Well it’s hard to write this as it seems hyperbolic every tine something gets posted, but today rocked. We rode SH20 from Montenegro across northern Albania back into Montenegro. It is highlighted in Dangerousroads.org as follows:
“This road has humbled many egos. It’s not for the sissies and shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. The road is in dreadful condition and requires strong nerves to negotiate it. It’s certainly breathtaking and it has a fearsome reputation. It still remains an adrenaline-pumping journey and is definitely not for the faint of lungs, heart, or legs. Words can’t describe the road and pictures don’t do it justice.”
After passing an excavator in the 2 foot rocky gap between its side and an 800 foot drop to river below, and getting stuck on a pile of loose rocks and mud too close to the edge, the push from the machine operator was not only welcome but it confirmed the words posted on Dangerousroads.com. And I think all three of us had some challenges today.
Incredible challenge and equally huge rewards. As we enjoy our beers in Montenegro I feel sadness parting from these great riding partners tomorrow. I need to get back to Italy in time to get the bike ready for Mike who very generously loaned it to me. He will be picking up the bike a few days after I leave; unfortunately our paths won’t cross. I’ll make it up next time we meet.
As we sit here enjoying the rest, our stories and the food, the sounds of the Balkan music – vaguely Russian /eastern sounding- emphasize the feeling of solidarity amongst riding mates and friends. Especially with fine Montenegran wine to accompany it…
One of the sections we had all been looking forward to is a famed section of road snaking up a cliff out of Kotor and running over the alpine country to descend into Cetinje. Lots of tight turns as an appetizer just to get to the main course, then 24 numbered switchbacks, followed by dozens of kilometres of prime alpine riding. Even Roberto after all he has seen couldn’t control his excitement at doing this ride.
Before tackling that we followed the road around the Kotor peninsula where the views across the bay of cliffs, mountainside churches and giant cruise ships competed with those of the small old stone towns on the waters edge making it hard to concentrate on negotiating the tight turns.
Then a dose of history and culture wandering the streets of the old walled city of Kotor before being chased out by tornado like squall.
With no destination planned and with the torrential rains that had nearly drowned us in Kotor’s old town, we decided to camp and Roberto found a tiny little road that impossibly found a way down a cliff to a campsite in Rijeka Crnojevica. This is on a pastoral river leading to the Skadar Lake (or Schkoder Lake to Albanians). It is shared by Montenegro and Albania and is the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula.
Tomorrow Colm may part ways with the crew as his clock is ticking.
Photos to follow…
Yesterday we entered a new country once again. Montenegro welcomed us with smooth, sticky pavement, glorious sunshine and the breezy vistas of the Adriatic.
It seems each day tries hard to surpass the last, and the ride over the mountains on the old road from Kukes to Schkoder (now less traveled since the new highway was built) was the best mountain riding I’ve done – decent pavement, excellent weather and spectacular views. And the turns… Andrew tried to count them and couldn’t keep up, so he took the average minute and tallied 15-20 turns per minute or a turn every 3-4 seconds! And this went on for kilometres at a time in between the ‘straight’ sections, where the turns only came every 10 seconds. Pretty wild. There was some magic in creating these routes; Roberto had put in the time and called on all his experience to put the plan together.
At one point up very high we stopped to look at a bunker and a tradionally garbed woman called up to the bunker and invited us to share some cherries. Later we stopped at a fish farm on the top of a pass and had fish which had been swimming in the pond delivered to our plates in 10 minutes.
The border into Macedonia went well; Roberto going first with his EU passport and charm, Andrew follows and explains how the Canafian registration and his counterfeit-looking insurance works, then I usually breeze through. At the border we met 7 Poles who were doing a road touring trip to Athens.
The roads immediately improved in Mobtenegro and followed a beautiful narrow white limestone gorge, eventually ending up in Ucinje, a resort community on the coast. What a change…
We will leave and enter Albania 3 times. By then the border guards should have figured us out.
The sunshine which accompanied us out of Skopje lifted the spirits but the failing clutch on Andrew’s big orange KTM literally threw a wrench in our plans. When we first stopped I took the time to top up the engine oil on the BMW.
After rejecting the initial plan to try the clutch adjustments ourselves we ended up (by the usual method: someone calls someone’s brother who calls someone else..) at a moto repair place run by some interesting ethnic Albanians. Roberto in his wisdom had packed the key part and this saved us waiting 2 days. Eventually with the clutch slave cylinder replaced, bikes soaped and washed down, and finally fed a large cheese pastry and glasses of yoghurt, we were off on the next leg, but not before being introduced to their huge, frightening looking caged fighting dog.
The track took us around a lake through winding forested roads and past small villages and holiday sites to a ski resort town at the head of the lake complete with a sunken church, a casualty of the dam that produced the lake.
Once over the dam we followed a dramatic deep limestone gorge created by the river as it tore its way downhill through the grey and yellow rock. This was superb riding and would be a major natural attraction in any country, but I didn’t have much time to stop for pictures; I missed some superb images since every time I stopped it meant rushing to catch back up to the guys…
This area of Albania had a different feel from that bordering Greece – hard to pinpoint but the people were different (primarily Muslim, more blonde or fair women, lots of noisy who swarmed us when we stopped), and the countryside and towns had a different look. Agriculture was more developed and the the occasional cypress lent a little Italian flair to the countryside.
We passed over a 1200 m pass on another gloriously engaging mountain road, and the descent presented us with a very Alpine feel, much different from the trip up.
We stopped in Kukes for the night where we we witness to the local soccer team winning an obviously huge game – after the overtime penalty kick win the streets came alive with crowds of chanting people and the explosions of various fireworks.
Still from Colm McGrath blog.
We are sitting in front of a pool in the Modern Boutique Hotel in Skopje, capital of Macedonia and described by the Lonely Planet as one of “Europe’ s most entertaining and eclectic small capital cities”. So far so good…
The riding was interesting to say the least as it rained in Biblical proportions all day, and we rode everything from old, grass covered cobblestoned mountain roads, to white rock and gravel clinging to steep hillsides above a lake, a sublimely paved bit of twisty (this one tempered by the large amount of fallen rock and sand that had washed onto the road…) and finally finishing through flooded farm roads leading into Skopje. But the main course was a closed military road leading from the end of the gravel to a 1160 m pass up a very narrow paved road with seemingly endless drops off the side – the rain and fog at the top obscured the views but we caught glimpses of huge drops as we were riding up. It required some negotiation and a gift of cigarettes to get past the checkpoint. Spectacular even in the rain – hard to imagine it being more impressive in the sunshine.
The the terrain here is awesome but softer than that of Albania. Hints of other places in Europe come through – a road on the west coast of Ireland or even a blush of rural Italy with cypress and neat fields in places. But the architecture and presence of little mosques – their minarets announcing the upcoming towns before we see anything else – are unique.
Now a late entry. Last evening we walked the 15 minutes the down town core of this city of one million. The main square and pedestrian malls, huge assortment of statues and newly built bridges, blend together in yes, an eclectic manner, with the old Byzantine bridge, Mother Theresa’s home and the well lit old walled citadel overlooking downtown. We were given a recommendation of a restaurant in the core but decided to ask a taxi driver to take us to a local’s favourite. We ended up far from the centre at a busy spot – unfortunately hosting a traditional Macedonian wedding and not open for business. Somehow a single table was found, we were welcomed in and we enjoyed the food and the sights and sounds of the hundreds of people celebrating the wedding. The dancing in the centre of the open air restaurant was mesmerizing, with young and old moving rhythmically to the tradional sounds of the band, swaying, hands locked together, in large, rotating concentric circles. And again demonstrating the friendliness of the Macedonians.
Today we had another twist fest coming out of the mountains of Albania before dropping down to Lake Ohrid and tackling the Albania Macedonia border. This took much longer than entering Albania but went fairly smoothly anyway. The main problem was Andrew’s green card insurance looked like a forgery even though it was genuine.
The high country near Lekoviku where we spent last night had some beautiful forest and open ground that would be superb for camping. There are big cats and bear in these woods so Canadian style camping precautions with food prep and storage would be necessary. Speaking about bears we had stopped in Korca and a man walked around a corner with a massive puffy ‘dog’ on a leash – I was trying to figure out the breed when I realized it was a beige bear. He may not have been to happy when I took a pic but at least the bear stayed on the leash. These Albanian towns have a feel very different from the rest of Europe; the people have almost Middle Eastern features and colouring, minarets pierce the skyline, and the ubiquitous old man side saddle on a donkey or woman with her black shawl make this place very different. Roberto says Albania feels more like the ‘Stans (Uzbekestan, Turkmenistan…) than Europe.
Weather here is still winter like – cold rain, slippery roads and no tourists – locals say it like December. But in Macedonia the people are very friendly and English is widely understood, unlike Albania where often sign language and mime are required to be understood.