Tuesday, 27 August 2013

like ships in the night

As one of Gayle's favourite country songs goes - it's lonely in the saddle......since the horse died.  So it's nice to meet folk along the way.  On the day we leave Ohrid we cycle southwards along the east side of the lake, past all the large hotels and sun-lounger beaches, through a couple of small villages and up to a point where Albania looms out of the heat haze and into view on the other side. The road we take turns upwards away from the lake and climbs slowly and comfortably/cruelly* (*delete as applicable) up the mountainside.  According to the laws of nature as you ascend the views get better - this is no exception.  The road tops out at a cleft in the ridgeline running the length of the lake.  We have emerged into a windswept valley of dry grass and dwarf trees with views of the peaks on the ridge and across Lake Prespa over the other side.  It looks like a lovely spot to camp so after lunch we don't move on.  

cool camping at 1500 metres

In a while a campervan pulls up and we meet Jerome, Justine and their daughters Elia and Salome. They too are looking for a camp spot so together we pull into a small dip off the road and make camp for the evening.  The family are having a six-month adventure around eastern Europe.  They'd got to Istanbul and are now en route for home.  We pass a sociable evening in our little patch of wilderness, chattering away and complaining about the cold, for yes dear reader, c'est vraiment froid.

jolly campers

After a good night's sleep in cooler climes we say our farewells and go our separate ways. We begin the big freewheel down to Lake Prespa but pull up after about 5km when Gayle's back tyre bursts.  Not the tyre, the tube.  The rim is hot, a brake pad is rubbing when it shouldn't, but the cause of the flat is the old rim tape problem again.  My magic hands have failed to get the tape right into the groove of the rim.  So off comes the luggage and the wheel and off with the tyre for a little roadside repair.  And so here we are on a bend of a mountain road with hardly any traffic when up cycles Daniel.  He stops to greet us and Gayle asks where he's from.  She doesn't hear the Yorkshire accent - too long on the road.  Daniel started his ride in Cyprus about 7 weeks ago.  Inspirationally he bought himself the cheapest mountain bike from Decathlon and set off on his first cycle tour.  He is only the second English cycle tourist we have met in our journey so we talked and talked and talked.  It's sod's law that we are going in opposite directions.  Although with Daniel it is hard to tell exactly which direction he's going in.  He's like a kid in a sweetie shop when he unfolds his map of the Balkans.  Where next?  His enthusiasm and his obvious pleasure at discovering the freedom of being on the road is infectious.  Here is a very happy man and his talk of Turkey gets us looking forward in both senses.  Finally, though, we have to move on. 

John and Daniel in team colours

Saturday, 24 August 2013

it's still Ohrid

So we tell Vic we would probably stay a couple of nights and then it becomes a few days and then before you know it a week has passed and we're having a kind of 'beach' holiday.  What I mean is that we spend our mornings reading and listening to music, doing crosswords and watching the world go by down at the lakeshore in Ohrid.  For the first time since we left Ivana and Antonio's we are trying to enjoy the sunshine.  No more lurking in the shade, no more pausing under trees for water stops, no more evasion.  This is proper sun-bathing.  The lakeshore is peaceful, clean and pleasant - a promenade with benches, a nice bit of grass and a few trees offering shade.  No beach but when Gayle wants a swin she can just jump straight in.  Mind you, we can't stick it all day and take our now regular siesta back in the room.

"Three down, five letters, third letter 'e': Gas unlikely to react"
We thought the town would be overrun with holidaymakers but it really seems quiet to us.  Vic is happy though - he has been full, he tells us, all summer.  Each morning he goes 'fishing' i.e. looking for punters. Normally he has one or two rooms to fill and normally he catches his fish.  Each morning we walk down to the lake and find our bench.  For some reason it's always the same one.  But we are not alone in this madness.  Around us we start to recognise other regulars: Old Gobber, a septugenarian who wanders around in his trunks and his ten gallon straw hat, spitting now and again.  Then there's Cool Kid - a young blond boy with brown skin (all young kids here are brown - they have spent the whole summer outdoors) who looks cool - who has all the accessories a kid needs to look cool: the fishing rod and stool, the canoe, the bike, the walnut tree, the Che Guevara t-shirt.  Most folk here are definitely Balkan or Eastern European - there's an unpretentiousness that fights constantly with the preposterous.  While all the oldies sit around with it all hanging out, (and there's plenty of it to hang out), the youngsters are all looking a bit skinny and self-conscious.  Plenty of naff t-shirt slogans and one good one, worn by a stout middle-aged (our age??) woman, saying: I Only Have Until Dawn

"Five across, six letters, 's' something 'a': Electrical discharge"

Ostensibly we are seeing out some more of the high summer and planning our route through Greece and across Turkey, but the truth is we also have a good value room, the place is peaceful and relaxed, there's a great local market full of seasonal fruit and veg, and, best of all, chicken on the spit just behind the market.  What more could we want??? Of course, it's a great chance to clean and polish the bikes, sift through our stuff and shed some unwanted grammes, darn socks, mend underwear, fix that flappy bit on my left sandal.  But why spoil a good time?

"Nine down, eight letters, fourth letter 'o' and ending in 'ing' I think: Intransigent"

At some point during the second week the delight and joy of taking a shower morphs into a quotidian chore.  We notice how quickly the soap disappears.  Although one day the pharmacy neon sign tells us the temperature is 40C, there is a distinct shift in the weather.  The sunsets are sooner.  There's cloud in the dawn sky.  Could summer be fading?  Vic is kept busy looking for punters but for a couple of days their four rooms are all taken and he can relax.  From the back garden his wife has gathered up all the red peppers to hang them out to dry.  The tomatoes are plucked, skinned and tossed into a huge vat placed on top of a wood-burning stove at the front of the house and slow-cooked for half the day.  A few local women gather round and take turns to stir the sauce, chatting non-stop.  The sauce is eventually bottled up after dark.

"Okay, how about this one - 12 across, five letters, second letter 'l' : a cardinal sin"

We really should be moving on, shouldn't we?

Friday, 16 August 2013

John and the art of bicycle maintenance

We always lament the strict gender divisions we come across on our travels. I am musing these as I wash down the bikes and fiddle with the brakes and gears, while Gayle stays in the cool of our room doing sewing jobs. Vic spots me with an allen key in my hand and immediately falls under the impression that I know a thing or two about bikes.  He shows me his wobbly back wheel and asks if I could 'have a look'.   His bike looks like he has just retrieved it from a skip.  For show I turn it upside down.  Then with a spanner I remove the back wheel.  One side of the axle falls out.  I remove the axle on the other side and compare the two parts carefully.  It takes me a good ten minutes to realise that this might be the problem: the axle should be in one piece. Hmm.  At this point I should find Vic and tell him with a sad shake of my head that, with regret, I can't repair it and haven't a clue what to do.  But foolishly I tell him he needs a new axle which he goes and gets straight away. He also brings me a beer for my trouble. 

After a lot of huffing and puffing and with enough black grease all over me that I feel tempted to drop on one knee and start wailing "Mammie" I realise that there is something else awry.  Oh ballbearings.  Ballbearings. There aren't any.  I explain the position to Vic but I'm a little vague.  This time Vic gets it.  He knows now that I really don't have a clue.  But he is gentle and kind about it.  The next day when I see him he has the neighbour taking a look at the wheel.  To my relief the neighbour is telling Vic to take the wheel down to the bikeshop to get it fixed.  I am spared.  I notice that the neighbour is also fixing a puncture on the front wheel.  With my track record I am truly delighted to avoid this task.  

So much for my idle daydream to become a bike mechanic so that I could work in Norway for the summer and then travel in the winter.....here Gayle gives a little chuckle.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

it's Ohrid

It's early morning when we reach Lake Ohrid.  Still, there are people already sunbathing and a couple having a dip.  The lake is Macedonia, apparently.  But if you check the small print it tells you that one-third of the lake lies in Albanian borders.  Never mind. It's big enough for everybody.  And old enough. 300 million years.  I feel young again.  The trout here date back from before the last Ice Age.  As you can imagine, they're bloody huge.  I'm feeling light-headed because we had broken sleep last night.  After Gayle had dropped off I heard something on the tent.  We were camped in a corner of a vineyard under a plum tree, so I guessed a plum had fallen.  Then I heard the noise again.  Headtorch on, I looked out into the porch.  We had left the tent flaps unzipped and folded back for some air before going to bed.  I could only see one of Gayle's sandals.  I gave her a nudge.  "Gayle, something's eaten your sandal."  She awoke with alacrity.  Headtorch on.  Outside the missing sandal had been abandoned not far away.  About two metres from us sat a small fox, calm as anything, staring at us.  He seemed to be asking us if we wanted to play. We didn't.  But he wouldn't budge.  It felt like that scene in Grizzly Man when 'Mr. Fox' comes a-calling.  A few minutes later he was pawing under the tail of the tent.  As a compromise I tossed our rubbish bag out of the porch and barked at him.  An hour later I could hear him prowling the tent again, light steps just passed by my ear.  In the morning paw prints up the front of the tent as if he'd peered in at us through the porch window. 

The town of Ohrid is a tourist hotspot at in the summer.  It has a UNESCO badge - presumably for the churches here.  This was the place where St. Kliment and Naum hung out, spreading the Word to the newly-arrived Slavs and getting busy with an alphabet in which to spread said збор.  Now I get confused with this bit, because Kliment sounds like Clement to me, but his name is also translated as Cyril.  And it is Kliment whom we can thank for all those indecipherable road signs we've been looking at in Macedonia. The Cyrillic alphabet originates here.  

As we cruise into the town centre we are accosted by a chap in a cap and, to his great advantage, on a bicycle.  Looking for a room? he asks.  No, thanks (but yes, we are actually).  He cruises alongside and adds: 15 euros, wi-fi, quiet location nearby.  We all stop in the road, he looks like a straight guy, let's have a look.  He leads the way through the traffic.  The room is fine and we take it.  The man (call me Vic, he says) tells us he lived in Australia for a few years but came back forty years ago.  The place is very quiet and handy for the centre.  We wander around the old town and call in at the post office where we collect a replacement thermarest mat and two more new mugs for our cookset.  The man at the poste restante counter was a cheery soul happy to satisfy our request.  We hadn't been so confident that this parcel would arrive so this was a good result.  

By all accounts the town should be heaving but it seems fairly mellow.  There are tourists around and Vic says that he's been full since the beginning of July but after a couple of days we realise that no-one seems to stay more than two nights and many only stop a night.  If this was our main holiday we wouldn't linger, but as we are in for the long haul, and as we're still playing for time in the heat, the place suits us fine.  We can have 'office' days, 'maintenance' days and lazy days as required.  And there's even a place selling roast chicken......  

Monday, 12 August 2013

high passes, low morale

a village on 'Kosovo's most scenic road'
The streets are fairly quiet when we roll out of Prizren at 7.30am - but there are a few people taking riverside walks and runs up the narrow little valley where we are heading.  The road (Kosovo's most scenic, according to our guidebook) climbs, gently at first and then, as we progress up the valley, it steepens.  We pass through village after village.  One still has burnt out buildings from the war.  The valley is green and forested and still cool but eventually as we rise up out of the shade the sun whallops us once again.  The air does seem cooler as we get higher, or at least we try to convince ourselves of this. It's all in the head.  A few hairpins and then we can see the pass we are heading to, an eleven hundred metre climb to start the day. Nice.  Just before we reach the top we meet Vincent and Flo, French cycle-tourers, on their way down.  We chat a while and exchange low-down on our respective routes before heading off again.  We always enjoy these little tete-a-tetes since we don't see so many cycle tourists around.  There's a Tour of Kosovo bike race in June - we have seen the posters, and at the top of the climb a big white 'FINISH' is painted before a white line across the road.  We reach our hands up in the air in mock triumph.

The route now drops down the other side and we rapidly descend almost
losing all the height we gained in the morning.  Long siesta in the shade and then we roll down to the valley at the bottom and immediately start climbing up the road to the next pass.  This one is shorter but feels harder after the morning effort.  We are looking for a wild camp spot for ages.  Just as we are about to recce one good possibility three young boys appear from nowhere, trying to sell us blackberries.  They are proffering small plastic bottles cut in half and filled to the brim.  How much?  One euro.  We decline.  We want to camp but not while these boys are hanging around.  Wearily we push on and after a long tired climb we find a clearing in the woods just as the light is fading.  Woodcutters have been at work here.  After a long day's ride we sleep, inevitably, like logs.

Tetovo's painted mosque
The good news, we discover next morning, is that we were almost at the pass.  Another 500 metres takes us to another Tour of Kosovo Finish line.  So it feels like we cycled two stages in one day yesterday.  No wonder we are tired.  At least this means we now have a 40 km freewheel across the border into Macedonia and down to the seething metropolis of Tetovo.  Well, it's hardly seething.  Just a healthy bustle.  We sort out cash and food before checking out the one sight - a painted mosque.  Gayle asks a man for directions which he gives us in Italian. Why Italian? Because he worked in Torino for forty years.  It's a reminder that many Yugoslavians left during the communist era - but significantly, they could leave.  We ask him if we can use our little Albanian here.  Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Turkish, he tells us.

Later on we test the theory - we suspect that Macedonians don't want to be addressed in Albanian, although the local Albanians seem delighted.  We are heading along the Albanian border to Lake Ohrid, so we know the road will pass through mainly Albanian villages.  We can't take the motorway up the valley and we can't find the old road through the farmland, so instead take the dusty and broken one which connects some of these villages.  In fact there's no gap between them.  People smile and wave and it's a good day.  When we stop for a break and a slice of burek each the cafe owner refuses to accept payment.  Just in time for lunch we get to the town of Gostivar where we can stock up.  As if to justify Vincent's warnings about the drivers here, the police have closed a road because of a traffic accident.  We decide to avoid the main road and start up another dusty side road looking for a lunch spot.  Aha, a bench. We have a roast chicken to devour. We have salad to chop and dress.  We have a cold bottle of pop.  And then raindrops begin.  We look at each other in dumb apprehension. Rain? We cheekily ask the cafe owner next door if we can sit under cover at one of the tables.  Just in time.  The thunder bellows and the clouds burst.  Rain!  The street floods.  We smile happily at the smell of wet earth, and in a sudden fit of monsoon fever strip off all our lycra and go streaking down the street.  No, of course we didn't.  We still had a roast chicken to devour. 

 A young man hears us speaking English and comes over.  Halim is back in his home village for two weeks holiday.  He now lives in Italy where his wife has a job.  He is still learning Italian.  His English is accentless.  He studied German and English at university and found work in a bank here. But he is very disillusioned about the employment prospects for young educated Albanians here.  They feel that there is not much opportunity for them in Macedonia.  Shortly after independence a civil war broke out over the Albanian's frustrations as a minority here, aided by a dodgy Albanian militia.  This resulted in some concessions and local quotas for government jobs.  You can see this problem hasn't gone away.  But Halim, and many other young Albanians born here, have. He doesn't see any future here and has only returned to visit family.  He points up and down the street.  "This is all my family.  Everyone who lives on this street." Evidently a tight-knit community.

Following Halim's advice, we return to the main road, after the rain has stopped.  The gradient is easier for cycling, he tells us.  It is, but the road is busy.  We finally reach our turn-off where the road continues to climb through forest into the Mavrovo National Park.  Feeling knackered we find a flat camping pitch on a track leading into the woods.  It's not driveable and it's above the road so we know we shouldn't be disturbed.  Our 6am starts mean we are happy to go to bed as soon as we've eaten.

the best way to spend the hours of one till four

Our route continues uphill for a while the next morning, and it's touch and go whether we might lose the will to live.  We have a profile of this route but we forget how mentally frustrating it is when your legs just don't feel like obliging.  Shouldn't it get easier?  I can see Gayle chewing it over.  I try and give her a boost.  "Nearly there" I chirrup.  "Nearly where?" she snarls back. We reach the Mavrovo lake at the top of the climb and in the nick of time. A little tourist village appears where we stop for a drink and a good old natter about the joys and sorrows of cycling.   Within minutes we are feeling optimistic and self-satisfied with our pedalling since we left Prizren.  The mountain air is lovely, the sun is not too fiery and joy of joys, the road is descending for 50 (Five Oh) fat kilometres.  In fact we descend more than we can imagine it's possible to, down a winding narrow gorge following the river as it twists through the big mountains all around.  Any much further and we'll be at sea-level.  Around midday we spot an empty field and a big tree offering us plenty of shade to see out the afternoon.  Then, once the sun starts edging towards the mountain horizon in the west, we roll onwards for a few more kilometres looking for a quiet camp spot and some water.  Refreshed and replenished from a roadside fountain, Gayle then bushwhacks through some bushes and trees to a tiny clearing for our night's rest.  A good day, we reflect, and much needed for our doubting minds. 
an Albanian village in the Macedonian mountains

Friday, 9 August 2013

the other albania

Despite getting up at 6am we are riding up the long hill to the border with Kosovo in baking heat. (I am no longer allowed to say "Cor, it's hot" - that catchphrase has been prohibited.)  In the middle of nowhere we pass a tiny cafe with a patio surrounded by shrubs.  I go in to ask for water.  The cafe has come straight from Italy, along with plush leather sofas, and been placed on a tired road linking one dusty town in Albania with another dusty town in Kosovo.  The two young guys inside are only happy to give us water - ice cold from their fridge.  A bit further on up the road we stop in the shade of another cafe to grease the squeaky chains on the bikes.  We are welcomed and invited in by a local who speaks some English.  It turns out Nick worked in London for three years on building sites.  He spent all his money on having a good time - he was 18 when he arrived in England, illegally crossed from France in a truck.  However, he did manage to bring back not one, but two Mercedes, of which he seems very proud.  We have seen tons of cars with English plates and, appropriately, even a car-breakdown truck.

Around midday we reach the pass and the border comes into view.  The Albanians wave us straight through and the Kosovan border policeman chats amiably to us.  "It's hot isn't it?" he asks.  My lips remain sealed.  Down the other side we start looking for a lunch spot and come to rest in a clump of pine trees offering the best shade for miles around.  There's a brand new restaurant in the woods where we seek refuge and hamburgers and chips.  Some of the staff are young Swiss- or German-born Kosovans over for the summer.  They ply us with litres of cold water.  It's not enough.  We snooze away the afternoon heat at a table in the shade and as the sun starts dipping to meet the mountains we have left behind in the west, we ask the owner if we can camp for one night in the woods next to the restaurant.  "Stay a month" he says.  In Gayle's never-ending search for peace and quiet, she leads me further and further away from the restaurant.  I am only slightly perturbed.  Didn't we read somewhere about UXO - unexploded ordnance?  Gayle points to the cow pats dotted around.  Ah, I counter, but we haven't seen the cows - they might all have three legs.

checking for UXO

Despite my worst worries we make it through the night without explosions - though I confess to not going that far when I had to get up to pee in the night.   I am treated to a morning macchiato gratis at the restaurant.  The ride down hill to Djakova in the early morning sun is wonderful and at some point we cross a river and are embraced by the coldest pocket of air we've encountered since January.  

The landscape here is much flatter - better suited for farming than anything we've seen in Albania - and there seem to be new houses everywhere.  There are more houses too - a greater density of people.  The roads are good and it's hard to imagine that Kosovo is poorer than Albania when faced with signs of all this endeavour.  In Djakova we hunt out some bread and food for tea.  Outside the bakery a woman gets chatting to us and in Basic Albanian and Advanced Sign Language we chat a while. She invites us to her house over the road for coffee.  Where are we staying? Camping? Then you must want a shower.  Finally we agree to fresh water for our bottles.  It's only nine thirty so what's the rush? But we have calculated that we could actually reach Prizren by lunchtime, beating the heat.

The main road is busy with cars and trucks so we take a smaller road on the other side of the river which passes through small villages all with new houses.  At least they look new - it's rare that anyone has rendered the brick and concrete walls so they look just-built.  There are Albanian flags flying from many houses and we see only a few Kosovan flags.  This must say a lot about how people identify themselves.  Is Kosovo going to be a country that remains independent or will it one day merge with the Mother Country?  We spot a German KFOR jeep, but apart from the road signs at bridges for tanks, there's no obvious sign of the war from 1999.  We wonder how long KFOR will police this new country.

We are cycling along the flattest road we've come across since leaving Puglia.  We wind along the valley beside the river that suddenly turns 90 degrees westwards and heads into Albania.  Our road continues directly southwards to Prizren, Kosovo's best preserved Ottoman-era town.  We stop at a petrol station to put air into the tyres but nothing doing.  We are directed to the garage next door where a whole troop of grease-monkeys are working on a truck.  Well, actually one man is, whilst the rest all stand around and watch.  We try and mime putting air into the tyres.  But how to mime it?  They think we have a puncture.  Thankfully the man fixing the truck speaks English.  This is Cem.  Cem is a young Turk from Bursa.  He gets the compressor out but refuses to pump the tyres when he feels them.  I almost give up but persuade him to at least fill Gayle's back tyre.  He seems astounded at the pressure (4 bar) required.  Once done, we all relax.  Everyone starts smoking, chairs are dusted off for us and we are offered cold water, coffee and then coke. 
Lots of questions from both sides.  We have obviously broken the morning's monotony but it's also very nice to receive such hospitality and be able to ask questions ourselves.  Cem arrived here on his national service as part of KFOR.  Now all his family live here and he has just married a local.  He tells us Kosovan drivers are crazy.  We already know this - about an hour earlier we heard a squeal of brakes and rounded a corner to find an old Mercedes had rear-ended a white van.  We say our goodbyes and ride the busy road into the centre.  Approaching traffic lights that are just turning red I decide to coast through.  The car in front of me in the centre lane pulls up, but the car behind it was watching me, and promptly rear-ends the one in front.  About a kilometre further on there is a traffic jam.  Two cars are abandoned in the road - the third collision of the day.  It doesn't bode well for road users....

Thankfully we are in the centre and a hostel is easy to find.  To be honest the old town centre is a little disappointing.  There is a river flowing through the old town, a few Ottoman mosques, a little square and a clutch of old shops now dedicated to souvenirs and gold.  There is also the obligatory burek shop - burek being the Balkans best-known pie, although it probably originates from Turkey.  However, down the narrow streets there are not many old houses left.  Was it all destroyed in 1999? It's hard to tell.  In some places old houses are being pulled down to allow for modern concrete structures.  Not much sign of restoration or conservation, which comes as a surprise.  There are a clutch of cafes, bars and restaurants and a few hotels and there are tourists about.  All the Serbian orthodox churches have barbed wire around them, and warning signs against vandalism.  The cathedral is being restored and the only open church has an armed guard.
It's the end of Ramadan.  You wouldn't know Ramadan was taking place when we arrived - the cafes and restaurants are busy all day long.  However, on the day when Eid falls the town shuts down completely.  This seems to be the reverse of our previous Ramadan experiences in Turkey and Pakistan.  We haven't experienced the fast-induced frenzy of the evening meal at sun-down, nor the all-out sense of relief and holiday fiesta at Eid. Time for some baklava.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Valbona chillin'

I pause to catch my breath and wait for Gayle to catch up.  She's nowhere to be seen.  After rolling out of Bajram Curry down to a river crossing we've started to climb and the road turns to dirt and climbs up into the mouth of the gorge we've just passed.  The gap in the mountains seems impossibly narrow.  Gayle finally appears coming back from a turn-off going in the wrong direction.  Her head was down and she followed the tarmac - wishful thinking on her part.  A man had stopped her going too far and shouted to her to turn around.  We negotiate the climb up the dirt road carefully and the gradient is mostly quite moderate.  The sun beats down but there is some cool air floating up to us from the torrent of glacial water flowing in the river beside the road.  

This is reputedly the cleanest water in Albania - the Valbona river - and it looks tempting as the sweat trickles down our faces, down our backs, down our legs and into our sandals.  There's a car passing by now and again but the valley is quiet.  After passing through one village and climbing steeply on a rough section we finally emerge onto new tarmac.  We sense the valley is about to open out and we stop under a huge tree for lunch in the shade.  The percussive scraping of cicadas and the rush of the river are the only noise.  Up ahead and across the valley are impressive rough limestone peaks, some with patches of snow still showing.  These are the Albanian Alps - peaks of around 2500 metres which mark the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo.   

We reflect on Jenny and Ian's voluntary work in Bajram Curry and wonder how they will get on there.  They seem to already have got the measure of the place - most Albanian public servants do not work beyond lunchtime - and they seem to be adapting well.  It must be a real contrast to life in the States.  They had hoped for a posting in Africa.  Could they have expected to see such a poor country as this in Europe?  The town has no rubbish collection.  Locals put rubbish in specific piles in the streets (hard for us to identify) and the 'trash cows' would come along and munch through it.  We also saw some Roma salvaging stuff dumped on the edge of town.  The housing blocks all looked jerry-built but there was a gleaming new elementary school and Ian expects a new high school to be built here soon.  However, elections just held have meant a change of president.  Berisha, the local man, will be stepping down.  Will a new president invest in this region?  The small town seems to have about a hundred cafes - these provide the men with something to do all day.

We continue easily now up the Valbona valley and come to the first guesthouse.  There's camping down by the river and the owner is friendly and relaxed.  We decide to check out the rest of the options in the valley and cycle up to where the valley flattens and opens out.  The scenery is stunning.  There are mountains all around covered in trees.  A wide dry riverbed lazily stretches through the farmland.  The white stones dazzle in the sunlight.  The river must be running somewhere underneath because it pours down the valley lower down.  There's a scattering of old stone houses, some newer wooden ones and then a handful of guesthouses dotted alongside the road to where the tarmac finishes in a stand of pine trees.  The tourist development looks quite new and at first jars, but after a while it doesn't seem so bad.  Every restaurant or guesthouse has music playing.  We check out wild camping spots, but there is litter left everywhere in the trees.  It seems locals come up here to picnic and leave everything behind when they're done.  The music boom booms in the background.  We decide to return to the peaceful guesthouse lower down the valley.

The Rilindja is run by Alfred and his American wife Catherine.  Alfred's extended family live in a collection of farms just slightly higher up, tucked away from the new road.  They've built a much larger, 4 storey guesthouse, there but we want to camp by the river.  The climate up here is much fresher, and, joy of joys, it's cool at night.  We decide instinctively that we want to stay here a while.  Each evening we sit at a table and chat to other guests.  Like the campsite in Zabljak, we are meeting a variety of people on holiday and so we are having a bit of a social life.  It's only on occasions like these when we realise how much time we spend alone together cycling.

The two days we planned to stay here becomes twenty.  We meet loads of friendly folk and have a great time.  There's Alex (UK) and Ozlem (Turkey), Muriel & Yves (France), Zazie & Ari (Germany), Stefano & Alex (Italy & Israel), Linda & Jonas (Denmark), Martin (Poland), Manuel & Anna (Germany), Mariah (Netherlands), Koenrad, Truus, Simon & Nura (Belgium), Andreas and Mike (Austria) and in an old camper van Mechthild & Marc (Germany). Most people are stopping for a couple of nights and moving on, but those with their own transport who have made it up the dirt road, seem happy to spend a few days up here exploring.  It might be because we are in Albania, but the other foreigners we meet all seem to have an adventurous spirit.  This no longer the last wild frontier of Europe - but maybe only a certain kind of visitor will come to explore this country.  
Mechthild & Marc - two of the lovely people we meet here

We do a couple of short walks but otherwise spend many lazy days reading. We want some respite from the ruthless midday sun and we are not kitted out for long walks.  We would dearly like to return here one day with our boots and rucksacks.  The most popular trek here is crossing over a pass from Thethi in the next valley.  But there are plenty of other possible treks including the intriguing passes over to Montenegro and Kosovo - we think it might be stunning in the Autumn when the leaves start turning.  Another time.......

This part of Albania developed a reputation for lawlessness in the early 90's just before the country fell apart in 1997 when a huge pyramid scheme collapsed and about 70% of the population lost their savings.  So much for getting rid of the communist yoke and moving into the wonderful world of free-markets.  The country imploded and rioting, looting and violence erupted everywhere.  The army's arsenal was looted and I don't think many of the guns were ever recovered.  Some will have undoubtedly gone to Kosovo.  Most Albanians were horrified at what happened and it seems the exodus of young men seeking work increased.  It's estimated that there are 1 million Albanians now working abroad.  The current population is around 3.6 million, so the income being sent home is evidently helping the country to recover.  Alfred and his brother Skander both worked in England.  Our guidebook is about 4 years old but in reference to this region it says that Albanians recommend you only visit with a guide.  However, things have evidently improved and now we see many Albanians also driving up here on weekends to see some of their own country's beauty spots.
All of a sudden it's August and our holiday has come to an end.  We're excited about moving on again to pastures new.