By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Here’s my dilemma: A chance to see Albania by bike, a country that is steeped in mystery having been secluded behind an Iron Curtain for decades, but so mountainous, it may be too difficult to make the enormous climbs. Or, I could set aside pride and principle and use an e-bike – an electric bike that uses a battery to give an extra push to your pedaling.
I’m a purist and enjoy the physical challenge of biking. I had had an amazing time on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip in the Greek Isles the year before and know the pain (and accomplishment) of burning lungs that come with tackling the steepest, longest climbs of my life. But the BikeTours experts say that the Greek Isles was a Class 3 ride and Albania would be a Class 4 – with even steeper, longer climbs (and when I look over the day-by-day elevations, one day stands out at being the equivalent of a mile in total elevation gain). So if the Greek Isles was my physical limit, I’m not so sure I can do Albania.
But I also believe that the best way to engage, to discover a destination like Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways, or through villages and neighborhoods. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace to see things, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bells attached to goats, the cicadas; you can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through a forest. You can stop at a bend in the road to take in the breathtaking views or just get your breath. You can stop – even chat – with a shepherd edging his flock across the road. People wave and call out hello as we ride through a village and we wave and say a cheery “hello” as back. Most important of all, you can stop when you want (as I did most frequently) to take photos.
And, finally, I believe ardently in the quest for knowledge and understanding and ambassadorship that is the essence of travel and particularly, the style of travel of a bike tour, so if the only way to experience Albania is to use an e-bike, I will set aside my pride and principle.
And actually, the e-bike is part of the new experience and I discover a whole new dimension of possibility.
For one thing, I discover other advantages of using an ebike: I can stop for pictures and know I can catch up with the group; I don’t suffer or need to focus exclusively on the ride; I don’t lose sleep over the worry of whether I can manage the next day’s ride. What is more, I discover I can make the ride as challenging as I want (I simply don’t go into an easier setting), so I still get the workout I want and feel the satisfaction of conquering a climb. But most importantly, the priority of this trip is to experience a culture and explore a destination, not a physical work-out or just getting from point A to B.
And finally, what I realize is that the e-bike extends horizons and lifespan for adventure and exploration for many of us who have reached an age where we appreciate biking but are unsure of doing the distance or the hills.
And so I opt for the e-bike for the first time. It takes me about two minutes to figure it out and three minutes to get comfortable.
The e-bike is not like a scooter – you still have to pedal. But to me, it takes the hill out of the climb, making it like pedaling on flat surface (unless you want to retain the challenge, as I did, and keep it at an “Econ” setting, the lowest of three “speeds”, “Norm” and “Sport” being the others). In “Econ”, I find, it makes my hybrid bike, which with the added weight of the battery (about 12-15 pounds) feels like a mountain bike, ride like a road bike.
The e-bike that I ride is so responsive – it changes gears immediately, efficiently, at the push of a button (up arrow, down arrow) and I could change speeds if necessary, from “Econ” to “Norm” on a dime, smoothly, without any hesitation or resistance.
I find that on the big hills, by keeping the setting at Econ I still have that physical effort of climbing, but I don’t wind up with burning lungs. And of course, I can just zip up the hills by going to the Norm and for an even greater push, the Sport setting (I never use the Sport setting, and only use Norm a couple of times, when the climb seems never ending).
It makes me feel as if I have superpowers.
The cycling company that BikeTours.com has selected for our tour, Cycle Albania, is relatively new and may in fact be the only company offering bike tours in the country. We attracted attention as we zipped through villages because we were such an oddity.
I am really impressed with the quality of the bikes, manufactured by the Taiwan-based Giant company, which Cycle Albania purchased from the Netherlands. Each of the bikes – the regular hybrids and the e-bikes (probably the only ones in the entire country) – are the best quality, valued at thousands of dollars (in a country where the median income is $5000 a year). They have hydraulic brakes, suspension. (You can bring your own seat and pedals if you want, as does a couple from Oregon, used to climbing hills).
My pedals have screw heads that grip the soles of my sneakers for the extra push without toe clips.
And boy are we grateful for suspension and hydraulic brakes on the Day 6 ride, when we come down a road more like a mountain trail – broken gravel, rocks, potholes, gravel, steep with winding hairpin turns.
I use the e-bike feature of my Giant bike for the first time on the second day of cycling, when we are leaving Ohrid, in Macedonia, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, and are on the last third of a 35-mile ride. We have three progressively longer and harder hills to climb on our way back into Albania. I just whisk up the hills like nothing – and am only in the “Norm” setting – I didn’t even use the “Sport” setting which gives even more thrust to each pedal stroke.
But that’s what it is – it’s like taking the hill out of the ride. You feel like you are riding on flat. You still pedal each stroke, change the gears but each stroke is magnified. You hear a tiny whir of a motor but it isn’t like riding a scooter.
The e-bike is a superb alternative for anyone who has denied themselves the opportunity to discover a destination by bike – the best way in my opinion – because they were afraid they could not go the distance or manage hills. The e-bike is a godsend: destinations and experiences that seemed out of reach can now be conquered. If you felt you had aged out of managing 35 to 50 miles a day on anything but flat rail-trails, e-bikes open up a whole new world, and a whole new dimension.
(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip. (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 7th in the series.)
After our tour of the National Park of Butrint, the extraordinary archaeological site that lets us travel through five époques of civilization, from the Hellenic to Roman, to Ottoman to Venetian, we continue riding our bikes into Saranda, one of the most popular beach towns along Albania’s Riviera, the end of a 70 km ride.
Draped along a curving bay with a narrow strip of beach, Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.
Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.
Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.
Saranda, formerly known as Porto Edda, named after Mussolini’s daughter, has emerged as a major beach resort on the Ionian Sea, just opposite the Greek island of to Corfu (we watch major cruise ships sailing in the distance toward Corfu). Indeed, it has that cosmopolitan flare we found in Korca, owing to the fact many foreign day-trippers come by ferry from Corfu. There is a very festive atmosphere – and didn’t exist during the Communist reign. Indeed, most of its buildings are post-1990.
Still, Albanian most southern coastal city, only recently accessible, remains unpretentious.
I get the idea that this would be a great place for some Americans looking for an inexpensive place to retire where there is a very pleasant, relaxed, welcoming atmosphere (like in “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). It is cheap to live here, where I calculate living costs at about one-fourth to one-fifth of what we expect to pay in the US, and where the median annual income is $5000 (though Albania’s medical infrastructure gets mixed reviews).
Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.
I drop my stuff at our hotel, a very pleasant place which is directly above this marvelous promenade with gorgeous views from my balcony to the beachfront and marina, and go for a swim.
Instead of soft white sand, though, the beach is made of pebbles (bring water shoes, not just flip flops).
Strolling along the promenade after dinner, I mix in with the crowds of people – couples holding hands, groups of friends, families with young children excitedly leaning up to an ice cream stand. There is a gay, carefree spirit.
This could be Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Long Beach, Jones Beach.
Across the water there is a loud dance place, with bright lights flashing; they shoot off fireworks.
(I subsequently learn that just before we arrived here, the city unveiled a bust to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but I did not know to look for it.)
Today’s ride, the last of the cycling portion of our specially arranged President’s tour of Albania, is the most arduous and challenging, with a total elevation gain of 1064 meters (and an equal drop), over a distance of 54 km.
We cycle up out of Saranda, along the Albanian Riviera heading north toward Himare, a small Communist-era fishing village. We have mountains to the right and coastal views to the left before descending to the long beach and bay of Potam where we get to swim in the brilliant aquamarine waters of the Ionian Sea, just across the street from our hotel.
This ends the biking portion of our trip and I am frankly sad to see our bikes (especially my e-bike, which I have become very attached to) being hauled off in the van by Bato, our wonderful driver. The next two days, we will be traveling by kayak – another special feature of this specially tailored Presidents’ tour.
Seeing the coastline from the kayak is stunning – the blue-to-aquamarine-to-emerald colored water, so clear when you look down; the rocky cliffs that drop straight into the water.
We paddle about 6 km, pulling into secluded beaches and coves, and get to peak into a couple of small caves. There are any number of these beaches where there are but a handful of people, some of whom are camping out.
One of the beaches near Himare (also spelled Dhimare), in particular, has a canyon for a backdrop of exquisite beauty.
It is tremendous fun to arrive into the place where you will be staying by kayak.
Our last two days are spent in Dhermi – a small village that is considered Albania’s #1 beach town – providing us with an unexpected time to just relax and stay put.
This is like the Riviera without any of the pretension. Lounge chairs and umbrellas are neatly laid out; a waiter comes to take drink orders; the roadway (sometimes asphalt, sometimes cobblestone and sometimes dirt and rock) lined with hotels and restaurants.
Here we get more opportunity to hang out with ordinary Albanian families. I am struck to see how parents dote over their kids, how tender, attentive and adoring fathers are with their toddlers, how women are every bit on equal footing with the men, without any kind of self-consciousness. It just is. And how scant the bathing suits. So much for a Majority Muslim country.
On our last evening, Junid, our guide, drives us up to the actual town, Dhermi,built into the hillside, where there is a delightful tavern that has an exquisite view of the sunset.
The next day, on our way back to Tirana, the capital city, where the Mother Theresa International Airport is located, he takes us up to an even higher promontory on the mountain pass, where we get to watch a paragliding club take off and soar down to the seacoast.
It is hard to imagine these scenes 35 years ago or even 20 years ago.
This is the new Albania, the young Albania. It is a very different place from even 10 years ago and one only can imagine what it will be like in 10 years time.
“It’s Europe’s best-kept—and maybe last—secret,” says Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com. Few foreigners have visited this mysterious country due to decades of Communist rule, dictatorship and isolationism. But since the country opened its borders in 1991, visitors have been awestruck by its untouched nature and rich culture and the overall uniqueness of this truly special place.
“Albania still remains undiscovered by mass tourism, setting it apart from other European destinations. In Rome, you’ll throng elbow to elbow with tourists vying for views of ancient ruins. In Albania, you’ll often have them all to yourself. In Butrint National Park, for example, our small group roamed nearly alone among acres of ruins dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval times. Even just to the north in Croatia, tourists clog the beaches. In Albania, we could dip our toes into turquoise waters along the pristine coastline with not another person in sight.
“Albania is the best place no one has been to yet,” he says. “See it now” before it comes on to travelers’ radar.
Bike Touring: Best Way to Travel
I’ve been touring Albania for just two weeks – before it was a complete unknown to me, and I expect most Americans. But I believe that I have really come to know the country, its culture and its people and that’s mainly because of the way we travel: by bike.
Bike touring is the best way to engage, to really discover a destination even in a short period of time. Cars and tour buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways; they would never come through these villages and neighborhoods as we have. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality.
I have found, over a lifetime of travel, that bike touring is my favorite style of traveling. The pace is perfect to really see things – I really like the physical aspect (as opposed to sitting in a car or bus to get point-to-point), with the ability to stop and really look around, have a conversation with a local person, take a photo. The word “authentic” has been bandied about, but bike touring affords one of the more “authentic” travel experiences. Typically, the routes go into villages, through neighborhoods, and along country roads that would not typically be traveled by a tour bus.
And now, with the availability of e-bikes (which are not scooters, but basically provide an electronic boost to your pedaling), especially in hilly destinations, you really don’t have to worry about being able to manage the distance or climbing the hills.
Exercising your body (biking versus sitting in a car or bus) also gets your brain working, and you find yourselves really thinking about what you are seeing, really absorbing.
And what you feel at the end of the trip is a combination of exhilaration, satisfaction and personal growth.
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson, who is leading this special “President’s Tour” of Albania (and who is providing some counsel to USAID on how to develop sustainable tourism, like bike trips), says that too many people have a misconception of what bike tours are about.
“They think they will be biking 100 miles in a day.” In fact, the distances each day were more in the range of 25-50 miles, depending upon the difficulty, and are broken up with coffee stops and lunch.
More significantly, the bike tour itinerary is constructed so that the distances are manageable (there are classes of guided bike-tours which indicate the difficulty), and the emphasis is on enjoying and appreciating the destination, as opposed to racing or training for the Olympics. The day’s rides are designed to feature the best scenery and sites. And each day, we finish biking early in the afternoon and have time for sightseeing, or visit sites along the way, still arriving early in the afternoon at our destination. (Admissions are typically included and the visits are guided.)
Also people assume that on a guided tour, they will have to ride in a pack. In fact, we ride at our own pace.
Also, even though this is a guided group trip, we ride at our own pace – the guide or the group typically will take a water break to allow the slower rider (me) catch up, and there will always be someone to wait for the following rider if there is a turn. When there are larger groups, there is typically a guide at the front and at the back. (Once I inexplicably wound up as the lead rider and came to a fork in the road, and was just consulting my map when I hear shouts to tell me I was on the wrong side of the fork.).
In the Greek Isles on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip, when we had a dozen in our group, there was a guide leading and another following; here in Albania, with only five riders, we had a guide and are followed by a van (Bato keeps a distance so we barely notice him) – and if any of us would have felt we couldn’t finish a climb, could have just hopped in.
The rides are supported – the van carries our luggage (that is a key difference with traveling on your own) as well as a supply of water.
There are variations on bike tours.
Guided bike tours are a terrific advantage, especially if you are traveling on your own – you get to join a group. But you also have the benefit of a guide to lead, who knows the territory, speaks the language, has mapped the best route both for riding as well as sights), and can explain things. Equally important, there is the benefit of the support van that carries luggage and is available in case someone feels they can’t climb the hill. You have the benefit of arranged coffee stops, lunch places, quaint accommodations, admissions to sites and attractions. On your own, you would need massive amounts of time to research the route, find lodging, not know the quality of the road or how long it would take to get to the destination.
Self-guided trips: Apart from guided tours (as the Albania trip and the boat/bike tour of the Greek Isles), there are self-guided trips, where you travel on your own, say with a friend or family or your own small group (which I did on the Danube Bike Trail with my two adult sons). But you still have the benefit of a mapped-out route (you can do at your own pace and pleasure), the maps with the route, itinerary, the bike rentals, and vouchers for the pre-arranged accommodations. You can choose your style of accommodation, from modest inns to luxury hotels (if available). The ride is supported – they pick up your luggage and deliver it to the next inn, which is a tremendous advantage. And there would be help available if you needed it along the way.
In both cases, you benefit from the expertise of the local tour operators, as well as their buying power to book accommodations at favorable rates.
BikeTours.com is basically a broker that has cataloged the best tours operated by local companies. I have typically found the programs to provide excellent value for dollar. Their pre-trip preparation materials are excellent, and their logistical coordination (pick up at airport, transfers, for example) are really well done.
Beginning with next season’s brochure, the company is returning to its roots and concentrating its offerings on Europe, rather than the entire world.
The biketours.com website is really user-friendly, but if you have trouble deciding where you want to go, you can check out the Gold Star Tours, which is a compendium of the most popular (for different reasons), and the Founders Tour (which I took this year to Albania), which is specially done.
The key advantage of working with BikeTours.com advisors is that they know the destinations and the biking programs and can give the kind of advice to make the best choices (based on interest, goals, ability) and prepare for the trip (everything from a superb packing list to organizing transfer, pre- and post-trip hotels).As BikeTours motto says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com
You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).
You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.
You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.
The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.
Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.
But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.
Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world, under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.
To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.
I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.
“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ – made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”
“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”
Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains. According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”
That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.
The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.
The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.
The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.
The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).
Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).
But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).
Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.
Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)
In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda, when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.
I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).
You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)
Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.
Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.
Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)
More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table. With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.
And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.
Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.
Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)
Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans, and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.
Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).
And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.
Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.
Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.
This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.
These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).
BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.
The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.
The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.
This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.
There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges ,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).
BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.