Having realised that I was going to be without GPS support in Albania (a maze of a country) unless I did something quickly, I stopped at a cafe before the border and used the wifi to get another GPS app – it’s one of the nice things about using your phone for navigation – if something doesn’t work, just switch apps. Easy.
Not a bad view to wake up to
With my fingers firmly crossed, I headed to the border – contrary to some older reports I’d read on the internet, the border closest to the sea between Greece and Albania did in fact offer third party insurance – and it was only about seven or eight euros. Bargain. The lady selling it even gave me a map of Albania, which I thought was just a cute gesture until I actually got to Albania and realised that you really want every map you can get. I imagine they started giving them out after someone went through and came back a day later thinking he’d got to Bosnia. Actually communicating that I needed insurance was (and continued to be) a bit of a problem though – I found that handing over my green card with Albania crossed out helped the situation a bit.
A curvy road, a mountain view and a rubbish tip. Albania in a photo.
Albania isn’t a country that you’d get confused with Greece. Really it’s not a country you’d get confused with anywhere – it’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. As I rode I immediately found myself in spectacular mountains – the Balkans (at least the Yugoslav Balkans) had begun. I also immediately found that I was lost… a realisation I’d come to repeatedly that day. Albania doesn’t really have road signs, so you rarely have any idea what road you’re on – and in Albania a major arterial road might be a paved dual-carriageway, or it might be a narrow track covered in fine dust. I repeatedly missed a turn-off for the road north because there was a petrol station built right in the middle of it. The roads of Albania are covered with tiny curiosities too – there’s a petrol station seemingly every two or three hundred metres, with the signs promising all kinds of fuels, restaurants, shops, hotels etc – and upon pulling in you’ll find a single uncovered pump. There are many multi-story buildings that only have the first story actually built, leaving a skeleton frame above. Dusty old Mercedes are everywhere – I remember seeing this on Michael Palin’s New Europe, where he expressed some wonder about where they all came from. I’m not sure how much of a mystery it really is – on a lot of them you can still see the half-chipped-away NL and DE plates.
The Adriatic is pretty blue, as blue things go
It’s far from the isolated Maoist republic that it once was though – the southern coast of the country’s a funny sort of budget riviera crowded with Italian tourists who get the ferries over the Adriatic. If you wanted to hang out on a beach in the Mediterranean, Albania’s certainly not a bad place to do it – all the prettiness of Croatia or Corfu for a tiny fraction of the price. Once I figured out which way I was supposed to be going, the roads were amazing though – they wind along the side of the cliffs as the sea glitters below… it’s like being in a sports car commercial.
Shame I didn’t have a bit more time to waste here
From Albania I made my way north to Dubrovnik, taking me out of Albania, into Montenegro, out of Montenegro and into Croatia – the first of a number of occasions where I’d go through three countries in a day. Cunningly I found myself without a decent GPS map again, and on stopping at a petrol station to buy a paper one I met a nice Dutch couple traveling south in an FJ40 Landcruiser they’d imported from Australia – sure hadn’t seen one of those in a while. Having found that my new map didn’t have the names of any roads printed on it, they explained that there was no point in labeling roads on the map because there were no signs to mark them anyway, and kindly gave me some directions without which I’d surely have been very very lost. I can see why they’d bring an FJ40 to this part of the world too – for some reason the first 16km of the main highway into Croatia from Montenegro is a crappy, undulating gravel road full of little invisible holes. My normal gravel-road MO of pretending KTM has hired me to ride the Dakar and going way faster than I probably really should very nearly resulted in me going flying as my front wheel found the side of one of these holes, pushing the bike sideways and nearly over. I’d like to think it was my elite dirt riding skills that saved me, but I suspect the thanks should really go to whatever genius at Kawasaki designed the beautiful front forks on my bike.
I stayed just long enough in Montenegro for it to have its own photo album
Dubrovnik is another heavily heavily heavily toured town – I’ve heard the old town sometimes gets so crowded that you can barely move. Its location halfway up the Adriatic makes it a perfect stop for big cruise ships, which disembark passengers in their thousands every day. The hostel I stayed at had a view of where some of them docked – when a fellow traveller googled one of the big ones he found that it had 2000 guests and 1000 crew
. Ridiculous. I still loved it though – riding towards it along the cliffside just as the sun set reminded me of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where they’re coming into Tortuga, with the lights from the city dancing on the shimmering water.
Not my best photo ever, but there’s not a lot of parking places along the cliffs.
The old town of Dubrovnik during the day turned out to be just as beautiful as it’d been from the cliffs at night – I exhausted the space on my memory card as a result of seeing a beautiful photo every couple of steps. What I never realised was that it’s actually the city used for filming King’s Landing in the Game of Thrones television series – I went into the fort next to the city to find it decked out in medieval ladders, barrels, banners etc. It was just as crowded as I’d been warned though – and the weather made it sweaty work walking up and down the many stairs. As such, I spent the rest of the day hanging about the beach (turns out that going to the beach with a fractured/broken rib is much more difficult than going without one) and chilling with a beer on the hostel balcony – it was a well-earned rest.
It’s much more poorly defended against foreign invaders than it is in the TV Series
Another 3-country day took me for a very short jaunt through Bosnia, then back to Croatia, then over the border to Slovenia. I really wanted to spend another night camping on the Adriatic but alas I just didn’t have the time. Upon rolling up to the Slovenian border I found two booths, the first one empty and the second one manned. I made to stop at the second one only to find a border guard jumping out of nowhere shouting at me.
Pointing at himself… “POLICE!”
… pointing at the stop sign next to the first booth “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!”.
He seemed to think I was trying to run the crossing at 5km/h, and explaining that I was stopping at the only manned booth didn’t really seem to help. I can only guess that the source of his irritation was that I caught him having a smoko when he shouldn’t have been. After checking every single page of my passport I was free to go through, and I didn’t have to stop at the second booth even though it said STOP on that one too- and I can only presume it meant the same thing as the first.
Not the best first impression.
The cliff roads of Croatia
As I rode north, it also started got cold and started raining – no more chilling on the beach for me, this was serious alpine weather now. Fortunately I also started seeing some serious alpine roads – around the north of Croatia I started picking up some beautiful curvy roads through little mountains and farms, and the road from the border of Slovenia to Ljubljana was great to ride even as night fell.
The perils of self-time photography with a point and shoot
Slovenia notable for being the most developed of any formerly-socialist economy. If you didn’t know that it used to be part of Yugoslavia you would never really know – it looks just like Austria, in terms of prosperity and architecture. Ljubljana’s a lovely little city, but there’s not much there that’s distinct from the many other lovely little cities in Europe – there’s a castle and a bunch of statues and a bridge with dragons on it. The reason I really came though was to see Lake Bled, which a lot of people along the way had told me was a gorgeous place to visit. It was, indeed, a gorgeous place to visit, in fact it looked exactly like the photos… leading me to wonder why I’d bothered coming to see it with my own eyes. Still, got some nice photos of my own and had a fun run riding up a creek bed because George the GPS thought that a hiking trail was actually a road. As the “road” became harder and harder I got off to have a look ahead and found that it quickly turned into 45 degree slopes filled with loose rocks that nearly caused me to fall over just walking on them. Having learned my lesson about pretending I’m in a rally I just walked up.
Being underwhelmed by a lake that looks like that because you’ve seen so much beauty over the past few months is a pretty good problem to have, by my reckoning. I went back to the hostel, packed my bags and got some sleep – tomorrow I’d be back in Western Europe. The final act had well and truly begun.