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Thessaloniki - Tirana for devotees and experienced only

some highlights from the Dutch story 'Verpletterend mooi Albanië', translated with the help of Nick Collins

Thessaloniki to Tirana, As the crow flies it's around 200 miles, but measured in time the distance seems more like four centuries. An odyssey over land and through time on a mountain bike from an adorable Greece to an incredible Albania.

(....) Kastoria, Greece. The nearer we get to the border with Albania the more negative the Greeks speak about the place. Mostly disdainful, occasionally downright discriminatory, they ex-press their discontent to us about the large numbers of Albanians that have crossed the border in recent years. Whilst some of these immigrants have entered the country legally most, they complain, have not. And as such are subject to the usual abuse that is heaped upon such peoples wherever they are found. When we express our intensions to take a little look at this former socialist republic their faces register looks ranging from amazement to pity, we are clearly quite insane. In their eyes only thieves and murderers live in this neighbouring country and only the clinically mad would want to join them. For us however the appeal of Albania gets stronger by the minute. Every mile we get closer to the border the landscape gets wilder and the roads become tougher, demanding more and more from our "all terrain" cycling skills and the Grip Shifts. We pass through fewer villages and the sounds and smells of nature drown out those from the ever more scattered civilisation.

(....) Bilishti, the first Albanian village after the border. Roads are unpaved and potholed. Houses are made from wood, loam or turf. There is no sewer and the filth is drained straight into the roadside gutter. It feels like a medieval film set. Locals watch us with distrust. Or are they just curious? I see a man eating from a bunch of juicy grapes and ask him - with a little hesitation - where I can buy those. He looks as if he does not understand me. I repeat my question, show some money and point at the grapes. Than a big smile appears on his weather face and gestures to follow him. We walk alongside the backyard of some ramshackle wooden houses. No pavement, just sand that will turn into mud after the first drop of rain. When we arrive at his house he picks the biggest bunch out of the grapevine and gracefully hands it over to us. only after protesting he accepts our money. Albanians are very hospital, there grapes delicious.

(....) Malic near Korce. Our hosts Elgert Bregu advises with great emphasis against the route through the Devoll (Devil ?) valley. They say it is very much impassable and unsafe too. Since it is the Albanese themselves who proffer this advice, we hesitate for a while. But the other road, via Pogradec, we would have to share with wrecked Opel and VW diesel cars and their drivers who bought their licences two weeks ago. Faced with the prospect of playing chicken with these rolling wrecks we opt for the impassable and unsafe route. At least it will be quiet.
We are rewarded for doing so with fifty miles of the most incredible tracks in Europe. Rough mountains, black forests, bold rocks and crystal clear water splashing over them. The vista is beyond imagination.

(....) Gramsh. According to the receptionist of the one and only hotel in this small town, all rooms are booked. Luckely one of our 'new friends' - an intoxicated but nice chief of police - manages to secure us a room. Price for the room for one night: 1 US Dollar, payable in advance, cash! We should be gratefull, but it is filthy. The toilets are literally full of shit. The room is pretty worn out and there is no running water after 7.00 p.m. We brush our teeths with the water from our canteens and barricade the door with the wardrobe. Foregoing the grimey sheets, we sleep in our smelly sleeping bags with the premise that our sweat is preferable to somebody elses. But after such an amazing day, really we don't care.

.......... if you want to read more: send money or a translator.


GENERAL INFORMATION

a special country

For sure you will meet with some inconveniences. But most of the people are very nice and most of the country is extremely beautifull (except for some badly damaged industrial areas). The food is getting better by the day and hopefully the roads will stay as unpaved as they are now. This makes this country a perfect spot for walking and cycling.
The capital Tirana is interesting too. It's crowded with cars and people trying to make money with small businesses. Though hectic it has a very good atmosphere. People are very motivated to improve their lives. And allthough people here may seem to be more self-centered than in the country, you still can get easily into contact with nice people.

documentation

Albania map Ravenstein, 1 cm = 400.000 km, edition 1992.

visa

Once you arrive in Albania you have to buy a visa for $ 5,-. Cross the border at Konispol, Kakavija or Bilishti.

how to get there

By train to Brindisi, Italy and than by boat to Dures. Or take a plane to Corfu, where a daily boat sails you to Sarande. If you don't bring your own bike, visit the 'Dutch Bicycle Company' in Agios Ioannis, phone 00-30 661 52 410. Here you can rent a pretty good Giant trekking bike.

season

May, June, September and October are the best months for cycling. Temperatures are nice and the light is beautiful.

money

Bring dollars or DM, rather 10 pieces of $ 1,- than 1 piece of $ 10,-. only in Tirana you can use Traveller Cheques. Prices are low for local products. If you take a taxi, fix a price in advance.

safety

Take care of your luggage. But despite all the anti-propaganda it is not more worse than Amsterdam Central Station. The people are poor, so you would expect a higher motivation to steal. But this is not the case. Many people are most willing to share their belongings, food and hospitality with you.

water & food

Do not drink water from a tap. It is deadly! Buy water in plastic or drink it - if necessary - from the mountains. Food is not a problem bigger villages. If you travel remote remote you have to ask the locals to bake you an extra bread.

accommodation

You can sleep in very cheap state run hotels ($ 1,- p.p.) or private hotels. Tirana is much more expensive: $ 30,- or more. When you stay in a rural area you can try to stay the night with a family. Just ask, most people are willing to help you.

transport

There are a few trains in Albania. Buy a ticket and take you bike on the train. It is great fun to experience.

hot spots

Girokaster and Berat (old cities), Korce-Malic-Gramsh-Tirana through the Devoll valley (extremely beautiful, Tirana and Vlore-Sarande (along side the cost)

request

Please mail all your experiences to Robert van Weperen, go4it@xs4all.nl so I can expand this information.
This story is an excerpt of a story which appeared in the Dutch magazine FIETS issue 6-1994.
© 1994,1995 Robert van Weperen
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