Where in the World is Albania? Cycling in a Little Known Country of Mystery –
When informed that I was going cycling in Albania, most asked where, or even what, Albania was. It’s a small nation with a complex, diverse, and difficult history, Albania is north of Greece and south of Croatia/Montenegro on the Adriatic coast. The Great Canadian Travel Group helped book our trip to this fascinating, rarely seen country.
Rated moderate/challenging by our cycling tour company – while the mileage may not have been lengthy, the altitude gains were steep. The first day on the bike was challenging, with a total ascent of 1200 metres (4000 feet). I knew then that I should have spent more time at spin classes preparing for this trip. Switchbacks and steady climbs, up into a pine forest. Past the shepherds herding sheep, goats, and cows, each animal species adorned with their own size of bell to distinguish them. Past the small subsistence farms with their own vineyards, vegetable patches, and stone houses. Past the decayed ruins of communism.
Albania is mainly known for its quirky history – an extra strict adherence to communism, to the point that the dictatorship sealed the country completely from the rest of the world and pursued its own purges and cultural revolution (kind of like North Korea today minus nuclear weapons). Paranoid about attacks to its socialist paradise from abroad and to prevent its residents from escaping, the dictator depopulated the 10 kilometre zone around its borders and built 700,000 concrete and steel bunkers with slits for guns. The bunkers are still there, a menacing threat even though abandoned today. Some bunkers are small with room just for a couple of soldiers with machine guns, others housed artillery weapons, and some are large enough for hundreds to live and work in and survive nuclear warfare.
As a result of pursuing an economic plan to be completely self-sustaining, Albania emerged from communism in the 1990s as the poorest country in Europe, which it still is. Many of the farmers and shepherds live a life no different from a century ago. Much of Albania has embraced capitalism and the towns and cities are growing in prosperity and resemble Italy and Greece.
Not to be outdone in thought control, the communists not only proclaimed Albania the first atheist state, but then amended the constitution to prohibit religion completely. Many religious buildings were destroyed and religious leaders imprisoned in labour camps (similar to Soviet Gulags, but without the freezing weather). The mosques have been rebuilt (largely by Saudi Arabia) but are mainly empty.
Many Catholic churches have been rebuilt by the Vatican, and Orthodox churches with Greek aid. This country however, is largely European secular.
Albania has a rich and diverse history. We were able to visit ancient Greek ruins in Butrint, including a stone Greek amphitheatre which the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans later put to good use. Many Byzantine churches exist, complete with gold icon paintings and elaborate gold screens to divide the clergy from the congregation. The Ottomans (Turks) also colonized Albania and half of the population is notionally Muslim, though liberal and we did not see a single hijab in the country. The Italians invaded Albania, bringing their architecture and food. Seaside towns that cater to prosperous Albanians and foreigners now have gorgeous promenades with a Mediterranean vibe like Italy, France, or Portugal.
Not surprisingly, we had never eaten Albanian food previously. A delicious mix of Greek, Turkish, and Italian food, we stuffed ourselves daily to replenish the energy for cycling. Though April, fresh garden produce was available from the farms. The fish was fresh and the carnivores on the trip loved the grilled lamb. Fresh cheeses, yogurt, and butter were made locally on neighbouring farms. Now I have to find Albanian recipes to replicate many of the dishes. I lost no weight on this cycling trip unfortunately.
The biggest cycling challenge was the last day: 70 kilometres with 1600 metres of elevation gain. One mountain pass of 800 metres elevation gain was a 10 kilometre hill of switchbacks, unrelenting in their steepness (an 8-10% grade) and heat. A climb worthy of the Tour de France; it was beyond me! Known as the beast, I was defeated almost half way up so waited for the bus of shame (aka the support vehicle) to pick me up. The screaming downhill on the other side was an exhilarating ride!!!
If you want to see a country that is a step back in history; is safe; has friendly people; has terrific healthy food to eat; has great wines to drink; has historical sites to explore – whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish, or communist; and has mountainous scenery and terrific beaches on the Adriatic – then head to Albania. Go now, before the crowds flock to this gem of a country.