Beyond Tirana: Eight days of cycling to uncover the mysteries of a contemporary Albania
The Seasons Change
In early April of 2014, nearly a year ago, the signs of spring presented themselves at my cabin in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, in the form of blizzards and fresh snow by the foot. The hurricane-like winds ripped at my roof and drifted snow a meter high in front of my kitchen door. The wood fire stove blasted heat throughout the cabin, and even though temperatures were in the single digits outside, I comfortably admired the storm from my kitchen window, wearing board shorts and flip-flops. Winter life just the way I like it. I cracked a beer and rejoiced in the coziness of the cabin, then looked down to the empty suitcases on the floor. Ski gear and winter clothing scattered everywhere, but it’s the cycling shoes, bibs, and jerseys I found myself reaching for. It would seem as though I was confused, because the next morning I’d snowmobile away from my cabin in a foot of fresh snow, then drive to the Salt Lake City International Airport, and begin my adventure half-way across the world to Albania. I rubbed my eyes and scratched my head, it was difficult to comprehend.
Jill Murwin, the founder of Chasing Atlas, a premier custom travel company that I’ve guided for, presented the opportunity to venture into this chartered, but relatively unknown, country to join a cycling group exploring the southern half of Albania. Beginning in the capital city of Tirana, and extending into the majority of the southern half of Albania, the trip was designed to expose the true potential of cycling and tourism in a country trying to prove itself as a desirable place to visit. Immediately, my first impression of this proposal was to prepare myself for the potentially hostile. A covert cycling mission through a land teaming with resentment towards the outside world. In reality, I knew nothing of Albania, and even had to consult a map to confirm it’s location.
On The Ground in Tirana
After a handful of connections and countless hours of travel, I arrived with thankful ease into the Tirana International Airport. My head was spinning from the lack of sleep, jet lag, and in-flight cocktails. Waiting for me behind customs were brothers Armand and Junid, the creators, owners, and operators of Cycle Albania (www.cyclealbania.com). The genuine charisma and dynamic of these two set the stage for what would be a very enjoyable and incredibly interesting week.
In the bustling capital city of Tirana, life ensues around the dark remnants of a long communist era. The buildings are mostly in varying states of construction, abandonment, and residency. But not to be fooled, within the cracks one will find tasty traditional restaurants, decent hotels, and a surprisingly bumping nightlife. Chaos seemed to ensue in a relatively organized manner, and I realized quickly that Albania is like no other European country.
Walking around Tirana for the afternoon with Junid, he explained with great detail the history of Tirana and Albania’s liberation from an oppressive communist dictatorship. Observing madness of the bustling city, where chaotic traffic followed no form and cars seemed to zip out from anywhere, I could feel its vibrant heartbeat. Shops and cafes lined the city streets, small markets popped up in various open spaces, while the flow of people was not unlike that of any other busy urban environment, all be it in clear Third-World fashon. To top it off, old men iconically played dominoes in the city parks. What set Tirana apart, however, was the overwhelming sense of isolation. Although nearly twenty years had passed since the dictatorship had crumbled and the doors of Albania had been opened, I wondered the city feeling as though these doors had been unlocked just weeks before. Tirana is evidence that catching up to a rapidly changing modern world after decades of seclusion and oppression is a grand and lengthy task.
To The Countryside
The first leg of our trip began with a drive out of Tirana through a dispersed countryside, dotted with small farming plots and unfinished construction. Snowcapped peaks towered in the distance high above the valley floor. The striking views contrasted sharply with the varying stages of human development surrounding us, and, as an unfortunate sign of the lack of infrastructure, trash lining the roads and streams became a constant eyesore.
The roads in Albania are variable to say the least. Provided for us on this trip, however, were Giant Roam hybrid bikes. I put my chuckles aside about riding a hybrid for the week as I quickly realized just how variable the roads can be in Albania. Not only are pot holes common, but the craggy condition of many stretches would be painfully hazardous on a dedicated road bike. Joking with Armand, I suggested he organize a professional stage race in Albania, a real “rugged man’s race.” Perhaps a prelude to the Spring Classics. Joking aside, I had a great time rolling over the constantly surprising Albanian roads on the Roam.
We descended off a small mountain pass to the fishing town of Lin, resting on the shore of Lake Ohrid, one of a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we would encounter. Home to over 200 endemic species, as well as being one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe, Lake Ohrid sits quietly, truly unique.
Traveling south along the lake on beat-up pavement and sections of dirt, fisherman selling their daly catch out of small tanks resting on push carts were the only roadside attraction, other than the ever present half-built homes and bunkers. Yes, bunkers, scattered throughout all of Albania. These small dome-like concrete structures hug the ground and provide constant reminder of the “old days,” when a paranoid dictatorship built them for an attack that never came. As a cold rain began to fall with increasing force we pedaled into our destination on the southern tip of Lake Ohrid, the small town of Pogradec.
A feast of fresh fish, grilled vegetables, cheeses and wine awaited us at the hotel. These feasts became a theme throughout the week, both at lunch and dinner, as good food was never in short supply. As per Mediterranean custom, wine always had a home at the table. Usually a local vintage and often the product of the restaurant owners themselves, another sign of the self-reliant approach Albanians maintain. The post meal ritual, was the presentation of Raki, a traditional liqueur distilled mainly from grapes, or whatever else is available. The raki varies in quality and flavor from place to place, packs a punch, and always has a distinct Balkan sting. Cheering another incredible day of cycling, we raised our glasses, said “Gezuar,” (Albanian for “cheers”).
Traveling the rural countryside we rode unobstructed by traffic through tiny villages, small farms, the ever present communist era bunkers, and amazing views. The terrain was rather ideal for cycling, undulating over and around the rolling hills, with the Southern Mountain Range always in the back drop. At the foot of the mountains lie beautiful rivers and streams meandering through the valley floors. Riding by the Vjoses River with spring in early bloom I found myself stopping every fifty meters to take more photos of the spectacular landscape.
Resting on the Ages
Albania is layered in ages of civilization. Riding into UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the city of Gjirokaster, is like pedaling a time machine. This well preserved, stone city is the lasting remains of what was once a wealthy Ottoman settlement and strategic trading post that dates back even further to the Byzantine Empire. I visited an old sculptor sitting outside his shop, carving a scene of the city into a small slab of limestone. His precision was remarkable. In broken Italian, he proudly explained to me that during the dictatorship he was a mason and has since been able to operate his own shop filled with scenes carefully chiseled into varying sizes of the local stone. I was honored to purchase a few of these incredible pieces to bring home with me. High above sculptor’s shop, sits the Gjirokaster Castle on a plateau over the city, currently acting as a historical museum, and also the site of the National Folklore Festival every five years, which was unfortunately not occurring while I was there.
Pedaling further south in the Saranda region we stopped to visit the ancient Greek ruins at Butrint, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. This ancient settlement overlooks the Vivari Channel and Greek island of Corfu. Long ago this site acted as key passage point connecting the Straits of Corfu with the Ionian Sea. From prehistoric Greeks to the Ottomans, revolution to communism to today’s slow independent rebuilding, Albania’s rich histories are telling at every turn.
Riding The Coast
Finally arriving to the coast we stayed in the charming city of Saranda. Small fishing boats were returning to harbor with the day’s catch as we cruised down the boardwalk towards our hotel. Replenishing ourselves on the fresh catch of mussels and sea trout after a long day, I rejoiced, soaking in the scenery and sublime feeling of having traveled by bike for the last five days through this mesmerizing country.
The last two days of cycling followed the coast north, on what would end up being the best stretch of road we would travel. Between the quality of pavement, the scenery, and sparse traffic, this was ideal cycling. A thousand meter climb even greeted us on the final day. Its even 7% average gradient and many switchbacks felt more like ascending an Hors Category climb in the French Alps, than rustic in Albania. However, the rising views of the Ionian Sea to the south and Adriatic Sea to the north brought this unique stretch of road home to its truly Albanian feel. Cold mountain air awaited at the pass and we quickly descended back down the other side to warm sea breezes.
Traveling to a country that had been largely cut-off from the outside world for so long, my perceptions of Albania beforehand were wild with speculation. Assuming it to be dangerous because of a lack of material wealth is a common mistake associated with such places, but everywhere we traveled throughout Albania, the Albanians themselves were nothing but welcoming, kind, and humble. From the natural beauty of the countryside to the immense cultural histories to the quality of cycling and the character of my guides from Cycle Albania, this was a rewarding experience beyond my expectations. Although Albania faces a long road ahead of developing, improving it’s existing infrastructure, and attempting to become a member of European Union, it makes for an incredible destination, perfect for the traveler ready to experience a beautiful country in its raw form, as it struggles to rebuild its identity and mesh into the modern world. Gezuar!