Greetings from Albania & Macedonia

As a child growing up in the UK in the 70s and early 80’s, the Cold War was alive and well and the Iron Curtain still divided East and Western Europe. I would listen of an evening on the family wireless to midweek European football games involving teams with names like Partizan Belgrade and Torpedo Moscow. I would hear tales of fans having to get their hair cut to above the collar just to get into these countries (quite a sacrifice for some in the 70’s & 80’s) and hear the names of despot rulers such as Erich Honecker, Nicolai Chauchescu and even King Zog of Albania. All this served to fire up my already furtive imagination and my obsession with former Soviet states began. My first visit was to Belgrade in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1987 en route from Athens to Munich, so much was to change just 2 years later on November 9th when the Berlin Wall came down. In the intervening 31 years I have visited many former Soviet republics and next week I will finally get the chance to visit the land of Zog, Albania, as well as Macedonia. Even if you still had to get your hair cut, sadly this would not be an issue now, what may be an issue is the trip I am doing. Due to dates etc, the only trip I could do is a small group tour with Exodus, but not just any small group trip, a cycling trip, and not just any cycling trip but a grade 5 challenging cycling trip. For somebody that hasn’t owned a bike for over 20 years this is a little disconcerting but how hard can it be!? Late nights on an exercise bike with the heat pump turned up to 30 should be ample training I hope, but stayed tuned over the next couple of weeks to see just how wrong I might be!

Day 1
A quiet flight to Tirana and I breezed through immigration. It has been good fun trying to spot my fellow cyclists on the flight from Gatwick and we quickly assembled and were off to Skhoder in Northern Albania. A quick trip to the castle was followed by a wander around the old town centre then dinner and bed as the alarm call was for 0545 for day 2.

The group is 1 married couple, 2 friends, 7 solo blokes and 4 solo women, most of course paying for their own room. Nobody on electric bikes but a few of us wishing we were!

Further to my earlier missive, I am in real trouble with this lot, I knew it was going to be bad when 13 of the group turned up with their own peddles, serious cyclists mostly. First day was horrendous but I got into it after the first 25kms, will see how the legs feel tomorrow with 81kms to look forward to.

Day 2
Most people had a rather disturbed night’s sleep thanks to a massive thunderstorm at about midnight which sounded like it was directly above us, we were then all woken again at 0430 when the roosters started and the dogs began barking. Most people were at breakfast before 6 then we were away for our 2 hour drive and 2 hour ferry before the cycling began and boy how it began. A gentle 3kms was followed by a steep 9kms climb, then 5kms flat followed by a 4kms climb, then 7kms undulating followed by a 5kms climb. The 30 degree sunshine and strong headwinds didn’t help either and I thought it was going to be all over for me about 2/3 into that first climb. I did however ride through the pain barrier but have a horrible feeling that tomorrow’s 81kms including 2 more climbs could be a tad optimistic!
To be continued…….slowly

Day 3
81kms is a long way on a bike, throw in 1500mts of elevation and a 7km climb and it is a really long way, and did I mention it was 30deg C. There was some stunning scenery today and we are really out in the wilds. Tonight we are just 20kms from Kosovo, not that the locals acknowledge that as in their eyes it is Albania anyway, there were almost parties in the street when Serbia lost to Switzerland last night as both goals were scored by Ethnic Albanians!

Tonight we are in Kukas, a drab town by a lake but the town is buzzing as it is Prom night and everyone is very proud, so nice to see almost all the community out on the streets and enjoying the occasion.

Day 4
We have just arrived at our hotel in Peshkopi and I feel like I have run a marathon, my whole body aches and I feel completely drained. We have cycled 75kms but this has included two 7km climbs and a 4km climb. The rest of the day was some downhill and undulating, I think this should be changed to ”updulating”. It was at times brutal with one stage of a climb at 14{03e17260731feebda54b271abff347b773c0107003202e8eeba7d379e6644aef}. I managed to avoid the stigma of getting in the support van but it was touch and go and I even ended up pushing the bike at one stage.

The scenery was stunning and we are really out in the wilds. It is still very agricultural where we have been and there were numerous occasions today where we passed donkeys loaded with straw and whole families out working in the fields, there appears to be very little mechanisation.

Tomorrow we head for Macedonia and it is supposed to be an easy day, quite how a distance of 93kms with an elevation of 900mts (just under half of what we did today) can be classed as easy I do not know but the guide is confident we can get to Ohrid in time to do a walking tour, crawling tour might be more appropriate
To be continued, slowly and painfully…

Day 5
Never let anyone tell you that 93kms is an easy cycling day! It may be easier than the day before but it is all relative.

The day started with an updulating 18kms to the Macedonian border, where we were ushered forward and processed before the 20 cars that were queued up, much to the local drivers’ annoyance. From the border, it was another flattish 20kms till we stopped for snacks then we were told to ride another 20kms until we got to the hydro-electric plant; yes that of course meant hills, short steep hills, long gradual hills & long steep hills. We got through this and then it was time for lunch at a lovely restaurant where we were served the local delicacy of trout caught fresh from the nearby lake. Unfortunately, during lunch it started to rain and the remaining 31kms were spent getting very wet with no lake views to speak of. On arrival into Ohrid it was straight to our lovely lakeside hotel then out for a guided tour of the old town of Ohrid. Our local guide was excellent and managed to answer all our questions without causing any diplomatic incidents regarding who was born where and what belongs to what country in the Balkans. As an example, Mother Theresa is Albanian right, well no as she was born in Skopje the Macedonian capital, but to Albanian parents so Albania call her an Albanian born in Macedonia, simple as that!

Ohrid was a lovely little lakeside town and we all thoroughly enjoyed our evening there.

Day 6 – You’re a fool if you think it’s over…
This was the shortest cycling day of the tour but in the middle was the small matter of a 13km climb. To get us in the mood and get us warmed up the mornings first ride of 18kms had 2 climbs, both of which were 10{03e17260731feebda54b271abff347b773c0107003202e8eeba7d379e6644aef} and killers in their own right. After a brief stop for Macedonian Jaffa Cakes (just amazing) we began the climb but alas the weather gods were not being kind again so it was onwards and upwards in the rain. The plan was to do the first 8kms of the climb then stop for our picnic lunch before carrying on for the next 4kms to admire the views from the top before a hair-raising 14kms decent and a further 5kms updulating to get to our lovely lakeside hotel.
An 8km climb in the rain is not fun, we were shrouded in mist and could not see any of the views and by the time we reached the lunch stop we were all starting to get pretty cold and wet, a very quick lunch was then followed by the push for the summit which was again shrouded in mist so no views again. The decent was great fun but it was freezing as we were all still cold and wet from the climb. The upside however is the nice lakeside hotel we have here in Stenje on the banks of Lake Prespa. Apparently if it stops raining we can see Greece across the lake but our chances don’t look good.
Tomorrow is our last cycling day, just a mere 75kms with a few climbs to keep us on our toes, the scenery is supposed to be stunning and should it ever stop raining I’m sure it will be lovely.
To be continued slowly, painfully and soggily…

Day 7 – What a fool believes…
So this is it, the last day, just a mere 75kms to go. The day started once again with leaden skies and the first stretch was of course uphill, then on to the Albanian border. This trip runs every week so you would think that the sight of 15 cyclists turning up at the border would not be uncommon but no, it was like we were the first group ever to do this. After being stared at for 10 minutes we were then all made to form a queue and it was passport check time. This all done by scanning the photo page but alas the ancient steam powered computer at this backwater border post was not the fastest PC we had come across so it took nearly 30 minutes to get back into Albania. This delay was actually a blessing as of course the first thing after the border was a 4km climb into the fiercest headwind we had encountered on the whole trip. We were really out in the wilds and it is quite a few years since I have seen 3 shepherds in the same day and come to think of it that was a nativity play so probably doesn’t count!
On we ploughed into the teeth of the gale before mercifully, after 40kms, we made a turn and the wind was in our favour, this was tempered however by the fact that we were now on one of Albania’s major highways. There were some pleasant downhills before the final twist which was 3kms of roadworks proudly financed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With all the rain we had endured over the last 2 days you can imagine the amount of mud we now had to go through as well as putting up with the spray from the local drivers who insisted on driving through the roadworks at normal speed. When we arrived at our gorgeous lakeside hotel for the last night we all looked as if we had been sprayed with mud from head to toe, a less than glorious ending to our epic journey.

We had covered 405kms and had ascended 7kms throughout the week, we had no injuries until the last day when my American roommate fell off on a steep descent trying to avoid a frog, honestly you couldn’t make this up! There was just one puncture and no mechanical failures on the bikes so Exodus should be proud of their local partner Cycle Albania for the quality of bikes provided and the quality of the guide and driver who were both excellent.

Our group had been really good and everybody got on and encouraged each other and the combination of well-earned beers and World Cup football had made for some fun evenings. The evening meals on the trip have been excellent and Albanian & Macedonian cuisine has been a revelation. The hotels were fine but the locations stunning and given a few days better weather I’m sure all the lake views we had would have been amazing.

On a personal note, what I do believe is that 4 weeks training on an exercise bike in my living room was probably not ideal preparation for this trip but I did it. I felt very proud at the end and it is not often you finish a holiday feeling proud of your achievements.

My fellow cyclists were all planning their next trips and talking of the rides they were looking forward to this weekend on the comfort of their own bikes, I didn’t have the heart to tell them I will be burning my gel seat cover and consigning the cycling shorts to a very well-earned retirement.
Mercifully, the end!

*Images kindly provided by fellow cyclist, Jemma Denson.