This post is part of the six part series Eurovelo. To see more from this series check the series index.
The fresh air hit me as I left the hotel in Bajram Curri. The haze of smoke had followed us everywhere as we walked around the hotel, never able to escape the smog rising from the bar where most people chain-smoked over espressos restlessly.
We wrestled our two heavy bikes down the steps, already loaded with all our gear and started rolling downhill out of town, hoping to find a small shop as we went where we could pickup some supplies for the day. We should have been heading the other way — north, uphill — but after acquiring some local knowledge the previous evening we quickly realised our planned border crossing wasn’t going to happen, so we had to make a diversion in excess of 100km south — further into Albania — before cutting west and then north again to reach Montenegro.
We’d spent the evening in the bar using the free WiFi trying to plan this diversion out, using Google Earth in attempt to figure out what the road and terrain would be like. Despite all of this attempted preparation we still had no idea what was coming. What we thought was lightly undulating would soon turn into significant climbs, and so what we thought would take the morning took most of the day.
Still, ignorance is bliss, and so we were both happy to have escaped the hotel smog at last as we rolled out of town without finding any shops into the mountains. We would start the day on a fantastic descent surrounded by some of the best scenery of the trip so far with the clouds shrouding the mountains all around us as we steadily descended towards the valley floor on surprisingly good tarmac.
Before long we found ourselves in front of the dam holding back the Fierza Reservoir. The dam was built in late 1970s by the Albanian government for a hydro-electric project. The dam wall is 167m tall, and the dam is 70km long; we’d have to ride to over double this height to keep to the road, which would drop and climb heavily for the full 70km length before swinging to the right straight through the mountains that surround the reservoir.
As we stood on the dam a couple of Slovakian motorcyclists told us in broken England that it was a big climb and a long road. The language barrier stopped us getting any real information from them, so we settled in for what we hoped would be the only significant climb that day to climb clear of the dam.
The road was relentless. It was always climbing or descending without a break on a road surface that was less than ideal. In a single corner we’d regularly go from tarmac to gravel to mud to find a couple boulders in the middle of the road before switching back to tarmac and avoiding a man-hole with no cover; you had to stay on your toes.
The day was torturous as the novelty of the views wore off and we both grew tired of the constant and unexpected climbing. We’d both run out of food too, down to our last few nuts, and were now desperate to find somewhere to either re-supply or buy a meal to keep us going. Eventually we found a hotel where we stopped for lunch around mid-afternoon and quickly bought some pasta dishes of the menu. Mine quickly turned out to be just a plate of pasta with some olive oil on, while Max’s was pasta with some kind of tomato sauce on it. We both quickly demolished this, before getting distracted on our way out by a large cage.
We stood there looking through the bars of these small cages at two brown bears, each separated from the other and both looking very bored. Neither of us were impressed by this, it seemed cruel to leave these animals locked up in such a small space, barely enough to stretch out; I made no effort to hide the bars when I pulled the camera out. With this we quickly hit the road again, it was now getting late in the day and we really needed to get out of this valley before dark and find somewhere we could get a proper meal and stay for the night.
We hit the road again with renewed energy. Eating always makes a huge difference on big days like this, and we were soon leaving the mountains and making progress towards the main roads where we hoped the terrain would level for a bit and the road surface might improve. As we reached the main road we saw it fall away in one direction and climb in the other so we checked and double checked the maps before turning right — downhill — and were soon cruising through the forests on a wide and very well-made road towards the valley floor.
We quickly came to another post-industrial town which had a very similar feeling to Bajram Curri, so we made the call not to stop. We were aiming for the town of Puké which wasn’t too much further anyway, and acted as at the regional capital for the part of Albania we’d been cycling through all day. As we passed out the far end of the town we soon began climbing into the mountains again, except this time the climbing was over within an hour as the road levelled and we started spotting luxuriant meadows among the forrest to the right. We made a mental note of where we were as a potential camping spot before continuing. A few minutes later we arrived in Puké.
Puké wasn’t what either of us had expected. As we rolled into town we were surrounded by large expedition vehicles covered in sponsor logos and large motorcycle companies. As it turned out we’d stumbled across the 2016 Albania National Rally, and there were teams from all over the world here to compete. As I looked around I spotted Max just ahead gesturing money and slowly saying “lira” to a group of children. They ran off and we rolled along behind them on our touring bikes until they stopped outside the bank. We both took out some more cash before heading into the shop next door to pickup some snacks and breakfast supplies for the next day.
Riding back up to the top of town where the rally was based we leant our bikes up against a busy looking restaurant and went in looking for dinner. We were quickly offered a table outside where we could watch the teams preparing motocross bikes and expedition vehicles to move out the next morning while we ate. A group of germans came over to ask what were were doing in perfect English before going back to their tables and laptops.
After dinner we took a short ride back out of town and up the hill to the meadow we’d spotted earlier which turned out to be much harder to spot in the dark under our lights before setting up the tents and getting our heads down for the night ready for an early start the next day, hoping to make it into a more populated area of Albania where supplies would be easier to come by.
We woke early after a peaceful nights sleep. The road we’d dropped off to access the meadow was now busy once again, but we couldn’t hear any of the traffic from the tents. We both quickly ate and packed down so we could hit the road early, ready for a big day.
Following the main road back towards Puké we took the left fork in the road this time, following the bypass around the town that would save us descending into it just to climb back out the other side. The tarmac was relatively new which allowed us some fast progress as we flew along the road.
In front of us the ground opened up as the road swung around to the left as the forest trees came to an abrupt stop, contouring along the vast valley which just appeared below us with near-vertical walls. We both pulled over to take in what was in front of us, and the endless line of spaced-out expedition vehicles along the ribbon of switch-backing tarmac down one side, over the bridge, and back up the other side. We both knew the descent was going to be a good one.
Max let me go ahead so I could setup a couple of photographs and set off once I gave him a wave. It was hard to take a bad shot here. I quickly packed down and we both hit the road hard for the bridge, before grinding to a halt on the hard and steep climb out the other side. It was hard going — even some of the huge expedition 4x4s the rally teams were using were struggling on this climb with steep and tight corners.
Eventually we hit the plateau top again and spent a while cruising along a flat road in desolate terrain — sand-coloured bedrock as far as I could see with a black ribbon of tarmac straight down the middle, slowly winding its way along the latest line. It was on this road Max and I were surprised to see the Google Street-view car driving the other way — providing the only picture of both of us as the same time.
Eventually we rounded a corner and saw the ground drop away again. Unlike the previous time though the ground didn’t rear up steeply on the other side — quite the country. This time it dropped as far as the eye could see, and we both got rather excited and the prospect of the decent down to the plains of Albania below.
We flew on this one, hardly letting up on the fast and twisting tarmac as we wove our way down the side of the mountain’s plateau until we eventually left the desolate colours we’d been riding through for the last few hours and hit the vivid greens of the valley floor, and with that the road quality deteriorated again, the traffic came back, and we had to work for progress once again.
I say we had to work for progress, but we never really had it that hard in the remainder of Albania. We spent the morning crossing the rough and broken roads along the valley floor, regularly subsided or missing sections until we found the city of Shkodër. Here we found a restaurant and sat down to celebrate making through Albania. We were now just a couple of miles short of the border with Montenegro and it was only lunchtime.
The driving in Shkodër would be unacceptable in the UK, and Max and I both maintain they were some of the most terrifying roads we’ve ever ridden. People were impatient, and vehicles rarely stopped moving. We approached one roundabout as we were leaving town and had to simply aim and hope for luck as we shot across it. Stopping wasn’t an option, we just had to copy everyone else and hope that nobody hit us. By some stroke of luck we made it.
As we approach the border we saw another tourer going the other way. He was a few years younger than us, and travelling solo. He was doing a vary similar route to us in reverse — skipping Kosovo and going straight into Macedonia — so we passed on our advice not to drink from any public water fountains in Albania due to bad water and then pushed on over the border crossing back into Montenegro.
More from the Eurovelo series
This post is part of the six 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.