Friday, October 01, 2010

Southern Albania (Berat, Pogradec, and Lake Ohrid)

Biking home with dinner.

After my rest day, I was ready to go. I got packed up and woke up Cynthia, a fellow Coloradan, up to see if she still wanted to go biking with me. She thought it would fun. I was wary since she didn't bike that much and tried to warn her, but she said she ready. I figured I had given her the details and she had made an educated decision. Later on, we discussed that she heard 60-70km instead of 60-70 miles. Before this ride, the most she had ridden was around 30miles, but she did it and did it pretty well. To read her take, go here.

A standard small town with almost all men.

Mud can be fun, honest.

The conditions were not looking great, but with taking a day off and taking a detour, I couldn't sit still anymore. We set off for the coast on a side road so we would not be on the busiest road in Albania. As we got closer to the coast, we encountered our first hills and our first drizzle. By the time we hit the coast at Durres, the old capital, we had rain. Then, we turned south onto the highway. There was a lot of traffic, but we were able to use service roads for some of it. One of those service roads was still being built and was covered in clay that I am still scraping off my bike. If we were on the highway, it was smooth though. That wasn't the case for the service roads. They had mud and potholes. All of these put together would have made for one of my worst days of riding if I had not had company.

Fruit stands on the highway (Photo by C. Ord)

The Balkan nations have the curious custom of building long lasting roadside memorials. I am not sure if the body is near there or if that is just the scene of the death or some other option.

Cynthia hadn't eaten any and I was not thrilled about her trying to do bike so much on just bread. Also, since the conditions were miserable, it seemed like a good idea for a morale stop. I walked right into the cafe, but they would not let Cynthia in. They directed her direcly to the lavazh special where she was supposed to hose herself down. Brilliant. There are so many things you can communicate without knowing the language.

Sing it . . .At the car wash, at the car wash yeah . . . (Photo by C. Ord)

Lavazh special? This is not suggestive.

You might think this sign means don't ride your bike here, but the gas station attendant says otherwise. Ride on. (Photo by C. Ord)

After a long breakfast which included a hot chocolate that was thicker than a milkshake, it was time to get moving. The first thing we did is hose some of the clay off our bikes. Then, we hit the road for some easier riding. We were moving pretty well until we got to an autobahn. The sign clearly said 'No Bikes.' The gas station attendant across the way said no problem and told us to keep moving. We saw two other bikers, including an old guy going the wrong way on the road. Gas station attendant one. Sign zero.


These potholes are ridiculous. (Photo by C. Ord)

I don't remember too much from the last third of the ride. A headwind picked up to round out the full list of biker woes. Cynthia started to fade, but she kept pushing on. I encouraged and harassed her until we made it. We were both pretty happy when Berat finally appeared. Once we were done, Cynthia said she felt like she had paid someone to take her on an adventure trip. I might need to consider that as a line of work. For me, it was just a day's ride. It could be easier than I think.

These kids rode a couple kilometers with us doing tricks and almost wrecking all the way. (Photo by C. Ord)


Berat is two cities, the quaint beautiful part you read about in tour guides and the ugly regular city around it. Stick to one and you'll enjoy it. Go to the other and you'll take a pass. The one you should visit is two collections of white Ottoman houses climbing up hills with one of them ending at a castle. On the castle side of the river, there are restaurants, roads, and cars. The other side of the river is more residential. There are almost no cars because the cobblestone streets are not wide enough. That is where are hostel was surrounded by whitewashed walls and tile roofs.

Arriving at Berat, Albania. (Photo by C. Ord)

The lawn mower at Berat Castle. (Photo by C. Ord)

We checked into the one hostel available in town and got a double room. It is so nice to travel with someone else. Usually, for just one or two Euros more, you can get a private double room instead of being tossed into the dorm with who knows how many people. That lets you spread out and usually get a better night's sleep. Yet another reason I need to find someone to go on these trips with me.

Our room at the Berat Backpacker.

Berat residential streets.

We went up to the castle to catch sunset. The castle, Kalasa, surrounds an old neighborhood called Kala. It is beautiful to look at, but there was one very large problem that permeates all of Albania. Garbage. I don't think there is any official garbage disposal in the country. I have heard a number of reasons why, but the gist is this. Under communism, there were huge fines for littering and almost everything was recycled. After communism, the people are lashing out a bit like a teenager in their first year at college. The second reason is that with the open market, a lot of money poured into the country which allowed them to buy more new goods. Before everything was reused, but now used items are tossed out the window. One garbage can on the main street of Berat had a bottom. The rest were rusted out. We watched cafe owners empty bags in the street. The final straw for me was seeing a UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle, have a pile of garbage as tall as the castle wall piled against it. Yuck. A lot of Albanians don't understand why they aren't in the EU yet, but things like this explain it in a hurry.

Other than the garbage, the castle was great. Sunset was amazing. At dinner, I tried to do something I have not done since living in the US, customize a dinner order. The waiter knew just enough English to let us order a half and half a pizza and pasta order. It was fabulous. The next day, we were supposed to do a bunch of stuff, but it didn't happen. We hiked to some ruins, strolled around town, found a turtle, and enjoyed a slow day. It was wonderful to really take a breath before heading out for the next adventure.

A turtle in Berat.


The countryside behind Berat.

As luck would have it, the next adventure came sooner than expected. There was no bus. I have no idea why. Some people at the bus station spoke both languages and could not figure it out. The schedule said there was a bus. A bus was labeled with my town. Yet, there was no bus. I looked at taking other buses and biking farther, but eventually just scraped it. I chose the path of least resistance. I would catch a 4:30am bus the next day and take it all the way to Pogradec on Lake Ohrid instead of half way there. I was irritated, but it ended up being serendipitous.

Cynthia and I at Berat Castle. (Photo by C. Ord)

Berat at night.

There were more people at the hotsel that I knew and we had a great night. We ate food. We did 'the tour' that Albanians seem to do every night where they dress up in their finest and walk on the main street. I don't know why they do this, but they do. It was great to see and even greater to see the attention our shenanigans drew. Somewhere in our tour, we rode bumper cars. So much fun. I have not done those in over a decade. Also, we got ice cream, but this was different that my usual ice cream. It was medicinal for Wilma. Her throat hurt and her doctor prescribed ice cream three times a day to reduce swelling. We wanted her to drink hot tea, but she was having none of it. I don't know if ice cream works, but I might need to switch doctors. Perhaps, that will fix my shoulder too.

Berat Castle.

Berat Castle at night.

Odds and ends. At the hostel, there was a Norwegian who worked on the Israel Lebanon border for NATO. He is basically doing the same trip as me, but on buses. He said that I should have no problem visiting southern Lebanon which I had planned to avoid, but am now considering it. The bridge over the Osum River that connects the two sections of white houses in Berat has a blue light underneath. It is very Las Vegas and incredibly tacky.

I am curious what people, particularly Americans my age and older, think when they see the Albanian flag. It is a deep red with a two headed eagle emblem on it. My first instinct when I see this flag is to think negative thoughts. I believe it is tied into the dark red background that is similar to that of the USSR, China, and other 'evil' nations. I realize that notion is complete crap. Albania is not even on most Americans radar as existing, let alone being evil. Does anyone else have this instinct when they see the flag? In Tirana, there was a German who had the same impression.


Sometimes they call themselves Facebook centers instead of Internet cafes. That is scary.

Under Hoxha's rule, he wanted enough bunkers built for everyone in Albania. That resulted in around 750,000 concrete bunkers being built around the nation. Some have been removed. Some have been converted. One became a tattoo parlor. Others are garbage bins or toilets. Lonely Planet says they are a quiet place to get away with your lover. The story goes that they can withstand a full tank assault and to prove it, the lead engineer had to stand in one while it was bombarded.


Lake Ohrid.

After catching a bus to Pogradec, I biked towards Macedonia along the shores of Lake Ohrid. Before I left town, I stopped at a pastry shop to spend the rest of my coins. I got some ridiculous yummy stuff and some ridiculously weird stuff. Unfortunately, they put it in a box which made it pretty hard to bike with. The strangest one was something I thought was a cupcake. It turned out to be just be a whipped cream like substance that was rolled in something to make it look breaded. That was too sugary, even for me. Next up, a day in the Former Yugoslov Republic of Macedonia.

Me. (Photo by C. Ord)


  1. fyi -- i've been tracking your posts and am all caught up. :-)

    you sound more cheery than usual...must be the good company.

  2. I would be travel company too but I can not afford to just travel all my life. Some people work more than two months a year. What is your secret?

  3. Secret is to live frugually and probably most importanly, do NOT pay rent while you are traveling. The money you save in rent is enough to travel on. The jobs I have taken are overseas where no rent is required. All bank..easy savings.