Part 13: Unlucky for Some

How much fun was Albania? I’ve just reread AJ’s post and its taken me back there. Awesome! Like so much of our journey Albania for me most clearly demonstrates how we get along and as lucky as we do. The trick is to have a loose idea of where you want to go, what you’d like to see and then get on and see what happens. As you’ll have read Albania took us for the ride and not the other way around, sort of grabbed hold of us and swept us away of its own accord, much to our enjoyment and satisfaction. You really have to just roll with it, and because we did it’s easily the most exciting place that we’ve visited.

So this week eh? We’ve really had to get down to it to be honest, for the following reasons; its gotten very cold, we’ve had torrential rain for a week and I nearly hospitalised us both with poisonous water. Oh and we’ve hit three countries back to back and completed the challenge. Not bad going if I do say so myself.

After such a hectic and wild introduction to the United Kingdom of Albania we made a snap decision in spite of a fierce head wind to chip over to Kosovo for a Friday night for a change of pace since we were so close to the border and it would be rude not to. Now there are a couple of things that I can tell you about Kosovo; the roads are very narrow and the drivers pretty ridiculous, the hotel grading system is slightly misleading and the water… DON’T DRINK THE WATER! After a very restful night in the Jakovo Hotel (four stars, 30 Euro for a twin room, I won the toss for the double bed by the way) and a slap up meal in the Piano Bar – the best restaurant in town and still easily within our budget, we left Gjakove heading back to our adopted cousin Albania, and more specifically the Valbone and the Albanian Alps.

The day started much as any other, cycling, eating, cycling, eating, cycling, you know the sort of thing you do on a cycle tour of 20 European countries in 100 days. We stopped like any other day at a small town with a mountain spring to make porridge and fill up on ‘fresh’ water. We continue toward the border anticipating a big climb that never materialises, we stop at a hotel within sight of the border for some lunch, the whole of the local police force appear to be there, we dine for less than 10 euro for two courses and the owner treats us to free coffee, we tip heavily and cross into Albania. This is the most beautiful border crossing anywhere I’ve seen, the Albanian Alps spike up to the right and the road runs away to the left into a gorgeous valley – its a fast road too and we’ve got it all to our selves. We race all the way to Bajram Curri, gateway to Valbone. At this point the road is nothing more than a dirt track and its 25 km up a step gorge to our destination and daylight is fading, we get moving with the knowledge that wild bears still roam these parts and our progress is speedy for this reason. After 15km I begin to get stomach ache and slow right down – it’s minus three and we have 10 km to go. It’s painful.

We arrive at a lodge as a Swiss couple with a German woman are walking by, we ask if this is where the American, Catherine lives with Alfred and receive the affirmative – Professor Tabaku had told us of this place and we had a message from Sali for Catherine about a French woman who’d written about Albania and Lord Byron – we have a brief chat with Peter, his wife and Fransisca and escape to the warmth of the bar. Full to capacity we squeeze on the end of a table and order some beers. A chap on the nearest table catches our English and introduces himself and the table, Kevin, working in Kosovo on an assignment for the army, Matt working on his thesis about Kosovo and Dave keeping an eye the pair of them. We learn from Dave that the place is fully booked – it is a Saturday night after all – so we introduce ourselves to Catherine and Alfred who are deep in conversation with their builders about some work going on at the lodge. We are kindly offered the guest lodge 1km up the road and gratefully accept, ordering another beer and settling at the table with the other Brits. As all this is taking place I’m feeling terrible, certain that I’m going to be badly ill and sick at any moment. I excuse myself and dash to the bathroom. I was right, I was dreadfully sick and spent the rest of the night being sick with the shits too. Probably the sickest I’ve ever been – awful, properly, sicky awful. Fortunately, the whole population of guests are the kindest people on the planet and do everything they can to help me and make sure I survive. So in no particular order thank you to Catherine and Alfred for finding room for us on a busy, fully booked night, to Peter and his lovely wife for supplying us with electrolytes – the key to our recovery, to Francisica for generally being a saint and making sure we wanted for nothing and drank plenty of black doctor and water and giving up your spare bed, to Matt and Dave for being proper gents and giving up your room for us and to all the staff for making the best food, particularly the bread and soup, in the whole world. Thank you all, we have not only fully recovered but we are firing on all cylinders once more! I say us because Adrian having spent a wonderful evening entertaining the guests with tales of our journey to Valbona, became sick in the middle of the night, and so it was that we spent the next day and night bed ridden and suffering in the freezing mountains of Albania.

Heart rending stuff, I know, but we had to continue our adventure and the lodge was fully booked next day too so back on the bikes feeling less than human and into Valbone to see what we’d set out to. And what beauty did we see. The most magnificent and dramatic mountain landscape of all time – truly, madly, deeply breathtaking! A surreality from the confinement of our sick beds. Down we went ever so slowly down the twenty five kilometres of treacherous dirt track in the most beautiful part of the world I’ve ever seen feeling less than human and again to the town of Bajram Curri and beyond to the remote town of Fierze. For next day we were to sail the Lake Koman, a reservoir in a gorge in the midst of the Albanian Alps. We arrived to this town, bought provisions from the shop, made our way to set up camp when a young punk shouts ‘you no sleep here – this is my place, go!’ What?. We just want an early night and to catch this boat first thing, give us a break. He comes back again; ‘you no sleep here – this is my place, go! Why you no stay at hotel?’ What hotel? We follow this kid a couple hundred metres to the ‘hotel’. Ha! We accept our fate and praise serendipity – the boat leaves from this place – an hour earlier than we were told and the hotel is £2 a night. Hotel in Albanian loosely translates as a building, this particular hut was more tree house than hotel and the wonky external stairs missing a couple of steps and without handrail make for a more ‘Crystal Maze’ experience than that of a traditional accommodation elsewhere. Bear in mind we both still have the shits and are now sleeping an assault course away from the toilet. All I’ll tell you about the toilet at this exclusive and luxurious hotel is this; you know the scene in Trainspotting when Renton is coming off the gear and has to use the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’ – multiply that by one hundred. You’re not even close. Grim times, and a sleepless night.

Easy come, easy go. We’re on the floating minibus destined for the town of Komani and its 6am. It’s FEEZING. And off we pop. This boat is a local lifeline, delivering supplies to remote locations, picking up and dropping off passengers wherever they happen to be or want to go and making a little money from tourists along the way. But seriously a trip you have to make. Its incredible, stunning and without compare. This is the most amazing ‘mini cruise’ of all time. And at just 400 leke – its a steal! Stepping off the vessel we are both glad to reach the other side without incident, however Ade is suffering from some heavy stomach ache and its a good hour before we can leave the town and pedal the 60km to Shkoder. After 36km of very quiet single track road along a series of reservoirs and mountain lakes which conspire to create a very wild landscape, interrupted only by the numerous power lines that string their way from the hydro electric power plant at the foot of the dam where we alighted the tiny boat, we stop in a small town to grab some lunch. Refreshed with lemon chai and a ridiculous amount of meat and chips that we can’t finish we saddle up for the last of the afternoon sunshine bound for Shkoder, a decent nights sleep and a day off to straighten ourselves out. Shkoder is a grand little town with a distinctly Austrian feel to it’s Old Town and a very lush park and a vibrant café culture – close your eyes a moment and you could easily be in any cosmopolitan European city – everyone wears designer clothes and big sunglasses.

So from Shkoder to Bar, Montenegro and our 19th country. We are feeling a little better but still no where near the fitness we had been enjoying – we’re still only managing small meals and are not as strong as we’d like – but we have to make progress, cash is tight since we’ve had to stay indoors more than we would have done and we really have to push on; we’ve booked our flight home and have to be on that plane. A quick shimmy along the Dalmatian Coast seems like the perfect way to end our trip, sun, sea, sand and mountains. Ha! Torrential rain and all that cal more like. We’ve been drowned everyday for a week in some of the heaviest and prolonged showers we’ve ever seen, there is a thunderstorm on Friday that is so severe that we are forced off the bikes – a bicycle is a very dangerous thing to be connected to when lightening is reaching out to the earth with forked snakes tongue. Soggy and amused by the sheer force of the rain that is simply too much to bear we embrace a night in a very hard to find hostel in Budva, the ironically named Sun Hostel. We meet a man called Jerard, who has been everywhere and is en route to Albania in preparation for a road trip next year, so we give him the low down over dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. The next day looks more promising, blue sky can be seen from the breakfast table and we decide its now or never. After the heaviest ‘shower’ of all time we arrive at Kotor, a world heritage site and the rain ceases and the sun appears from behind the clouds. We opt to take a tour of the Kotorski Lake, now I have said already once in this post that Valbone is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to, and it is, but this is something different, something more charming and pleasing, Valbona is rugged, dramatic and awe inspiring due to its remoteness and fierce surroundings, Kotor is something else; the reflections of the mountains in the fjord, the tiny rainbow coloured boats moored at every house, the ancient and beautiful buildings and churches which are numerous make this place more than anywhere that I’ve seen the most complete and delightful environment. The water too – so clear, so calm – it has a very happy influence and brings peace of mind. Lunch is a complete hoot, a cruise ship has landed in town and the place is crawling with tourists – Brits mainly – enjoying the character and charm of the maze of streets that constitute the old town, we are the main attraction and repeat our story many times. One chap has us rolling with laughter when describing the cruise as a holiday ‘newly weds, over feds and nearly deads’ says he ‘and I fit two of those categories’ and we are lolling at that one. After having our photograph taken like zoo animals we move on, toward the town of Hercog Novi, 20km from the Croatian border. So you can imagine how excited we are, its Saturday night and we’re about to cross into the final territory to complete the 20 countries in just 86 days, so excited that we drank some beers in a fisherman’s tavern with a whole family of locals who watched not one but two films back to back and didn’t even notice us save for the fact we kept ordering beers and one of them had to get up to pour them. Yeh, rock n roll, I know. Rock and roll.

Sunday morning, crossing the border to Croatia, country 20 on our list and the successful completion of our Re~Cycle challenge. Well done us!

The more perceptive of you will see that we have a whole fourteen days remaining of the 100 committed to this adventure – I hear you ask; What will you do with yourselves in this time? Will you keep cycling? Or just kick back and relax? The answer is simple; we will continue cycling. Writing now from a hostel in Dubrovnik the ancient fortress city in Southern Croatia, we intend to hop around a few of the islands, flirt up to Mostar in Bosnia, eventually making our way to Ljubljana to fly back in mid November. But fear not! There’s more to come from the Really Big Bike Ride; we’ll be compiling lists of our top ten of everything, reviewing all the gear we’ve used and bringing you a report of the final two weeks of our trip – so stay tuned, there’s sure to be more amusing anecdotes from the best cycling blog in the whole world…

And if like we presume you are one of the sceptics that has waited until we’ve made it to all 20 countries before giving generously to Re~Cycle, now is your time to shine! You can donate from anywhere in Europe by visiting our just giving page. You can also now donate by text message (UK only). It’s quick and easy! Just text RBBR99 followed by the amount you want to donate (e.g. RBBR99 £20) to 70070 and your donation will be added to your next phone bill.

For our four way play through Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia see MAP 12