The road from Kalpaki to the Albanian border winds through plains and crests hills, clouds turn dark and soon it’s pouring rain. “Great,” I wonder, will this last? I see patches of blue sky and take the risk to just ride on.
My jacket is soaked when I arrive at the border bathed in sunlight. The Greeks stamp my passport and I zoom a few hundred meters to the Albanian immigration point. Another stamp in the passport and I cruise to customs. I pull out my waterproof document holder and walk up to the window.
“Document for your moto,” she says while pointing to my bike.
The waterproof document holder is always difficult to open and pull papers out. They stick to the sides in the heat and I’m getting frustrated trying to yank out the proper documentation.
“Ok, ok,” she smiles, “You go.”
She sees nothing, and I ride on. Ha, everything official and cleared, I guess.
Welcome to Albania.
It’s a windy ride to the turnoff to Sarande, a beach-side resort along what people refer to the Albanian Riviera. I’m flanked by two mountain ranges to the east and west. The valley seems quiet, but teeming with agriculture. There are plenty of gas stations, but I’m glad I filled up, anyway.
Just as I make the turn toward Sarande I notice a small turtle crossing the pavement. I stop my bike in the middle of the road and run back to pick her up and place her on the side of the road. From what I’ve seen of both Greek and Albanian drives, had I not stopped and rescued her, she would have been a road pancake. I am happy but realize that my bike is in the middle of the road and cars have to wait to pass in both directions. I am sorry, but nobody honks or makes me feel guilty for the bonehead stop. No, they wave at me and flash a big smile.
On the map, it looks like a twenty-minute ride over the rugged coastal range to get to the Sarande. I know this is where I want to stay, but as usual, I travel with no itinerary and have no reservations for accommodations.
The road up the mountain clings to the rugged cliffs, rudimentary concrete block guard rails have big gaps between them, a car would be stopped from going over, but a motorcycle would sail right through. Through switchback after switch back and tight mountain curves, I climb and climb. There are no lines on the road, in the center or marking the shoulder—because there is no shoulder. Albanian and Italian drivers fly down the mountain in the center of the road. They don’t even bother to pull to the side when they see me coming, or do they see me?
The drivers winding up the mountain, try to pass me on the short blasts of straightaways. It’s nerve-racking because they leave no space behind me. I can almost reach behind and pound my fist on the hood of the car tailgating me. When they have the courage to pass me, I could reach out and touch them. I am claustrophobic and yet the mountain still climbs. I think to myself, if it’s fate that my earthly life ends on this journey, it will at the wheel and the whim of an Albanian driver.
Even when I’m able to gain distance from the driver behind me speeding through the switchbacks, the drivers heading down do their job to freak me out, barreling down the road in my lane. Oh well, this is Albania, and I figure I’ll soon be at the beach.
However, I’ve underestimated the time to cross these mountains. I swallow hard when I see a sign showing I’ve still got 49 more kilometers (30 miles) until Sarande.
Sarande tumbles down a steep hill and falls into a crescent-shaped bay. In the middle of it is a popular ferry terminal for boats coming from and going to nearby Corfu, a Greek island just 30 minutes away on the fastest ferry.
There is a handful of roads that hug the hills that rise from the Adriatic. They are all narrow and despite the efforts of police to curb parking on one side, cars park on both sides of the roads, some of which are two way. This makes for a challenge when large trucks or buses barrel down the lanes—often stopping traffic for over 10 minutes while cars jockey, back-up or otherwise thread the needle past the massive rigs.
Some roads are one-way, but I cannot make any sense of the town, and Apple Maps shows the turn-by-turn navigation is unavailable, and Google, which tries to guide me with turn-by-turn instruction, sends me down one-way streets or dead ends.
I abandon any help from GPS and go by gut through this town. Hotels with beautiful facades are wedged between communist era concrete blocks, and beyond the soccer stadium at the north side of town, I begin to taste a hint of Albania away from the waterfront.
The first hotel I try is booked. I’m hot and the traffic is painfully slow and difficult that I fret hopping back on the bike. So I try the hotel next door. It’s also booked. I am riding the road closest to the water on the north side of town and 100 meters south I duck into a short lane that deadness at the water and a beach-side bar and the Aloha Hotel & Restaurant.
They have a room, but only for one night. It’s 6:30pm, I know I’ll stay for two nights. And I dread changing hotels, but I’m exhausted, hot and I’m dreaming of getting out of my riding suit and cooling off with a cold beer.
I take the chance. Send that positive energy, the power of will and hope that there will be a cancellation tomorrow. I take the room, get out of the suit, and watch the sunset over the Adriatic with a cold beer. Colors of orange, amber and yellow silhouette the jagged mountains to the north and south. Despite, or maybe because of, for now, Albania feels like paradise.
I’ll have another beer.