The Inspiration and Awe of Albania

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Affordable, organic and awe inspiring Albania lacks nothing for the touring cyclist!  Definitely one of the top ten greatest places to tour on a budget!

Albania

We were both unconscious in our sleeping bags on the floor of the cafe when our boat pulled in to Igoumensita, Greece.  Someone woke us and we lethargically began to get our bags together so we could head down to the bike.  It was 4:30 in the morning and still nighttime.  As we rode into town it seemed that a bakery was opening and we stopped to investigate.  I found myself in cryptic awe when the coffee I ordered came in a large mug.

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It has been so long since an americano hasn’t arrived as a half full teacup I have forgotten this blessed cup of warm liquid even exists.  We wait for the light to come and use the free wifi, something else that didn’t exist in Italy.

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We only ride through about 30 kilometers of Greece before we reach Albania.

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The Albanian flag is a wonderful deep crimson with the black silhouette of some mythical two headed beast in the center.  It’s a creative change to the banal shapes and lines of most flags.

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Our first moments in the country we are greeted by friendly drivers stopping to ask if we need help.

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We cross a narrow channel by way of some mechanism I have never seen before – half boat, half bridge.

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By the time it starts to rain we have already biked 50 kilometers and it’s only 11:00am.

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The dank weather pushes us into a coffee shop and as it begins to rain harder we find ourselves offered a room for 10 euros.  When I ask to see it and discover it’s actually a small apartment I’m sold and we move in immediately.

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Two days in this nice apartment gave us the time to walk around and we soon found ourselves on a calm beach of clear water surrounded by several miniature circular islands and looking out to the much larger island of Corfu in the distance.

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We walked past a yard full of fruit trees surrounding a small house with neatly painted shutters.  A girl with blond hair stands in the garden and looks at us, our very presence has petrified her.

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The Albanians have a funny habit of hanging stuffed animals on gates and trees.  Its sometimes cute and sometimes scary depending on the location.

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Our first night wild camping in Albania we find a washed out road that looks like it services some cell towers and follow it up a bit, finding a nice spot on the top of a large hill with awesome views of the Ionian Sea and surrounding coastline.

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After meditation and dinner the first shotgun blast cuts through the dark silence with a crack followed by the sound of the spray of pellets bouncing off something.  Not the most ideal thing you want to hear when you are camping undisclosed in the night.  After a half hour and few more shots I see a dim light on the tent and take it as a sign I should go out and show myself.

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My ultra bright bicycle light pointed at the ground so as not to blind anyone, I walk towards the light illuminating all that surrounds me.  A seventy year old man with a half cocked shotgun over his arm stands with his own light as I approach.  I shake his hand and he motions for me to go back to the tent.   I go back and lay down in the dark, thankful he at least knows where we are.  The remaining shotgun blasts were no longer frightening.

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Rasham’s new practice of a morning and evening steaming cloth face wash is a nice treat for us both!!

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In the morning we see him again standing from a distance and watching us pack.

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It’s fun to bike without a map or internet in that you don’t know what’s going to be around the next bend.  In this case it was a 3,400 foot climb on a coastal highway, not typical for a road that follows the sea.

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We make it about half way up and then come upon an idyllic campsite.

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Since our meditation course we have been meditating morning and evening usually for an hour but sometimes less if conditions are not ideal.  To meditate outside at these times is wonderful due to the birds who venture quite close to the tent when he are silent.  Meditating in the presence of their song is to really listen, this delicate impromptu arrangement, never to be reproduced in exact measure, yet so pleasing.  Sweet bouts of resonant chirping and hum; a high pitched sustention of oscillating tones overlapped with long coos and whipping crescendos.

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If wild camping weren’t so easy here we would probably be enjoying a lot more of the cheap accommodation but when it comes down to it, we love being outdoors!

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On the way up a car stops and a man hands us two large chunks of chocolate, screaming something and giving us the thumbs up.

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The next morning we climb the rest of the way facing stunning views of the both ocean and snow capped mountains. We have grown to admire the hardships of climbing, to look at a mountain fearlessly and to willingly accept our upward fate with a smile. Pushing up, and up, and up, hour after hour, it’s easy to loathe it like some beast who has stolen whatever morsel of happy riding we had hoped for ourselves; long lost flat and verdant hillsides, mild and meandering coastlines, joyous tailwinds. But to do so is to misjudge it entirely. It is not a burden to face, but a challenge to overcome, and the challenge is equally the elevation as it is the constant smoothing of agitation in the mind. The mountain is merely a mirror disguised by its unmoving, unyielding nature and its tremendous and glorious heights; it reflects back to us whatever stirs in our hearts.

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On the other side we ride down past small roadside stands of fresh honey, dried sage and eggs.

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Eventually through a beachfront runway of whole goats roasting on turning spits, and others skinned and hanging on hooks, their eyes jet black and bodies skinny and raw.

An Albanian woman selling fresh ground coffee outside her shop.

An Albanian woman selling fresh ground coffee outside her shop.

Finally we pull into a town called Vlorë and are greeted with the unpleasant rise in traffic, hordes of people with painted faces and gelled hair, loud music, cavernous dark clubs with smooth plasticky seating and vague names like Enigma, Galaxy,  Cliché or Nebula.  We are just entering the center of town when suddenly a feel a sharp jolt and I realize there is a hard sheet of steel siding right next to us, brushing against the bike with increasing pressure.  Our front pannier is knocked free.  I am only briefly aware that we have come in contact with a car before the end of it slides past us knocking the bike and sending me first to the ground.  I look back to see the rear of the bike somehow still erect crash to the ground, and with it, Rasham who slams into the ground with a large smacking sound and accompanied yell.  There is no skidding, we are stopped and turn forward again to the see the car darting between two other cars and disappearing in traffic.  Three of our panniers are in the street and some young people rush over to see if we are ok.  Thankfully we weren’t traveling very fast, the car hit us from the side and we are ok.  Even the bike and gear seem to be fine but we are both extremely disoriented and gathering our things, move to the side of the road to recollect our wits.

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I feel somewhat relieved that we were finally hit by a car and yet everything is fine, as if we were due for some kind of collision after 8,000 miles and we had miraculously bared it unscathed.  Shaken we manage to get some veggies and quickly escape the commotion of town to find a nice secluded spot in thicket of olive trees and brambles.

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After climbing our 3,200 coastal pass we are feeling strong and decide to head into Macedonia despite the daily mountain passes we will have to climb. Little boys on bicycles race us through traffic, popping wheelies and hopping curbs to show off. There is not a hint of shyness to be found in the youth of Albania; once, while fixing a flat, a pair of eleven year olds threw down their bikes and jumped in to help without hesitation.

Cycling inland we camp in a beautiful valley.

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The next day we are in a town in central Albania called Elbasan.

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Prepared food is amazingly inexpensive as well here and we have a sandwich each for about a dollar and then head out to get some supplies.

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In the window of a store we see what look like some generously sized peanut butter cookies and I head in to investigate.  The owner comes out, hands floury with baking and I point to the cookies.  “These are something special for the celebration.” he says in broken English.”

“Ahh the one on the 14th” I respond having heard of this upcoming Albanian holiday.  “Can I have two?”

“Yes,” he responds.  “They are for the celebration.”  It seems like he doesn’t want to sell them to me as I nod and continue to listen to his explanations.  “Are they sweet?” I ask, a little exasperated but he only continues to explain and when I indicate for the third time that I would like to buy some he looks at me quizzically and seems like there is something I am not getting.  “You want to buy some?” He finally asks.  “Yes,” I say.

“They are for mice.” he says flatly.

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Later in a mountain town we take the bike into a shop and get new rear brakes, a new chain and a new tire for $20.  In Western Europe it could have easily been 10 times that!

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A wonderful piece of political art carved of stone!

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We are gaining altitude now, cycling through mountain valleys…

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This is a larger version of some of the many aging bomb shelters that were in almost every field.

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This is where you end up camping when you can’t find a good spot (above, directly beneath the water lines). ‘Haha’, my wife laughs flatly while staring at the filthy odd shaped parcel of land that we are considering camping upon due to it being late and the headwinds high. Despite that the unfortunate location is regrettably  near railroad tracks, on a pile of caked mud in a floodwater channel, and that we had to rearrange garbage and grow accustomed to the stench of the rotting dead animal located a few feet beyond our only option for sleep, we take it in stride and good humor. Being steeped in beauty and ease and wonder is good for the heart, but these are the times that make us stronger.

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Poor tap water in some locations has given rise to a lot of wonderful public drinking fountains, often donated in the name of a deceased loved one.

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I had to put this picture in because I put a picture of Rasham sleeping in the last post.

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Near the top of our final climb into Macedonia.

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Finally we round a corner and I think we see what is the real top. The highway flattening out and cuts around a final hill.  My nose is running from the icy wind and with my thumb I gently apply pressure to the scarred plastic gear shifter.  It has no notches but within millimeters I know just where it must be and a moment later I am rewarded with the clicking of the chain moving to a higher cog and a corresponding increase in resistance from the pedals.  We see the border ahead.  Goodbye Albania!  We will miss you!!

4 responses to “The Inspiration and Awe of Albania

  1. That was a better than usual blog! How fascinating everyday sounds! And cookies for mice? I wish you’d elaborated!

    Loved talking with you!

    Lot’s of love! Mom

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Wow…..Awesome!! I can’t believe you made me want to visit Albania. It’s a tough call on my favorite line was, probably a toss-up between “long coos and whipping crescendos” and “I feel somewhat relieved that we were finally hit by a car and yet, everything is fine.” But now I have to wonder if all your worrying about getting hit by a car and Rasham being in a wreck didn’t actually MAKE it happen. You were resigned to it from the beginning and so it was so……..Or I’m just messing with you. Can’t wait to see you guys again! Thanks so much for sharing your journey with me and for allowing me to be a part.

  3. I love the photo and caption style of this blog. Great photos and adventures. You have met such a diverse group of people.

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