The Hot and Endless Way

Road to Valbona Pt2

So we quietly slipped across the border and found the Montenegrin wild, we were apparently in a village but there was no sign of it, not so unusual around these parts. We decided to stay high in the mountains for tonight, save our descent to the coast for tomorrow. So in the corner of a small field with a beautiful stone wall surround we planted ourselves down. It was a beautiful spot, only slight downside was the barking dog. Which went on for a lot of the night. I didn’t sleep well. I awoke to the sunrise and the remnants of the scene that kept the dogs barking, I guess. My small purple rucksack was way over in the middle of the field lying next to the red raincover that had been on it. And there was a lot of poo! On the grass near our bikes, on our water bladder and on my purple bag. The poo smelt distinctly of goats cheese. Hmmmm. An unknown wild animal had during the night made off with our Trebinje cheese, as well as my homemade bread bag and a large piece of cheese cloth. She had really had to rip the bag around to get into it, severing several webbing straps and leaving pieces of fabric strewn about the field. She obviously over indulged and the stuff had passed through her very quickly indeed. At least now we don’t have to worry about finishing the cheese before this relentless sun spoils it. Also we did have another hard cheese from the market. Now we have another mending project on our hands too.

After this rather eventful morning we got on the road and it was almost entirely down hill to the coast and Herceg Novi. We would also be rejoining the EuroVelo8 route, which was a cause of great excitement. It was still so hot. We found a store and stocked up on foods before setting off along the coast. Oh to be by the sea again. It has been a real long time. We both jumped in to cool down. My homemade pedal came apart in Tivat, the screws sheared off. I had to bind it together with insulation tape for the time being. Was a little awkward to ride with one side slipping down if I happened to put to much weight on it or push off with it.

We sat by the side of the road eating cookies and drinking iced coffee. Suddenly Rose emitted a loud belch sound. “I really wanted to burp but couldn’t, so I just made the noise instead.” Laughter ensued.

We had a few days of cycling down the Montenegrin coast. It’s a strange place. Just town after town of hotels, holiday apartments and guesthouses, which with the current state of the global borders were mainly very empty. Apparently Montenegro has only 10% of its usual tourism this year, which makes up a large majority of their income. It felt quite sad. We came across a really odd campsite besides what was advertised as a luxury beach hotel. It did not appear as advertised. A series of grass squares, now used as a car park, but presumably were originally the camp spaces, covered the front half, the back half was crammed with cafes, bars, restaurants, people, reclining deck chairs, umbrellas oh and a small amount of beach and sea. There was probably more somewhere underneath it all but it wasn’t obvious.

That morning we woke up extra early to try and climb this big hill before the heat came on proper. I did yoga on the beach surrounded by empty sun loungers, it was surreal. We climbed the hill and after some time entered a big town, a billboard in the centre informed us it was 8.30am and 29°C! Today we had decided we would treat ourselves to a meal in a cafe, we also wanted somewhere to escape the harsh midday sun. Of course it turned out the towns were suddenly very few and far between. Eventually we found something that looked nice, lots of shade was the main thing. I had a delicious set meal of traditional soup followed by a meat stew. Rose had grilled rubber, I think it was supposed to be chicken. We also felt quite quickly that it wasn’t the sort of place people sit around for hours in, more of a quick bite place. We were hot, tired, uncomfortable, we were bickering over nothing and eventually we just left. Before the day had started to cool.

It was hilly and hot. Very tough going. We fell out more. We got even hotter and more exhausted. This was not working. We had to find somewhere to rest properly otherwise we were going to burn out. Sutomore is a small tourist town on the Montenegrin coast, this year it was a ghost town. We stumbled across the Hotel Sirena Marta, a lovely little place. We weren’t sure if it was open to begin with, the door was ajar but no one was around. An old guy appeared asking if we needed help, we told him we wanted a room, he made a quick call. Shortly after a man came from around the corner and checked us in. We were the only guests in the whole place. They were so quiet it was pointless for him to stay behind the front desk. Big courtyard with rooms off it, space to WHEEL the bikes in, cool room to lie in and a cold shower to top it all off. It was perfect. We just rested solidly until 3pm the next day, when we’d asked about check out time the guy had said, “leave whenever you like, you’re the only guests!”

It really paid off, cycling in the evening was much more pleasant. Nearly in Albania!

As we approached the border I was slightly anxious about getting in. We no longer had our negative COVID test but we did have an invitation letter from Catherine who we were going to stay with. Fingers crossed. They had some weird routine going on at the border, although that’s not so unusual in these times, seems to be a lot of weird routines going around. Anyway the first guy was taking our passports, entering something on a computer, then passing them through a little hatch to another guy in the neighbouring booth. Was really odd. Right we’re out of Montenegro now just to persuade them to let us into Albania. After a short while cycling down the road me and Rose look at each other, “I think we’re already in Albania, that’s really strange, where was the border?” “Oh that’s what it meant by Europe’s first joint border crossing.” Rose said. Haha what an anticlimax.

We arrive at our WarmShowers host around mid morning. A place called EcoSocial Farm, near Shkodër, it’s a project aimed at social inclusion and special education. It was a bizarre arrival. The lad working there didn’t speak much English and there was a real communication barrier, at one point we were even left feeling we had the wrong place. We eventually got the WiFi password so we could check our messages from the host and we confirmed this was the right spot. There was quite a bit of awkward sitting, him on one table us on another, until eventually he disappeared. We were confused and tired but not really sure how to get to the bottom of this. The lad reappeared and signalled to a building which contained bedrooms and we were sorted.

We spent a lot of the day snoozing and eating peanuts. Was great. Then there was a changing of the guard at the farm and the lads father took over. He was a lot more chatty but still we had very little common language. He tried his best to give us a tour of the place and some back story. I was still half asleep to be honest. For dinner I did a big fish curry and we took a look at the rest of our route. I made an amazing discovery, there was a ferry that would take us across lake Komani, slashing 150km from our remaining distance. Wow! This was great news. We were both too hot and tired to carry on for much longer without a proper break. Only 2 more days of cycling until we arrive!

The road out to Koman and the ferry port is seemingly endless, undulating and in places very rough. It’s a really beautiful place though, if you ignore the hundreds of massive electricity pylons, another downside of the hydroelectric station. Countless ecosystems all over the Balkans are currently being threatened by small scale hydroelectric production. Really we should be thinking about downshifting our energy consumption not trying to find ways to produce more.

This was a really long day to Koman, at times I thought we wouldn’t make it, but we really didn’t want to have far to cycle in the morning before boarding the ferry. We ended up making it to Koman itself and found a very nice little campsite and restaurant, we usually wild camp but we were so tired and just needed to eat something so we went with the easy option, there wasn’t really an awful lot of other options in this particular landscape. Steep jagged rock faces on either side carved the shape of the valley, dotted with small fertile settlements but not much else that wasn’t dust and rock, shrub and bush.

After pitching our tent on the first truly flat spot of this trip, possibly of our entire journey, we went to find some food. What a feast we had. The thought of this food was the main force that had kept us moving all day, so it’s very lucky it didn’t disappoint!

It was certainly a night I will remember for some time. I spent a good deal of it over the toilet! Luckily the toilet was a hole in the floor so I could easily position both ends over it. Was great squat practice too. Rose didn’t get sick so we guessed it couldn’t be the food, I’d wasted mine regardless. By the morning I was hallucinating and completely worn out. In my delirious state I flicked through all the possible causes, most wildly outrageous; high voltage electric cables over head, a bit of food left on the fork I got at the restaurant, oil on the grape I ate. Like I said outrageous. I ended on the water I’d drunk from the farm tap before we knew about the plug to engage the pump, it could have been sat in the pipe for some time. It’s always the bloody water!

We were up early the next morning, obviously! We had a little climb to the actual terminal, only about a kilometre, but I was feeling fragile. Glad not to have a big day of cycling ahead of us. We spent the ferry ride musing on the pros and cons of hydroelectric dams and subsequent man made lakes. It’s always difficult to unpick a topic like this. I can understand how it can seem like a positive thing but also see the destruction it can cause, often for very little actual power creation. After the ferry ride we had another little slog to Bajram Curri and the sun was blistering again, the heat was palpable. It only got more oppressive and eventually broke in an almighty storm! We were cycling through a grove of huge trees with lightening cracking the sky on either side, it was an absolute tempest. At just the right moment we passed an abandoned filling station where we sought refuge until the skies began to clear. We were both shattered but Rose was really struggling. We finally made it into town and to a cafe where we could connect and check the exact location of Catherine’s place, I was sure it was further into the mountains, about 10km more or so. I had a message waiting for me, her place is 1.2km back in the direction we had come from! Oh what a relief, finally I was actually sure we would make it today!

We begin to embark. Rose is really not well. Thinking she is feeling sick like I was last night. At crossroad she drops her bike to sit down. I quickly move it out of the traffic. Next thing Rose has collapsed, her eyes roll back. I am very scared. Luckily there is a man on the street who knows exactly what to do. He lays her on her back and pumps her legs, to get the blood circulating he explains, and surely enough she comes around. By this point there’s police and a small crowd, an ambulance is called but Rose says she’s fine and doesn’t need the hospital. After a while of just sitting there the people have cleared mainly and it happens again. The original man appears instantly and helps us again. All of a sudden a car arrives and the man says his friend will drive us to the hospital. Don’t worry about your bikes we will take care of them. We had no choice but to just leave them, we later discover that in Albanian culture if someone gives you their word then they will not break it, they call it ‘Besa’. The man speeds to the hospital with the horn continuously blasting. At the hospital there is a lot of commotion and different nurses coming and going. Then a lovely doctor comes and examines Rose, asks some questions, tells us he thinks Ireland is a very beautiful country, “I have seen on the google.” They want to give her an infusion of glucose and salts via a drip. Rose is worried about the needle and the money. I tell her it doesn’t matter about the money her heath is more important. Turns out the whole hospital experience is free anyway. Albania is truly the nicest country I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Rose eventually agrees to get the treatment and rest at the hospital for an hour or so. I will go and deal with bikes.

The same man drops me back at the bikes, which are still there lent up by the side of the road. I grab mine and ride like the wind for Catherine’s. It’s quite an undulating ride but I really put my back into the hills, exhausted but running on adrenaline. I get given different directions from different people, cycle too far UPHILL, ring Catherine and still struggle. Eventually I find the house. I arrive in an explosion into her place. We hit it off straight away. It’s chaotic and hurried and messy and safe and welcoming, inclusive. I feel myself landing. We hurry out to put horses away and collect the other two volunteers before gathering up Rose from hospital and her bike from the street. So happy to see her safe and feeling a little better. The police are at the hospital, they are worried about the bike as it’s getting dark. I can’t believe their kindness and concern. Luckily Catherine is with us this time and can do the translation. The police go to wait with the bike whilst we load up Rose then meet them there. They are parked by the bike with the blue lights flashing and the chief of police is there too, he wants me to make sure everything is there and nothing missing. They really went through a lot of effort for us. I’m so grateful. Both the police chief and the policewoman wish us a good stay in Albania hopefully without anymore problems. I’m blown away by the kindness of these guys and everyone who helped us on that street corner. This day will live in my memory forever. I love Albania.

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