We are in a hotel in the town of Shkoder in Albania. The national flag hangs from half a dozen poles outside the entrance alongside that of the Socialist Party. The hotels owner became a member of Parliament yesterday, as the Socialists took a landslide election victory. We do have a habit of being in places that feature on BBC online. Here that is not too surprising. It has been a very unstable country, in the very heart of a troubled area of the world. Not the quietest of hotels as you may have guessed.
We have had to keep on looking things up on Google to try to understand the areas that we have biked through in the last week. That is where we found out that Albania has had 12 variations of its national flag in the last one hundred year. Not particularly a sign of continuity.
It begins as a gentle climb out of Skopje towards the border with Kosovo. Borders tend to be drawn on the line of a natural barrier, a river or mountain. This one is a mountain, and the grades stiffen. All is well with the passport control and we get our own line to wait in. Just as we leave the guard asks us about our route. Which is when we find out that because of a bit of local ‘ tit for tating ‘, we can not cross into Serbia through any border in Kosovo. Bugger.
The road follows the twists and turns of a deep and wooded valley. We take a left turn towards the mountains, and a couple of long and hard climbs and time in the ‘ granny gear ‘, puts us up amongst the coolest air that we have been in for a long time. What an abrupt and conclusive change from the landscape of Macedonia. We climb to 800m and for most of that we are shouting ” Beautiful, amazing and wow! ” at each other. The more that things look like Scotland, the happier we are.
A fast-moving river keeps us company. As the road steepens, we can hear it tumbling over rocks, unseen in scrub and trees to our right. We have not had the sound of rushing water for as long as we can remember. We check out a number of pitch spots. Just beyond the village of Gotvusa, we find one that ticks most of the boxes and that we can agree on.
All around us there is activity in the cool of the evening. People are tending vegetable patches and bringing in hay to form up into ricks to dry off. I go back to the village to get water, and bring back a family with me to see our tent home. This is when we start to feel the gratitude that this country feels for both Germans and English. Here, Blair and Clinton are held in particularly high regard. This country was in a very perilous position in the Balkan war, and were saved from further genocide. The young boys are sent back to our tent with gifts of food.
We settle down to watch one of the biggest full moons of the year rise over the forested mountains above the tent. The disc of intense light picks out the dark shapes of the trees. It is beautiful and intense seen through the bug net of our tent. Just as it clears the horizon, we can see a bright star. This is moving, and we open the zip to get a closer look. The International Space Station, and it is clear enough to see the solar panels. A snow storm of darting pulses of light. Firefly and a perfect camp choice.
It is overcast at the start of the day. We continue the climb on legs that do not really want to do the work. It is Sunday morning, but a baker is taking time out whilst his machines turn the next batch of dough. This is like a ride through the France of 40 years or more ago.
Up we go. Now the legs are warm, there is a little less complaint about the grades. Alpine meadows with birdsong and bright pinpricks of vivid petal colours. 1300m and cold enough to climb with the zip of the Rapha top drawn up to the chin. Beech trees now. A northern tree, a tree from home. Esther wants an avenue of these in our perfect house. I want an Olive grove, so there may need to be compromise.
1515m and we reach the pass. There is a fairground at the top, of course there is. That was one of the best climbs of our time on the road. Beautiful, but there is sadness too. We must have passed a dozen roadside memorials to young men living lives ended on this mountain just a few years ago.
We drop down the other side of the mountain. It is steeper this way and we shake our hands out to relieve cramping when ever we can. High villages with a building frenzy at the moment. Few look like they are going to be finished any time soon. Dotted in between are buildings that show signs of the conflict, bullet holes and blast marks. It is a perfect Sunday and people are outside doing Sunday things.
The village of Prizren is our goal, and a wild camp as soon as possible after. It is the perfect day for a picnic and patches of grass everywhere have blankets laid out with bread and enough alcohol to make a customs man raise a hand. We want to be off the roads before they make their uncertain journeys back home.
The wind has got up and as the road levels, is now blowing the best part of what you could call a gale. It comes in gusty, forceful blows and is full of grit and sand from the fields. We are running out of camping options as we enter the village of Zrze. A guy pulls up. He is at the wheel of the almost ubiquitous high end BMW. He owns most of the bars and hotels in the place and we have the choice of them for a very reasonable rate. Esther often has a choice to make about when to admit to being German or pretend to be Dutch or English. Today is a good day to be German. ” The Germans are in our hearts, they helped us here ” . A lesson in recent history and a cheap hotel in a storm.
It is such a complicated area with a string of unholy alliances and conflict. We are both happy to have never been hungry, cold or under such threat. By morning there is not a breath of wind and we ride on towards even bigger mountains that still hold onto deep snow now beyond the equinox.
Dakovica, we take a minor road, heading west towards the border with Albania. We are standing and trying to take in what we are seeing. A memorial to a whole village that were murdered in the conflict. Korenices on 27th April 1999 saw unspeakable acts of barbarism. A young guy walks up to us and goes up to the memorial ” My Uncle “. It is all too much and I have to walk away in tears. Road signs further on are dual nationality. The Serbian spray painted over and leaving the Albanian.
In the fields there are tractors at work, but also the rhythm of the swing of long handled sythes, as a crop of hay is taken under a sun that is now hot. A Cuckoo, late with its call for a mate. These two days have been amongst the most perfect touring of our travels.
We take a left towards Qafe Morine and a stress free border crossing into Albania. A hard climb, and then a joyful descent through stunning scenery. We are now in Albania, the most hard line of the Soviet States and yet it could not look more like Switzerland on a tight budget.
Not that long ago every element of life here was tightly regulated. Media was under total control, but keen for harmless entertainment. Into that vacuum steps English comedian and slapstick genius, Norman Wisdom ( known as Mr Pitkin in Albania! ). His were the only foreign films allowed across the border and into people lives. His character, Mr Pitkin became the biggest star in the country as he bought laughter into grey lives. He was awarded the freedom of the capital here and was held in the hearts of the nation.
At the village of Bajram Curri, we pick up the dead end road that will take us to a ferry that we want to take to avoid a busy road. We are struggling to find a camp for the night that will put us close enough for the 6.00am boat in the morning. We can see a bit of flat land and go to investigate. This being Albania, we end up as guests of Zoe and her husband Sef. I do not have anything like the sort of BMI that copes with alcohol. The home made, clear, but deadly Raki made its way from bottle to large glass with regularity. Esther got to stroke the family pig and the rest of the night is a bit of a blur.
So ends the first night in Albania, country 26 and at 6.00 the next morning we are on the ferry. I have just written in my note book that the thing looks like a boat hull that has had the body of a bus welded onto it, when Esther brings me up to speed. ” The guy told me that they just welded a bus onto the hull of a boat “, so I was right.
We cast off from Breglum, for what must be one of the most stunning ferry trips in the world. We have hardly gone a kilometre when we pull in for what will be the first of many stops for passengers. This one is little more than a scrape in the sand. Often there looks like little more than vertical cliffs and we have no idea where people live or even how they got to the side of the river to be picked up. Geology is on full view, raw and recent its movements clear to see. We are riding a thin slot through the mountains towards the dam.
End of the journey, and the bikes are man handled off and onto a concrete landing strip. The little zone of activity exists in a vacuum, a rough and demanding 35Km up a dead end road. We find out how rough over the next few hours. There is much swearing and pushing of Dave Yates’ touring bikes. The road plays terrible games with your enthusiasm. It improves and there may be smooth tarmac and as many as 3 white lines hinting at former good times. Then it is back to a lunar surface for no clear reason. It does this again and again..
Things do improve, which is why we are not still there. We make it to the main road and meet our first happy electorate at the wheel of a white Merc. The latest Albanian flag is on a pole out of the window and the horn is getting a lot of use. The bars are full as we ride through small villages at the end of the afternoon. Every tv is on, turned up loud and covering the election results.
The town of Shkoder, has outskirts that show the full flourishes of Soviet style creative town planning and design. A recent revival has improved the heart and it is beautiful, and tonight is full of tall, good looking and very happy Albanians. Any change is a good change, and they are about due for a new flag. This one will probably have the stars of the European Union. We wish them all the very best and hope they move away from the bottom of the table of ‘ most corrupt nations in the world ‘.