At Drive Albania we don’t just do 4×4 tours. In spring 2016 we put together a road-cycling tour through south Albania for Londoner Charlie Nelson and two friends. Read Charlie’s comments on the trip here.
“Arriving at Ohrid airport, Macedonia, having only just missed out on being arrested at London Luton departures for carrying a six-inch lockable knife (apparently illegal) we then had to borrow some allen keys off the airport mechanics. Minor speed bumps in our journey to Corfu, via Albania.
“Day One took us from the shores of Lake Ohrid over the punishing switchbacks of the Galiiča National Park pass over to Lake Prespa. From 1600m up, you get views of both lakes and down to Albania. The double customs checkpoint is low-key affair but an interesting enough look at two Balkan neighbours. We’d been warned by the Macedonians about ‘awful roads and ‘wild country’ when we got to Albania. This was absolute nonsense. The most verdant hills rise up from the blue lakes beneath crisp cloudless skies. Potholes were apparently illegal too.
“Korça was the first stop. Huge flat flood plains that have been farmed for millennia break up some gorgeous rolling hills with very smooth roads. Sitting outside the Birra Korça brewery restaurant that evening, eating lots of grilled meats and stuffed veg was a great first taste of Albania. The vegetables were outstanding; you forget what they are actually meant to taste like when all you eat is weird GM hydro supermarket crap.
“The next day saw us ride 70km to Leskovik, the first 7km being gravel. En route we found an excellent lunch spot that wouldn’t be out of place up an Austrian mountain. Hearty vegetable soup, chunks of home-baked bread and crumbly shortbread swimming in syrup fuelled the lush climbs and descents.
“Early evening found us at a trout farm and camping spot unrivalled by any. Despite being chilly and dewy due to the high valleys and mountain shade, we easily ignored the cold by sitting in the log cabin restaurant eating freshly caught trout and sipping homemade raki.
“Come morning, we headed to the hot springs near Permët. Deep in rural Albania, it doesn’t get more pastoral. Farmland is ploughed by horse and whole families tend to the crops. Vistas of snow-capped mountains above azure rivers filled with snow melt gushing downhill. While the climbs on this Albania cycling tour are plenty, the scenery and descents make them feel more a luxury than a chore.
“Leeks for lunch that day at the hot springs were a revelation. Baked with olive oil, and having just been picked from the ground, they were sticky-sweet and a culinary highlight. Come morning we bathed in the steaming hot water and washed off most of the sweat salt and groggy raki heads.
“From one water feature to the next – Day Five saw us follow the river Vjosa down past Permët and a then a big left turn towards Gjirokaster, spurred on by some terrifying wolf-dogs giving chase. No time to stop and sight-see, as we had to face the climb up from the valley floor in the direction of the coast. Pummeled by headwinds and tired legs, after 100km we made it to the top and cascaded down to the Blue Eye spring near Saranda. This is a geologist’s wet dream – iced spa water bobbles up from deep in the earth and makes for a very refreshing evening wash.
“This is dairy country apparently. That day we sampled all grades of fresh milk cheese from new yogurt so tangy it makes your tongue do the tango to salty crumbly feta that tastes of the mountainside herbs. Ideal fuel for an Albania cycling tour.
“Now was the time to get to the beach and avoid the shadow of the inland peaks. Going north from Saranda towards the Llogara Pass is unspoilt Mediterranean bliss. Some serious climbs on very good roads and plenty of hillside springs to keep the water bottles full. Lunch in Piqeras was a real find. Being pre-season, we had to go door-knocking for open restaurants. This one had the best view of anywhere I’ve eaten, serving super-cold beer alongside massive Greek salads and fresh oregano-sprinkled chips.
“Riding back south in time for our crossing to Corfu (1.5hrs and €19) we spent our last night in Albania ninja-camping on the outskirts of Ksamil in the Butrint National Park. Ksamil is sandwiched between the Ionian Sea and a huge lagoon to the east. Much warmer now, we were able to sleep outside and cook fresh sardines on our campfire with no bother from anyone. We just wish we’d bought one more bottle of the local vin rouge.
“Ten days away (seven riding) only whetted our appetite for a second Albania cycling tour – perhaps next time in the north. £150 was more than enough spending money, we ate a lot, drank lots too. I just can’t wait to go back.”
Charlie Nelson, April 2016.