Sunday, March 26, 2017
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Albania – Europe’s last Bicycle Touring frontier

Albania – Europe’s last Bicycle Touring frontier

During the last week of February, with spring fever at the door and visas soon to expire, we wrapped up our time at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia and made plans for a 4 day bicycle tour through southern Albania to the seaside town of Sarande. Slowly we began saying our farewells to the friends we’ve made in Ohrid, packing up, looking at maps, and researching routes.  After sitting in front of the computer, working on our upcoming book – “Slovenia – a Bicycle Travel Guide” for the past few months we were ecstatic about getting back in the saddle and seeing some new places.

Lake Ohrid Macedonia is a great starting point for bicycle touring into Albania

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. Our winter enclave.

Albania. Here we come.

Our planned route (GPX): South around Lake Ohrid to Korce then west over the mountains to Farma Sotira, just outside of Leskovik and then north to Gjirokaster and finally stopping at the seaside in Sarande for another extended stay and more writing.

Bicycle touring from Lake Ohrid Macedonia into Albania

Pedaling up from Lake Ohrid to the Albania border

We initially planned 4 days – not taking into account that we hadn’t been cycling regularly for the past few months, the weather (which was about to turn from sunny to blustery), the road quality, and, of course, the mountains between here and the Ionian Sea. Instead of our planned 4 day tour, the route took us 7 days.

Bicycle touring around Lake Ohrid

One last look back at Lake Ohrid from the Albanian side

Stopping the first night in Maliq, just outside of Korce, we stayed with Algent, a Warmshowers host. The town’s barber and local bike guru, Algent fed us at his family’s home then put us up for the night in a make shift bedroom at his church. But not before warning us that our planned timetable was too ambitious for the route ahead. His advice: “Albania’s roads are rougher than we are used to, the weather was going to turn even colder,  enjoy the scenery and plan on 6-7 days to reach Sarande.”  The next day we quickly discovered Algent knew what he was talking about.

Eating dinner with Warmshowers hosts in Maliq Albania

Dinner time Albanian style

Sore from the first day back on a loaded bike after a couple of months and battling increasingly cold weather and rough roads, we struggled on day 2.  Feeling tired and cold from the constant wind and drizzle, we stopped in Erseke, a mere 25km from Farma Sotira.  C suggested we get a hotel.  I didn’t take too much convincing.

Climbing is what bicycle touring Albania is all about

Bicycle Touring Albania? Get ready to climb

Stereotypes and Reality

Our first two days in Albania were pretty much as we had expected.  The natural scenery was stunning. Abandoned gun bunkers of the former communist regime littered the countryside like concrete mushrooms. Roads were beyond rough, although largely absent of cars.  Smiling kids came out in droves to slap “high-fives” and shout, “where are you from?” Snarling Shepard dogs chased us, and the outskirts of small towns were awash with piles of garbage and broken buildings.

Bicycle touring Albania you will see gun bunkers at every turn

Like concrete mushrooms, more than 750,000 bunkers dot the Albanian landscape

In most small towns we passed through, unemployed men lined the streets.  Standing around. Chatting, without much else to do.  It was obvious we were the topic of conversation among the loitering crowd.  When we did engage the locals, we were always assured, “its safe here, your bikes are safe, you are safe…”  Albania’s reputation as a lawless backwater is well known among locals, as well as visitors.  Although it didn’t prove to be true, at least in our experience. In fact, in almost every interaction we had with locals, we were welcomed with smiling faces.

Bicycle Touring Albania. Buying Oranges on the roadside from friendly locals

Buying Oranges along the roadside.

The next morning we made the short ride under (finally) sunny skies to Farma Sotira, an organic tourist farm and campground.  This was one of our ‘must-stop’ point along this route.  Relaxing with a home cooked meal and a warm cabin for the night was sublime.  Again, when we proclaimed our stated goal of covering the remaining 120km to Gjirokaster, our host cautioned us to plan on a shorter day.  Terrain and road quality being the main obstacles.  She was right.

Bicycle touring Albania. Having coffee at Farma Sotira

Warming up with Turkish Coffee at Farma Sotira.

A mostly mountainous nation.

Starting day 4 with an unrelenting climb to Leskovik, a tiny mountaintop town, complete with the same collection of crumbling buildings, packs of stray dogs and groups of seemingly unoccupied residents standing around town, we pedalled slowly until noon.  The descent from Leskovik into the Lumi Vjosa River valley was some of the roughest road we’ve ridden anywhere.  The formerly tarmacked, but now pothole riddled, part dirt, part rock “State Highway” followed a steep ravine down from Leskovik to the wide open valley below.

Bicycle Touring Albania. Rough Roads and beautiful scenes from Leskovik to the Lumi Vjosa River

Descending “State Highway 75” from Leskovik to the Lumi Vjosa River valley

The surface was rough enough to snap one of the supports on my rear rack and slow our downhill progress to a crawl. 15 km of descending took us over an hour, but it was not without some stunning natural beauty all around us.  The narrow ravine we followed had been carved by a rushing torrent of a river, creating breathtaking twists and turns, as it tumbled downhill.  As the enormous valley below began to reveal itself, with snow capped mountains hovering overhead, we turned north along the verdant fields, and herds of grazing sheep to Përmet.

Bicycle Touring Albania. Lumi Vjosa River surrounded by mountains

The Lumi Vjosa River valley

The next morning we continued north, cutting westward through a gap in the mountains and covering the remaining 65 km to Gjirokaster in no time.  The unpleasant sights of garbage piles and broken buildings of the mountain towns began to fade a bit.  The sun was shining, and the roads were smoother and flatter than the previous day’s.

Bicycle Touring Albania. Sunny skies from Lumi Vjosa v to Gjirokaser

Sunny skies and smooth roads.

If the valley roads were pleasantly flat, the streets of Gjirokaster made up for it. Steep cobbled lanes leading uphill from the edge of the city to the Old Town had us pushing our loaded bikes for the last 1km. Finally reaching the top, we checked in to Hotel Kalemi for the night.  Big, regal rooms, decorated in the style of Albania’s former Pasha ruling class in an old Ottman house, complete with breakfast for 10€.  Yes, please.

Bicycle Touring Albania. Pushing up the steep cobblestone streets of Gjirokaster

Steep cobblestone streets in Gjirokaster

Just one more climb

Turning westward over the final climb before Sarande, we hoisted ourselves up the 700m pass over the coastal mountains in short order.  A long winding decent down into the coastal plain went by in a flash. Zipping past small settlements, scattered farms, roadside fruit vendors and more gun bunkers that appeared as we neared the Greek border, we were soon pedalling through the rough outskirts of Sarande.  A quick pass through town and we stopped for the night at a seaside hotel. The next day we pedaled south to camp at Ksamil and enjoy some village life before starting our search for an apartment, but that’s another story… ( Part 2, coming soon)

Bicycle Touring Albania. Climbing from Gjirokaster to Sarande

The final climb.

 

About Tyler Robertson

Passionate about bicycling, photography and great tacos, Tyler is always happiest when in the saddle. Now living in and exploring Eastern Europe by bicycle, he often spends time analyzing how bicycles can change the face of travel and the economic landscape while planning his schedule around bicycle trips (instead of the other way around). If you would like an opinion or contribution on any of the above, please connect on Google + or contact Tyler .

21 comments

  1. Great stuff! Your photos are magical as always! 🙂

  2. Martin from Twisting Spokes

    Great write up as we are on our way to Albania on sunday with the ferry from Bari. Thanks. Where are you now?

    • hey Martin,
      I was just reading your blog this morning! Too bad we won’t meet in Albania. In Slovenia now. Working on some follow up for our guide.
      Let me know if you need any advice about Albania. I’d be happy to help.
      ~tyler

      • Martin from Twisting Spokes

        Nice what do you think of it? Yes too bad. We have planned a route from Durres to Gijrokaster and up to the lakes and around hope it will be nice. Any recommendations?

        • I like it. Nepal. That’s a great goal!
          Your route is slightly different than ours but if by “the Lakes” you mean Lake Ohrid and Prespa, then its not too far off. The two accommodations listed in this post are great. Farma Sotira and Hotel Kalemi are both top notch. Climbing up to Leskovik, watch out for Sheep dogs. I carried a large stick to whack them. Consider it. They’re no joke. Our biggest fear was that we would encounter a pack of dogs on a long climb and be cornered. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Algent, the Warmshowers host in Maliq is super nice – tell him we said, “Hi”! Have fun and keep us posted.

  3. Albania is wonderful! I just love all the photos that you have and place are awesome. Never get the chance to visit place before but will try to see Albania in my next travel.

  4. Albania is beautiful, but it’s not just mountains, it has over 470 km (about 290 mi) of coastline. Love the pics you posted!

  5. Your account is great….I am crossing Albania en route Istanbul-Milan and after reading your story I am very encouraged. I also like the suggestion to carry a big stick for the dogs…got it! Cheers from Down Under.

  6. Great article, Tyler. Winter is coming, and my mind is starting to wonder about routes for next summer 🙂 South Croatia to Thessaloniki seems fine when looking from couch and this explained Albania and what to expect overthere. I’m trying to find some info about traffic down the coastline, if you know some blogpost or something, let me know. They don’t have many roads except the main one so don’t know what to think

    • Hey Goran – traffic is generally light to non-existent in most places, although the coastal roads may have a bit more than mountain roads. I’d check the National Tourism Board for road info. Doubtful there is a direct route other than the main road, but for me, the beauty of cycle touring Albania is wandering the mountains.

  7. Thanks for the inspirational article. I’m based in Greece at the moment, but thinking to cycle out to Albania in the summer. The stick for dogs is a must through much of Eastern Europe, and sounds Albania is no different!

  8. Rory Lees-Millais

    Good morning, brilliant blog. So good that I am keen to do a very similar route with two friends in July. With this in mind I have got a few questions…? Firstly, do you know our best way of flying into and out of Albania from the UK? I thought one possibility could be flying into Split/Dubrovnik and then busing down into Albania before starting. I have just been looking at the logistics but it doesn’t seem straight forward. What can you advise?
    Many thanks,
    Rory

    • Hi Rory – Thanks for the kind words.
      I think you have it right. Nothing is straight forward in that part of the world. : ) Flying to Dubrovnik is certainly the easiest plan. A bus ride south will run you 30-ish Euro, plus 10 Euro (usually in the form of a “tip” to the bus driver) for the bike. Be aware, many Croatian bus drivers will say “No” to a bike, but the offer of a tip usually softens them up. More so as you move south…
      Cycling from Montenegro is nice option too. The bus ride from Dubrovnik to Budve is quick and easy.
      Good luck on your tour. Keep us posted as you go!
      ~tyler

  9. hi tyler,
    great blog! i have been searching for information regarding the road quality in albania as im thinking of travelling this summer on my road bike instead of mountain bike. ill be travelling from slovenia to corfu over 7 weeks. what is your experience of the general road quality? would it be possible on my road bike?
    thanks in advance

    • Hi Elaine- If by road bike, you mean skinny tires, be cautious. Mostly you’ll be fine, but Albania’s roads can change quickly. I’d say, depending on how heavy you’re loaded, a 700 x 35 tire (or greater) should be fine. Any skinnier and you’ll feel every bump and be at a greater risk of pinch flats.
      Have fun and keep us posted!
      ~t

  10. Elaine! those are truly heart hacking photographs!!! An Oscar(personal) for You. 😛

  11. Hi Tyler,

    This was a great recap of your time in Albania. We are slowly making our way there and are curious about navigating the roads with a trailer. We are traveling with our dog (so packs of stray dogs will be interesting to experience), who rides in a trailer. Do you think Albania is navigable with a trailer? Thanks!

    • Sure. Trailer touring will be fine. And to be fair, the really threatening dogs were actually the shepherd’s dogs. Often working in concert to herd us and potentially bite us… Fortunately we escaped unscathed. But I would take precautions to protect a trailer riding dog.
      t

  12. Nice write up! I really enjoyed cycling through Albania a couple of years ago, I actually would like to go back and do more of the coast. Are you guys still in Albania?

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