30th NOVEMBER 2018
Breakfast has been arranged with Veli for 8.30am to give me what I think will be enough daylight to get me over the Llogara Pass. The food is more standard today, with cappuccino, two fried eggs and a kind of round, Albanian soda bread called kulaç. Mind you, this is about all I can eat as I’m still pretty full from yesterday’s feast. Veli wishes me Good Luck for my mountain crossing and says ‘I cannot imagine how difficult this will be for you.’ At the same time his eyes are saying ‘you’re not gonna make it.’
It’s a beautifully sunny morning, with both sea and sky a calm, pale blue over the bay. This is exactly the sort of conditions I would have hoped for, as crossing these mountains in the rain would be horrible. I’d already known about the Llogara Pass on my first visit to Albania in the summer, but at that point I’d chosen to take an inland route instead. The combination of a buckled rear wheel and me being a wuss were the main reasons for that. I could have taken the same, easier road again but I wanted to avoid simply retracing my steps. This time I’ve checked all the elevation profiles and know exactly what to expect – a gradual uphill to start, then a sudden steep slope and 23km (14 miles) of solid climbing to the summit.
Leaving the guest house I set off slowly, trying to pace myself. I’m hugging the coast for about 8km, past tourist accommodation and restaurants that look sad and deserted in late November off-season. At Orikum the road heads inland and the gradual incline begins. I’m trudging past a roadside farm when a dog in a ploughed field notices me, barks loudly and then starts running towards me. I’m really not in the mood for this today as I’ve got enough on my plate with the mountain pass. I stop and pick up a couple of decent sized stones and motion to throw them at the advancing hound. When it sees what I’m doing it stops dead in its tracks. It looks like I’ve found a new dog defence strategy, and the stones go in the back pouch of my cycling jersey in case I need them again quickly. In fact I’ve found Albanian dogs to be fairly timid. They will sometimes bark and run alongside me, but if I shout at them aggressively they stop. So far.
The first steep little uphill gets me so out of breath that I have to stop halfway up. I knew I’d be making plenty of rest stops today, but I didn’t think it would be quite so soon. The road continues upwards, and I continue stopping to catch breath. I slog my way up to the Dukat village turn-off, which on Google maps looks to be just under halfway to the top. Then it’s a smooth, wide hairpin and a couple of gradual kilometres. I’m starting to get into a rhythm now and moving up the pass quite well. I get to thinking that I’m coping pretty well at this point. Then the steepness kicks in with a vengeance.
At the foot of one long, sharp straight I can see kids at the far end selling fruit from roadside stalls. In turn, they can see my tediously slow progress and the amount of times I have to stop before reaching them. I’m sure they are laughing at me in Albanian as I creep past. The terrain, which was Mediterranean scrub in the foothills has now become more wooded as I’ve cycled higher. I can look back at the sea far below me in the distance and gauge just how far I’ve climbed. However, I’m using any excuse to stop now as I’m really beginning to struggle with the road becoming even more steep. At every stop I feel a little dizzy and just stand there, straddling my bike and gasping for air. At times I swear I can actually hear the blood pumping in my ears. I’ve also got a line from the song ‘Vow’ by Garbage in my head – the bit where Shirley Manson sings ‘I nearly died’ over and over. If it’s not a premonition, then it’s certainly how I feel. I’ve never been this wrecked on a bike before. My right thigh is now shaking.
I make it to Llogara village and I’m almost ruined. I continue trying to ride in spurts of fifty metres, then stopping and gulping for air. At one such stop I simply stand there, shake my head and gasp ‘I’m fucked’ out loud. Then I decide to do something that I’ve never done on a cycle trip before, no matter how big the hill. I get off and push the bike. My legs and lungs just aren’t functioning well enough to allow me to ride to the top. I’ll still get myself and the bike to the top under my own steam, only I’ll be walking. It’s probably going to be just as quick as cycling for fifty metres then taking five minutes to recover. I know I hadn’t prepared for this trip, but my lack of stamina is still a shock to me.
I’d seen on Google maps that there were four tight hairpin bends close to the summit, so I know when I’m getting very close. These turns are so sharp and steep I think they would have ended me, had I still been cycling. The road levels out just before the top of the pass, so I get back on my bike and casually ride the remaining distance. There are some people at the top who probably think I’ve just ridden up the entire hill, and I’m not about to tell them any different. I’m greeted by the stunning sight of a bright, low sun on the Mediterranean Sea some 3,500 feet below me. The Llogara Pass comes up the inland side of the mountain, and I will descend down the coastal side. I stay at the top for a while to take in the view and recover, but the sun will be setting in an hour so I need to press on.
The downhill is fast and steep, with a series of long switchbacks taking me back towards sea-level. I have to put my kagoule on as it’s so cold with the wind that’s created by my descent. Even then, my arms still shiver uncontrollably on the way down. About two hundred metres below the summit there’s a large concrete viewing area where I stop to take more pictures. A local guy is arranging a parachute on the ground behind him, asks where I’m from and tells me that he’s going to fly. A woman who’s with him is filming the jump, and also letting him know when there’s sufficient wind blowing up the mountainside. When the time is right he runs down the slope, his legs still doing cartoon-like revolutions as the wind lifts his parachute and he glides off into the sunset.
The remaining downhill is a series of long zig-zags, my hands clasping the brakes tightly on corners. Then the front wheel begins to feel heavy going round bends and I’m finding it difficult to steer. It takes me a couple of minutes to realise that it’s almost flat. As it’s nearly dark now, I just pump it back up and hope that it lasts for the remaining 10km to Dhermi. Thankfully it does.
The village itself is around two hundred metres above sea-level, but my accommodation is on a road that leads down to the sea. I’m checked in by an old Greek Mama, all dressed in black, who shows me to a room on the second floor and the view I get of Corfu in the distance. The panorama is gorgeous, but the two storey climb was the last thing my thighs needed after today. I’m straight under the shower, which is amazingly hot. After a while I just sit on the bottom, hang my head and let the steaming water massage my scalp and the back of my neck. I’m so knackered I could easily fall asleep in this position.
After today’s exertions I’m in a bit of a daze for a while, like I’ve got early morning stares. My legs feel so heavy and all my energy has been sapped. But the end result is that I made it over the Llogara Pass in one piece. And for that I’ve got to be thankful.