Brussels to Kefalonia Part 3

Day 15: Barbullush (Albania) to Tirana

 

Sunrise near BarbullushI left my little Dutch oasis before 7 am in order to cover as much distance as possible before it got too hot. The sunrise was stunning and made getting up early worthwhile. The old communist factories were very photogenic too. Unfortunately, after Milot things deteriorated. I had decided not to ride the main highway down to Tirana because other cyclists said it was very busy, so instead I followed a parallel road. After Milot this road turned into a track. I ended up riding a lot of it at not much more than walking pace, but I did see a lot of Albanian life. The kid on a donkey with granddad moving the goats and cows. The two guys who’d managed to get their lorry stuck in some mud. The son and mum (or grandmum?) who were busy picking blackberries. The kids sitting in the field under a tree to hide from the heat. And a tortoise, although he kept hiding in his shell.

Riding in the Albanian towns is an interesting experience. I guess when I arrived into Albania I didnt get a proper experience because it was a Sunday. Today I did, and not just in Tirana, but everywhere. Drivers using their mobile phone to send text messages or make phone calls. Drivers pulling out without even a vague look. People overtaking aggressively and then stopping 20 m down the road for a chat with someone. Horns being constantly beeped for whatever reason (most of the time I had no clue!). People crossing the road without looking. People with goats crossing the road…. However, I made it to the Tirana Backpacker hostel in one piece and spent the afternoon exploring Tirana, including a walking tour of the city, which gave me some understanding of the history of Albania.

Day 16: Tirana to Berat

First, the positives from today. I set off early to avoid some of the heat of the day, and also so I could do the climb from Tirana up to 800 m before the temperatures became bonkers. The climb was magical as the road was empty, the views interesting and it wasn’t a particularly difficult climb, just long. At the top the road contour around the top of the hill to give some spectular views.

Before arriving in Kuçovë there was a fantastic section of road along a valley and then a short climb. I passed through farming villages and saw nodding donkeys being used for oil extraction.

However, the negatives from the ride outweighed the positves. Firstly, I hadn’t been mentally prepared for the poverty in Albania. Seeing kids begging in the streets is something I’ve seen in Delhi and Lahore, but isn’t expected in Europe. The same goes for seeing cows walking the streets and eating rubbish. I expected Albania to be bit poorer than Serbia, but the difference was massive. Secondly, lots of the roads were basically tracks, but with a lot of traffic and I didn’t enjoy slowly bouncing along a gravel track that is marked as a fairly major road. (Nor did I appreciate  falling off when a car unexpectedly stopped to navigate a particularlly deep pothole and I had a clipless moment.) Also, I got stung by something, resulting in my shoulder going numb and I had to stop at the edge of the road and strip off my jersey to allow the bug to escape. This happened to be in front of an old couple, who were clearly shocked and confused.

44 Cows eating rubbish

The afternoon was spent exploring Berat, which was beautiful and helped to improve my mood. Plus I planned to escape Albania the following day I had 150 km to ride to get to to Sarandë, from where I would catch the ferry to Corfu. I knew the last ferry of the day was at 4 pm, but was optimistic that was achievable.

Day 17: Berat to Sarandë Himarë

Today I was aiming to ride to Sarandë, via Gjirokastër, and then take the ferry to Corfu, so I set off just after 6 am and was rewarded with a fabulous sunrise of Berat. I knew I had a massive climb, and it began immediately, but it was beautiful cycling through the woods. However, after 2 km the road turned into a gravel road. After another kilometer or so I gave up hope of tarmac reappearing and turned around, which meant 40 minutes or so later I was back where I’d started. My planned route clearly wouldn’t work and I needed to figure out how to get to Sarandë. One choice was the 8 am bus, which would mean I could still make the ferry and not have to spend another night in Albania. However, the combution of worry about what would happen to the bike and my only feeling that I would have somehow failed. So instead I bought a road map in petrol stations (which, along with car washes, seem to the the mainstay of the Albania economy!) and made a new plan. Sarandë is south of Berat, but to get there I’d have to go north to Fier and then follow the coastroad. Although this is a coastroad that goes over the Llogara Pass, which is only slighly lower than the highest point in England and Wales.

So I set off for Fier, cursed the road (dull countryside and a rubbish road, which was followed by a gravel track). Laughed at a weird ship shapped house and then smiled when tarmac reappeared, before realising that the tarmac was heading away from Fier. An Albania guy explained that the tarmaced road would take me to Fier, so I set off and discovered it went via a stinky polluted petrochemical working area. It’s good to see different parts of Albania….

In Fier I saw my first cyclotourist since Montenegro, so I stopped and chatted. I was told the coast road from Vlores was tarmac – yay!. I set off again, ended up riding down a motorway access road / track by mistake before finding the parallel road. It was dull & poorly surfaced. Surprise surprise. Tho, wow another cyclo tourist. They must be like buses.

32 Another cyclists

Albania is covered concrete bunkers that were built during the Commuist era. Cycling around the country meant I kept coming across these relics from that era.

I reached Vlores, diced with the traffic and was then on the SH8, the coast highway. Along with every other car in Albania, although there were so many I was moving faster. Eventually the cars and their owners found parking spots so they could cook themselves on the beach. I carried on and turned into the valley I’d follow up to >1,000 m. There was a massive headwind blowing, so I took a siesta and admired the tumbleweed. Once awake again the heat seemed less. The wind reminded. Great. The climb was hard, lots of >10% bits and a lot had to be climbed out of the saddle in my lowest gear, but at least I didn’t overheat unlike a number of cars. Upon reaching the top the vista was amazing as suddenly I could see the blue sea way below me and mountains everywhere. Albania suddenly looked very pretty. The descent was a lot less steep, so I could let the bike roll and not hang onto the brakes, but at the same time remembering this is Albania and around any bend could be potholes, gravel, goats etc.

Once at the bottom of the hill the road bounced along between 200 & 300 m, with more bits of 10%. Ouch. But more stunning views. Albania can very attractive. I think you just need to know where to ride, although saying that I still saw kids rummaging in the local dump, so those contrasts still remain (and this is about 40 miles from an EU country…). Anyway, I made it to Himarë where I camped for the night.

Day 18: Himarë to Sarandë, followed by the ferry to Corfu (Greece)

The ride along the coast from Himarë was spectacular. Turquoise seas, mountains and a constantly twisting and undulating road. It wasn’t that busy and well surfaced. I got some “driving music” on my iPod and had a great time. Just as I am leaving Albania I am starting to understand why people come on cycling holidays in Albania.

I got to Sarandë around noon, had lunch and sat about in the shade, ignoring the kids begging, until the boat left at 4 pm. The trip was lovely with views across the sea to various islands, and also of a forest fire. I had been expecting something a bit bigger than a boat that could only take a few cars, but it worked.

51 Greek signI then rode a few kilometres to a campsite and was amazed at how ordered everything seemed to be compared to Albania, but it was all Greek to me. My aim for the trip had been to cycle to Greece, which I had now achieved and that felt amazing. Reflecting on the trip allowed me to realise what amazing things I had seen on this trip, but I still need to get to Kefalonia for my flight home.

The GPX tracklogs from each day are below:

 

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