Western Balkans – Day 7 – Oh Albania, thou roads!
After an early breakfast we south, riding along the lake. The night before, we had changed the plan. Instead riding on main roads and visiting the UNESCO heritage town Berat, we decided to cut through the Albanian hinterland and to experience some backroads before arriving at Gjirokaster. We knew it could get bumpy….
At the south end of the lake, we climbed up the road when we had to acquire a ticket to cross the Galicia National Park. From up there, we had first views on the Ohrid and later on the Lake Prepansko where we met good tarmac again.
Some kilometers to the south we crossed the border into Albania again. This time, I was asked for my insurance at the Albanian border. Gulp! I handed over my insurance paper with the stroked-through „AL“ and the Kosovar insurance, maybe this one would be valid here, too. Apparently it did. Or not. After registering my data, I could pass and we were back in Albania. The first part to Korça (home to the Korça brewery as we had yet discovered) was a good road. In Korça, I looked out for a more modern petrol station where I could pay by credit card. The road south of Korça was in a fantastic state, brand-new! Would this ride today be a piece of cake? For a while, we were living this dream, riding on perfect tarmac. Until the road ended and we faced the reality of Albanian backroads again. The landscape was nice, but the surface required all attention. The town of Erseke was clearly preparing for some mass tourism…whenever it will come. Slowly, the road deteriorated more and more. It turned more into a track, although I know many tracks that would feel humiliated to be compared with THIS.
The sights were lovely, though.
We crossed a little pass and I had to notice that I felt some play in my handlebar. What was going on here? Clearly, it was getting worse and the bad road clearly revealed it. Finally we reached the town of Leskovik where a decision or action needed to be taken. In my mind, I had developed already some plan B and C, should this be a problem that couldn’t be fixed. They all involved crossing into Greece immediately, avoiding bumpy Albanian roads. However, I had an idea…; I had experienced something similar during my trip in Iran….a play in the steering that showed on bad roads. Later, it had turned out that the steering bearing was not tightened properly. Could this be the same problem here? I explained the issue to Stefan and had him riding the XBR as well. He confirmed my observation. By putting our tool boxes together, Stefan checked the steering bearing screw…and fix it, it was indeed not tightened enough! A quick test showed that this had been the problem, probably the counter screw was a bit loose and the bad road had worsened it, loosening the bearing screw that holds the bearing in place. Phew! Resolved. We could continue with plan A. With the help of the Sat Nav, I could find the road but I soon concluded that there must have been a reason why there was no indication, it should have said: „not for public use – ride at your own risk!“
The whole way down to the valley we met one couple on mules and one car who seemed happy to meet a living soul. In terms of landscape, it was worthwhile, but I was happy that the bearing was fixed, because this was the worst part on our whole trip. The thing is that you never manage to get it properly documented on pictures, so you simply need to take my word.
Down in the valley, close to the Greek border, about 90 km from Gjirokaster, we were surprised to find a road with perfect new tarmac! This was our reward after this suffering? Anyway, we enjoyed it. I did a bit less because the steering bearing was a bit too tight, something that was adjusted later after arrival. We were motivated to hurry a bit, because a large thunderstorm was forming where we just came from. After 1.5 hours and a fluent ride and good and scenic ride in two valleys, we arrived in Gjirokaster. It is listed as UNESCO heritage for its ensemble of Ottoman houses that were preserved even during the communist era. The fact that it was the birth town of Enver Hoxha may have played a role here.
The Sat Nav led me through very narrow streets, only passable for motorbikes until we arrived at our Hotel Argyropolis. It has the highest rating I have ever seen on Booking.com, a whopping 9.9 out of 10. And we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by Tatiana, the owner. What she lacked in English vocabulary, she overcompensated by kindness and hospitality. The 200 year old house had been renovated thoroughly and put in a very modern and clean state. For Albanian standards, it’s off-scale so the 9.9 rating is justified. Our room was next to the house, super clean and cozy. After an urgently needed shower, we were ready to walk to the city centre nearby. Tatiana told us to wait and to join her in the patio and returned with two glasses of water and some homemade caramelized water melon skin. Very tasty, I never had this before.
In the city, we understood why the city aspires to be the touristic centre in the region.
Old traditional houses with tiny streets….and lots of souvenir shops and sellers. This seems to be the essence of tourisms. We walked around a bit before we went to the restaurant that we had spotted in internet. We were very early and could occupy the tiny balcony in the street. Good for watching, but also prone to getting roasted by the setting sun until it disappeared behind a mountain.
The food was ok, maybe not up to the high expectations, but ok. After that we walked up to the old castle where one has a good view on the city and its location on the mountain’s flank.
We had in mind to have some concluding drink on a terrace and found a very modern, „cool“ lounge-type place with a large terrace with a spectacular 270 degrees view.
We spent the rest of the evening there and filled up our liquid reservoir, as the sweating during the day depletes you of a lot of water. The thunderstorm did not make it there, but provided some dramatic scenery. When we returned to the hotel, we discovered the even „cooler“ streets with DJ music and youngsters sitting in the streets. This was in contrast to the call of the muezzin coming from the centric mosque.