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Old 01-04-2009, 01:44 PM   #1
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Albania - this is supposed to be Europe...

"Any trips planned?"
"Yup. Albania."
"Hm? About Albania I know... nothing. Why do you want to go there?"
"That's why. And it's got mountains. And I haven't been there yet..."

(A note from the editor: this is a translation of my travel report of my August 2008 tour to Albania, as published in the German magazine "Dirtbike". It'll take some time to translate, I'll add some whenever I find time to translate some more.)

So there we are at the border crossing at Vermosh, the northernmost Town of Albania. It's a small border crossing, very small. There's no direction sign on the Monte Negro side of the border, and on the Albanian side a narrow gravel road. The border officials probably don't see more than five tourists a year. They process our entry friendly, slowly, meticulously and by outdated entry requirements.

So this is Albania. The gravel track is in a fair condition in spite of the heavy rain falls the last days. The roads are obviously maintained, so the ride is no problem in spite of soft ground and thanks to the new tires. Luckily there's no rain yet.







We ride through an alpine, densely wooded and beautiful Landscape. After we've climbed the last mountain pass before the coast the vegetation becomes more dry, and we arrive at the main road - the main north-south road all through Albania. There's nearly no traffic, the road is narrow and bumpy. The isolationism of the socialist government still has an after-effect.

We draw money from an ATM in the next town and turn off back into the Albanian Alps, to Theth. The Town has a bad reputation as the center of the vendetta tradition - family feuds over years that even made their impact on the houses. Some of them look more like a castle with no entry on ground level.







After crossing a beautiful mountain pass we arrive in Theth and are surprised - the village has adapted to tourism. The development assistance has done a good job - there are several guest houses that present themselves by a standardized sign with facilities and prices.

We go for one down in the valley and are greeted by the owner, but we can't find a common language. Here we see the first time what will be often repeated - he calls into the house for one of his kids, out comes a 6-year-old boy and asks what we'd like in best school English. 15 Euros for the night including dinner and breakfast in new, clean beds and a bathroom that looks the same - including warm water, which is nice, because it's quite cold.

motophil screwed with this post 09-30-2009 at 02:38 AM
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Old 01-04-2009, 01:55 PM   #2
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This is going to be a good one. I've heard it's a beautiful country, as your pictures back up, and the people are strongly pro-American. Can't wait for more of your RR!
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Old 01-04-2009, 01:57 PM   #3
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Next morning we ride around the village to see some of the infrastructure - a small hydroelectric power station, as many of the villages here in the mountains have it, and a mill. Then we continue our trip along the other road that connects Theth to the rest of the world - smaller, narrower, less known. It's steep, bumpy, hard to ride. No way anything less than a full-sized 4x4 can make it's way through here, we think - and meet an old 2WD Mercedes van around the next corner.

Exhausted we reach Shkodra in the afternoon and decide to call it a day. The streets remind me of northern Africa - dirty, small shops that group together by the goods they sell, and post-socialist industry ruins in view. We talk to the owner of a money exchange, who lived and worked in Germany for ten years during the civil war in Albania. He phones for a clerk so he can give us a tour of the town. Germany has done him so much good, that's the least he can give back, he says.

Albania has been safe for about three years now, he tells us. He doesn't like his fellow citizens too much though - a bunch of lazy bastards, no wonder the country's not getting anywhere. He leads us to what we decided to call the local marriage market - there will be one in every town. A road closed to traffic in the evening, with a nice clean look and street cafes and restaurants. That's where the young men sit in the cafes and watch the young women walk past - in what we call post-socialist chic, lots of make up, little cloth.

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Old 01-04-2009, 02:09 PM   #4
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Yes, Albania is an Islamic country, but the Albanians don't take religion too seriously. It's a typical country recovering, enjoying after a hard time - there are many celebrations, expensive weddings and many new cars. Of course, there's also still many old heaps driving around too.

Next day there are still heavy clouds above the mountains, so we head south. A quick stop for photos in Tirana, goal of the day is Berat. We want to climb Mount Tomori here, where a track goes all the way up to 2400m above sea level. We have collected some GPS data from other ride reports and Google Earth.





We're lucky, the next morning brings us blue skies but one thermal cloud above Mount Tomori. Let's go! We ride south around the mountain on wide gravel roads - there's a marble quarry here. East of the Mountain we arrive in Gjerbes, a small village with a small hotel. It's market day, the whole village is busy.

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Old 01-04-2009, 02:10 PM   #5
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Ooh, this looks interesting! Keep the posts coming.
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Old 01-04-2009, 02:18 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by flying_hun
Ooh, this looks interesting! Keep the posts coming.
Ditto that!
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Old 01-04-2009, 02:26 PM   #7
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I take a walk around to take some photos as a man approaches me - talking Albanian, of course. He takes me to a pub and buys me a drink - thank god the local English teacher is one of his buddies, so there's juice for me instead of schnapps. My friend is the tallest man around with about 6 foot even - I'm the curiosity of the pub with 6'4".







The friendliness of the people is beyond words, not just here in Gjerbes. When you enter a shop everybody waits for you to be served, cars stop when you want to cross a road, and the rumors about the Albanian police having orders not to stop tourists seem to be right.

We part from our new friends and wave good bye - the mountain is calling. The track is rough and steep but not dangerous. Too bad there's no view at the top - the thermal could is still there. On top of the mountain is a small mausoleum for one of the Saints of the Bektashi Order and bunkers from socialist times.







On our way back down we're invited again into a Bektashi retreat. With some Italian our host explains that the Bektashi are a very liberal order - and he offers us Coffee and Schnapps.

It's already late, so we decide to take the short way back to Berat down the east side of the mountain. We've prepared a GPS track, but the tracks don't quite look like they did in Google Earth - very steep, difficult, hardly used. But going down is easier than going up, so we make it without problems. The landscapes change in great variety - German Black Forest, Morocco's Atlas Mountains, California Desert, the looks change quickly.

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Old 01-04-2009, 02:31 PM   #8
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I've been to Albania in October (Austria-Croatia - Montenegro-Albania-Serbia and back)
Albania really is a super country for bike riding - and far from bad for any visit,
I'm new in this forum and will have a look where I can post my pictures.

best regards

Andi
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Old 01-04-2009, 02:33 PM   #9
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This does look like a good one. Great pics and report, keep 'em coming!
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Old 01-04-2009, 02:41 PM   #10
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Good RR, keep it comming I'm planning to ride through Albania this year...
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Old 01-04-2009, 02:42 PM   #11
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Yesterday's tour makes us wanting more - so we decide to ride up the mountain again, this time coming from south-east. There's no road or track on our maps there, but the maps are unreliable anyway - we've found a track in Google Earth. Or, something that looked like a track. The donkey trails around here don't seem to be named after the main means of transportation used, but after those who identify them as 4x4 tracks on satellite images.







Once we've reached the river bed we know that the way ahead can't be any more exhausting than the way back (down is easier than up, remember?). It's 5mls and 1500ft up the mountain to Gjerbes - and here we finally see how wrong we were. Something that once was a tractor trail, furrowed by erosion, overgrown, used as a creek bed, narrow and steep winds up the mountain ahead.

Again there's no real danger though - worst case would be to accept one of the many invitations on the way to eat, drink and sleep. But we want back to our hotel, shower, restaurant and bed. And things will surely get better around the next corner. We've seen it on the satellite images. For sure.

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Old 01-04-2009, 02:44 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dave-in-Turkey
Good RR, keep it comming I'm planning to ride through Albania this year...
Check out my GPS tracks... and the (non-routable) maps...

- Philip

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Old 01-04-2009, 02:56 PM   #13
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Our water supplies are gone quickly. A good thing that I took water disinfection tablets with me, there's enough water around. We beat the bikes uphill, get stuck, fall, help each other across obstacles and see many many amazed villagers that have never seen a motorized vehicle here.

We reach Gjerbes before sunset, completely exhausted. Our Legs have spasms, the arms are weak. We meet our friend again and have a snack and drink before we head on. At dusk we reach Berat and our hotel. The night is hell, all muscles hurt. We decide to have a rest day and stay another night.





Next day trip will lead us to Gjirokastra along a 60 mile paved road. Paved road. Hah-Ha! What looks like a middle sized paved road on all our maps is a wide but bumpy gravel road. We're still pretty exhausted, so it takes us six hours to make our way.

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Old 01-04-2009, 03:17 PM   #14
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Gjirokastra is an UNESCO world cultural heritage since 2005. We walk around town - there's a lot to be done here. A few nicely conserved old houses, and many ruins. We also climb to the top of the town to visit the castle.

This is the southernmost point of our trip. We turn into the mountains, the heat has become intolerable. The landscape along the greek border is again very diversified, and strewn with small one-man bunkers, as all Albanian borders are. These bunkers were the main part of Enver Hoxhas defense strategy and have become a sort of Trademark for Albania, since they're very hard to remove.

We find a hotel in Korca. The owner is fluent in German, he has lived near Munich for a time. And he's not just the hotel owner, but also runs a local TV station - so he shows up at our breakfast table with a camera man and a journalist and asks us for an interview. Tourists from other countries are rare here, so we tell him about motivation, planning and impressions. We're also filmed as we pack our stuff onto the bikes and head off.

Indeed we only met one other party of motorbike tourists on our trip. There are many vehicles with foreign plates around, but nearly all of them are Albanians living abroad coming home for the summer or imported cars that never got registered in Albania. We se many de-registered German plates.

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Old 01-04-2009, 03:29 PM   #15
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Lake Ohrit is on the border to the Republic of Macedonia. This Area is not developed for tourism, the lake shore is still in its natural state most places. There are nearly no roads in Albania in the area north of the lake, so we cross over to Macedonia since time is running out.

Along the Dirn Valley we ride north to Kukes the next day. This is our stop on the way to Bajram Curri, the main town in the northeast. This area has long been abandoned by the Albanian socialist government, only reachable by ferry along lake Koman. Then, in post-socialist times, there was war in Yugoslavia and again the border was closed. Altough there's a paved road to Bajram Curri now the ferry is still the shortest connection to the rest of Albania. But since the Kosovo situation has calmed down the borders are open and the region flourishes since trade is possible across the border, so a host of a small restaurant tells us in very good German.







From here we could go back to Theth, if there wasn't for a high, undeveloped mountain pass in the way. So we leave the path to the pedestrians, while our route ends after passing Valbona - here the valley opens and we find ourselves in a river bed, the perfect off road playground in a gigantic setting.

We take a break at a guest house where the few tourists that come here are served. The host is just about to steal the honey from his bees, his hands are swollen. The honey tastes like nothing you can buy in the shops at home.

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