Podgorica to Corfu

The route

The Video:

This will be added ASAP

This video is rather long because it shows what it is like descend by bicycle in the Albanian mountains. The decent took around 30 minutes and there were very few other vehicles.

The Downloads:

Downloads for this route in Garmin Google Earth and .GPX formats

The files are in .zip format. They need to be unzipped and saved to a directory of your choice. You can then load them into the appropriate application and GPS.

The Blog

Day 16 to 20 4th to 8th October 2011 - Podgorica to Corfu (Greece)

Day 16 4th October 2011 - Podgorica to Lezha (Albania)

We left the rather dated but still quite plush hotel around 7.30am. I loaded up by reception and rode out of the front door to join the early morning traffic in the city centre. We had 25km to do to the border.

Traffic on the mainly flat roads was heavy to start with but tailed off as we came nearer to the border. Podgorica is in a lovely setting on a plain surrounded by mist covered mountains. The last few settlements before the border looked pretty basic and all sported mosques with minarets.

To cross into Albania the road rises over a ridge via the obligatory zig zag bends and then descends to the border post at the beautifully named Hani I Hotit. The Montenegrins had decided to reconstruct this road just for us.

Road construction in the Balkans involves removing the old road surface, building the new one and getting the traffic to consolidate it before putting down the tarmac. Unfortunately bicycles can only consolidate a very small area and they become rather unstable in the process.

Added to this, while the road to the border was not particularly busy, half a dozen trucks, i.e. eight wheelers, were forced by the traffic control to travel in convoy at about our speed. It all got rather fraught.

On one of the hairpin bends was one of the biggest pot holes I have ever seen. The trucks had to manoeuvre around it, had they gone into it the road would have been blocked and I have no idea how they would have got it out.

Arriving at the border post we jumped the queue and after a perfunctory delay were allowed through and so left Montenegro and entered Albania.

Nothing can properly describe the next 20km to Shkoder. At the beginning it felt just like the wild west which did not reassure John who has been concerned about this part of the journey. A herd of sheep complete with shepherd was walking along the adjacent rail track and I think we would have been pretty desperate to go into any of the bars we passed.

For this 20km the road was being rebuilt. About 70% was wide smooth tarmac four lanes wide. 30% was unmade for us to consolidate. On the unmade sections and especially as the traffic increased it became a dare devil ride of nerves not to be pushed off the smoother parts of the road. But even with narrow tyres Claudie performed brilliantly.

We stopped off in a small town for John to exchange some euros for the local currency called leks. While he was in the bank the security van turned up to deliver money. It was disconcerting for me to see that the guards were carrying automatic weapons. John was asked to leave the bank quickly.

As we entered Shkoder John commented that it was worse than India. Cars, bikes and all manner of traffic competed for road space. There were bazaar like shops lining the road with people, animals and even the odd horse and cart everywhere.

Soon after this I was in trouble. My many years of experience of riding my bike around Hyde Park Corner and the like fitted me for making rapid progress in this type of traffic. I found it exhilarating. Not so John and I did get rather far ahead and deserved the slight upbraiding when he caught me up.

To add to all the other chaos Shkoder was having main drainage installed involving road closures. We were directed around this by a very kind man on a motor scooter who said follow me and then talked to us in good English as we went along.

Emerging from the southern end of Shkoder we could have been in a different country let alone a different town. There were smart buildings and fashionable looking bars and restaurants.

From here on we were on smooth highway and the road was quite busy. Much of the traffic was considerate but some of the flash cars of which there are few did drive very fast. We were also very careful to watch for overtaking maniacs coming towards us. We have yet to need to take to the verge but it is always wise to have this option in mind.

We found a pleasant and very cheap motel on the outskirts of Lezha. Our first day in Albania has been a great adventure and it does not even have as much litter as Southern Italy.

Sunset at Orikum

Day 17 5th October 2011 - Lezha to Lushnja

My longest ride of the year so far and without a shadow of doubt the worst. We left the hotel very early to continue on the busy main road which we followed with only one short break for the whole day.

Despite the world situation the economy here is clearly booming. There is new build everywhere and the complete road system is being rebuilt. It appears to be chaotic and I have no idea how it is all being financed.

The effect of all this change makes it almost impossible to plan any kind of cycle ride on less busy roads because it is impossible to find out which they are.

Added to this we made a number of elementary mistakes. We did not take parallel old roads when they were available and we did not go through villages and settlements to ease the unpleasantness of the main roads. It was very silly.

We did see quite a lot of Albanian life along the road and in particular its contrasts. It is quite common to see a horse and cart on the dual carriageway being overtaken by a state of the art Aldi, the current German gas guzzling fashion accessory. Vehicles in general here are far more advanced and expensive than those in Serbia or Montenegro.

Off the main roads the contrast is equally great. A couple of times I saw someone scrabbling about in scrap yards for what we would consider worthless waste. At the same time there appears to be affluence in the streets and plenty of busy businesses.

We did one sensible thing and took a long lunch break in a shady petrol station complex. This was one of many along the busier roads and also like many had a motel attached. It is hard to see how this number of petrol stations and motels can be even remotely viable. They must either be money laundering projects or ransom buildings to enable larger projects.

We made the worst of it and pedalled on to one of these hotels but unfortunately all of its many advantages of comfort and cleanliness were outweighed by the constant traffic noise.

Day 18 6th October 2011 - Lushnja to Orikum

We allowed ourselves a late start today with a shorter day in prospect. The roll out was 9am and by then the sun was already hot. After about 5km on the main highway the road branched and the traffic lessened. We were still on new dual carriageway road, the smoothness of which pleased John.

At Fieri real cycle touring commenced as the dual carriageway came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the town. Suddenly we were in what seemed like third world conditions. Traffic of every conceivable type vied for its place on the potholed roads. In fact potholes can be tolerated but manholes with no covers and great lumps of cement or tarmac are even more dangerous for cyclists.

Strangely, at about 11am we passed a large property behind high gates emitting rock music at huge volume. There also seems to be the smell of dubious substances.

The road again divides at Fieri and our road was now a narrow road up a steep hill with lines of slow moving traffic. Having made it safely out of town we stopped at a cafe at the top of the hill for coffee.

The narrow and fairly lightly trafficked, albeit very potholed, road continued through small villages and hamlets and I was enjoying the ride. Then we came to a sign directing us right and in the distance we could see a new road. I managed to persuade John that despite the issues he often has with his saddle the old road was worth a try.

After a few more pleasant kms compromise was in order and we took a dirt track towards the wide tarmac. It was indeed a brand new dual carriage way complete with crash barriers but we found a gap. Bizarrely both carriageways were being used by two way traffic, but then this is Albania.

We took the right hand lane and proceeded into Vlora which is a major port town with ferries to Italy. As we prepared ourselves for the third world a Red Bull mini car just like those in the Tour de France convoy pulled up. Two very attractive young women jumped out and said would we like a Red Bull? Generally cherry aid is not my thing but it was freely given and I was thirsty and they took my photo.

Vlora is much more cosmopolitan than Fieri. As we progressed through the town it moved well away from third world. So much so that we stopped at a very pleasant restaurant for lunch and spent an enjoyable hour or so watching the world go by.

We now had about 10km to go along the coast and we had no idea what to expect. The road continued beside the sea and below the high mountains behind. A single tunnel avoided a steep climb otherwise it was easy. By Albanian standards it is low season and many of the hotels were closed and the beach paraphernalia packed away.

There are no 'resort' hotels here but plenty of good standard places and the location is great. We needed to be at the far end of the beach for the start of tomorrow's ride. We found a nice little hotel rather like a large wood cabin and got a fine room overlooking the beach for very little money.

We both went for a swim and I spent ages just floating in the warm sea, my first swim in the sea this year.

Mountains between Orikum and Himara

Day 19 7th October 2011 - Orikum to Himara

Another early start but for the first time this adventure we did not need to get up to avoid the heat. The sun came up revealing the gathering storm clouds massing over the mountains where we were heading.

We pedalled into the village for supplies and we also had a cafe breakfast. Life starts early in the morning here. Soon we were pedalling away from the coast and gradually climbing up the valley towards the mountains. My last view of Himara was of a Muslim woman wearing a lovely pair of traditional baggy trousers talking on her mobile as she opened the gate to her opulent looking villa.

I was watching the altitude gradually increase as we went along. Distance was irrelevant for the first part of the day, height gained was the only consideration. At around 200 metres the skies opened and we also had thunder and lightning. I continued to climb choosing to get wet while John took shelter in a bee keeper's rudimentary hut.

At first I really enjoyed my steady pace along roads which were rivers of water and then as the storm eased through the pine forest nearer the summit. At around 750 metres I thought I had better wait for John. By now the sky had cleared a little and I had views right down the valley with the coastal plain and the sea in the distance.

Just as I was about to text John appeared. He had waited for over half an hour for the rain to stop. He then found the steep gradients very hard going as his gearing was not quite low enough for this kind of extreme terrain.

We kept more or less together for the climb to the summit at 1014 metres. Surprisingly it was quicker and easier for me to ride in my 20 inch bottom gear at walking speed than for John to walk.

As we approached the summit we were completely unprepared for the view which met us. From where we stood at the cafe there was a steep but not quite vertical drop to a beach over 1000 metres below with the sea stretching away and merging with the horizon. Every so often the storm clouds raced up from the sea and shrouded us in mist.

We needed to carry out some running repairs to John's front carrier. Carriers are the bane of a cycle tourist's life and cause far more trouble than any other component. We then went into the rather smart cafe for some lunch.

After lunch we had the most amazing descent from 1000 metres down to 150 metres, a little too far for my liking. Unlike our climb which had been through hamlets and pine forests the descent was via an extreme zig zag road cut into the bare mountain. It required careful cadence braking. We avoided heat punctures but the risk was very great. And of course the views towards both the mountains and the sea were magnificent.

Had this been the end of the day all would have been well. As it was we had to climb to around 375m and descend again a countless or so it seemed number of times on steeply graded roads before the end of the day.

We had during the day taken shelter several times from the thunder storms. The final blow was that 3km from Himara, after we had been blown completely dry, the skies opened for a last time. With nowhere to shelter we donned waterproofs and dripped our way into the seafront hotel after the final descent.

It is a lovely little seaside place, ideal for swimming and relaxing, hiding from the crashing thunder and listening to the sound of waves breaking on the shore.

Saranda - boarding the flying dolphin hydrofoil

Day 20 8th October 2011 - Himara to Corfu (Greece)

Apparently there was a major thunderstorm during the night. If there really was I slept through it. We had decided on an early start with a view to cycling to the ferry port at Saranda in time to catch the 13h00 Flying Dolphin to Corfu. It was a very hilly 55km ride to the port and we needed to allow at least 4 hours.

I suppose we did just about manage to get away by 8am but even though we were up at 6am it was still a struggle. Unfortunately the storm had not cleared the air and it was a warm overcast day.

The ride was very beautiful and swooped from 350metres up in the foothills of the mountains down to sea level. It was, because of this, very hard and by mid morning I did wonder whether we would make the ferry.

Himara was pretty and could compare to a low key seaside village in say Portugal. Most of the other villages we went through were much more basic. In various villages we saw cows and donkeys in the street and many of the buildings were decidedly ethnic. For the first time we saw many young men in the streets with apparently nothing to do. We think that they work on the lump. We got the impression that they were employed on a day rate and we saw groups of men getting into vehicles.

As I said the cycling was hard but the road was very smooth and well surfaced. We did not feel that the road engineers had made a very good job of routing to avoid steep gradients. The mountains are as ever lovely. I particularly like the way whole mountainsides looked like the limestone pavements of the Burren in Ireland.

Saranda was another heaving Albanian town and we managed to weave our way down to the port. We had just 30 minutes to get our tickets for Corfu, go through passport control and board the Flying Dolphin hydrofoil. I even had time to spend our last few leks in a local shop.

The crossing to Corfu took 30 minutes and it was a major cultural shock to suddenly arrive in Greece. Despite Greece's bankrupt condition it still feels very wealthy compared with Albania. Our tiny and rather tatty ferry berthed beside three opulent looking cruise ships. Our hotel cost more than twice what a similar one would cost in Albania and we couldn't even throw our toilet paper into the bog.

As it is just as easy to live in Albania, and it is much more interesting, and the people are very friendly there is no way that Greece is more civilised.