So, here it is, the tale of an epic day in the saddle, all 172km of it. In fact I’ll start by reeling off the statistics. When I cycled to Italy in 2010 I gave the statistics at the end of each day on the blog. (One reader of my book took exception to this by the way and asked in his withering review how anyone who measured his cycles to the minute could be trusted!) This time I’m not doing so as you can see them in their glorious detail by following the link in Reggie’s Twitter feed. It’s over there on the left below my own Twitter feed. But as yesterday was a mammoth day in the saddle, I feel it is justified. So, distance 172.13km, ride time 8hrs 42mins (nearly 9 hours if you are my withering reviewer), average speed 19.75km/hr. There was actually twice as much descent – 1,708m – as there was ascent – 887m – but after the previous day’s 2,514m of climbing, there needed to be. The challenge of cycling day 11 was always going to be the distance. This whole thing is not a race and I wouldn’t want it to be. However, I do need to be back at work on the 2nd September and I do need to maintain an average of 100km plus per day. I think in reality the average will need to be greater than that simply due to my annoying tendency to wander to and from the coast (as demonstrated by my crossing of the Greek-Albanian border somewhere in the mountains rather than nearer the sea). Cycling day 10 was meant to finish in Vlora (named after the popular Albanian margarine – did you laugh? – don’t worry, the same joke fell flat on Twitter as well…), but it would have been crazy to continue much further than the Llogoroja pass as it was already quite late in the evening and there was a hotel at my disposal. Well, I say ‘hotel’. More of a large garden shed with some partitions. And mice. I woke at around 5am thinking that the cat was clawing at the door. But cats don’t have so many claws. A few moments of reflection told me that unless it was a whole litter of cats (is that the correct collective noun or just what they crap in? A pride of cats? Surely that’s just lions etc…), it was mice. I looked around the shed, sorry, log cabin but couldn’t see any movement but there was never going to be any more sleep with the mice thought in my head so after some procrastination (that’s not a euphemism for anything else by the way), I got up and started to pack my panniers.
Breakfast was eventually served by the guy who had told me off the previous evening for not liking the fatty pork chops and he got his revenge by serving up a minimalist feast of toast, butter and something that was sweet and pickled. After tasting it I was none the wiser. My guide book – for Albania I’m using the excellent Bradt guide as Rough Guides have yet to pass this way – stated that there was a ‘resort’ near the pass and described it in five star luxury terms; it was just a hundred or so metres further down the road than the deserted Hamiti Hotel where I had spent the night. I really should start using my guide book to guide me rather than as to compare what I found with what I should have found. For not much more than the 30€ that I did pay I could probably have got something much better, without the fat or the mice.
With this thought to the back of my mind I headed down into the valley and goodness, what a valley! How have the Albanians kept this countryside so secret for all these years? (Well, they were a closed communist society for many of them which does help I suppose…). Putting aside metaphorically if not literally the rubbish that has, like in Greece, accumulated alongside the road, I find it hard to remember when I saw such outstanding views outside of the Alps. Eventually the road flattened out and my mind turned more to how annoying the drivers can be with their speed, overtaking and horn habits. In the distance I could see Vlora with its impressive seafront curve around the bay. Boats go from here to the Italian ports and it was one of the main places where emigrants (I suppose you only become ‘illegal’ when you are viewed as an ‘immigrant’) from Albania set off in the early 1990s leading to it being a hotbed of vice and organised crime. You wouldn’t automatically think that today as it is very cosmopolitan and, like most other places in Albania going through a boom in construction (see comments in earlier post).
My next destination was Fieri. The next bit is either fortunate or unfortunate depending upon how you look at it. Here in Albania you’ve got a choice when it comes to cycling. Option A: take the main road which is generally in much better condition but you will have lots of traffic hurtling past you at break neck speed ignoring that you are there. Option B: take the back roads which are generally in a very poor state of repair, are less direct… and you will have traffic hurtling past you at break neck speed ignoring that you are there. Just less of it. As I needed to make up distance I decided to go for option A. However, when I arrived at the main road to Fieri I discovered that it was one of the few roads in the country that has been officially designated as a motorway (green signs here, like in Switzerland). So, with a little backtracking, option B it had to be. I assumed that the motorway did indeed continue all the way to Tirana so at this point, using Google Maps I started to piece myself together a route that would get me to the capital. At that point I still thought there was a chance of me getting there by the end of the day.
The next three or four hours of cycling must rank as one of the most uncomfortable, at times terrifying experiences of my life. Worse even that the prospect of two Year 9 classes on a Friday afternoon. (Don’t worry, they won’t be reading this.) My eyes were being torn in four directions. The tourist wanted to look at the pretty scenery, the oddities (like the houses built like castles or the monstrosity built in the shape of a large boat) & the people. The bike owner and chiropractor in me wanted to keep my eyes firmly on the roads watching out for the next pot hole, crevice, gap, lump, gravel patch etc… My lower back was beginning to feel the pain of the ride and I’m sure Reggie, if he could have complained, would have been screaming. The self-preservationist in me wanted to keep an eye on those coming up behind me (are they really that close or is it just a loud engine?), and those in front heading in my direction, err… on my side of the ‘road’. Cycling hell on earth. Torn four ways it is a miracle that my neck doesn’t now feel the strain that my back was feeling at the time. At one point the motorway stopped and the traffic joined me and the other guided missiles on the secondary road. One articulated lorry came very close to ending this cross-European adventure rather prematurely. One? Am I crazy? Lots of them did.
In my mind I was penning this blog update and it was going to take the form of an open letter to the Albanian government and people declaring their country to be incompatible with cycling. I’d come up with a detailed ten-point plan as to how they could start moving in the right direction but lots of little caveats, mainly to do with lack of funding make me rethink each idea. Apart from one that would cost practically nothing; change driver attitudes. OK, it might cost a bit but the problem here would be how to change the mindset of males between the ages of… no, just males… no males and females of all ages in a society clearly in love with cars and speed. Most countries have the problem but here in Albania it is particularly acute. I suppose in their defence, most countries didn’t operate a ban upon private car ownership up until 1991. It’s not surprising that good road etiquette has yet to be established in any serious way.
The result is that I declare cycling in Albania something only for the extremely brave or foolhardy. When I cycle towards the northern border and Montenegro on Tuesday I shall be doing so with extreme caution. It will be an option A route simply because I think my poor bike (and my back) have suffered enough already.
On arrival in Lushnja, not a particularly nice town and somewhere I wouldn’t have wanted to hang around for too long, I had given up on the idea of continuing and had taken the decision to try and get a train to Tirana. It was a momentous thing to do and as I bumped up, down, left and right on my bike it was a fiercely debated point in my mind. My guidebook clearly indicates a train line passing from Lushnja to Tirana. All I would have to do is persuade them to take a bike. In the mood that I was in I was ready to play bolshy foreigner. I found the train line – just one of them – and followed on an adjacent road until I crossed the line at a level crossing of sorts. I’m no expert in these things but I was sceptical if a train had passed that way in recent times. I continued to follow the track from the other side but by the time I’d reached the northern suburbs of Lushnja there was no sign of a train station. What I had however found was the main road and praise The Lord! It had gone from being green (motorway) to blue (exactly the same as motorway but with blue signs which allowed anyone to use it and anyone who lives next to it sell their melons & sweet corn & let their chickens & goats run wild in it). This was the first bit of good news all afternoon and, after a couple of Fantas (yes, I’m on the hard stuff now after having ditched the calorie free Coca Light), I set off, destination Tirana. Again.
I must have cycled 40km down that motorway, sorry, main road as dusk approached. The surface was good (apart from a few points of catastrophic surface failure where the Tarmac appeared to have slid away from the road in great waves of undulating bitumen. Just how did that happen? The last thing I had to do was to get to Durresi and turn right for another 30km and my destination would be reached. But… In front of me appeared a sign for the Kastrati petrol station (don’t even consider not paying for your fuel!) and adjoining hotel. It was too tempting, like that psychological experiment where a child is given a sweet but if they wait for five minutes they’ll get two. Sod that! The hotel seemed somewhat surprised to have a guest but they were beyond courteous… Perhaps they knew the kind of day I’d had.
Now, if your haven’t done so already, read the post entitled “An Englishman walks into an Albanian bar…”.