Where does one start on a day like today? The beginning I suppose.
Waking up in the hotel room in Saranda and pulling back the curtains was akin to taking part in a nuclear test in the 1950s but forgetting to have turned around. The sun was beaming through the window and I quickly pulled back the curtains to protect my eyes. When I did peep once again I noticed that at 7:30am people were already on the beach soaking up the rays. I went down for breakfast, packed and then waited for my freshly laundered clothes to be returned. Eventually they were, damp and I’m not convinced they ever came close to washing powder; the tide marks from my perspiration on my cycling shorts was still there. I was nevertheless charged 15€ for the pleasure.
The intention was to cycle to Vlora by the end of the day. This was about half way from Saranda to Tirana. Something however got in the way; several mountains…
The first few climbs were mere pimples compared to what was to come later. I gritted my teeth and cycled up them taking regular stops for coffee, crisps, chocolate bars, sugary drinks, more chocolate, ice cream etc… It was one of those grazing days but each pause gave me a boost of energy that was much needed. The hills made progress very slow, as did the frequent stops and by early afternoon I had barely dented the 130km I would have to cycle to get to Vlora by the end of the day. My final pit stop came at a service station where the owner asked me in which direction I was heading. He laughed knowingly when I revealed that I was grading north and indicated with his hands that in terms of climbing the most strenuous effort was yet to come.
I’m getting the distinct impression that whoever made the Albanian road system never went to road building school. Don’t get me wrong, there is much positive to say about the roads; they are in generally good condition (apart from the odd 10 metres every so often which is just gravel) & they are wide (like the Greek roads). However, their gradients leave much to be desired. In Britain we have mainly hills and the road builders started at the bottom, pointed to the top and built a road along this line. They got away with it as the road was never that long. In Alpine areas, the switchback road was invented whereby the steepness of the road was moderated by having the roads criss-cross the side of a mountain. Here in Albania, despite having very large hills /mountains, the tendency is to adopt the British rather than the Alpine approach resulting in long, steep gradients. On several occasions I had little alternative than to get off and push. During these off-bike experiences I wasn’t a happy man and was cursing myself (for having chosen this route), the Albanians (for building them) and even the man at the garage (for telling me about them; I’d rather they had come as a surprise).
The biggest of the lot – a 1,000m haul from sea level to the Llogoroja Pass – came as no surprise however. I could see it from quite a distance as it loomed large beside the coast. It was about 5pm. I had to climb it at some point and it seemed too earlier on the day to not hold out the hope of making it to Vlora, even though it would be another 60km in the saddle. So I set off.
Initially the expressions of the car drivers heading down the mountain were of bemusement. But I stuck at it, switchback after switchback – fortunately this road builder had been to road building school – I slowly edged my way further up the mountain. I paused at various points trying to look as though it was to admire the view rather than to take a breather. In reality it was both. The drivers were using their horns to full effect and I started to ping them back with my loud bell. The ironic point I was trying to make was no doubt lost on all of them.
Eventually I did arrive at the pass. I had been hoping for a hotel; even an expensive one would have got my business. There were just a couple of bars and I sat down for more ice cream and a celebratory beer. I couldn’t however linger as although I had now discounted making it as far as Vlora, I did need to find somewhere to stay for the night.
I found it just a few hundred metres from the pass; the Hamiti Hotel. I’m being looked after by a rather earnest employee called Antonio whose intentions are well-placed but sometimes over the top or inappropriate. His rudimentary English doesn’t make communication easy and it took a while to order food. He seemed to be insisting that a have certain things and when I suggested I might want others he was willing to argue his point. When I didn’t manage to clear my plate of the four (yes four) fatty pork steaks that I had been served – I did my best to locate and eat the meat but there was much left – I was asked if I hadn’t enjoyed the meat. “Well yes but…”. I smiled and left it at that. Customer service in this little corner of Albania has a hard edge to it.
I need my bed. It’s in a cabin and the decor is reminiscent of your granny’s house in the 1970s. I think I’ll switch off the lights and sleep.
6am update: I survived the night in the cabin. As by the sounds of it did the mice who I can hear scuttling around. I’ve got a nasty feeling that I may be served up the remnants of last night’s meat for breakfast before I’m allowed to leave.