Early start this morning, arriving in Vlore at 715. Managed to make it off the boat nice and quickly, with a friendly Albanian man standing in front of a bus to give us enough space to get off. One stamp in the passport later, we had moved through customs and security, and within an hour we had managed to make it to the town or Orikum, south of Vlore. This was where the climb began. In front of us, lay the Llogara pass, a 1043m high mountain pass, rising from sea level on either side, connecting the towns of Vlore and Sarande. As we approached it, I stopped and spoke to an old man working on his house, and he told me that it would take us no more than an hour to climb to the top. An hour, I thought. Easy. Let’s go.
Well bloody hell it was hard. First of all, we were both exhausted before we even attempted the pass itself. There were two fairly large hills before we got to the foot of the pass, and we had to climb and descend both of these before we could really take on the ascent. It took us four hours to climb from the base, to the saddle, and it was incredibly tough. I was in my lowest gear almost the entire time and it was still tough going – weaving over the road to get up and having to pause almost any time a car or truck came. The Albanian drivers, however, were brilliant. Always gave us plenty of room, and every single person I waved at either tooted their horn or waved back. Friendliest people so far. Well, at the end of the four hours I was glad to see Corfu and the sea once I’d gained the top of the pass, and twenty minutes later, Ryan heaved himself into view. He’d had some trouble with his cleats and a dog, annoyingly, that had delayed him, but we were both ready to descend now.
Well, if the ascent was hard, the descent was stressful. Having to descend a kilometre in twenty minutes, with heavy winds and sheer slopes meant by the time I got down the bottom my hands were sore from gripping onto my handlebars so hard. But what a ride. It was absolutely beautiful, having Corfu and the Adriatic laid out before us and I found it hard to take it all in. We both hoped once we’d arrived at sea level on the other side that the road would flatten out, but it was not to be, and from 1pm until 4, we had more and more climbing to do. The Albanian countryside, although beautiful and warm, make for extremely hard riding, and by the time Ryan and I finally pulled into Himare about 415, we were exhausted. A quick kebab in a local sandwich shop and we were on our way out of town. I looked at the map to see if there were any good camping spots, and seeing nothing but hills, and remembering that I hadn’t seen a single good wild camping spot all day, I decided it would be best for us to find a cheap hotel and boost out of town early the next day. 5000 lek later, we’re safely ensconced in a room with a very 80s theme. Tomorrow will be tough, but hoping to make it into Greece. Road to Sarande should be hills again, but after that I think it should flatten out and allow us to make some quick miles.
Well, it’s been a hell of a day. We managed to just make it into Greece as the sun was setting after a really hard day’s cycling. Waking up at 7am in a comfy hotel room did nothing for our desire to get going, but by 815 we were outside the hotel, paid up and good to go. After a few hills to warm us up, I was coming along a nice straight when a small yapper started going for the chase. I slammed on the brakes and shouted at it, then the man to whom it belonged said hello. He asked me where I’m from, and when I told him ‘Scotland’ he responded, ‘Wales?’ No, I told him, they are different, and then he remembered about Scotland, as his father had lived in Glasgow for a few years during the war. Wonderful! He told me he was the guide for the local castle and for 100LEK each, we could go take a look. Well, we had no idea how much that was in euros or pounds, but it seemed like a good deal, so we handed over a couple euros instead and went down to take a look. As we neared the path to the castle, we realised we couldn’t cycle the whole way, so looked for a spot to rest our bikes against. Finding a small building just before the path, it turned out to be an empty concrete shell, brim full of thyme. The smell was overwhelming, and I had to sit for a few seconds just to enjoy it. The castle turned out to be all locked up, but my knowledge of 19th Century fortifications led me to believe there may be an entrance round the back, and lo and behold there was a small sally port, which was thankfully unlocked, around the back. We spent 15 minutes exploring the inside of the fort, which was dark and damp and absolutely brilliant.
Once we’d emerged, memory cards much more full than when they went in, we hopped back on our bikes and got to the task at hand. We had three fairly big hills to climb and descend, and then a nice long, level road leading us all the way to Sarande. At the summit of one of the first hills, there was a little Albanian woman selling oranges and water, so I stopped to pick some up. Tap water in Albania is not recommended, so our supplies were running a little low. Little did I know, but Ryan soon found out, was that the woman was not selling water, but Rakia in plastic water bottles. We found this out (and by we, I mean Ryan) when, after filling up our water bottles with this clear liquid, Ryan took a large swig. He immediately turned to me, and his eyes radiated panic. I asked if she’d given us tap water, as I felt that the taste may have given it away. ‘Much worse’, Ryan replied, ‘she’s given us vodka’. Vodka it was not, but it was certainly Rakia, the balkan booze that is as horrible as it is strong. Although not the best advice for most cycle tourers, I will say Ryan’s performance improved quite quickly after that, and his legs didn’t seem nearly as tired. After finding some actual water and having some biscuits, we forged on ahead and by 1230 we were in Sarande. Feeling quite happy with ourselves, although pretty exhausted from all the climbing, we stopped for a bite to eat and a coke at an Albanian fast food joint.
Once we’d destroyed our lunch, we were off again, heading for Ksamil, and since it was flat, we were there in no time at all. Crossing the water at Butrint was a treat, as there was a chain-driven ferry which we gleefully boarded. I say ferry, when in actual fact it was far more like something out of the Hobbit, with boards nailed together willy-nilly, but it kept us afloat and got us to the other side so can’t complain really. The other side of the water proved to be a little troublesome, what with the continual flocks of sheep being herded along the road and the rapidly worsening roads. After a half an hour of cycling towards the Greek border, we were bumping along a dusty track, which was taking ages, until we were finally able to rejoin some asphalt. We believed that it was only a few kilometres to the Greek border, and as the sun was setting to our right, we started carving up the last few kilometres. Almost an hour later we pulled into the border crossing. It had been an absolute nightmare of gentle but continual uphills, which – to our already exhausted legs – was enough to slow us down to a crawl. After a quick snack of more biscuits, we made it into Greece. The border guard was quite interested in our travels, and when I asked about a good place to camp, he said just pick anywhere, which made me very happy. When the authorities are telling you to wild camp, you know you’re in a good spot.
Well, the happiness didn’t last long, as after about ten minutes of riding into Greece, we had to dismount twice – dogs barking very very close to us in the night – which slowed us down a lot and made us both quite nervous. Thankfully, that was the last of them, and after getting some food and a few beers in a local taverna, we’ve found a nice spot (well, it’s a spot) where we’re completely surrounded by barking dogs. Still not sure about tomorrow’s route – either the highway or the old highway are the choice and both have their recommendations. Nervous about sheepdogs and wild dogs, but Ryan has his spray so we should be fine. Hopefully by tomorrow night we’ll be near Ioannina.