Albania: Crossing a Balkan Land by Bike

Biking the road to Gjirokastra, Albania. Melissa Adams photos.
Biking the road to Gjirokastra, Albania. Melissa Adams photos.

Albania by Bike: Discovering a Mysterious Balkan Land on Two Wheels

By Melissa Adams

Fishing boats on Lake Ohrid.
Fishing boats on Lake Ohrid.

When I informed friends I’d be cycling through Albania, I encountered everything from curious stares to mild concern and genuine shock. My most adventurous pal looked at me quizzically before responding, “You go, girl!” Then, “Where exactly IS Albania?” From more cautious buddies I heard, “Why?” followed by something like, “Isn’t that in a war zone?” Or, “Aren’t you afraid of getting mugged? Or drugged?”

Enroute to a mysterious Balkan land listed on few bucket lists, I pondered friends’ worries—and my own. Would I be a stranger in a strange land scarred by a half-century of Fascist rule and a civil war sparked by failed Ponzi schemes?

Would my hosts be long-suffering peasants, dazed by modernity, in a country with outdated roads and poor sanitation?

Jumping off a rock on the Albanian coast.
Jumping off a rock on the Albanian coast.

Would we antagonize locals, parading bare-limbed in neon spandex? Some brought up blood feuds—the ancient custom of killing any male in a family that’s wronged yours. While rarely practiced since the 15th century, revenge killings still occasionally occur in northern Albanian villages. Lacking expiration without a brokered peace, some vendettas last for centuries, driving entire families into long-term isolation

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Touchdown in Tirana

The veil shrouding the mysterious land I’d been warned about began to lift at Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza. Named for Mother Theresa, Albania’s most famous daughter, the airport is the only one in the country offering flights beyond Albania. While traffic has doubled since borders opened in 1991, it’s served today by a mere eight airlines flying to 26 international destinations.One of those is London, from whence Ollie was expected. Like mine, his flight was late, but that didn’t bother Junid, a patient man, who’d joined his older brother Armand in guiding cyclists around Albania several years ago. Both had graduated from Austrian universities, then spurned desk jobs in favor of careers with adventure.

Biking through Korce in the rain.
Biking through Korce in the rain.

“We’re numbers three and four,” Junid joked, referring to his status as the youngest of four sons born to an Olympic medalist father and athletic mother. Pleased at hosting both an American and a European, Junid seemed one of us—well spoken, with no vestiges of peasantry—as Western as we come. But outward appearances hid a rugged individualism below the surface.

As we drove through Tirana, a capital with wide boulevards, inviting squares, socialist murals and Islamic mosques, I saw a city in transition in a country still facing third-world problems. Tirana is no cosmopolitan Rome or romantic Paris. Unfinished construction and chaotic traffic contribute to urban blight unknown in more refined destinations. Yet ragged edges reveal secrets of a 4,000-year history encompassing Greek, Roman, Ottoman and communist rule.

Enroute to Pogradec, where we’d overnight, Junid regaled us with trivia. “See the concrete domes? They’re bunkers built by Enver Hoxha,” he explained. “During World War II, Albanian soldiers used them for guerrilla warfare.” Over 700,000 bunkers, built over 40 years, remain—Hoxha’s legacy of totalitarianism that almost bankrupted Albania.

Amphitheater at Burint
Amphitheater at Burint

Ollie asked about the price of a beer. “About 100 lek or $1,” Junid replied, a fraction of what a cold one runs in America, Western Europe and Scandinavia.

Junid talked about Armand—a man passionate about sustainable tourism. When not leading tours, he might be scaling mountains or pedaling around India with girlfriend Marsela, a professional sprinter who guides cycling tours between competitions. Like many Albanians, the couple is building an off-the-grid home with space for crops, animals, solar panels, aging parents, and the five children Armand wants to father.

On the Shores of Lake Ohrid

Locals on a horsecars in Albania.
Locals on a horsecart

We arrived after after our group had toured St. Naum Monastery and strolled the lakeshore fronting Hotel Millenium, our nondescript accommodations on Lake Ohrid, one of four UNESCO sites on our 10-day itinerary.

While the 7-Up bottle under my bed failed to impress, a panorama of blue-trimmed fishing boats moored on the deserted beach below compensated for the sub-par amenities

A single road dotted with ramshackle homes, a market, and a fishermen hawking the day’s catch, still gasping on a hook, ran through town. Red-tiled hotels, some boasting thatched beach huts, spilled down the hillsides. Several motorists passed through before I headed downstairs to join a dozen or so European and American cyclists at dinner.

A veggie feast.
A veggie feast along the ride.

Junid introduced me to Armand, our leader—a tower of a man in his early thirties with chiseled features, an athletic build, gigantic hands and intense hazel eyes. Armand’s charisma was matched by deep patriotism. For months, he’d anticipated sharing Albania’s raw beauty, colorful traditions and tortured past with us.

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We chatted over a Mediterranean feast, served family-style on a table groaning with organic vegetables, grilled meats and local seafood, then toasted with raki shots. Armand scanned the leftovers, reached for the half-eaten plate of koran, a fish native to Lake Ohrid, and devoured the remaining delicacy.

Into the Alps

From Korce’s green plains, we rode over barren rock and snow-capped peaks, into the Albanian Alps. Below us, farms brimmed with vegetables—all grown without imported pesticides—along the Albanian-Greek border. Olive-skinned peasants riding donkey carts smiled as we passed, and shepherds dangling worry beads waved us on. Summiting at Barmash Pass in the Grammoz Mountains, we descended to family-run Farma Sotira, where modern cabins nestled in a forest.

Saranda harbor in the Ionian sea.
Saranda harbor in the Ionian sea.

Over a cobblestone bridge, we came to Taverne Peshku, where five-year-old Florida met us, clutching a punctured tire tube for Armand. Like her parents, she spoke little English, yet comunication was easy. Over local beer and homemade rose wine, we chatted, then watched our hosts catch dinner from pools fed by mountain springs.

Inside, Armand tended a blaze as plates of the trout we’d seen swimming moments before came from the kitchen. Charred and gazing at me alongside crisp-fried carrots and cabbage, it was the freshest fish I’ve ever eaten.

At dawn, I bundled against the morning chill, then wandered into Farma Sotira’s meadow, where a half-dozen mares nursed colts amidst firs and wild hazel. At the tavern, we filled up on fried eggs, toast and jam before climbing back into the mountains.

Stone carver in Gjirokastra.
Stone carver in Gjirokastra.

A descent through a spectacular gorge took us to sleepy Leskovik, where tiny Marina greeted us in her parents’ café. We continued downhill to Guesthouse Coli, a stone and wood edifice shaded by mature oaks. After refueling on Greek salad, tzatziki and filo pastries, a short clip brought us to Benja Thermal Springs, accessible via a 14th-century footbridge. Back at the guesthouse, succulent lamb chops seasoned with oregano, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice sizzled on the barbecue.

Shepherd by the road
Shepherd by the road

It was Armand’s birthday, so our hosts surprised him with his childhood favorite, kukurac—chopped innards encased in sheep intestine, an Albanian delicacy that looks no better thn it sounds. After the roasted creation was passed around, it returned to our leader, who relished his birthday prize.

Gjirokastra: Castle on a Hill

We headed for the “City of 1,000 Steps,” birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania with an iron first from 1944 until his execution in 1985. Gjirokastra spreads downhill from a castle accessible by the aforementioned steps. In the dark interior, Armand explained how the vaults were once holding cells for King Zog’s enemies, then used by the Nazis during World War II. Closed as a prison in 1971, the space is now Albania’s National Museum of Armaments.

What made the trek to the castle truly worthwhile was the jaw-dropping view of slate-roofed Ottoman homes and 19th century mosques. In 1961, the Albanian government declared Gjirokastra a Museum City and UNESCO made it a World Heritage site in 2005 to preserve its architectural heritage and keep new development out of the historic center.

The citadel’s coup de grace is what remains of a two-seater jet—an American spy plane forced down in 1957, according to communist lore. The pilot tells a different tale: after landing at Rinas Airport due to technical problems, his plane was confiscated by Albanian authorities.

Runaway Sheepdog

Winding road in country
Winding road in the countryside.

We overnighted at Gjirokastra’s renovated Çajupi Hotel, once used to accommodate communist politicians. Next stop: Saranda, gateway to the Albania Riviera and Butrint, the Balkans’ most extensive collection of ruins. Feeling weary, I rode in the support van, with Muslim the Muslim.

“I live next to house Armand is building,” Muslim disclosed. Recruited to drive the sag wagon and otherwise assist on cycling tours, he described himself as a religious man, true to his faith. He never touched alcohol and spoke lovingly of his wife and two sons at home, outside Tirana. He also educated me about Albanians’ tolerance for religious diversity.

“In my country, people with different faiths live together,” Muslim explained. Apparently, religious extremism is unknown in Albania because the struggle to survive bonds clans together.

I responded with stories of a different lifestyle, gleaned from traveling the world solo as a female writer. “You big trouble!” Muslim exclaimed after each installment, aghast at my independence and freedom to move about the globe at will.

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At a café outside outside Butrint, we met 11-year-old Alexander. Like many third-world urchins, he’d perfected his English—and sales skills. Beaded bracelets encircled his forearm below a polo shirt. He wasn’t picky about payment; dollars, euros, Norwegian krone, Swiss francs or Albanian lek would do. Unable to resist, I purchased a number with blue Evil Eye charms, then watched Alexander fidget, worried he’d need to leave for school before he could sell more jewelry.

“Do you buy candy with the money?” I asked.

“No, I give it to my mama,” he replied. He introduced his silent cousin—an orphan who neither went to school nor peddled trinkets to support a family.

“Alexander is our top salesman,” the café owner offered. “He can make $20 off a busload of tourists. His mother and sisters make the bracelets.” While I wanted to buy the lot off the boy’s arm, I knew my contribution would only propel the cycle of begging and poverty forward.  When our group showed up, few showed interest in Alexander’s wares. He trotted off, as tales of the day’s drama emerged over plates of seafood pasta. A sheepdog had bitten one rider’s calf. Unperturbed, Armand pulled out his medical kit and stitched him up by the roadside. The two were now at a local clinic.

Guesthouse Coli owners.
Guesthouse Coli owners.

Ancient Butrint

A plate of local trout, just caught, and cooked on the grill.
A plate of local trout, just caught, and cooked on the grill.

At Butrint, we returned to ancient Greece and Rome amidst ruins dating back 2,500 years. Past olive and eucalyptus groves, we reached the hilltop
where a 13th century acropolis once stood, overlooking the straits of Corfu. A road along the Ionian coast took us to Saranda, a resort town with more hotels per square foot than anywhere else in Albania—the result of poor planning and a construction boom gone bust. Ours was the three-star Porto Eda, named for the daughter of Mussolini, whose 1939 invasion of Albania forced the country into the Italian Empire.

Armand re-appeared with our injured cyclist—perky after his clinic visit, albeit unhappy about staying off the bike—as we ate dinner at a waterfront pizzeria.

The Albanian Riviera

Biking the mountain road to Gjirokastra, Albania. Melissa Adams photos.
Biking the mountain road to Gjirokastra, Albania. Melissa Adams photos.

A sharp climb launched a roller coaster ride along the Ionian Sea and Palermo Bay, a communist-era submarine base. We descended to the upscale Hotel Rondos on Guma Beach, another family-run establishment outside a tiny town with a stretch of shops, where I searched for souvenirs but found none.

With few tourists, vendors weren’t peddling t-shirts or mugs engraved with “I ♥ Albania.” I contented myself with jars of local honey.

Our final ride was as challenging as it was spectacular. From sea level, we peddled over Llogara Pass and its national park, home to black pine, Eurasian otters and golden eagles. Past woodlands, gorges and hairpin bends, the road descended to Vlore, the Adriatic’s southernmost port. At Hotel Nimfa, we jumped into the Bay of Vlore from a giant rock-turned-diving-board before our farewell dinner.

A Country in Transition

After 10 days, I’d learned much about a country that’s seen epic change since opening its borders to foreigners. While rich with history, unfinished buildings mar its cities and poor planning has turned seaside villages into concrete jungles. With no education, many Albanians struggle to escape poverty.

In the end, I had more questions than answers. Would Alexander advance beyond street peddling? Will tourism taint Albania’s authentic spirit? Will its roads be paved and its infrastructure upgraded? As waves lapped on the beach below, unsolved mysteries lapsed into dreams.

Booking Details

Cycle Albania’s 10-day UNESCO Tour is offered in the U.S. by Bike Beyond Boundaries of Colorado Springs, CO; 800.487.1136.

Melissa Adams

Melissa Adams is an American expat and freelance journalist who blogs about the soggy patch on the European continent that stole her heart from sunny Southern California at UnClogged in Amsterdam: An American Expat Plumbs Holland.

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