June 19, 2013
Distance: 38.8 miles Climbing: 5232.9 ft
We were excited to experience Albania. Jenny and I came in through a remote corner of the country, so we weren’t sure what sort of towns we’d come into first, but we knew they wouldn’t be touristy. We rolled into a town which we think was called Carshove, but we’re not 100% sure. There was suddenly a lot of hustle and bustle, mainly people working on the engines of big diesel dump trucks, and washing them. A man wearing a fluorescent vest waved us into a café offering espresso, which sounded heavenly.
After two pretty decent coffees and a couple of bottles of cold water, we were on our way. We didn’t have any Albanian Leke yet, so we paid in Euros at an extortionate rate. Luckily, coffee is cheap and even paying double is way less than paying full price at home!
We rode on, and soon we started to get into some serious views. The mountains in southern Albania are really high and held some big snow fields and maybe even some glaciers up high. We were really excited to be in some big alpine terrain, which reminded us a lot of Alaska in some ways. Even though we were climbing like crazy we were both in ecstatic moods.
Greece was a letdown for us, even though it had the great landscapes and food, the bad car driving, the tepid attitude of the people and the cost of things was a bit deflating. We were ready for something new.
We read about Albania’s complex recent history and a lot of common knowledge seemed to indicate it was still kind of dangerous. Briefly: Albania was the most extreme Marxist communist country ruled for decades by a paranoid and oppressive dictator, Enver Hoxha. The country did not join up with the Yugoslav bloc, had a shaky relationship with the USSR, and then became more aligned with the Chinese before becoming more isolated. A massive amount of time, money and resources was spent building thousands of these miniature concrete bunkers designed to repel a land invasion. Enver died in 1985 and since then the country has been on a rocky road to democracy.
We read a few blogs on cycling through the country and found that a lot of people stuck to the coast and found the roads in awful condition with loads of traffic. The few people who cycled in the interior had nothing but good things to say about the riding and the people. We decided to give the place a shot and stick to the mountain roads away from the cities.
Our first full day in the country provided a huge measure of encouragement. We rode through rugged hills up and down again with really light traffic. The roads were really bad, but on a bike they were 100% ride-able and with almost zero traffic, we felt very safe zigzagging all over the place to find a clean line through the potholes. Even though we were on a major national highway, it had the feel of a paved, but rundown Forest Service road. They were narrow and the grades weren’t great, but we only passed a few Mercedes and felt totally relaxed the whole time.
We climbed over the semi infamous Barmash Pass, which was listed at over 1700 meters in our Lonely Planet, but was less than 1200 meters in reality. I think we hit a higher section way before that. The highlights of the Barmash pass section was that it was hot as hell, getting chased by sheep dogs and there wasn’t a store or anywhere to get a cold drink on the main road.
It’s hard to explain why, but the combination of stunning scenery, quiet roads and a feeling of exotic isolation made it one of our all time favorite rides of the whole trip so far.
After a while we made it to the town of Erseke (Err-Sek). We found an ATM and finally got some Albanian cash. We were shooting to get to Korce for the day, since we knew there were hotels there, but we passed a little wedding/hotel place in town and decided to check it out. It was family owned and had 20 Euro rooms, so we were in. After a few beer Korcas, we made it down to the dining room where we made the usually fruitless effort of telling the waiter Jenny is vegetarian. To our surprise, the girl spoke passing English and totally understood us. From the kitchen came courses of fried zucchini, squash and potato, then cheese, piles of bread and a salad. I got a bunch of fried chicken. When we settled up the bill our whole meal including 4 beers cost less than $15!
We lounged in our room and tried to watch TV, but none of it was in English so we had no idea what was going on. With no wifi, we quickly lost interest in the outside world and fell asleep.