Cycling along the coastal plains of Illyria

Cycling along the coastal plains of Illyria

I entered Albania fearing this could be a dead end. At least until September 15, the land borders to Greece were closed to “non-essential” travellers. I had first planned to enter Greece by sea in Corfu, but later realized while doing a bit more research about it in Kotor that the ferries from Albania were not running.

Sports cars and horse carriages

After crossing the border into Albania, my attention was simultaneously caught by a giant billboard advertising a five-star hotel for only 130 € a night and a 10 year-old girl running up to me to beg for money. A few kilometres down the road, a man who had seen me cycle by caught up on a motorized tricycle to try hard to sell me a beer. A little further still, I met my first ever horse-car since leaving France. And by the way, in case you ever wondered, even a fully loaded touring bicycle is faster than a horse car. Right from the border with Montenegro, Albania appeared to me as full of contrasts. There were decrepit concrete buildings facing fenced garden villas, horse carriages sharing the road with shiny black Mercedes and Audis, mosques neighbouring churches on the towns squares, opposite to bars advertising that “you can’t buy happiness but you can buy beer and that’s kind of the same thing” or some other creative slogans.

Since I was not in a hurry, I began my stay in Albania by spending three nights at Camping Legjenda in the southern suburbs of Shkodër. The camping was certainly more than I needed, but it was beautifully designed and cheaper than a hotel room. The camp site was built around a central circular pool, and supplemented with a small hotel, bungalows and a restaurant. Everything was lushly vegetated and carefully designed to a multitude of tiny artsy little details by the owners, a retired English teacher and her husband who seemed to be both artist and architect. It felt like a luxurious camping, and I must admit that I spent two days there behaving like the guest of some hotel de luxe, moving little more than between my tent, the restaurant and the pool.

On my first night, I met and dined with Roman and Susan, an Austrian couple who had cycle a similar route to mine. They planned on going to Greece if that was possible, and otherwise take a ferry to Italy where they would cycle back northwards. The camping had a few more overnight guests, but for most of the days, I had the entire place to myself. The owners were trying to make up for the lack of guests by using the time for renovations and construction works. After a morning coffee, the atmosphere was at work, and this was a good motivation to do some on my own. So I did a long overdue maintenance on my bike, cleaning the chain, making sure that none of the screws holding the mudguards and especially the racks were rusting, and adding a drop of oil where it felt needed. Then I tried to catch up on photo work and blogging.

When the third morning came, I left Shkodër southwards under strong tailwinds. At first the traffic felt a little chaotic, and the large dusty boulevards I felt more like the streets of Hanoi than the rest of Europe. But I quickly became used to the new rules and eventually felt much safer in Albania than for instance in Croatia. Car drivers were apparently used to share the road with slower traffic, and almost systematically slowed down before overtaking me. Horning was very common though (as if cars are not loud enough) and it took me a bit longer to get used to that. The quality of the roads was very variable. I cycled the first few kilometres on a brand new and largely empty highway, then ended up on a road that had once been asphalted but of which only few patches remained, before falling back on a beautiful secondary road through the Torovicë valley. I had lunch in Lezhë, then I wanted to see the sea for it had been a while. So I cycled to the nearby coastal town of Shëngjin.

There were multiple camping places along a sand bar stretching out from the town but apparently all of them were closed or had otherwise been so little attended they now looked more like trash dumps. In the city, large hotel and apartment complexes were being built massively and just about anywhere, engulfing a previous generation of cuter businesses in their high concrete walls. I felt as if De Panne or some other ugly beach resort was just popping out of the ground, all at once and right before my eyes. I hesitated to wild camp or sleep on the beach, but felt the place was too urban for it, and so I ended up taking a hotel room instead.

A long day in the sun

The next day was one of my hardest since leaving France. I quitted Shëngjin early and cycled back to and through the town of Lehzë in heavy traffic, then took a quieter country road following the edge of the plains. There was a strong, hot wind coming down from the mountains to the east. In Milot, the nearly 1 km-long rail-and-road bridge over the Mat River was in such poor condition that its bumpy asphalt apparently sustained several competing car repair shops. I cycled through the town of Laç where, as in much of Albania, the primary business was lavazh, followed by its derivatives lavazh tapiceri, lavazh bar, lavazh restorant, and lavazh kafe. So I stopped in a cosy-looking, shady, leafy lavazh kafe, not to get nice shiny looks for my blacktacular Surly LHT (yes it’s really called so), but only for the kafe.

As I was trying to greet all men who turned their heads to look at the strange visitor, so everybody sitting in the cafe, a person whom I later understood to be the owner invited me to sit with him. He spoke very little English but I could understand that he had worked in Italy and later came back to Albania to open the cafe. I explained that I aimed to travel to Greece but that the border was currently closed, to which he replied “ah, no corona”. As many others in Albania, he believed that the coronavirus was little more than a political machination. I tried to explain that we had had several cases in the family, and that it was a very real sickness. But no, “no corona”. This got me angry of course. At the same time though, I could understand how people here felt this way. The country had been little affected but Europe was enforcing strict restrictions. While I had travelled all the way from France with only an ID card (I did not use my passport even once), Albanians could not go travel anywhere without an expensive PCR test, or a cheaper fake PCR test, and certainly not into the EU. So I changed topic. Eventually the owner insisted to offer me the two espressos. Albanian hospitality.

In Thumanë I left the foothills and turned west, onto a road which I thought was paved but eventually became so rocky and bumpy that even the Arenberg cobblestones would have been a smooth ride in comparison. After a few exhausting kilometres, I was stopped by a farmer, who spoke only Albanian, but compensated by speaking lots and lots of it. I understood a very little percentage of what he said, but he was so talkative that it made for an almost decent conversation. I could communicate that I had cycled from France and was on my way to Durrës, that I was not a farmer but used to work in a school (sort of). I understood that he was shocked to find a cycle tourist here in the middle of the fields, that I should go on and meet the asphalt again (good), that I would need to push my bike up hills (how true) before seeing the beach and turning left to Durrës, and that I must have had good calves to cycle all the way from France, but maybe some issues with my brain (again spot on).

The climb that came next was only 200 m high but I think it was the steepest I had yet encountered. I managed to cycle some way up, and had to push my bike for the rest, stopping often and sweating like a fountain. I passed by a few villages in the hills where everyone stared as I cycled by, all their heads rotating in pace, for when Albanians stare at you it is not a sneaky Scandinavian kind of stare, or an even more discreet Japanese kind of stare, but a frank, opened-eye, facing-you kind of stare. I was feeling tired, regretted this little hook through the countryside. I had chosen to avoid Tirana fearing heavy traffic there but maybe I had better cycled through the capital after all.

And so I realised that for the first time on the tour, I felt some kind of homesickness. This was a feeling I had last experienced when living for one year in Japan, and never before on a bicycle tour. I missed a more familiar place. Yet at the same time, I could not pinpoint exactly where that place was, for I had spent the last ten years moving around the world according to the various job opportunities that showed up, never quite feeling home anywhere. Also for the first time, I considered to stop cycle touring. It was not really that I wanted to give up. Instead it somehow occurred to me, with a sudden and clear certainty, that bike touring would just bring me this far. I could certainly keep doing it for a bit, perhaps should, but at some point, I would need to use a different vehicle, at least for a bit. I also remembered a conversation I had with a friend in early July. She asked if I was gone cycling around the world, and I replied to her that I first aimed to go once around my head. To this she cooed in admiration for she said it sounded much more adventurous, and that I should certainly write a book and please let her know if I ever succeeded. I finally cycled down from the hills hungry and thirsty and stopped at the first opportunity. Yet another pizzeria.

The day was not yet over though. It was almost mid-September but the Albanian skies remained desperately blue. I was approaching the suburbs of Durrës on a tiny road when, suddenly, without any kind of warning, there was a right angle turn and I was on the motorway. A real four-lane motorway with cars driving 100 km an hour and a concrete fence in the middle. I had planned to cycle across the motorway and onto a secondary road on the other side but it did not occur to me that there would be no bridge. After a few kilometres of madness, and meeting a scooter driving against traffic I found a tiny exit. I cycled over a bridge where a bus honked its way through pedestrian traffic with doors open, probably just in case someone would like to jump in.

I was tired, had a headache. I made a last stop in a dusty alleyway bordered by equally dusty pines on either side. The remains of a fence and a concrete cabin suggested it perhaps lead to an old communist building. I was surprised to notice I had nearly cycled 90 km. No doubt I was tired. Besides, I was thirsty, but I thought the water from the morning’s hotel tasted bad and I was cautious about drinking it. After a few more kilometres in the city, I finally reached the Durrës seafront, an endless alignment of beachside hotels, bars and pizzeria curving along Albania’s longest beach. By then, I just wanted a room and a bed. I stopped in a bar to get internet access and ended up sleeping in the hotel right above it.

Pine forest and sandy beaches

The next day went better. For much of the morning, I cycled on secondary roads parallel to the coastal motorway, sometimes busy with local traffic, sometimes largely empty despite looking almost new. At some point, the road turned into a narrow dust lane, so that restaurants that were once on its side now faced an aluminium guardrail and traffic running 100 km an hour. I cycled another shabby-looking road-and-rail bridge in Rrogozhinë, then turned again left on a secondary road through coastal plains and rural villages, that led into the town of Divjakë and the nearby Karavasta Lagoon, both of which are part of the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park.

The most interesting part of the park are a series of quickly evolving sand dunes that have been colonized by high pine trees, and now dam the lagoon. They are connected to the town by a 2 km-long road and a beautiful cobblestone sidewalk through the swamps. I stopped at the visitor centre where I met Johnny, a Dalmatian pelican with a broken wing that had been tamed by the park. Picnic tables had been set-up under the pines and a guide took me through the small exhibit and pointed the main sights of the park. The National Park was in such contrast with chaotic city I had experienced the previous day, that I wondered if I was still in Albania. I asked the guide if I could camp in the park, to which he recommended that I pitch my tent in the yard around the visitor centre. Since I was not also guaranteed that Johnny would be OK with it.

It was still mid-afternoon so I cycled to the outermost sand bars where I had a swim and approached a group of wild pelicans as close as felt not stressing to them. Then, I cycled to the end of the sandy road, which led to a small tower with views on the lagoon, where other birds, flamingos, could be seen in the distance. I came back to Johnny’s yard right on time to watch the sun set from a much taller, concrete tower built overlooking the sea by the visitor centre. Before setting up my tent, I talked a bit with three guys around my age, drinking a beer while they smoke weed, each of us enjoying our own culturally approved drug. After that I had polenta with kaçkavall, a delicious Albanian sheep cheese similar to the Italian caciovallo, and a canned tuna salad. Johnny was apparently very curious about the later, and came out of the dark dandling on its huge palmed feet towards me. For a minute I wished I was better at deciphering pelicans’ facial expressions. I was not sure how to react when the dinosaur came knocking his 40 cm-long beak on the picnic table.

Johnny’s bodyguards on the other hand, a group of four or five dogs trained to watch over the bird’s security, were quick to adopt me as another pelican in the garden. One of the dogs in particular apparently dedicated its night to protect my tent from all kinds of dangerous creatures, such as cars, motorbikes, birds, horses (not sure where they came from), humans, the neighbour’s dogs, and some other threats that I could not see. I did not sleep much but you would have clearly no chance to steal my bike that night.

For much of the next morning, I cycled very pleasant country roads from Divjakë to Fier. I was prepared for a few kilometres of gravel roads but found asphalt instead. I was caught up by Simon, the first bicycle tourist I met since Shkodër. Simon had cycled all the way from Germany to Sweden, and the from Sweden to Albania, but today he suffered stomach ache and stopped in Fier for the night. From Fier to to Vlorë I had little choice but to cycle on the main road. The quality of the road was again very variable and correlated to traffic, but all in all it was a pretty smooth ride. Shortly before Vlorë, the road went up through olive gardens in the hills, where it would have been easy to set up camp. The road was border with other impressive trees, with peeling trunks and thick sturdy leaves, which I later identified as eucalyptus.

Vlorë was the last Albanian port where I could possibly take a ferry to Italy. I settled in a gorgeous little flat in the hills above the city centre, and decided to wait for news about the Greek border crossing.

The route (4 days, 312 km)

Photos

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