Cycling in coastal Labëria or the Albanian Riviera

Cycling in coastal Labëria or the Albanian Riviera

Official sources informed that border crossings overland between Albania and Greece were closed to non-essential travellers until September 15, 2020, pandemic year 2020. It was September 15 though, and nobody seemed to have any idea of what would happen tomorrow.

Three months on the road

On the morning of September 16, I had been travelling for exactly three months. A quarter of a year. An entire summer of bicycle touring. Northern France, Switzerland, the Alps, all of them seemed so far away now. In three months, I had received no salary besides the little distance job I did while in Zürich, nor had I made any effort towards a new full-time job. In three months though, I had achieved much more than at anytime during my professional life. I had cycled more than 3000 km in 13 countries, and had taken better care of me than any time in recent years.

On the morning of September 16, none of the official sources from the Greek government, the European Union or the French embassy in Greece had been updated. But an Albanian newspaper cared enough to publish a short article in English announcing that the travel ban was extended to September 30. Bad news, but not unexpected. Talking with Albanians I actually later realized that this is what had happened to them every two weeks since May. Any other news would have been surprising. Meanwhile, I rented a gorgeous studio in the hills above Vlorë. The place was tiny but both incredibly unconventionally and very practically designed. There were amazing views over the city and the sun setting seawards.

When I settle in a new place, I typically unmount the bike, have a shower, and hurry go explore the surroundings in search for a quiet coffee shop where I can sit and write and do photo work. But the place I rented was so cosy that I just really wanted to stay there. Besides, there was a small kitchen. So for the first time since staying at my friend’s place in Zürich, camping meals and a quick pasta plate in Kotor excluded, I went shopping and I cooked. Just for myself. Italian style of course. Zucchini, pepper and tomato sauce. Pasta and Kaçkavall, an Albanian hard-paste sheep cheese similar to the Italian caciocavallo. Without olive oil and herbes de Provence, it wasn’t quite the real thing, but the vegetables were so tasty I could have eaten them raw.

I pondered on my opportunities. I could remain in Albania, settle somewhere on the seaside, read books and relax, wait to see whether the borders eventually opened. Nothing indicated this would happen anytime soon though. I could head westwards to North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Some 700 km of mountain roads and three coronavirus tests later, I would in principle be able to enter Greece by road from Bulgaria. Or I could even skip Greece entirely and cycle directly to Istanbul. On the other hand, I could also take a ferry across the Adriatic Sea to the Italian port of Brindisi, eat a pizza, and take another ferry from there to Igoumenitsa in Greece. It was ridiculous and expensive but it would work. Or I could take a ferry to Brindisi, eat a pizza, and continue my travels in Italy, maybe go visit Sicily and mount Etna. Or, perhaps most tempting of all options, I could take a ferry to Brindisi and just eat pizzas. But I had made a promise to visit the Cyclades, and I was keen on keeping it. No, I needed to go to the Cyclades.

Then, there came surprising news from Jean-Miguel that it was apparently possible to cross the Albanian-Greek border with a European Union pass. A motorcyclist who stayed at the same hostel with him had somehow managed it. So I told the owner of the flat that I rented that I was leaving the next day. In the worst case, I would enjoy a little tour of the Albanian Riviera, and come back to Vlorë through Girokastër, delaying my ferry transit to Italy by a few days. Then I went down to the beach and relaxed.

While cycling through the Albanian plains, I had had this feeling of homesickness and loneliness. Twitter must have known about that, since I began spending there much more time than in the previous weeks, dropping a little comment here and there, looking for some kind of social interaction in the digital realm. What I saw there though, did not really appease my moods. Enormous fires were burning all along the western United States, the smoke of which produced visions of doom in the American coastal cities. In western Europe, thé temperatures were shooting above September records. The last remaining ice shelve of the northern hemisphere had just disintegrated, and beautiful satellite images came from all over the Arctic, of glaciers and ice caps showing more bare ice, and less snow, than ever.

It was not only the planet that was not doing well. Academia was not doing well either. Ex-colleagues seemed to be suffering from an epidemic overdose of online meetings. Some were loosing their jobs, and inevitably, others were overwhelmed with requests for paper reviews. The journal Nature was blaming it all on the pandemic, others on the politics. My personal, unpopular feeling though, was that academia had become unsustainable from within, and that the recent events had just finished tipping it off balance. Old friends and colleagues suffered, but I was now a disempowered online witness, no longer part of the story, partly because I no longer had the energy to be part of it. So as I lay there on the beach in Vlorë, the sound of the waves behind my ears, empty bars in the direction of my feet, I decided that I had to drop it. So I said goodbye and closed my account.

A pass of seas and clouds

I felt really bad about it. Twitter was my last remaining link to the academic world, and to some extent, to the rest of the world. I felt I was a climate denier, protecting myself from disturbing scenes in order to preserve my comfort. I felt I should be working for free, getting a couple of papers out and writing proposal after proposal, like normal researchers do. And I felt stupid for feeling so. Perhaps above all else, I felt I was failing my mentors, talented and humane people who had given up their weekends, nights, and family holidays when I needed them to help get my degree or my next job. But it was just as evident that I could no longer carry the Twitter item in my bags. I needed to lighten up, to take some weight off the bike. Maybe science break is like heartbreak after all. At some point you need to drop it, at least for a while. Dear Academic Twitter, I’m always up for a good talk after we both get over this.

Friends wrote back. People I had not met in years. The first person who wrote was someone I had had a good chat with on a bus ride in Alaska, eight years prior, a PhD student like me then, who had since become a very influential and inspiring person. She was one of these people who seem to carry a bike-load of smiles and positivity whenever they go. Her message was very short, in the lines of “I’ve left academia, no regrets”, but this was enough for me. Enough to know that contacts outside the academic world were watching over me, and that there would be very exiting job opportunities out there when I would be ready for them.

After some 20 km, the road became so steep, that I finally had to stop thinking. I had left Vlorë a little late in the morning, and it was getting really hot again. Besides, I felt that cars drove here faster than anywhere else in Albania. I was cycling up the Lljogara Pass, a 1000 m high road between the Mediterranean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea or, to be more precise, between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, the transition between which being loosely defined as the large strait that separates southern Albania from Italy. The pass road was mostly climbing straight up-valley, with an uneven gradient and sections well to steep for comfort. I could feel the pressure drop in my ears, and blood pumping into my head, precursory signs of headache, though perhaps symptoms of changing weather rather than altitude in this case.

I stopped for lunch in Llogara, some 250 m before the pass, in a largely empty restaurant where unattractive signs advertised “ravioli, pizza” and “open”. Tables had been dressed up in a garden under the pines, and a large fountain provided water to colonies of honey bees, and soothing music to the restaurant guests, which was only me for now. I ate there the best ravioli in my life. The dough was elastic, the cooking perfect. The pasta were filled with spinach and home-made ricotta cheese. Six ravioli were disposed in a circle on a plate, with a slightly cooked half cherry tomato between each, the juice of which mixed with a light herbal lemon sauce. The centre of the plate was decorated with basil leaves, under which lay hidden a full cherry tomato and a dried or maybe even lightly smoked, tip from a herb I used to grow on the balcony and loved but what was it… Ah yes, sage! The other side of the mountain was actually covered in sage. The owners were so kind they offered me a baked cornflower paste mixed with honey as dessert.

This was ample energy to ride the last few, steep switchbacks up to the pass. On top of the road, pine forests disappeared and let space to an arid mountain slope plunging a kilometre down, straight into the clouds. The Ionian Sea was like the Adriatic Sea except that it appeared not filled with water, but with clouds. There were clouds above my head, clouds on the horizon, clouds below my feet. In the distance, the silhouette of a mountainous island popped through the clouds. An oblique world of clouds without top of bottom. I lost all sense of altitude. The air was moist and cool, almost autumnal.

On the way down from the pass, which was as steep as the way up, I cycled past a huge flock of goats. The goats had bells that must have had carefully carved curves, for their sound was nothing like the animal bells used in the Alps. The sounds of the bells melted into one another, and it sounded as if the entire flock was orchestrating some sort of symphony of the clouds. At lower elevations, the air became steamy hot. As if the ravioli were not enough, I made a stop in Gjelik where I now ate the best börek in my life. About when I took my first bite in the crispy dough and the fresh mountain cheese, rain started pouring heavily outside the store. After all these weeks of sun and blue sky, the rain felt like some kind of supernatural phenomenon. The temperature dropped by several degrees. When I took the road again, I was getting tired and my head started to ache.

The coastal road was constant ups and down. Small canyons cut through the steep mountain side and ran down to the Ionian Sea below. As I was reaching the top of yet another hill, two guardian dogs decided that my bike and I were a serious threat to the house. While I was changing gears to begin the downhill, the dogs jumped off the two-metre high wall that separated the house from the road and started racing behind my bike. I am not sure what happened next, but I was already cycling at 20 or 25 km/h when one of the dogs actually managed to catch up and to slow down the 100 kg of me and my bike. For a while, I even wondered if he had bitten the rear tire. Maybe he caught one of the straps on my panniers and let go. I hoped the dog did not hurt itself, but did not take the risk to cycle back and have a look.

Later there came more rain, this time light and cool, like a Scandinavian summer rain. Eventually I had to fetch my rain jacket from deep in the bags. It was the first time I used it since walking the streets of Split and, I think, the first time I wore it on the bike since cycling out of the Alps and into Bled. I stopped at a small camping in Hiranë, where Ina, a local mountain guide and improvised English translator between the staff and me, explained that all the guests but her had left the place following a storm warning. The Medicane, the Mediterranean Sea’s occasional pseudo-tropical storm, had built up north of Tunisia and was due to hit the Greek coast overnight. Little more rain fell overnight, but some wind gusts woke me up in the later part of the night, after which I had trouble to fall back asleep.

Getting ready for Greece

Only 50 km separated Himarë from Sarandë, but the coast road never took a rest. It was hill after hill. Actually, I found it amazing that there was a road at all. The region felt more remote than the rest of the Albanian coast. On this side of the Llogara Pass, the culture seemed a bit different too. Mosques had become a rarity and were replaced by tiny blue-roofed churches attended by bearded priests in long black robes. I was getting closer to orthodox Greece. In Sarandë, I booked again a little studio for three nights, time to do some research on Greece, get a coronavirus test and fill up an entry form.

On my first morning in Sarandë though, I preferred to begin the day with a slow fruity breakfast on the balcony, a beach walk and some photo work at a café under banana trees. In the afternoon, I visited a small private medical laboratory. A queerly designed little place with diplomas and conference participation certificates framed on the walls, and a central desk protected by both a transparent glass and a collection of potted plants, which actually made it very hard to even see anything. The doctor could not speak much English but let me understand that the lab was closed for the day, but that I could come back the next morning for a test, of which I would receive the results the day after at twelve. He then reached out for a piece of paper and wrote “14:00”. When I asked how much the test costed, he painted an imaginary one and two zeros on the front window and added “euros”. “Yes, American company, very expensive”.

I walked back to my apartment not knowing what to do. Was I really going to pay a hundred euros for a mere piece of paper, which I was not sure would get me across the border at all? Or should I just cycle to Kakavië and get more up-to-date information there? I took out my laptop and began to fill the Greek authorities’ on-line entry form. Travelling by bike was apparently not a respectable option, so I had to pick the car category, and enter “bicycle” as my car plate number. Throughout the process there were constant reminders in red letters than yes, I really, really needed a test. At some point I clicked next and that was it. I had submitted the form. My first address in Greece was a random lake in the mountains not too far from the border.

On my second morning in Sarandë, I eventually went to get the test. As I entered the tiny lab, a man was exiting the place unmasked, nose bleeding, holding a tiny balled-up tissue drenched in blood in his hand. He put the red tissue in his pocket and used the same hand to pick up a large pile of 1000 lek notes from his wallet and loosely drop them on the doctor’s desk. I wondered what were my chances to actually catch the virus right here. Then it was my turn. The doctor sampled my throat and both nostrils, which was uncomfortable but not painful, then reached for a piece of paper and told me to come back the next day at “18:00 to 19:00”. Luckily there was an option to edit the online entry form and inform that I would enter Greece a day later. As this would leave more time for cycling, I also corrected the address for the nearest proper camp site in Ionnina, 100 km from Sarandë. Then I extended my accommodation to spend one more night in Albania.

On my third morning in Sarandë, I planned to cycle to the nearby archaeological site in Butrint, but I woke up feeling like doing nothing much but sip coffee and write. So I sipped coffee and wrote, trying not to think too much about what the test result would be, and whether or not I would be able to enter Greece. Yet after lunch, I could not resist passing by the medical laboratory again, just in case my little envelope was ready for pickup. The doctor must have recognized my face now. He was busy giving a phone call and I was going to leave and come again in the evening when I heard my name. “A few minutes”, he then said. As I sat there in the tiny waiting corner of the already tiny lab, I suddenly wondered what I would do in case the test came out positive, an eventuality I had not really even considered until then. What was I meant to do then? Would I be released to nature with instructions to hide deep in the forest? Would a police car come by to lock me up in a hotel room for two weeks? Then the doctor told me that I had done “very good, Julien”, and handed my negative certificate, a 100 euros worth piece of paper with my name and a QR code, and a little envelope just for the form. I worried that the paper did not bear my ID card number, but the doctor guaranteed it was hidden in the QR code. I was good for another day of wishful thinking.

Almost ironically, as I stood on the balcony of my rental flat that evening, a large ferry boat passed by in the distance. All ferry traffic between Italy and Igoumenitsa actually runs by just in front of Sarandë, between the Albanian coast and the Greek Island of Corfu, a strait only two kilometres wide at the narrowest. The ferries across the straight on the other hand, were parked here in the port of Sarandë, for several months now, and no one in town expected them to leave it soon.

The route (2 days, 136 km)


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