The Albanian chronicles - Part I

From Corfu to Gjirokastër

On a warm winter morning in January at 09:00 sharp, with a typical blue sky and a soft southern sea wind, we said goodbye to the family and animals who hosted us for three months on their farm on Corfu. Our motorbikes were fully packed again, also they enjoyed a long holiday. From the farm we brought with us 1.5 litre of homemade organic olive oil (harvested by us), a jar of summer honey, a jar of propolis and a honey-orange-sesame bar, made by the mom for the road ahead of us. Our day would be not too hard tough. The weather forecast showed 30% change of rain, and only predicted for later on the day.

Today we would leave Corfu to enter a new chapter of our journey: The Balkans, starting with Albania. The plan was easy. Ride for half an hour to a motorbike garage in Corfu City to pick up a new throttle grip after they lost it during their service job, ride to the port, take the ferry to Igoumenitsa, buy lunch at the local bakery, ride fortwo hours to the border crossing at Kakavia, cross the border, ride for half an hour to our hostel in Gjirokastër.

It was a beautiful day and when we arrived at the garage they asked where we were going. “Albania”, I said. They frowned uneasily and wished us all the best. After three months of Corfu we knew by now that talking about Albania raises suspicion. It was dangerous there, the Greeks told us seriously. Our bikes would be stolen, the police would stop and extort us, all the weed of Europe (and especially the weed you – the Dutch people – are selling in coffeeshops) comes from the Albanian mountains, and all the ‘tomato farmers’ are not farming tomatoes but weed. So yes, according to them we needed good luck.

Now everyone who travels recognizes this story. Here, where we are, things are generally good. But there, far away at the other side, things are bad. Very bad. From Europe to Turkey and the way back we heard similar stories about neighbouring countries. So when we heard stories about Albania we simply understood mankind is the same, everywhere.

We drove into the little concrete port of Corfu City where a couple of ferries were rocking on gentle waves. Seagulls were flying around, screaming for attention. We picked up two health declarations, ticked all the boxes and declared to be free of COVID or any of the signs and rolled to the cue of cars who were lined up in front of the ferry. Only two cars were waiting and the drivers were being questioned through their open window by the Greek border police. The police wore navy blue outfits with blue caps, a gun in a hip holster, black leather lace boots and a black face mask. They looked pretty impressive, but drove a Nissan Micra which instantly removed the gravity of their looks.

Greece was still in lockdown and only an ‘essential reason’ was sufficient to be on the streets. To declare this ‘essential reason’ you had to handwrite this on a piece of paper including date, time, departing and arriving destination and signature. After all cars were questioned and approved it was our turn. As Tessa was most close to them they approached her and asked in broken English “what is your destination?” Tessa looked at them and a short occurred in her brain, words for utterance were not found. They frowned and tried me. “Albania”, I told them. They looked at each other and nodded, this was essential enough for them. Also they wished good luck and we rode our bikes on the lower deck of the ferry, parked and with our helmets and tank bags we walked to the upper deck.

The ferry was of medium size, 80 meters long and could carry 600 passengers and 90 vehicles. Today it was almost empty: there were only 10 vehicles and 30 passengers. Not a lot of essential travel between Corfu City and Igoumenitsa.

Corfu City seen from the ferry

From the open upper deck we saw at right side the 15th century Old Fortress of Corfu Ionian, beautifully rising from the deep blue sea, gently touched by the soft sunshine. On the left hand, towards the main land, we saw thick grey clouds, heavy with snow, dangerously looming over snow-capped mountains. Tessa and I looked at each other and both realized that this was where we were going.

After a short two hours we descended to the lower deck and waited sitting on our bikes until the gate of the ferry was opened. Behind me a nervous grey Volvo S80 had the engine already running. With small distances it slowly moved forward, waiting until the line right of him was disembarked. When he started to ride I walked my heavy bike backwards to make a 45 degrees turn, after which I could ride away. While walking back I suddenly felt the bike hitting an object and coming to a halt. I checked my mirror and found out I’ve hit the car, the driver apparently only rode half a meter. Shit!

I turn to the driver’s door and an old small man with thin gray hair in a black suit, holding a cigarette in his right hand, comes out. Dramatically he looks at his car, and then at me. “Why are you in such a hurry”, he nervously asks in broken English. Since I knew no damage was done as only the rubber of my tire lightly touched his left back bumper, I reply resolute “there is no damage and no problem”. He once again looks at his car and back to me. Suddenly he turns his head up to the sky. Profoundly he starts praying in Greek, performs a holy cross and asks for support to a divine spirit, shaking his clasped hands extravagantly in front of his chest. Disappointed when no reply from above is received he gets back in his car and drives off as he was blocking the rest of the disembarking cars.

We rode off the ship and once more passed the spirited Volvo driver who parked just outside the exit of the ship, annoying all disembarking vehicles like a little rock in front of an anthill. While we passed by we had our final eye-to-eye cowboy moment and stopped a bit further down the road to buy two bougatsa’s (a Greek custard pie with phyllo) and two espressos. While we felt the sugar and caffeine increasing our heart beat it started to drizzle fine drops of rain, turning the 30% forecast chance of rain into 100%. We took our yellow fluo rainjackets from our luggage and put it on, activated the grip heater and rode towards the white mountains of Albania.

From Igoumenitsa to the border crossing at Kakavia was a two hour highway drive and soon we were climbing a steep mountain slope while the temperature was dropping rapidly, passing the Tymfi mountain at the left side. The rain drops became bigger and colder and the white mountains caps approached us slowly from both sides. The electric road sign indicated Warning: Icy Roads and a temperature of 0 degrees Celsius. This was the moment where I silently scolded for having my insulating inner trousers still packed in my luggage system, deeply hidden on the back of the bike. The wind was freezing and our fancy silk scarfs were nothing more than a nice decoration. Why did we leave Corfu again?

Tessa was riding in front and thereby determining our pace, which, to my opinion, was a bit slow. With the soaking wet roads and ice warning signs I knew that if our speed would change, it would only drop further. A motivational talk via the communication set to speed up would have zero effect, besides an irritated reply.

“T”, I asked, “how are things at the front?”

“I’m so cold”, she replied, “and I guess that three months of Corfu did not prepare me for an ice cold Albania”.

This was all we said during our two hours straight ride through the freezing mountains. Before Kakavia we made a short fuel stop and discussed our emotions. T was cold, but I felt good. To be on the road again was just great, no matter what weather was out there.

Before the border crossing the mountains flattened out and the road, showing more and more potholes, turned into a leafless deciduous forest, bare by the cold winter. The clouds opened up shyly, spearing a thin sunshine on our soaked clothes. We approached the first border check at the Greek side. Being Dutch often makes border crossings easy and we could pass without any questions, while an Albanian car in front of us was profoundly checked. Also the Albanian check went smooth. We showed our passport and vehicle registration document and received a short word of welcome. We were in Albania!

At the Kakavia border crossing

From the border crossing to our hostel in Gjirokastër was half an hour ride. In the distance we saw big white mountains rising up steep from the green and grey wetlands, flooded by the wide flowing river Drinos. Out of the wetlands the bare tops of trees were visible and in between some fisherman were trying their luck. Shepherds with herds of goats and sheep looked up when we passed by. We were in awe with the raw and stunning sights where nature still felt untouched by human hands.

Gjirokastër

After circling through the old center of Gjirokastër, a dense maze of steep and slippery white cobblestone alleys, at last we found our hostel. Gjirokastër is an old and well preserved Ottoman city laying in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino river. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The houses are built with distinctive stone roofs and whitewashed stone walls, calling this the City of Stone. It also was the birthplace of the dictator Enver Hoxha (1941-1985), who furiously ruled Albania until 1991, leading to the establishment of the current Republic of Albania. Only recently Albania embraced tourism as their primary focus, following upon a history of heavy industry.

View from the castle upon Gjirokastër and the Mali i Gjerë
mountain

We booked two nights at a hostel and the grandmother, who showed all the signs of the longevity of hard work, called the owner when we entered. From the dark wooden stairs her daughter descended, a stout middle-aged blonde woman who was the owner. She spoke perfect English and was glad to see us. She called her teenage son, a strong blonde kid wearing a green football tracksuit of a football club I couldn’t recognize, who opened the steel gate leading to their courtyard, where we could park our bikes. We had private parking and our own bathroom for 20 euro per night.

In the hostel courtyard

We received a clean white room with a traditional wooden ceiling and embroidered tapestries of hunting scenes were pinned on the wall. The dark wooden window frames were handcrafted and the view of the steep mountain rising in the back was stunning. With the window open we could hear chickens and dogs although we were in the center of the city.

“Are you hungry?”, Tessa asked me.

“No”, I answered, “but homemade rakia would not be bad. Let’s check downstairs.”

We left our room and walked downstairs. Under the hostel they build a small traditional restaurant with red tablecloths, which also served as their living room. The kids were doing their homework and the grandfather was watching television. There was some breaking COVID news flashing on the screen. Everything and thus nothing was breaking news. Everywhere in the world people were seeing the same images. Crazy if you imagine the amount of power you possess with that.

“Do you like homemade rakia?, it’s on the house”, the owner asked us when we were seated next to a red burning woodstove.  

“That would be great”, I told her with a big smile. “And a beer as well please”.

Tessa also took rakia. It was good.

We were surprised about her level of English and the people we met during our travels in Albania. Later we learned that a lot of Albanians work or worked abroad and thus often speak multiple languages. English, Italian and Greek were most common. For this reason we hardly had any problem communicating and even in the most remote villages we could easily communicate.

For dinner we walked through the dimly lit streets to the centre via steep cobblestoned streets. The centre consists of an old bazar with the first few shops still empty and abandoned, remnants of a vibrant past of trade. Further down the centre the shops were selling local handicrafts like rugs, traditional white woollen heads and other ordinary touristic souvenirs. The street were extensively decorated with Christmas lighting, screwed into the walls of the old Ottoman buildings.

We found a small local restaurant with three tables, a loud television on the wall diplaying breaking news, little red table cloths and an old microwave in the kitchen, run by an couple of 70 years. We ordered beer, fried rice balls with mint, meat balls with spinach, yogurt sauce, and a cabbage salad with pieces of orange. It was fresh, delicious and the taste presented something we never ate before. When we left the owner proudly showed some faded pictures of him posing with various presidents. We didn’t know who was who and whether the pictures were taking before or after the collapse of the communism era. Probably it was both. We paid 10 euro and left the place. On our way home we bought some byrek fresh from the oven, a traditional pastry.

After a good night rest we had an extensive breakfast in the hostel restaurant, consisting of feta cheese, olives, tomato cucumber salad, homemade plum jam, fried eggs, deep fried bread (Petulla), mountain tea (Sideritis) and fresh orange juice. It rained outside and via the center we walked through the bazar upwards to the old castle on top of the hill. On our way up we passed old ladies with curved backs selling oranges and mountain tea. In the castle we were the first and only visitors and in the hallway we saw an enormous collection of cannons from different periods. In the courtyard there were old prisons cells, long green gardens and an US two-seat Lockheed T-33 jet.

The information sign of the US jet turned into an interesting epistemological discussion.

What was the truth here? I had to think of William James, an influential American pragmatist, who once said that the truth is what we believe to be true. An objective truth is nowhere to be found, and the reason why we call things the truth is because of calling them the truth.

The next day we checked out and paid the bill. Two nights, dinner for two and twice breakfast for 7000 LEK (60 euro). Not bad!

Blue Eye

From Gjirokastër we rode to Sarandë, a one-hour ride, and made a sightseeing stop at Syri i Kaltër (Blue Eye). Blue Eye is a clear deep blue water spring sprouting life up from the ground, shaped in the form of an eye with a depth of more than fifty meters. The story goes, as multiple Albanians proudly told us, that divers tried to descend even deeper but were pushed back by the strong force of the water. Each time we heard the story the narrator was proud that their raw Albanian nature defeated modern man and its technology.

It was cold today, but the weather was clear. With three degrees we were fully dressed in our winter outfit and a sharp wind tried to penetrate our motor jackets. The rain puddles on the street were frozen into thin slippery ice plates and Tessa was professionally guiding us around them. Through our helmets we were discussing our first thoughts of Albania.

“And, what do you think of Albania so far”, Tessa asked me while she was climbing in first gear a steep road with a hairpin bend, meandering around the ice plates.

“I’m truly amazed by the sights of the landscapes”, I told her honestly. “For the first time in my life I saw a mosque and an orthodox church build next to each other. They were neighbours who respected each other. Back home, or in other places I have been, this would be impossible, even unthinkable. But this is also Europe and perhaps the future of Europe. A future of inclusivity”.

“Indeed, it is truly remarkable and something beautiful”, she replied. “And did you ever think of Albania as a Mediterranean country? It’s strange how certain ideologies, in this case communism, are often historically presented in a connection to cold weather. When I think of communism I implicitly think of snow. But here we are in Albania and indeed the mountains are cold, but for the rest it is oranges, red wine and olives!”

After fifty minutes of passing white mountains, green valleys and olive and orange trees, we arrived at a white gravel dirt road with deep puddles. My GoPro lens kept fogging like a Turkish steam bath due to the elevation and temprature changes. Every few minutes I would look in my mirror to see if there was a small wet dot in front of my lens. I sticked three pieces of paper towel in it, but it was not working today.

A fat white Audi Q7 drove towards us, scratching his low street bumpers and horned and gave us a thumbs up.

We reached an entrance barrier that was in the process of building. The tourist season was yet to start as even the barriers were in a state of construction. A new entry sign was being placed indicating the future entrance fee of 50 cents. After the dirt track we crossed a narrow concrete dam with a small hydroelectric power station and an old grey haired guard wearing a light brown uniform was smoking a cigarette next to it. When we wanted to stop and pay him the fee he waved and smiled toothlessly, we were good to go.

We followed another dirt road, evaded some half wild cows and arrived at the Blue Eye. We were alone. Excellent. COVID is shit, but sometimes it has advantages. The spring was beautiful and the scenery looked like a Lord of the Rings movie. A turquoise blue spring was pumping water from the ground and turned into a fast flowing river, dividing fast, wide and far. The banks were intense green with young plants and oak and sycamore trees, nested with quick little small birds. In the far distance I saw Frodo and Sam climbing a high mountain. It was beautiful.

Sarandë

From Blue Eye we rode to Sarandë where we booked a private apartment with sea view and parking for 10 euro per night. Sarandë is a seaside resort and is preparing itself big time for an enormous stream of cheap tourism for the nearby future. We saw hundreds of multifloored hotels being build, supermarkets on the verge of opening, car rentals with small flocks of Asian cars and zimmers for rent. Google Maps was lost in the combination of new asphalt and old concrete streets and dirt roads. Exactly at the point where we were lost we found a small sign with an arrow pointing to our apartment. The owner knew that this was the spot where tourist got lost. The sun was warm and a salt sea wind was brushing our face. The sea shone a blue fade to the white plastered hotels and Corfu was just a stone's throw away. Here the summer was introducing itself already while it was only January. From the corner of my eye I see a man waving energetically from a balcony.

"T”, I ask through the communication while I turn to the balcony, “is that man over there waving at us”?

Tessa turns her head and replies: “well, yes, I think he is!”

We start our bikes and drive via a broken concrete road to the apartment, where the waving man is descending the stairs. He is 50 years old, with lightly greased brown hair and a permanent smile who likes cash money. He shows us our room and then his big pride: an organic orange tree growing on a terrace in front of our door. He pulls out four oranges and hands them to us as our welcome present.

Our bikes in front of the apartment

Sarandë is a sunny city with over 300 days of sun per year. The colour of the sea is deep blue and crystal clear. But Sarandë is waiting. Waiting for those tourists who didn’t came in 2020. We stroll on the boulevard which is covered with holes and gaps and broken piles of stones, being part of The Big Renovation. Streetlights are laying helplessly on their side waiting to be placed, irrigation pipes for palm trees are installed under new white stones, and the old and grey marble statues of mermaids, a reference to boulevards of the almost distant past, are gently pushed out the sight. They do not fit in the era of the global monoculture hotel business. So many hotels are being build and all of them are identical, if not the same. Who ever thought that the 21th century will be dominated by identical ugly hotels with identical overconsuming tourists? Are we, TNT on a Trip, any different? Before I found a satisfying answer I almost lose a leg in an empty palm tree hole. Better to keep some focus during our evening stroll.

Sarandë is close to Butrint, an UNESCO heritage, which was an ancient Greek and later Roman city. As decent tourists we decide to take our bike for a forty minutes ride to Butrint. The ride was nice but nothing special and we when park in front of the gate we see that the entrace fee is 10 euro per person. Within 5 minutes we were on our way back to Sarandë and decide to leave the next morning.

A coastal ride: SH8

“Hi T, ready for the ride?”, I asked Tessa while packing our stuff again.

“Born ready, I hope you know that by now”, she replies still sleepy while getting out of bed.

A soft winter sun was rising behind the mountains, making long black shades on the grey concrete and white hotels. It was perfect weather for a coastal ride on the SH8: a 140km road between Sarandë and Vlora, which by some is called the ‘one of the world"s best coastal roads … which follows a newly surfaced road along the Albanian coast offering one of the most scenic and spectacular views along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts’.*

Quickly we left the Sarandë and followed the green blue coast line, passing many shepherds, wild grey dogs with suspicious looking eyes, olive and orange orchards, Opuntia cactuses and a dazzling amount of mushroom shaped bunkers, often hidden from the eye, professionally camouflaged within the landscape. There were so many that we started to count them. Within 2 minutes we lost the count. These bunkerëts did not only look like mushrooms, they also popped up like mushrooms. Later we learned that there is an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometre and that they were built during the Stalinist and anti-revisionist government of Enver Hoxha from the 1960s to the 1980s. By 1983 a total of 173,371 bunkers had been constructed around the country.*  

Tessa passing one of the many bunkers

“The sights I see conflict in my mind”, Tessa starts through our headset. “I mean, on the one hand we see a beautiful country with the most amazing sights and super friendly and welcoming people. But then we also see all those bunkers, remembering of a dark past which must have been terrible. I just can’t imagine how life was here. At these moments I feel grateful for the lives we had back home and the possibilities we had, and still have, when you think of how we are currently travelling. Of course we also have our own challenges, but they were anything but life threatening. Although, now I think of it, some things are life threatening again due to our global consumption rate and the penetration of capital in nature with the concatenation of immune systems as result, if I would quote Willem Schinkel”.

With the last sentence echoing in our helmets we followed the curving road along the coast line and through ancient villages, which were growing out of rocky outcrops. After one hour we arrived in Himarë, an old village with Greek roots, still sleeping in the winter. As we were hungry we started to look for a bakery when a black VW Golf 5 stopped in front of us, reversed around Tessa, and opened the window: “are you guys from the Netherlands?”, he eagerly asks her.

“Yes, we are”, Tessa replies surprised but friendly.

“Amazing, follow me and I will treat you guys some nice espresso!”. He closes the window and drives away, stopping on every corner so we wouldn’t lose him.

“What do you think”, Tessa asks me, “shall we follow him?”

“Of course!” I reply. “He looks okay and only wants to drink an espresso with us. And to be honest, an espresso is exactly what I need right now. Let me drive in front so I can follow him. If we don’t like the place or the guy we simply drive thru. Cool?”

“Ok, I will follow you”.

I overtake Tessa and via some old narrow streets we arrive at a little bar at a wide sandy beach with a terrace doused in a Mediterranean winter sun, playing Balkan beats music. We park our bikes behind his car and walk to terrace. He has short cut brown hair, a black Hugo Boss tracksuit, black Nike Air max 90 shoes and a thin silver necklace. We follow him to the table and sit down.

“Ik spreek een klein beetje Nederlands” (I speak some Dutch), he starts off with a big and proud smile.

We were struck by surprise and asked him where he learned Dutch. He tells his story and turned out to be a very friendly and soft hearted man who normally works in the Netherlands and Belgium as fruit and vegetable courier, delivering to restaurants. Due COVID all restaurants were closed so he decided to enjoy his holiday in his home town.

“I mean, where do I get more value for my money?” he continues. “In the Netherlands I pay a thousand euro for rent, but for that money I can live like a king here”. We can only agree as life in Albania indeed is very cheap compared to the Netherlands. He opens his wallet and shows some pictures of his parents and he invites us for lunch to his favourite restaurant down the street. From the corner of my eye I see that Tessa likes the cappuccino, but that lunch would be too much.

“But guys, tell me this”, he suddenly asks us seriously. “How come the fruits and vegetables in the Netherlands have no taste at all? I mean, did you taste the oranges here in Albania? And the herbs? And the chicken? You know, for my work I deliver all those products to restaurants so I taste them a lot. But man, where do they buy that shit? Just take a look at your chicken in the supermarket. It’s completely pale! Insane. Did you ever ate a real chicken? A chicken which had a real life. They are not pale. They are brown. The meat is tough and doesn’t shrink after cooking. How could people live and eat like that?”

Tessa and I cross eyes and laugh. We often discussed this point. For some reason the food here tastes more pure, and the colour is also more vivid. This was something we noticed earlier, but couldn’t really explain why. Now he was asking us this, we realize not being the only one who notices this.

“I think”, I slowly start, “that in the Netherlands the food is grown indoors and or imported from countries where in both cases it is profoundly fertilized with artificial products, genetically manipulated and grown on massive monoculture fields. In the production system taste is not a priority. Think of it as the Unattainable Triangle, often used in product development. There are three corners: tasty, healthy and cheap, and you can only pick two. We as a society are pretty mixed up about the first two, but the third one definitely is the winner. The production of food needs to be efficient: it grows fast, cheap and provides a high yield; it’s also effective as it can feed lots of people. But it’s desperately low in quality, vitamins and minerals. Our capitalistic mantra is that people need to be fed, rather than properly fed.”

The Unattainable Triangle

After I kind of rampaged this answer he looks stunned and takes a hit from his cigarette. Then he thinks for a second and replies: “Yes, dude, wow, I couldn’t phrase it like that, but I guess that is exactly it”.

With a new Balkan Beats on the background we all look at the impressive snow-capped mountain in the back. “I think”, he starts and breaks the silence, “that you guys need to leave before the sun drops behind the mountain. Riding through the snow in daylight is hard enough already”. I look at Tessa and see a short flash of panic in her eyes. “What, riding through the snow?”, she thought without saying out loud. With no more time to waste we get up, thanked him for the coffee, performed a COVID bump and rode off again.

After ten minutes the mountain Maja e Çikës grows larger and larger. Its white peak reflects the sun sharply so we have to squeeze our eyes firmly. We are climbing fast now and the temperature drops as quickly. Within a few minutes it’s -5 degrees Celsius and a ferocious ice wind tries to penetrate our Gore-Tex clothing. At first we see little white heaps of snow, but quickly it turns into thick white and grey layers, pushed to the outsides of the road. Our communication is ice silent and I know that every meter we are pushing forward T her joy would be pushed down. I, on the contrary, am having the time of my life. This is the reason why I’m riding a bike. The vistas, the wind, the views, your bike carrying all the things you need is pushing forwards and further. Conquering. Independent. In control.

Riding to the top

Once we crossed the Llogara Pass we can see that the other side of the mountain, facing inland, is covered in snow. Cars are stopping to make pictures and kids are making snowmen’s. As I don’t want to distress T further, we drive down to a place where the snow is properly cleared so we can take a picture of T on her motorbike.

Pretty cold here

From here it was it was a one hour ride to our guesthouse. As we descended the mountain the snow started to melt, warming T her spirit. At the foot of mountain we were on speaking terms again. The road to Vlore was an easy road which curved its way through the untouched Albanian landscape with purple and white bougainvillea flowers, orange and olive trees, various families of palm trees, Sideritis plants, wide plains of wild sage, and big green Opuntia cactuses bearing many purple fruits. At 15:30 we parked our bikes in front of the guesthouse.

End of part I of our trip through Albania.