Once More Into the Hills

6th SEPTEMBER 2018

Chocolatey pastries, cappuccino and custard filled croissants form the basis of my final artery-clogging breakfast in Durrës. I say Goodbye to my hosts at the hotel, who have been excellent and don’t even charge me for any of the coffees or beers they provided me with. I’ve had the most relaxing few days, and I’m a little sad to be leaving.

Although I’ve made it to the Mediterranean, I still need to make my way a further 250km down the coast to finish in Sarandë. Three cycling days of around 80km should do the trick, providing my back wheel holds out. I know I could probably have sourced a replacement wheel in Durrës, but I’ve taken quite a fatalistic attitude to whatever happens in the next few days. I’ll obviously be happier if I make it to Sarandë, but if I don’t then it won’t be a disaster. If the bike dies, then I’ll just start hitch-hiking.

I freewheel the big hill I normally walked down to get to the beach, then past the amphitheatre, port and seafront hotels on the south side of the city. The first 30km fly past on decent roads and with me full of energy after my days off. However, just when things seem to be ticking along nicely, a sign for a motorway rears its unwanted and ugly head. I ride up to the huge roadsign at the start of the motorway in the forlorn hope that cyclists aren’t included in the list of banned traffic. But, sure enough, there’s a picture of a bike with a big red circle around it. Buggeration.

The next ten minutes are spent consulting Google maps to find an alternative route that avoids the motorway. I do find one but the detour is enormous and involves plenty of hills. I’m so focused on finding a road that bypasses the motorway, that it takes me a while to notice there’s an exit 2km further along the motorway itself. If I can make it to there I’ll have better options for a detour, so I decide just to get my head down and go for it. I’m at the next exit in no time, although I know I’ve just willingly broken the law. It seemed silly to take such a massive detour for a distance I’ve covered in a matter of minutes. Getting this far has given me more route choices, but then I find that my new detour is in a shockingly bumpy condition. I also see that the city of Lushnjë is only 12km further down the motorway.

So, emboldened by getting away with it once, I rejoin the motorway. I just keep pedalling, looking straight ahead and moving forward as quickly as I can. All the time I’m thinking what I’ll do if the cops pull me over, but my plan doesn’t come to much more than pleading ignorance and smiling a lot. I figure as long I can make it past halfway it would be easier for the police just to let me continue rather than sending me back. A solid stretch of fast pedalling gets me to Lushnjë, only to find I’m greeted by a further 4km of motorway on the way to my destination of Fier. By this point I’m past caring, think ‘Fuck It’ and just keep going. Despite this attitude I’m still pretty relieved when I make it to the end.

Once I’m off the motorway, I pull over at a disused petrol station to have lunch under some shady trees. As I’m eating my sandwiches and granola bars a skinny black snake slithers alongside the forecourt wall in front of me. After the adrenaline rush of my illegal motorway ride, the remaining 25km to Fier pass very slowly into a slight headwind. I arrive by late afternoon and find my way to the Prince Hotel, a new-looking establishment on the outskirts of town. My bike goes in the downstairs restaurant, and I head upstairs to a gaudily coloured pinky-purple room that looks like it has time travelled here from the 1970’s. Fortunately for me, the room rates seem to be from that era as well.

My room has no Wi-Fi, so I go downstairs to the bar to faff around on my phone. I have a bottle of Peroni which costs me the equivalent of £1.20. This gets me thinking about the very first beer I had at the start of the trip. That was way back in Honningsvag in Norway and was also a Peroni, but up there a single bottle cost me £7.60 ! The decreasing price of beer has almost mirrored my progress South through Europe.

The next morning I go downstairs for one of the best breakfasts I’ve had on the trip – two fried eggs, two spicy sausages, three rashers of bacon, three kinds of cheese, salami, hot bread and some kind of tomato gnocchi. It’s good to have something a little bit different to my normal fare, and besides, I’ll need the calories with heading back into the mountains today.

My first hill arrives on the way out of town, then it’s downhill for a few kilometres to a town called Levan, where the road splits. I’ll be following the inland road through the hills to Tepelenë, while the coastal road leads to Vlorë, Albania’s third largest city. My road looks newly constructed, with a large safety margin at the side so I can cycle safely. The Vlorë road has now been superseded by a motorway and looks very much like the neglected, bumpy backwater that it has become.

At first the gradient is gentle, but there’s no cloud cover today so I’m just dragging myself slowly up the incline. Annoyingly, my calves feel achy just below the back of my knee too, which I put down to the many times I climbed that steep hill up to my hotel in Durrës. Towards the halfway point of today’s ride the slope increases dramatically, and I find myself slogging up one side of a steep valley. Beside the road there’s a bare cliff face rising to my left, soaking up the sun’s rays and reflecting them back onto me as I struggle past. My ever efficient sweat glands pump out rivers of the stuff, which runs down my face, drips off my nose and gets under my sunglasses.

After conquering that hill I emerge on to a long, sloping valley floor. From the point I enter the valley, I can see the road climbing off into the distance with another huge, steep climb to finish. If there’s one thing worse than a horrible, plodding hill, it’s being able to see the full extent of it stretching out in front of me beforehand. I trudge in slow motion up the valley floor, but the summit in the distance doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. It’s like one of those weird dreams where you’re running, but then you look down and realise that you’re not actually moving forward. Eventually I slog my way to the foot of the final climb, a huge gradient that slopes up to the left. There are groups of locals selling fruit at the roadside on the way up, although the only product that could tempt me at the moment is water. I make a drinking motion with my free hand, but not one of them has any water to sell me.

I make it to the top of the ridge a gasping, sweaty mess. I don’t even pedal on the descent, instead I just sit there and let gravity do the work for me. The wind that my speed creates actually makes me feel a bit cold on the way down. All that sweat from the uphill climb is now cooling on my body. Then it’s a few ups and downs alongside a turquoise-blue mountain river all the way to Tepelenë. By the time I reach town my head is sore and I’m feeling pretty tired. The hills and the heat have seen me finish all five of my water bottles today, and that hasn’t happened in weeks.

I’m staying just off the main road at Hotel Lord Byron, which is set in a peaceful spot above an aqua-coloured river. The main reception is in a rustic, terracotta tiled building in the middle of an apple orchard, and the town is surrounded on all sides by mountains. It could almost be a summer’s day in the Scottish Highlands.

At night I polish off the remainder of my road food for dinner. I think I’ve eaten more bananas and nuts on this trip than I have in the previous decade. I’ve also got a decision to make about my nudist couchsurfing offer in Sarandë. Part of me thinks it would be fine once I got over the initial awkwardness. The other part of me thinks it would just be too weird. Provisionally, I’ve already accepted the offer, but as the day draws closer I think I might just chicken out and cancel.

The bottom line is that I only have one proper day of cycling left. Another 85km tomorrow will take me from here in the mountains down to sea-level at Sarandë.




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