We woke up early again today, perhaps 05:15am or something like that, so after catching up on a few emails we walked across the road to the beach and had a refreshing swim in the sea, before returning to our beachside apartment and sorting out our packing. It was nice listening to the little village start to wake up and come alive as we sorted out our things. Breakfast was included in our room rate, no choice was given and before long we were presented with a spicy sausage omelette and coffee outside the restaurant below us. Whilst seated outside I watched two guys whiz past on a scooter, the pillion dragging a small swordfish along side him, held on tightly by its pointy nose.

After loading our bike and riding it back through the restaurant and out onto the street, we headed south towards Sarande where we would leave the coast and head inland towards the border crossing into Greece.

The coastal ride south was scenic and enjoyable – the road twisting and turning along the hills overlooking the sparkling sea. Occasionally we’d enter small villages and get squeezed down to a single file road that wound its way around the houses, before opening up as they dropped away behind us. In some places the road dropped down level with the sea, and we could see people fishing off old jetties.

The road climbed up over a range and then dropped down on the inland side, with the temperature rising accordingly and the land looking more barren. The landscape was quite surreal, as if we were looking at an ancient sea floor that had been folded up and twisted on its side. We dropped down to the plain and quickly picked up the main road running south – the SH4, and we followed this out to the border with Greece.

The midday sun was beating down on us as we queued patiently behind a small line of cars waiting to be processed by the Albanian border guards, and after our turn we followed the cars down the road a short distance to the Greek border entry. A couple of tour coaches had already pulled up here and I could see that a Greek customs officer was getting all the passengers to offload their luggage, and was signalling for some items to be taken away with their owners for further inspection.

Whilst this was happening Karen was receiving sightseeing tips and other useful bits of information from the Greek border person processing our passports. At all previous border entries Karen has been able to remain on the bike and hand over the passports and green card, but at this station she needed to alight and go visit a booth adjacent to the line of cars and motorbikes. With a bit off practice we now have a workable system in place – we ride up close to the checkpoint and I stop short, allowing Karen to get off the bike and get our passports and green card out of the top box. She then remounts and we ride up together, sometimes she ends up walking through the boarder, and once we’re through to the other side we stop and replace things back in the top box.

A small cafe just beyond the Greek checkpoint beckoned us for lunch, so we pulled over for a drink and a chance to look over our maps. Karen’s getting really good at not being too sure about what food she’s buying – now she just points to something and orders, and so we both enjoyed a cheese-filled pastry for lunch, and a coke.

Without a map of Greece we pulled together a bit of our Albanian map and a bit of our Bulgarian map to work out a plan. Unfortunately our time is running a bit short so we knew we could only spend two days maximum in Greece – nowhere as much as required, so rather than try and squeeze too much in too short a timeframe we opted to blast through north-west Greece and whiz through Thessaloniki enroute for the border crossing into Bulgaria.

The road improved as soon as we started riding away from the Albanian border, and when we got to the A2 heading east it was fabulous – if you need to do some big miles and still have a scenic view then the A2 is a great choice, as this road wound its way around and through the hills, before dropping down to a valley, only to re-enter more hills. We passed through heaps of tunnels carved in the hills, dropping down from the A2’s 130kmh speed limit to the 100kmh limit in many tunnels, and we had this high speed road all to ourselves for most of the afternoon.

At one stage Karen’s jacket unzipped itself in the wind and so we pulled off the motorway to find a fuel stop, though as I’d misread a sign we ended up cruising a few km down a side road before finding a dusty little servo. I didn’t need any fuel so we just bought a couple of drinks and a packet of wafers from the vending machine inside the small shop, and the owner had to shake and shove the machine to get it to dispense the wafers as they jammed just as they were about to drop. We enjoyed our snack and drinks at a small table outside in the shade, and the servo owner came and offered us a plate of fresh cherries, which we gladly accepted and munched down quickly as they were delicious and refreshing. He couldn’t speak any English and we can’t speak any Greek, but we both thanked him for his kindness and shook his hand, and then we rode away, both of us with crushed hands as he had the strongest handshake I’ve ever felt! The generosity he showed was really touching, and Karen and I chatted about this as we rejoined the A2 and bolted towards Thessaloniki.

Whilst our initial planning – performed months ago now – had identified Thessaloniki as a suitable overnight stop, I was keen to avoid the mayhem of a large city and so used the GPS to plot a course bypassing the city and sending us north towards Serres, the last decent-sized town on the Greek side of the border crossing with Bulgaria. The afternoon wind howled across the flat plain and constantly buffeted us, causing me concern as we were now mixing it up with a fair bit of traffic on our three lanes of road heading east to Thessaloniki.

Most of the traffic took off-ramps that led into the city, whilst we swung north and headed towards Serres. It had been a long day up to this point and Karen would have been happy to have found a hotel nearby, but we had to knock off the last 60km into Serres before the GPS found a hotel nearby for us to check into. Signs pointed to two adjacent hotels, the Alexandra and the Acropoli, and we followed a short road out of town and up a hill to the hotels. The Alexandra looked old and tired and was all boarded up, but just above it on the hill was the four star Acropoli, and for fifty euros we checked in for the evening and unloaded our luggage before riding back into town to find a restaurant for dinner.

We could see a few restaurants on the long main street as we rode along it, but they were all on the other side of the road so we looped back and pulled up outside a suitably Greek-looking restaurant. The owner could speak some English, and we ordered some Greek salads, souvlaki (for Karen) and meatballs (for me). The food was delicious and so fresh. Karen went to pay the bill (20 euro including drinks) and came back with complementary ice creams – the generosity of the Greek people we’ve met today has been lovely.

Back at our hotel it was time for a quick dip in our spa before bed. It had been a long day with approx 500km in distance clocked up – including about 80km of low-speed, technical riding along the coast and hills of Albania and a lot of high-speed riding, and some strong cross-winds to contend with, and we were both a bit worn-out, but the big push today has set us up for an easier day tomorrow as from Serres its now only 40km to Bulgaria. We’ll need to come back another time to explore Greece and do it justice.

I feel a bit compelled to describe the SH2 Motorway we rode on yesterday morning from Vore to Durres. This road offered some great safety improvements over the old road that ran alongside it, like the central barriers that seperated the oncoming traffic in an effort to reduce the risk of head-on collisions, but other safety devices have also been installed to improve the drive.

The road has a speed limit of either 90kmh or 100kmh (take your pick unless you’re driving a BMW or Mercedes as then no limits apply apparently). Where servos have been placed on the motorway, instead of having a slip road to exit the motorway, a 60kmh zone applies at the start of the servo apron.

Occasionally we could see overhead pedestrian crossings arching over the motorway, and these often signalled a ‘Dangerous Crossroad’. As we approached these crossings a sign announcing the ‘Dangerous Crossroad could be seen, and the speed limit would drop to 60kmh and then within a few metres 40kmh. A radar attached to a digital display showing your speed and a smiley or sad face would reward or admonish you depending on your detected speed. The central barrier had been removed at these crossroads to allow farm traffic and other vehicles cross the road.

The speed limits change so frequently on the roads here – motorway included – it’s hard to understand the rationale that’s been used to determine how fast you should be driving.

Then again, sitting on the roadway out the front of hotel in Himare under an umbrella enjoying a Tirana beer and watching all the scooter riders zip by without a helmet, and watching the cars roar down the short section of beachside road makes me wonder if road safety is just an afterthought over here …

Albanian Riviera

We had an early start today – it wasn’t deliberately intentional, but the road noise had started to intensify outside, and so we were up at 05:15am, and packed-loaded and on our way by 06:15am. Christoff and Christian had recommended the Logara Pass on the coast south of Vlore, enroute to the beaches of Himare, so we headed west to Durres so we could pick up the scenic SH8 and follow the coast south.

Karen was keen to get an early start to try and avoid some of the head-on drivers that we’d encountered yesterday, and by-and-large we had the roads to ourselves, even though we did get squeezed out by a big truck who didn’t just merge into our lane – he just took it over. With that said I’d had a 50/50 feeling that he’d drive over the top of us so I was anticipating the move, and so we just eased back and gave him the road he wanted. Might is right over here, and trucks rule the road.

The local police were out in force early with their magic sticks (so called by Doug K (of HU fame) because the police wave their sticks at you and money magically appears), but they ignored us and we ignored them.

The road we were on changed numerous times from a pot-hole roller coaster to a smooth highway, with rural sections and rough sections and city-centre sections and little village sections all melded in together.

We stopped just short of Fiar for fuel and a coffee, but it was only 07;15am and the cafe attached to the servo was closed, so after refilling we pushed on. Albania has about one servo for every man, woman and child in the country, and if you run out of fuel its only a short walk to the nearest servo. We rarely could not see a servo either up ahead or in our mirrors.

Passing through Fiar Karen spotted a cafe so we pulled over and had a nice croissant each, and a coffee (grape juice for Karen). Fiar is a large city, and the road system and uses were quite chaotic, with cars and pedestrians shooting out from all directions. We made our way slowly out of the city and down to Vlore, which again was a chaotic jumble of streets and traffic and people.

Just south of Vlore the buildings fell away, replaced by trees and mountains as we entered the Jogora Pass. The climb up was steep and bumpy, with potholes in the road making the hairpin bends a challenge. Once we’d crested the pass however the southern side was smooth and scenic, as it overlooked the sea. We descended the pass and followed the coastal road, passing locals selling honey and oils at their roadside stalls, and slipping through sleepy villages perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

We kept on the main road as it skirted the back of Himare, slowed down by a funeral procession ahead of us, and once we’d passed that we continued south for a few km til we came to a small bay, with a few hotels and restaurants looking out over the water. It was almost midday so we parked up and grabbed some spaghetti for lunch, with a Tirana beer (for me) to wash it down, and some cold and unpalatable red wine for Karen. The restaurant has a hotel above it that overlooks the beach, and for 30 euros we’ve checked in, unpacked, and we’re ready to go for a swim and relax for a while – a well deserved treat after our big off-road adventure yesterday and our early start today.

Tomorrow’s plan is to ride the 50km south to Sarande, before heading inland towards the border crossing into Greece, so maybe 120km in total before we get to the border, and then we’ll ride on until we’re ready to stop. As Karen said this morning – “We’ve got a tent so we can camp wherever we need to!”

We had an interesting breakfast at our hotel in Andrijevica …my scrambled eggs ended up as an empty omelet…. where our new friend and owner of the hotel, Slobor, gave us his personal service and oversaw his staff to ensure our every need was met….he really treated us like Royalty. He even came to see us off as we loaded up the bike and set off for the border with Albania. Even with his limited English and our non existent language skills we formed a great bond.

We headed South East to Gusinje, where we got a little bit confused as the GPS was not picking up the roads correctly and we took a wrong turn….but instructions from a helpful local (again with no language skills but lots of pointing to place names on Vince’s map) we were soon on our way. The Border Police from Montengero were charming and even offered to take our photo at the border with our bike, and one even posed with me as well. The Albanian Border Police were less social, but we had our stamps in our passports and our green card returned without too much delay. Less than a Km from the checkpoint the bitumen disappeared into gravel! We had been told roads in Albania were not that great….luckily this only lasted a few hundred metres and we breathed a sigh of relief….they were just tricking us! Little did we know what was to come!

Back on the bitumen we quickly reached the junction to Vermosh and the scenic road to Shkoder (our interim destination). We took the turning for Shkoder and quickly found ourselves on an unsealed, rocky forest track carved in the side of a mountain and leading to the village of Lepushe. It was a bit hair raising for me on the back of the bike, which just ate up the road much to Vince’s delight. We stopped in Lepushe for a cool drink and I went to the toilet ….only to discover it was quite interesting……it’s really not my day today!

Back on the bike we continued down the rocky road, where it quickly deteriorated into the road from HELL!……. Vince was excellent in his efforts to negotiate the steep inclines and descents with our sure footed precision machine, through what can only be described as mountain rock track (the photos make it look much tamer that it was!)….with large and small boulders as well as areas of almost tiny ballbearings!!!! Well, all Adventure Riders will tell you it’s not a matter of IF but at matter of WHEN……the ANIMAL went down with us on board – first time ever! Luckily neither of us was hurt as we were travelling very slowly, and she sustained no damage either. I managed to slide out from under her (my legs well protected by the crash bars and panniers) and then Vince could get off. I was wondering how we were going to get this heavily laden bike up again when suddenly from around the corner sprung, Marchin (sic), a highly energetic Polish rider who was around the corner and heard us go down. Between he and Vince the ANIMAL was soon upright and ready for action! With limited English we established that Marchin was also headed for Shkoder and was experiencing the same shock over the condition of the “scenic road” indicated on our maps….so we agreed to ride together and help each other out. I chose to lighten the load a bit and walk through the ballbearing section (truth be told I was shaken up from the fall and needed some time out to keep my shit together and not burst into tears).

Back on the bike we continued until we reached an area where there had been attempts at roadwork, and it went up a steep gradient with soft soil. Vince’s footing slipped in the soft soil and the ANIMAL went down a second time, but again neither was hurt. Vince then decided to walk the heavily laden ANIMAL up… took the three of us to get her up to the top through the soft dirt, rocks and rubble….(my biceps from pulling her from the front are killing me today 24.6.15)…. But we got her up! Vince thought it funny to keep telling me this will be what it will be like in the Himalayas in India……..and it took me all my time to keep it together…..this is the scariest day I have ever had on the bike …..I just wanted out of there…..I even double checked I had the emergency number for global rescue in case we needed evacuation….that’s how dangerous I considered it and how scared I felt ….. but I knew it was impossible to turn back we had to press on …so I just had to put on my big girl Bridget Jones Knickers and get on with it! “Drink a glass of harden up Princess and get over it!” Of course for Vince it was a day in the park…..he was as cool as a cucumber…..although he did admit afterwards that his heart was at his mouth at times. He told me afterwards he was proud of me, I did great and I appeared very calm……but I can assure you that was only on the surface!!!! Vince was very pleased with how the ANIMAL performed, especially 2up and fully loaded. He said she did better than he could have done on his DR650.

We got held up at further roadworks where we had to wait for a truck and two catepillar drillers/loaders to move off the single lane track for us to pass. Marchin, always the gentleman, gave me a LION bar….it was delicious. We continued on our way and Vince had to backtrack at one point to check on our new companion who had disappeared behind us, but he was just making a necessary pit stop! We finally reached some bitumen, after 30km of rocky crap taking close to 3 hours…..we bade farewell to our new friend and he gave me a kiss on my hand goodbye. We have affectionately nicknamed him “Tigger”….as he was so animated and energetic….at one point as he remounted his VStrom 650 … literally jumping onto it! He was a great help to us…..the Universe sends you what you need when you need it ….and we needed him today! Top Bloke!

Vince and I stopped at the top of the mountain pass to look back on the sealed section of road…..I could have kissed it! We headed South towards Shkoder, dodging all of the oncoming cars and buses driving on our side of the road as they manically overtake each other with no room…..often we found ourselves three abreast on what should be a dual carriageway…..we are learning fast…..the rule is the bigger you are the more road you get!!!!! Totally crazy drivers here……my stress level was through the roof…..Vince commented on how calm I was……I said “It’s not calm….it’s gone beyond terror and I’m now entering a catatonic state!!!! (LOL).

We were shocked at the number and frequency of petrol stations, car wreckers and Car LAVAZH (wash) throughout this part of Albania……it’s all about the car…..agriculture sits side by side with progress as you have to watch out for cows, goats and sheep… well as crazy traffic! We found a hotel and restaurant (as part of one of the petrol stations) and decided to call it quits for the day…..we got to stay for 20 – 27 Euro (2800 Lek)….Albania is very cheap! It was basic, but clean and we were both exhausted! I did notice that all of the staff and patrons at the hotel and attached cafe/restaurant were young men – I haven’t seen a lady in public in Albania as yet.

Vince’s Notes: the GS really impressed me today. I’m not a particularly good off-road rider and today I was I punching well above my weight, but the GS is so manageable and tractable it forgave most of my mistakes and just powered through the conditions. The one slip we had was at low speed – probably just walking pace, and on a steep descent with loose rocks I locked up the rear wheel as its suspension unloaded coming up and over a large rock and it then tried to overtake the front wheel, spinning us into the ground. The bike laid itself nicely down on the ground. It would be fair to say that the riding conditions today were the toughest I’ve ever encountered, yet even two-up and fully loaded (so approx 500kg in total) the bike handled like a surgeon’s scalpel. At times I was telling myself that Bully and Howard could ride a GS in these conditions and so the bike could handle it and therefore it was all up to me to ride it correctly. Karen was fantastic as my pillion – she was amazing on the back, cool as a cucumber as we slithered and skated down the rocky tracks. And I have to say – I’m such a fan of the Continental TKC80’s – they really paid off today. When the going gets tough I like to know that I’ve got the best tyres fitted for the conditions – just one less thing to worry about 🙂 Not so happy with my GoPro though – I had it switched on but it didn’t record anything – subsequent testing has suggested a glitch to do with the combined video+photo setting as its locking up occasionally when saving a still image. Further investigation is required I think.