So Albania; if you have been following our Facebook and Instagram you would have heard or read how we raved about this country and how we spent 2 weeks in somewhere that normally takes most people only 3 days to cycle through. It was so worth it.
As with BiH, many people warned us against going to Albania because the people are not friendly, the Albanian gang is notorious as one of Europe’s most dangerous and the infrastructure and roads are badly developed. Basically, don’t go, it’s dangerous. It was quite a shock for us to arrive in a country that is completely the opposite of all those things. In only a few days, Albania quickly shot up the ranks of our favourite countries, eventually leaping to one of the top 3. This was due a myriad of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was, no shame with this one, how cheap and affordable everything was. We really splurged in Albania, staying in our first hostel for the whole trip and eating out everyday. We stayed in a total of 5 different hostels, and boy was it worth it! We could shower whenever we wanted, we were surrounded by many like minded travellers and we even got to sleep on BEDS a few times. Absolute heaven. Anyway, back to travel.
We went over the border about 40kms from Ulcinj, Montenegro and carried on towards Shkodër in Albania. We had a nice little ride to Shkodër where we stayed at the Green Garden Hostel, which has a warmshowers profile and provides one night free for warmshowers guests. We there met our three Malaysian friends again by chance; unfortunately that was the last time we saw them. After that they went east to Macedonia and then home on the plane to Malaysia. Before they left, we spent the evening together getting pizza and walking around central Shkodër.
The next morning we left to cycle for a while around Lake Shkodër, before backtracking and cycling south towards Lezhe. We had a really nice day, cycling through quiet farmlands and small villages. We arrived rather early in Lezhe, and then cycled on a bit further. Not far out, we were stopped by a young man who asked if we wanted some coffee or water because we were working so hard by cycling with so much gear. We then told him we were actually just looking for somewhere to sleep, and while he was thinking about where we could stay, the owner of the cafe we were standing next to, asked what we were talking about (the owner spoke no English). When it was explained that we were looking for somewhere to pitch our tent, he said that we could sleep with him, no problem. We accepted, and spent the rest of the evening with him, his wife and 4 children. They were incredibly friendly, always offering more coffee and food and we played with the children and their ball for a good 2 hours. The only obstacle of the night was that we didn’t speak Albanian and they spoke no English. We got on very well despite this, and they ended up inviting us to sleep inside their home on a bed! The next morning we had breakfast with them and they bid us farewell. Our first “contact” with Albanian locals was a huge success!
Inka was feeling a bit sick the next day so we took it slow and arrive in Dürres quite late in the day. We had a nice hostel to stay in there, where it was only €10 a night for a private double room with a private bathroom. We decided to stay 2 nights, to let Inka recover a bit.
The morning after arriving, we woke up to a message from a fellow cycle tourer from the US, he was in Tirana, and he wasn’t enjoying it too much. We convinced him to come to Dürres, where he stayed in the same hostel as us. Convinced might be too strong of a word, all we said was that Dürres was nice, and which hostel we were staying at and then he said he was coming! He only planned to arrive later in the day, so we planned an excursion to Dürres. We first went to nearby beach, which was shrouded in fog, definitely one of the strangest beach visits we’d ever had! We didn’t stay long and then took the bus into central Dürres, where we explored the city a bit, got some lunch and went to the ancient Roman Amphitheater.
It is supposed to be one of the biggest in the Balkans, but labelled by UNESCO as one of the Europe’s most endangered important relics, due to lack of upkeep and modern development poses a threat. We really enjoyed Dürres, and came back to the hostel to find that Jim had already been and gone. He arrived slightly later that evening with beer to share. We had a nice evening talking with him about cycling, his blog and our trip. He left about an hour or two before us the next morning, but to our great surprise we met him again 1 hour later close to Lushnje, where we spontaneously stopped for lunch and parted ways for good; him to Vlorë and us to Berat. In the short time we were together he managed to convince us to do the east-west cyce trail across the USA! Next trip sorted! Or was that trip number 3? Or 4? We haven’t even finished this one, and we’re planning new ones already!
We arrived in the city of Berat around 7pm, to have a quick squiz around before finding somewhere to stay for the night. We were cycling up away from the city when Fabian suggested we go down a small side street, as no one living on the main street seemed to be at home or in their gardens. We proceeded down a small gravel road to a jumble of house, probably around 3 or 4. There we were met with waves and smiles, and when we asked to sleep in their front-garden they said yes without hesitation. We spent the evening speaking to the whole extended family, and showing the younger kids our tent and sleeping equipment. When it started to get dark we were invited into the house for hot drinks and sandwiches, and not long after the started offering for us to sleep inside. We gracefully declined, to which they insisted we at least bring the tent within the gated property. We did that and then got a full tour of all the plants in the garden, as well as the animals by the 9 year old grandson. He was very kind and loaded us with grapes, figs and pears. We bid everyone goodnight, but we were woken at around 4am by rain! We hurried to put on our top cover on the tent while they covered their hay. We had breakfast and left with grapes in our pockets.
That day we cycled the hilly but quiet road to Fier. It was a fairly uneventful day, until around 6pm when we stopped for dinner at an unassuming looking restaurant at the side of the road just outside of Fier, on the way to Vlorë. However, upon arrival when we asked for the menu, the owner and his partner said there was no menu, making our ‘this could potentially not be too right’ sense tingle. When we told them we spoke no Albanian, only English and German, they proceeded to shout at us “patata, salata… pula! Chicken, chicken.” We then repeated many times that we didn’t eat meat, “jo mish, jo mish”. They didn’t seem to understand what we meant with not having meat in a meal, as most Albanian’s do, and continued with the phrase, alternating between Pula (chicken) and Biftek (steak). This went on for a few minutes, us continuing to say that we didn’t want any meat, until a young man came up on his bicycle and offered to translate for us. He was also mystified by a meal with no meat, but started to suggest another restaurant around the corner, which the current restaurant owners understoo and started screaming abuse at him. He then backed off and said “sorry I can’t help you guys, these two are crazy”. By then our spidey senses were starting to vibrate, this didn’t feel right… However, they then pushed us inside and sat us down, we started to leave but then they were already setting the table, so we thought we would have a super quick meal and just leave. We then got given hot chips that tasted as if they were done in old oil, a single tomato cut into slices, with half a cucumber cut as well, drizzled with olive oil... Our“salad”. They also gave us two small dishes of what we thought was cheese as well as old bread. This is common in all restaurants in Albania, and is gratis; complimentary. After eating our less than satisfactory meal we asked for the bill, expecting to be charged maximum 600 Lek, but instead got slapped with a 1900 Lek bill. This equals to about €4.50 for 600 Lek, and €14.20 for 1900 Lek. Even though it might not sound like a big difference, it was crazily overpriced and we refused to pay for it, saying we would only pay 1000 Lek (€7.50) maximum, which was still a ridiculous price, especially for what we got. He obviously didn’t like this, and started yelling at us and being quite aggressive. At this point Fabian continued refusing and offering the 1000 Lek bill, and Inka ran outside to the *fortunately* positioned traffic cop outside the restaurant. He did not speak much English, but understood what the situation was, and proceeded to come inside to try and diffuse the situation. The owner continued to yell at us and the cop, and the traffic cop then called in a vanload of about 8 policemen, one of whom could speak English. We told him what happened and they told us to come with them to the station to give a statement. We cycled with them to the station (them following us in the van, holding up traffic and yelling directions out of the window) and proceeded to wait there for our 3 hours before leaving. In that time they could not get a translator to come and take our statement, so a training policemen who could speak a bit of German came in and spoke with us. In the end (what we understood) was that the owner of the restaurant had either been given jail time or a big fine, and we didn’t have to pay anything for the meal. As it was 9.30pm when we finished there, we asked for where we could sleep or put up our tent. The German speaking police officer offered for us to sleep in his garden, and so a very eventful day ended on a good note!
We left early the next morning and carried onto Vlorë, using the highway all the way! What a cool experience! We arrived in Vlorë around 9 or 10, 30kms later. We lazed around there, undecided as to if we wanted to tackle the big climb that day or the next.
We eventually decided around 1pm to attempt it that day, and get as far as we could. We started in high spirits, imagining it couldn’t be too challenging, but 15kms later with only 6kms left but 600 metres still to climb, we saw the road far above us, seeming to rise near-vertically to the top of the mountain pass. It was certainly one of the hardest, most challenging, most curse-word-attracting climbs we have ever done, despite only having to climb up to 1000m. Fabian bought a watermelon (!) halfway up the climb from a local food stand, to eat at the top, and he carried it all the way up. Arriving about 5 or 10 minutes before I did he took a victorious photo at the top, and tucked in. The descent that followed was like the ascent, except on the opposite side of the scale, being one of the most amazing downhill rides we have ever done.
Our goal was to get to Himarë, where we wanted to stay in this bike hostel, but made it to the town about 12kms before when I gave up and said “nope, I am DONE”. We asked the first family we saw if we could sleep in their garden and they accepted without hesitation. They spoke no English, but with the aid of handy ol’ Google Translate we conversed quite well! The evening consisted of dinner that they prepared, eating the rest of Fabian’s victorious watermelon and nice conversation. It ended with them inviting us to sleep inside on their couch! Real Albanian hospitility, or hostility as everyone seems to think about them.
The next morning we were greeted with home-gathered honey from the back garden hives, home made fig jam and home baked bread! Were we spoilt, or what?! We left around 9am planning to only cycled 12kms to Himarë, where we stopped at the bike hostel and stayed 1 night. It was a really cool hostel, that served a spectacular breakfast (included in the overnight fee) and the people working there were very nice. As we arrived there quite early in the day, we spent the rest of the day at the beach, where we happened to meet another fellow cycle tourer called Andréa, who was a solo female Brazilian tourer in her 50s travelling Europe! We spent the evening with her, and convinced her to stay at the same hostel as us. Well as with Jim, convinced is perhaps too strong of a word, we told her where we were staying and she said she would like to stay there too. She was also fed up with the constant up and down 10% gradient slopes since Vlorë. We left together the next morning and strayed apart probably about 5kms out of Himarë, and said our final goodbyes as we headed to Greece, and her more inland through Albania to Macedonia and Serbia (which we would also do but only after going to Athens first, unbeknownst to us).
We had a hard, yet enjoyable day to Sarandë, climbing a total of 1700m but not going higher than 300m above sea level. In Sarandë we stayed at a hostel called Beni hostel, for a cheap €6.30 for one night for both of us. We also got free breakfast with this, which was a yummy sandwich with veges and egg for the veges (vegetarians, basically just us) and sausage for the meat eaters. We then decided to leave our gear at the hostel (for free) and take a bus over the mountain to Gjirokaster, where we stayed at the Stone Hostel, which was lovely. Unfortunately for us, on Booking.com it said that it was €11 for both of us for one night, but that was actually for only one bed… Eek! It was okay thought, as we decided it was worth it because of how gorgeous of a hostel it was, and how amazing the breakfast was! The people there, as well as the volunteer workers, were all super lovely and great people to speak with.
On the way back we decided to forgo the bus, even though it was very cheap (about €1 or 2 each), and wanted to try hitchhiking! We were feeling very confident for the first 5 minutes, but after 15 minutes when nobody stopped, we deflated a bit, and took our thumbs down when a wedding procession came past. However, to our surprise one of the cars slowed down and yelled “Sarandë?” out the window. We gladly accepted the lift and hopped into the car and we sped off. Saying we sped off was in no way an exaggeration, and we can definitely say it was one of the more scary experiences we have had on this trip. Traveling on a sort of straight road before climbing the narrow mountain pass, we drove around 170kms per hour, slowing to around 110kms around slight corners and overtaking every car possible. We were holding on to the seats every car we overtook, as all they did was beep in warning and then swerve into the oncoming traffic. Phew, was that an adventure we will not want to experience again. They slowed down a bit on the winding, narrow road going up the mountain pass due to the road surface conditions, which were very poor. However, upon crossing the pass, and arriving on slightly straighter roads, with a better road surfaces, they sped up again. Just before coming into Sarandë they nearly caused me to have a heart attack as they did the “beep and then pass” thing, but then there was someone in oncoming traffic doing the same thing, so we nearly crashed into them. They laughed it off, and we jumped out of the car about 1km later, shaken and decided that we would never hitchhike in Albania again.
We arrived at Beni hostel with our hearts still doing funny things, and decided we would stay another night. That night we met another young couple from Poland; Matt and Ola. We made plans to spend the next day together and then bid each other goodnight.
We packed up our bags and left the hostel at the same time; us on bike and them going to catch a bus. We beat them to Ksamil with about 10 minutes to spare! The day was spent at the beach and then getting lunch at an overpriced (we later realised) tourist trap seafood restaurant. It was a bit of a disappointment, but the company made up for it. We parted ways at around 2 pm and we carried onto Butrint, where we paid about €2 each for a ferry crossing of about 15 metres… Oh well, we didn’t have another option. We then raced on to the border, and made it into Greece about an hour before the sun set. We crossed the border easily, and camped not 5kms later on the beach after asking permission of the landowner there.
A great start to Greece, and a fantastic ending to Albania!
More to come on our Greek adventures and new friends we made, as well as meeting a few old ones…