Northern Albania — rough around the edges

I didn’t know what to expect from Albania.  I had never met an Albanian or even spoken with someone who had been here.  For years Albania was completely cut off from the world.  It’s been open 20 years now, but I certainly don’t hear of visitors flocking to Republika e Shqipërisë.

At times Albania seemed lost in Europe.  With the eagle on the flag, chaotic streets, and horseshoes on the grills of the Mercedes (for the newly rich who traded in their horses?), it seemed like the Central Asian steppes.  Cold windy days, wide gravelly rivers, and occasional stands of leafless trees added to the effect.

In the first town after crossing the border, Snežana asked a question not uncommon for bicycle tourists in India, “which side of the road are we supposed to ride on?!”  Yes, it really was such a mess.  In a way, I loved Shkodër’s infrastructure: the main street in town was a one-lane (half at times) potholed disaster.  On either side were wide beautiful sidewalks.  There were more bicycles than cars, and they rode anywhere they wanted in any direction they pleased.  Snežana follows the local example:

DSCN7411 by bryandkeith on flickr

So many comparisons to Asia in my head.  In a café in Lezhë a man mentioned he had a relative in the US so I asked him if he’d ever been.  “No, but I’ve been to Italy, Greece, England, other places in Europe.  I’ve never been to Turkey and don’t want to go,” he volunteered.  “Why?”  “It’s in Asia” was his explanation!

As a cyclist one of the notable aspects was the muddy roads.  We also had muddy campsites and rainy days.  Much of the country (all?) can be traversed north-south on a boring autostrada (superhighway) which we tried to avoid.  At one point north of Fier this was the only alternative to the autostrada:

North of Fier this was the only alternative to the autostrada; it got much worse than this, and we decided to turn back by bryandkeith on flickr

I fell as my wheel spun in the mud on a short incline.  At the same time Snežana’s wheels locked up in the muck.  We turned back.  Most places weren’t so bad, but it’s surprising that something like this is a main road in Europe:

DSCN7418 by bryandkeith on flickr

Another thing any visitor to Albania must notice is the bunkers.  700,000 of them.  Mostly they’re small and look like this:

Bicycle and bunker -- according to Elvin, Albania built 800,000 bunkers for its 900,000 citizens (at the time) by bryandkeith on flickr

or these:

Small bunkers by bryandkeith on flickr

but sometimes they’re larger:

Big bunkers by bryandkeith on flickr

But the best thing I’ve found about Albania are the Albanians.  They’re warm and generous and open and curious.  We were stopped by the side of the road scraping the mud from our fenders when a man came out of his shop and gave us a dozen oranges from his tree.  A day or two later we were stopped by the side of the road scraping the mud from our fenders when the whole Kajmaku family came out to help:

Great help to clean mud from Snežana's bicycle by bryandkeith on flickr

After cleaning our bicycles, they invited us in for breakfast and loaded us up with homemade yogurt and fresh persimmons from their trees before we left.  Down the road 15 minutes later the former Director of Albanian Refineries invited us in for coffee.

Somewhere along the way I broke my kickstand.  These guys at the side of the road:

Aluminum weld job on my kickstand; these guys didn't charge me, and it broke again the same day by bryandkeith on flickr

would take no money for their repair work.

And best of all was our host, Elvin, in Durrës for two nights.  He took us out for yummy meals, gave us a tour of the city, and even treated us to a photo session in his home studio.  He is a fantastic photographer and another generous Albanian.

Elvin by bryandkeith on flickr

Snežana and Elvin by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_4536%20copy by bryandkeith on flickr

Rain keeps the going slow, but by now I’ve heard good things of southern Albania…

DSCN7463 by bryandkeith on flickr

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