You say goodbye, I say hello

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September 4th 2013
Published: September 12th 2013
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Albania via Pogradec > Korca > Erseke > Leskovik > Permet > Gjirokaster > Livadhja > Butrint > Ksamil > Borsch > Dhermi > Vlore

I’ve been reunited with Dragana (the bike) and have to say my heart skipped a beat on seeing her. And now we’ve been together again for just over a week it’s like no time has passed between us. Actually, that’s not totally true. After an absence of bike riding for over a month, whilst I still knew how to still ride a bike, the going was er, a little tough.

Riding along Ohrid Lake was nice enough but not like the gorgeous road around Skardar Lake in Montenegro. But as first days back in the saddle go, this wasn’t a bad one. And the monastery of Sveti Naum, just near the Albanian border, well, that wasn’t the total spiritual experience I had expected either. All theme park atmosphere just out of the monastery’s grounds - hawkers selling all sorts of tourist claptrap, restaurants, swimmers. Well it just wasn’t my cup of tea. But interesting to observe.

No one waiting to exit Macedonia and no one waiting to enter Albania meant that I was processed pretty quick smart which is always a bonus. And then, there I was, back in Albania as simple as that. Border crossings I always find so interesting because it is the differences from one country to the other that seem so pronounced on first sight. For instance, the lake appeared different here which probably had more to do with the fact that the water was choppy and grey as opposed to the blue of earlier in the day when I was still in Macedonia. The sun lounges and bars seemed a little more run down. There were not so many tourists around as there were in Macedonia and, the litter, well there just was a whole lot more of it (which actually is a very Albanian thing). And then there are the children. Little boys to be exact who can be a total nuisance as these two who approached me were. Hello. Hello. Where are you from? I was taking a photo at the time and not really concentrating but as they circled my bicycle, one on either side I thought it best to be vigilant. Baksheesh? No baksheesh. Then one of them started mucking
Playing Dominos at PogradecPlaying Dominos at PogradecPlaying Dominos at Pogradec

Also being played was backgammon and chess.
around with my gears whilst the other was eyeing off what was in the pockets of my panniers. OK time to stop being nice. I told them basically to um, get away but rather more crudely. This wasn’t quite the welcome I thought I would receive here in Albania.

Fortunately this behaviour was countered by some extraordinarily helpful behaviour from a lovely young woman, Adriana who came to my rescue when she could see I was struggling to be understood. Oh the joy of not knowing a word of Albanian other than thank you, yes, no and goodbye. She kindly found a hotel and then proceeded to negotiate the room rate for me (I probably could learn a thing or two from her about using my own womanly ways to do this although feel I’m somewhat disadvantaged by looking like I’ve been through the wringer, dressed like a pauper, wearing sensible shoes and twenty years older). If only I’d known about this power earlier… Ah yes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Still if you can get a surrogate to work that magic for you then that’s also a good thing. So that was my (re)introduction to Albania and spending the night in Pogradec.

The following morning it was a bit of a nightmare trying to find the right road out of Pogradec. Ofcouse I should have known it was the one going up. Signage seems to be an afterthought – if a thought at all. And then I had my second experience of being hounded by young boys on bicycles. Riding alongside me, hello hello where are you from (so sick of that question but I oblige anyway). And then there is the pulling on my occy straps which I simply can’t tolerate! It reminded me of getting bra straps pulled at school. Anyway, that’s my tipping point and all of a sudden another tirade of abuse ensues. Think they get the picture.

Onwards, upwards and then a lovely view of the Ohrid Lake and then an even more lovely downhill. Oh yes, two uphills so far, a number way higher to go but as the road SH3 is a major road leading into neighbouring Greece this is a road more about speed than beauty. Although there weren’t that many cars or trucks on the road for a dual carriageway and the mountains to my left separating the two countries really did look gorgeous (except for another group of juveniles who thought it funny to pull on my occy straps too – what is it with that????). Still the road got me into Korca which I thought on first glance must surely be one of the ugliest Albanian cities but, as it turned out, is quite the opposite and has a lovely old quarter and a lively centre. I simply had the misfortune of taking the wrong road and ending up in the squalid, havoc wreaking market area where a run in with a taxi driver put me in a bad mood. Like I needed any encouragement after the morning I had!

So Korca, as it turned out, was really quite pleasant. I just had to give it a little time. Hmmmm. There may be a moral to the story there. Plus, Korca has its own brewery and it’s quite a nice beer to have at the end of the day.

Now, if you were to look at a map and see my route you’d think, um, she’s hardly moving. You’d be right. I’ve decided (like I need any encouragement!!) to
At the end of the dayAt the end of the dayAt the end of the day

A Korca beer in Korca
make my days shorter as I adjust to being back in the saddle and because really, what’s the hurry. If I do say so myself, it’s been a wise choice.

The SH3 continued on to Greece and out of Korca. I however took the SH75 which must surely be one of the most beautiful roads Albania has to offer. Beautiful for the scenery that is, and so not used by any other vehicles other than local minibus traffic. Blissful but very, very bumpy. And potholed. And steep in parts. And climbing. But beautiful.

Sometimes I go off and be a bit more of a tourist and ‘see the sights’. Generally though only if the sight is up to 500m from the main road and preferably on a tarmaced, straight one. I guess you know by now I don’t often get to see much that’s off the road I’m travelling on. But on the road out of Korca was a prehistoric burial site that the guidebook said was one of the largest of its kind in the Western Balkans and the largest in Albania. Ofcourse I had to have a looksee. Whilst I wasn’t disappointed in the sight per
Potter's kickwheel in KamenicaPotter's kickwheel in KamenicaPotter's kickwheel in Kamenica

It was very uncomfortable and there is no way I would be able to centre anything!
se, it was really interesting with a thoughtfully laid out information centre complete with English text. But I was probably more interested in learning about Francesca the young 17 year old who was my English speaking guide and her life. Both actually made for a fascinating morning.

I stopped in the village of Kamenica to have something to eat. It’s always difficult to find somewhere to lean Dragana where there are not a whole lot of brambles or thistles and with some kind of shade. Fortunately I found some trees out the front of a house. The owner came home (on his bike!) and we exchanged hellos. Then he motioned me to come and pick some plums from his trees. Not satisfied with the three I picked he went and picked about half a kilo. Enough enough please. And when the neighbour got wind that I was being provided with fruit he could not be outdone. Off he went and came back with apples. I thought I would end up lighter after lunch, instead I ended up heavier. But gratefully so.

[Now, I’m back in Macedonia and although I’ve been meaning to update the blog it just hasn’t happened. All of the above happened in just three days. Oh dear. So, to get some traction and not fall behind even further with the blog I’ve decided to list things in some kind of topical order. Here goes…]

The Road(s)

By far the most beautiful road I had the pleasure of travelling on was the SH75 via Erseke, Leskovik, Permet and Kelcyre and on to where it joins the SH4 to Gjirokaster. This road was strenuous with the highest pass at Qafe e Hazerit at 1522m. But oh so beautiful especially through the district of Kolonya. And particularly varied. Through pine forest, by now dry agricultural land, high plateaus providing amazing vistas and occasionally these purely stunning views of the mountains that separate Albania from Greece, the Gramoz mountain range. The guidebook did say however that the gradients were easier southbound (the route I took). Oh yes, but for this privilege I owed big time and payed it back, and then some (!!) on the road from Sarande on the Ionian Sea to the Llogorase Pass. It was 1055m but I went from sea level to the pass in 13km. It was the longest and hardest road
Mollas CemeteryMollas CemeteryMollas Cemetery

Christians and muslims buried side by side.
I can ever remember doing. By doing I don’t mean I just cycled. It was a bucketload of pushing and a heck of a lot of stopping. I would put this road down to harder even than Trsa in Montenegro. I did get to look down on that exquisite turquoise coastline – often. So I guess that was the silver lining. Climbing northbound involved only 10%!g(MISSING)radients minimum and no shelter whatsoever from the sun. First time I went to the toilet was at 3pm. Is that too much information?

The People

I’ve said it once but what the heck I’ll say it again. The Albanians I found to be the most helpful, friendliest and hospitable people in the Balkans. Except, and there are exceptions to every rule, along the coast. Oh my goodness. There they are just like any other people who know they are sitting on a goldmine and exploit it to the max. I’ve never felt like I’ve been taken for a ride quite as much as I did along the Ionian Coast. Not nice.

But on a more positive note, the people in the mountains are so, so curious and eager to engage in conversation. I guess it’s not that often that a tourist comes along that they can actually stop and try to have a conversation with. Most of them whizz past in cars and buses. So when I come along, travelling at just beyond walking pace it gives them ample opportunity to try and have a chat. I remember particularly well one young boy on the road out of Leskovik. Here he was, lying down comfortably talking on his mobile whilst the goats he was in charge of were doing their own thing. I thought this was an opportune time to take a few photos of the goats (really, can you ever have enough photos of goats?). Next thing I know he’s behind me asking me where I’m from and the usual questions. And then he wanted went off to find the youngest kid for me to take a photo of. Honestly, I was thinking, I’ve already got enough photos of goats but OK. He seemed so proud of this kid how could I refuse. Then after our goodbyes I rode a little further and took what must be my squillionth photo of a shrine and there he was
Just after BarmashJust after BarmashJust after Barmash

A very powerful socialist monument.
again. This time with an offering of a can of beer. No really. OK but I won’t drink it now. (All the while thinking what on earth has a 12 year old got a can of beer in his pack for? He claimed he was 15). I gave him a couple of granola bars which I thought much more sensible for someone his age. There’s me being all maternal. And, as I rode off, and I was some distance away, I heard him call out after me “I love youuuuuuuuuuuu”. Hee hee. Really?

And then there was the young girl whose parents owned the hotel at Leskovik. She was only 15 years old and spoke perfect English. I told her so. She said I spoke English well too. She was being serious. Er, thank you?

Let’s not forget the fellow travellers/tourists who I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting along the way. There was Cyrille the French astrophysicist (“I work on space projects”) who I met shortly after goatherder boy. He too was on a bicycle with all brand spanking new yellow Ortlieb panniers which have made people mistake him for the postman in the past. We were
Looking back from where I cameLooking back from where I cameLooking back from where I came

Which included the pass of Qafa e Hazerit
heading in the same direction and ended up cycling together – for the first day anyway. It soon became apparent, but came as no surprise, that we cycled at different paces. Still, he was very patient and above all shared my passion for all things sweet. And, even though we didn’t end up cycling together as such, we did meet up at the end of those two days we were heading in the same direction to have coffee and cake together before dinner. Now that is very civilised. He was also a true gentleman or at least someone with a conscience. He rode back to check on me one day as a man in a car had stopped him and told him (through sign/body language) that his “wife” (indicating wedding finger and maybe thinking I was his wife?) had been bitten by a dog (making dog sounds (?) and biting moves on his arm). Cyrille rode up to me. Are you OK? Yes, why? He told me the story. My theory was that the man was telling Cyrille to stay with his “wife” because someone might attempt to kidnap her. But I’ll never know. My theory cannot be proven. Strangely
Coming down into LeskovikComing down into LeskovikComing down into Leskovik

Greece is on the other side of those mountains.
enough though, after Cyrille had checked on me and found that I was indeed OK and we went about our cycling as if we were alone (ie separately) I later came upon Cyrille He was standing on the opposite side of the road with one leg of his shorts pulled up. What happened? As it turned out, a dog chased him (30km/h) and he ended up coming off his bike. That dog was still there and made no attempt to chase me and looked actually rather sweet. Must be those bright yellow panniers. Bizarre. Maybe the man was telling him to be careful of the dog afterall?

Then there was Werner who I met in Leskovik (what was it with that place?). He was travelling with his campervan and revisiting the Balkans he had travelled through on his honeymoon 50 years ago and exploring new places too, like Albania. Werner had stopped in Leskovik because he was a little confused about which road to take. By the time I met him I had already cycled 8km out of Leskovik and back thinking I had taken the wrong road. Werner put me straight. He said it was impossible to ride the alternative road as he had just come from there and it was a potholed and gravel one. A couple of locals also stopped and asked if we needed help. They put us even straighter. No, the road I had come from is definitely the better road to get to Permet. Ugh. Here we go again.

Sometimes when you travel at my pace you do meet people again. I met Werner again at the camping ground in Ksamil (which by the way must surely be run be the most hospitable people, Yulinda and Alexander, who were always providing cold drinks and iced coffee, figs, grapes and on one occasion, pastici, to their guests). Werner was quite surprised to see me again. He said he did not expect to see me alive which I think is a little melodramatic. The road wasn’t that bad but it was narrow, maybe a little potholed and included a lot of uphill (and ofcourse downhill!). Anyway, we went out to dinner and talked about the road and had the most expensive meal ever in the process. The road was forgotten and we spoke about being ripped off for days after. (I met Werner again on Llogara Pass where he kindly stopped and offered to take me and my bike in the van (no thanks). Even then we talked about the difference in people along the coast. Even then we spoke about the price of the dinner. And, when I see him in Duesseldorf, even then the meal will come up in conversation. I know it).

I also had the pleasure of meeting Val and Dave, a wonderfully warm and laidback Irish couple, at the Ksamil camping ground. I felt very comfortable in their company and it was so nice to talk about our Balkan experiences. And much more interesting for me to hear about their time in Africa. A truly amazing couple. And let’s not forget the lovely Italians Sveva and Stefano who shared the roof with me at our camping ground. They were kind of like roomies in a big open space (see photo). That camping ground was a magnet for interesting people with interesting backgrounds and interesting stories. It was hard to go.

And then there was my roomy in Tirana, a fellow Australian, Andrew. Apart from telling me I need to find a job pronto when I return to Australia so my taxes could help fund his travels (he is a pensioner) we would talk about what we had done during the day. I listened or asked questions as I didn’t’ do all that much in Tirana (no surprises there, although I will say that the National Art Gallery’s socialist realist paintings are brilliant if you’re into that kind of thing) but what really struck me and thought was very endearing was he wished me sweet dreams every night. I haven’t heard that in a loooooooooooooong time.

The Cars

In Albania they are mainly black, or silver and the latest and greatest and preferably German. There’s a lot with foreign number plates (including American!). All this can make it a bit confusing too when you see a couple of feet hanging out of the car in what appears to be the driver’s side when it’s coming towards you (!!!) only to realise at the final moment it’s a left-hand drive vehicle. Phew. But still. It’s one thing I really won’t miss about the country. The driving is truly atrocious and self-centred. It’s my way or no way and you’d better get out of my way. That’s why I ended up at the last minute (4pm from Fiers) trying and take a bus to Tirana. I got tired of the ridiculousness of it all and, thankfully a minibus was the answer. Dragana and my bags took up all the of the luggage compartment. I may not be an astrophysicist but I do work on my own space projects.

I think, now that I am actually in Macedonia and having experiences accumulating here, I will end on that note before I get even more behind…

Albania was truly beautiful. I loved the northern highlands, which apart from being so very picturesque, were a wonderful introduction to the country. And the landscape of the south was just so varied, wild and remote. These were my landscape highlights which were only enhanced by the hospitability of the Albanian people. I would highly recommend spending time in Albania – just have an open mind, don’t rush and get out of the driver’s way.

Additional photos below
Photos: 69, Displayed: 35


The road from LeskovikThe road from Leskovik
The road from Leskovik

enroute to Permet
Shrine number ?Shrine number ?
Shrine number ?

Dedicated to St George

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