It was back in February that we did a post called Chasing Spring on Dirt Roads in Sichuan. We were moving north along with the seasons, and gradually catching up with spring. We were also moving from a tropical to a temperate area, which sharpened the changes.
Some eight months later we’re still moving north, but autumn is moving south. In addition, the ride northwest from Thessaloniki took us from the Mediterranean uphill into rugged mountains, so change in seasons was sudden. I was tempted to call a post called “Meeting Autumn in Albania”, thinking another alliterative title was fun, but I’m also a stickler for accuracy, and it really was while still in Greece that we felt and saw the changes.
2009/10/05: Kiwi Vineyard Camp 84 km
The boat docked at 9:30, and we navigated out of Thessaloniki stopping only for a second breakfast. Industrial suburbs gave way to an area of farming and orchards which promised camping possibilities. We were short of vegetables for a decent one pot dinner, and all shops seemed to close for the afternoon reopening only at 5:00, so we drank several Greek coffees (sludge in the bottom) and waited for shops to reopen before continuing. Turning off on a track that led into quiet orchard, we found that the cherry trees gave way to rows of kiwis growing over supports and creating a green roof just above our heads. The only concern we had about the place as a campsite was what looked like a sprinkler system, and I envisioned getting soaked in the wee hours. Nevertheless, we tucked ourselves in, knowing odds were against an automatic watering in October.
2009/10/06: Florina 82 km
During the night, the only wetting we suffered was dew. We stopped in Edessa to mail a parcel home that included our mosquito nets and more. The nets had been superfluous for some time. It was a bit of relief to feel ourselves departing from the Lonely Planet Trail again Interactions with locals seemed to happen more naturally, a contrast to Lycia and the Greek Islands where our interactions were mainly with other tourists. Stopping for limonada at a gas station, we were promptly summoned by the ebullient Zofia to sit in her gazebo while she served us iced coffee. Zofia spoke Greek and German, and we speak neither, but I think we had a conversation that centred on her two boxer dogs, one a year old and the other a tiny pup.
Shortly after moving on, we met Dan, a Brit, cycling from England to Africa and raising funds for orphanages (see picture). Along with other travellers, he’d spent several days refurbishing a reading room at an orphanage in Tirana. We’d planned to camp, and even considered crossing to Macedonia (the former Yugoslavian country as opposed to Greek region we were already in) that evening, but it was getting late, and we came upon a hotel with wireless and buffet breakfast, and without the island prices. Unable to resist, we settled for a comfy night.
While in the Florina hotel, we bought Lonely Planet pdfs for the various eastern European countries we were considering travelling through, and checked the Canadian Foreign Affairs web site. Of four possible categories, Albania is given the first level, the same safety rating as Canada, the US, the UK. Most of the countries we’ve been though in the last nine months have been in the second category, and the portion of Tajikistan along the Afghan border was in the third. Upon consideration, we opted for one less border crossing, and we headed straight for Albania.
2009/10/07: Bilisht, Albania 63 km
The route began with a steep 22 km climb into the mountains. There was almost no traffic, and some shade was provided by dense beech forest. The warm fall tinges of foliage and bracken made us feel our progress north as well as up to a high pass. At the top, we had lunch at the base of a ski hill with two large St. Bernard dogs lying nearby. I hadn’t previously associated skiing with Greece, but the well stocked ski shop in Edessa should have been my clue.
Pausing in a village on our descent, we were greeted in fluent English at a tiny cafe. Where were we from? Canada. “I’m Canadian too! Would you like coffee?” And so we met Nicholas from Toronto, who returns to visit family in his village for part of each year now that he’s retired. We learned much about patterns of immigration over coffee. Nicholas’s grandfather had been a migrant worker in Canada in the early 1900s, and his father had earned a medal with Canadian forces at Dieppe. His younger brother, also present over coffee, had returned to Greece after 14 years in Canada. Nicholas also told us why we’d see police checkpoints before the border: Albania is a channel for illegal immigrants from Africa and Asia Minor moving into to Europe. The checkpoints wouldn’t affect us, Nicholas assured us.
Heading on to the border, we stopped to help a tortoise cross the road. Smack in the middle is not an advisable place for a terrapin to stop! The border was relatively quick. We’re always a little nervous about camping when newly arrived in a country, so we found a room for the equivalent of $10 in the first town. We spent an evening doing bike maintenance, including replacing my frayed derailleur cable. At 14,500 km, our bikes are getting a bit tired, but they should see us through.