Sunday, September 4, 2011

Through Albania

We entered Albania in the north and the first town we stopped was Shköder. The road from the border to the town (app. 15k) was quiet and pleasant, and so was the town. One of the reasons that it was so quiet was that it was the day of the end of ramadan. We found a pleasant hotel in the centre (Hotel Kaduku) and in the evening everyone came outside to parade the pedestrian area and to pay a visit to one of the many terraces.
The next day we rode over 100k to the capital Tirana. To avoid the busy main road we used side roads. In the morning this was ok, although we got lost on, I suppose, a deserted army base. Overgrown tarmac, bunkers, and no one to be seen. Once we had to walk and push our bikes through the shrubs and in order to reach a normal road we had to pass through a closed gate, that was not completely closed, that is, the closure was broken. But no problem, now and then smiling countrymen would wave us into the correct direction and with the aid of the gsm we were at least sure that Tirana was gradually coming closer.
In the afternoon we took a parallel road east of the highway (here called autostrada) and this become a miserable affair. The road surface was very bad, so, in spite of a friendly tailwind, our speed dropped dramatically. For a great number of kilometers there were roadworks going on. This implied that the road was completely broken up, no hard surface, loose rocks and pebbles and the scarce traffic had to wrestle its way through. Just as we had. No road workers to be seen, no signs or any indications how long it was going to be like this, so no joy for a cycle traveller.
At a certain point there was a possibility to go to the 'autostrada'. Not allowed for us, but what else? The term autostrada appeared a bit optimistic. It was a 4-lane road (most of the time), traffic was not too bad, the tailwind helped firmly and progress was so good that we reached the centre of Tirana and a cosy little hotel at app.17.00 hrs.
Tirana is a traffic nightmare, but as experienced cyclists we make ourselves as big as we can and claim our road space. Until now this approach has worked well.
We spent a nice and relaxing extra day in Tirana. Pleasant, dusty, noisy but with quiet places and parks, many terraces and restaurants as well.
After Tirana we cycled to Elbassan, to the south east. Except for the beginning a quiet highway that took us over a 800 meters high mountain range and that was really beautiful (video). The night we stayed in Hotel Colombo, a posh hotel with swimming pool and everything, a bit past the town of Elbassan. It was adviced by us by a young man who adressed us when we were having a coffee stop. The hotel had only very few guests. There was a striking presence of some, relatively many, men with a certain attitude. Big, short haircut, uninterested, somewhat annoyed look in their eyes, smoking, big cars, greeting each other very intimitely, acting as if the world was theirs, some with a (too) posh female companion. Then there were some of the hotel staff who were clearly busy making a good impression on some of the first. We had our doubts of the nature of the professions of these men. This was something that we had noticed before, Albanians are friendly and open, but there is this kind of macho man that you cannot escape to notice. An unpleasant note.
Another thing that we noticed was that after we had passed Tirana the economic situation looked better. Good road, everything in better shape than during our first day in the country.
From Elbassan we rode further east and again we had to cross a mountain range, this time 1005 altitude. It went surprisingly well, the border post was on the highest point and after that we only descended towards the Ohrid lake in Macedonia. In Ohrid we found a simple, cheap but very pretty room with balcony overlooking the historic centre with the oldest cathedral and the lake itself. Here we stayed again for a non cycling day, for a stroll, a drink, a dinner, so for a nice and quiet day.

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