Thursday, 11 July 2013

into the wild

While Gayle is checking out accomodation in Virpazar I get chatting to Ili who is waiting with his dad Merko in the shade for a Russian couple who are cruising the lake,  Merko is a driver and they have brought the Russians from the coast.  Ili starts asking about the loaded bikes - conversations often start like this.  He speaks English, learnt working on cruise ships in the States, and we chat a bit.  His family are Serbs who lived in Croatia before the war and moved here afterwards.  The census statistics for Montenegro show only 3% Serbians before the war and now about 30%.  It seems that tourism on the coast here is picking up this year as more Russians, who need a visa to visit EU countries, switch from Croatia.  Ili doesn't understand Russian but is learning - he has a girlfriend in St Petersburg and they speak English together, but when he visited her, her friends only spoke Russian.  His dad (Ili translates) thinks the cycle touring is a great idea - to spend so much time outdoors.  It's a significant factor for us, but one that few people mention.
a room with a view in Virpazar
We stay in a guesthouse where the daughter speaks English and the dad speaks a little German.  We are overwhelmed with the lowland heat and feel oppressed at the thought of our route this summer - will it be better in the mountains as we go south?? Should we just stop somewhere in August?  We have always considered winter a tough time to be on the bike, but can we cope with a Balkan summer?  In the village square we meet Chris and Steve again sitting outside one of the bars in the shade.  The men's final of Wimbledon is on and a few other English and a Scot appear to watch.  We root for Djokovic on the grounds that he has been known to smile.  In the evening we treat ourselves to pork chops cooked in beer with apples and served with mash, of course.  Ahhhhh.

After a couple of days relaxation out of the sun, we head along the southern shore of Lake Skadar towards the Albanian border.  We don't have a lot of information about the route except we know there are chestnut woods along the way which could be a shady place to camp.  

The road is small, steep in sections, and completely exposed, above and below.  In the heat haze we can see the mountains on the northern side.  There are small villages along the shore and I think the people here are Albanian - this territory was take in one of the peace agreeements after one of the wars - Balkan, First or Second?  Seems to be a recurring issue in these parts... Along the road are concrete cisterns where it looks like rainwater is collected so we draw some for drinking and cooking later and when we reach the woods we stop for the day.  As it's only midday we don't pitch the tent straight away and spend the afternoon reading on our sarong.  But first we have to clear the ground of two or three year's worth of spiky chestnut cases. Soon we realise the forest floor is moving.  Up above in the trees is a chorus of crickets that gradually reaches a crescendo before finally ebbing to a gentle background hum.  But down on the ground the buggers are everywhere and every few minutes one jumps and lands on us.  They can smell our food?  But do they eat white bread?

In the morning we continue to Ostros, a village with a couple of shops and a cafe.  Out on the cafe balcony is a young Swiss cycling couple having a morning coffee so we join them for a chat.  They're travelling lighter than us but not wild camping - they only have three weeks.  They too had ridden some of the same roads as us in Montenegro and marvelled at the scenery.  But they are also going further than us each day and trying to fit it all in to their holiday.  
Into The Wild - but I couldn't persuade Gayle to pose on the roof
The road from here climbs gradually to a ridge where from where we can look over into Albania.  It's Gayle's birthday today - a fact I have completely and shamefully forgotten (partly because she got her present in Dubrovnik) - but this year she gets to visit a new country on her birthday.  And Albania cannot be just another Balkan country.  For a start I think it might be the only country in the world that has honoured George W Bush by naming a road after him.  And the whole nation in communist times were huge fans of Norman Wisdom.  So apart from their indiscriminate taste in politicians and comedians what else can the country offer?

the obligatory border photo
To get to the border we traverse the mountainside on the other side in a very long zig-zag before hitting the main road from the Montenegrin coast heading to the border.  Along the way we stop to join a queue of locals at a standipe to get fresh water.  They come in their cars with plenty of 5 litre containers. Traffic to the border consists of plenty of shiny big cars from northern Europe and when we ride pass the queue at the border they look like Albanians returning for the Summer.  In fact we soon realise that many of the cars in Albania have foreign plates.  The ride to Shkodra is flat and easy and we pass the requisite number of concrete bunkers and donkeys and carts to hint at the joys to come.  

Shkodra sits at the southern end of the lake and is remarkable for the numbers of local cyclists - the like of which we haven't seen since we left Grenoble.  Everybody uses a bike it seems - well, everybody except those with a fascination for big shiny cars.  Car washes proliferate.  Who wants a dusty Merc?  We find the hotel recommended to us by Misha and Marie and stop once again before we melt in the midday heat.

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