06 Apr Bicycle Touring Albania
As we roll up to the Albanian border, we are a little nervous and at the same time excited about bicycle touring Albania; but most of all we are curious about entering this mysterious country. On our way here we have heard all kinds of stories about Albania ranging from “Don’t worry, Albanians are nice!” to “It’s the Wild West of Europe! Watch out for the bad roads and drivers!” and “Be careful, there are people shooting at cars at night!”
For some strange reason it always seems customary for people to warn us about the neighboring country, just to find out that the people in the other country have the same warning about the one we have just traveled through. Maybe people should just bike travel more, it seems to be the best antidote to prejudice. So here we are, entering the country that has been dubbed the most dangerous country in Europe, but we are determined to forge our own opinion.
The border crossing itself went smoothly. The border guard was not a man of many words nor did he show much of a personality or enthusiasm for his job. He just looked at our passports, put some sort of note in a binder, stamped our passports and handed them back to us without a word. Due to a few reports that we have read previously, we expected to see a big change in the infrastructure right after the border crossing; yet, the street remained just as smooth, quiet, and hilly as it has been for several miles.
Shortly after entering, we found a gas station that sold Albanian road maps. Since we did not really have a concrete plan on which way to go, we quickly decided to pick up a cheap map. Unfortunately, it did not take us long to find out that it was pretty much useless; it only showed the the ‘major’ roads–and a few of those even seemed questionable. The only roads it showed going to Tirana apparently were either a really long, steep, windy road over the mountains or the motorway. Unfortunately, the street signage was not much better, so we stopped at another gas station along our ride to ask for directions.
The guy there pretty much told us: “The long old communist road over the mountain is no good! Just go straight down to the motorway. It is much easier and faster.” When we asked whether we are allowed to ride our bikes on the motorway, he simply answered: “It’s Albania! Do whatever you want, nobody cares!”
As we found our way onto the motorway, we soon saw a big sign, that clearly stated that no tractors, scooters, or bicycles were allowed on the road. A little unsure on how to proceed, we stopped and asked another man by the road which way to take to Tirana. He smiled pointed straight down the motorway and confirmed, that bikes are fine. He even repeated the famous “It’s Albania do whatever you want!” line.
So that’s what we did. We headed down the motorway and soon we found out how true it was, that nobody cared; there were all kinds of tractors, scooters, bicycles, and people on the motorway.
Since campgrounds are far and few in between and hard to come by in Albania, we started to look for a spot to set up camp as it was getting dark. It seemed our timing to look for a place is not always the best. Early in the day, we rode by all kinds of suitable places in the hills and near beautiful wooded areas. Now?! All we could see were wide open, flat, farming areas, which are hard to hide in.
Eventually, we came by a dirt road that lead to an unkempt field in the distance. A few shrubs and a bunch of old very tall thistle plants should be enough to keep us hidden from the motorway traffic in the distance.
The following day, we continued on to Tirana. The road was initially in good shape, but changed quickly as we entered the city limits. We have ridden through some chaotic traffic in a couple of Moroccan and European cities before. Tirana, however, trumped all of the chaos we have encountered before.
Besides having to watch out for the missing manhole covers and the huge potholes, we also had to maneuver through the most dysfunctional traffic circles we have ever encountered. What was usually meant to be a 4 lane circle was somehow used by at least 8 cars across. Scooters were weaving in and out between the cars, several buses and taxis tried to squeeze their way through the perimeter of the circle while loading and unloading passengers, and of course pedestrians crossing the streets had to claim their piece of the circle as well. At times the huge circle was completely gridlocked and we were wondering how anybody could ever get back out of it once caught in the middle of it–total mayhem!
Luckily, we did not have to be in the chaos too long. We took the next exit and found our way to a grocery store, before heading out of the crazy town.
Our route took us partially on the motorway, partially on long, windy, hilly roads with lots of switchbacks up and down the mountains. After riding up another long set of switchbacks we finally spot the tunnel somebody was telling us about.
Apparently it was brand new, a few kilometers long, and it saved us several more kilometers of uphill switchbacks. The best part was, it had a lane completely blocked off which we were directed onto by the construction workers. Bicycle touring can have its perks at times!
The mountain roads were much more scenic. A few of the mountains reminded us of the landscape “out West”, except there were still a lot of old bunkers to be seen all over the country side and even in people’s back yards.
We took a short break at an old communist memorial before continuing on.
Although there are plenty of mountains, rivers, and plenty of green lush vegetation, Albania seems especially dry, hot, and very dusty. It is actually surprisingly dusty! So we do like to take plenty of breaks to get rid of the dust in our mouth.
Soon it was time to find another camping spot for the night.
We found the perfect little spot between an abandoned railroad track and a mountain stream. It took a little bit of finagling and elbow grease to get our bikes down the hill and over the old railroad tracks. But we’ll sleep good tonight.
After tearing down camp and a quick breakfast, it was time to move on toward Lake Ohrid. We pedaled up several more sets of switchbacks just to coast down again on the other side. People in cars continued to cheer us on, waved to us, or honked their horns in support of our travels. Everybody seemed very friendly and generally drivers gave us plenty of room when passing.
A few people along the way asked us where we are from and where we are going. Most were surprised that we came all the the way from the US to ride our bikes through Albania and all of them wished us well.
After riding through another long–several kilometers long–construction zone, which left the road as a complete pothole riddled, gravel, dirt road, we finally reached Lake Ohrid.
For the first time in Albania, we stayed at an official campground, right at the lake. Actually. It was brand new and we were the first tent campers there. The owner was very happy to have us, it was a good price (5 Euros), and we had a great view of the lake and the mountains, plus they had cold beer!
The next morning we had a tough time getting up. For the last few days we have done quite a few miles over hills and dirt roads in hot, dusty Albania and we were getting tired. But we were determined to make it to Greece by tonight. Unfortunately, we were greeted by more mountainous terrain, which meant more switchbacks up and down the big hills of Albania.
Once again, the road which our map liked to call a ‘major primary road’ turned out to be a major gravel, dirt road with huge potholes. At least traffic was slow and light on the road and the scenery was beautiful, which made up for the dusty, bumpy ride.
Our touring in Albania was soon coming to an end. What is our take on it? Despite the poor road conditions in some areas, the missing man-hole covers in the towns, the potholes in the gravel roads, we really enjoyed our tour through Albania. The scenery was beautiful. The people were all wonderful, friendly, and helpful. Total strangers gave us change to help pay for lunch to make the “bill easier” to pay, others loved to strike up conversations and everybody was ready to give us helpful information or directions.
We liked the overall laid back attitude and that it was…”Albania, where people do what they want and nobody cares.”
There are ‘no smoking’ signs on every wall of every restaurant or pub, but at the same time there is an ashtray to be found on every single table. There are road signs restricting traffic for bikes, tractors, scooters, but everybody finds their way on the motorway anyway. It is one of the greenest places, but due to all the infrastructure improvements and construction zones it is also one of the dustiest places, but there are plenty small car-washes and businesses watering down the roads to keep the dust down to a minimum.
Maybe it is a little bit like the Wild West of Europe, but nobody cares as long as nobody gets hurt!
Would we recommend a bike tour through Albania?
Yes, we would! It may not be for the beginner bicycle tourist, but it is for the adventurous soul and a place that should be on your radar.