Cooking With Fire

28th NOVEMBER 2018

I wake to the familiar spatter of rain outside and try to get my head round having to cycle in the wet again. At least my drenched clothes from yesterday are now dry as I left the air-con on all night, set to a toasty thirty-two degrees. The same waitress who checked me in yesterday is now rushing round serving breakfasts, and brings me a standard plate of omelette, bread, tomato, cucumber and a cappuccino. By the time I’m ready to leave the rain has lessened to a drizzle. It’s not heavy, but it will still soak me through eventually.

The road out of Lushnjë is long, flat and straight, my least favourite of conditions. I trundle along slowly, still feeling really underdone and not yet ready for big distances. My right tricep and left foot are aching too, no doubt protesting at this sudden burst of exercise that’s been thrust upon them. I’m still on familiar roads through the bustling town of Fier and then downhill to a junction just past Levan. The last time I stopped here I took the road to Tepelenë and the mountainous interior, but today I’m off to a city called Vlorë on the coast.

A new motorway has recently been constructed between here and Vlorë, but I’m relegated to an old road that was probably once the main route before a motorway was built. My road runs roughly parallel to the motorway for the entire distance to Vlorë. I can see and hear traffic shooting past as I ride on rutted, bumpy streets, through towns that are dying a slow death having now been bypassed by the motorway. The road continues to be shitty and uneven right to the outskirts of Vlorë, before a nice downhill takes me into Albania’s third largest city. Dozens of high rise hotels and apartments stretch back from the sea and cling to mountains that surround the city. These mountain tops are shrouded in dark grey cloud, promising more rain after a dry afternoon.

Cycling into the city I see my third convoy today of what look like government cars. There are about six black cars with darkened windows speeding past, basically telling everyone to get out their way with sirens blazing and lights flashing. It feels like the president has been visiting Vlorë today. Later I find out that today is Albanian Independence Day and also ‘Flag Day,’ which explains the amount that I’ve seen flying or draped over car bonnets.

My accommodation is the Fjortes Hotel, which sounds grand but is really just rooms above a petrol station. I’m told it’s safe to leave my bike chained up outside the petrol station, but I’m not so sure – we’re right next to the train station in the middle of town. They assure me it will be OK as they are open twenty-four hours and have CCTV, so I put my faith in them. My room is an odd, narrow affair with a posh sofa bed running along one side. I don’t think I could even fit my bike in the space that remains. The shower takes about three minutes to warm up, but when it does the water is roasting hot and just what I needed after today’s cool conditions. I visit the local Big Market for some munchies and veg out for the evening. I’m still trying to get used to this cycling regime again, and the first few days have been predictably painful. I knew this would happen though, and the only way through it is just to keep going.

The next morning I’m contentedly having breakfast downstairs, happy to see that my bike is still chained up where I left it. I’m only cycling a very short distance today to a guest house just south of Vlorë. The reason for this is that tomorrow I’ll be going over the Llogara Pass, which at 1,027 metres (3,370 feet) is going to prove a challenge. I figure even if I ride for 10km today, it will still make tomorrow’s cycle a little less intimidating. Trundling this short distance will almost feel like a rest day and should set me up for my attempt at crossing the mountain pass. I leave Vlorë along a seafront that looks muddy near the city, but improves the further south I cycle. I’m just plodding along when a ringing bell alerts me to a chain of three professional looking cyclists that wave as they speed past me. If they are heading over the pass today, they look far better equipped to succeed than I do.

I reach my guest house to find an old guy in a fedora-type hat painting the outside fence. He speaks almost no English, but seems very friendly and beckons me in. He shouts for his English-speaking son, who checks me in and shows me around. The son’s name is Veli, probably in his mid-thirties and clearly the one who runs the guest house. He says if I want he can cook me a meal to celebrate Liberation Day (one day after Independence Day). I have a shower, then go and join him on a deck that sits right above the Mediterranean shore. It’s a wonderful spot on a sheltered bay, with turquoise blue water below us and a mountainous national park on the other side.

For an appetiser I’m served sardines on bruschetta along with a plate of green olives. Normally I wouldn’t touch olives, especially green ones, but I make a special effort as I’m in the Mediterranean. I find if you eat them separately and actually try to appreciate the taste, then they’re just about palatable. The large glass of red wine certainly helps too. For the main it’s roast chicken with a sort of mushed, baked bread as an accompaniment. There are plenty of little side plates too with feta cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and olive oil with balsamic vinegar. Veli is a chef by trade, running the family villa in the summer and working as a barman in Luxembourg during winter. He lived in Italy when he was growing up and worked as a Japanese sushi chef for four years on Lake Garda. It’s safe to say he knows his stuff.

For dessert it’s local ice-cream topped with freshly cracked almonds. While getting the ice-cream, he brings out a small bottle of part-frozen Greek ouzo. We have a couple of shots each and I’m reminded that the Albanian word for Cheers is ‘Gëzuar’. Then the old fella joins us and spills his first shot all over the table. Pretty soon the bottle is finished. Veli tells me that I’m invited to join them for their evening meal and a drink tonight, which is music to my ears. Across the bay there is a red glowing sky above the mountain’s silhouette after an early, but spectacular sunset.

Before I join them at night I go down to the seashore and dip my toes in the Mediterranean. Being nearly December I’m assuming the water will be cold and brace myself accordingly. I’m then amazed to find that the water feels lukewarm, in fact the sea temperature seems warmer than the air. Meanwhile, Veli has started a fire in his outside cooking stove, shaped like a suspended metal half-barrel. He is fanatic about cooking with fire, despite the extra time involved, as he doesn’t like or trust gas and electricity. I had told him earlier that I loved Japanese food, so tonight he’s going to show off his skills and cook some local fish tempura-style. As I am their only low-season guest, he’s able to take me into the kitchen and shows me how to prepare the fish and make tempura batter. He’s also kind enough to share a beer with me while doing so.

Once the fire is hot enough, he heats some maize oil in a wok. With his accent I think he is saying ‘Mice Oil’ at first which would have been a little distressing. He dips some small red mullet into his tempura batter and pops them in the wok where they sizzle away satisfyingly. We eat them about two minutes after they are lifted from the pan. My God, they are delicious – a little bit crispy on the outside and beautifully tender on the inside. The process is repeated with some chunky slices of eel, before he grills some sea bass over the fire. All the peppers, tomatoes, lemon and chillies we eat come straight from their garden too. I sit there with a dumb, half-pissed smile and realise that I do feel really priveliged to have been asked to join them in this feast.

We have a couple more beers, but I decide I better curb my intake if I’m to get over the Llogara Pass tomorrow. With the clear night sky, it has started to get quite chilly, and I use my room’s air-con as a heater until I turn out the light. It’s been a great day, and as I drift off to sleep I can hear the relaxing sounds of the Mediterranean gently lapping against the shore. I try to make the most of this tranquil moment as I know getting over that huge mountain pass tomorrow is going to be far from relaxing.


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