First impressions of Albania: friendly people, a lot of unfinished buildings, gas stations and car washes everywhere, every second car is a Mercedes, everything is a little gritty and grotty and there is a lot of garbage everywhere, and it’s quite cheap for travellers.
As we pass by, most people look at us in amazement but will smile, wave and say hello, especially kids. People will go out of their way to help, like the owner of a bar we walked into to get out of the pouring rain as it was getting dark. He cleared space on his covered patio for our bicycles and waved us in despite dripping from every goretex-clad nook and cranny.
We took off our wet clothes, sat down and had a beer. Communicating was difficult as nobody spoke English and we don’t speak Albanian. It was already dark out and the rain and thunder were continuing. We really needed a place to get under cover for the night and camping seemed like a grim prospect. We had been eyeing an unfinished house next to the bar so we asked the bar’s owner if it would be okay if we camped there.
“No problem. No problem. I am police,” he said making a gesture as if he had a gun on his hip. We finished our beer and he told one of his employees to show us how to get into the building. So, again, we camped in a concrete shell but this time with a roof over our heads. It was relatively clean inside, out of the wind and rain and bone dry. With the bar and a washroom next door, we did not need anything else.
Shkodra was a nice introduction to Albania but being out in the countryside is different. It is messy. Other than the main highways, the roads are quite bad and it’s slow, bumpy cycling. There are houses and villages everywhere along the roads.
We saw a lot of crumbling factories along the way. I think people outside of the larger towns and cities, where some of these factories used to be, are subsisting with a few farm animals, some vegetable gardens and orchards. In the morning, people will come out of their walled compounds with a cow or two, or a flock of sheep and goats, to let them graze along the road or in an adjacent field. There’s always chickens running around and I even saw a bunch of turkeys on the unfinished second floor of a house.
Both in Shkodra and in the towns we went through south of there, a lot of people are just hanging around and not obviously working. There are also a lot of school-aged kids out and about.
Riding out of Shkodra, we’re struck by the sheer number of gas stations along the road. Literally, every few hundred metres there is one, as well as car washes. I suppose people have a dream of owning their own business and a car wash is pretty cheap and easy to set up. All you need is some road-side space where you can put up a shack, water and a shingle with LAVAZH, telling the world you’re open for business. But many of them just sit empty with nobody around. But given the dirt and grit everywhere, people probably do wash their cars a lot as most cars are pretty clean looking.
On the subject of cars: every second vehicle is a Mercedes, or as they’re known here, Benz. I understand why because they are good cars and they seem to last forever. There are lots of models on the roads here from the 70s and 80s but also a lot of newer ones. It’s a stark contrast to everything else we see around us. I don’t imagine a Mercedes is a cheap acquisition here for anybody.
The gas stations are pretty much the same story as the car washes. A lot of them don’t even have gas to sell. We pulled into one to get out of the rain and it looked like it had not sold any gas for quite some time. In one room, corn covered the floor and bags of it were stacked in a corner. In the other room was a bit of furniture and some young guys smoking and watching television.
We sat on the curb to have lunch and wait out the rain but the guys came over and invited us into the room, vacating their chairs for us. While we ate lunch, they smoked and watched us eat with one eye and the Jackie Chan movie on the tube with the other. Again, no English so very little communication but friendly and generous.
We met another cyclist on the road out of Shkodra. Alex is from Switzerland and on his first cycle tour. He started in Italy and has been riding down the mediterranean coast and, like us, is on his way to Istanbul and beyond.
Weight did not seem to be an issue for him – he said as much – as he’s carrying even more stuff than I am. Instead of the two 20-litre panniers on the front, like we have, he’s got two 40-litre bags, same as on the back. And they are overstuffed. But he’s young and I’m sure that after climbing a few passes in Greece, he may shed some weight. We rode together for the better part of two days and camped in the unfinished house together. We hope to meet up with him again in Istanbul.
The garbage is a real issue. It’s everywhere. People just dump it, toss it, throw it and leave it, despite there being dumpsters around in every town we go through. A hotel owner told us that garbage is indeed a problem but that they’re working on it. While we were in Albania, it was National Clean up Albania Day on November 22, and we saw school kids picking up garbage, as well as the army out in force to clean up Albania. It’s going to take a generation but the place will be so much nicer without all the crap.
The garbage is likely why none of the storm drains along the road have grates on them. This is a real hazard for a cyclist as well as cars. If you were to ride or drive into one of those it would really ruin your day. The grates were probably removed (or never installed) because all the garbage plugs them up. But now all the garbage just falls into the storm drain and plugs it up further down, I imagine.
And the unfinished houses, we’ve learned, is because people start to build and run out of money. Then they work some more, save money, and continue the project. The financial crisis has hit hard in Albania. I was told that about 1 million Albanians, or 30 per cent of the population, work in Greece and Italy, countries that are in real financial trouble. This number seems really high to me, however no matter what the number, as a result, many Albanians are not working and the economy must be suffering as a result. We have seen a lot of people around who are obviously not working.
This is a great place for the budget traveller. In Durrës we got a hotel room for 2,000 LEK, dinner with drinks for 1,500 LEK and dessert with coffee and tea for 500 LEK, a total of 4,000 LEK, about $40.
The next night in a small town called Barbullinje, we pulled into the parking lot of a roadside restaurant to put on our rain gear, as it was about the dump on us, when the owner came out and I asked him if, by chance, they had rooms. They did, 35 euros, including breakfast. We chickened out of riding any further, given the weather, and took the room – a little expensive but what the heck. Turns out we were their first guests as they only just finished the four rooms. They literally had to unwrap the sheets and towels for us. Even the toilet brush was still wrapped in plastic. The rest of the upper storey sits empty and seven more rooms will be built when they can afford it.
Albania is a country unlike any of the others we’ve cycled through. It’s language is unique and I can’t understand a word of it. It’s taken us four days to learn the word for thank you: faleminderit. But the people make this place a pleasure to travel in. Their hospitality is genuine and amazing.
We arrived in Berat, The Town of a Thousand Windows, before noon and found Hotel Mangalemi. We were able to check in right away – the nice thing about arriving early in the off-season – and had the afternoon to explore the old castle on top of the hill. Nobody knows how old it is but there is evidence that it’s been here since the sixth century BC and was razed, captured, rebuilt and invaded repeatedly over the centuries as empires rose and fell.
Today, most of the castle is crumbling, despite having received UNESCO status in 2008. There is an underground water cistern that’s still mostly intact, as well as a 13th century Byzantine Church of the Holy Trinity.
There are people living within the walls of the castle and those houses are all in good repair. We had an amazing lunch there of traditional Albanian foods: a mixed salad, an eggplant dish, okra stuffed with minced meat, a bean dish and another dish with a variety of ingredients, loaded with garlic and delicious. Afterwards, we went down the hill and had an espresso with a shot of Raki on the side in the café across the street from our hotel.
From Berat, we had planned to head southeast through the mountains towards the Greek border, however, the clerk at the hotel desk told me the road was “destroyed” and only passable in a 4×4. Having cycled many roads only accessible by 4×4, we considered it, but only for a moment. The weather forecast was for light rain and unstable conditions. We had had a couple of days of that already with a lot of thunder and lightning and intermittent heavy rain, and to head into the high mountains with that kind of weather ahead seemed foolish. Nothing to do but retrace our steps and head back to the coast.
The so-called light rain began shortly after leaving Berat and became quite heavy rain. After an hour and a thorough soaking, we pulled into a café for a break and a coffee. While inside, the rain quit and we took the road west to Fier and were intermittently doused with rain showers.
In Fier we had lunch and the sun actually peeked through so we wasted no time and got back on the bikes, heading south to Vlorë on the coast. We arrived just as it was getting dark and rode up to a swanky, and newly refurbished, Hotel Bologna right on the waterfront. Jan negotiated a room for 35 euros, including breakfast (normally 50 euros). Amazing what you can get in the off-season. However, this is Albania, and even though the room was big and nicely finished, there was no hot water in the bathroom. After repeated complaints, they assured us there would be hot water but it never materialized until the next morning. My suspicion is that the boilers were turned off and they needed to be fired up and heat an enormous amount of water which takes hours. So, we had to wait for hot showers until morning.
The weather continued to be unstable. As we rode out of Vlorë the rain began almost immediately. To make life even more unpleasant, there was also a strong head wind as we rode south. We stopped in Orikum to have a coffee and take a break from the atrocious conditions as we watched people struggling with their umbrellas in the wind.
We only got as far as a small town called Dukat i Ri. We walked dripping wet into a café attached to a gas station and talked the proprietress into making us some food for lunch, something none of these roadside cafés seem to do at this time of year. She was very nice and before long a platter of grilled chicken and fries with bread and salad appeared which we promptly inhaled.
The weather was absolutely dismal. Rain, lightning, thunder and wind. Not conditions to have when faced with climbing a 1,000-metre-high mountain pass. No hotels in town, except in Orikum, about 6 or 7 KM back down the road. It sucks to go back so we decided to go back only a little ways. We will tell you how the rest of that day and the next one unfolded in the next blog entry.