Biking Bajram to Bari

Our last week or so at Catherine’s in Valbona was really enjoyable. We got very involved with the running of a Bioblitz and made a really nice connection with the two new volunteers. Was sad to say goodbye to everyone. I actually ended up doing it twice! After 4km I suddenly realised our trusty tent wasn’t strapped to my handlebars! Nightmare. I had to jump on Rose’s bike (it’s a lot lighter than mine) and pedal hell for leather uphill back to Catherine’s. I arrived in a sweaty whirlwind, grabbed the tent, shouted some vague hello and goodbye and was gone. With the tent this time!

After rejoining Rose on the side of the road we continued towards the “famous” Koman ferry. This first couple of days was always going to be a little tough, partly due to the rocky ending to our last trip but mainly because we were going to be backtracking, all the way to the start of that endless road to the ferry terminal at the other end. We did get to spend the night at our favourite campsite in Koman though, the scene of our epic meal and early hour sickness a month earlier. We had another great meal and sheltered from the storm. Then hit the endless road rested and well fed. By the end of that day we had done it and were well on our way to Tirana. I couldn’t quite believe it.

Now that we were out of the mountains and back among civilisation it was much harder to find a nice spot to camp, lots of fences, and rubbish piles, not particularly inspiring. In the end we had to ask some people planting seeds if we could camp in their field. They were more than happy to have us. It was actually a lovely spot.

The following day we would reach Tirana but first we had to get ourselves down off one giant section of straight road, kilometres of semi industrial, dusty terrain and some serious wind. At one point we took a slight detour to avoid a section of motorway, only to cross over it on a road bridge and look down to see a guy cycling along in a very haphazard manner with some awkward load. Turns out motorways in Albania are actually quite good for bicycles! We were not prepared for the traffic in Tirana, it was crazy. Imagine rush hour in London but nobody is particularly worried about what side of the road they are on, and plenty having trouble deciding if they are parked or not. And to think we thought Shkodër was mad.

We stopped at the first restaurant we came across, which happened to be much fancier than we’re used to but at Albanian prices. And with usual Albanian hospitality, when it started spitting with rain they insisted we bring our big messy bikes inside the restaurant and out of the rain. We had a fantastic pizza and made a decision to stay at the Tirana backpackers hostel. Was a great choice. Lovely little hostel in the centre of the city. We enjoyed two nights here, met some interesting people and had a little explore of the city. Even went to a museum! Those who know us will know this is unusual. The House Of Leaves is a look inside the communist era in Albania, it used to be the headquarters of the intelligence services. I had no idea some of the crazy things that have happened in Albania’s recent past. As recently as 1999 the streets of Tirana were dangerous due to the civil war. It’s certainly a unique country.

After our little stop in Tirana it was on to Elbasan and our next project. A hostel and isolated village house that needed some work doing. It had been very flat cycling most of the way to Tirana but now we were to face some hills! After a morning on main roads, climbing some pretty tough slopes we came off on some smaller road through a little village and up, up, up. The road was getting smaller and less tangible. The pot holes slowly enveloping the road itself. We were getting some strange looks, not many cyclists up here I think. We passed a woman coming down the hill with a donkey loaded with fruit she’d harvested. She understood us!

It took us 4 hours to climb the 3km to the top and then began the downhill decent on a road that mostly was too rocky to even cycle on. It was hellish. At the bottom of the hill we found ourselves in a small rocky clearing bordered by motorway on one side, a small power substation on another and a jagged ravine on the other. We were losing light fast and had limited options. The rocky path continued down but we could see we would have more climbing on that terrible track, the motorway was busy but I definitely cycle-able just don’t want to get caught on it in the dark or the third option is try to camp somewhere in this stony mess and get on the motorway early the next morning. In the end we went with option three, it was a sorry sight, tent held up with rocks on the guy ropes and rain puddling on the roof. It looked dejected, like some dry land animal that had been forced to have a bath against its will, refusing to cooperate. We didn’t get wet though, not until we got up and had to set off in a torrential downpour! At 6am!

As we entered Elbasan the sun was shining, we could have done with that at 6. We navigated our way through the backstreets and found the backpackers hostel and our host Eduart. He seemed a little put out that we arrived the day after we had told him, to be honest rock climbing with heavily loaded bikes followed by a downhill scramble and a night in a muddy puddle wasn’t our plan either. “So how do you guys want to work this?” Was his opening line! I mean we travelled all this way to volunteer on your project, I sort of thought you might have some ideas in that regards. The whole arrival was all very strange. When I asked where we could put our stuff he simply said your bikes will be alright next to the bar. Did we even have a place to sleep?! The communication didn’t get any better. We never got a chance to help out with his project, just one rushed visit to the village house to harvest walnuts and fruits. We watched him and his uncle smash the trees with sticks and tried to avoid the falling fruits and nuts, often there was no warning so some collisions were inevitable. We did meet some good people at the hostel though. A lovely couple from Chile. They’ve been hitchhiking for two and a half years and have some interesting stories to tell. We shared meals together and left not long after them.

Greece is closed. No entry for nonessential travel. It’s a long way to go on the off chance that we may get across. It’s so hard to know in these times what the real situation is, it often seems to be painted in a more extreme light online. We ended up opting to cross to Italy, which also sounded like it could be difficult to get in but turned out to be no trouble at all. They pointed a digital thermometer at our heads when boarding and disembarking, and we had to sign a note promising not to have COVID, that was it.

At the ferry terminal in Durrës, Albania, we met another cyclist, a German lad called Johnny. He was on a very different trip. He’d cycled from Berlin to Turkey via Poland, Romania and Bulgaria and was now on his way back towards Germany through Italy. He’d done all this in 2months! We’d been in Albania for 2 months. Haha. We had some great chats though. He was booked on another ferry so we had to say goodbye. His ferry was apparently the “fancy one” it was also the more organised one. About an hour after he left us to board we were still standing on the dock whilst the crew shouted and manically tried to unload brand new cars, one by one. And a couple of not so new ones that needed the help of a forklift to disembark! After loading on we just had to stand in a queue for another hour whilst a poor frantic guy tried to take everyone’s temperature and deal with some particularly fiery customers, steam pouring from both ears. “The regulations, the regulations! 2 metres!” Blah blah blah. Surely if you were so worried you would just stand back. No one is forcing you to get so close. Some people just love to moan.

To our amazement speedy Johnny was waiting for us at the other side, despite our boat being way behind schedule. We cycled together for a bit and went to find some coffee. Turns out some places in Italy charge you a euro just to sit down! And they want tips even if the service is appalling. Don’t go here. Shortly after our devastating coffee experience Johnny simply couldn’t hold himself back any longer, he had to shoot off. We were heading in a different direction anyway. This day will be remembered as a windy day. And we cycled into it for most of the day. Through miles and miles of olive groves and grape vines and almonds, all with the same bare, sad looking soil beneath them. It wasn’t very inspiring. It was broken up by some pretty little old towns with very narrow streets and these amazing old circular stone buildings, the traditional old houses around here.

Luckily as we reached the last few kilometres before our destination the landscape did start to improve. Some bits of oak woodland lined with fantastic old dry stone walls. There is certainly some pockets of beauty to be found in the Alta Murgia National Park.

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