It’s always sunny in Albania. The grass is more brown on the Albanian side, which we like. Crossing the border from Montenegro, back into Montenegro, and then crossing the border from Kosovo back into Albania indicates this fact for the third time. The mountainous areas of Montenegro and Kosovo claim the highest rainfall totals in Europe, and while the mountains of Albania may also capture their share of moisture, they’re just a bit less green. Most of the rainfall that falls in Albania, stays in Albania, meaning most of the mountainous border also acts as a drainage divide.
Our return to Albania is pointed, to visit the valley of Valbonë in the far north. The region is home to a national park, and much like the valley of Tamarë, Selca, and Vermosh, it promises stunning scenery. The dead-end road leads from the city of Bajram Curri to Valbonë. At the end of the valley it is possible to hike to Theth, in the next valley. And as we learned in Plav, Montenegro, it is possible to ride from Plav to Valbonë via Cerem, official border concerns aside. We took the long way around.
Our time in Valbona includes a rest day. We continue back the way we came and make a route to the south on extremely quiet paved roads, past the town of Fierzë, home to a large hydroelectric dam. The road along the upland hillsides of the resultant lake is all but abandoned, but was once a main thoroughfare in the country. The new highway from Albania to Pristina, Kosovo, a project with a price tag well over a billion dollars, will bring great change to the area. While highways threaten to erase local cultures by rapidly transporting people, goods, and ideas, we’ve also found the opposite. A major highway project through such a mountainous country reshapes the land to enable swift transport– including several major tunnels– but it ignores local people and towns along the way. Our route from Fierzë is abandoned, much like historic US Route 66 or US Route 2, the “Hi-Line”.
Lael and I descend the last 5km to Kukës on the new A1/SH5 highway. In cool morning air, rolling drown fresh asphalt, we take an entire lane to consider what changes this road will bring. For now, not much. The road is empty. Four lanes diminish to two narrow lanes across a crumbling bridge near the city. A small placard advertises Hotel Amerika. Car washes, proudly advertised with spray paint as LAVAZH, are everywhere. Local Mercedes sedans, not international commerce and tourism, take some space on the roadway. Despite big plans for the future, this is still a quiet country.
From Peja, Kosovo, we arrive in Bajram Curri within the day. Unusually, a low pass connects the two regions.
From town, we are off into the mountains again. This time, along river grade exclusively.
Lael puts the cart before the horse and passes her bike to this kid. We’re well aware of the pattern of sheepish questioning, and finally, can I “giro” your “bicicleta”?
Instead, “hey, you wanna ride my bike?”
In fact, the goats respond well to the bike and hurry forward.
To small to reach the pedals, this guy gets an assisted ride. Too small to reach the pedals, but not too small to grab the brakes abruptly.
The shadowy canyon makes for a nice place to ride near the end of the day.
Nearing the village of Valbonë, we begin to see handmade signs detailing the local hiking routes. These guides and some on-trail signage are part of the sustainable tourism efforts of Alfred and Catherine, a local couple helping to shape the region’s future. They operate the invaluable and informative website Journey to Valbona, and several guesthouses in the valley. We camped adjacent to the Rilindja guesthouse, on the banks of an icy cold stream.
Curiously, the road is unpaved from the entrance of the valley to the turnoff towards Cerem, where it is paved the remaining distance to Valbonë.
A (nearly) dead end road in the mountains is reason enough to take a day off the bike.
Lael can’t handle it and rides the distance back to town for some treats, just for fun. She leaves an hour and a half before dark, and arrives back at camp an hour after dark. She’s still got the Fireweed in her system— thinking about something big next summer.
In the morning, we coast downstream back to Bajram Curri.
Can’t pass up this opportunity.
We fuel up on burek in town, pack away some supplies and hit the road towards Fierzë and Kukës. This region is dominated by a dammed lake and few north-south roads. The roads on either side of the lake are both paved, as we understand.
At the dam, we encounter two Polish cyclists. We first met them on the descent to Tamarë over a week ago. Przemek provides official diplomacy to the Polish, and offers them a beer and conversation. We all roll out in the same direction.
The road climbs above the dam, rounding the hillsides.
What a road! While we’re in near-constant search of dirt, Lael never lets me forget that the Balkans would be a perfect destination for a fast and fun paved road tour. She says “Ruby“, while I say “Warbird“, just in case. We’re thinking about some road touring at some point. Mountains roads in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania are nicely paved and narrow. Traffic is minimal to nonexistent. On the road from Fierze to Kukes, a paved distance of about 100 miles, we may have seen less than two or three dozen vehicles.
Villages in Albania are always located on the hillsides. Houses are built far apart, with land in between used for growing and grazing. Villages predate the paved roads, so there are no stores along the way. It is sometimes possible to find basic foods at the bar-cafe which are common in villages, but you’d have to climb or descend several hundred meters to see if such a place even exists.
These two– brother and sister I’d guess– come running up the road at us. They may have been trying to sell me the flowers, but I can’t be sure. I turned the conversation around and asked where they live, where they go to school, their names. Some snotty nosed kids ask for dollars or euros; other entrepreneurial types work for it, like these two. I don’t need any flowers, at least not at the moment.
The distribution of land is fascinating, whether from the vantage of a tall hill, airplane, or routefinding on Google Maps. It says a lot about a place. Elsewhere, people live very close together. In Albania, they tend to need and prefer space.
Nothing other that two small brown bears in a cage at the only restaurant along this road.
And fish farms, in the mountains.
Names of cities, of course.
We finally descend away from the lake to a town with a proper store. Actually, we’d assumed that with all the towns listed on the map, we would find someplace to buy some bread. No problem, but we rolled into town on empty. Surprising how these things change across borders.
We meet this young boy in town, riding a too-small 20″ wheel bike. Naturally, he wants to ride my bike. He pedals it up the hill, and walks it down. He does this two, three more times. He indicates that he is scared to descend, for fear of not being able to dismount. I encourage him to try, and he uses an uphill driveway as an exit ramp, gleefully, over and over.
While waiting for him to complete his joy ride, we watch his mother, sister, and father harvesting walnuts. The father whacks them out of the tree with a long stick. Everyone else helps to collect them, removing them from the green fruit, although still in the shell that we expect to see around the edible part of the nut. We cross the road and begin to bag walnuts by the dozen. The family laughs, and assures us that we don’t have to help. We continue bagging nuts by the dozens.
By the roadside, they bring us glasses of refrigerated homemade yogurt to drink, and begin a collection of walnuts, grapes, and pears for us to take with us. As we’re waiting for Przemek and Saŝka, we spend most of an afternoon under their walnut trees.
A man arrives in a car from town, bearing several fried fish wrapped in newspaper. This is the man who served us beer at the bar-cafe in town, who we learn is the uncle of the boy riding my bike. He shares his fish with us.
While talking in the shade later that afternoon, the girl unhooks the silver bracelet from around her wrist and laces it to Lael’s. Lael tries to refuse, politely. Albanians are amazing.
The rest of our group arrives near sunset, and we roll out of town, saying goodbye to our friends.
Fill waters by the roadside, and climb to the pass.
A young man is walking over the pass as we set up camp. He uses his machete to cut any and all tall grasses and plants within twenty feet, without a word. He continues down the road and hitches a ride with the next passing vehicle.
The next morning, we awake to another memorable road ride towards Kukës. Przemek and Saŝka will be leaving us to catch the ferry from Durres back to Trieste, Italy. From there, they are only two days from home by bike.
The final ride into Kukës leaves us the choice of the old road, winding along the hillside, or the straight shot down the new highway. Look left, look right, and descend. The road is nearly empty.
In town, we’re bombarded with Balkan fast foods, supermarkets, bakeries, and gas stations, a great difference from the road along the lake.
Our group of six fragments into twos, each choosing their own direction. I never miss Przemek until he’s gone. And then, I try to fill his void by recreating his sense of humor, an impossible task. This year, we’ll be missing Saŝka as well. There is something about spending time with others on the road– like the time spend with siblings– which makes you miss them only when they are gone. But in a moment, if Przemek and I were reunited, we’d immediately be discussing tire sizes and dynamo hubs, arguing about which campsite is best, and making fun of the Polish.
Hey guys, where to next year? They’re thinking about a trip through the Americas. Hope to see you on our side of the Atlantic!
Lael and I load up on supplies and are lured straightaway into the mountains. My GPS shows some red lines which almost connect up near 7000ft.