I feel lucky to be married to a woman who doesn’t mind joining me on my numerous adventures. To be perfectly honest Angela is almost the perfect cycling companion. On good days she will only complain and moan once or twice (which is much less than at home) and on bad days she’ll completely ignore me, giving me some time to enjoy the scenery. In hindsight, this trip was no different; Angela was a real trooper once again. Just not on that one particular day…

We left our camping spot on the shore of the Great Prespa Lake early in the morning and proceeded to cross the Galičica Mountains, on the other side of which laid Lake Ohrid. The top of the pass, at an elevation of 1660m above the sea level, was to be the highest point of our short Balkan tour. We had met a cyclist from Augsburg during the first week of our trip who had recommended this route and had told us that the gradient of the road remained low throughout the climb, never exceeding 6%. Angela hadn’t believed him of course and had spent the whole breakfast asking if there was maybe a way around the mountain… But our fellow Bavarian cyclist had not lied: the slope was gentle and the pedaling easy. Our main problem however turned out to be something completely different and unexpected. From the moment we started climbing that morning, we were attacked by a swarms of flies. They buzzed around our ears, dive bombed into our eyes and slipped into our mouths or nostrils every time we breathed in. It was a rather horrible experience. But as we slowly gained altitude the flies gradually disappeared and by the time we had reached the top of the pass the air was bug-free. On a clear day the Galičica pass offers a wonderful panoramic view of Lake Ohrid, something I had been particularly looking forward to. After all, the best part about climbing mountains is the view at the top, right Angela? “No, the best part about climbing a mountain is finding a way around it”. Unfortunately for us the view that morning was obstructed by thick grey fog that had gathered around the top of the mountains. Once in a while a break in the clouds would reveal the bright blue waters of the lake below, as if to remind us of what we were missing out on…

A Small Balkan TourIt’s become a tradition now: celebratory jumping photo at the top of the Galičica pass!

Albania Bike TourThe clouds briefly retreated to reveal the side of Galičica Mountain.

Things got worse for Angela once we arrived at our guesthouse in Ohrid. She started feeling nauseous and feverish and in true Angela “I’m on a bike trip” fashion soon found herself hovering over the toilet bowl and regurgitating her previous 2 meals. Maybe the two-week-old salami from our previous dinner had gone off after all… Angela stayed in bed that day and the next, while I explored the city of Ohrid. A total bummer for her really, because this part of Macedonia was wonderful. The promenade along the lake leading to the centre was lined with small peers on one side and small wooden benches on the other. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, families and tourists enjoying a quiet stroll, people of all ages sunbathing and jumping in the warm crystal-clear lake waters, fishermen patiently waiting for their bate to lure the fish… I just sat on one of the small peers for hours, watching the world unravel around me, soaking in the glorious summer atmosphere and occasionally jumping in the lake myself. The city centre wasn’t bad either, a labyrinth of quaint narrow streets lined with picturesque stairs leading either down to the lake or up to one of the 365 churches that were built in the city (one for every day of the year, as I read somewhere). Those two days in Ohrid remain one the highlights of the trip for me. Although I’m not sure Angela would agree with me here…

Albania Bike TourOhrid, part of UNESCO’s World Heritage

Albania Bike TourChilling in Ohrid

Albania Bike TourChurch of St. John at Kaneo

Albania Bike TourSt. Clement’s Church

Albania Bike TourOne of my favourite features in Ohrid: a small side street overlooking the lake.

Albania Bike TourSunset over Ohrid Lake

Angela feeling almost human again, she and I set off early on our third day in Macedonia and continued to follow the lake anticlockwise until we arrived back at the Albanian border. The extra rest day we had enjoyed in Korçë and Angela’s unexpected illness (from now on I shall always plan one to two buffer days to account for Angela’s weak stomach) meant that we were two days behind schedule. To make up for the lost time we had arranged a taxi to pick us up at the border and drive us 130km west to the city of Berat, the next highlight on our tour. The driver dropped us off three hours later in the centre and we quickly managed to find the guesthouse that we had booked for the night. We were welcomed inside with open arms by a lovely elderly couple who prepared tea and lunch for us right away. In the late afternoon Angela and I decided to go visit the Berat castle, perched high on a hill overlooking the city. The small road leading up to the castle entrance was so steep that we both had to sit down for a while once at the top to catch back ours breaths. The view of the valley below us in the evening light was definitely worth the effort though.

Albania Bike TourLeaving Ohrid

Albania Bike TourA mosque near the Albanian border

Albania Bike TourInside Berat Castle

Albania Bike TourThe Gorica Quarter and the river Osum River viewed from the citadel

Albania Bike Tour“My eeeeeeyeeeesss!” (Berat in the Background)

Albania Bike TourAngela looking past the Holy Trinity Church towards the eastern part of Berat

Albania Bike TourLong evening shadows…

After a huge breakfast at the guesthouse (the elderly couple looked after us as if we belonged to the family), we made our way to the Berat bus station, where we were hoping to catch a bus to Vlorë. From there we would resume our cycling and head south along the Albanian coast back to Sarandë. At the station however we found out that the only proper bus to Vlorë had already left, which meant our only option was now to try to find a furgon that would agree to take both of us as well as our bikes. If you are willing to pay a little extra cash you soon come to realise that anything is possible in Albania, and in no time we were on our way to Fier, where we caught another minibus down to Vlorë. I believe the 80km journey only cost us about 15€ in total…

Vlorë wasn’t particularly pretty, so after a quick lunch Angela and I left the city and followed the coastal road southwards. Before reaching the town of Orikum we stopped at another restaurant by the sea and enjoyed a long rest and a refreshing swim before tackling the mighty Llogara Pass. This was no doubt going to be our toughest climb of the trip, starting at sea level and finishing at an elevation of 1000 m. I felt quite nervous; not for me but for Angela. She was still feeling quite weak from her stomach problems so I was worried that she might not have the energy to cycle up the steep 20 km to the top of the pass. My fears were confirmed when she started struggling on the lower slopes of the climb. After about half an hour we passed another restaurant by the side of the road a young man ran outside and hailed us over. In perfect English he invited us inside for a drink with his girlfriend and another friend. He told us he was from a nearby village, but that he had just moved back to Albania after having spent most of his life living in Greece because he saw a lot of business opportunities in his country. He was friendly and full of the optimism but also frustration that many Albanians who have lived abroad tend to express about their country. I felt like we could have carried on talking for hours, but it was getting late and we still had a long way ahead of us. I was pretty sure that Angela was never going to make it to the top by herself, so I very cheekily asked the group if they could maybe pretty please I would forever be grateful give Angela a lift to a campsite that my map indicated near the top of the pass. They kindly agreed and after cramming Angela’s bike and panniers in the back of their car we said our goodbyes and left the restaurant. They actually offered to come back and pick me up too but my legs felt good I was determined to cycle all the way up by myself. As they passed me on their way back down I heard them shout through an open window: “Stéphane, you f*cking machiiiiiiine!”

Albania Bike Tour“Is that enough food Angela?”

Albania Bike TourA beach on the outskirts of Vlorë

A Small Balkan TourRemote villages in the Ceraunian Mountains

A Small Balkan TourRoom with a view…

A Small Balkan TourThe same view at night!

Angela felt much stronger the next day and cycled the last couple of kilometers to the top of the Llogara Pass like a boss. Sat on the protruding platform of an abandoned bunker near the top, with our feet dangling in the cool morning air, Angela and I savoured the spectacular view of the rugged Albanian coast, from the closeby hairpinned road digging in the side of the mountain all the way to the misty mountains beyond Lukovë. On the way down I managed to reach an acceptable 78 km/h. I bragged about this to Angela later on, but she really wasn’t impressed and called me an “irresponsible idiot”. Girls can be such spoilsports sometimes…

Albania Bike TourAt the top of the Llogara Pass: “It’s way too early to cycle up a mountain!” 

Albania Bike TourRugged Adriatic Sea coast near Dhërmi

Albania Bike TourLet the downhill begin!

Albania Bike TourSwitchbacks on the southern side of the Llogara Pass

Albania Bike TourEnjoying a panoramic view of the Albanian coast

It was only 20 km from the bottom of the pass to Himarë, our destination for the day, but the mountainous terrain combined with the extremely high temperatures (the thermometer on my speedometer reached 42°C at one point during the afternoon) almost got the better of us. The road was a cycle tourist’s worst nightmare: climb a hundred meters in altitude, cycle back down the same amount on the other side and repeat. At the end of the day you have climbed a total of 1500 m, you are completely worn out, but you have nothing to show for it. Not a single good view point, no speed records and a depressingly low daily distance and average speed. Not to mention the sweltering temperatures! It seemed like the record heatwave that had spread across Western Europe had finally reached the Balkans. We arrived in Himarë with no water left in our bottles, exhausted and completely drenched in sweat. Luckily for us the city proved to be a great place to rest and chill. Our hostel’s white walls and grapevines hanging over the inner court really reminded us of some of the wonderful pensions we stayed at in Central Asia. The small shop nearby sold ridiculously cheap and tasty melons and the restaurants served delicious sea food. But best of all the beaches were quiet and clean and the water warm and turquoise coloured. It was also the first time on this trip that we were staying somewhere with other travellers. The international crowd at the hostel was friendly and interesting and it was a pleasure to share travel stories and find out a bit more about other people’s lives: Libor and his rowdy Czech friends enjoying a couple of relaxing days after a strenuous hike in Northern Albania, Fanny and Sylvain the French bicycle shop owners, Kirsi the lone Finish traveller, Anneke and Tjerk the disillusioned Dutch football team supporters and of course Dennis the Canadian certified shipwreck penetrator…

Our last day of cycling was one of the most enjoyable ones. Having left the hostel at 5AM, Angela and I covered the stunning 55 km from Himarë to Sarandë in relatively cool temperatures and even managed to catch the midday ferry back to Corfu. Another 15 km across the island led us to Pelekas beach, the final destination of our Balkan adventure. We rested and relaxed there for two days before getting dropped off at the Corfu airport for our flight back to Munich.

Albania Bike TourThose switchbacks again, this time from the bottom!

Albania Bike TourDhermi Beach

Albania Bike TourShort hike from Himarë to Livadhi Beach

A Small Balkan TourLivadhi Beach

A Small Balkan TourThe boys were still up when we woke up at 4 AM! Time for one last goodbye photo…

Albania Bike TourAn old abandoned military base, with its own submarine garage!

A Small Balkan Tour

A Small Balkan TourEarly morning sunshine catching the top of the mountains

Albania Bike TourThe village of Borsh and our last view of the coast before the road turned inland

Albania Bike TourLast few kilometers before Sarandë

Albania Bike TourOur hotel on Corfu had seen better days, but at least it offered a spectacular view of the sunset!

Albania Bike TourGoodbye Greece, goodbye Macedonia and goodbye Albania. We had a blast!

It was hard, it was steep, it was sweaty; but it was worth it. Albania is a rugged and beautiful country, with helpful and friendly people. Many areas we explored were very much off the beaten path, with many remote villages only accessible via tiny dirt roads. Add to this the ever present remnants of communism and we often wondered if we hadn’t somehow magically be teleported to Central Asia… But at the same time we found the country’s tourist infrastructure along the Riviera to be top-notch, especially compared to some of the places we stayed at in Greece. It is however all still very new and shiny, so the situation might look very different in twenty years…

So whether you are looking for unfamiliar and remote places within Europe to explore or need a relaxing but cheap holiday on beautiful Caribbean-like beaches (or maybe you are simply a bunker fetishist?), you should be able to find your groove in Albania. Eastern Europeans certainly think so, as the majority of the tourists we met on the road were either from Poland or the Czech Republic. And I guess that as long as Western Europeans view the country as unsafe to travel to, it will stay that way.

Angela and I will certainly go back one day. After all we still have the whole north of the country to discover!
You can view the complete set of photos here!