After the hard-to-beat Durmitor landscapes and the exhilarating road to the lowlands I thought some less exciting days were to come. But Montenegro was not finished with us. After Niksic we road the mountain road via the very impressive Ostrog Monastery towards and then along the Shkodra lake for 5 days or so. A challenging, often very narrow up and down road, with views worth a postcard at every corner. The perfect weather made it extra beautiful and in some parts it felt like driving throw a Mediterranean kitchen garden. The smell of wild Thyme, Oregano, Sage and Lavender, all the Citrus fruits, figs and grapes. Enormous Chestnut trees and Pomegranates everywhere. It makes it easily into my list of “the best roads to cycle, ever!”
And that was Montenegro, we rolled down a very steep hill and into Albania. The first thing that is obvious: Mercedes Benz! I have never in my life seen so many Mercedes. I am not sure why by it is so obvious.
Everything after Montenegro will be just not so good, so it was not easy for Albania to impress. We stayed in Shkodra, which was a cool town of lazy beauty and made our way along the coast south. There were boring bits, beautiful wetlands, half-finished buildings everywhere, much rubbish, ruins of communist factories, deserted holiday towns on the beaches, and did I mention Mercedes? It wasn’t bad riding, but also not very exciting.
We made it into Durres just in time, before it started raining, storming and thundering as hard as it gets. Streets were flooded and I was quite nervous that we would get hit by some low flying Billabong board, roof tile or whatever. The storm lasted two full days and for us that meant stay put and rest up, normally a cool thing to do. But Duress is a dive, nothing that makes you want to leave the apartment we had rented, that was sort of a dive as well. Bad weather, boring place and hanging out 24/7 for too many weeks together is the perfect mixture for some short term travel blues. In addition, Ellie was mending a receiving cold, Max was just getting one and Toby was not really sure if he was getting sick as well. I assume it was some kind of sympathy flu he developed. I took the chance to take public transport to Tirana for a day. I thought is had a cool vibe, nice cafes, but not a place I need to see again. I however visited an old nuclear bunker, that had been converted into a museum/art gallery. It was quite haunting and talking bunkers…. There are everywhere in Albania. On the beach, in peoples garden, along the roads, really everywhere. In total more than 750 000 Bunkers are scattered around Albania, build in the 70th and 80th by a paranoid dictator.
Visiting this museum, learning about the atrocities of 40 years of communist tyranny, after visiting the sites of the 1990 Balkan wars in Sarajevo and Croatia and of course the Nazi Ghetto in Terezin, I am just grateful that I have grown up in peace.
The next day the sun was shining, and all was good again, we pedalled for a while along the coast, a stretch of empty hotels and boring beaches, until we turned inland, and all the fun started again: Rolling hills, small roads, smiling faces, good food, olive trees and some hills to keep things interesting. A few days later sees us in Berat, a ridiculously beautiful city on the banks of the Osumi River. It is called the “city of one over one window” and that makes sense once you are here. It is UNESCO world heritage site and a symbol of religious coexistence. We rolled into the city and knew, Berat is not a city for one day…..
A last word about Albanians. I am a little bit embarrassed, because I had Albania always associated with criminal gangs in Germany, the really bad ones. However, the hospitality, friendliness, kindness and curiosity we experience here is breathtaking.