An old ferry and a young country

Day 16 – Saturday 13th August – From Shkodër to Prizren (140km)

Lake Koman is not a natural lake, but a reservoir with at least two dams and power stations. After they were built and a vast valley area covered with water, a ferry service was established to serve the local villages. Now, it is important to put that statement in the right perspective – this is Albania we are talking about, so when I say ‘villages’ I mean one or two houses at most and the ferry itself was quite an adventure.

20160813035453We had seen that there was only one ferry per day to Fierzë, leaving at 9:00 and we made it to Koman with about 20 minutes to spare. The road there had been a similar affair to the one in the natural park the day before, only this time it did not turn into a dirt road even thought it was so damaged at some points that it was close to it. At the foot of the Koman lake dam it went into a tunnel cut in the rock which according to the map lead to the reservoir and the ferry docking point. Just before the end of the tunnel we saw cars stopped and a van that was blocking the way out onto the dock and seemed to be unloading passengers, so we stopped and waited for it to finish.

Before I had time to go and have a look outside the tunnel a guy who seemed to be working for the ferry walked up to us and asked whether we had booked tickets for the crossing. Erm… no, we did not know that we could or had to book in advance, but seeing that in about five minutes six or seven more cars had arrived and parked behind us in the tunnel, I started to worry about it.

DCIM123GOPRO‘No problem, no problem, I find you place, I call you’ said the guy and went out of the tunnel again. The van had finished unloading passengers but it was not moving, so I decided to go out onto the dock and see what the situation was like.

DCIM123GOPROI walked out of the tunnel and found myself in the middle of complete and utter chaos. The dock was tiny, and there were more than a dozen cars and vans with whole families and even animals in them, parked with no apparent order at all, pointing in all directions and covering every inch of space available, it was like a Tetris game gone very, very wrong. On the water there were two car ferries and a passenger one, half full of vehicles that wanted to get off but could not, and I was standing right in the middle of all this, watching the scene in motorbike clothes and eating a banana we had just bought from a street vendor. I could not have looked more out of place.

In what can only be described as the most amazing combination of life-size tile puzzle and logistics, the ferry guys, moving one car at a time into gaps they made out of nowhere managed to get the cars off the ferries and down the tunnel, some of them in reverse until the other end, no mean feat considering that the tunnel was long, steep and with corners inside, and started loading the waiting cars.

The dock itself was very basic, the ferry loading ramp was very narrow and there was a huge gap between the both that some guys had tried to cove with an old mooring rope. Cars went on board bumper to bumper, and the staff even lifted the back of a VW to push it closer to the railings and make room for one more car that went on sideways and with one wheel left on the ramp.

Most people were locals and seemed used to it, but this last car belonged to an old Swiss couple that nearly had heart attack trying to get it on board.

Once the operation was complete the guy from earlier came to find me and said that there was room for the bike. I looked and the only room was a tiny gap next to the loading ramp. The ferry’s old diesel engine was already coughing into life, and he urged me to go get the bike. There was no corridor left in the dock, the space that had been created to unload the cars had been filled again with more cars that kept coming, so I had to zigzag around bikes, down behind a small car, up in front of it, over a mooring rope, down the slippery ramp and sideways onto the wooden deck wedging the bike between the post that held the ramp cable and the VW. The deck was not flat there, so I could not leave the bike on the side stand because it would fall on the VW, and there was no room to pull it back onto the centre stand. The guy who was helping me keep it standing gestured to me to tie it to the ramp post, but gave me no rope. The ferry was already pulling back from the dock, so I was left on my own to undo one of the straps holding the rack bag and tie the bike to the post while pushing it with my body to prevent it from falling over and trapping me against the VW.

With the bike seemingly secure, albeit too close to the edge of the deck for my peace of mind, I went to the upper deck to enjoy the journey. Full to the limit of its capacity, the ferry started to slowly move over the surface of the lake against the strong morning wind, with the water line worryingly close to the deck. There were no life vests nor floats, and the boat literally seemed to have been built welding together pieces of scrap metal and using old truck parts. It was quite an experience.

The dock in Fierzë, which we reached after a three hour long journey comparable to a cruise in the Norweigian fjords, had a lot more space but to be honest, there was no dock. The ferry just came as close to the shore as possible and lowered the ramp on a slope of gravel and rocks.

20160813065815 The cars made it out the best they could, wheels spinning and the crew pushing, and then we pushed the bike backwards up the shore.

Glad to have made it in one piece, we left the dock ad stopped at the first restaurant we found, where a very nice waiter offered us half a kilo of fish just caught from the lake. A welcome feast after the ferry experience.

20160813085731From the dock to the border the road was excellent, and we made it to the next country in no time.

A few posts ago I said that you should always listen to advice from the locals when travelling. Unless, apparently, said local has left the country in search of a better life. A very good friend of mine works for the EU in Brussels and when we told him about our intention to visit Kosovo he very kindly asked about the country on our behalf with a colleague of his who is from there. She said that there was ‘poverty, misery and nothing to see’ there.

Well, I am happy to say that at least in the southern part of the country the landscape was beautiful, I had a great ride from the border in the mountains to Prizren, were we were spending the night, and the city itself was a very pleasant surprise, the old town bustling with life in small bars and street cafés and restaurants, surprisingly similar to Sarajevo.

20160813121155We walked up to the town fortress from where we enjoyed a stunning sunset with the sound of live music from a band that was giving a concert there, and had dinner in one of the restaurants in the old town before heading to the hostel, where they had provided space in a car park with CCTV for free.

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Off the road again

Day 15 – Friday 12th August – From Theth to Shkodër (73km)

The only plan for the day was to ride up the dirt track, out of the valley and back to Shkodër to spend the night there before heading to lake Koman the following day, so for the first time in quite a while there was no need to get up early. That doesn’t mean, however, that we got to sleep until late – we were in the same time zone as back home but a lot more to the east, so the sun was up and shining before 6:00, and our room did not have any blinds or shutters. It did not even have windows that shut properly, so I had spent the night under a blanket and a duvet.

With no alternative but an early start of the day, we took our time to enjoy the breakfast that was included in the stay, as copious as lunch the day before, and to wait for the sun to dry the track a bit. We had a chat with the Italians, who told us that they had had a hard time indeed to ride their bike down and that they were also leaving today.

2016081202531320160812032308Having loaded the bike and said goodbye to our host family we set off, ready to tackle the track. I am very happy to say that if you are expecting some thrilling tale of us pushing the bike through mud, picking it up from the ground repeatedly and generally having a miserable time, you’ll be disappointed. Despite the mud at some points, some poodles and several 4x4s coming out of tight corners too fast, we had quite an enjoyable way back. In fact I had quite some fun, and the bike performed flawlessly, swallowing rocks, gravel, potholes, mud and poodles without flinching. We even had time to stop and enjoy the wonderful views down the valley.

201608120520172016081205474420160812060631Back in Shkodër we checked in the same hotel we had been in two days before, went for a beer in the centre and early to bed – we were getting up at 6:00 the following morning to make it in time to catch the ferry that crosses lake Koman.

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The Albanian Alps

Day 14 – Thursday 11th August – From Shkodër to Theth (72,3km)

The plan for today was to ride north to the … natural park, see the area, maybe go for a bit of trekking and spend the night there. It was only 70 km away and according to the map the road should be good – it was marked as a main one and it led to the most important natural park in the north of the country, after all.

We left Shkodër at 8:00 on the road leading to Podgorica and a few kilometres out of the city turned north following a sign that pointed us to the park. The main road turned immediately into the same kind of thing we had found in the lake in Montenegro – very narrow and bumpy, but at least there were no potholes and there were petrol station in most towns we rode through.

20160811034626In front of us great mountains stood high against the morning sky, making it clear that this park was wilder than Plitvice or Lovćen – these were the kinds of mountains I was used to finding in central Pyrenees. The road started climbing higher and higher and to my surprised it became much better – still narrow, but newly resurfaced, so it was a pleasure to ride. We kept gaining altitude along a valley, passing some very slow old vans full of people – the local buses – until we reached the end of the valley, where the road climbed along the steep mountain side in a series of hairpins and culminated in a pass… where it ended.

20160811103332I had read that this is a common occurrence in Albania – if the map says that there is a road, there will be one, but it is impossible to know how wide it will to be, or in what condition, or whether it will be paved or not, and quite often the road just ends and there is a dirt track like the one we had just found with 11km to reach the town of Theth, our destination. It should also be noted that we had seen just one more sign after leaving the main road, announcing that we had entered the natural park, but there was no access control booth, tourist information centre, or signs indicating trekking routes. Zero infrastructure, just the mountains, which by now resembled more the Alps than the Pyrenees.

A bit further down the dirt track we found a wooden hut that seemed to be a bar and stopped to ask about the road ahead. Parked in front of it there were a Swiss and an Italian on KTM 990 Adventures who asked us if we had some extra petrol. They had come up the same way as we did, had been having too much fun and had not filled up in the last town.

Some locals told us that the road was OK, and there seemed to be quite a lot of traffic, although it was all 4x4s and vans. We decided to go ahead, and even though I even saw two or three regular cars, at some points the road was the kind of place people from Western Europe would not even dream of driving their SUVs through. The guys on the KTMs stood up and attacked the road with pleasure, but I had a much harder time taking a fully loaded bike with a passenger down the road into the valley where Theth was.

20160811065534Even though maps mark it as a town, Theth is more a few scattered houses with no streets, no shops, no service and a crappy dirt road connecting it to the rest of the world. One of the most important towns in the natural park was the very definition of unspoilt territory, what I imagine the Alps looked like centuries ago, before tourists, ski resorts and guided treks.

20160811054908In spite of all this, we had found the house we were going to stay in through Booking.com, and there were plenty of other houses in Theth on the web. The house was a three-storey stone farmhouse where a local family rented three rooms, and immediately after our arrival the youngest son, who spoke some English, introduced us to the whole family, including a grandmother that greeted us with a bear hug. It was midday, and after asking us whether we were vegetarians, they served us one of the best meals I had ever had, all locally sourced, I’m sure. Popping to the supermarket is just not an option here.

20160811073554In the afternoon we went for a walk down to the town ‘centre’ – a walk through the forest until we found more houses and the river at the bottom of the valley – and saw that there was a school which seemed to be in use. Well, at least one classroom in the ground floor, as the upper floor looked abandoned and the roof was damaged.

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2016081110462620160811104804We kept walking down the valley trying to find the way to a waterfall that seemed to be a main attraction here, but there were no indications. We asked around and were surprised to find a fair number of tourists, and then we discovered that this is the starting point for many trekking routes, including what is known as the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 10-day trek that crosses into Kosovo and Montenegro – something to take into account for a future holiday.

Still looking for the way to the waterfall we saw a sign to the local museum.

20160811111447 And decided to go visit it. As you can see, the access had been adapted for the disabled.

20160811112652The building that hosted the museum had two floors – on the ground floor there was a stable which was in use, and on the upper floor the ethnographic museum itself, with the exhibits divided in two rooms.

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DCIM123GOPROOn our way out we saw what we assume were the curators, as they were the only living creatures around.

20160811112544Back on the main ‘street’ we found another guesthouse were we finally got directions to the waterfall. We walked until it was on sight, but it was getting late and we had no torches for the way back, and the sky was getting cloudier and cloudier and we heard some thunder behind the nearest peaks, so we decided to head back, as it was quite a long way up the valley to our house.

The rain caught us just as we were walking past the school and we ran to take refuge under the porch, where we waited for an hour watching the deluge and thinking that the dirt track would be in atrocious conditions for the ride back up the following day.

20160811135359When we got home I was surprised to see a Honda CBF1000 with road tires parked next to my bike. If I had had a hard time getting here, that guy must have experienced hell. I asked in the house and they said that it belonged to two Italians that did not know that the road was like that. Well, no wonder. There is no warning anywhere that the road is like that, and looking up Theth online one imagines a quaint mountain village at the doors of natural park, so I imagine they were not the only ones who booked a room in one of the many available guest houses thinking that this was a popular tourist destination easy to get to.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow when we have to ride that track back.

Another ‘best road in the wooooorrrrrld’?

Day 13 – Wednesday 10th August – From Kotor to Shkodër (209.1km)

Today was the big day – Albania! I was very excited about this, I had heard lots of things about it, mostly contradictory – that it was a beautiful country, but the roads were the worst in Europe, that its people were very kind but it was the place where many stolen vehicles from Europe end up in… But all that would have to wait. First we had a whole day to cross Montenegro and experience some deep contradictions.

On the agenda for the day were a ride into Lovćen National Park to see Njegoš mausoleum, atop one of the highest mountains in the Kotor Bay area, a visit to the coastal city of Budva, where we wanted to see something called ‘Mini Montenegro’, a town built on a small island connected to the coast by a narrow bridge, and a long ride along the southern shore of lake Skadarsko before crossing the border into Albania and stopping for the night in Shkodër, the first big city on the Albanian side. A complete day, then.

20160810041018_1Njegoš mausoleum is built on Lovćen peak, overlooking the Kotor bay. Njegoš was a Lord, bishop and poet of great importance in Montenegro who wished to be buried in the mountain that he had seen all his life from the town of Cetinje, where he was born. The story has it that he built a chapel there, but when he died in 1851 bad weather and an ongoing conflict with Turks prevented his people form burying him there. More than a century later, between 1970 and 1974, the Yugoslav government built a mausoleum on top of the mountain to honour his wish.

20160810032325The most direct way to access the peak from Kotor is the P1 road, which takes you from sea level to almost 1,600m through more than 30 heart stopping hairpin corners that make the Stelvio pass pale in comparison, with an breath-taking view of the bay to complete the experience. Not that you want to get too distracted while driving it, mind you – there are few protections separating you from the edge of the cliff, and from time to time a local zooms past the opposite way not caring much about the fact that there is very little space for two cars to drive past each other. On the other side of the mountain, the M23 road down to Budva, on the coast, is faster, wider and with great mountain views. I don’t know how these ‘best roads in the world’ articles are written or how the roads are selected, but I am sure that it is impossible for them to take into account all the roads in the world. Well, here is one that should be high on any of those lists, do not miss it if you come to Montenegro.

DCIM123GOPROThe mausoleum is also worth a visit, you access it via more than 400 steps through a tunnel that ends at the very peak, and it contains a huge statue of the poet carved from a single block of granite and a ceiling covered in real gold.

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DCIM123GOPROAfter a great ride down we reached the town of Budva, a popular coastal destination around here. We did not go into it, as the ‘Mini Montenegro’ we wanted to visit was a bit more to the south, but to my eyes it did not look like the kind of place I would like to go to – big hotels and gaudy blocks of apartments, and the usual dreadful traffic.

A few kilometres down the road we followed the signs to Sveti Stefan, which is the real name of what we had seen advertised in tourist agencies in Kotor as ‘Mini Montenegro’ and found a supposedly two-way street packed full of parked cars where it was almost impossible to make any progress at all. At the end of it, nowhere to park, not even a motorbike, except for a private car park full of luxury cars where they informed us that it was 2€ an hour. Tired of manoeuvring the bike in the stifling heat, I decided that we were not going to spend more than that visiting the town, particularly in riding boots and trousers, so we paid and parked.

We had just set foot on the pedestrian bridge that connects the beach to the town when we heard a voice behind us shouting ‘Sir, Sir, you can’t go there, it is private!’ I turned around find a textbook example of a security guard – tall, burly, shaven head, sunglasses, earpiece, the lot, who explained us in a condescending tone that the town was a hotel and that access was restricted to guests only. I looked down the walkway at the town, then at the guard again. ‘The whole town?’ I asked. ‘The whole town’, he replied in a tone that said ‘get your filthy boots of my bridge, you lowlife’.

20160810062304We looked around and saw that access to the beach on both sides of the town was also barred by security guards, and that everyone around us was getting off high-end cars or luxury airport shuttle vans and wearing watches that must cost more than my bike. Well, ‘fuck the rich’, we thought, and got the bike out of the car park and the hell out of there.

It was well past midday, and the heat was becoming unbearable, so we headed fast to the interior in search of the road that followed the south bank of lake Skadarsko and a cooler place to stop and eat. With the traffic, the heat, and the disappointment of Sveti Stefan, I was thinking that if I heard the words ‘beach’ and ‘holiday’ in the same sentence anytime before 2030, I was getting a divorce.

20160810080722Fortunately, the road along the lake was very nice and we found a nice spot under the trees of a small war memorial monument where we had lunch, so my mood improved soon.

20160810083247According to the map, this was the second main road south of the lake and to the border after the coast road, but it definitely did not look like that. It was little more than a paved dirt track, barely wide enough for a car, that connected all the tiny villages on the lake, and the place could not have looked more different from Budva – we were in deep Montenegro now, and I was having a great time.

20160810080742Turning the last corner on the road, we left the lake behind and at our feet was Albania, just a short ride down the mountain. There was no small backroad border crossing this time, and as we joined the main road coming from the coast I was anticipating long queues to leave Montenegro and long queues to enter Albania. There were quite a lot of cars, buses and campervans, but two things made things a lot easier than we expected – this was, according to a sign proudly displayed on the wall, the first joint border crossing in the Balkan region, built with EU funds, which saved us the double exit-entry process, and were directed to the pedestrian crossing point, where another motorbike was already being processed, so we jumped the whole queue.

DCIM123GOPROOnce on the other side we stopped to buy insurance, as I had read that Albania was not covered in EU policies, but when the guy in one of the booths by the road offering insurance checked our green card, he said that we were already covered. Great!

20160810105005Traffic and the road to Shkodër were no worse than what I had seen in other places in Eastern Europe, with horse carts and other curious vehicles sharing the road with cars, buses and trucks.

DCIM123GOPROWe found our hotel, more by chance than thanks to the GPS, and were surprised to see that it had an underground car park with CCTV and rooms that, apart from huge, were far more luxurious than we were expecting at those prices. After a shower we went to the centre to change some money, find a country sticker and have a beer to celebrate our arrival in a new country.

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