From one of Europe’s greatest cities to another seems a fitting last lap to finish our trip.
Athens is an open-air museum - everywhere you turn there’s an ancient monument, or temple.
We spent a day checking out the city before hitting the road again. The Parthenon, considered one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments, the Temple of Zeus, and the Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held are all within a stones throw of each other.
Once we’d cleared the usual traffic and angry drivers that accompany pretty much every city in the world, we were into the countryside, spinning along the Greek coastline.
There was plenty to look at and keep us occupied.
We passed the shipwreck of the Mediterranean Sky – a huge boat left to rust in the sea after being abandoned in 2003 as the company that owned her couldn’t afford to move her.
This boat has also been left to rust although how it got up here is anyone’s guess…
Before long we were in Ancient Corinth – a town famed for the well preserved Temple of Apollo from which apparently 1,000 sacred prostitutes used to ply their trade. Back in the day, Corinth was supposedly the “Amsterdam of the Ancient World”.
We camped near the ruins, no prostitution in sight these days, only tourists wandering around with their bum bags and long lens cameras.
It’s interesting to think what the people at the time would have made of all these tourists and cyclists nosing around their buildings.
Our tent and bikes would look to them how a magic carpet, or flying car would look to us - totally incomprehensible.
Our cameras and mobile phones would look like witchcraft or wizardry from another planet.
In 2,500 years from now I wonder if people will still be wandering round the ruins of Ancient Corinth.
Or maybe they’ll be marvelling at the ruins of the London Eye, finding it incredible we could build such a structure with only the prehistoric tools (in their view) we have available to us today.
From Corinth the roads carries on along the coastline through a mixture of tourist hotspots, rural villages and countryside.
The tourist hotspots are the ones to avoid as the general cost of food and drink near doubles. The tell tale sign is menus or banners in English. As soon as you see writing in English you know you’re getting ripped off.
Best sticking to the Greek menus for more authentic and cheaper food – the obvious disadvantage being you can’t read what you’re ordering… But if you’re happy gambling it’s the way to go.
Dotted along the shore are beautiful secluded bays, many equipped with basic showers. We’re back in full camping mode as the cost of accommodation in Europe is sky high – but although we’re camping it’s probably the cleanest we’ve been all trip.
The day starts with a morning swim followed by a shower, 100km (ish) on the bike before resting out the sun for a few hours, cycle a bit more, swim, shower, then camp.
A particularly memorable night, we cycled, showered, and camped in a secluded spot next to the sea.
At 0430, the sound of a blaring police siren right outside our tent caused us to jump up in alarm.
We bolted out of bed to see what was going on, only to see it wasn’t a police car waiting to arrest us, but a boat on the water just heading out to sea to start the days fishing.
Amazing how far sound carries across water, and how the thin walls of a tent make your imagination play tricks.
Up early, we packed up and were treated to the most incredible sunrise across the bay as we swam.
As it’s so hot we’re only using the inner part of the tent - the walls thinner than a sheet of paper. If the heat and light don’t wake us up, the crickets will.
Anyone who’s been on holiday to a Mediterranean country will know the noise, a buzzing like 1,000 bees all around you.
Camping in a field, it’s so loud in the morning it seems amazing that nature, and animals so small, can make such a racket.
It’s a strangely comforting noise, much nicer than being woken by the blaring horns of the traffic.
The west coast of Greece heading towards Albania becomes increasingly less touristy and less populated. It took us four days from Athens to reach the Albanian border.
After a quick complimentary shot of ouzo from our new restaurant owner friend George, we crossed into country 24 of the trip without the guard giving a second glance at our passports.
From a cycling perspective, the most instantly noticeable difference upon entering Albania is the hills. The Greek west coast is almost perfectly flat, but as soon as you cross the border, it gets mountainous.
Researching Albania had taken a back seat in all the excitement of the last week, so we were caught unaware by the onslaught of switchbacks, climbs and descents.
Coming out of a small town, the road suddenly became steep – very steep.
Cars driving had to drop into first gear and rev their way up it.
We were about to commence our climb when a big lad wearing shades on a heavily loaded motorbike pulled up beside us. He had a German/Austrian sounding accent and said, in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger:
“Are You Sure You Want To Do This ?” - pointing at the hill.
It was like the bit in Terminator when Arnie pulls up on his bike and says:
“Come With Me If You Want To Live”
We assured him we’d be alright and ploughed on.
Arnie wasn’t lying – it was steep.
We were hunched over the front handlebars trying to keep our weight as far forward as possible, to stop our light front wheels toppling backwards over the heavy back ones.
At one point were going so slowly, the Garmin’s auto stop function kicked in as it thought we were stationary!
Pedal by pedal, we eventually made the summit after 1,700m of climbing, and rolled back down the other side, with beautiful views of the sea opening up at every turn.
Our plan was to reach the city of Vlore that night so we pressed on.
We were looking good to make it, until we hit Mount Cika.
Rising out the ocean ahead of us, we realised instead of going round the coast, the road went up and over the mountain.
Switchbacks a kilometre long criss-crossed up the mountain like giant scars – already exhausted and with a wind getting up, we tapped out for the day and looked for a place to camp.
You can just make out the road on this picture in the mountain ahead of Katie.
We found a decent hidden spot off the side of the road behind some bushes. It had an awesome view of the sea – and of two giant concrete domes.
The Albanian countryside is covered in strange concrete bunkers. There are in fact 173,371 of them in total – around 5.7 for every square kilometre in Albania.
They were built between the 60s and 80s by the Communist government of Enver Hoxha to defend Albania from invasion, and cover every corner of the country, from city streets, to beaches to mountains.
Reading about the bunkers in fascinating. It’s hard to imagine a bigger waste of time, money, resources etc etc.
A quote from the link above:
“On average, they are said to have each cost the equivalent of a two-room apartment and the resources used to build them could easily have resolved Albania's chronic shortage of housing. Building twenty smaller bunkers cost as much as constructing a kilometre of road. It also had a human cost; 70–100 people a year died constructing the bunkers. In addition, the bunkers occupied and obstructed a significant area of arable land.”
The invasion of Albania that Hoxha was terrified of never happened – so the bunkers just sit now derelict and empty, having never been used.
We set up camp in front of two long abandoned bunkers and cooked food in front of them, sheltering from the wind.
I wonder what Hoxa would say if he could see how his bunkers were being used today – a kitchen for hungry cyclists.
Up at first light, we cracked up the hill – a tasty 1,000m climb before breakfast. There was a great view at the top which we enjoyed after sitting on the wall for a while resting – or in Katie’s case… sleeping.
Only Katie could sleep in this position…
A glorious descent followed, and a two day ride to capital city Tirana.
Late in day one, we passed a man selling live rabbits by the side of the road.
He was holding them dangling by their ears and waving them – live – in front of car windows. As we passed he held one hand out for a high five, whilst with his other hand dangled the poor rabbit by his ears in front of our bikes.
We gave him a wide berth
Aside from this, and Ewan heroically saving a turtle crossing the road from certain death, it was an uneventful ride.
In Tirana we had our picture taken at the main square, and splashed out on a hostel after seven nights camping on the bounce.
We got talking to Mikel about Albania. He explained there had just been a general election in June, and the winner was a man called Edi Rama.
“Rama is a great guy. He used to be a basketball player and artist. He is like one of the people”
Rama is renowned for his “edgy” dress sense. At a meeting of Balkan and EU leaders he combined his formal suit and tie with white adidas trainers. There’s a classic picture of him and Emmanuel Macron here.
“One of his main aims is to get Albania into the EU. We have been on the waiting list for many years, and slowly we are getting rid of corruption and the Mafia that Albania is famous for.”
“Now he has been re elected he can reform our judiciary system and hopefully bring us closer to membership.”
The final day in Albania was a 95km ride to the Montenegro border. The roads out of Tirana were very poor and traffic was passing very fast.
Some of the Albanian driving is very bad – there’s no hard shoulder to hide or cry in when the traffic gets bad – so you just have to get on with it, but have your wits about you!
Thankfully we had no major incidents, and we arrived at border town Shkoder as the sun was setting.
It’s been a jam packed few weeks, and great to be back in Europe.
It’s a relief to not be asked 40 times a day if you’re married, or how many kids we have.
Instead however we’re constantly asked about our views on Brexit – so I’m not sure what’s worse…
The scenery has been so beautiful along the coast it’s felt like our first unofficial honeymoon after getting engaged last week.
Come to think of it, I’ve no idea what we’re going to do for a honeymoon after this trip – how can you top this?
I’m sure we’ll think of something….
It was cool to be featured this week on this travel blog about cycle adventurers – check out our interview if you are interested.