Last update 09 June 2008
In May, 2008, I spent two weeks in Albania. First week I stayed in the city of Vlora, during the second one I crossed the country from Ionian sea coast to the Greek border near the Prespa lake. All this gave me an opportunity to acquire my own experience in cycling in Albania, which I am happy to share with you, my dear Reader!
Roads. There is a general opinion that Albanian roads are terrible. To some extent this may the case, but please do not forget that this is he opinion of car drivers, while the requirements of a bicyclist are different!
Main roads in Albania are asphalted, but the pavement is usually old, destroyed in many places; the roads are narrow. But driving your bike you do not need all the width of the road, moreover, the edge of the road is usually remains intact. So, by my own impression, I did not feel any principal difference between the roads in Albania and, say, in Hungary or Poland. Furthermore, main roads are now actively reconstructed, which makes them perfect for cycling. For instance, the picturesque road Vlora Llogara pass Saranda already became a kind of «classical» cycling itinerary.
A typical main road - you see, asphalt as asphalt, nothing special
A typical secondary road in the mountains
The renewed road Vlora - Saranda
Secondary roads. Here the situation is different: these are usually narrow mountain roads, they are mostly not paved, although, the surface is hard and never muddy. You may travel there, but with a low speed.
Maps. There are not that many maps of Albania, but as a matter of fact detailed maps are not needed. Albania is a mountain country, and basic roads are displayed at any map. The main feature is that if you want to decide, which road is «main», different maps will show it differently. There are some roads, which are displayed as principal ones (perhaps they are really important from a military or strategic point of view), but in fact drivers do not use them because of their quality. For example, the shortest road between Vlora and Tepelene is displayed as a principal one, while everybody use a longer road via Fier (115 km instead of 85), because the shortest road in its major part is nothing but a small mountain road. That means that planning your itinerary in advance be flexible perhaps on the spot you will have to change your route.
In Vlora, in a bookstore I saw a country map (1:650000). It looked reasonable, many villages are displayed, but without roads leading to them.
So, my opinion is the following. Simply print out a basic map from the web, then ask people on the spot (I will dwell on this later) and enjoy your travel!
Drivers. There is a commonly shared myth about «crazy Albanian drivers». I completely disagree with it: the drivers are a-de-quate! They are not worse and not better than, say, Greek or Italian ones: a normal Mediterranean mentality. Since the roads are of bad quality and no one wants to break his car, they do not drive on very high speed, the number of road accidents, the number of wreaths on the sides of the roads is definitely less than in Italy or France. An important thing is that they respect cyclists (in fact, not only cyclists, but any kind of slow traffic such as, say, donkeys) this concerns driving outside cities.
City driving. In cities, it is common for people to use bicycles. Formal traffic rules are generally not respected (except following traffic lights) and the main rule is common sense. Bicycles enjoy big freedom if you need to drive by the left side of a street, you may do that, but the price for the right-to-drive-left is the assumed priority of cars over bikes. The main rules for city driving are:
- be predictable
- don't be sudden
When you come to a city for the first time, just watch how other cyclists behave and follow them.
What happens if two bicycles are heading towards each other on the same side of the road? When I saw it for the first time, this looked really exciting, as if Albanian bikers follow navigational Rules of the Road: they indicate by waving hand by which side should they pass.
Bicycles and parts. If you drive an «advanced» bicycle, it may be a problem to find proper spare parts for it. Most of Albanians drive simple old, sometimes very old bikes. Tires, inner tubes that you can buy are usually of very bad quality. My pump was broken and I did not manage to buy a reasonable compact pump, only huge ones were on sale! That means, that if you plan a really long travel, get ready to bring necessary parts with you, especially taking into account that in mountain villages there are no bicycle shops at all.
This is a typical bike, you will see a lot of them in Albanian towns.
Communicating with people. If you decide to use English as lingua franca, you severely restrict your communication (and, by the way, increase your expenses). The foreign languages spoken in Albania are Greek and Italian, according to the most popular destinations of labor migration: any owner of a small village shop earned his capital by some years of hard work in Greece or in Italy. In addition to that, I strongly recommend to learn a dozen of basic words and expressions in Albanian like «Hello!», «Where is the road to..», «Thank you», «right», «left» and so on. In addition I recommend to learn the expression «flamuri shqiptar» which means «Albanian flag» you may see it at many buildings and it maybe useful for indication of direction. Do not be lazy, pay half an hour and learn to read Albanian a collection of basic phrases together with pronunciation rules can be easily found on the web.
One more pseudo-linguistic issue, which is surprisingly never mentioned, but strongly confuses people from abroad, is counting money. Now in Albania when speaking about money, there is an implicit factor of 10. For instance, if you ask the exchange rate of euro, you will be told «një mijë dyqind njëzet» which literally means «one thousand two hundred and twenty», while you see it written as.. 122. When you ask prices, they are, when spoken, always multiplied by 10, that is, «dyqind leka» means a 20-leka coin.
Dear travelers, if you need my assistance, please do not hesitate to write me
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