Entering southeast Albania: cycling Pogradec to Korça

The cycling from Librazhd to Korça proved suddenly smooth: relatively flat terrain after the mountains and asphalted roads. (The people in these parts also speak in a fashion closer to Standard Albanian, making understanding much easier). Early September, however, brought perpetual rain, which made it very difficult to enjoy this portion of my travels. Continue reading Entering southeast Albania: cycling Pogradec to Korça

Challenging roads in northeastern Albania: cycling Kukës–Peshkopi–Librazhd

Cycling across northeastern Albania from Kukës to Librazhd via Peshkopi was an enlightening experience. I had traveled through other parts of Albania before and thought I knew the country, but the northeast has a very different feel. The people seem different, and sadly the overwhelming feeling is one of poverty and abandonment. The views, however, are just as stunning as they are elsewhere in this mountainous country. Continue reading Challenging roads in northeastern Albania: cycling Kukës–Peshkopi–Librazhd

From Kosovo to Albania: cycling the Qafa e Prushit pass

For getting from Kosovo to Albania, I settled on the border crossing at the Qafa e Prushit pass south of Gjakova, which would lead me on to the Albanian city of Kukës. I was intrigued by this border crossing because the Bradt Albania guidebook describes it as “desolate country”, but there are hardly 50 km between Gjakova and Kukës, and the Albanian side of the border is a continuous string of villages. It’s really nothing special by Balkan standards, though the mountain views are nice. Continue reading From Kosovo to Albania: cycling the Qafa e Prushit pass

Across Kosovo: cycling from Prishtina to Gjakova

Last time I cycled in Kosovo, I was new to the whole route-planning thing and ended up traveling the main roads. The roads in Kosovo connecting cities other than Prishtina are not as heavily trafficked as the routes involving the capital, but they still have a steady stream of cars and the occasional truck, and so are worth avoiding if possible. This time, I managed to coax OpenRouteService into giving me a way to cross the country, from Prishtina to Gjakova, on mainly minor roads.

Infrastructure in Kosovo is really impressive. Even minor village roads generally have excellent asphalt, with no feeling of corners cut. These 110 kilometers that I cycled over two days were one of the most pleasant routes in my touring experience, though there were three grueling ascents. Continue reading Across Kosovo: cycling from Prishtina to Gjakova

Cycling from Niš to Prishtina

When it came time to cycle from Niš to Prishtina, I was very keen on following the same route as when I hitchhiked this way years ago. Namely, this was the E80, Serbia’s national road 35. As I set off from Niš on the bike, I discovered that cycling is a very different kind of experience: the whole way to Kuršumlija is heavily transited, and there isn’t much of a shoulder to ride on. If I had known this, I probably would have chosen one of the minor roads over the mountains, even if it would have taken an extra day. Continue reading Cycling from Niš to Prishtina

Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

Several years ago my wife and I did a circle of some 3000 km from Romania through several Western Balkan countries and back again. It was a wonderfully memorable experience. As I found myself with two months free while the weather was still fine, I decided to do nearly the same route again, this time going alone to fully immerse myself in the local languages.

Instead of setting off from Timișoara this time, I decided to enter Serbia further south, near Niš. To save some time in doing this, I took the train to Craiova, the capital of southwest Romania, from which I could easily reach the former Yugoslavia by the new bridge across the Danube and then a brief traversal of Bulgaria. Continue reading Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

Valparaiso

Valparaiso, essentially Chile’s second city, is both a struggle and a joy for the touring cyclist. While the main business and shopping areas of the city are located in a flat expanse known as the El Plan, the residential areas and many things of touristic interest are spread over several dozen hills. The streets going up these hills have ridiculously steep inclines and not only is it impossible to cycle up them, but even pushing a loaded touring bike requires that one stop every few steps for a breather. Once we safely stored our bikes at our lodgings, we hoped moving around would be easier, but even on foot Valparaiso is a brutal place. A series of funiculars (ascensores) links El Plan with the hills, but these were built a century ago when settlement had not yet spread so far up.A funicular at the top end of the line, with its counterpart far below, and a panorama of the surrounding city. Today, people are living much higher along the hills, and even after one has paid 200 pesos to ride a funicular several dozen meters up, there is still a lot of grueling walking left to be done. Continue reading Valparaiso

South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

In Vicuña we experienced an earthquake, only the first of many during our time in Chile. The locals went about their business completely unperturbed, and explained that this was no terremoto (‘earthquake’ as the sort of cataclysmic event that razes cities and brings tsunamis), but rather a mere temblor (‘earthquake’ as only a brief shaking of the ground and all the loose items in the house). For us, not used to making such a distinction, it was still a foreboding introduction to this part of the world.

A half-day’s cycling from Vicuña brought us to Chile’s Pacific coast at the city of La Serena.Stretch of sandy beach with coastal developments and mountains in the background. We were surprised to find an almost perfect simulacrum of southern California: sprawl, car culture, row homes, a dry landscape, and plenty of conspicuous consumption. As mentioned before, we too were in consumption mode, so happy to have left Argentina with its import-substitution policy and low-quality products, and here the supermarkets were bigger than in Vicuña. We stayed with some local cyclists in the neighbouring port city of Coquimbo, which does feel a little like the poorer cousin of La Serena, but the “bad neighbourhoods” there are on top of the hill where no visitors need go, and generally the coastal and other low-lying areas are just quiet residential districts like in any other developed country. There was nothing of especial touristic interest in these two cities themselves, but during the days we stayed here, we cycled back and forth between Coquimbo and La Serena several times along the long seafront promenade, which was a relaxing place to be in late December, still the low season. On a clear day, you can turn away from the sea to a view of a snow-covered Andean peak. Continue reading South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale

The Paso Agua Negra (‘Blackwater Pass’) is one of many crossings from Argentina to Chile over the Andes. This pass reaches an altitude of 4770 meters, with a good-quality unpaved road but very little traffic, so it has become increasingly popular with cyclists. I read several stories of crossing here (like the excellent description at Andes By Bike) that described it as a smooth journey, so I expected that it would go equally smoothly for us in mid-December 2015. Things were more complicated, however. Continue reading Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale