For half a century—in our lifetime--Albanians lived in a society not dissimilar to that of North Korea today—no freedom of speech, freedom of religion (in fact, Hoxha declared Albania to be the first “atheist state”) or even freedom of movement. People were encouraged to spy—then report—on their neighbors (even family members) who were subsequently detained and tortured; many executed. Factories were demolished; their education system was mostly just indoctrination. The citizens had little-to-no awareness of the outside world. The President convinced the citizens that they were under threat of attack, so they armed themselves and built defensive turrets pointed at the (ostensible) enemy. It’s only in the past quarter-century that the country emerged from darkness. Today it is a member of NATO but not yet a part of the EU; it is working its way back into the sunlight. Albania has a strong affinity for America. They thank Woodrow Wilson for ‘creating’ it following WW I and Bush I and Clinton for supporting their membership into NATO. We saw quite a number of American flags here.
My image of the country was something more ‘basic’ than has presented itself here in the capital of Tirana. First example: When arriving at the airport in any foreign country, you go through immigration. Typically, it’s cumbersome, lengthy and heavy on the bureaucracy. Here, you approach a ‘gate’, and scan your passport; then that gate opens, and you move forward a couple of steps to a camera. The image from your passport matches the photo from the camera and you’re in. Nothing to it! The US could learn from them.
The capital, Tirana, is fairly modern with notable architecture.
Looks like there’s nothing behind Are there warts Did someone take a
The façade growing alongside bite out of this one?
Traffic moves swiftly, there are bike lanes and charging stations for taxis on the main drag downtown.
I spent quite a bit of time wandering around town. As Anthony Bourdain says when visiting a new place: “Get curious, get hungry, get lost”. I did—especially the latter.
We certainly don’t see these in Denver.
They sell things in the capital of Tirana—but apparently you have to know what you’re looking for.
Shoes Purses Jewelry
This is a pop-up library in the middle of a park downtown. And this fellow is guarding a bakery.
Question: What do the following countries have in common: China, Russia, Viet Nam, Laos & Cuba? Answer: All communist countries where I’ve biked, so that just left Albania and North Korea that are ‘unbiked’; making that one more reason to go (that last one will probably have to wait).
The ride/ riders:
There are 19 of us on the bike tour: Three Germans, five Canadians, the rest from the UK and me—the only Yankee. All but one is >50 (he’s the son of one of the other riders). Three other solo travelers (one female), four couples and a platoon of Canadian women traveling together. A total of nine guys, ten women. I’m the oldest by a decade or so.
Our Albanian guide speaks fluent English. The three Germans speak passable English. Of course, the platoon of Canadians is perfectly understandable. The British, however, continue to perversely insist that they speak English. They don’t. They think they do, they say they do, but they don’t. Jon Oliver, I understand; James Corden, I understand; this batch of Limeys, I don’t.
Eight days of riding, no more than 45 miles/day; 19,000 feet of elevation gain (Oof!).
Things that caught my eye:
No, this is not an epithet, it means Apparently you need authorization to nudge your vehicle “for sale “ along
You see a lot of this here. There is very little mechanization of farming in the countryside.
What there is, though, is acres and acres of airable fields that are not being farmed. Apparently, there are not enough people to do the work necessary. Virtually every other place I’ve been, this land would be put to productive use.
There are natural springs all along the Defensive turrets (as mentioned previously)
way where the locals get their clean water
Isn’t “Money Get” a No, this restaurant does not Yes, there is really a person
better name for it anyhow? serve Mexican food under there
This is the name of a gas station.
After all, once I fill up aren’t I . . . On my way?
The saddles on donkeys are wooden—and
built such that the rider sits sideways
As mentioned above, I had heard that the food in Albania was commendable. Serious understatement. If you want meat (or even a lot of fish), this isn’t the place. However, if you want vegetables and cheese presented in an unfathomable number of ways, this is where you belong. Further, dinner is served family style (probably, because we’re a congruent group), and comes in waves. First the salad, then the hummus (and its brothers), then the vegetable plate, then the bell peppers doused in cheese, then . . . I counted 8 servings in one night. Eight; no, that’s not a typo.
We had fish—the whole damn thing—one night (we were staying at a fish farm) and lamb one other night (we were staying at a shepard’s lodge). Other than that, it was almost all veggies. Oh, and yes, they have good beer here. Food is served family style, which is basically a sit-down version of a pig-out buffet.
My only complaint is that their French fries are limp, and catsup is unknown in these parts.
Albania is 90% Muslim. That said, I never saw a mosque or a woman wearing traditional Muslim garb.
Inter-religion marriage is OK. Marriage with the neighboring countries (Greece, Montenegro, Macedonia, . . ) OK. Homosexual marriage is not OK. In fact, those who are gay are still pretty much in the closet for fear of harassment.
Many roadside restaurants and gas stations lack toilet seats. Lids yes, but seats—not so much.
I saw no younger people outside of the main city—only older folks. There also appear only be white people here—no folks of color to be found anywhere
They do a good job with energy conservation: virtually all toilets are dual-flush, and they make good use of motion-detector lights. That said, though, it’s very common for the electricity to go out for a couple of minutes at a time.
Gasoline prices here are lower than the surrounding countries, so it’s typical for Montenegrins or Kosovars or Macedonians or Greeks to come over here to fill up their tanks. I also noticed that gas and diesel are the same price (for whatever reason, the price for diesel is substantially higher at home)
Things in general are inexpensive here. A beer from the minibar is $2.00 (whoever heard of a minibar price being low?). The entire tour which includes lodging, food, transportation, a guide, an assistant guide, a driver/van comes out to roughly $125day; one can hardly stay home for that amount.
In the rural areas, there are no younger people—they’ve all left for the cities for better opportunities. What’s left are older people to man the farms. What happens when they die off?
We had breakfast every morning at the hotel; every one of them served coco puffs (I didn’t know they were still around). Many meals come with French fries—soggy French fries; Kathleen would be appalled.
Electric switches are the opposite of ours. To turn a light on, you push it down.
The way the head guide handled drinks is genius: instead of each of us paying for drinks daily, getting change (times 20 people), he just said “I’ll tell you nightly how much a beer (wine, etc.) costs. You keep track of that amount nightly and pay me at the end of the trip”. Absolutely brilliant.
The gas stations / rest stops alongside the highways have full bars. So not only can you fill up your tank, but you can also get tanked.
Water in the countryside is clean, potable and plentiful. In the metro areas, you purchase bottled water.
In many cases, we were the only tourists there at the hotel / guest house / lodge where we stayed.
Roughly five million people speak Albanian—98% of them are in Albania. The language is seldom spoken outside of Albania and Kosovo (which citizens of both countries consider to be an ‘annex’ of Albania)
Hot chocolate is an unknown here. The one time I thought I was successful in ordering one, they delivered something better described as ‘scalding hot chocolate pudding’.
The guides also function as waiters and busboys as well as guiding duties. They work awfully hard.
Day 1: We took a short spur road that took us into the country of Macedonia to see a church where colorful angry birds guard the place
In Macedonia, they speak a different language and use the Cyrillic alphabet.
Day 2: Moderate climbing; verdant green everywhere. Did a pleasant lap around a lovely lake which reminded me of Penticton, BC. Near our hotel, we witnessed them taking dirt out of the lake to fill in a dock they were expanding.
(Yes, the scooper machine on the left is actually sitting in the water)
And here it is in action: https://photos.app.goo.gl/jaGLrVavXhi5Hh8N7
At the end of the day, we stayed in a town that had this very
impressive Greek Orthodox church:
Day 3 had 3800 feet of elevation gain. Many of the roads were under repair or rutted or potholed or gravelly. I got in just before the rain started. Whew. At one point, we had to stop the ride because there was traffic—this being on the main road through this part of the country.
Day 4 had some of the best scenery I’ve ever observed—anywhere. This place is green, green, green. It has mountains that rival the alps, beautiful valleys. I was sorry when the day ended (I must note, however, that is also had some of the worst roads I’ve experienced outside of SEAsia—albeit intermittently).
Day 5: Mostly downhill and again, stupendous scenery—jut more and more of it! This place has the green of Ireland, the hills of Bhutan, the rolling fields of Denmark and the bucolic-ness of Iceland. There were times I felt that we were riding in the Roaring Fork Valley or the lovely entrance into Telluride
The end of the day brought us to the town of Gjorokaster which is the location of an immense fort / castle at the top of a hill where they prefer you walk on the paved sidewalks:
This fort was built entirely of stones at the top of a hill back in the 12th century. It housed over 5000 soldiers and is huge
Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "City of Stone", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with flat dressed stones.
This is what they mean by having a tile roof
Day 6 started out just right—a 10-mile shuttle to the top of a hill followed by a 10-mile coast down the other side with another spate of beautiful scenery along the way. Think of shuttling to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park, then coasting down. It was a hoot.
Part of the way we were alongside the border with Greece, so the signage is in both languages:
Clearly there is a lot of traffic between the two countries
We ended up on the coastline after having visited some historically significant (to them) pile of rocks and ultimately at a hotel which is literally on the beach. Note, though, that the beaches here are rocky; not amenable to walking on. We even took a ferry ride that is pulled back and forth with cables
The van driver, Tani, is the handsome fellow there in front
Day 7 was another wonderful experience. We had to hump our way to the top (3300’ of elevation gain), but once we did, we had views of the ocean to the left and the mountains to the right with an occasional small village to make the scenery even more dramatic.
This is akin to the Amalfi coast of Italy, or, better yet, the Big Sur coast of central California (a route I’ve always wanted to bike, so ended up coming from 6,500 miles away to do a close approximation of it).
Once we descended, we were on the ocean—with fields and grape vineyards a part of the view
This is the big honker. On our final day, we climb 5500 feet today—the equivalent of riding from Estes Park to Granby over the continental divide via Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m seriously apprehensive. I’ve not done that much of a climb anytime in the past decade.
Worse yet, we started the ride by climbing out of the city where we spent the preceding night. Over the first 4 mile stretch we averaged 10% grade and hit steeps as much as 17% which is probably twice as much pitch as I’ve ever done. That led to the next stretch of 3300’ of up. No breaks.
This is what we looked at as we started the day
Traffic jam at the half-way point—looking down at what we’ve done so far
And this is what lies ahead of us at said half-way point
(The axes are in metric—we are one of only three countries that uses the English system)
But the ride was worth it; the views were spectacular all along the way. [There is no photo from the top. It rained as we approached the peak, so we were all eager to get past that]. And of course, the wonderful descent that took us back to sea level. There was a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment as we approached our hotel. I actually was a bit wistful because I knew this was the end of the trip. Actually, sorry to see come to an end
Our hotel had a lovely setting and was a great way to cap off the ride
So, over the 8 days of riding, we started at sea level, we climbed to 3000’ and descended yet again. Overall, we climbed over 19,000 feet. We biked through larger cities and to villages that are little more than bumps in the road. We’ve seen a wide variety of foliage, foods, people and architectural styles. We saw several UNESCO cultural sites and beautiful churches (but not too many, though), swam in the Ionian Sea, ate wonderful meals (too many for sure). This is a very varied tour that provided a great representation of the country.
I feel I’m confessing to having an STD or having fathered a child outside of marriage. Nevertheless, I fell off the wagon and used one for the first time. Here’s why: On prior trips I was almost always the last one in and felt like I was holding up the train. I didn’t want to stop to take a photo because that just put me all the further behind and wanted to avoid the not-entirely-pleasant biking experiences recently in Madagascar, Borneo, Vietnam and Laos
Having an ebike allowed me to see the surrounding scenery—not just fixate on my front tire and to occasionally even pass someone. I’m good at distance, but poor at speed and worse yet on the climbs (I’ve been passed by runners going uphill)
The overall ride has 19,000 feet of elevation gain. The last day requires a climb of 5500’. Two other days are >3500’. I haven’t done 3500’ since 2018; it’s been a decade since I’ve done 5500’ or more. I wanted to enjoy this ride, not torture myself. There were five other slackers such as me (three females, two other males). But I am consoled in that one of the other males is the head guide himself.
I didn’t turn on ‘power assist’ on the flats or even on modest inclines (which sounds noble of me; it’s not—these things are HEAVY—more than 50 pounds which makes it more than twice as heavy as my bike at home). Consequently, I feel that I got a workout and earned some number of calories I ingested along the way.
This was a very good ride. We had spectacular scenery, good weather (it tried to drizzle on two days, but was sunny most of the rest), no wind, never hot, not humid, great food (90% vegetables) and the best guide ever. The daily distances were just about right—we were typically in before 4:00 (even with what I consider to be an unnecessary and overly-long coffee stop each morning)
Notably, this was good group of fellow riders. There were no whiners, no showboats, nobody was late. We even had two RNs and two MDs (one of whom did her own patch job when she torqued her Achilles—Wilderness First Responders at its finest.)
Dr. Kelly with her redneck ankle splint
Kelly went to Zanzibar and Cameroon as a part of her medical training (she also has the most delightful infectious laugh). The other MD (Rhonda) is not a biker, but she signed up for this, never whined, did the entire ride and did NOT have an ebike. Impressive. Kelly’s sister, Sheri was the spark plug of the week.
Both MDs, Kelly and Rhonda, are interested in volunteering for Narayan’s trip in Bhutan in November
I mentioned that I was the only Yank as it happens two couples have dual citizenship—one of whom has a brother in Longmont whom he visits from time to time. He, Murray, and his wife, Sue, are delightful; I spent quite a bit of time with them and hopefully we’ll get to see them in the future. Murry, by the way is a relative of Alex Lowe of mountaineering fame. He is also a PhD geologist who lent his expertise on several occasions. Sue is an RN and did part of her training in Uganda. Each are inveterate travelers.
My good buddies Murray & Sue
Another dual-citizenship couple live in Carbondale and for years owned/ran the Woody Creek Tavern just outside of Aspen. He, Kevin, is an extraordinary cyclist. At age 65 he was always first in the pack and rode apace with the head guide who had an ebike. (Kevin’s wife, Laura, was never far behind). Kevin has ridden the Leadville 100 14 times and even won it once (he still has the record as the oldest winner). They’ve also done several bike rides with Spice Roads—including some of the same ones I’ve done.
The platoon of Canadian ladies was a hoot; I really enjoyed them. Only one was a serious rider; all were there to have a good time—which they did. I had a great time with them.
Next stop—the airport
“All our bags are packed, we’re ready to go.. .”
Our super great guides—head guide, van driver, assistant guide
Erlis Tani Kristi
I’ve done 29 of these bike tours now covering 19 different countries.
This one might be my most favorite trip ever. What makes a trip good?
• A beautiful country with good food, good weather and good roads
• A strong guide staff who is knowledgeable, helpful and informative
• A great group of fellow riders
Check, Check and Check
Onward SHOW LESS