Those who know me well would never ask this question, but that’s because the word “holiday” for me is synonymous with “unusual” and “challenging” (and occasionally “terrifying”). For normal human beings, however, it seems like an odd choice of destination. Albania isn’t really renowned for much, other than its proximity to Kosovo, drug trafficking (the “epicentre of the European drugs trade”, if you believe the Daily Mail and Huffington Post, at any rate), gangsters, communism under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (until recently), and its ensuing isolation from Western Europe, the United States, and even China and Russia, not to mention King Zog (though I always thought he was a fictional children’s character – turns out he was real). Sounds like the perfect holiday.
According to wikitravel, “Albanians enjoy long walks in the city streets, drinking coffee and, among the younger generations, participating in nightlife activities such as cafe lounging and dancing.” It’s not even known as a cycling destination – neither for locals nor for tourists – and yet it has everything that a cyclist looking for an interesting trip could possibly need: quiet roads, stunning locations, friendly locals, plenty of fresh spring water, a beautiful coastline, and some challenging mountains for the adventurous. Provided you don’t meet any gangsters, it’s ideal. We never saw any, though there were quite scary looking dogs (more on those later) and the odd sheep with a funny look in its eye.
Albania also has an excellent basic infrastructure, despite its problems. You may not find many 5-star hotels offering champagne and hot tubs (shame, as they’d have been quite welcome after a hard day’s cycling) but basic guesthouses to rest for the night and small cafes to recharge the caffeine and energy levels along the route were plentiful. The food (and coffee) itself is also excellent and abundant, which surprised me so much that I wrote a separate blog post about it. The local (and only) cycling tour company, Cycle Albania, apparently used to run all kinds of different trips including kayaking, trekking and rafting, but found the cycling tours so successful that they decided to specialise, and rightly so. They have honed their tour to perfection over the last few years, and the smooth logistical operation is apparent. I can only see its popularity increasing as more people discover what Albania has to offer (although I should really have kept that quiet, since the beauty is essentially in the isolation).
The company offers only one route currently, but tailored in difficulty to its various clientele (the Germans, apparently, like to drink a lot and cycle a little; the Norwegians are the kings of the mountains and take on all the hardcore challenges thrown at them; while the British seem to fall somewhere between the two). The Exodus trip I took is classified as grade 4 (moderate to challenging), with a mix of two fairly tough days sandwiched in the middle with several much easier days. With a support van for those who have run out of steam (or are more closely affiliated with the Germans than the Norwegians), the British clientele appears a mixture of those with a decent level of experience and fitness looking for a bit of a challenge, to those who just want a more adventurous kind of holiday and see the option of resting in the van on the hard bits as a natural built-in element of the holiday principle rather than as an option only to be taken after being scraped off the tarmac in a heap of burnt-out muscle or broken limbs. It also, of course, enables friends and couples of different abilities or fitness levels to go on the same trip without either having to compromise.
As long as you don’t mind the odd traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep in the road, or the threat of being chased and bitten by recalcitrant sheepdogs, you’ll get on fine. We once waited 10 minutes for reinforcements when a vicious hound stood in the middle of the highway blocking our path and barking at us. My companion had already been chased by one the previous day and was taking no chances on this one, but it showed no signs of moving, and we wondered what to do as we had been warned in no uncertain terms never to try to outcycle a dog (not that the dog was cycling, but you know what I mean). On the other hand, we’d also been told that if we stayed still, the dog would go away and leave us alone, but that didn’t happen either. Luckily our gallant hero Des arrived on his trusty 30-speed metal steed and bravely led the charge, at which point the dog decided it had better things to do and that it was no match for the two-wheeled Irishman. It beat a hasty retreat, allowing rite of passage to the two damsels in distress.
Anyway, back to Albania. Besides the culinary delights, it has a whole lot more to offer, even if its infrastructure as a luxury holiday destination is a little incomplete. “Come to Albania with an open mind”, advised our guide Junid. Although it was a little late, since he only offered these words of wisdom on our last day. But indeed, as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the odd cold shower, electricity failure (causing me an interesting time in the completely dark restaurant toilets), some dubious plumbing and construction (I thought Albanians were meant to be good at these, but maybe I’m getting confused with the Poles), and the relics of communism lingering, you’ll get on just fine. As a side note, it turns out you might even be able to spend the night in a former Communist bunker these days, though I’m not sure how the quality compares to that of our guesthouses. On our last night, we found ourselves in a comparatively luxurious hotel in Vlore, and I joyfully announced to my room mate that the shower looked like the best one we would have all week: a gleaming cubicle big enough to party in, with shiny glass doors, piping hot water and a showerhead you didn’t even have to hold in your hand. A contrast to the shower we’d had a few days earlier that was not only cold but would have struggled to get a mouse wet – even “dribble” was an exaggeration. Coming out of this superb looking shower, my room mate proudly announced “You won’t be disappointed.” I grinned, before she continued: “Yes, just like all the others, it leaks all over the bathroom floor.” We both dissolved in fits of giggles.
And finally, I turn to that other British obsession, the weather. My trip was over the Easter holiday in mid-April, and we experienced a very typical European weather pattern ranging from brilliant sunshine (and resulting in the ubiquitous comedy cycling tan lines) to freezing rain, high winds and near hypothermia on a couple of occasions. Sometimes all in the same day. We soon learnt to pack suncream, thermals and waterproofs in our panniers in order to deal with all eventualities. A friend had advised me: “pack for the Lake District and you’ll be fine”, and he was spot on. I cannot emphasise enough the usefulness of a pair of cycling “arms” and “legs” that could be removed and stowed in a back pocket or quickly thrown on as necessary, not to mention a waterproof always to hand, and plenty of zips to let air in or keep it out as the terrain demanded. Unless in full summer, when temperatures can get pretty hot, I would recommend packing plenty of layers (whether cycling or not), just like in the UK, and a warm jacket for the chilly evenings (sometimes also needed indoors, depending on the state of the heating in the hotel).
In summary, a cycling holiday in Albania is far from a relaxing and sunny vacation on the beach (how boring that would have been!), but it provides everything one could possibly wish for in an interesting, challenging and remote experience where one is happy to get away from it all and step back in time. The added benefit is that you won’t spend much money as food and wine are cheap, shops rare, and there’s nothing to buy anyway. Still, you can’t put a price on adventure.