This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. To see more from this series check the series index.
Directly in front of us an imposing black structure towered above us, covered in decades of dirt and decay, a clear heirloom of the Soviet era. We’d just crossed the border into Kosovo and were already at 375 meters, having started at 240m that morning in Skopje, yet the days climbing had barely started.
We’d been riding for a couple of hours already, leaving Skopje about 9:00, so we quickly found our thoughts turning to food and decided to stop at the next town — Kaçanik. We found a small burger shop in town and took a minute to figure out what language the locals were speaking before pulling the phrasebook out and ordering two burgers in German. The two men working in the store quickly became excited when they realised we weren’t local, and we had a short conversation where we all spent a lot of time looking words up in the phrase book while we explained were were from England, and planned to ride across Europe.
After lunch we were headed for the Sharri National Park. As we climbed everything started to feel a lot more western as we left the buzz and heavily trafficked roads behind and climbed into the mountains. The ground around us changed rapidly as the the hills quickly became steeper and rolling meadows spread out either side of us. Steadily we progressed throughout the day wondering when the climbing was ever going to end. Eventually the rolling hills got steeper still as we climbed into the real mountains, where we eventually stopped for a break by a small stream which seemed to be a popular stopped place as cars frequently moved in and out of busy nearby lay-bys.
We stopped here for a while, letting our legs recover from a seemingly never ending climb and spent a little time watching the river and locals pass by. We seemed to go entirely unnoticed. Soon we were underway once again on the never-ending climb passing groups of people filling plastic containers of water at every stream now and loading them into the back of cars. I wouldn’t have wanted to drink of of the water from these waterways now as the rubbish piled and and around them seemed to increase with each we passed.
Eventually we saw buildings — Prevalla — at a height of over 1600m. We’d reached the top of the pass after a days endless climbing with over 1360m of climbing. It would be too cold to camp up here with the equipment Max had, and as it was late we knew we’d have to make for a fast descent to find a hotel or somewhere to camp.
Over the next half an hour we kept dropping further and further until, around half-way down the pass, we happened across a hotel. Looking quite upmarket we found it to be — as expected — out of budget, so we keep descending until we found a normal €30 room at another hotel further down the pass.
We still had a short distance to go until we were to reach the bottom of the pass, which made for an easy start to our day after enjoying a slow breakfast at the hotel. The gradient relaxed further until eventually we were riding along a flat plateau which would take us most of the way to the Albanian border that afternoon. We’d been lucky with the weather so far on the trip, but as we approached the sky was darkening rapidly.
We pushed on aiming for lunch in Gjakovë — a small town just short of the border crossing with Albania. We arrived sometime around lunchtime and located a small burger joint for lunch — just as we sat down under some umbrellas outside it started raining hard, and we knew this wouldn’t blow over while we were eating making for a potentially very wet and uncomfortable afternoon.
After a slightly-drawn out lunch we both proceeded to pull on all of our waterproof layers before heading out into the rain. Doing this would — we both knew — be unpleasant for the next few miles. For the first few seconds you think it’s not so bad, and then the tops of your shorts soak through within a minute or so and start sticking to your undershorts; as these soak up more water they start to rub a little, and if you’re unlucky develop into soars. Meanwhile the pad in the bottom of your shorts is acting like a sponge and seemingly soaking up a small lake which proceedes to get increasingly unpleasant the longer you ride. Now the rain is pouring down your face and running off your chin. Not all of this water avoids going down your collar either, and proceeded straight down the front of your jacket soaking into the layer beneath. We were both fully aware of how unpleasant the afternoon would be if the rain didn’t ease off anytime soon.
As the afternoon draw on we spotted a petrol station to one side, we made for it seeing there was a sheltered area to one side. As we approached a couple of teenagers quickly wiped down the chairs to clear them of water and invited us to put our bikes to one side. We gratefully accepted while we enjoyed five minutes in the dry before moving back out into the rain. We weren’t far from the fork in the road that would take us up from the plateau into the mountains and over the border into Albania, and to our destination for the day — Bajram Curri.
Reaching the border we were thankful of another opportunity to escape the rain for a while. When we approached one of the guards quickly waved as past the queue of traffic waiting to be checked into the sheltered area where we both pulled out passports out and managed to skip to the font of the queue. We clearly looked cold and wet because after handing my passport over a guard tried to rub warmth into my hands (we really weren’t cold after all the climbing — just very wet).
Once our passports had been cleared we set off down the hill towards our final destination for the day. Spotting a small cafe on the side of the road we pulled over again to get some hot drinks and have a little time out of the rain again. Max tried to order two coffees a couple of times before a local walked in who knew some English and translated for him. Coming back to the table where I was sat looking at the map for the rest of our days riding he put two espressos down on the table — the only coffee available outside of the tourist hotspots.
As we continued towards Bajram Curri the roads quickly deteriorated into a gravel track and then a rough decent towards the main river which almost glowed it was such a bright blue below us. As we reached the bottom we crossed a rickety wooden bridge which had clearly seen better days before climbing into the town itself.
There’s only one place on the entire trip where I felt uncomfortable or unsafe, and this was it. It was a tired town and everyone watched as we went past. It felt poor — even for Albania — and they clearly weren’t used to people from Western Europe passing through. Max and I exchanged one look which said it all, we’d be finding a hotel tonight. We quickly found a place where the owner would let us keep our bikes inside and took a twin room for the night. The next hour was spent trying to dry clothing out and get warm and dry again while my phone kept trying to dial emergency services until it dried out.
Finally, once we were warm and dry again we made out way down to the smoke-filled bar where it was like walking back in time, and settled down with a couple of beers and pizzas.
More from the Eurovelo series
This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. This series is not yet complete; the published parts are:
- Eurovelo: A charity cycle expedition across Europe.
- Eurovelo: Arriving in Thessaloniki: The start of the adventure as we arrive in Thessaloniki, Greece and build the bikes before getting underway
- Eurovelo: Diesel and Dust: From the dust and fumes of Thessaloniki to the remote plains of northern Greece.
- Eurovelo: Into the Storm: Cycling from Bitola, Macedonia to Skopje, Macedonia though the mountains.
- Eurovelo: Kosovo: Cycling through Kosovo
- Eurovelo: Bad Roads and Big Diversions: Resuming the story of Eurovelo after crossing the border from Kosovo into Albania.
- Eurovelo: Montenegro: The story of a brief traverse across Montenegro from Albania to Croatia.
- Eurovelo: Croatia and Bosnia: Cycling the length of Croatia as part of a 4000km expedition.
- Eurovelo: Italy: A brief glimpse into the Italian countryside and culture.