Ahh, Albania… We’ve been here before, eight years ago, and much has since changed for the better. This time around, having an idea what the country is about, we decide to take in the best — the awesome Alps of the north and the sun of far south.
We want to be clever and take the train from Shkodra via Durres to Vlore. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because departure times are one of the things that did not change — by noon public transportation is virtually done for — our train leaves at cute 5.45 A.M. Despite inconvenient time and rather dreadful weather, we decide to go for it. In Shkodra it’s pouring and we get drenched during the 10 minutes that separate our hostel and the train station. The train is pretty much leaving as we make our way to the platform and the conductor is not too happy to see us. It’s still dark, she tries to nervously hurry us up as together with a train crew member and another passenger we load our stuff into a lightless car. The guys are not feeling it in the poring rain and while moving the trailer it gets overturned and the sleeping bags from inside land under the train. The chain for locking the bikes gets lost, too, but we don’t know about it yet. All the stuff gets on board and the train leaves. Nobody is visibly angry, what can you do? We change our clothes but don’t manage to change the underwear. It leaves wet marks from under our clothes for everybody to see.
At Durres is pouring even worse while we’re standing under a narrow shelter on the platform. Maybe it will blow over? Fat chance. Finally, it’s time to move to the station build and on the way I step into a deep puddle and get my last pair of shoes completely wet. At the station we find out there is no train to Vlore. Temporarily the route has been shortened to Fiere. The weather forecast tells us it will continue to rain. We’re hungry. Suddenly, we remember what we should have done right away – relax and let go. We go over to a cafe and order hot tea and dinner. Chatting with the friendly waiter results in him bringing us some mysterious yet delicious version of burek. Fellows at another table buy us raki and liqueur. A lady residing at a nearby stall offers us pomegranate and persimmon. We give up. To hell with other plans, let’s stay here. And so we spend four wonderful days at Grandma Sabrina’s guesthouse. We communicate using body language, dry our sleeping bags and clothes using AC, while Sabrina spoils us with pomegranates, coffee and raki. The suns shines in spite of the forecast, while we wander along the beach intoxicated by the Mediterranean atmosphere. On our way back we get fresh shrimp. Who’s gonna stop us?! The rest of our time here is spent on more walks along the beach, biking escapades to the historical center and visits to local patisseries. We are even stopped by local youth developing Humans of Balkan project and give an interview.
Yet, there comes a time to leave. At the station we find out that two days prior the train stopped running. We’re not really in a mood for cycling and frankly speaking the main route across central Albania sucks. So we scheme again. How about going directly to Greece? A big bus that doesn’t cost too much can take us and all our gear but not the dog (she could ride in a cage in the baggage hold). Instead, we ride to an unofficial bus station outside the town, where buses and minivans that didn’t fill up in Tirana stop to pick up more passengers. The taxi drivers try to charm us with tales of buses being finished and minivans full because it’s Friday, so nobody but a private taxi will take us and our circus. However, in less than half an hour we’re confortably sitting in the back of a minivan to Gjirokaster. The bikes, with their front wheels off, had no problem fitting in the back of the car, while the trailer, with its wheels also removed, is riding in the cabin. It costs us a bit, but the dog turns out not to be a problem at all, which in fact she never is!
We like southern Albania. Mountains, blue sea and friendly people. There’s plenty of sights for sightseers as well. For the final days of October the weather is fantastic, while the summer hordes of tourists are nowhere to be seen. After strolling through the impressive Gjirokaster, we bravely climb over mountains in the direction of the seaside and visit the ‘blue eye’ along the way. It’s an incredibly deep spring of incredible blue and turquoise colors. We also visit again a much changed Sarande, have a peek at the beach in quaint Ksamil and through Butrint and surrounding orange gardens make our way towards the border. After two months and two thousand cycled kilometers, we finally make it to Greece!