We drive into Albania and I feel right at home. That's not so much because of the Connexxion buses with large stickers ‘Reisinformatie? Bel 0900-9292!’ which we regularly see driving, but in Albania we change from tourist to traveller within an hour. And in the latter category I feel much more at home. Up to and including Montenegro we were part of the many tourists. In the beginning mainly with a D, A or I on their license plates. As we progressed, HR, BIH, PL, BG, H, MK, MNE, RO, CZ and SRB joins, but in Albania all those different license plates are no longer around and with a few exceptions we only see AL license plates.
In addition, the streetscape is visibly changing as well. Up to and including Montenegro, we hardly saw any human life on the streets outside of cars; in Albania life takes place entirely on the streets. All kinds of trade takes place outside and next to cars we see lots of bicycles, mopeds, horses and wagons and people on foot with 1 or 2 cows or goats. Everything is crawling through and past each other. Seen through Dutch glasses it is a great chaos and we are part of it.
And where we had the idea that we sometimes didn't exist along the Adriatic coast so far, people greet us here again, wave or give us unsolicited directions. In short, we are seen again and that feels good. Along the street a man stops his car to invite us to come and drink some cool water and an energy drink in his house. His wife also serves delicious watermelon. And when we want to eat our lunch a bit later that day on a square, the owner of the nearby coffee house invites us to eat our lunch in his coffee house. Outside it's too hot according to him and inside he has the air conditioning on. To keep out the sun, he closes the curtains, but makes sure that he leaves a gap in them between our table and our bicycles, so we can keep seeing them. With a nod he makes it clear to us.
The next day we're offered an ice cream from 'the best ice cream shop in the area' by a boy who comes to have a chat with us. And when we're at the top of a pass that afternoon, with a beautiful view over the town of Elbasan down in the valley, three boys invite us to celebrate the birthday of one of them. He turned 22. This is accompanied by a beer glass for ¾ filled with Jägermeister and ¼ Red Bull. Luckily what’s left that day is only a descent to the campsite. It goes even smoother than usual.
The Albanian landscape is generally dry, barren and brown-yellow in colour. The hinterland where we cycle on for the first few days is sloping and along the sparse roads there's development everywhere. Halfway through the country we turn towards the coast. It's much more mountainous, so we have to conquer between one and one and a half kilometres of altitude every day; sometimes in the form of a pass, sometimes in successive climbs of a few tens to hundreds of metres high, which makes it much heavier. The mountain landscape also looks dry and yellow. If there is vegetation, it is mainly in the form of shrubs. There are also olive trees scattered around. Furthermore, a single Eucalyptus tree and a pine, but those two species are hardly worth mentioning. The whole thing doesn't look like a bee-friendly landscape, but I'm wrong about that. Everywhere we see hives and regularly there are stalls along the road where honey is sold.
We notice by everything that Albania is on the eve of a tourist revolution. In Vlorë a boulevard has been built with European money. The only positive thing about it is that a one meter wide two-way cycling pass has been constructed as well. As a landscape architect, I really appreciate the fact that they left the trees that were in the line of the cycle path in place. As a cyclist, on the other hand, I have to admit that trees in a cycle path are not very handy and limit its functionality to some extent.
Furthermore, there is little positive to say about the boulevard and its surroundings. It is a copy of the Spanish Costa's without adding anything authentic Albanian. This boulevard could be anywhere. In my opinion a missed opportunity. There is no reason why people should specifically come to this place. By not using the 'Genius Loci', the power of the place itself, uniformity is lurking and therefore dullness and eventually decay, is my conviction.
What we are more positive about are the private initiatives, especially in the field of camping. Campsites are opening everywhere, although the owners are sometimes still looking for something. At our first campsite our predecessors probably asked where they could take a shower. The boss of the campsite then hung a shower head above the French toilets. The main thing is to stand firm and not to take a careless step to the left. It is also more important than ever not to let your soap slip out of your hands.
The next campsite has built marble plateaus especially for small tents. They must have stood there looking strange when the first guests put their tent between the plateaus on the dusty grassy ground. Putting pegs in marble doesn't work very well.
At a third campsite the sanitary facilities consist of wooden partitions without a roof. The showers have no drainage, so all the water runs from the concrete floor to the campsite. In the course of time, the partitions have not proved to be weatherproof. Where there are holes in the bulkheads between the men's and women's showers, they are filled with toilet paper. Not that that's bad, the doors couldn't be locked anyway and fall open halfway if you don't hold them.
Finally a camping boss who is waiting for us with open arms. We ask him if he has a place and immediately he proudly starts telling us about his campsite, which has been open for two months now. It has been busy and he has plans with it. After twenty minutes of talking he leads us through his house to his backyard, where there is exactly room for a little tent. Proudly he turns the sign 'Full' around, as soon as we have accepted the place.
So there's still something to learn in Albania here and there in the field of ‘camping’. Almost every campsite has invested heavily in lighting. At some campsites the difference between day and night is hardly noticeable. And as far as we're concerned, they just didn't had to invest in this part of their camping! Our tent is so thin that we can almost count the stars through it, so the 4-color strobe that one of the campsites has, doesn't make us very happy when we wish each other goodnight at nine.