June 18, 2009 GMT

I deliberatly told Rino & Gime that I would be leaving earlier than I actually planned to, in order to allow for the predictably lenghty goodbyes. The hospitality I'd enjoyed there was wonderful, but after four days in the same place it did feel good to be on the road again, heading to pastures new.

The crossing into Albania was slow but painless. I was very pleased with myself for remembering to change money at the border, but almost immediately concluded that my previous haphazard attitude was better, as I was charged 6 euros commission on a 20 euro exchange, and literally right round the corner was a restaurant proudly advertising its 24 hour cash machine!

My original plan was to head through Elbasan then on to Berat, and stay the night there. I couldn't find the castle in Elbasan, so got lost in its one-way system instead - which to be honest is every bit as viable a way of getting a feel for somewhere! I'd been making better progress than expected, so decided to push on to Gjirokaster, and visit Berat on the way back north.

I had heard very mixed reports about Albanian roads, and although it's a major route the road to Gjirokaster is far from decent. Subsiding tarmac, potholes, roadworks, gravel, it's all there until Tepelene, where you're treated to a brand new, fast, wide road, empty apart from the occasional cow.

I hadn't realised Albania has oil. I don't know how much of it, and petrol definitely isn't cheap, but I'm guessing there isn't enough to interest investors as the only means of exploitation I saw were isolated, solitary derricks nodding their heads as they pumped. Many weren't operational at all, and the pipes running from them were old and rusting.

I had a note scribbled down from a guidebook that read simply Gjirokaster, stay Kotonii, Lagja Palorto. With no idea what it was or why I'd decide to tell myself to go there, I found a policeman who spoke no English and asked him. I'm not sure it actually meant anything to him, but he pointed vaguely further on, so I headed in that direction.

I found myself in what was clearly the old part of town, with a steep road winding up to a wide square. It's election time in Albania, and loud music blared from cars brandishing enormous pink flags. I stopped again and asked in a cafe. Up the hill, and left. So up the hill I went - and promptly found myself riding on Gjirokaster's steep, slippery, three-hundred-year-old cobbles. Stopping didn't seem like a very good idea, so I powered my way up until I found somewhere vaguely flat! More directions, and I finally found my little B&B, whose owners were leaning out of the window and waving as if they'd expected me all along. I parked on a small flat patch and settled in.

I showered, then wandered up to Gjirokaster castle, which includes a fairly impressive collection of old cannon, all lined up in the castle archways. There are no explanations, but you can poke around anywhere you like, and the views over the wide flat valley are superb.

Back in town and looking for food, I met Hajri, a cafe owner who loves bikes and was overjoyed to hear about my trip. I also chatted to Blerina, a young girl just about the head off to university, whose father is a local archeaologist. Everyone in Albania has been friendly, welcoming, willing to help - people will actually stop on the street or come out of their houses to make sure you don't need anything!

The next morning I wandered around Gjirokaster a little more, then headed to Saranda. The road runs across a set of mountains, rising very quickly and steeply above the plain. The earth there is red, and in places has eroded into sharp ridges and escarpments that stand out vividly against the surrounding green trees.

Saranda itself is the ugliest town I have ever seen. Most of it, including the main roads in and out, is only half-built. Everything is tall and square, hastily erected and unappealing. So I carried straight through, heading for Butrint and the Roman ruins there, and hoping to find somewhere more attractive to stay on the way.

The road runs alongside a blue lagoon, seperated from the sea by a thin strip of land. Along with my first sea-views, I found my first olive groves, and the powerful smell of wild thyme. The ruins are extensive, but the mosaics, really the star attraction, are covered with sand to protect them, and not visible. Frequently in the Balkans I have found tourism to be a work in progress, often put on hold, as the need to preserve things is recognised but the means to do so and still display them are not there. Churches too are often locked while they undergo restoration work.

At Butrint I met an Albanian family living in Canada. They were staying at a hotel owned by a friend of theirs, and in the absence of any other suggestions I joined them, swimming in the Ionian sea for the first time!

I left Saranda fairly early and set off along the coast road, the start of which is cunningly hidden behind a fuel station. Even by mid-morning the heat-haze blurred the views, making Korfu and the other small Greek islands seem to float above the water. Most of the road is shiny and new, but the bits that aren't are under construction, and I had a few hairy moments going through deep gravel!

I had planned to stop at Orikum and go walking on the Karaburum peninsula, but a man with a machine-gun politely informed me (via a pair of local children summoned from the sea) that it is now entirely military and inaccessible. So I picnicked by the sea, and carried on. A few miles down the road, I spotted two French campervans parked outside a restaurant. I had passed Bernadette, Christian, Antoine and Michelle, who I'd met in Ohrid, the day before, but had assumed they were heading for a ferry. But here they were, so I joined them and we caught up on the last few days' travel. They had taken a road I wasn't sure about, south of Korce, and said it was good and stunning - sometimes the caution brought on by travelling alone means I do miss things.

Their plan for the evening was to camp by a lake, so I decided to follow on and join them. About two hours later we stopped to ask directions, only to be told we were in completely the wrong place, the road we wanted didn't exist, and the lake was dry anyway! So at that point I left them to it, and rode to Berat, another old city with stone-roofed houses, slippery cobbles and a castle - though this one has houses and inhabitants within its walls!

The bike had been making some rather unpleasant clunking noises since Ohrid, and although I was fairly sure it was just because I'd had to top her up with the wrong viscosity oil, I wanted to make sure. Anastas, the hotel receptionist who also led this morning's tour to the castle for me and a group of German tourists, said he knew someone who could check it out. For the first time since Romania we had heavy rain, and eventually it transpired the guy wouldn't be there till 5, so I have ended up spending an extra night in Berat. But at least the mechanic concurred with me, so all I need to do now is find some decent oil (he reckons nowhere outside Tirana will have it in Albania) and change it when I can - at least it shouldn't cause any real problems (I hope!).

I've used the day to gather information, and it seems the ride to Komani for the ferry through a gorge that I really wanted to take is likely to be too hard for me to feel happy about on my own, so unless I find information to the contrary I will be heading to Montenegro the day after tomorrow, and spending more time there.

Photos are now uploaded, and you can find some more of Serbia and Macedonia and some of Posted by Laura Bennitt at June 18, 2009 06:55 PM GMT


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