I think it's fair to say that Albania does not enjoy the best reputation. Residents of former Yugolsavian states who can't agree on much (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia etc.) all seem similarly disparaging and sincerely warn you of the dangers in visiting Albania.
[Later in Greece I would have similar stereotypes parroted]
I think a similar though less pervasive stereotype exists in the UK with Albania generally often dismissed as a land of thieves and cut purses.
While it's true that I saw rather more UK car registrations than UK drivers I also found Albania to be by some distance the warmest and friendliest of all the countries I have visited so far. Every 5th car would beep enthusiastically while waves and calls of hellos would follow you down the road from pedestrians. I might have expected such attention to be a trifle bothersome but it was in fact really nice.
My first full day in Albania began at 04:30 with Fred's alarm ringing. The sky still black as we set off for Koman to catch the 09:00 ferry. We felt confident that we had budgeted plenty of time to cover the 43k and any contingencies.
However we hadn't expected the last 30k to Koman to be quite so challenging. It wasn't that the road was a tough up hill along pristine lakeside ridges. (It was) But rather that the road conditions were nothing short of abysmal. Pot holes 3 feet deep vied with tarmac-less stretches and even sections where the road had seemingly completely slid off, leaving 45 degree angles to cycle across.
With a time limit we couldn't afford to take the road slowly. The inevitable result occurred 5k from Koman at 08:00. My first puncture of the trip.
I tried pumping her up and trying to cycle the last few k but within 200m I was back down to the rims. With the clock ticking I began undoing the back wheel and sent Fred on to the ferry telling him not to wait for me.
Lady luck smiled. A flat bed truck carrying an Albanian family turned the corner five minutes later and having flagged them down and mimed my need for a lift to the ferry the bike were allowed to hop in the back.
Not a relaxing trip but certainly exhilarating.
Emerging from the bond villain bowls of the damn into the bright sunshine and the madness that was the overloaded ferry quay.
With 20 minutes to spare and Fred sprinting through the tunnel not far behind we got our tickets and boarded the ferry for what we had heard was the most beautiful ferry ride in Europe. As it turns out it was also the most crowded.
If our fully laden bicycles weren't bad enough for the other passangers they also loaded on three massive motorbikes.
With barely any room to move and thoroughly knackered it was difficult to appreciate the glorious scenery. Instead I spent much of my time squeezing past people trying to find somewhere that I could curl into a ball and go to sleep.
But it was very pretty.
It was a small relief to finally get off the bike and after a quick swim in the bloody cold lake and a slightly longer time spent f-ing and blinding while fixing my puncture we were off again through beautiful north Albanian mountains following one of the Balkans seemingly inexhaustible gorges.
Our destination was the small town of Bajram Curri where we would be staying with Jenny and Ian, two American peace corps members who were the very soul of hospitality, taking both me and Fred in for not one, but two days!
Shooting hoops with Ian in the incredibly incongruent foreign built basketball court, eating Pilaf and watching Jenny work her industrial sized juicer.
The housing stock in Bajram Curri was in a poor state with the outsides edging towards dilapidated. The insides however, as Jenny and Ian's apartment testified, were really very nice. I wonder how often western eyes see such buildings and assume the inhabitants live lives of unrelenting shabbiness while the reality is much less dismal.
Albania had been good to me and Fred but having looked over the maps it was decided that Kosovo offered the best route south.
I'm still not sure if this sign, just before you cross the border, was sincerely meant or an Albanian joke
Kosovo is a broad plain in the center of the hilly Balkans which perhaps offering some explanation as to why it has been so hotly contested throughout history.
The riding was hot but easy as we traversed the country heading for Prizren. Kosovo seemed markedly more western than northern Albania but the more liberal dress sense was contradicted by the seeming fad for home made cars. (think scrap heap challenge meets robot wars)
Kosovo continued to deliver on the funny sign front. Answers on a postcard explaining what this one means?
Laid back Prizren offered a welcome escape from the sun and ten euros bought a great meal for two, ice cream and numerous soft drinks.
With evening approaching we headed further south along another gorge that rose into a national park. The area was remarkably affluent with swanky hotels and nice restaurants dotted along the valley sides.
Spotting one with a large lawn I went and introduced myself and explained that we wanted to eat and camp in their field. Unruffled by my unusual request we were welcomed into a huge but lovely restaurant full to bursting with locals enjoying the cool riverside air and enjoyed another impossibly cheap Kosovan meal.
Yes that is a massive sausage stuffed with cheese.
The campsite the next morning. You can't see the horseflies but they were there.
All that was left of our Kosovan excursion was to climb the rest of the way out of the valley enjoying the views and stopping to chat with the locals from whom we learnt that the river valley was a Serbian area (Kosovo is 92% Albanian) which perhaps explained the relative affluence.
Albania and Kosovo had been irresistibly friendly and majestically beautiful in parts and it was with a heavy heart that we crossed the border into Macedonia. Although given it too is majority ethnic Albanian's we wouldn't be feeling too much of a culture shock.