Part 12: Albania Uncovered

Albania has a bit of a dodgy reputation for some reason. We approached the Balkan’s very own wild west with apprehension, I didn’t know what to expect. Peasants shitting in the streets, bent cops after our cash, gun toting drug barons lurking in the shadows and desperate thieves sniffing around our wheels! If rumour is to be believed then these are some of the sketchy folk we’re likely to come across in this part of the world… It’s a good job we don’t care about rumours, but is this really the most backward country in Europe? Is cycling here as dangerous as people say? What are we getting ourselves in to? There’s only one way to find out…

It was 7 degrees when we arrived, our hands and feet were freezing, our shoes and gloves still saturated from 2 days of persistent rain. But there were plenty of distractions to keep our minds off the weather as we made our way around the stunning mountain lake, Ohrid, which forms the border between Macedonia and Albania. We could instantly tell we had entered a country which is still going through a lot of change. Towns are filled with busy sites of semi built apartments, shops, and restaurants. Playful children run around the construction workers and push each other about in wheel barrows. Modernising seems to be top of the agenda in most places but you don’t have to go far to see the old ways. We pass scores of market stalls at the road side, a man stands beside a fish tank full of fresh catch brandishing an enormous eel in one hand and a pair of carp in the other. Families trade vegetables and warm their hands up on open fires. We leave the lake and make our way west. As we continue down the valley we see what look like fountains. These are the hoses of enterprising villagers making the most of the recharged mountain springs by setting up car-washes for the passing traffic. It’s all very entertaining.

As the evening approaches the clouds begin to clear, the hills open up into a fantastic luscious dale with hay stacks laying out in the meadow. We stop, admire the view and take a photo. We’re scoping out the camping potential when an elderly gentleman comes bounding down the road exclaiming about the remarkable beauty of the scenery, his face is illuminated with enthusiasm, wise wispy eyebrows perfectly white, he insists we join him for a coffee on the porch of a nearby building. Our new friend is Professor Sali Tabaku. We do as we’re told, sitting on the terrace Sali orders the furniture to be rearranged for us, sends for some coffee and raki and kicks straight in with some poetry recital! His English is perfect. “My heart is not here, my heart is in the mountains chasing the wild dear” I’m stunned and slightly embarrassed, the first person we speak to in Albania is an expert on English literature and I haven’t got a clue when he asks us to name the poet. “That would be Burns” said Jim. Well I’ll be damned! We soon learn that Sali is also one of Albania’s most respected experts on the work of Lord Byron, a national hero. We explain that our journey started in Nottinghamshire and the Dukeries where his Idol once lived, the professor was thrilled to bits and declared that it was most certainly the spirit of Byron which had bought us together that fateful night.

So, not exactly what we were expecting from our first encounter with the Albanian people. I had been lead to believe that very few spoke English in this country for a start. Next we meet Alkid, his father owns the cafe we’re drinking in. At only 16 he also has a good grasp of English, he explains about his studies and his life, he points across the field to his family who are bringing home their cow. He explains that they use it to make their own yoghurt and cheese. His father runs over excitedly and speaks to Alkid, he suggests that we stay with the family for the night, we accept and he rushes off again to kill a wild hen and roast it on a wood fire to mark the occasion! Our first day in Albania. An unforgettable experience.

On our way to the capital, Tirane, we meet with Professor Tabaku again. We’re spellbound by his stories, a remarkable man. His English language skills have taken him far and wide. He was even assigned the role as interpreter for the first ever visit of the England football squad after the country opened it’s borders in the 90’s, but that’s another story. Over coffee and croissants we have a crash course in Albanian life, history and politics. We could have happily chatted all day but we needed to get to Tirane. He helped us find a road map (a rarity in this country) and instructed us to take the route over the mountains where he declared we would be amazed by the pure unspoilt view. We’d previously been told to avoid this road but we had faith in Sali. We headed up the mountain looking down upon the skeleton of the old factories which employed most of the city in the communist era. They are derelict, charred and disintegrating now, a piece if history. We climbed onwards to a ridge, Professor Tabaku was right about the view, it was astounding. The incredible road flattened off at a height of nine hundred meters, we glided along for an hour! We were much higher than any of the other peaks to our left so we could see for a hundred miles, and there on the horizon, the Adriatic!

As luck would have it our visit to Tirane coincided with an international football match, Albania vs Romania. We decided it was an unmissable opportunity so we rallied together some folk from our hostel and went in search of a tout. It wasn’t hard, there is still a huge black market over here, every other person had tickets for sale so we got sorted for three quid each. The stand we were in was a bit quiet at first but we sorted that out. At half time I befriended some local students who taught me a footy chant in Albanian, they assured me if I sang it loud enough everyone else would follow. Being loud is one of my finest talents so I went along with it and sure enough the whole stand burst into life! I was proper chuffed. I couldn’t tell you much about the game, I was having too much fun singing and chatting with our new friends. After the match we all went off to the university campus. Spirits were high, our new crew proved to be absolute legends, anyone would have thought Albania had won the world cup if they’d seen us all that night. Good times!

We only stayed for a couple of nights in Tirane but we got a good feel for the city nether the less. We’d heard horror stories about the roads and the drivers but in reality we found it quite fun. I certainly felt safer on a bike than on foot. Nobody really sticks to the rules but drivers have good awareness, well they need to. Roadworks are pretty interesting, essentially the same as back home except there are no traffic lights or cones etc, you just ride straight through them and keep an eye out for the diggers. Simple.

Back on the road on our way north the insanity continued. Most of the major roads we’ve used have been really good and new roads are been built all the time. Minor roads that pass though towns and villages are a different story though, most are in terrible condition. It seems here that the Albanians have managed achieve what councils back home spend millions attempting to do, traffic can’t move more than twenty miles an hour. We progressed slowly after we left Tirane, sticking to quiet roads with our stinking hangovers. We had been advised by Professor Tobaku that we should always camp close to houses so that we would be safe, we followed his advice and found a spot on the outskirts of a small town. We were safe alright. Within minutes a small crowd had surrounded us, drinks were fetched, wood was collected and a fire was lit. The local boys played cards with us under the full moon until we were ready to turn in, then a man from a neighbouring house fetched his old Merc and parked it between the road and our tent. I jokingly asked Jim if he reckoned the guy would sleep in his car like a security guard. Guess what? He did. Welcome to Albania!

In search of a quick way to the Albanian Alps we decided to try out the infamous ‘new road’ a mysterious motorway that links the country to neighbouring Kosovo. Just completed, the new road is the country’s most expensive infrastructure investment but I’m not quite sure who’s supposed to benefit from it. It has been carved through the mountains, there’s no major cities anywhere near it. At one point the road bores it’s way through a mountain for over 5 kilometres, just before the entrance to the tunnel we spot two men at the side of the road. It was the police, they beckoned us over. Through a series of gestures we established they weren’t going to let us ride through the tunnel. They instructed us to wait at the side of the road. After half an hour a small truck came by and the police man flagged him down too. The next thing we knew we were in the back of the wagon with our bikes and dropped off at the other side! Unbelievable. It’s not your average motorway and some people haven’t quite got the hang of it yet either. It’s not unusual for people to drive the wrong way up slip roads and I had to pinch myself when I saw one car belting along the other side of the motorway in the wrong direction. By five we’d seen enough so we pulled over in a small village for the night.

There wasn’t much to this tiny place but we asked if we could camp there for the night, the man didn’t speak English apart from the one phrase which every Albanian knows – ‘No problem’. Pleased with our day we went to the nearest cafe, ordered ourselves a beer and got chatting to the owner, Viktor. Suddenly the tin roof started to rattle, we went outside to our bikes. Storms at sunset are a beautiful sight. The fruit salad sky was amazing but the prospect of camping didn’t look quite so good. We put our bikes under the verandah and waited it out. Meanwhile some of Viktors friends showed up, it seemed he was a very well respected chap, his friends even greeted him with a kiss on both cheeks. After the café closed the storm worsened and he suddenly returned, insisting we must come with him. We politely declined his offer but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

We followed him nervously through the stormy night to a nearby building. There were big metal gates, the building was huge with bars on the windows. No lights were on. We entered through a large steel door. There was a middle aged man standing in the entrance, he was tall with receding hair and sunken eyes, he was holding an axe and some chains. I said hello but he didn’t reply. Oh fuck, I thought to myself, we’ve been kidnapped by the Mafia!

We were shown to our cell and Viktor returned with a light bulb which was connected by a short length of cable to a plug. He stuck it into the wall and the room lit up to reveal a blackboard and five rows of little desks. “No problem!” Viktor grinned “You sleep here!” He’d pulled some strings with the school caretaker! The gangsters rearranged the room for us so we could lay out our camp beds, the scary axe man went off to cut some wood and lit the small pot bellied stove in the corner of the classroom. We were toasty warm that night but our heads were spinning, overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

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For the route see MAP 11

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