3rd SEPTEMBER 2018
Having achieved my goal of reaching the Mediterranean, I earn myself a couple of days rest and relaxation in Durrës (Doo-Rez). I’m staying in a nice, touristy part of town, only a short walk from the seafront and its chilled-out promenade of restaurants and beaches. From this setting, it’s hard to believe I’m in Albania’s major seaport and second largest city, home to some 200,000 inhabitants.
On the first morning I retrieve my bike from the hotel’s lock up garage and freewheel down the big hill to the beach. I don’t think the trip will be complete until I dip the bike’s wheels into the calm, blue waters of the Mediterranean. Plus it should make a good photo memento to mark the end of the trip. I’m glad there’s not many people on the beach as I feel a bit of a numpty pushing my bike through the sand to the water’s edge. Nevertheless, I find two different people who are happy to act as photographers and capture the moment I could finally say ‘I’ve made it!’
Getting back to the hotel and up that insanely steep hill leads to me sweating like a maniac once again. This is highly peculiar, as I’ve been to plenty of hot destinations but never sweated quite so freely before. I’ve developed a theory for this; I believe that I’m now much more efficient at sweating than I used to be. I remember my sweat glands having to work overtime when I went from a Scottish winter to a Fijian summer earlier this year. My body’s attempts to cool me down meant that I ended up producing far more perspiration than my sweat glands could cope with. This excess sweating then led to my glands becoming blocked, which caused a prickly-heat rash that plagued me for the next two weeks. On this trip though, I’ve become accustomed to the heat far more gradually as I’ve cycled slowly south. My body is used to having to cool itself down, and now it seems that my sweat glands are working at their optimum efficiency. At least that’s my theory. There has to be some reason for me being such a Sweaty Betty lately.
My remaining time in Durrës involves exploring the city, visiting the beach or spending time chatting with the hotel owners. Two days off soon turns into three. Breakfast at the hotel is always served on an outside verandah, and usually consists of pastries from the nearby bakery, washed down with strong local coffee. Before these breakfasts, I never knew that croissants with custard through the middle even existed, but now I’m an enthusiastic convert.
There’s some worthwhile sights around town too, from the Great Mosque to an old Venetian Tower that’s now been converted into a trendy bar. The main drawcard is Durrës Amphitheatre, built two thousand years ago by the Romans and situated right next to the city centre. In Roman times it could hold over 15,000 spectators, but now it’s lying in ruins and looks a bit sad. I’m astonished to learn that the modern city had been built on top of this site, and it was only rediscovered and excavated in the 1960’s. This leads to the rather odd sight of modern houses and flats towering over it and surrounding the arena.
I spend a final evening down at the seafront, complete with beer and seafood tagliatelle, before joining the hotel owner and his son for a chat. The old guy always addresses me in Italian, even though he knows I don’t speak the language. He persists though, as Italy is just across the Adriatic and he’s so used to having guests from there. Despite the language barrier, he’s a good bloke and always makes sure I’ve got a beer or a coffee in my hand. Through his son, he asks me what my perceptions of Albania were before I got here, and if I thought it would be like a country in Africa. I tell him that, if anything, I thought it would be more like Russia because they only broke away from communism in the early 1990’s. He seems quite happy with this, but says that there’s been some huge changes since then. He tells me that twenty-five years ago hardly anyone in the country owned a car.
His son is a good kid. At first I thought he was in his early twenties, but it turns out he’s only sixteen and still at school. He’s helping out at the hotel for the three months that Albanian schoolkids get off for their summer holidays. One of his big ambitions in life is to live in the USA or the UK one day. He’s completely starry-eyed about both countries and is always asking me about jobs, money and life in Britain. When I tell him that everyone in the UK is guaranteed a minimum wage he is absolutely astounded. ‘I would work one hundred hours every week !’ he says, and I believe that he would. But then he tells me that my cycle trip is a ‘beautiful thing’ and that life isn’t all about work and money. He’s got his head screwed on for a sixteen year old kid. The father offers me another bottle of Tirana beer, so we continue chatting for the next hour about the UK, Albania and life in general. It’s been lovely chatting with them, and a nice way to round off my time in Durrës.
At night I notice I’ve received a reply from an American couchsurfer who has said he could maybe host me when I get to Sarandë. He sounds like a cool guy, with over four hundred positive references, whereas most people only have a handful. I had read some of his references and every single one of them had said what a wonderful human being he is. He replied that he could only ‘maybe’ host me for two reasons. Firstly (and ironically) he’s actually in Scotland at the moment and might not get back to Sarandë in time. Secondly, he wants to make sure that I’ve read the ‘My House’ section of his Couchsurfing profile, and that I’d be happy to participate in a nudist environment. I’d only really paid attention to his references. Oh Crumbs.