Armed with my negative covid test, my digital entry form, and my European Union passport, I left Sarandë on the first day of Autumn. Astronomical summer had come to an end, but the weather did not seem to cooperate. It was 8:30 when I carried my panniers down the stairs and set them up on the bike, and I was already sweating.
Gates of the stronghold
I do not often listen to music on the bike, but the road between Sarandë and the Greek border was one of these few occasions. I was both thrilled and stressed. I had received an email overnight, with the link to a barcode I downloaded to my phone, which felt like a green light to enter Greece. But I worried whether my covid test would be recognized by the authorities. And I worried if it was a real test at all. So I took out my headset and listened to Deggial, a twenty-years old album by Swedish band Therion. The slow rock rhythms and the repeating classical melodies seemed anchored into time and helped bringing me back down to Earth. In the nineties, the band had decided to hire professional opera singers to sing along their gloomy, chewy, all-guitar doom metal, and it had become, well, Therion. The band’s style had somewhat evolved since, but their last album was again a three-hour block of exactly just that, only with a much higher budget. Some fifteen years ago, Deggial was the album that had gotten me into metal music in the first place, and I still loved it. The music kept me going without letting my brain float away too far from the pedals.
I was so well organized, that I had left Sarandë with exactly zero lek, leaving a generous tip to the young waiter of the last evening’s pizzeria. My wallet contained a twenty euro note and a few leftover Croatian kunas. There were some 45 km and 800 m of hills to the Greek border. The road ran across a large coastal plain, then up a low mountain pass, before a gorgeous downhill into the valley of Girokastër, which looked like nothing I had seen of Albania so far. The landscape was completely dried-up. The fig season had come to an end, and pomegranates were not yet ripe. There were scents of mint and sage in the air, and it was as bloody hot as usual.
The last few kilometres of road to the Greek border were, once again, largely empty of traffic. I felt tensed, wondering how this would go. This was, I think, the first time in my life that I dreaded approaching an international border. I tried to prepare for the worst, tried to remember that I was only travelling for fun. I tried to think of all the migrants, who took bids on pretty much all remaining years of their lives when crossing borders, and much higher risks than just having to cycle 200 km backwards. But still, I really hoped I would make it to the other side and that all this border crossing madness would end. When I reached the border crossing in Kakavië, the Albanian police warned me gently that this was not going to work. But I asked to talk to the Greek police instead, feeling that I had all the necessary documents and that, between fellow citizens of the European Union, we would perhaps understand each other better.
So I crossed the 200 m no-man’s-land to the Greek checkpoint and was really surprised to discover how secured and militarised the border actually was. The Greek policeman asked where I was from, whether I had filled the online entry form, and whether I had a negative covid test. I replied French, yes and yes, got back to my bike to fetch the test results. Then the guard told me “go Bulgaria”. At this point I was probably expected to quietly get back on my bike and began cycling towards Bulgaria. But I think I instead said something like “what?” Then the policeman shouted “go Albania! Go Bulgaria! Go! Understand? Go, go, GO!”.
By the way, I never can get out of my mind that “go” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for barking dogs: “go, go, go!”. I pointed at my bike and tried to explain I would need one week to go to Bulgaria. Ignorance. I asked the guard whether he spoke français or Deutsch. “No understand.” I tried to explain in very basic English that travel information online had not been updated for a week, pointing to my phone: “internet, no information. I don’t know. Sarandë people don’t know.” “Go Bulgaria,” he said again.
So this was how the Greek protected their border against pandemic uncertainties. Staffing the border with under-educated watchdogs who don’t speak a single foreign language and rewarding them with a promise of power. Maybe a technique inspired from our cousins from the United States. I felt really sad for our beautiful Europe. If this was the damage a virus could do, what would happen to it in the later part of the century, when our continent would need to deal with climate change and mass migrations? It only occurred to me much later that the guard’s behaviour was weird. Why did he ask for my entry form and covid test if he had no intention of letting me go? Later that day, I thought the policeman was maybe after a bribe, and that this was perhaps part why such fuzzy restrictions were in place to start with. I have never bribed anyone in my life. But it would have been a good place for a first time, for what I ended paying to enter Greece was much more than the twenty euros note I had left in my wallet.
Had I not had a plan B, at this stage I would probably have tried to cross the border illegally. I was totally closed to it a few days earlier but I had heard accounts of European Union pass holders doing it these days, although it still remained unclear whether the border restrictions would eventually be lifted and how much trouble one who be exposed to trying to leave Greece after entering it on an isolated forest road. I had a plan though. So I decided to shut off my brain and stick to it. I called back on Therion for help. Their last album was one I occasionally listened to when trying to complete a heavy task at work and did not plan to take a break for long. The Beloved Antichrist, a three hour-long, exhausting, recurring monolith of a rock opera that never leaves a break, is exactly what I needed now. Then I began cycling back to Vlorë as fast as I could. I did not remember what the regulations were to enter Italy, but I aimed to be in the port by the next morning, before my test became 72 hours old.
Race against the time
For the first few kilometres, I had to battle headwinds, but at some point, it seemed that the wind itself changed his mind about going to Greece and began to push me northwards, and downhill. The road was large and smooth, the landscape gorgeous. But I was speeding through it. Mountains and valleys appeared before my eyes and were soon after behind the wheels. When I turned my head sideways, rivers and trees drifted backwards. Even the opposite side of the valley appeared to be in motion. I felt absent to the scene, as if watching it through a TV screen. I have never driven a car, but I wondered if this was the feeling one gets when driving one. It was both thrilling and excitingly dangerous.
The album was nearing its apotheosis end when a farmer shouted loud enough I could hear him over the music. “Hey, ho! Deutsch, italiano?” The man was watching over a few cows and a small flock of goats, quietly sitting on the highways’ railguard as if he had been here all day, absolutely stoic to the long-haulers honking horns and loudly speeding downhill just behind his back. The man did not speak anything but Albanian, but his communication skills were significantly higher than those of the Greek police and we had a relatively long conversation, drawing numbers on the ground to fill the gaps. He wanted to know where I came from, where I slept, and how many days I had been on the road. He said he would like to cycle to France, but that he would need an invitation letter for that. He thought that Albanian economics and politics were good to wrap in a potato bag and beat up to the floor (or something like that). In comparison France was a paradise. And it would be hard not to agree after cycling for two weeks here.
He also interested to know which of France and Germany had the strongest economy, picturing some kind of European domestic products ladder where Albania was deep down a few centimetres from the ground, Italy and Greece somewhere in the middle, France and Germany at the top. This is what people here really wanted to know, I thought. Where in Europe to send their families to help lift themselves out of mafia-imposed poverty. I had had a conversation about that with another man in Sarandë. I had asked naively when was the next election, and if he hoped to see change, but the man explained the government in place was so rich they could buy the votes they needed. A pretty outlandish concept when coming from a functional democracy, but easier to believe after seeing all the chaotic hotel building and the collapsing houses, the expensive cars and the horse carriages. I thought again of the 100 euros I had paid for my useless covid test, pictured them joining a big cloud of Albanian leke flowing out to some giant American pharmaceutics firm. The cows and goats were quite far into the neighbour’s field when the farmer let me understand that he would really have to go get them back now. Still he invited me to eat and sleep at his place, I think. I declined, first because I wanted to get as close as possible to Vlorë, and second because I had no leke in my wallet.
It was only when I got back on my bike, and when the road began climbing again, that I realised how tired I was. I had stopped once for water, at a spring so abundant it fed a dozen restaurants on the roadside. I was stunned to realise I had cycle more than 100 km. Funny what anger does. I had eaten only a few dry figs since morning and had a strong headache. There were delicious-looking restaurants and markets on the road side, but this was deep Albanian countryside where credit cards were not really useful. The sun was getting lower, and I realised that I would want to cook something before dark. There were plenty of options for wild camping here. I settled by a lake which was, like the rest of the landscape, completely dried up. I still had some precooked polenta and a restover of instant tomato soup. I did not have enough alcohol fuel left for two pots so I mixed them both and added a good pinch of dry sage from the Llogara Pass. As for cheese, there were enough goat shit on the ground to imagine it was in there. The result came out surprisingly well. Or maybe I was just desperately hungry.
When I finished my dinner, the night skies above my head were crystal clear, but the southern horizon was blinking constantly as if Zeus and co were having some kind of disco party on their cloud in the distance. Around three in the morning, I was woken up by some light wind gusts and the sound of distant thunder. At five, I woke up again feeling drops and got out of the tent to set up the rain fly. Then I woke a little longer, trying to figure how distant the storm was by counting seconds that separated the lightning and the thunder. I woke up again at seven, ate breakfast under the cover of the tent. When the rain stopped, I got out of the tent. The air was fresh and the skies filled with clouds. Autumn was here.
Autumn clouds and a gravel road
By the time I finished packing up, it had begun raining again. I had a vague memory that ferries to Italy left Vlorë in early afternoon of most days, and thought I could still make it to the port by then. I cycled up the rest of the uphill, then there was a long downhill again through a narrow valley. The road was build in Japanese style, only the concrete coatings were missing. There was heavy engineering and road cuts everywhere, revealing the geology of the mountain sides. Iron beams drilled into the unstable slopes, one of which had already collapsed onto the asphalt. I met a special convoy fetching two gigantic concrete beams, each perhaps 20 m long, very slowly up the slope.
Then I turned onto a secondary road, which was unpaved, and soon became quite rough. I hesitated to engage on it but quickly passed by a bar where I could get both water, and the confirmation that it led to Vlorë. I cycled there about twice slower than on the main road, but would also save half of the distance left to Vlorë, 70 km according the the last sign I had seen. There was an impressive old concrete bridge over the river, armies of dogs that I did not manage to calm down, another talkative farmer who invited me to come home and eat. I declined again. Another painful reminder if needed, of how unpleasant it is to travel fast.
I cycled up a hill, pushing my bike at times, not that I was tired, but walking was not slower than cycling on this terrain. The rain had finally stopped, but everything around felt like autumn. The air was cool and moist, the vegetation all dried-up from months of sun and blue sky. The ferns that peopled the mountain slopes had turned brown, blackberries into inedible dried bits of fruit. And all of that was readily fertilised with goat poop. I wondered if there even remain any square metre of Albania that was not covered by goat poop. The mountain was full of small villages, treacherous to reach with normal cars. There were installations that looked like oil drills from another century. After a long shaky downhill, where I was almost as slow as on the way up, I eventually met the asphalt again. Around noon, I was back to the coastal port Vlorë, with its now familiar streets, its cycling lanes, and its Western European feel.
There were two things I really wanted to do before boarding the ferry if time permitted. The first was too urgent to omit. I went to a supermarket where I knew I could pay with a credit card and bought snacks and fruits for the crossing. Then I cycled to the port. Maybe you are familiar with this experience of searching ferry timetables on the internet, ending up with a long list of ferry booking websites, and spending the next ten minutes trying to figure out which of them belongs the actual company running the ships. In Vlorë, as it turns out, one can actually enjoy the same experience in the physical world. As my long race against the time was finally coming to an end, I was simultaneously approached by half-a-dozen men all trying to sell tickets to me. I learned a couple of things there. First, there were no ferries today. Second, it did not matter whether I had an expensive covid test or not. Third, I did not need to rush at all because the only condition to enter Italy was that I had not visited Montenegro for fourteen days. And it was exactly fourteen days today. So I said I would come back the next day, and went for the second thing I really wanted to do. A swim. In the Adriatic Sea.