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…
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.
Today showed us the other side of Albania.
Roberto had warned about the quality of Albanian pavement – that is very little friction and loads of slip. I had noticed my back wheel doing big power slides this morning – a new experience for me and a little on the sketchy side but all good. All came crashing down leaving a small town where I was rushing maybe a wee bit – all taking turns passing cars coming out of town and maybe giving a bit too much throttle on a hairpin. Bike was down in a flash. Funny that yesterday I was riding corners much harder and dragging boots and pegs in many turns, albeit with tiny smears of the rear tire, but today the pavement was evil.
Later on the 28 km of major off-road from Berat with its steep, rutted, loose terrain and trip ending drops off the side (like a thousand foot drop) the mountain bike skills from my past life kept the bike upright, but just barely. Andrew’s KTM took a nap in a mud rut. No damage. But it shows the value of having friends around to pick up 500 pounds of bike and luggage on a steep slope.
What was most amazing though were the lives people had carved out for themselves in this most rugged mountain scape. We wondered if they had been supported in the communist days or whether this is existence predated the regime. Small groupings of houses at least 2 hours by dirt track from the nearest patch of pavement with old men and boys keeping sheep or goats in the few small rough fields perched thousands of feet of the valleys, and women wearing fashions from the communist 1960s . And little boys the age of my son running out to see the helmeted strangers astride their huge motorcycles.
Well I hardly know what to say. In thinking about this trip I had expected Albania to be an area full of the unexpected and home to some very good riding, but after day one in this country I realize I had badly underestimated it as a motorcycling destination.
Today our travels took from the ferry port at Igoumenitsa through Sarande and along the coast up to Vlore, where we headed inland and changed plans and took a wild ride off-road to Berat, City of a Thousand Windows. We were a dusty, dry and shattered crew when we finally arrived. Everything about the day was exceptional.
From the ferry terminal to the Aalbanian border the route sometimes ran along the coast and sometimes twisted inland, where sheep and goats ruled the roads. The Ionian Sea invited a visit, but preferably not from the seat of the bike on a tight corner. Albanian customs was smooth, pleasant and very quick – I admit none of that was expected. Roberto needed to buy insurance but Andrew and I had coverage for Albania on our green card insurance. Albania has some interest legacies thanks to Envar Hoxha, the communist dictator who led Alabania into a very isolated position in the world. It was only in the early 1990s that he vote returned to Albania. One of Hoxha’s legacies is the presence of many thousands of bunkers he built in his paranoia of invasion. I spotted my first bunker barely a kilometre past the border…
In Sarande we loaded up the communal bank with Lek, the Albania currency, and from there headed up the glorious coastline. The road hugged the beaches and cliffs at times, and then soared for the summits through a very dramatic bit of switch backed road leading up to park at the summit of the pass. Immediately we left the sun and heat to start secs ding into the forested part of the park. The road deteriorated too, so we doing tight 180 degree turns on frost heaves and badly cracked pavement. Interesting riding.
Vlore is a large city on the coat and the end of famous motorbike run up the coast we had just completed. Roberto had spotted a road leading over a pass to join a beautiful inland road, and we followed that up and up through dry mountains that were dotted with oil rigs. There was no road surface to speak of with small fragments of asphalt floating like islands in a sea of sand, crushed rock and potholes waiting to destroy the front end of a motorcycle. Yet this was a labelled road… While leaving town we were introduced to another peculiarity of this part of the world – missing manhole covers. Yes, 20 foot deep holes unmarked in the middle of the road just waiting to swallow an unsuspecting motorcycle and rider whole. This and the menagerie of animals on the road was our introduction to Albanian driving. (The drivers have interesting habits, too….).
There is not enough time (or electric charge in the various devices) to do justice to this day so it will warrant a second post. I am writing from Berat now. Today we do a primarily road tour towards Lake Ohrid on the Albanian Macedonian border. But there will be more dirt up high too…