ALBANIA – MACEDONIA, 8th – 12th of June
The strong smells of animals, trash, hay, warm asphalt and engine exhaust welcomed me to Albania. It was hot in the midday sun and we were cycling along the narrow road from the border into the country. It went through flat farmland and one little village after the other and it was busy with cars, motorbikes, small open tractors without cabins, scooters driven by men and boys in flip flops and no helmets, and trucks that gave us very little space when they passed. In the towns we saw little shops, cafes and mosques again as the majority of Albanians are Muslims. The lively atmosphere was quite a contrast to Montenegro that we had just come from, my senses were overwhelmed and alert taking in all the new things. It was that special feeling of arriving in a new country. I felt alive and open towards the world. And when a man smiled and waved to us from his slow horse cart I once again felt like I had arrived in a country that was maybe not that far from, but very different from where we had started this journey. A big smile grew on my face.
After a siesta break escaping the heat in a restaurant we continued cycling south toward Leshe and our smiles grew bigger and bigger as we soaked in the atmosphere of rural Albania. It was the time for harvesting hay and people stacked it up in three metre high hay stacks with a person on top of it arranging the hay. Tractors with high piles of hay bales with men sitting on top blocked the road, and so did from time to time shepherds with their big flocks of sheep, someone escorting a chicken with its chicks over the road and once it was a runaway cow towing its line after it. Women walked along the roads, sometimes pulling a cow or a goat, wearing a traditional clothing I had never seen before. It was a shirt, long trousers and a skirt or apron on top of them all in dark colours decorated slightly with white ribbons. It was not a very sensual way for women to dress, but I saw a certain dignity in it. And it seemed mainly to be practical. There was so much to look at and on top of that we also had to return the waves, smiles and “Hello”s we received from the locals along the road. Cycling in Albania was fun!
We stopped at a bakery to buy some bread. It was run by a couple and they didn’t speak English, but it didn’t hold them back from trying to communicate with us. The woman went out in the back of the shop returning with a hot, freshly baked loaf of bread for us and while Chris went to pay for it, the man who sat outside, asked me if I was from Denmark. He didn’t ask me where I was from, no he guessed it right away. I was amazed, laughed and asked him how he knew? He pointed at my hair.
The woman now called me inside where she sat us down with another kind of flat bread, before she went to get us some white, salty, home-made cheese and plums. We never got to finish bread or cheese before more was brought to us although we protested mildly pointing at our already full stomachs. The woman squeezed my arm in a motherly, caring way and when we got up to leave she gave me a tight, warm hug. No words were needed, we were much more than welcome in this new, crazy country.
We made our way through flat land the rest of the day and boy was it good with some flat farmland for once? Oh yes. I felt like we hadn’t seen that since Italy – and remembered how I had been longing for hills and wild nature… The grass is always greener on the other side. Taking a little break an old, thin shepherd in a tweed suit came and sat five metres away from us. Conversation was difficult, but it seemed to be enough to just sit there together. We offered him some of our plums and peanuts and he took, and slipped the handful of peanuts into his pocket for later. He only had one sheep, but he tried to explain that there were more somewhere else. I think.
“It has begun” Chris said to me when we left the shepherd and his sheep behind. “The staring, the no-English communication and the people inviting us in. This is how it will be in Central Asia”. It was hard to understand that we were still in Europe. Or maybe it is more correct to say, that it was a reminder and a revelation of what Europe also was. How diverse.
It was just before sunset when we reached the outskirts of the town Leshe. There had been no good places to camp and we stopped to discuss whether we should go through the town or not in order to find such a place. As we stood there looking lost a girl in a garden asked us in English: “Are you from England?”
“Yes, well at least one of us is !” Once again the Albanians seemed to read us very well.
The girl was called Rosina and she lived in England herself, more precisely in Abingdon not so far from where Chris was from. She had moved there for studying and now she was married and had a two-year old daughter with her Albanian husband who also lived and worked in England. She was in Albania for one month visiting her family with her daughter and the family now began to appear around her, her uncle whose house we were standing in front, her aunt and grandma both short, stout women with white head scarf and a young, female cousin who seemed to be the two-year old’s favourite family member. “My parents live in the house next door. The whole family live together here, altogether up to 17 or 18 people. It is the traditional way of living” Rosina explained.
After consulting the uncle in Albanian she said we were welcome to camp at their lawn if we liked and with it being a very flat and grassy lawn we found it was just perfect for our tent. We began our daily routine kneeling on the ground fitting and sliding poles into the fly sheet feeling a bit awkward this time as the whole family was standing around us watching. The grandma said something in Albanian and Rosina translated: “She feels sorry for you that you have to do that and sleep there”. We said we liked it this way, but there were more talking in Albanian and politely Rosina said:
“If you like you can stay inside the house tonight?”
“No, no, it is really not a problem for us to stay in the tent, we do that every night” we replied, partly because it was true and partly because we feared we would take the bed from one of the many family members staying in the house.
“Okay, if you like it this way it is fine, but you can stay in the house?” Rosina repeated.
“No, no it is not necessary” we repeated and so it went back and forth a few times, getting more and more awkward with politeness, until Chris grasped the key to the situation and asked:
“Would you like us to stay inside instead of having us sleeping out here?”
“YES! We have never had guest sleeping outside, we want our guests to sleep in the house”.
And with that we happily packed away the tent and moved into a big bedroom that I guess was the uncle’s due to the many caps that were hanging on the hook on the door. Everyone seemed happy. We sat in the big couches in their living room and more people came. One was a cousin, a guy who worked as a policeman controlling the hills for illegal marijuana production. Another was Rosina’s granddad who appeared outside when Chris and I went out to unpack the bikes. For a few wonderful seconds the grandma and granddad stood in front of us, short and with gleaming faces and shining eyes talking and talking to us in Albanian, and we didn’t understand a word. Even Rosina’s husband was introduced to us via a Skype connection: “Please, just feel like you’re at home and eat as much as you can” he welcomed us from England.
Rosina’s aunt showed us with her hands and by grabbing our arms and gently leading us around that she wanted us to shower, she wanted to wash our clothes, she wanted me to use the hair dryer (something I never do and I this time also didn’t, so she kept asking me if I was okay with my hair wet) and she wanted us to eat dinner with them. The whole table was filled with plates with different vegetables cooked and fresh, home-made cheese, bread and skewers of meat and sausages being served, and in reality it seemed to be primarily for us. She and Rosina ate some and the little daughter ate a lot of sausages, but the rest of the family just sat by smiling with various excuses for not eating now. And they were Catholics so it had nothing to do with the Ramadan. All the time there was a calm chatting, many smiles and laughter across the room and generations. They talked about their own things, but also about us and what we were doing and Rosina translated some of what they said and asked us their questions. Especially the grandparents seemed to find it very difficult to understand why we wanted to live and travel like we did. I guess that they’d grown up being taught to work hard to gain wealth and security, and our lifestyle seemed to them like poor people were living. Why on earth would we choose it deliberately? They felt sorry for us, and I think this feeling was enhanced when we pedalled wobbling and zigzagging up the very steep hill outside the house the next morning with the whole family watching and waving goodbye.
But we felt anything but sorry for ourselves, we had the most extraordinary experiences of a unique Albanian hospitality with us, and even though our stay in the country was short it was something that will stay with us for a long time.
What we also will remember Albania for was the picturesque gorge of Ulza Regional Nature Park that we cycled through going east towards the border to Macedonia. A turquoise river cut through the low, green mountains and revealed raw, orange cliff sides and the road snaking along it up on the hillsides providing us with one pretty outlook after the other. We enjoyed the ride and had just come through a short, but dark tunnel when we met a cycle tourer coming the other way. He was shirtless but in a hi-viz vest, and his name was Lothar. He came from Magdeburg, Germany, and used to cycle around the Balkans almost every summer so he had a few pieces of advice for us and a good map we all three studied. As Lothar had a pepper spray can connected to his handlebars the talk fell on dogs chasing you and he pointed at the boots that hung from his load on the back of the bike showing us marks from a dog bite. “In Greece the dogs are very bad. They just jump over the fence of the property they’re protecting and come at you.” We had had a few shepherd’s dogs chasing us back in Bosnia, it was my first experiences with this, and I can’t say that I felt very confident with this aspect of cycle touring yet, so Lothar’s story imprinted itself into my mind. We were still not decided on which way to go to Turkey but Greece all of a sudden didn’t seem so appealing anymore. We said goodbye to Lothar and watched as he cycled through the tunnel without lights but with his hi-viz vest flapping around him.
We battled over one hill after the other while the high temperatures got more and more to my head. We cycled so hard and sweat so much, and yet we were so slow. Luckily my frustrated thoughts were interrupted when a thin, pre-teen girl stopped us and said: “Come to my house”. She was so convincing and it was so hot, so we followed her down the driveway to a little farm. Her mum seemed to think “oh, she brought some cyclists again…” as we arrived, and we understood from young Aminas’s few English phrases, that some years back a German family had got caught in some bad weather and they went to seek shelter with the family. They had had a memorable evening with the cyclists and now two big print outs of photographs from that night were hanging on the walls in the living room. And it was the only pictures decorating the walls. Clearly little Aminas was longing for another such night and now she invited every cyclist she saw in hoping they would stay and produce more precious memories. I felt a twinge in my heart, but we could not satisfy the girl’s wishes (and I’m not sure her mum was as eager to have us staying as Aminas was) as we were still determined on cycling 80 kilometres per day – and since we left Kotor four days earlier we still hadn’t managed to do so. But we sat down and were again generously served some lemonade and watermelon and afterwards Aminas and her two siblings showed us all the animals they kept on the farm. “Are you not going to put up your tent?” Aminas asked when we went back to our bikes and it was sad to leave the little girl disappointed.
We got to the town Burrel and to our relief the road now flattened out and we cycled all evening through farmland busy with people working in the fields. At sunset we heard call for breaking the Ramadan fast as our cycle computers hit 80 kilometres, the roads emptied and we hid away in our tent for the night.
The next morning a big climb of 800 metres awaited us, but to our surprise and unlike our hill-battles yesterday, we did it rather easily and soon found ourselves at the windswept pass near the town of Bulqizë with a long, decent downhill through wide valleys and pine forest on the other side. At the bottom of this we stopped for a well-earned lunch in a restaurant. It was a local place with no one speaking English and the only menu they had was hanging in a golden frame at the wall. It was given to us and somehow we ordered all the vegetarian dishes we could see, that was chips, rice, salad and a tzatziki-like dip. The waiter could see how hungry we were and doubled up some of our orders, or maybe we didn’t communicate the number ‘one’ properly, or maybe he tried to make a little extra money – who knows? We didn’t mind, but happily emptied it all and paid the still very reasonable bill.
We were close to the border to Macedonia now, but during the last 15 kilometres the atmosphere changed. The road got busier and narrow with more bad drivers cutting corners and coming straight towards us. Some boys in a town held out their hands for what seemed like a nice high-five, but when Chris clapped their hands they held on and tried to pull him off the bike and they kicked at my panniers. A boy even tried to hit me at my butt, it was so unexpected and I was too slow to react and tell him off. Instead I just cycled on, in a glum, uneasy mood. At last we had a bit of a classical border hassle when a man at the border insisted on exchanging our Albanian Lek to Macedonian Denar to a very unfavourable exchange rate. Obviously we didn’t accept it, but hoped we would have better luck at the other side of the border.
It was one hour of misfortune in Albania and it couldn’t ruin my overall positive experience with the country, but it made me look forward to move on into the next country, Macedonia, and we didn’t hesitate to do so. We went to and through the border check points with no more problems and once again found ourselves in a new country. They were coming fast these days and a bit faster than I preferred, so we had decided to spend almost a week in this country which I was looking forward to. We would cycle up to the capital Skopje where I would take a day off from cycling while Chris would do a true Chris-thing, that was to cycle a 160 kilometres loop from Skopje up to Serbia and Kosovo and then back to Skopje to get more countries on his list of countries visited on this trip. In that way we both got we wanted.
Like in Bosnia and Montenegro we had to register in the country within 24 hours, and this time we would try to do it directly with the police in the first town of Debar. That was because there was not a town or guesthouse located roughly where we would get to that evening, and we didn’t want to cut the day short and stop already in Debar having cycled only 50 kilometres that day. We cycled into the town, stopped at a supermarket where a very nice girl both exchanged all our money to the official exchange rate – and gave us a refreshing juice. Then we were on to the task of finding the police station and our strategy began with stopping randomly in a crossing looking at the map on Chris’s phone that obviously didn’t show details like ‘police station’. But our strategy worked, it wasn’t many seconds before a car stopped and a young man asked us where we were going and if he could help. His name was Osman and he spoke good English and when we explained ourselves he said to us to follow the car. And so we did, also when the driver (who was Osman’s cousin) went up on the foot path for about 200 metres, which I’m sure is not legal even in Macedonia, before parking in the middle of the foot path in front of the police station.
Osman was very helpful and now went with us inside to help explain our request and that was foresighted of him, as the policemen there didn’t speak any English. They also didn’t know how to (or they didn’t want to) register us, as it was usually the hotels who had to deal with the paperwork, and so the only option to get registered was to spend the night at a guesthouse in Debar. Again Osman made things easy for us as he knew a place that costed only €10 for a room, and Chris and I quickly changed our minds thinking it was just fine to cut the day short and spend the rest of it in Debar. Osman and his cousin (who now reversed the car at high speed 200 metres back on the footpath) led us to the guesthouse which was on top of a gas station and Chris and I settled in with a much-appreciated shower and used the wi-fi to plan our time and route through Macedonia some more. At 8.30pm Osman and his cousin came back and we went into the town together. This time by foot, and it was not only Chris’s objection to use cars that held us from getting into a car with the cousin behind the steering wheel. But except from his driving habit the cousin and Osman were really good guys. Osman had lived most of his life in Switzerland with his family and he still did, but he was in Debar to visit his family there for one week. He had a leg in both countries and both cultures and was the perfect person to explain to us the similarities and differences from life in Macedonia and in Western Europe. And there was something to explain as Debar was not just a Macedonian town, in fact it and the whole area along the border to Albania was inhabited by an Albanian majority that had kept hold of their particular Muslim culture. In a way we were still in Albania at least culturally. And as it was still the month of the Ramadan there was a special atmosphere in Debar. After fasting all day the families would come together for a big, festive meal. And after all that eating people needed to go for a walk, so they walked up and down and up and down the main street in the town, constantly meeting friends and relatives and stopping to chat or sit down to drink tea. Osman told us some people would walk up and down the same street ten times in one night.
We went first to a popular bar called the London Lounge that had an entrance of two red, British phone boxes and was decorated with all kind of British icons. It was a big, busy place full of groups of both men and women, all drinking non-alcoholic drinks as it was Ramadan. There was a nice atmosphere here, it was somehow both traditional and modern, and we had a good chance to talk with Osman and his cousin. There were many differences in lifestyle and social life between life here and life in Western Europe that we got to understand better, but they also told us that almost every family in Albania has at least one relative living ‘outside’ as they said, meaning in the West, Western Europe or The States. I understood that it worked as a financial security and it was interesting to think about how much of the business here was actually relying on business outside of the country, but it must also mean that there is a constant channelling of western culture back to Albania (and Macedonia) and Osman said he liked Debar for that, it had both the traditional and the modern. We had now met two of these Albanians living ‘outside’, Rosina and Osman, and they had helped us a lot to understand the culture better, but I also thought it must be difficult to have your roots in one place and your life in another. In a way I could relate to that, although my choice to be away from my home was a very different one from their’s.
After finishing our drinks it was time to go walking. We walked up the street and at the end of it we turned around and walked back again. What a funny thing to do. Even though Osman didn’t live in Debar he seemed to know many people there and we stopped again and again. The cousin seemed to be a dedicated Muslim and he thought we should go up and see the main mosque of the town. We got there just as the evening prayer had ended, groups of people were walking away and the imam was about to lock the doors as we turned up. Luckily for us he was happy to show us inside. It was a nice place with painted decorations and Arabic writings on the walls and thick carpets at the floor. The imam told us about the history of the mosque and the Islamic praxis and Osman translated for us. The devoted shine in their eyes and warm excitement in their voices was what really made it a beautiful mosque, it was a meaningful place to them. And there are so many, many mosques in Muslim countries, and they all mean something special to the ones who uses it.
Osman and his cousin walked with us back to our guesthouse and we said goodbye. Their plan was now to go by car an hours drive south to Lake Ohrid, the most popular tourist attraction in Macedonia, where there supposedly was a party. It seemed like life took place at night here, especially during the Ramadan, and we had for once been out living it and it had been a great experience. But now we needed our sleep before another day of cycling.
Our route to Skopje went from Debar up north east through Movrovo National Park. We rode through this huge area of forest, gradually climbing up to the top of the hills to a big lake. It was a nice, but not very spectacular ride, but we enjoyed the company of stray dogs every time we stopped for a break. We gave them names, fed them our old biscuits and cheered when they caught them in the air. After the lake we went downhill on small roads through little villages, there were hardly any traffic and it was very pleasant.
Riding to Skopje the next day was pretty uninspiring as we first went on dirty mud roads and then on a carriageway next to the highway that was unexpectedly busy, presumably because there was a road toll to use the highway so everyone went on the small, free road instead. So silly. Skopje on the other hand was a quiet and interesting place mostly built up in Soviet style with concrete blocks in light, broken colours and with parks and big, old trees all around. We settled in at Valentin Hostel and then went out for a pizza we had been fantasizing about.
Chris disappeared to bed early as he was planning to begin his Serbia-Kosovo ride at sunrise whereas I spent the evening Skyping with my family back home.
When I woke up the next morning Chris was gone and I had the day to myself. After spending every hour of the day together every day it was quite nice to only have myself to think about. I went out to explore the city, walking around intuitively through parks between tower blocks until I got to the centre. It was a weird place made up of huge and empty monumental buildings and squares that seemed like they were new, but built in a classical, pompous style. And then there were statues. At every possible place there were statues. Everywhere statues. I did read the information board for the first of them but soon gave up, it was meaningless. The most significant (read: the biggest) was ‘Warrior on a Horse’ at the centre of the main square. It was very, very big and dramatic and the whole square quite impressive. I sat down in the shade and had a nice little chat with a big-bellied hat seller called Tony, we spoke German with each other and ate my biscuits.
Next to the square an old, Ottoman bridge span across a river and on the other side was first more statues, but then began the maze of the old Turkish bazar with teahouses, shops, mosques and a hamam. The first bit seemed to be more for tourism, but I kept walking and suddenly found myself in the real bazar like I knew them from Asia with endless rows of stalls under low baldachins overflowing with fresh vegetables, nuts, clothes, kitchenware, tools, smartphone covers, hats, toys and sunglasses. It was amazing and I went shopping with all my senses.
Being out on my own I was approached more often by men. Tony had been nice, but on my way back from the bazar a man came to me and pretended to be a Syrian refugee needing money for the bus to Serbia. At first I had to believe him, because if it was true, who was I to doubt his suffering? But I was still suspicious and kept the conversation going to find try and find out the truth. When he told me he’d come with the boat from Syria to Iran I knew he was bluffing, but I still had to check the map on my phone to make sure there was no water way between Syria and Iran, I was so afraid to claim him a liar if his story was actually true. But as I assumed a boat from Syria to Iran made no sense at all and so I said goodbye to him and walked away with my inside boiling with harm. I thought about the few people I knew who had come from Syria and all those I didn’t know. Who was he to try and make money from these people’s tragedy?
Skopje was a wonderfully mixed and weird place that I liked a lot. I also found the hostel life fun joining conversations about travelling with strangers from all over the world sitting in the common room. When Chris knocked the door at the hostel early in the evening I had a lot to tell him, but I was even more eager to hear what he had experienced on his one day solo trip to new countries.
“Tell me all about it!” I said and in the next blogpost you can read what he replied…
Leshe – Debar – Movrovo National Park – Skopje