8th SEPTEMBER 2018
If all goes well then I’ll be cycling the final 85km of my trip today. Strangely though, it doesn’t feel much different to any other day of the journey, and I know that last days can sometimes turn out to be a little anticlimactic. In keeping with this trend, today starts out very normally indeed. However, it is not destined to end that way.
Breakfast is self-service, but a pretty average offering of cereal, bread, cherry tomatoes, pickle and feta-type cheese. I sit outside the restaurant while eating, happy that my view compensates for the mediocre food. There’s a hazy morning sun rising low over the surrounding mountains, and a light, shrouding mist has left them indigo blue in colour. The silhouette of one peak is almost perfectly triangular. I make multiple trips back inside to re-stock my plate, reasoning that I might as well go for quantity if I’m not going to get quality.
As I’m leaving I take the opportunity to fill my bottles from the hotel’s outdoor water tap. Tepelenë is famous for its mineral water – a bit like an Albanian Evian or Highland Spring. The water is drawn from fresh mountain springs that surround the town, and I’m now filling my water bottles directly from the source. It’s probably the freshest, coldest water I’ve had on the whole trip. I’m not quite sure how the hotel has managed to tap into the natural spring water though. I suspect it’s similar to the bloke who diverts electricity straight into his house from the National Grid to avoid having to pay for it.
Today’s ride starts with a few small hills, then I’m travelling along a flat valley floor between two chains of mountains for the next 50km. It’s actually fairly warm, but a strong tailwind pushes me along nicely through the bustling city of Gjirokaster, then onto a village called Jorgucat. I’m only 10km from the Greek border at this point. I need to travel West though, up and over a mountain road that will lead me to Sarandë and the finish line. A car passes me as I turn towards the hill, and a woman in the rear leans out the window to take my picture as she looks back.
My final big hill is winding and steep, with a horrible looking drop off to my right. There are a number of roadside memorials dedicated to those who have plunged over the side, and a worrying lack of safety barriers. Tight corners have protection in the form of metal crash barriers, but straight sections are far less secure. Here, two foot high concrete blocks have been positioned above the precipice, but there are huge gaps between these blocks. The blocks and gaps alternate, so the road edge looks like it has a series of turrets above the rocky descent. Disconcertingly, most of the gaps are longer than the width of a car. It’s bad enough cycling on the side of the road next to the drop-off, but at times I also have a gusty wind blowing off the mountain and pushing me alarmingly close to the edge. This makes me nervous, so I take to cycling right along the white lines in the middle of the road when there’s no cars about.
The road zig-zags upwards, which thankfully means the wind isn’t always blowing me towards the abyss on my right. Stopping to rest becomes a regular thing, but I’m encouraged that plenty of drivers are tooting and waving today when they see I’m climbing this slope on a bike. Just before the summit I’m passed by the same car that had the woman photographer in the back seat. Again she points the camera backwards out the window and snaps me as they pass. Again I find this slightly odd.
At the top of the pass there’s a cafe, some horses roaming wild and a handful of cows with bells clanking round their necks. And then it’s downhill, for almost 20km. The descent is so sharp and twisty that I’m using both brakes almost the entire way down. After a while my hands start to ache due to all the braking, and also from vibrations through the handlebars from bumping down this narrow road. I’ve moved from exposed, rocky cliffs near the summit to a section of shady, cooling woodland in the foothills. Then I follow a river downstream that looks like it’s flowing through a man-made channel. The water is an unbelievably clear blue, with plants on the riverbed that make it look like an aquarium. For my final 15km, the road flattens out and I’m pedalling into a headwind, before one final, nasty climb gets me into Sarandë.
After changing my mind a few times, I’ve finally decided to let Rob, the nudist couchsurfer, host me. He seemed cool enough when I messaged him, and I figure there must be a reason that he’s received all those hundreds of positive references. I just have to try and find my inner nudist for a couple of days. When I get to town I visit a hotel for a lemonade and to use their Wi-Fi in order let Rob know I’ve arrived. He’s waiting outside his apartment block when I get there and gives me a big hug when we meet. I suddenly realise that I’m glad our first meeting is in a public place and that he’s fully clothed. Then he helps me upstairs with my gear to a second floor apartment he’s renting from Airbnb for two weeks while he’s in Sarandë. My bike goes outside on the balcony, which spoils the view of the Mediterranean, but only slightly.
We go down to the seafront for a beer, and he tells me a bit about himself. He’s a fifty-five year old American, who was once married, corporate, religious and in the US military. Then he got divorced, started to question the way he was living his life and sold everything so he could travel. He also has a decent US Air Force pension that allows him to indulge this lifestyle. If it is a mid-life crisis he’s going through, then it’s a spectacularly good one. He says he got into nudism when he was renting a big, four bedroomed house at Key West in Florida. He kept one room for himself and rented out the other three as holiday lets. At first he didn’t realise that Key West was famous for being a nudist destination, and was continually declining requests that asked if his accommodation was ‘clothing optional.’ Eventually he accepted one group of guests who then spent their whole time at his house in the nude. In the end he just followed suit, and is now a convert. Although, he tells me that here in Sarandë he only goes naked in the evening.
After a couple of beers it’s back to his apartment where he has a shower and then begins cooking. In the nude. I’d be petrified when cutting food in case I had a mis-hap. Not to mention all the hot pans and boiling water ! He seems quite happy though, and carries on like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Then it’s my turn. I go for a shower and, when I come out, I just don’t bother putting any clothes back on. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a little awkward at first, but gradually it loses it’s weirdness. I think he’s on a mission to get the whole world nude, as he believes people are more honest and open once they’re out of their comfort zone. It’s also a condition if you want to be hosted by him. He says he feels uncomfortable being naked if his guests are fully clothed. But then, I find sitting there bollock naked with an absolute stranger ranks pretty high on my list of strange and uncomfortable experiences too.
Still, once I get over the nakedness, Rob turns out to be an interesting guy. I see him more as an old, shaven-headed hippy than anything else. He’s always challenging social norms and questioning why we do things. Instead of idle chit-chat he takes a real interest in his guests, trying to find out what motivates them in life and what makes them tick. He also drinks like a fish. On his kitchen worktop there are four full bottles of spirits – one vodka, one gin, one bacardi and a bottle of fernet liqueur. There are also a handful of tonic mixers and some lemons and limes, but not nearly enough to dilute all that alcohol. He seems to think we’ll be able to polish off all the spirits in the next couple of days.
We chat for a bit before Rob puts on a film called ‘We’re The Millers.’ I seem to remember it being quite funny, but that might have had something to do with all the gin. As predicted, the tonic runs out fairly quickly, thus putting an end to our alcohol consumption. Apparently guests at Rob’s place (male or female) normally sleep on the same bed as him, but that’s just a step too weird for me. I settle down on the couch and reflect on an unusual evening, but mostly on the fact that I’ve completed my journey.
It’s been quite a trek from when I set out at the beginning of June, way above the Arctic Circle in temperatures of two and three degrees Celsius. Since then I’ve cycled 5,000km (3,200 miles), crossed twelve countries and am now basking in the Mediterranean with temperatures in the thirties. I was quite slow and podgy to begin with but now I’ve got fitter, lost weight and I’m far browner than when I started out (well, parts of me are). I’ve learned a lot, been lucky enough to have met some great people, and got to see their countries through the eyes of a local. I’ve tried every single peculiar food and oddball beverage that’s been offered to me and I’ve even become a part-time nudist for a weekend. All things considered, I’d say that constitutes a successful trip !