As I write this story, about five months have passed since the three days I spent in Albania and the ride I will try to tell. It took me some time to encapsulate in a story that period across the border, so sudden and separate from a routine in which taking a plane and crossing a border had become taboo for over a year for almost all the world’s population.
In part, they still are, but, at the time, there was no talk of electronic green passes. Also, vaccines were a mirage for the Italian population between 30 and 40 years old, like me and my colleague Edi, who had really wanted that trip despite all the difficulties of the period. The main reason, described in this other post, was to deliver a custom Exploro made in honour of the centenary of Tirana, the capital of Albania. But the occasion was also propitious to allow Edi, a native of Tirana, to meet his mother, cousin Alban and other relatives after so many months of only Skype video calls and to take a ride around the city.
When we leave, on Wednesday 17 March, Bergamo Orio al Serio airport looks like a fort protected by the military and checkpoints at every entrance, where we have to present a series of documents and self-certifications.
Inside, all the shop shutters are down, and the usual walk to the gate has a ghostly feel. We begin to wonder if we have not ventured to return to travel too soon. However, our doubts are partly dispelled when we land in Tirana: at the airport already, the situation seems much more relaxed than the lockdown we left behind in Italy. In the streets, we discover that most activities are open, including those that for us belonged almost to the world of memories, such as bars or gyms.
We stare in amazement at this teeming city living in apparent normality from the windows of the car of Alban, Edi’s cousin. He has come to pick us up at the airport with a vehicle that is actually a pick-up of the Tirana voluntary fire brigade, of which Alban is the coordinator. Indeed, the chatter between the two cousins is mixed with the continuous croaking of the messages on the on-board radio, which signal a series of situations that need our intervention. During the short trip to the city, we don’t miss the opportunity to put out a small fire on the side of the road and see Alban intervene to break up a fight.
For me, having never been to Albania before, the approach is not the smoothest. On the other hand, Alban seems to be perfectly at ease with everything that goes on around him. Yet he doesn’t even live here for the whole year: he has a construction business in Sweden and one in Tirana, where he manages a team of guys who make deliveries by bicycle. Still, his great passion seems to be as a volunteer firefighter: a role that grants him the status to intervene in virtually any situation that doesn’t go as he thinks it should. And there seem to be many…
It is also thanks to Alban that we get the two bicycles for the following day’s ride: he keeps them in a garage where we are welcomed by his father, who is also Edi’s uncle. In the infinity of objects stored there, including a vintage car in the middle of a restoration, there are also two shiny Exploro bikes ready to take us around Tirana and its surroundings.
The following day, we meet Alban at the hotel entrance where Edi and I spent the night, not far from the city’s main square. In the meantime, the Albans have become two: together with the one we met the previous day, there is another guy, his namesake, armed with a camera and drone: the two will accompany us on our ride, and almost all the photos you see in this blog and the footage of the initial video are their work.
While I upload the GPX track drawn the night before trying to join the points of interest marked by Alban along a cycle route, Edi decides to take advantage of the presence of a nearby greengrocer to buy an apple. When the man tells him the price in lek, the local currency, he doesn’t believe his ears: the amount requested is 250… the equivalent of 2 euros! Evidently, the years spent in Italy have taken away the aura of the locals, and the rate charged is that for tourists.
Finally, we set off, chased by Alban’s drone videomaker, for Skanderberg Square. Here we met Pavli, a local history and art enthusiast, who explains to me who the commander portrayed in the huge equestrian statue that dominates the square is Giorgio Castriota Skanderberg. For a few decades around the middle of the 15th century, this guy was the main obstacle to the advance of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, becoming a national hero appreciated by the whole of Christendom. To explain this to me, Pavli says that ‘without Skanderberg, you would now be called Muhammad or Mustafa’, which makes me smile because the latter is my cat’s name, and, for a moment, I think of him and me with our names reversed: “Here are your biscuits, Carlo!”
When we set off again at the end of the history lesson, the direction is not yet the one that will take us on the trails. Instead, our first destination is a bicycle shop where we expect to find a pair of quick-release pedals for Edi, who forgot to bring them from Italy. He’s been using his SPD cleats on traditional pedals since the start: not exactly efficient pedaling! The shop where Alban is taking us is very nice and well-stocked, especially in relation to a local cycling culture that is certainly not the most advanced. I find it curious that it is set on the ground floor of a building that is, to say the least, very old. Above the tidy and refined shop window there are clothes hanging from a clothesline, only partly covering the exposed bricks of a wall that has never been finished. This is one of the many contrasts of this city, where the all-Italian attention to detail and appearance seems to have succeeded only partially. And I think this is due in part by less wealth, but perhaps also it is the result of a deeper authenticity, which does not want to retreat completely in front of the aesthetics of a sometimes-futile contemporaneity.
At the moment of leaving the shop, where Edi did not fail to take advantage of the time necessary for the new pedals assembly to sound out possible commercial synergies with the owner, two hours have already passed in the morning… and we have only covered 4 or 5 km! Advancing through the busy streets of the city centre certainly doesn’t help us to raise our average hourly rate, which is punctuated by stops for red lights and various obstacles. One of them happens to be in front of a building that is more elegant than the others: a villa that stands out from the rest because of its peculiar architectural style and a large surrounding garden. A passer-by explains that it was the residence of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator from World War II to 1985. He then adds something that I don’t understand exactly, but I think it to be about his disagreement with that character and his political orientation.
Not far from the dictator’s villa is Parku i Madh: Tirana’s big city park, built around an artificial lake south of the city centre. The Albans can’t drive through here, so Edi and I make an appointment with them at the exit on the other side and finally enjoy some freecycling. The Park is huge and is characterised by an intricate pattern of single-track paths that sooner or later always rejoin the main walk. I evidently let myself get too carried away and, in an attempt to jump over a gully, I land badly with the rear wheel and puncture the inner tube: it seems a curse… we are still stuck!
Despite the stop for repairs, we arrive at the exit on the opposite side of the park before our companions. While we are waiting for them at a crossroads, a tall man on an MTB comes up to us: he doesn’t have the typical features of a local, and in fact, we soon discover that he is from Switzerland. His name is Tobi, and he’s a guide for hikes and bike tours. Alban has alerted him to our presence, and he has come to share his knowledge of the paths on the hill of Lapidari i Saukut: a modest hill with the best view of the city.
On the way up the hill, we get to know Tobi better. He left Switzerland to become a guide in an area that is certainly not a recognised destination for two-wheeled tourism, but he seems to be irresistibly attracted to it. His white jersey bears a drawing of a goat topped by the words “Ride Albania”, the name of his bike tour agency.
He pedals and speaks peacefully, leading us along these paths dotted with the skeletons of war buildings and cows grazing freely. We are less than 10 km from Skanderberg Square, but such proximity in space seems to be accompanied by an abyss in time: everything here speaks of the past and is still partly trapped in it.
I wonder what, in this context so different from the Switzerland where he grew up, drove Tobi to move here, and I think that perhaps it has something to do with that intrinsic authenticity of Balkan culture that I was reflecting on while looking at the front of the bike shop. Maybe I’m too absorbed in these thoughts because, at the moment of stopping at the top of a small ridge, I get off balance on the wrong side of the pedal I’ve unhooked. I avoid the classic beginner’s fall only thanks to a miraculous stroke of the kidneys. Still, the outcome is perhaps worse because with a cleat of the pedal I completely cut the valve of the inner tube of the front wheel. That’s two! I mount the second and last spare inner tube: from that moment on, I have run out of jokers and I pass carefully over every stone, hoping not to run into a third puncture that I would not know how to remedy.
At the top of Lapidari we were joined again by the two Albans: due to a landslide that obstructed the road on the side we climbed, they were forced to make a very long trip to reach us with the pick-up. The two cousins wanted a souvenir photo at the top. So they opened the dances for a photo session: the context and the view are really unexpected.
For Tobi, however, it’s late, and he has to say goodbye without being able to accompany us to lunch. Even our stomachs, fasting since breakfast in the morning, agree that the time is too late to have nothing else to eat. Thus, we head downhill towards the restaurant that Alban has chosen for lunch. To get there, we go further south, in the opposite direction to the city, from which we are now at least 20/25 km away. But it seems like a lot, much more judging by what we see: the people we meet dress differently from the fashionable ones we are used to, and, on the side of the road, we happen to see some cages with animals for sale. We pass an old, abandoned petrol station before arriving at the spot where Alban&Alban are parked waiting for us.
The restaurant is a true experience of the most genuine and least touristy Albania. There are only locals at the tables, and the cuisine is perfectly traditional. The meal begins with an enormous quantity of the freshest vegetables, whose colour and scent are way more stunning than those we are used to getting from our supermarket baskets. There is a spicy ricotta cheese that drives me crazy. I have to force myself to stop eating if I want to be able to cycle back to town, as well as the stuffed vegetables: a real drug. I think the meal could very well end here when the waiter arrives with a pan big enough to hold a whole baked lamb! I don’t know if this is a typical attitude towards guests, but he hands me what looks like shears to separate the dish into portions. I, who can hardly remove the bones from a fish, decline, hoping not to offend him. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to mind.
The meal ends with a sort of warm Catalan cream which is perfect to give us some of the liveliness we need to go outside and start cycling again: it is now mid-afternoon and the temperatures are quite low. We pluck up the courage and set off for the city to reach it on the shortest possible route and try to avoid off-road riding. However, this does not save us from pedalling for a stretch on a fast road (which I am still not sure I could cycle on) and having to face a ramp of a few hundred metres with a gradient of well over 10%, along which the temptation to get off the bike is very strong.
From there, it’s downhill all the way to Skanderberg square, where we arrive when it’s time to switch on the spotlights. Shortly afterwards the Albans arrive too, once again slower than us despite the fact that they are motorised due to the constant traffic in the city. It’s almost time to say goodbye, but not before having one last beer together. Alban takes us to a friend who has a kiosk selling craft beer not far from there. He tells us how he worked in the kitchens of some of the world’s most famous restaurants in the past, but he eventually decided to return to Tirana and open his own kiosk near the main square.
Like Alban, who seems to have insufficient ties with Sweden not to return periodically to Tirana, and Tobi, who has chosen to leave Switzerland to come here, he too seems to suffer a visceral attraction for this land, this city. Indeed, they may not shine at first glance, but they reveal their most genuine identity, and perhaps this is why they continue to attract those who have seen and experienced them.