Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours

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Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours - rtbiketour.com

Albania

Date: September 2015
Duration: 6 Days

The road (E022/SH4) out of Greece towards Albania is large, deserted and unsignposted. Neither Albania nor any of the major cities that are reached along the main road are sign-posted. Thankfully we were using the Satnav.

Successfully across the border after the usual inspection of passports, registration documents and green cards, we’re heading for the UNESCO City of Gjirokastër. Despite rumours of abysmal roads, the major highways are in good condition and the numerous police checkpoints don’t care about our speed. As for the driving quality itself, it’s no worse than that which was encountered to the south in Greece.

Gjirokastër

Gjirokastër – view of the castle from old town

Gjirokastër is one of two UNESCO cities in Albania. The old town area, whose present architecture is from the era of Ottoman occupation, is an active group of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways which include a few museums, one in the birthplace of Albania’s former stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha.

A short climb above the old town is the Castle. Previously used by both King Zog and Hoxha as a prison for political undesirables, it is now a museum. Within the castle grounds is the wreckage of an unmarked, supposedly US spy-plane from the 1950s. Underneath the castle and open to the street, is a nuclear bunker – bring a torch.

We’re parked up in Gjirokastër for three nights, using it as an interesting base from which to explore the area. The woman in whose B&B we’re staying, doesn’t speak a word of English. Communication is challenging but not impossible.

Gjirokastër Alleyway

Heading through the centre of the old town off to explore the Roman remains in Butrint, we immediately encounter problems. The police have closed off the streets and a local suggests we turn up towards the castle. Our Satnav soon recalculates a route and we begin an adventure through the steep and extremely narrow alleyways of the city.

Once finally out of Gjirokastër, the route to Butrint takes us along an unpaved mountain road, where the only other traffic we passed was a formerly German registered Mercedes (it still had the ‘D’ sticker on the bumper) and a man with a donkey.

Rory on an unpaved mountain road in the south

As we approach the coast, we return to tarmac roads and ride through the upcoming tourist resort of Sarandë. I would imagine it’s like a budget version of Benidorm.

Butrint

Butrint itself is right on the Adriatic coast and only a few kilometres from the Greek border. The ruins are significant and extensive. It is a site of UNESCO World Heritage status and one of the best examples of large roman cities in the balkans – many others have been destroyed or badly damaged (including Butrint) by earthquakes.

Butrint

In keeping with our usual planning and scheduling, we take one in seven days off from the bikes. We do our best to pick somewhere interesting with a few amenities for the visitors. Gjirokastër was well suited, with a small but active tourist industry.

North from Gjirokastër our next destination is Albania’s other UNESCO city, Berat. The most direct route arrives into the city from the south on SH74. The final 60km is a single-track unpaved road. Playing it safe, we took the slightly longer but quicker asphalt route, arriving at our destination by lunchtime. After lunch we ventured south on the bikes, onto SH74 – at an average speed of 20km/h.

Berat

On the steep hill above the old town of Berat, is the citadel. Inside its walls are dozens of still occupied homes (maybe hovels would be a more accurate description). Families living in the castle grounds, just like they would have done centuries ago all across Europe.

Take care investigating the Citadel’s giant cistern. Health and safety regulations in Albania are still somewhat behind the rest of Europe. There are no barriers, warnings or other impediments to prevent you from casually strolling into the huge vat of water.

Berat Citadel’s Cistern

Our hotel is quiet, there are only two other guests – a couple of middle-aged women from England who have an interest in exploring slightly more alternative destinations. The receptionist seems quite happy to use up the rest of her shift chatting with us, and recommends a scenic route to the south-east on SH72.

South-east takes us through the communist-era part of the city. Grim!

Communist homes near Berat

Turning back in a northward direction, we ride for the capital Tirana/Tiranë. Usually we avoid the big cities on bike tours, as they’re often not much fun to travel around on the laden motorbikes, but Tiranë seemed interesting and slightly different.

Thirty years ago Albania had few cars, only communist party officials were permitted to own one. Since then it seems that most of the country has acquired a car, usually a German Mercedes. Since the fall of communism, millions of new drivers have hit the roads with presumably no infrastructure in place for driver training or testing. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office have issued a travel warning about the quality of the driving.

Nowhere is the driving more aggressive and erratic than in and around central Tiranë. The trunk roads are large and multi-laned but without any lane markings. Traffic tends to work in a chaotic self-organising manner, but they’re not used to dealing with large motorbikes and a bit of self-assertion is required on our part.

Unable to filter through the traffic due to our pannier boxes, we find ourselves stuck in traffic just in front of one of the hotels that I had previously shortlisted. It’s a rather fancy four-star place, with secure underground parking, air conditioning and for a rather reasonable €70/night.

From here the rest of Tiranë’s city centre which includes Hoxha’s Pyramid and some bunkers for shooting invading troops or local protesters, can be explored on foot.

Our landlord from home, had recommended a road through the mountains in the north. Formerly the main highway between Kukës and Shkodra, it has been bypassed by the motorway between Tiranë and Prishtinë in Kosovo.

Left turn off the motorway

The new A1 motorway has a feature that I have never seen elsewhere in mainland Europe, a left turn! Our recommended road is left off the motorway. The signs indicate that you must pull into the overtaking lane, stop at the gap in the central reservation and check for on-coming traffic before turning across the opposite carriageway.

Not to be shy about undertaking crazy maneuvers on 120km/h sections of motorway, we ride on to Kukës for lunch at Hotel Amerika.

Northern Albania

From Kukës we retrace our steps onto the motorway, taking the tiny turnoff onto the old road SH5. Around 150km through the mountains, where we see more old military bunkers than other vehicles.

We spend our final night in Albania a stones-throw from Montenegro, in Shkodra. Surprisingly busy and a cosmopolitan city centre – probably a benefit from the its close proximetry to its wealthier neighbour.

Our journey onwards to Montenegro is deliberately difficult. There are a couple of very easy to access border crossings, however we deviate and aim for the crossing located inland along SH20 – a 60km journey through the mountains of which the final 30km is a gravel track and quite an adventure.

Albania: SH74 – Berat to Këlcyrë

Date: September 2015

Northern-most 10km of SH74

Northern-most 10km of SH74

Albania features two cities which have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, Gjirokastër and Berat. Both are located in southern Albania and it would be highly recommended to include them in any tour of the country.

The most direct route between these two cities would bring you onto the road that is directly south of Berat, SH74. Google Maps misleadingly indicates that this road is a major route, however it is in fact a single-lane unpaved track for most of the 60km.

I only found one post on the internet about the quality of the road. Unfortunately there were few photos and she admits that the worst bits were not photographed. Hence the reason for this post, to provide a bit more information on the road.

SH74

Although we didn’t have time to do the full 60km, we thought we would at least head south from Berat and see what it was like. We covered the northern-most 10km of the road, which was a mixture of mud and gravel.

Our friendly receptionist at the Hotel Muzaka, told us that many a visitor has journeyed up SH74 towards Berat not realising the poor quality of the road. Some were lucky enough not to completely ruin the wheels or suspension on their cars.

SH74 Traffic

We managed an average speed of a little over 20km/h. Our bikes are Honda Transalps, which while having good tyres and dual-sport suspension are not dedicated off-road machines. They handled the road conditions fairly well, but I wouldn’t want to be on anything less rugged.

As for a four-wheeled vehicle, it would be wisest to stick to a good 4×4 with a reasonable level of ground clearance.

Albania: SH20 highway

SH20 routeDate: September 2015
Distance: 60km (30km unpaved)
Time taken: 2½ hours

Development warning: there was a lot of construction traffic around, it would seem that SH20 is rapidly becoming a fully paved road.

Albania, previously closed off and still very different to the rest of Europe. It’s one of the poorest countries in Europe, depending on how far east ones definition of Europe extends. Consequently its infrastructure still has a lot to be desired.

This low quality infrastructure includes hundreds of kilometres of unpaved roads. These are sometimes primary routes and often secondary roads. This fact alone should increase the appeal of Albania for the slightly more adventurous biker.
SH20, Albania

One of the more notable unpaved roads is SH20. This is the road that leads from Hani Hotit to one of the border crossings with Montenegro – near Vermosh, Albania and Gusinje, Montenegro, in the inland mountains.

This is a brilliant way to either enter or leave Albania – we took this road out of Albania. We were not asked for our Green Card when we crossed into Montenegro, although we did have one. The border crossing is small, and I am not sure if they have an insurance office for those who require it.

The route is not too busy, with only the occasional 4×4, truck and motorbike seen along the road.

Rory takes on SH20

Rory takes on SH20

To reach Hani Hotit the start of SH20, you have to practically ride up to the border crossing on the road (SH1) to Podgorica, the Montegrin Capital. From Hani Hotit, SH20 is a very good quality new asphalt road for the first 30km. It is even good by western European standards. Progress should be rapid until Tamarë where the tarmac abruptly runs out.

The road becomes a single lane stone track. It is frequently used by cars and trucks, so the stones are compressed on both sides unless the road has recently been regraded. The first 10km from Tamarë and through Selcë is fairly trivial, even for inexperienced off-roaders like ourselves.

Freshly regraded section of road

Freshly regraded section of road

After Selcë, the road takes a turn through the more remote mountains. We were delayed for roughly 30 minutes while a section of the road, a tight corner around a cliff, was regraded in front of us. A digger was pushing rocks off the cliff above, and then coming down to level it off. It was still a tricky ride over the newly laid section.

Around the corner, I took a tumble while taking an uphill hairpin bend. Rushing to come to my assistance, Rory also dropped his bike. No harm done, except for Rory’s bike being unable to start. After a few minutes a couple of bikers from Slovakia show up, and reckon that the bike’s overheated. We wait another 30 minutes in the sunshine and 35° heat, until the bike finally starts.

Rory's bike overheated

Rory’s bike overheated

Proceeding on around another two hairpin bends, I encounter a gravelly incline. In hindsight my confidence had been shaken by the earlier fall and I was going far too slowly to maintain the necessary momentum. The bike slowed to a standstill before the rear started wheel-spinning, applying the front break did nothing, and the bike slide backwards down the slope and into the side of the cliff. The bike fell and I rolled off, free from the machine.

Rory and a truck driver, whose path I was blocking, came to my aid and gave me a push to overcome the loss of traction.

Bike down

Bike down

Confidence restored, I maintained a safer (faster) speed and kept up the momentum, stopping only on smooth-ish level sections to take a drink from the Camelbak.

A worry is that Rory would come off his bike (fairly likely given the conditions), and as I am leading I could carry on for a good distance not knowing of his distress. My mirrors are useless – not only are they a little bent out of position from twice dropping the bike, but there is too much dust being thrown up by my tyres and I am only concentrating on the road ahead of me. I asked Rory to press the push-to-talk button and say a brief acknowledgement over the radio whenever he gets to every easy section.

Rory kept well back due to all the dust that my bike was kicking up. The radio was our only form of contact, as he was usually well out of visual range even if I was to use my mirrors.

Keeping up the speed and momentum, progress is good along the remaining 20km. It’s a very scenic and remote mountainous road. The slightly unbelievable aspect is the number of homes, villages and farms along the road.

Towards the end of SH20, we reach the turning to Vermosh. For a brief two or three kilometres we’re back on tarmac before returning to gravel for about another kilometre, at which point we are at the exit border crossing to leave Albania.