It was three o’clock in the after noon when Alan and I crossed the border at Koptik to pass from Montenegro to Albania. We had just cycled what I believe to be the finest road since departing the UK. After a relaxed lunch on the beach at Petrovac we began a two and a half hour ascent from the coast into the clouds of the searing hot mountainside.
The climb itself was a long winding affair of switchback after hairpin followed by steep gradient. Ranging from a tough 8% to a quad popping 15%, our recent visit to the shop to refuel revealing its true weight in earnest, pushing our resolve to the limit on a baking Wednesday afternoon.
Stopping occasionally to take a photograph with the remaining change left in the camera meant that Alan easily over took me, nothing to do with the fact that he’s half man, half machine, the few shots we did get hopefully capture some of the enormity and magnificence of this particular landscape.
Once at the summit, having consumed a full 1,5l of coke and the same quantity of water the view was quite spectacular. Like a piece of asphalt spaghetti dropped from great height to create this long sweeping path down to the sea.
After a brisk few kilometres through lush wooded yet rocky terrain the valley opened up and gave the way to a vast expanse of green leading down to Lake Skader (Lake Shkodra) in the far distance. This side of the valley was the gift that just kept giving. A descent so long and delightful that after 15 minutes of sheer thrill and exhilaration cruising at 37 km an hour, the feeling that this must end soon, only for the road to dip down once more and roll onwards for another 12 minutes was quite the unexpected reward of a grueling climb.
If you have appetite to cycle a wonderful road that takes in coastal resort through to unspoilt verdant lakeside splendour then I urge you to cycle this road. One way or the other! Once at the lake we refilled our drained water bottles, took a light snack of nuts and biscuits and set forth to our next country; Albania.
A ray of light escapes the clouds overhead to shine brightly on a hillside village along the road from Shkodra to Tirana, catching the colour of the houses painted a collage of pinks, blues, yellows; yet more shards glimmer onto this most fortunate place; orange, green and red complete the medley. The scene is not unlike that of a summers day in the Lake District in the north of England. Reminiscent in the way that the small village is surrounded on all sides by huge peaks striking up towards the sky.
The towns as we pass through are a frenzy of activity. Bunting criss crosses the road. Swarms of people throng the streets with intent. Much advertising space is devoted to political figures; communicating a simple message and a number alongside a friendly mugshot. The election is less than a week away. At small bakery at the side of the road Alan and I discover the nations secret delicacy – amazingly the only items available in the shop – freshly baked bread and soft cheese triangles.
Since my last visit much has changed; roads are busier with even more German automobiles – Mercedes is the preference, driving being a relatively new skill makes the roads exasperating at times; liberal use of the horn, impatience and erratic overtaking are de rigueur for the majority of motorists. The Italian style is still the premier choice for home furnishings, interior design and fashion. Luxury designer labels are prominent. Even the farmers wear Armani Jeans in Albania.
Our arrival into Tirana is greeted with a brief rain shower in which we were caught momentarily; I insisted that I could find the Tirana Backpacker Hostel from memory after nearly four years having entered the centre from the opposite side of the city – doggedly I turned left then right through puddles and side streets until Alan called an end to the madness and took shelter near to the University (very close to where I thought the hostel was).
While we waited out the worst of the rain I asked a pregnant mother if she would mind Googling the address for us. Thankfully, she did so and the marker pointed us a mere 1,200 meters down the main boulevard. Not bad me thinks for an intuitive guess. Upon arrival I immediately realise that this is a new building and crossing the threshold in a flurry of smiles and damp hugs the team inform us that they had indeed moved twice in the four years since my last visit and in actuality the original location was just twenty metres from where we had stopped to ask for directions!
We check in for a well earned rest after 10 days straight of 100km days for a couple of restful and relaxing nights. Alan intent of maintaining his 5 day advantage over his predicted schedule planed to leave on Friday morning. I really wanted to continues cycling with Alan onto Northern Greece but having a few jobs to do and plans of my own to confirm I decided to stay on the rest of the weekend.
I was invited to a midsommar party over at the Trip N hostel by Camilla a friendly Norwegian celebrating the longest day in the traditional fashion. It was Friday night so I ventured across with my new Dutch friend Danielle, our German comrade Stefan and the always cheerful Eddie the Albanian, our trusty barman at the hostel bar.
Beyond fashionably late, we arrived just as the group were heading out to a bar. Happily Eddie being the man bout town knew just the place an swung us straight in to the Nouvelle Vague. A happening joint brimming with Albania’s bright young things. I got talking to a group of twenty-somethings about this and that, they were out to celebrate a birthday. One of the chaps, Ayre, lean and swooning like Jagger had a bevvy of beauties at his side. I struck up a conversation to get close to the action and enjoyed a few potent shots of Tabasco infused liquor.
Albania is a country undergoing massive change at breakneck speed. The place feels torn between the Socialism of old and the wanton materialism and commercialism of its modern Capitalist ambitions. The multiple religions of the country seem to coexist peacefully enough, perhaps this new nation can successfully manage these huge cultural and economic changes too.