31st AUGUST 2018
I’d been promised a cooked breakfast on the morning I leave Montenegro, but Irena has just worked a night shift and I’d rather not wake her. I try to move all my gear downstairs silently, but she must hear me moving around and comes down to cook. I feel so guilty as she is clearly exhausted and has the worst case of early morning stares. She prepares her standard fried eggs, sausage and cheese while standing there like a yawning zombie. It’s not exactly gourmet, but I do appreciate the effort, and it’s good to see her before I leave.
The road out of Podgorica is flat and hot to begin with, before it starts to climb through Mediterranean type scrub on its way up to the border. I’m now cycling above an inlet of the gigantic Lake Shkodër and, looking back, I can see its vast wetlands stretching away for miles into the distance. I’ve been slogging up this hill very slowly and gently, in an effort to preserve my warped rear wheel. All this restraint goes out the window though on a fast, steep descent to the border post. I’m such a sucker for a speedy downhill, despite the potential consequences.
Officially, you are supposed to register with the local police within twelve hours of entering Montenegro. This is normally done for you by your accommodation, but I don’t think that Guesthouse Zvono even looked at my passport, and I know that Irena didn’t. Bugger. Knowing that I’m not registered means I approach the border feeling shifty and paranoid, in much the same way that people do when they happen to be followed by a police car. Hopefully the border post officials have no way of checking my registration status. And if they can check, hopefully they won’t care.
There’s a queue of about six cars, so I join that, keep my bike helmet on and get under the shade of the border post roof as quickly as I can. Of course, after all my worries about registration, the Montenegran official stamps me out the country without a second glance. Then it’s a slow freewheel for a hundred metres to the Albanian checkpoint. I join the car queue and stand in the blazing sun once again. Luckily, a border policeman sees that I’m melting and beckons me to the front of the queue to be processed more quickly. It’s only a small gesture, but this helpfulness is a good first impression to take with me into Albania.
Let’s be honest here. Albania doesn’t have a great reputation. I’d received messages from a couple of concerned friends before I arrived, asking if it was wise to travel here and warning me to be careful. It seems that most people’s perceptions are that of a former communist state, run by the Albanian Mafia and rife with guns, drugs and organised crime. The series of ‘Taken’ films, full of ruthless Albanian human traffickers, wouldn’t have done much to encourage tourism either.
Now, I’d like to think that I’m open minded enough not to pre-judge a country, but I also know that this reputation must be based on some degree of truth. My viewpoint is that Albania is still a bit of a mystery to most people. After all, the country isolated itself from the rest of Europe for almost fifty years under communism. It only became accessible again in the early nineties, so it’s hardly surprising that people know very little about the place. Nevertheless, this bad reputation has led to my own perceptions of Albania becoming slightly biased. It seems silly to be entering a country with a slight feeling of unease, when that’s mostly based on opinions of people who have never set foot here. Still, I’m sure the local Mafia will have more pressing concerns than a sweaty bloke on a bike cycling through their country.
Across the border the scenery remains dry and scrubby, with a range of spiky mountains rising to my left and the vast, shimmering Lake Shkodër far off to my right. There’s a stark beauty to the surroundings, but this outlook is ruined by masses of litter cluttering the roadsides. Lay-bys and parking areas are particularly bad, where it’s sometimes difficult to see the asphalt with the amount of rubbish strewn upon it. Despite this throng of litter the roads are actually pretty good for cycling, with surprisingly smooth surfaces and a metre-wide margin at the side of the road to keep me separated from traffic.
About 30km after the border I reach the city of Shkodër and my destination for today. I find my accommodation on a run-down side street that sits between two of the main roads into the city centre. Although the street looks a little unwelcoming, my guesthouse is an oasis of modern comfort that has only been open four months. The building is a sparklingly clean two storey affair, with security gates and air-conditioning. Amazingly, all this luxury comes for around £13 per night with breakfast included.
At check-in I’m unable to pay cash as I haven’t had the chance to get any Albanian currency yet. I ask the reception girl if it’s alright to pay by card, and she astounds me by replying ‘Easy-Peasy Lemon Squeezy !’ This phrase is practically unheard of outside the UK, no matter how fluent someone’s English is, and I’m so surprised that I just laugh. It turns out that she grew up attending a private Turkish school, where she started learning English from her very first day. One of her language teachers had studied in the UK, and it’s their influence that means she can now rattle off obscure English phrases at will.
Getting my hands on some Albanian money is my next priority, so I take a ten minute walk into the city. This time the currency I need is Albanian Lek, which operates under an awkward-ish exchange rate of about 150 Lek to the pound. I withdraw 15,000 Lek, with the machine deciding to give me this in the form of three 5,000 Lek notes. I make a mental note to stop asking for such round figure amounts in future, and that way I’ll avoid getting all my cash in these large denominations.
Walking round Shkodër, I notice a real mixture of rich and poor. There’s some flashy cars in town and lots of well-dressed people walking round with snazzy phones. The flip-side of this is that I see a number of poor souls raking through bins for recyclable cans and bottles so they can get money back on them. There’s even an old guy who looks like a rag and bone man, complete with horse and cart, who’s rummaging through a skip for anything that might be remotely useful. Walking back to the guesthouse I stop at a supermarket to buy a bit of road food for tomorrow. The checkout girl isn’t best pleased that I only have a 5,000 Lek note to pay for a handful of items.
However, the checkout girl was the only grumpy person I’ve met since crossing the border. Everyone else has been friendly. I’m pleasantly surprised that today I’ve had more people toot their horn, wave, or say ‘Hello’ than on any other day of the trip. I think Albania might just make a mockery of its bad reputation.