Small Steps

1st DECEMBER 2018

After yesterday’s crossing of the Llogara Pass, I’m still a little bit dazed when I wake up. One of the first things I do is go downstairs to check on my front tyre, as I feel there’s a good chance it will have deflated overnight. It has. I just pop the wheel off and take it back upstairs with me to fit a spare inner tube. When I leave I ask the old lady who runs the place if I can fill up my water bottles. She invites me in and then fills my containers with chilled water out of her fridge, rather than straight from the tap. It’s not much, but it’s a nice touch.

As I’m so close to sea-level, I decide that I’ll have a look at Dhermi beach before leaving town. The cobbled access road makes getting there a chore, but it’s nice enough, although understandably quiet on the first day of winter. The odd thing about this beach is that there’s a giant sculpture of an upright fork, that looks like it has been thrust, prongs first, into a rock just offshore. It is a surreal spectacle and brilliantly out of place. There’s a restaurant that overlooks the site, so I’m guessing it has something to do with them, rather than it having being stabbed there by some angry God. With the beach visit over, I push my ride back up the stupidly steep hill to the main road and continue cycling south.

I’m only covering the short 18km to Himarë today, as I’m still suffering after getting over that mountain. Even so, I still need to climb to a height of 380 metres (1,200 feet), shortly after being on the beach at Dhermi. The hills are ridden in slow motion today, past tough Mediterranean scrub and herds of goats with bells clanking around their necks. Again, I stop on numerous occasions. I just feel drained and numb after yesterday. I get to thinking how I would have coped with this three months ago, when I was fitter at the end of my summer trip. A lot bloody better than I’m doing now, I’d have hoped.

I drag myself to the top, before a steep downhill takes me right into the touristy seaside town of Himarë. I’m staying at a guest house that’s up a bumpy dirt track, and run by couple in their fifties who are disarmingly friendly. Anthoula, the wife, sits me down on their outside patio and gives me a lovely strong Greek coffee while I rest my legs. Her husband, Nikolla, goes one better and joins me with a shot of home-made Raki as a welcome drink. Although, this Raki is made from grapes, it bears no resemblance to wine whatsoever. It is pure, clear spirit and warms my throat accordingly. I think I’m being clever and say ‘Gëzuar,’ the Albanian word for ‘Cheers’ as we chink glasses. Nikolla then surprises me by telling me he speaks Greek and that Himarë is esssentially a Greek town. Apparently this coastline was far easier to reach by sailing from Corfu than it was by crossing over the mountains from inland Albania. I’ll certainly vouch for that !

After chatting to them for a while they show me to their biggest room, where they’ve upgraded me as I’m their only guest. The shower is lukewarm, at best, but I brave it. However, the electric blanket is a treat, and is destined to remain on all night. Although the temperatures float around the mid-teens during the day, they drop to low single figures at night. There’s no central heating or double-glazing here either, so the temperature inside is usually very similar to the temperature outside. I take a walk through town and down to the seafront for a look before it gets dark. The town’s decorated Christmas tree somehow doesn’t look right with a Mediterranean beach sunset as a backdrop.

The next day I remain in Himarë, as it’s a relaxing and picturesque spot, and I also feel that a day of inactivity is just what I need at the moment. With today’s warmth and sunshine, the seafront looks beautiful, if a little deserted. For lunch I visit a take-away place for some Byrek – an Albanian filo pastry slice that can contain cheese, meat, spinach or any number of other fillings. I quite fancy spinach, but there are only two cheese ones left. I take both. I eat them while sitting on a beachside bench and struggle to get through the first one, let alone the second.

After a joyously lazy day in Himarë, I get set to carry on down the coast to Piqeras. I’m approaching these hilly sections in small, manageable steps as I’m still not used to slogging up steep slopes all day. The guest house owners say Goodbye and Nikolla comes downstairs to see me off. He takes a couple of selfies of the pair of us, and then videos me as I bounce down the stony dirt track away from him. I leave town along the seafront, but it’s not long before I’m climbing again. These hills really are a struggle, although I do get some lovely views of beaches, coves and the turquoise blue sea from my high vantage points.

I’m climbing up another big hill towards the town of Borsh, when I see a half-built house, clinging to a roadside cliff and overlooking the sea. I’m able to walk right inside the concrete shell and sit with my lunch while gazing out towards the Mediterranean. I continue up the hill through Borsh, where I meet a donkey walking down the main street in the opposite direction. At first I think it might be lame as it looks to be hobbling, but then I notice it’s front legs are tied loosely together so that it can walk but can’t run away. The donkey and I are both travelling at roughly the same speed. Nevertheless, when I reach the top of the next hill I’m able to look back and see the last two headlands that I’ve cycled round far below me in the distance. Maybe I am getting slightly more used to this cycling routine again.

There’s an easy downhill to end today’s ride and that gets me into the small village of Piqeras by mid-afternoon. I’m in a guest house on the main road, where the owner’s teenage son valiantly carries my bike up to the first floor with most of my gear still attached. I take a seat on the outdoor balcony and polish off some more left-over road food, while enjoying a great view out to sea. The Mediterranean looks calm but ominously grey and brooding, with Corfu island and its dark, mountainous north coast sitting just off to my left. It’s quite a hypnotic sight and I sit there for at least an hour taking in the panorama. Eventually I decide that I better have a shower, but I spend the first few minutes shivering under cold water before I work out that the red and blue indicators on the shower tap are the wrong way round.

That leaves me one final day’s cycling before I get back to Sarandë where I finished my trip in the summer. My morning starts with a bang average breakfast of dry sliced bread and feta cheese omelette. I cut the omelette and put it on top of my bread like an open sandwich, thankful that a cup of strong coffee is offered to make the meal more interesting.

At first I’m on a familiar rollercoaster of uphills and downhills, descending to fifty metres above sea-level at one point and then rising back up to over three hundred. I’m taking every opportunity to stop for breath as per usual, but just after Lukovë village the road flattens out and my day becomes a lot easier. Then, with the afternoon becoming bright and increasingly warm, it’s a gentle trundle for the remaining 20km into Sarandë. It feels quite good to be back, with the town still looking all sunny and Mediterranean despite the onset of winter. My phone tells me that it’s currently eighteen degrees.

I’m staying at Hotel Veli, which is about four streets back from the seafront. The guy who greets me is falling over himself to be helpful, getting me a jug of fresh water and dragging a table outside onto the balcony for me. It reminds me of Basil Fawlty when he’s being cringingly nice to his supposedly more important guests. The poor bloke keeps thanking me for choosing to stay there, as they obviously don’t have many visitors in the winter. When I’m left to my own devices I’m straight into a shower that is roastingly hot and, unlike most others recently, will stay hot indefinitely.

The following day I take as a Rest Day in Sarandë. Breakfast is served in the hotel’s basement restaurant by the guy who runs the place. I tell him I wouldn’t mind seeing the ruins of the Ancient Greek town of Butrint, and he suggests getting a bus there because it’s only 100 Lek (about 70 pence). In the end I opt to cycle as it’s only 18km away and the road is pretty much flat. Plus, I have the freedom to stop wherever I want on my bike. It turns out to be such an easy ride after the last few days, especially as I’m not weighed down by heavy pannier bags and camping gear. I zoom along the seafront in the sunshine, then slightly inland and past the giant Lake Butrint.

On the way I pass a few old, abandoned bunkers by the roadside. I can’t quite believe that I’ve neglected to mention them so far. They are everywhere in Albania, a legacy of the bad old days of communist dictator Hoxha. He was so paranoid about the country being invaded that he had almost 175,000 of the dome-shaped, concrete structures built. Apparently the bunkers accounted for two percent of total government spending during the twenty years in which they were being built. And while materials and resources were being channelled into bunker construction, roads and housing were left to suffer. Most of the ones I’ve seen are the smaller model, only large enough for two people to stand in and fire guns through slits in the wall. They look a bit like giant concrete mushrooms, with a fat stalk and a grey, domed roof. After Hoxha died the country opened up to the rest of the world again and the bunkers became pointless. Most were simply left where they stood as removing them all was such a huge expense. Some of the larger ones have now been converted into cafes and homeless accommodation, which will hopefully have old Hoxha turning furiously his grave.

I’m at the Butrint site in no time and spend an hour or so checking out the modern castle and the 2,500 year old amphitheatre. I’m so close to the Greek border at this point that my phone decides it’s going to jump one hour ahead onto Greek time. This confuses the hell out of me for a brief moment until I work out what has happened. Then I retrace my tracks, back along the same road to Sarandë, where I shower, grab a spinach Byrek and stock up on road food for tomorrow. I’ve deliberately been taking small steps along the mountainous Albanian coast in an attempt to get used to the regime of cycling once again. Tomorrow though, I won’t be afforded that kind of luxury. For tomorrow’s ride I have no choice but another long slog up a mountain pass before I can cross into Greece.


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