Back in Albania

June 24, 2013

 

Distance: 47.3 miles   Climbing: 2877.3 ft

The day started on a bit of a rough note. I had not slept well due to some stomach issues and was not in the best mood when we got up. The bee flies were driving me insane and Chandler, unknowingly, made a comment which set me over the edge. We didn’t get too far before we had to hash things out in the middle of the road. Soon enough, everything was back to normal and we were ready for the day ahead of us.

Lush reservoir

Lush reservoir

We continued along the reservoir which was quite beautiful, but the view was hidden by a number of large trees. We didn’t mind too much, considering we were getting some wonderful shade from the sun. Chandler was excited when we reached a nice dam, which he spent a while looking at. Past the dam, there was a small stream running alongside the road. Gradually, we started gaining elevation and above another reservoir, which led us to another dam. Two dams in one day, Chandler could hardly contain himself with glee. He was especially excited because they had huge “morning glory” spillways, where the excess water that doesn’t pass through the hydroelectric turbines dumps into a giant concrete drain out in the reservoir, then passes through the dam in a pipe before discharging downstream. According to him, they are not an especially common feature on big dams.

Macedonian earth dam

Macedonian earth dam

Morning Glory

Morning Glory

After a few photos, we hustled to get back to Albania. We peddled through the town of Debar, but didn’t bother stopping, especially since we were out of Macedonian Denar. Finally, we made it to the border and back in our new favorite country. Maybe it was just us, but we noticed a change right away. There was a small café right after the border and we opted to stop for coffee. As we were ordering, a man came up and started chatting with Chandler. When Chan brought out money to pay for our drinks, the man waved the money away and added our drinks to his tab. We enjoyed our coffees on the deck and our friend came out as we were finishing up. He tried speaking to us but, either his English wasn’t too good or the beers were starting to get to him. He proceeded to whip out his cellphone, call his friend in Oxford, England and handed the phone to Chandler.

Back in Albania

Back in Albania

Chandler finished the brief phone conversation with the extremely confused man in England, we thanked our new friend and headed off. Neither of us could believe how happy we were to be back in Albania. The drivers were noticeably more courteous, the scenery more beautiful and the people more friendly. I felt like we were back in Cambodia with kids in trees shouting hello, people trying to give us high-fives as we biked pass and everyone honking to get our attention to wave. The most surprising thing is how friendly and encouraging the young men are towards us. We had several cars full of young dudes in Mercedes slow down to shout ‘ciao’, give thumbs up, clap or in my case, blow kisses.

Beautiful Albania

Beautiful Albania

Nothing could ruin our good moods. We went up a number of hills with the sun blazing down upon us, only the find a spring at the top to refill our water bottles. Then, suddenly, we encountered a fierce headwind. Having not stopped for lunch and considering it was near 3pm, we figured we were just bonking hard. We braked for juice and bread, but noticed the going was still really tough. As we were battling to go downhill, Chandler stopped and pointed out the water in the gutter next to the road and asked, “Is the water flowing uphill?” Yes, the wind was blowing so hard it was had changed the direction of flow in the gutter. Unbelievable.

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Luckily, we only had a few miles to go until we got to the town of Bulqize. After one last hill to struggle up, we were ready for showers and dinner. The town was really strange, basically two separate concentrations of huge old concrete apartment complexes cleaved in half by the highway. Whole parts of both of the towns looked abandoned. We consulted the map and discovered there wasn’t going to be anywhere else to stop for a while, so here we were. As we angled into the more lively looking side of town Chandler noticed extensive signs of mining in the hills.

We must have looked a little lost because a man immediately asked if we needed help and pointed out a hotel. The hotel looked more like a bar and as we loitered outside, another man came up to help. Ellet owns a hostel in the capital but was in town as an election observer and spoke wonderful English. He immediately asked if we wanted to camp or find a hotel, then made all arrangements for us and our bikes with the bartender for a room. Bulqize is a town built to support the underground chromium mine honeycombing the mountain above town. We learned that the local favorite party was winning the national election, so the mood in the town was good, and things should be safe.

Our new friend left us to shower and find food. We walked down the main street until we found an Italian restaurant, which luckily had an English menu. Chandler ordered beef with eggplant and I ordered pasta with butter and roasted potatoes. We were a bit surprised to find that we each got a serving of what the other ordered. Good thing Chandler was hungry enough to eat two orders of beef with eggplant. Then we noticed that there were little bit of beef in our buttered pasta. Then the roasted potatoes came out and we discovered there was a slight typo on the English menu, it was actually beef roast with potatoes. So, Chandler ended up eating 6 enormous plates of food, while I had cheese with bread and the uncontaminated potatoes. The bill came and some of the prices were a little inflated from what was on the menu. We didn’t have the heart or the energy to protest over being ripped off a few dollars, especially since the total price was less than a meal for one in most restaurants back home.

We had a few beers in the hotel room while watching an episode of Top Gear where the hosts drove across Albania in a Mercedes, a Rolls Royce and a Yugo. It was pretty entertaining, but we thought they did a poor job of accurately characterizing the country, perpetuating the horror stories about how dangerous things are and the poor condition of the roads.

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Oh Ohrid

June 23, 2013

Distance: 27.7 miles  Climbing: 813.6 ft

We slept in and lingered on the internet updating the blog and researching the route for the next couple days.

First, we went to the town of Ohrid for breakfast. We were banking on finding a simple café in the old part of town that was supposed to very beautiful. We quickly found out that the old town must have been built before the invention of the bicycle as we bumped along on huge angular cobble stones, constantly corralled by streets with steps. The small part of the town we were able to ride through was lined with a bunch of kitschy souvenir shops, hip bars and restaurants. Not a humble al fresco café to be found. Frustrated and hungry, we got a little grumpy with each other. We found a grocery store and Chandler grabbed us greasy cheese pies for a quick eat. We were feeling much better, but as it seems to happen, early frustration can set the tone for the day.

The town of Ohrid

The town of Ohrid

Ohrid was incredibly touristy and confusing to navigate on a bike, so we headed out of town the moment we were done eating. Searching for a way to get off the main road, we followed a small secondary road along the lake. The water looked very inviting, but there were people almost everywhere. The people watching was entertaining at first, but it was just a bunch of people who shouldn’t probably be wearing bikinis and speedos so it got boring quickly. Things got a little more interesting when we reached a town with a deep river running under a bridge with lots of people jumping off it. We stopped to watch a little bit of the action before Chandler decided to join the fun. The water was running swiftly and the bridge was a little high, so when the sun slipped behind some clouds, I chickened out.

Swans on the lake

Swans on the lake

Getting to jump

Getting to jump

There he goes

There he goes

While in town, we resupplied our food stock before leaving town. The traffic and roads weren’t bad, and the scenery was fine, but nothing was making an impression on us. The lake was nice, but was popular to the point of being overdeveloped and lined with the trappings of a generic beach experience: bars with lounge chairs, cheap sunglasses stands, inflatable plastic things stores, ice cream stands and tiny beaches crammed with people, over and over. We both love the beach, but this was a little too claustrophobic for us.

Rather abruptly we were back in farmland having veered away from the lake following a river valley back toward Albania. The valley slowly closed on us and soon we were in a gorge, but there was a lot of vegetation in the way of the view, so we just kept rolling, hoping things would improve. At this point, we were kind of worn out and began to look for a spot to camp.

Wildflower field

Wildflower field

Chandler noticed a road leading to the water and a pasture, so we parked the bikes for Chan to investigate. The river must have been dammed as the water level was way down, exposing an expansive mud flat covered with an unbelievable amount of plastic trash and lots of flies. We opted to keep going. Soon enough, Chandler noticed an old road winding up out of the valley. Someone clearly wanted to keep people from following it and had totally torn up the tie-in to the main road with an excavator. Luckily, there was a small footpath that we were able to ferry our panniers and then bikes up. The road provided a nice flat place to pitch the tent.

Finally, the tent

Finally, the tent

The place ended up being swarmed with these little flies that were striped like bees and then also some real bees. While the bugs don’t bother Chandler, I spent the remainder of the night hiding in the safety of the tent.

It had been an odd day. Even though we are tourists everywhere we go, when faced with a place that “caters” to tourists or is a “must see place” we feel awkward and everything seems so difficult. We have a pretty tight budget so that is certainly part of it. We have discovered that there is a major difference between being on a travel budget in Europe versus on a holiday or vacation budget. Mobility is the other big factor I think: most tourists here seem to arrive in a car and explore with the car or on foot, so naturally the local infrastructure is geared towards that model- heavy touring bicycles end up clashing with everyone else in that environment and we often feel intrusive especially in pedestrian friendly places.

We’ve been discussing our travel strategy and have realized that we have a lot more fun staying off the beaten path and hoping to stumble into interesting experiences. Sometimes that works, sometimes it just results in an unremarkable ramble, which can be fine too. We need to figure out how to balance the rambling with also “seeing the sights” so we don’t feel like we missed out on things just because the touristy places are unpleasant on a bike.

A Macedonian detour

June 22, 2013

Distance: 40.6 miles  Climbing: 2349.1 ft

Due to some confusion the day before, we missed out on the brewery tour, but were told to come back in the morning. We had a quick breakfast and showed up when the brewery opened ready for the tour. We spent about half an hour engaged in confusing dialog with the lackadaisical security guard before a woman who worked in the office came by and found someone to give us the tour. Our guide turned out to be production manager for the whole brewery. He ended up being really cool and opened up a lot once he realized Chandler and I knew a lot about brewing. His whole brewery is controlled with a SCADA system which means he can manipulate the most minute details of the brewing process from any computer equipped with the proper software. He knew a ton about lagers and the beer he brewed, but when we were comparing malt to water ratios for our American style India Pale Ales, he kept saying “Impossible!” He had been on a tour of a Budweiser brewery in Florida and assumed that was how all beer in America was created. We tried to explain craft brewing and “100% malt” but it didn’t seem to translate. For as saturated as the micro-brewing culture is within the US, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the Balkans!!

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The raw ingredients

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Beer nerds

While chatting and looking at the computer system we sipped some of their black beer which was just a lager with some black patent malt to color it. The last part of the tour was through the bottling and kegging station, and then we hit the road before 10am. Being so close to Macedonia, we decided to take a swing through for a few days before passing back through northern Albania. The ride to the border was mostly flat with a few hills that made for easy riding. Crossing from Albania to Macedonia was as straight forward.

Lovely flat road

Lovely flat road

Church, mosque and donkey

Church, mosque and donkey

We planned to make a circuit around Ohrid Lake which saddled the border, through the town of Ohrid and then back up a river gorge into Albania. Since on the map the road appeared to follow the lakeshore, we assumed it would be flat and mellow so we could make good time. The road was actually shoulderless and narrow, winding up one steep hill after another, leaving us sweating buckets. There were tons of tourists in sporty rental cars out for a drive passing way to close and too fast for the quality of the road.

We were planning on camping outside of Ohrid, but it quickly became obvious that was not going to be an option. The closer we got to the town of Ohrid, the more developed the land around the lake became. When we reached a small town offering apartment rooms for rent, Chandler suggested we stop. We ended up finding a great room which included internet and a balcony overlooking the lake for 20€. We parked our bikes around the back on the building, carried our panniers to our room and then had a swim in the lake.

The water was the perfect temperature after a hot, sweaty ride. We swam around for an hour to cool off. There were a lot of little fish that would come and nibble our legs if we held very still. The sensation reminded me of the fish pedicure I had in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had fun seeing who would attract the most fish.

Swimming in the lake

Swimming in the lake

Feeling much more relaxed, we headed back to our room to shower, do laundry and use the internet. Once chores were out of the way, we headed to a restaurant for pizza. We had access to a kitchen at the apartment, but with prices so low, we had to take advantage of not cooking or cleaning.