On April 2, we left Tirana mid day and in good spirits. It was finally sunny and we figured we could probably camp that night. We were on a busy road for a while and then found some smaller roads running through the small towns. The riding was nice and kind of slow because we were both so happy to be out in the sun. Almost every person we passed waved and said hello, and the kids we passed asked us our names. Everyone was so outgoing and friendly. When we stopped for lunch, we asked a few people where a good place to eat was. A guy on a scooter showed us a restaurant and we sat down for nice, and very cheap, meal. We realized that many people knew Italian as a second language so we were able to communicate fairly well with Spanish and Italian. After lunch we rode a bit more and passed a large abandoned factory. We rode through a few more small villages and over a dry river until we stopped in Lezhë for coffee. As we were sitting Haegan noticed a castle on the hill behind us. We found it so strange that we had just stumbled upon a castle, and if we hadn’t of stopped we might not have noticed it. We stopped and locked our bikes so we could climb up to the castle. The park where we locked our bikes had ruins from the Ottoman Empire and large mosaic of the Albanian flag. We thought maybe we could camp there since the grass was nice in the walls of the ruins. We asked a man who offered to watch our bikes if camping was allowed in the park with the ruins. He seemed to think our question was silly, of course we could camp in the city’s ruins. We climbed up the hill the castle and hoped we might be able to watch the sunset from the top. The castle was first built in Illyrian times and then fortified much later by the Venetians in 1440 and then the Ottomans 100 years later. The earliest record of Illyrian civilization is from around 400 BC and lasted until about 200 AD. We’re not sure when the castle was first built, but it was probably about 2000 years ago. It’s crazy to think about people building massive structures on top of tall hills using only man power and basic tools, the thought gave me goosebumps as we walked around the ruins. There are still walls from Illyrian times, ruins of a mosque from the Ottomans, and Roman arches. While we were in the ruins the church bells from the town below started ringing. All the sounds blended together to make a sort of chaotic but beautiful sound. The castle closed before we could see the sunset but we still had some spectacular views.
We returned to our bikes and found a cafe with internet so we could check a few things. Our phones don’t work in Albania and a few other countries in the Balkans. We then decided to find some dinner and found a pizza place a little ways into Lezhë. It was getting dark and we had such a good day. The riding had been beautiful, we had stumbled upon a castle, and the people had been so friendly. Unfortunately, the good day became tainted when we returned from dinner. We found our bikes with open bags, our handlebar bags ripped open. We first noticed that my cycling shoes missing and then that our Garmins were gone. Thankfully we had both taken our wallets and phones, although we stupidly had left our passports. We were very lucky those were not taken. A policeman passed us and we tried to talk to him but he didn’t speak and English and didn’t understand our nervous gestures. Another man passed us and he called his friend who spoke Spanish and I talked to her for a bit. I had a hard time understanding her, partially because I think Spanish was also her second language, the phone service wasn’t very clear, and I was nervous. Eventually we gathered everything we could find, some our stuff was on the ground, and walked to a hotel nearby. We talked to the manager there who offered us a cheap room and told us that he could take us to the police if we wanted, but that it would take a very long time and probably wouldn’t solve anything. In retrospect, we probably should have still gone just to have the incident reported, but it was late and we were pretty shaken. In the room we tried to figure out what all had been stolen, making sure that everything important was still with us. The stuff that was stolen can be replaced, it’s just expensive. We were both frustrated that we had gotten too comfortable, that we had relied on the locks on handlebar bags to work against theft, and that the incident could have been so easily prevented. What was also a bit frustrating was that everything that was taken had almost no value to anyone but us or someone in a very similar situation. Whoever stole our things won’t be able to get hardly any money for what they took, and they weren’t very useful everything day things either. Things like my cycling shoes and Haegan’s retainer are pretty useless for anyone but us, but are rather difficult for us to replace. It was hard not to go through the what-ifs but we eventually just had to realize that we just needed to move forward. The next morning we decided we couldn’t let the mishap ruin our short time in Albania, and we also realized that we needed help. We really didn’t want to have to ask for help, especially financial help. After we arrived in Montenegro (more about this later), and I had access to e-mail again, we were completely astounded by the amount of support we received, both in donations and nice messages. We are both so incredibly grateful to you all, it’s hard for me to express how much the community’s support has uplifted and motivated us. We have found that the blog helps stay connected to everyone back home, we love hearing back from everyone, and it’s very comforting to know people are reading and following along with us. And then when we needed a little extra help we got an outpouring of support and positivity. We are very, very lucky and we can’t thank you enough. We are now hesitant to tell people where our things were stolen because there are still hard feelings between the Balkan countries. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and the Balkans, and when we told people where our things were stolen, we get a sort of, “well of course Albania”, response. It’s sad because we still really liked Albania and would like to go back to see more of the mountains and coast. The day we left Lezhë we rode through more small towns and were given an apple and chips at a small convenience store. It was sunny again and we crossed the border into Montenegro a little after lunch.
It’s incredible how quickly you can start to see difference after crossing a border. Within a few miles the landscape and the feel of the place will change. We noticed very quickly that Montenegro is a wealthier country. The roads were a bit nicer, the houses a little more kept. The people were also very different. They are less outgoing, a little more reserved than Albanians and Macedonians, but still very nice. After stopping in Ulcinj at a cafe we looked for a place to camp. The road followed a cliff with small villages in the valley. We rode down into one of the villages and asked around for a place to camp. We hoped that when we asked people might offer us a spot in their yard or field, but instead they would direct us to a campsite. We then realized we had to be more direct and simply ask if we could camp in a specific spot. We were able to camp in a small field surrounded by a small stone wall.
The next day of riding was fairly uneventful. The coast of Montenegro is very rocky with large cliffs. Our riding involved many climbs and descents, bridges and tunnels. The climbing wasn’t too bad although I really started to miss my cycling shoes. We rode pretty close to the coast all day, enjoying the view of the Adriatic and the cliffs on the coast.
That night we stayed in a small apartment because it was supposed to rain that night. We rode into Kotor in the morning and just from riding through we decided we had to come back to spend at least a week. I noticed a wall on the mountain right next to the coast and after following the wall I saw there was a near the base and a castle at the very top. I stopped to show Haegan and we were both awestruck by the structure. It was even more striking I think because we weren’t looking for it.
The town has great views of the surrounding mountains and seems like a very relaxed place to be. The riding along the coast in Montenegro was hilly like the day before and eventually we climbed up to the border and crossed into Croatia.
Not long after we crossed the border we had another climb, this one not quite as long, but very steep. We had already ridden about 50 km (30 miles) of climbs and descents so I was getting a little tired, especially of long climbs. We rode a little ways and came to another long and fairly steep climb. I was trying to concentrate on the beautiful scenery, the small stone fences and nicely laid out grape vines, so that I wouldn’t think so much about how much I didn’t want to riding up another hill. I wasn’t very successful at distracting myself so I then decided that I just had to make it up to the top of the hill, and then I could complain and be miserable all I wanted. When I finally made it to the top I couldn’t help but cry a little, I couldn’t tell whether it was because the climb was so painful or if it was because I was so happy I had made it the whole way up without giving up. After that we had yet another climb up to our place for the night, this one still slow but easier after having toughed out the last one. It was probably my most accomplished day of riding, and getting through those rough patches has only gotten easier and easier.
We stayed at a place we found on Warm Shower’s, Mikulici Nature Park. The park is small piece of land overlooking the Adriatic Sea, just outside Mikulici village. It was quite a climb to get there and as we rounded to the park we were greeted by six dogs at the driveway. Marko opened the nature park 8 years ago after retiring from his work in Canada and has lots of stories about his past travels and the people who have stayed at his park. We enjoyed the lively conversation and were very grateful when Marko let us sleep in the office so we didn’t have to get rained on.
In the morning we had fresh bread and then started our way to Dubrovnik. A few kilometers in we met Adrian who lives in the area. He started a local cycling group and rode with us for a little bit. It was funny meeting up with him because right before he rode up we had been wondering if it was possible to get tired of being the area. After talking with Adrian (he’s lived in the area his whole life), we figured it’s probably pretty hard to get tired of.
We only had about 30 km (19 miles) to go from Marko’s and we figured since Dubrovnik is on the coast that the riding would be fairly flat. Wrong. It seemed as though we climbed 90% of our way to a coastal town. The Croatian coast is very rocky and hilly, with many cliffs that go right up to the sea. It’s beautiful and the views are fantastic. It’s also very tiring.
We found Dubrovnik Backpacker’s Club and were greeted with an Easter lunch made by the family who runs the hostel. They were very welcoming and let us stay at the hostel even though they weren’t officially opening for another two days. After a bit of lunch and showers we walked to the Old City to explore a bit. We were a bit shocked because there were so many tourists. The places we’ve been haven’t been very touristy so it was strange to be surrounded by other people speaking English. We walked around a little bit, admiring the old city walls and eventually found a little bar right on the wall next to the coast and watched the sunset.
The next day we had breakfast with the host family and decided to ride on some of the islands on our way to Split after the oldest son told us more about the area. He drove us to the old town and we started the walk up to the old fortress. The fortress was built by Neapolitan but was used as recently as 1995 during the Croatian Homeland War. After walking to the top we had a great view of the city and then entered the fortress and walked through the museum about the Homeland War.
The Homeland War was from 1991 to 1995 after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Serbia tried to capture Croatian land and attacked Dubrovnik as a kind of black mail. Many Croatians fled to Dubrovnik because they thought the city would be spared due to its historical significance. The city was attacked many times during the four years and over half the buildings were damaged. We were shocked to learn about such a recent war and how little the international community did to protect the old city. It’s very interesting to travel through countries like Albania and Croatia who so recently became countries and had conflicts no more than 20 years ago. We walked around the top of the fortress and then took the cable car back down to the Old City. We then visited the Dubrovnik Synagogue, which is the oldest Sefardic Synagogue in world. The Synagogue was built on the second story of an apartment building in the Old City where Jews found refuge after they fled from Spain in the 16th century. Although Dubrovnik provided a safe place for the Jews, they were confined to only a small part of the city and only experienced short periods of equality. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside.
While we were walking around the harbor of the Old City we saw a guy on a touring bike. We went over to talk to him and found out he’d been touring for 5 years and was now heading back to France to finish his trip. We exchanged information and figured we’d meet up later as we were heading in the same direction. We’ll tell you more about our adventures with him, Jacques, in the next post. After a little more wandering we bought tickets to walk around the top of the city walls. It was very nice walk with lots and lots and lots of stairs. Note about Croatia: so many stairs and hills. Taking stairs up to a city wall makes sense, but it seems that to get anywhere in Dubrovnik you must climb a few hills. If an old man here told me that he used walk to school, uphill both ways, I’d 100% believe him. It’s kind of ridiculous how hilly it is. The city wall was very impressive though and we had fun walking around and peeking out holes in the wall.
We got back to the hostel and I made tabouli with the leftover bulgur we bought in Turkey. Even though the bulgur wasn’t normal for tabouli, it was nice to make and eat something so familiar. We met Claire from the UK and hung out a bit in the common area of the hostel. Although Dubrovnik was expensive and kind of touristy, we really enjoyed exploring the old city and the surrounding area. We left the next morning with hopes of flatter riding and a free place to sleep. More about that later.