Immediately upon crossing the border into Albania, which did not involve anything so official as an entry stamp or even a border guard, we were assaulted by friendliness.
People excitedly shouted at us from the road side, and while we had heard of the Albanian mafia, seen a number of plateless matte-black Mercedes, and read in more than one place questions posed about the sources of capital in the Albanian economy, these theatrics seemed firmly planted on the welcoming side of any threat spectrum.
We did have a moments hesitation apron arriving in Skhodar when we saw the three meter tall bronze statue of a bandoliered, soldier holding an automatic weapon with a pistol shoved into his waist belt. Communist holdover?
Albania only freed itself from red (or perhaps more accurately grey) rule in the late 90s. We didn’t make it to Tirana but the blend of concrete architecture, wide boulevards, and communist iconography in Shkoder was enough to give us a flavour. The is also a comical blend of old world communist statues next to the flood of new world cafes and shops. Oh, how the pendulum swings. After being denied the market freedoms that Charlotte and I take for granted for some weeks now, Skhoder is running amuck in the candy shop. In contrast, there is also an undeniable taste for high end German sedans.
As a side tangent, Albania is the state housing only a part of the Albanian nation. Though people identifying as Albanian span four countries there is a considerable nationalism which pervades all of the ethnic Albanians we met. Our largest confusion came a few days later when we crossed the border into the newly recognized by Serbia, Kosovo. Though out or entire time in Kosovo we’re not sure we saw a single Kosovar flag. We did however see hundreds if not thousands of Albania’s black birds spreading their wings across the blood red field.
Back to the current state. Before we left Montenegro we’d been hearing about the Albanian Alps. Their beauty and angles were equally coveted and feared by the cyclist we met. As I’ve eluded to in an earlier post, we’d heard of a ferry that could take us to an otherwise inaccessible region and drop us a hundred or so kilometres from the Kosovo border in the far north. It would be an area of great beauty and few cars, which sounded like a winning proposition, expect for the tiny detail that in all our searching we could not get any definitive answer to the question,
Is the ferry still running?
We heard from a number of places that it was not, and from only one that it was. In Shkoder we were told blankly by a local travel agent that the ferries hadn’t run for over two years and there were absolutely no local boats serving the area. Full stop. Sullen and downcast, we wheeled our ugly lavender ducklings down the road in search of a shady cafe with the plan that we would instead head south to Tirana.
I’ve mentioned the aggressive friendliness of Albanians. It was just after 8 am, but across a four lane road a man the size and shape of a taxi driver was vigorously trying to attract our attention. He spoke fluent Irish accented English. He claimed to be many things, but most important to us he told us all about the ferry service from Komen to Fiereze. While I was hesitant to enter into any kind of business transaction with our source of tourist info, he seemed to have a handle on the ferry schedule.
And thus, snatched from the jaws of disappointment our adventure was saved. We just needed to cycle 70 odd km to the town of Koman before 09:00 the following morning. No problem for two super fit tourers like Charlotte and myself. Right?
We spent the day in a cafe hiding from the over 40 degree heat. Had a few lovely moments with some guys on a street corner while we dined on our market purchases. They insisting on us having the prized seats under a big old oak tree and theatrically refusing our offer of fresh melon before even more theatrically accepting. Hospitality.
We did a few km out of town that night and found a sneaky camp prepped for an early am departure to do the 30 remaining km to Komen and the ferry boat. Along the way my tire blew out through the wall, and I fixed the fourth flat of the day…. Auspicious beginnings. The heat was good for neither our gear nor our mental health.
The best laid plans of Charlotte and Devon…
We woke at 05:00; started peddling by 05:26. 5km down and my tire went flat, again. No problem, 8 minutes for the change. 8 km in Charlotte’s rear shifter explodes. Not the dérailleur, but the shifting lever. Devon to the rescue!
My quick fix got us on the road again but Charlotte was thus limited to 4 of 21 gears and the flat 30km we were expecting turned out to be a big undulating hill climb on a very crappy road without proper surfacing in likely over a quarter century…The salt in the wound came at 08:45.
When I had hoped to be sitting beside the dock having a quick swim to rinse off the aforementioned salt before our timely departure across the lake, we were still peddling up hills not even in sight of the town. The odo was showing 35km when we hit finally hit town. As I pantomimed a request for directions to the ferry, a young women replied with perfectly accentless finger point.
Up yonder hill…
It was a big hill. You could see the dam wall in the distance. It was 09:02. What else could we do but peddle. I was ahead getting passed by cars rushing to and from the dock. As each driver passed they yelled or gestured something that I could only assume meant hurry, or you’ve already missed the boat. Charlotte was behind cursing my handyman skills or lack thereof. When we got to the kilometer long pitch black tunnel I was certain we’d missed the boat. Fishing for my head lamp Charlotte caught me up.
We saw the boat bathed in blinding sunlight as we emerged from the blackness. Charlotte’s whoop of joy, “we made it!”
I was waving frantically.
The boat was only a few feet from the dock but it was definitely pulling away and there is only one a day. Skidding, panting to a halt. A group of confused Albanian 20 somethings started moving closer.
The boat was a 40 foot long steel hull, which someone had welded the upper half of an old intercity bus onto. The was a little gangway perched on the bow but we just handed our bikes over the gap. Thumbs up and cheers all around from the rest of the passengers, most of whom had passed us in minibuses early on… They hadn’t thought we’d make it. Jubilant, we settled in for some well deserved juice and the last of our granola bars.
The trip across the lake was amazing. Turquoise water. 1000 meter high cliff walls on either side. Tiny farmsteads perched in alpine meadows miles from anything. Our favourite moment was when the boat dropped off what was likely a 70 year old man dressed in a proper black suit. He stepped off the boat and onto a boulder holding the blade of a scythe and a new pot. The shocker was the sheer wall above his head that supposedly held a 2 hour long path up the cliff to his home. Even with a climber propensity for eye weaknesses in rocks I couldn’t see a way up that didn’t involve some considerable overhang… He waved cheerfully to us and wished us good luck in Albanian (we think).
After a few hours of peaceful boating we were back on the road. The rest of the day we spent refuelling in little towns, cuddling in the shade beside a frigid river, and making our way slowly toward Kosovo.
Amazing geography in the canyons make me want to go back for a proper climbing expedition. There is rock for a life time of exploration and a lovely sparse community to engage while your there. It turns out rumour and intrigue have their rewards.
That night we crossed into Kosovo. We had of course heard a great deal of speculation about this Balkan powder-keg. Our most vehement warning came from the US Military Attache and his wife in Sarajevo (yeah Charlotte and I rub elbows with those kind of folks from time to time). Their warning was simply
We’d also spoken to a few people who said it would be fine and worth a trip.
One of my favourite moments of the trip came in Prizren, a few hundred km into the newly recognized state, but that will have to wait until we get a few more km done and we have time to write again….
At the Albanian/Kosovo border however, all we had to go on was a big sign. While they usually say things like thanks for coming, or come again, this sign only wished us luck…
until next time,
D & C