Over the next few months as I write about my 2013 cycle from Greece to Portugal along the (rough) line of the Eurovelo 8, I will publish an occasional extract from the book here on CyclingEurope.org. The book will be published on the 10th June 2014. Here is the first of those extracts, from Albania…
Saturday 13th July 2013
Cycling Day 11: The Llogoroja Pass to Durresi, 172km
There had already been quite a few epic cycling journeys on the trip to this point (and there would be many more to come) but these had been because of the vertical challenge that they posed. Cycling day 11 would prove to be the first of the truly epic horizontal challenges but as I woke in the cabin in the woods, I remained oblivious as to the nature of the day that lay ahead. Indeed cycling was not on my mind at all. I was preoccupied by the sounds that surrounded me. It was difficult to work out if they were above or below me. To the left or the right? Were they coming from outside the shed or inside? The nature of the sounds was initially equally puzzling but after a few moments of thought I came to the conclusion that I was sharing my hotel room with a family of mice and a rather active one at that. I don’t like mice or come to think of it any animal that moves quickly in erratic directions. I much prefer the slow moving inhabitants of the animal kingdom; the ones that look at you with disdain and say to themselves ‘just don’t even think about it…’. The mice were my main motivation for throwing back the heavy covers of the bed, jumping in the shower and getting dressed. I never saw them, but I knew they were there somewhere.
Breakfast was a minimalist affair served up by Antonio consisting of just toast, butter and an object that was pickled and tasted sweet. I have no idea what it was. Perhaps he was still annoyed at me for not having eaten the pork chops down to the bone the previous evening and had told chef to lay off on the Shreddies. In fairness by the time I was ready to leave he did appear to have lightened up a little and he smiled as he waved me good-bye. I cast my mind back to the definition of the Hamiti Hotel in the guidebook and began to question the quality of the research that had taken place prior to publication. They hadn’t even managed to get the name right! Two minutes later following a very short cycle through the woods I stopped the bike and looked at the building in front of me. I could see a restaurant, a bar, a tennis court… Was that a heated indoor pool through the steamed up window? The sign – ‘Rezorti Llogora’ – confirmed what I now realised. On the positive side of things I had at least saved myself a few Euros.
The first job that Saturday morning was to get back to the sea and away from the mountains of the south. Having climbed the 800m to the pass on Friday afternoon I was guaranteed a long downhill ride through the forest. It would be about 20km to the coastal town of Orikumi and then I would continue north to Vlora before working out a route that might get me as far as the capital Tirana but more likely to the towns of either Fieri or Lushnja in central Albania. The scenery in those first 20km was simply exquisite and on a grand scale. I had never before had the pleasure of seeing so many picture-perfect views apart from in the most pristine Alpine regions of Europe and wondered how the Albanians had managed to keep such an area so secret. I then remembered that I was cycling through a country which for much of my lifetime had been a closed communist society and it began to make sense. It’s strange how in building up a picture in my mind of post-war eastern bloc greyness I (and probably most others) had imposed those preconceptions upon not just the lifestyles of the people who lived in the former communist countries of the east but on practically all aspects of life, including physical geography. The tectonic forces of the planet had not stopped functioning at the Iron Curtain and neither had Mother Nature stopped painting in colour. However miserable their lives might have been under a repressive authoritarian regime, at least the comrades could be miserable while looking at some very nice scenery indeed.
Eventually the road flattened out and my thoughts turned (yet again) to how annoying the drivers could be with their speed, overtaking and horn habits. The bustling street of Saranda aside, the roads were now much busier than they had been at any point since arriving in Albania and I was beginning to build up quite an accurate profile of how your average Albanian gets around on four wheels. Quickly. And for the majority it seemed to be that their car of choice to travel quickly was a Mercedes. Those not taking to the roads in a model from the German manufacturer had frequently opted for either four by four Toyotas or Range Rovers. It seemed logical that in a country where the quality of the road surface was (to be diplomatic) ‘variable’, most people had chosen a heavy-duty car that would be able to cope with the rigours of the road. According to the World Bank, the country that famously banned private ownership of cars until 1991 had seen an explosion in car ownership from just a few thousand to 400,000 in 2013. The road network appeared to be catching up only very slowly so the decision of the vast majority of motorists to go down the solidly built vehicle route could be easily understood. As a cyclist I think I would have preferred if the nation as a whole had opted to spend more on replacing the road surfaces rather than on a sturdy fleet of cars to cope with the old ones. On a more positive note however, having seen the infamous edition of the popular British motoring show Top Gear where the three presenters take a trip through Albania and make thinly-veiled suggestions that there is an active market in the country for imported stolen vehicles from the UK, I was on the look out for right hand drive cars. Apart from the clapped out British-registered Ford Fiesta I had seen in the car park at the Hamiti Hotel, I saw none.
After several kilometres of following the coastal road from Orikumi I could see in the distance the town of Vlora with its impressive seafront curve around the bay. Palm trees lined the road into town from the south and, as I had been on arrival in Saranda earlier in the week, I was somewhat taken aback as to just how un-Albanian the town was. Once again there was a building boom taking place with smart apartment blocks being thrown up wherever one could be squeezed in. The central area of town had clearly had some money spent on it and much of the main square had been mercifully traffic-calmed with a smartly paved pedestrian area and restricted routes for motorised vehicles. There was even an enormous display screen advertising a varied programme of upcoming cultural events interspersed with the weather forecast. The buildings of historic interest had not been swept away under a carpet of new development however with occasional the Byzantium church taking pride of place amongst the more modern buildings. Recent history was also cherished with one particularly striking communist era monument taking pride of place in ‘Flag Square’ celebrating Albanian independence. A cosmopolitan, visibly affluent town on the way up I would say and not a hint of it being the home to Albanian organised crime. The Italian port of Brindisi is under 200km away on the other side of the southern Adriatic Sea and Vlora has seen much trafficking of people in its recent history but you would never have guessed this if, as I did, you were to cycle through on a sunny afternoon in summer.
Following the signs for Fieri I continued my journey north but on the outskirts of Vlora I hit a problem in that the road, rather abruptly, became a motorway. I paused beside the green sign (like the Swiss, the Albanians had defied the general European consensus of indicating motorways in blue) and pondered. From what I had seen so far, this was a country that took a liberal approach to its driving regulations; speeding, overtaking in inappropriate places, driving in the middle of the road, riding a motorbike without a helmet, using a mobile phone at the wheel were all commonplace. The Bradt guide I was using stated that ‘there is no stigma attached to drink driving and practically no attempt is made to check it’. In front of me I could see a beautiful silk smooth road surface with a wide band on the right of the carriageway that would be perfect for cycling. The quality of the out-of-town roads that I had been using since arriving in the country had been gradually deteriorating the further north that I pedaled to the extent that some of them had become comically pot-holed. On occasions the entire surface of the road simply stopped and it was necessary to cycle over an extremely uneven surface of dried mud for a few metres or even a few tens of metres. The speed limit on the motorway sign said 110km/hr. That was probably the average speed of most cars that had passed me in the last few days anyway. Why don’t I continue cycling along the motorway? It seemed unlikely that by doing so I would bother anyone, less likely still that the police would pull me over. It was a tough call.
I couldn’t do it. For me it was a step too far. Cycling on a motorway would be madness, even in Albania. And at this point I did have an alternative road that I could follow which shadowed the direction of the motorway until at least Fieri. I would perhaps reconsider upon my arrival there. So off I cycled along the woefully poor quality secondary roads once again. At least now much of the traffic had been syphoned off by the motorway and I was left to cycle on much quieter roads. On the flip side, the cars that hadn’t taken the motorway now had much more space to themselves and it only seemed to encourage them in their attempts to break the land speed record for a 15-year-old black Mercedes with tinted windows. But overall it was probably a much more interesting ride than if I had chosen to cycle illegally along the motorway. I never tired of the architectural eclecticism of Albania and new houses under construction in the countryside were particularly worthy of my attention. Many were being built with towers and turrets as if they had been designed for Disneyland Albania. One house along a quiet road in the middle of farmland was in the shape of the front half of a large boat complete with pointy bow, portholes and bridge. More kitsch design than grand design but it was so monstrous that it was difficult not to admire the efforts of the architect, if indeed they existed.
Upon arrival in Fieri I paused at a café just outside the centre of town and again considered the motorway question. The added factor in my internal debate was that now I would be required to pick my way along a much less obvious series of roads that didn’t shadow the direction of the motorway. In fact the deviation from the direct route to the next town of Lushnja was this time considerable. But I still couldn’t persuade myself to throw in the towel and break the law even if I knew that there was little chance of me being caught in the act.
The few hours of cycling that followed must have ranked as one of the most uncomfortable, at times terrifying experiences of my life. My eyes were being torn in four directions. The tourist in me wanted to look at the pretty scenery, the oddities, the animals and the people. The bike owner and chiropractor in me wanted to keep my eyes firmly on the roads watching out for the next pothole, crevice, gap, lump, or large patch of gravel. The latter, if it went unnoticed, could have comically disastrous effect as the tyres suddenly sank into a sea of small stones resulting in abrupt deceleration of the bike and requiring some rapid unclipping of my cycling shoes in order to avoid toppling over onto the ground. 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 (were 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’. More than one articulated lorry came very close to ending my cross-European adventure rather prematurely. I was in cycling hell.
In my mind I penned 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, forced me to rethink each suggestion. In the end I could only draft one potentially cheap solution to the problem of Albania’s roads and that was for everyone to change their driving attitude. It could happen at no cost to the taxpayer but of course it never would. Should money be available for a driver education programme however you wouldn’t have to worry about targeting your audience. In Albania there wasn’t a problem with young men driving or pensioners driving or middle-aged women driving. Everybody had a problem with driving.
It was now later afternoon and I was worried. Not only was I particularly disheartened by my experiences of the previous few hours of cycling but I was also conscious that I needed to find a place to stay overnight. There was little chance of making it to Tirana before the end of the day and the only place that looked like a reasonable candidate for having a hotel to stay in was Lushnja. As I approached the town I had made my mind up; I would either find a hotel or, failing that, go to the station and take the next train to the capital. This would be quite some step to take as it meant that after fewer than two weeks of my journey across Europe I would have given up on my aim of cycling from one corner of the continent to the other. It was a reflection of just how bad the cycling experience had become.
On arrival in the centre of Lushnja, which wasn’t a particularly nice town and certainly wasn’t somewhere I would have wanted to hang around for too long, I could see no obvious signs of there being a hotel. It was just a horrid urban sprawl of drab apartment block after drab apartment block. Apart from being on the map, my guidebook made no mention of the place. I searched on the Internet via my phone for hotels and none were listed by Booking.com, the site that I was now using most regularly as it seemed to have the broadest range of different types of accommodation listed. The nearest Warmshowers host was some 50km away in Durresi, a town on the coast to the north. It was just beginning to get dark. If I couldn’t find the railway station, I was in trouble. My online Google map was of limited use. I couldn’t find the railway station but there was a long thin black line that snaked its way through western side of town and which I presumed was the railway so I cycled off to find it. It was my intention to follow the track until I came to the railway station and then hop on a train. The line wasn’t difficult to locate although it was hidden behind derelict buildings for much of the time. The overhead electricity lines gave the game away and I followed these for a few minutes without seeing anything that resembled a train station. I did find a petrol station and paused to ask a young man in his late teens if he knew where it was. He spoke no English and stared at me in a way that you don’t really want to be stared at in the middle of a run down town in Albania (or anywhere else) just as darkness is beginning to fall. He scared me somewhat so I made my excuses and continued to cycle – a little faster than before – along what I believed to be the road next to the railway track. I was now moving away from the centre of town but still hopeful that the station could be an out-of-town one. It was then that road itself crossed the railway tracks. I slowed to a stop in the middle of the tracks and looked in both directions along the line. They were rusty and overgrown with weeds. Now I’m no expert when it comes to railways but even I can recognise a railway line that doesn’t get used much and these most definitely fell into that category.
The truth is that the line was still in use but I could have experienced a potentially lengthy wait as the trains were very infrequent and according to those that have used them, they rarely follow the timetable. Although the fares are cheap the rolling stock (consisting mainly of second-hand locomotives and carriages from the Czech Republic) is falling apart. Many journeys are cancelled because essential pieces of equipment have been stolen for their value as scrap metal. Most Albanians have voted with their feet when it comes to travelling between the towns and cities of their country and most public transport is now in the form of buses, something that I had seen for myself through the large number of buses and coaches on the roads. Lushnja does have a railway station but it can’t have been signposted or have looked in away way, shape or form like railways stations should as I never found it.
Back on the ground in Lushnja I was in a bit of a pickle. Dusk had set in, I couldn’t find a hotel, the railway track appeared to have been abandoned and I had already cycled 130km to get where I was. This wasn’t the kind of place where I would choose to make my first venture into the world of wild camping so that was off the agenda. There remained just one option and that was to continue cycling. Just to the north of Lushnja the road that had guided me alongside the railway line joined the motorway and in effect disappeared. It was going to be the SH4 or nothing so I set aside the arguments that earlier in the day had prevented me from cycling along the motorway and continued. I immediately felt as though I was in a much safer environment. The traffic was not heavy – it was by this point about 7pm on a Saturday evening – but it was of course fast but not markedly faster than the cars, lorries & coaches that had been zooming past me all day long. There were two key differences; I now had a band of tarmac to the right of the carriageway to myself (it wasn’t really a hard shoulder as we know them in Britain in that it was only about half the width of a normal lane) and the surface of the road was predominantly excellent. Occasionally the newly lain tarmac had slid away from surface in great folds of black stones and bitumen but apart from these obstacles it was a case of putting my head down and cycling as fast as I could. It was reassuring to see that in reality the Albanian motorway was a little less hermetically sealed than those in other parts of Europe. Where there was land available, enterprising locals had set up stands selling watermelons for the passing motorists to buy and it wasn’t uncommon to see the odd chicken wandering perilously close to the traffic. At one point on the other side of the central reservation there had been a crash of some description and apart from the firemen and policemen, many members of the public had gathered to watch the rescue efforts. No cones had been set up to warn other traffic and people were milling around in a leisurely way as if at a social event. The stalls, the chickens & the accident ‘party’ were all rather reassuring in that I was clearly not going to be bothered by anyone for having the temerity to cycle along the motorway that evening and I wasn’t.
It had been a while since I was able to cycle consistently fast over a longer period of time and I was enjoying it as I pushed my speed to around 25km/hr. But where was I heading? The motorway could have taken me all the way to Tirana if I had wanted but I didn’t still want to be cycling at 11pm and it seemed unlikely that I would be able to find accommodation in the capital at that time of the night. I passed the towns of Dushku, Rroggozhina & Kavaja without stopping and then on my map I could see the town of Durresi. It was at the end of a crescent-shaped bay and along the shoreline of the bay were a string of small houses marking out the points where I would find hotels. I didn’t really need the map to tell me this as I had now entered the greater urban area of Durresi and there were frequent neon signs advertising hotel after hotel. The only problem that I had was actually accessing the hotels from the motorway which had now become much more like a proper urban motorway with high walls and fences preventing me from leaving the road. Finally a slip road appeared and cycled towards the large yellow and blue signs for a Kastrati petrol station (not a place to even consider not paying for your fuel). More enticingly for me was the building sitting directly behind the petrol pumps; the five storey, three star Continental Hotel. I had found my home for the evening.
To be honest, I was getting a little disgruntled with the Albanians. Antonio back at the Hamiti Hotel hadn’t been gushing in his enthusiasm to have me as the only guest in his hotel and the guy in the street in Lushnja had just scared me. Apart from the odd exchange required when buying a bottle of water or something to eat I hadn’t had contact with any other Albanians that Saturday but I had spent much of the day deriding their driving habits in my mind. I had occasionally shouted abuse in their direction if they had come too close. The staff of the Continental Hotel were about to bring me back into a world populated by nice, friendly, welcoming and unbelievably kind Albanians. Despite the language barrier I checked in and was charged €15 for the room.
“Fifteen euros?” I queried.
“Fifteen euros” the receptionist replied after a short pause to remember his schoolboy English.
“Not fifty euros?” I suggested.
“Fifteen euros” he repeated and to confirm it wrote it on a piece of paper.
The only downside of the hotel was that the restaurant had closed so I ordered a beer from the bar and bought a couple of packets of crisps. I would survive. Then the owner arrived and the bar staff explained my problem to him. He introduced himself to me and then promptly made a phone call. The phone was then passed to me.
“Hi. My father is the owner of the hotel. You need food?”
“Spaghetti? Tomatoes? Onions? Bread?”
“I will deliver in 20 minutes.”
The owner’s son duly arrived with an enormous plate of food from his restaurant a few blocks away. He refused my attempts to pay him and was gone as quickly as he arrived.
It had been an extraordinary day of cycling, adventure, stress, fun, exasperation and just a little fear. But I had found a comfortable bed for the night and was being fed for free. Despite all its problems, I was beginning to like Albania, not just a bit but a lot.