbed, and suddenly the massive holes right next to our tent stood out in the stark darkness. Annoyingly, we packed our things up in a haste before the trucks got to us. It was already late when we rode back into Jagodine. In true Albanian style, everyone was still out at the bars or cafes that lined one of the small streets and as we rode passed one of them, we were called over to join a group.
When we sat down to join them, we were immediately welcomed with big smiles and lots of beer. At this point we realised that we couldn’t communicate, even though the owner of the bar/cafe, Valmir, could speak three languages. Not a problem, though, he quickly called one of his friends, Andi, who had lived in Germany to come over and join us… but not before some comical sign language took place. We spent the rest of the night exchanging stories, laughs and a hell of a lot of beer. Even though Tanya is a slow drinker, she had to keep up with the rest. At one point, some strong but very good Raki was brought out… clearly we got their stamp of approval. The rest of the night is kind of blurry.
Slightly tipsy, we enjoyed a few games of pool together, although we had no clue about Albanian rules! Of course in Albania, pool is apparently played for everyones benefit with one obvious rule: if you’re winning, help the opponent get to the black ball before shooting it in. Thanks to Valmir, Ina, Andi and the rest of the crew, we had a very memorable night and are very thankful to have met them.
Valmir offered us to sleep inside their bar for the night, letting us know that he opens the cafe at 6 am the next morning! It turns out that most of them had to work the next day… on a Sunday! Next morning, rise and shine, Valmir and his wife, Ina, greeted us. After slowly waking up, sharing some coffee with Ina, Valmir and customers/friends who came for their morning coffee before work, we hit the road towards the Devoll river valley.
Heading into the valley with a hangover in 45 degrees heat was not fun. Probably one of the hardest days of the trip so far. We passed a large dam and the water below us was shimmering between the hills. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fully absorb the scenic view as there was no shade anywhere! There were no towns, cafes or trees for a while and we had no choice but to ride in the suffocating heat of the sun. We were completely destroyed when we got to Gramsh that we booked a cheap hotel room and spent the day in the cooler hotel and cafes, also enjoying dinner at a pizzeria when the sun had abandoned its post for the evening.
Over the next few (cooler) days we followed the Devoll river which took us through breathtaking canyons and valleys. With a lot of elevation changes throughout, we could enjoy the most incredible views high above the river and right next to it. One of the most spectacular rides was after climbing high out of the valley, we descended into the start of the canyon with the road swerving sharply all the way down. The road is in a very good condition and was very quiet. We saw lots of donkeys, horses, very old people working hard in the farm fields and even people ploughing a hill old school style with a cow and a donkey.
As we came to the end of the valley, we noticed more and more plastic and rubbish caught in the bushes and trees alongside the river. It was painful to see such a beautiful valley being scared and destroyed by plastic and other man made foreign materials. When we reached the end of the valley, we could see the source: an open landfill where the towns around freely dump their rubbish where it is easily blown or washed into the river after a windy or rainy day.
As our trip goes on, we can see the devastating impact of human rubbish on the environment. Since one of the main reasons for us going on this trip was to enjoy and be immersed in nature, seeing the effects of human waste on the environment is becoming more and more of a painful experience as we realise this problem stretches further and wider than we thought. So far, it has been especially bad in the Balkans and we now expect to see rubbish more often than we don’t. Some peoples careless attitudes towards nature and the environment is plainly evident in the streets lined with rubbish thrown out of car windows and we have even seen people doing this with our own eyes.
As we, ourselves, do not want to have a negative foot print, we try to reduce our consumption of plastic and packaging. We now only buy fruit and vegetables without packaging and reuse plastic bags to pack them in. We also don’t buy bottled water but rather fill up our own reusable bottles. Whenever wild camping we go by our motto: ‘leave the place cleaner than we found it’ by collecting other garbage around the camp area.
We rode out of the Devoll valley onto a platuea between the mountains. There were many farms and fresh fruit and vegetable markets on the way to Lake Ohrid and we passed a man who had both hands full of plums that he held out and pushed into our hands while riding passed him… With a big shout of thanks we happily rode the next few kilometers snacking on our treats. We decended down the steep road to Lake Ohrid where we caught a magnificent deep red, orange and pink sunset over the lake.
We found a campsite and the next morning we found our tent surrounded by chickens, roosters, guinea fowl, a cute cat and a hyperactive dog who should be on ADD meds. We especially became attached to a chicken we named Braveheart, who was not scared of us and even did some tricks while we fed her some snacks. The others, including the rooster, would try and steal her well-deserved food and run after her but she was not sharing any of it.
Unfortunately, on one of the mornings, the owners of the campsite decided that it was time for Braveheart to end up as lunch. We had to witness how Braveheart was screaming for her life when they caught her and the screams ended as the owner sawed of her head with a big knife. This – or even worse – is the everyday life for billions of chickens, but seeing it right in front of us made us sad. Since then we have carried a feather from Braveheart to remind us of her and one of the many reasons why we don’t eat animals or their products.
From there we rode back up the steep hill and into the valley once more, this time towards the Greek border. A group of soccer fans passed us waving a large Albanian flag and their faces painted, getting ready for the Albania-Croatia match that evening and already celebrating at noon. All the small villages we passed on the way had the usual hussle and bussle of villagers walking around, selling food or carting crops with horses and carts. Two young boys riding a horse and cart even tried to race us up a hill… We were surprisingly much faster but slowed down for entertainment purposes. We also had an impressive collection of plums given to us as our last parting gifts along the way… ah, we will truly miss Albania, its people and its beauty.
For more photos from Albania, click here.