Thursday, 15 October 2009

Albania: Bread, Salt and Heart

Albania is one of those countries that, sadly, has a gained a bad reputation; from where, I don’t know. I cycled across the border with an open mind and the reception was quite unexpected – it blew me away. A beautiful place made more exceptional by its humblingly hospitable people.

Beautiful Chaos

Often when I’d mention I was visiting Albania, the response from folks at home was ‘…really?’, as though I was inviting trouble.

Cycling over the border at Hanii-Hotit it was immediately apparent Albania was a different prospect to the other countries I’ve pedalled through. The road was potholed and worn, strewn with litter, and the only other traffic was a large unaccompanied family of pigs casually trotting home.

After a carefully concealed night’s kip, Andy and I headed for the northern city of Shkoder. Speed was low, discomfort high; in spite of that the instant warmth of the Albanians made the journey a real treat. Virtually everyone we waved at responded with a big smile. Grouchy old faces would light up, buried hands, rise high and with them a unique sense of welcome I’d not previously been afforded.

Shkoder presents a beautiful chaos: on the street people congregate in clusters, while others loiter with some unknown intent; a large wooden pallet pierces the pavement as though dropped carelessly from heavens; indiscernible shouts ring out; a man walks a bear on a leash, as indifferently as though it were a dog; people touch and trade; rules of the road are abolished, instead a mêlée ensues: cars, horns, pedestrians, lorries and scooters pfutting with the weight of generations on their back. The highway code is: biggest is best. Being on the road was to be blithely flirting with mortality. Yet despite the chaos, as though governed by some divine force, people survive, the city thrives – this is what is so beautiful about this place - it is truly alive.

Humbling Hospitality

The road to Tirana was lined with small farms, so with nowhere secluded to camp I asked a local farmer if we could pitch on his land. His reaction was customarily welcoming and we were soon joined by the whole family – the grandparents, the neighbours and friends. Before long we were at the centre of a jolly and enquiring circle of warm and generous local folk.

It was an unforgettable night, so welcomed we were and lavished with all they could offer… which was quite a lot as it turned out; huge traditional dinner, home-made wine and clear spirits; ominously served from a plastic grenade by the amusingly delirious granddad. Soon another common language revealed itself; the Champions League. They love it, we love it – conversation on this point became feverishly easily. Football is the one language spoken the world over.

The morning arrived; heads were a little hazy, not assisted by more beer and wine at breakfast, along with a sizable mutton broth. Luckily Tirana wasn’t too far away.

Library Books

Tirana was another city bustling with life. We checked into a superb hostel and simultaneously met a Dutch couple; Niek and Sanne who’d been cycling round Europe. They were bonkers; we got on like a house on fire.

Niek & Sanne has also raised some cash to help with a worthy project on their travels. A fortuitous run of events led is all to visit an orphanage run by Bethany Christian Services. We were welcomed by Cathy and Bob, two dedicated missionaries who showed us around; we were instantly compelled to help.

The kids didn’t have anywhere to read or even books in Albanian that the nurses could themselves read to them. On seeing the room we hatched a plan to paint and decorate it, make it comfortable and buy a load of books to help found the new ‘library’.

The following day we bought the paint, prepped the room and with Andy’s help set to it. After a coat or two the room was looking so much happier and we too; almost delirious… we can blame in on the fumes. We then lucked in, finding an incredible kids book store which had loads of fantastically illustrated and suitably sturdy kids books in Albanian.

The following day we finished with a flourish; decorating the walls with bright stickers and posters, adorning the room with some new soft furnishings and of course delivering the books. It was a delight to see the kids faces when the walked in, the older kids were napping but I’m sure it will be a real treat for them too.

Two days and £400 later, we were very chuffed with ourselves & had left a legacy with will last. It felt great to finally put some of the funds raised for the Better Life Cycle to good use – for which I want to thank all those who have donated – hope it feels good to see where your money is going.

Lesson: It doesn’t take a lot of kindness to make a big difference.

Andy and I set off late to make a start on the road to Elbasan and the border with Macedonia. Two hours later we’d climbed another mountain greeted by another spectacular sunset. Another kind chap called Hasan let us sleep on the floor of his restaurant, just as well, camping on a mountain can be tricky.

The following morning we were greeted by a stunning dawn and a welcome descent to the city. If a dawn can make an industrial city look this good you have to marvel, because up close it was pretty unsightly.

Waves and smiles lined our route to the border, up one more gruelling climb and on to the picturesque Lake Ohrid – a fitting finale to the unexpected treat Albania had proved to be.

‘Bread, salt and heart’ is a phrase in Albania for what all people have in their home – from this experience it couldn’t be more true.

Lesson: Don’t let unfounded opinion sway your thoughts, if you want to learn about somewhere or something speak to the people with first hand experience.

With the repression of the communist state now a memory, tourists are starting to return and the Albanian people seem overjoyed to welcome them. Like anywhere Albania’s not without its problems – corruption in particular is an everyday issue for many – however if you give it a moment the country and the people will quickly charm you.

I have a strong wish to return and I hope you might now be more inclined to pay it a visit too.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Former Yugosalvia; Existing Wonder

After meeting up with ‘Random Andy’; a new cycle companion in Rijeka, northern Croatia and Eve in Split – the next few weeks were primed for some shared adventure, mis-adventure and chuckles. Croatia proved a fascinating host and Montenegro… lets just say we got a little upgrade from the tent, before a final test; cycling up a vertical mile to conquer Mount Lovćen.

After a Tour-de-France style stage – racing 130km from Ljubljana – I met ‘Random Andy’ in Rijeka just in time to catch an overnight boat to Split.

Andy contacted me through Facebook after hearing me interviewed on the George Lamb radio show. Having been sketching out a cycle tour of his own; he was keen to join me on the road to Istanbul. It seemed to me anyone who’s keen enough to cycle and camp their way through the world, in search of adventure, is likely to be an interesting companion; ‘Nice! See you at the docks at five o’clock’.

We were soon in a rain-kissed yet nevertheless picturesque Split. I pedalled off to meet Eve, a good friend and avid cyclist from home, at the airport. After rebuilding her bike we cruised back into town & checked into a cosy little hostel right in the centre of town.

Split has great charm; a relaxed ambience and great deal to appreciate, without being overrun by tourists. Pauline, a friendly fellow guest joined our posse & we spent a few days moseying around the mazy marble streets. Going up the Deoclician Palace tower at sunset and visiting the house of master sculptor Ivan Meštrović were real highlights.

Andy headed south to meet some friends, so Eve & I boarded a boat to the elongated island of Hvar. The journey was pickled with views of the islands, whetting our appetite to explore. On arrival we paused to adjust Eve’s bike, I discovered I’d lost my Leatherman somewhere – Shucks! – first item of the trip & a darn useful one. The ride to our campsite quickly atoned for the slight pang and before long we were pitching the tent in an idyllic sea-front spot.

We stayed three days, mostly accompanied by a wonderful German couple; Hannah and Jan. We cycled several sizable hills, snorkled amid the clearest water in isolated bays and loved every mintue. The island feels like a rocky Roman throw-back, covered with Olive, Fig and Pomegranate trees.

Dubrovnik was 200km, one ferry ride and a few more considerable climbs away. Eve and I covered the distance in two days, with an overnight stay on the sliver of coastline Bosnia clamed during the Balkan war. It was a classic ride - one that my imagination had convinced me was worth crossing the Alps and Dolomites instead of simply following the Danube, on my way to Turkey – the reality repaid in spades.

Dubrovnik is a tourist mega-magnet par excellence and with due cause. The old town is like Split on steroids – more marble, bolder buildings and tourist troupes to match. Had it not been for our early morning meander around the city walls almost every view would have been obscured, ancient ambiance made unappreciable, and appeal lost. By 9.30 the cruise ship crews had arrived and the previously tranquil main street, became a hive of twitching lenses, gaping mouths and muted argy-bargy.

Lesson: Its always worth getting up early to get the best of a spot, be you a tourist or surfer the average tourist won’t make the dawn patrol.

The two standout moments of Dubrovnik were not to be found on a postcard however. We were first welcomed into the home and terrace of a local lady, Emma who had lived in same home in the old city for 50+ years. She made beautiful traditional shawls and shared some of the her history, kindness and wisdom with us. Eve and I both felt like adoptive children in her presence.

The other more sombre moment was the sign showing the damage and devastation caused during the shelling of the city by the Serbian-Montenegrin forces. The extent of the was shuddering but more astounding the recovery the city has made.

Montenegro now beckoned and a stay at Mrshe Palace in Perast. Some years ago I had put together the website for this gorgeous holiday home and thanks to the generosity of Liliana and Malcolm Glyn, we could stay for free for a few days. Quite an upgrade from the tent!

Rejoined by Andy, Jan and Hannah – the five of us spent a blissful few days, recharging the batteries with barbequed food, swims out to the islands and general frivolity amid our plush surrounds. Fish, meat and beer were incredibly cheap and I finally got a chance to finish a few of the books from small library I’d hauled the last 2000km virtually untouched.

After waving of the others Andy and I planned our ascent of Mount Lovćen; a climb to over 1,700m from sea-level. The ‘Black Mountain’ is the wonder after which the country of Montenegro finds its name. Atop was the tempting prospect of a mausoleum carved by my new favourite sculptor Ivan Meštrović.

After prolonging our departure one extra day - easy to find excuses to stay in a palace over a tent - we set off early on our climb. Passing through the old town of Kotor we began what Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the world’s great drives’ up the mountain. On a bike with 50kgs in tow it’s a smidge more difficult but on rounding the last of 25 hairpins later the sense of achievement was a match for the view.

The self-congratulation quickly diminished when we realised quite how far there still was to go. The 25 take you the first 1,000m or so the rest is straight uphill. Had we seen this from the start we might have taken the coast road. Cue much sweating, puffing of cheeks and leg pumping – we were determined to make it. My adrenaline received a much needed boost after finding and climbing through a treacherous yet alluring fissure inside a massive cave.

After about 5 hours we made it! The view didn’t disappoint we were insanely high. We both agreed that had we seen where we were in the morning we wouldn’t have thought it possible, yet there we were, with Montenegro before us. The Meštrović mausoleum also provided an unexpected moment of wonder; the most sonically harmonious room I’ve ever been in. If ever you go, wait til its empty and just hummmmmm…

Lesson: Sometimes its better not to know the scale of the challenge, keep focussed on what lies right in front of you and keep going; when you reach an end the result can surpass what you’d thought you were capable off.

We camped in the national park, despite the other proclaimed residents; bears and wolves and the following day made for the border with Albania. The countries of former Yugoslavia were a delight to travel through. Recent times have been a dark stain in their history but the future, from what I can see, looks stunningly bright – like Arnie, I’ll be back.