We weren’t looking forward to cycling through Albania, we had heard reports of rubbish roads, dangerous driving and garbage and ubiquitous concrete tank shelters. The border crossing was uneventful and the roads on the other side not much different. The weather was the same, it started raining and gradually got heavier. The northern part of Albania is prone to flooding and has a high annual rainfall. We decided to head for Shkoder and some shelter.
Once we got nearer to Shkoder the traffic built up but the big surprise was the the number of cyclists. Even in the heavy rain they were everywhere usually holding an umbrella and often cycling the wrong way down the roads. Although the traffic was busy we were given plenty of room and even in awful weather we felt pretty safe on the roads.
After 2 hours of heavy rain we were both getting a bit cold so needed to find somewhere to stay and dry out. We stopped at the Tradita hotel/restaurant in Shkoder to see if they had a room. We were welcomed, told to bring our bikes in and sat down next to a roaring fire and given glasses of raki to help us warm up. We had a great meal all cooked over the open fire and even had a copper bowl of embers put under our table to warm our feet. Fantastic hospitality, we stayed here a couple of days waiting for the weather to clear. We discovered that Shkoder is the capital of cycling in Albania and most people have a bike and are not afraid to use it.
The owner recommended taking the back road south through Vau i Dejes, Fishte down to Lezhe. This was a lovely route skirting the mountains, The road was excellent and we passed through small villages with friendly children shouting hellos. We were held up by a farmer herding a flock of turkeys down the road and the occasional goat herds. Traffic was sparse with the occasional horse and cart and donkey as well as a few cars.
We were heading for Tirana and the only roads were the major ones including stretches of Motorway. We had been told that you can cycle down the motorways in Albania, we were quickly finding out that anything was possible in Albania.
Until 1991 there were only around 9,000 cars in Albania driven by members of the communist party and a very limited road network. Since then there has been an exponential rise in road use. The Albanians love their cars, their favorite marque by far is the Mercedes. Over half the cars on the roads are Mercs. Along the main roads as well as petrol stations there are hundreds of one man car washes to keep their cars looking good.
We didn’t feel threatened even on the busy major roads, most traffic gave us a wide berth. The motorways were great to cycle on as we had the hard shoulder nearly to ourselves, with only the occasional moped or car being driven the wrong way up the motorway to contend with. There were small stalls all along the roads including the Motorways selling fruit and veg.
Approaching Tirana things got very busy but despite the traffic we felt safer cycling through Tirana than in London. Albanian drivers don’t have the sense of entitlement to their roads that plagues the UK. We stayed a couple of days in Tirana exploring the city. It is a vibrant city with few relics to it’s communist past.
The weather was definitely on the change with snow blanketing the mountain tops. All routes south meant a climb through the mountains up to at least 1000 metres. We had taken our time enjoying the good weather in Croatia and now were going to pay the price. On our way back to our room we passed a line of travel shops advertising coach tickets to Thessaloniki, on the off chance we went in to see if they would take bikes. No problem they said, 25 euros each.
The coach ride took us along the route we would have taken through Pogradec and Korce, we were glad we had taken the coach as it was snowing through the passes. Loading the bikes on was no problem and as usual in Albania everyone was very helpful.
We loved our stay in Albania and plan to come back and explore the mountains hopefully with better weather. The roads are poor in places but this does keep traffic speeds down and are no problem on a bike with fat tyres. Few Albanians drive fast and generally give cyclists a wide berth. We felt safer on the roads in Albania than in some parts of the UK. The Albanians we met were all very helpful and interested in what we thought of their country.