Butrint National Park
There’s nothing like the feeling I get when I cross the border of a new country; being free and having an unknown road ahead of me just waiting to be explored. I love it! I was excited to get it once again as I crossed into Albania from northern Greece.
I had lollygagged around northern Greece before entering Albania, and so it was already getting late as I crossed the Vivari Channel on a small ferry/platform hauled across by wire ropes, guarded by old Venetian Castles. This channel marks the joining of the Ionian Sea I had been so used to in Greece, and the Adriatic Sea that continues to the north.
I was on my way to the coast and a place called Ksamil which I’d read was one of the nicest beaches in Albania. It is situated in Butrint National Park, a large wetland area containing Butrint Lake and a host of unique landscape, archaeology and environment. I got a great view of the area as the road climbed over a mountain.
The weather was good and I thought I’d take the Tiger down a gravel track off-shoot, just because I could. It was pretty steep and bumpy in places, but the re-born Tiger lapped it up. Eventually I came to a dead-end, but there was nice views of the estuary, and was good fun to boot.
Shortly after I rode into Ksamil, an area dotted with picturesque, sandy bays. If I’d thought Greek coastal towns were quiet out-of-season, then the Albanian ones were completely dead. There was hardly anyone around, and it almost seemed spooky, as if everyone had been body-napped by space invaders.
The beaches though were indeed beautiful, and the water warm and crystal clear.
However, I didn’t find anywhere ‘out of the way’ to pitch my tent, and didn’t fancy pitching in full view of houses and hotels, even if they were empty. So, I rode on up the coast to continue my search.
The Vivari Channel I had crossed earlier connects the sea to the largely freshwater Lake Butrint, and I had stunning views of the lake and the mountains reflected in its waters as the road climbed higher. Because the connection to the sea brings brackish waters to the lake at high tide, it creates ideal conditions for mollusk farming, and I could see many of these farms from scenic viewpoints along the way.
I eventually found the perfect beach just north of Ksamil at Manastir, down along windy road that ended at a beautiful, secluded bay. There was a beach bar and restaurant, but they were closed up for the winter, so I had the place to myself. I imagine in the summer it would be a great place to have a meal and a few drinks.
I set up directly on the beach, had a swim, made dinner and then lit a beach fire. The water was still lovely and clear, calm, and surprisingly warm.
There was a nice, red sunset, and then a starry sky appeared as I lay listening to waves gently lapping against the shore. Ii fell asleep quickly.
Next morning I woke up to another calm, tranquil day, and waited for the sun to rise and burn off the slight dew covering the tent.
Once packed, I continued heading up the coast to hunt for breakfast.
The coastal city of Sarande wasn’t hard to find, as it’s quite big, and in I dived headfirst, as I was hungry. It was the first time I’d seen so many people and cars together in one place since arriving in Albania.
A slightly confusing one-way system took me right through the city bypassing the seafront, so around I turned and headed back in to find a café by the water.
Soon I was sitting comfortably at such a café by the marina, ordered an omelet and toast, and watched the world go by.
A nice old gent came up to ask where I was from, and we had a little chat. Turned out he was a local tour guide, and spent a few minutes answering my questions and giving me a few tips on places to go. So far the Albanians I had met had been very nice indeed.
The Albanian Riviera
One great thing I loved about Albania, it had photos of the attraction you were about to pass on the side of the road, so you could look at it before you decided to visit or not.
I saw a sign for a beach called Bunec, and decided to take the long, twisty mountain road down as it looked quite nice. It led to another lovely, isolated bay, and had a long cement pier I could ride the Tiger down, which is always fun.
The only other 2 people there were a couple of Czech travellers in a Volkswagen T3 Campervan, with a 10 month old baby and a dog. They’d come down from the inland mountains to warm up, and told me it was lovely up there, but already getting very cold – down to freezing. With this useful information I decided to keep to my original plan and stick to the coast, riding up the Albanian Riviera. Maybe I would head into the hills later on if the forecast improved.
As I rode up the coast, popping into villages and exploring beaches along the way, the whole coastline remained very unpopulated and quiet. Many of the buildings seemed to be under construction, and there were new hotels being built everywhere.
The coastal road was, however, perfect. It had everything – great views, good quality surface and no traffic.
Each time I saw a nice looking beach from the road, or on an advertising poster, I stopped by to take a look. They were now becoming more pebbly than sandy, but were still empty and great places to relax for a break.
Himare was a very nice beach town, very clean and quaint with nice looking hotels and restaurants. It also had a wide, calm bay for swimming long distances.
I’d heard Dhermi was supposed to be a happening tourist spot, but again, like all the other coastal towns and villages I was passing through, it seemed like a ghost town. The only people I saw hanging around were a few old people, the men always in jackets and pork pie hats with walking sticks, and the women always dressed in black. They were friendly though, and it was nice to once again be waved at as I rode past. I suppose there are just too many motorbikes in Greece for people to do this.
And so I had once again come from seeing thousands of fellow motorcyclists in Greece to being the lone biker.
Chickens must be one of the most stupid animals on the planet, and Albanian chickens proved just as stupid as the others, as once again one flew/ran directly towards my front wheel as I passed. I just managed to save carving chicken sashimi by an inch.
The road once again rose high into the mountains, offering more scenic views and fast twisties.
In places the speed limit on the mountain twisties was only 30 km/h, which is really slow, so I gave this a stiff ignoring. Needless to say, I was surprised when I saw a couple of Albanian Policemen hiding behind one sharp bend with a speed radar gun. As it was an uphill stretch, I slowed almost instantaneously, and maybe they didn’t catch me as they let me pass, or maybe they were just nice to me.
On the way down a small, muddy track to another beach, I passed another sign for the old, abandoned Monastery of St Teodor. As the track was getting narrower, steeper and muddier, I decided to give it up and visit the monastery instead.
I was impressed at the number of Albanian villages built high up on steep mountain slopes. Wasn’t it easier to build them down by the sea? Perhaps they just hated fish and fresh seafood.
I would like to come back to Albania just to see what it’s like in the high season. They must get a lot of tourists, judging by the number of hotels and campsites around. Down one (empty) coastal road they were even building a new ‘Eco-Resort’ at a place called Palase, where 2,062 years ago Julius Caesar rested his legion during his pursuit of Pompey (so I read).
Then I almost got vertigo as the road climbed so high and steeply, I ended up in the clouds.
Along the summit the road passed through pine forests and by cosy mountain huts, opening up occasionally for some great views over the other side.
It got pretty cold and I had to put on another layer. Then the long descent into Vlore started.
Fancying a beach camp again, I started looking for suitable spots, but none were forthcoming. I saw a potentially good place on my map, but as it was a few miles away I stopped for dinner at a kebab joint and then jumped on the (free) highway to get there faster.
Turning west at the unimpressive city of Fier, I rode for quite some time before I reached the spot at a place called Darzeze. I was there just in time to catch a lovely sunset, but unfortunately the ground was a big tidal flat, and there were a few too many people hanging around to camp rough (gypsies?), so I decided to move on.
I spied another place on the map at Divjake, and started making my way towards it. However, when I passed a cheap motel on the highway, I got lazy and decided to call it a day.
As much as I like camping, it can no way match the comfort of a lovely, warm, crisp, white bed, and a hot shower.
Strangely, the motel room had pictures of Egypt on the wall. I wonder if there’s a hotel in Egypt with pictures of Albania on the wall? I have seen this kind of thing quite a bit over my travels.
Divjake looked great on the map, a green forested peninsula, so in the morning I went to take a look. Turned out it was green and forested and had a huge, flat sandy beach. However, you couldn’t say the beach was especially beautiful, being somewhat dark and hard, but it was good fun riding along it.
The tourist village there was, surprise surprise, deserted, and most of the shops, restaurants and hotels were boarded up. However, this was somewhat different as it looked as though the place had been boarded up for years, not just for a season.
I rode on north up the coast towards Montenegro, my next stop.
There were loads of policemen hiding in speed traps all the way up. Fortunately, they weren’t that good at hiding, and their yellow fluorescent yellow caps were easy to spot through the bushes. If only all policemen wore those!
Just before crossing into Montenegro, I stopped for lunch at the sandy 3km beach at Shengjin. As a un-and-coming tourist resort I had expected to see many hotels under construction, and although the beach was OK, it didn’t match the beauty of Albania’s southern beaches on the Riviera.
By now the sunny weather had disappeared and the sky had clouded over. I had a feeling I was going to get wet, so pressed on quickly towards the Montenegrin border.
And I was right – I did get wet.