“-Ania! Take the picture of the mountains!
-Why? These aren’t even hills!
-Look higher, above the clouds!”
We go to Kosovar Peje just because we were enchanted by a googled picture: the old town on background of impressive snowy moutain peaks. To confirm our decision, Lonely Planet mentioned something about a Saturday Cheese Market. However, we asked at least 5 people about the market and could not find it, all the while the stunning mountains were thoroughly covered with clouds. Still, we maybe got something better out of this: a couple of days worth of stunning scenery on the route along the border of Kosovo and Albanian Alps. We wholeheartedly recommend it to any bikers touring the Balkans. Due to the differences in altitude though, it’s a good idea mostly in the Kosovo -> Albania direction.
In Peje we decide to eat in a restaurant situated in an old, beautifuly renovated stone house with a rather difficult name of Kulla e Zenel Beut. The shady terrace under the grapevine can easily accomodate travellers with a dog. There we try veal and tave, a dish baked in a traditional clay pot. It was very similar to djuvec, the pan-Balkans popular ratatouille’s cousin.
In the morning we hit the road, a bit bored at first, we decide to visit one of the Kosovar treasures, the Visoki Dečani monastery. Yet somehow, we manage to “unintentionally” miss it (the turn was on a downhill part of the road). Later, during a coffee break, we discover that our route creator (www.brouter.de) put our brains to sleep and is leading us … to a ferry crossing on a mountain lake. Sounds wonderful but it’s October and the tourists left the Balkans long ago. A quick search through the internet reveals a website of a car ferry. “We finish the season by the end of August” it says. Ooops… The pictures from the Komani lake cruise looks so promising that we make a very quick decision to go there anyway. We will find a way to cross the lake and if not, there still exists a torturous and fiendishly long way around.
When we turn right, in the direction of the Albanian border, the best part begins: almost no traffic, great asphalt and heavenly mountain views. We climb very slowly to the crossing, located at 560 m.a.s.l. There we meet the friendliest border officers in the world. We had a similar experience when entering Kosovo, and we again hear: “You’re from a great country!” No need to show the passport, have a safe journey!” Just one more short climb and the rest of the day consists of the most wonderful rides down the hills with some short parts uphill where the momentum carries you almost to the top. All of this in the bucolic landscape of the Albanian alps. Unexpectedly good quality of the roads, monumental mountains in the background, juicy green hills and pastures, the Milka cows and sheep blocking our way and ringing their tiny cute bells. Postcard-worthy sky with perfect white puffs included in the package. Every few minutes a new landscape takes our breaths away. I want to take pictures ceaselessly but the bike’s momentum is so good I don’t take even one.
As the new km per day record approaches and the tempo is wonderful I become possessed by the speed and accomplishment demon. Even though the dusk is near, we pass Bajram Curri, the only bigger town in the area, from where you can take a trip to the mountains to reach the spectacular (so we’ve heard) Valbona. Instead, right before the nightfall, we land in the forsaken Fierze. While searching for the way to the ferry port, we find a ghetto of stone tenement houses with smashed windows, where the overexcited kids chase us while throwing stones. Luckly, the elders shoo them away and we learn that there is a boat everyday at 6 a.m. Pheeew. In total darkness, surrounded by the fierce mountains, we reach the port and camp right there on the gravel, next to the lake. Unlike as per usual, when we have the freedom to decide when we want to get up and go, here we have to accept the 5 a.m. wake-up call. Well, at least the ferry stop is just a few steps away!
Not-so-well-rested, after a night with a stray dog barking right next to our tent, we get up and gather up in darkness. There’s not enough time to have any breakfast. What’s more, it turns out that the spacious ferry we expected to be the our means of transport is not going anywhere. Instead, there is a queue to a much smaller and older boat. We take a look at our flying circus consisting of two bikes, a metal trailer, all the boxes and backpacks and a curious Lima right next to it all and begin to have our doubts. Yet just a few minutes later, with the help from some strong men, everything is on board, us included, and we take off.
Taking a tourist boat in season surely has some advantages. You can get up 3 hours later and start in the light of the morning. Instead of several stops to pick up passengers, you have a swimming break, a lunch and a guide. However, when choosing local transport you will have a chance to see the impressive steep rocks slowly emerging from total darkness and the canyon gradually becoming alive with colors and shapes. You may watch the other passengers taking small sips of raki right from the early morning, weighing the freshly caught fish and.. throwing plastic bottles right into the water. You may notice some figures waiting for the boat on the steep, rugged mountain sides and wonder how to hell were they able to reach the place with all their stuff. You may see those going out in equally weird locations: men carrying sacks of corn, women wearing high wedges and carrying the babies, family members with donkeys already waiting for them. You may see the captain taking cigarette breaks and leaving one or the other of the fellow passengers at the helm. All of this in a breath-taking scenery of which you seem to be the only one still aware.
We get off the ferry at 9 a.m. Incredibly early for us to start pedalling, especially taking into account how many delights we have already experienced. We are still able to travel 35 extremely hard kilometres, where the road full of holes which is supposed to go more or less down to the sea level, finds a way to go uphill time and time again. There is compensation though, in the form of stunning views enriched with a magnificent smell of rosemary and other herbs in the summery sun. After that, it’s time for a spectacular sunset on the flat road to Shkodra. Wow, these were some of the most inspiring days of our whole trip!