Chapter 3 – Hidden Jewel

 

Montenegro – Albania – Macedonia

 

Entering Montenegro was the first time we had had to do anything other than show our passports in order to enter. First there was the ‘disinfectant’ (Just like when we had Foot & Mouth – 1 euro each). Then, thanks to our respective insurance companies telling us they did not actually issue a ‘green card’, just provide cover, we had to purchase it at the border. 10 euros each for 15 days cover, payable in cash only. Neither of us had any euros and so with us on the verge of riding back to Croatia to go to the bank, Danny remembered seeing some tucked away somewhere but couldn’t remember how much. Upon sifting through a pile of paperwork he produced a 20 euro note! Diamond.

Kotor sits at the head of Southern Europe’s deepest Fjord. The ride around the edge to get there was stunning and we stopped several times to take photos. We found the tourist office just inside the old town walls and quickly arranged a room in a house nearby. We met Myscov, our host, in the main road and followed his directions to his neighbours’ garden where we parked the bikes. Joining Myscov for a beer, it became apparent he’d already had several. He explained through a series of hiccups and slurred words that he’d spent his working life in the marine insurance business and had spent 6 months in London back in ’77. Midway through lugging all our kit up from the bikes, Myscov announced that he’d made coffee. Turkish coffee. Having never experienced Turkish coffee before, we decided that the black sludge we were served was only the way it was because Myscov was spannered when he made it. It was another few weeks before we discovered he’d made it properly; just we didn’t know how to drink it – heathens!

 

Myscov spent the next day in bed. Too much ‘Pivo’ we told him!

Saying goodbye to Myscov

 

I’m afraid my descriptive powers are insufficient to do justice to Kotor. From the road the stone battlements blend into the mountainside and initially go unnoticed, but a second look reveals their true extent – an incredible loop of approximately 2-3 miles up the valley side. Walking to the top of the fort they came alive; it was easy to imagine mystical creatures living here. We would not be surprised to hear that Peter Jackson had visited here prior to filming Lord of the Rings. It would have been a daunting spectacle in it’s heyday. The highlight of the trip to date.

 

Kotor - A hidden jewel

 

After a few days we backtracked to Risan and then rode north over a mountain pass that made the south side of the Col du Galiber feel like the safest road you’d ever ridden. The unprotected sheer drops combined with the broken and uneven road surface made for an experience we’ve yet to repeat. We were heading for Durmitor National Park via Piva Canyon and Trsa. Piva Canyon provided scenery on a scale we’d not witnessed thus far.

 

Piva Canyon - A sense of scale

 

Had the road to Trsa not been signposted we’d never have guessed that the rough cut hole in the rock face led anywhere. What followed was a series of rough cut tunnels that switchbacked up the canyon side. Gaining height at a surprising rate we were soon above the rim where once again we were to be gazumped by snow. Two Italians driving the opposite way flagged us down, explained the road was blocked 1km ahead, gave us a map and showed us an alternative route. Unfortunately, the diversion would’ve meant driving in the dark and with no accommodation booked we decided to head back to Niksic to find accommodation. Thinking we were lost, a lad on a scooter flagged us down, explained there was nowhere to stay in town and led us to the road towards Podgorica where he said we’d find a motel 20km away. We haggled over the price and spent the night in a box room with a double bed, no air con or TV. Danny was happy though, not only did we watch the Arsenal v Juventus game but Arsenal won. Apparently that’s good.

We awoke to our first day of rain and so abandoned our plans to visit Durmitor NP and instead headed south east on the mountain road alongside Skadarsko Lake. Had it been dry and clear the views across the lake to of northern Albania would have been fantastic. As it was we got changed into our waterproofs in what appeared to be a bus shelter but it  had the doorway half blocked off and was full of goat/sheep shit. At Vladimir, we detoured to the Albanian border to check that it was an international crossing and then continued onto Ulcinj where we would await better weather before heading into Albania. We found a kind of games with a table football table and after a few games between ourselves we took on the local kids at doubles. There were only four balls and the first leg finished 2 -2. The score was repeated in the second leg and so we called a truce.

England 4 – Montenegro 4.

 

 

ALBANIA

 

Back in Croatia we’d taken the decision to alter our route slightly and ride to Turkey via Albania and Greece rather than Kosovo and Bulgaria. Albania and Albanians have a poor reputation in the UK and we were keen to find out the truth for ourselves.

 

The Albanian border guards were the friendliest we’d met so far and were almost apologetic at having to charge us 10euros entry tax each. Approaching Shkodra on a road as good as anything we’d ridden so far we had to stop at a wooden decked bridge for one way traffic control. Descending from the bridge was like being teleported to India. Everything from market stalls to welding shops spilled out onto the roadside. Two lanes of traffic (from donkey & cart to articulated lorries) moved in either direction, all avoiding huge potholes, donkeys, cows, pigs, pedestrians etc. Traffic merged from anywhere, executed U-turns and stopped anywhere for passengers to alight. In short it was chaos; a real assault on the senses. With no road signs we found our way out of town on a compass bearing and were surprised at the condition of the main road which had obviously been rebuilt in recent years. Cruising south, our biggest shock presented itself in the form of dangerous driving beyond your wildest imagination. We were genuinely surprised to emerge from Albania eight days later without seeing anybody killed. The roadsides are lined with memorials to those who have perished. Within 20 miles we had lost count of the number of near miss overtaking manoeuvres we had witnessed as well as those we avoided by moving onto the verge to avoid overtaking cars speeding towards us.

Old Mercedes never die. They are merely shipped to Albania where they make up 80% of the cars. You will see every model, age and condition including brand new models, allegedly purchased with the profits of ill gotten gains. The one incident which stuck in both our minds involved travelling in a line of traffic approximately 10 vehicles long, all travelling at approx 60mph when a Merc travelling at a minimum of 120mph passed all of us into a blind left hand bend over the blind crest of a railway bridge. Had anything been coming the other way the death toll would have been in double figures. Unbelievable.

 

Upon turning off to head for the coast we encountered our first dirt road. The recent rain kept the dust down and filled the potholes. The conditions drastically reduced traffic speed as trucks, vans and cars slowed to avoid gaping holes and pick the smoothest lines. Once we got the hang of riding the bikes in these conditions, we became the fastest things on the road, passing everything in sight and giving us a greater sense of control over our own destinies. Fifteen miles of this was the most fun we’d had in a long time!

 

Whilst looking for somewhere suitable to stay in Durres (A garage for the bikes is paramount in Albania), we were approached by three lads asking if they could help. Fatione spoke good English and had an empty apartment next door to his auntie which we could rent. He managed to wedge himself between Danny and his luggage and the three of us headed off across town. We met his auntie and her husband (not referred to as uncle in Albania) done a deal on the price and met the adjacent hotel owner who agreed to garage our bikes for three days for 10euros.

The following day we caught a minivan to Tirana and spent the day exploring the capital. On the way in we negotiated a partially built flyover complex. However, rather than dig all the earthworks and then build the flyover, sliproads etc they had merely excavated sufficiently to build all the concrete structures meaning that the top of the flyover was approx 8’ high and used as a kind of roundabout with what appeared to be three lanes of traffic circling it. Additional traffic seemed to negotiate it in any direction! We were thankful we’d left the bikes behind.

On our return to Durres, Fatione arrived with one of the other guys who’d been with him when we’d met (turned out to be his brother-in law Phillipe) and his sister, who invited us for lunch with the family the following day.

The bikes were covered in salt from our ride across Western Europe and so on the way to our lunch date we got them washed at one of the numerous roadside ‘Lavage’.

 

Fationes’ family had only lived in town for a year, choosing to move in from the village all of their eight kids had been born in. Since the end of communism, the village had receded from its’ population of 150 families to a mere12 and the opportunity to purchase a plot on a piece of land recently allocated for housing by the local authorities was seen as a good move. The local authority did not build any houses however, and families built what they could afford. This ranged from nice three storey dwellings to the most basic constructions with makeshift outbuildings. The access roads were straight from the Viet Cong.

Fatione carried himself well for a nineteen year old lad. He had spent seven months studying in Korea and was intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable. Nobody had seen his 25 year old brother since he fled to England during the troubles of ’98. He is working in the UK illegally and sends money home which had bought the family’s plot of land and the apartment we were staying in. They hoped to let it out all summer and use the proceeds to start building a house. Having not seen him since he was 17 everyone was worried about him.

With lunch came homemade pickled tomatoes – gorgeous, along with homemade Rakki (more like Moonshine). It would’ve been good to have been able to talk to Fationes’ grandmother. At 80 years of age she has witnessed the Italian invasion, World War II, and the rise and fall of a harsh regime of Communism where a skirt deemed too short to wear in public would get you locked up for 3 months and wearing a torn pair of trousers in public, 6 months. A tough life by anyone’s standards.

 

Mum, Adam, Gran, Dad, Danny, Fation, Sister, Phillipe (Brother-in-Law)

 

After lunch Fatione suggested we visit the recently built Dajti Telepherique (apparently the longest cable car in Europe) near Tirana. Had we known we would have to negotiate the previous days road junction we’d probably have declined but we had no choice other than to get on with it. Just as we’d negotiated it we were stopped by the police. I had Phillipe on the back and Danny had Fatione. The copper not only wanted to see our bikes but insisted I take his 750 Moto Guzzi for a spin! After several attempts at getting it into gear, it transpired that the technique was to rev the nuts off it then stamp on the gear lever! I suspect not all Guzzis are like this and that it was in dire need of some TLC. He took my Beemer for a spin and was suitably impressed. Double hard these Albanian coppers!

 

Albanian traffic cops - very riendly

 

We eventually made it to the Gondola which takes 20mins to get to the top where the views over the city and beyond were amazing.

 

We had enjoyed the music from our Autocom systems on the ride down but in Albania the bike-to-bike communications became an incredible safety tool giving us both two pairs of eyes. Returning from Tirana that night we rode the last 10miles in the dark. Suddenly an Audi 80 appeared travelling towards us the wrong way along a dual carriageway. To avoid dazzling us, however, he had the decency to not turn his lights on!

 

Tirana

 

We left Durres after three days and headed for Sarande over the mountain pass on the coast road for what turned out to be the best days’ ride of the trip. 150 miles of broken/ gravel roads through villages and pine forests with incredible views across the Adriatic from atop the Dhermi pass. It took us 6 hours!

 

First taste of gravel roads

 

We’d planned on doing a few day trips on the bikes from here but each time we got 20 miles from town it poured with rain. We stayed for three nights before heading inland across the mountains to Lake Ohrid and Macedonia.

 

Albania took us by surprise. We had only intended to pass through the country but spent 8 days there (more than any other country to date). We can be sum it up in one word – ‘Stunning’.

Stunning, diverse countryside comparable with anything either of us have ever seen (This includes New Zealand). Stunning, in the populations ability to dump rubbish off the side of mountain roads and at the edge of towns. The people are friendly, helpful and inquisitive. A foreigner in the UK would not receive the kind of help we did. But also stunning in their ability to become homicidal maniacs the moment they get behind the wheel of a car. Would we return? You bet we would.

 

 

MACEDONIA

 

We rolled into Ohrid two nights ago and headed for some accommodation recommended in the LP. As we arrived at a dead end in the town centre so we were approached by a lad on a mountain bike who showed us his tourist guide card. We showed him where we were looking for on the map and he explained it was in a pedestrianised area at the bottom of a cliff! Instead, he led us to his house, 5mins walk from the town centre and with a garage to park the bikes in. Perfect.

Yesterday was spent wandering around the various churches, castle, roman amphitheatre etc. Being a Unesco designated town it’s enjoyable just to wander around and soak it all up. Today has been a combination of wandering, eating and writing. This writing lark doesn’t come easily (I failed my English ‘O’ level twice) so I hope you’re all enjoying the read.

 

 


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Michael Thompson
Michael Thompson
6 months ago

Hi Adam, you have not posted in a few years, what are you up to. I think the last time you did a blog you were doing some work as a guide.