This is another one from my Honza’s blogs, shortly HLOG’s. See others here.
This time a retrospective story about our trip to Albania in 2006.
Pro several years, we had dreamt of wilderness, tall mountains, steep slopes and roads that, amongst cyclists, are the word of legends. Anybody who learnt that we were planning to travel to Albania on recumbents, bringing all the baggage with us on the bikes thought us mad. However, this only stoked the fire of desire we felt burning within us.
It’s August 2006 and we are on the border between Montenegro and Albania, with two border officials inspecting our passports. To get here, we followed a narrow tarmac road which carries on pass the barrier, winding further into the fields beyond. After a while, we are let through and find ourselves in the dream “Land of Eagles”. The smooth tarmac peters out and turns into coarse gravel. The first hour is awful. We are having to learn how to control a fully loaded recumbent bike on loose stone and determined to struggle up each hill. But the roads are equally determined to get us out of our seats tumbling to the ground, successfully so several times. With the motto “one lost battle doesn’t equal a lost war”, we press on. With every metre, our riding gets better and better and at the start of our climb to the first Albanian mountain pass, we manage to rock and roll our way along the gravelly road without much trouble, even allowing ourselves a glimpse of the beautiful view and taking delight in the untamed wilderness around. I think I had never seen anything like that in Europe before. The limestone rock formations might be likened to Italian Dolomites though there is not a sliver of tarmac, four-star hotel or GoreTex-clad alpinist tackling a ferrata in sight. We only see potholes under our wheels, stone shacks built into the steep slopes and an old man on a donkey. However, that only accentuates the absolute incredibleness of this place.
For our entire journey across Albania and Kosovo, there is not one kilometre of a straight road to ride on. We are either scaling one of the many mountain passes or burning the brakes on descents. It is the same this evening, when we are scrambling up to a pass separating the valley of the Vermosh river from the valley of the Cemi river. For many kilometres now, the chain has not moved from the smallest crank and the largest disc. On a climb like this, one cannot dream of using a gear other than the lowest one. At last, we are there. Up on the pass. It’s getting dark. There is just us and a small group of guys standing around a couple of trucks. We make our way under a shelter built next to a shipping container that was obviously once used by a Belgian haulage company. As usual, we have immediately become the centre of attention. The container serves as a restaurant and supermarket in one. We take a seat and order our first Albanian beer. The men gather round and in a babble of various languages, they begin to quiz us on anything and everything. As soon as one leaves, another curious mind appears. The party carries on into the night. In the end, having arranged so with the owner, we pitch our tent right next to the container.
At least our bottoms are not battered by narrow saddles and our arms not strained from bearing down on the handlebars.
In the morning, a long descent to the river awaits. Over three hours, we drop by almost 1400 metres. Not a great distance to have travelled, but to let loose on this kind of road would have been suicide. Fully loaded bikes weigh a few dozen kilos and Eliška especially has her hands full trying to tame her steed. What is more, one cannot know what a piece of rock might do once a wheel runs over it. One could easily have a serious problem on their hands. It seems the locals know what crash barriers are only from books and the precipices are very steep indeed. At least our bottoms are not battered by narrow saddles and our arms not strained from bearing down on the handlebars. Our recumbents have pretty comfy seats, with the handlebars nicely within reach below. At the bottom of the valley, there is a river, a road and some rocky fields with a dwelling or two dotted around. From here, all the two-thousanders around seem to be as high as the Himalayan giants. A truly breathtaking view.
Several days later, we are only in the next valley but have actually many more kilometres under our belts because we had ridden all the way down to Lake Skadar. Now we are hammering the pedals once again, trying hard to conquer yet another mountain pass. It is more than 50 degrees, the last time we saw any shade was two hours ago when we had lunch. We sat under a small rocky outcrop, about half a square metre in size, squished together like sardines. Now we feel like we are in a genuine hell. All around us is just limestone rock from which the rays bounce back, as if aimed directly at us. We are sweating buckets, at least the local ant population is getting a shower. This climb really is treacherous. Four hours ago, we almost rejoiced, we had thought we were nearly there and a blissful descent was awaiting. Like hell we were. The road did go down at one point but then it led us onto a mountainside where it was once again snaking on, to infinity and beyond. At present, we have no idea how many more kilometres lay ahead, but there is nothing we can do. Before, a few off-roaders and lorries rumbled past, once we even hitched a lift. But for the last two days, all we saw was just one car jam-packed with people anyway. We have no choice but to keep pedalling away.
In the evening, we find ourselves in a small pub, deep in the valley. We are each nursing a pint and looking either at each other or at a huddle of men sitting with us. Talking is impossible. The place is filled with the shrill notes of the so typically eastern yet specifically beautiful music, blasting at full volume from a newly acquired no-name hi-fi. Our bodies feel like they have gone through the wringer. The descent from the mountain pass was almost thirty kilometres and then it took another twenty to get here. When I stopped at the bottom to attempt a few snaps, my hands were hurting from braking so much that I nearly dropped the camera. Tonight, we are meant to sleep in a room that used to be the local doctor’s office, from which the landlord has a key. So, let us wait and see…
Albania is a country that has totally blown us away. After every bend came a fresh surprise, every single kilometre was a challenging adventure. I can safely say that we have never been so full of incredible experiences and emotions, just as we have never had to endure such an arduous workout. Normally, we don’t go back to places and countries we have already been to, after all, there are so many more worth seeing in the world. But Albania has captured our hearts and we are going back this year.
NOTE: Developments in Albania in recent years are enormous. Most of the roads we drove on in 2006 are already paved today. The overall infrastructure is improving and this country with its beautiful beaches and breathtaking mountains is slowly becoming a great place for tourists of all kinds.