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.
Following the Drini i Zi River to Peshkopi
I got a very late start from Kukës, leaving town only around 1600. The road south is nice asphalt, but the gradients were tough. After a couple of hours I reached the intersection where one can choose between the old, unpaved road to Peshkopi further to the west, and the new paved road further to the east. I chose the old road, as the Bradt Albania guide warned that gradients on the new road are up to 20%, and cyclists would better appreciate the beautiful scenery of the old road that follows the river Drini i Zi (‘Black Drin’).
Indeed, the beautiful views began as soon as I turned off the asphalt onto the old road. The Drini i Zi route began with a descent closer to the river, though nowhere along its length does the road approach the river enough that one can easily walk to it. Albania has a lot of vistas where one follows the side of a mountain high over a river, and across that river is another mountain with scattered villages. One is only a couple of kilometers at most from those houses on the other side, but with the difficulty of getting down to the river, crossing it, and getting up the other side, one might as well be in a separate world.
Night was already falling just as I reached the bottom of this first descent, so I asked an old man if I could pitch my tent on his land. He offered me the possibility to sleep in the house for 1000 lekë (7€), an offer that I took for the sake of language practice, though I later came to regret it. By entering this family’s house, I had to accept the food they provided instead of being able to cook a hearty cyclist’s meal of pasta on my stove. My hosts were very poor people, and their dinner consisted only of a Shopska salad and a chunk of bread, nowhere near the carbs I needed to get for the next day.
That next day was a killer. I set off at 0630 and soon discovered that in spite of my long descent towards the river the evening before, I would now have to cycle back up several hundred meters. I passed a few villages, but they were no more than hamlets of a few houses each. There would be no shops for a long time. The views here were lovely, though, and I often stopped to admire them.
After a climb that took me far more of the morning than I expected, it was back down towards the river again, where this time the road passed over a bridge to the left bank of the Drini i Zi. From here, the last ascent on the river route began, but it was the hardest of all. Not only was the road steep, but the road surface now consisted of a mixture of sand and loose stones where my wheels kept slipping, and all this frustration under a scorching midday sun. Presumably this part of the road is considered equally distant from both Kukës and Peshkopi, so there is less demand for its maintenance.
It was with some relief that I then descended a bit into the more ample village of Zall-Dardhë, where there was a bar/cafe with blessedly cold drinks. The bar was full of people (all men, of course), but while I had become used to rural Albanians greeting me and asking questions, these locals strangely paid me no mind. A bit before the village there had been a turnoff to “Camping Biofarm Reci”, and I wondered if the locals were used to odd foreigners turning up for WWOOFing.
From Zall-Dardhë the road surface improved greatly and the climbs were much gentler. It was easy to do the portion that remained until the intersection with the paved national road, some 10 km before Peshkopi. Appallingly, those last ten kilometers are a 300-meter ascent, and while I was grateful to return to asphalt, it was not a fun way to end a day.
Peshkopi is one of the few Albanian towns with a real backpacker hostel, located in an old Communist villa where Enver Hoxha and other senior officials would stay when visiting the town. Instead of taking a bed inside the villa for 10€, I opted to pitch my tent on the grass outside for 5€. I was initially the only guest; business is probably slow here in general, and by September tourism has wound down. On the second night came a fun Dutch couple who had bought motorcycles in Australia and were headed home nearly entirely overland.
For a traveler forced to stop for a bit, Peshkopi is an altogether nicer town than Kukës. There is a better choice of food and in the evening the town’s main street, a pedestrian way, is full of families going for a stroll.
High climbs and impoverished villages: the unpaved road to Librazhd
While I was in Peshkopi, it had rained heavily. I again managed to start from the town only in mid-afternoon. It was an arduous climb getting out of Peshkopi to the south, but once I began descending into the next valley over, there were some nice views. Some of the villages that one can see in this valley are actually in Macedonia, as the border between the two countries runs through here. What I really didn’t like were the innumerable children alongside the road: not only would they incessantly yell and scream to get me to acknowledge them, but a few of them even asked for money or chocolate. I couldn’t manage to find a decent shop until Shupenzë some kilometers through the valley.
In heading south through eastern Albania, my next stop was Librazhd, and the direct route is an unpaved road of 80 km or so. When I turned off the asphalt onto this route, I was pleased to see that it was compacted gravel, rideable even in rainy spells. The road began to run closely alongside the river Drini i Zi again, which in this particular area marks the Albanian–Macedonian border. I passed by a couple of villages and then a border police outlook, and then stopped to camp for the night in a field not far from the river, a very peaceful spot.
The next day was horrible. It began raining again, and the quality of the road declined (still rideable, but just muddy enough to make me, my panniers, and the bike filthy). There is basically nowhere to eat on the entire unpaved expanse of this road. When I passed by the village of Ostrën i Vogël, I decided to enter it to search for food. It proved an experience I would have sooner expected from the Third World than anything in Europe: crowds of children asking for money, unwashed and raggedly dressed adults with scowls on their faces, and vast expanses of mud as the village’s roads. The only source of food was a simple village shop, and I had to be content with a package of biscuits from there for the rest of the day. While the villages in this region are often said to be Macedonian-speaking, all of the Ostrën i Vogël residents crying to each other
Hey, look at the foreigner! as I came down the street were doing so in Albanian.
From Ostrën i Vogël the road consists of steep climbs for a long time, with a series of hairpin bends right outside the village. It’s an increasingly lonely, desolate landscape, reaching a vast alpage around 1100 m, and the village of Klenjë where I didn’t actually see any other human beings. After another period of emptiness the village of Steblevë appeared around a bend, just a few dozen meters away but separated from the road by a vast gorge.
Even after I reached what my GPS denoted as the high point (around 1300 m) near Steblevë, it took a while before a real descent started. However, at some point I began simply coasting downhill for kilometer after kilometer, with fine views of the mountains now that the rain was beginning to abate. I passed the semi-abandoned village of Llengë with several impressive examples of the fortress-like traditional Albanian stone houses called kulla. It all really lifted my spirits after what had generally been a miserable day.
Eventually I reached the start of the asphalt, and signs of civilization in general, at the village of Zgosht some 13 km before Librazhd. As I began to pass cheerful, decently dressed people alongside the road, together with real supermarkets and the like at the entrance to Librazhd, it was surreal after the poverty and barrenness I had seen all day.
Librazhd is a fairly large-sized town with good shops, banks, cafes and an elegant city centre. Bizarrely however there is hardly any accommodation here, in spite of the town’s size and location on the main road linking Macedonia with Tirana and the Adriatic. The sole hotel (and I’m sure it’s the only one after asking a number of townspeople) is attached to a petrol station on the highway. It cost a mere 1000 lekë (7€) a night, but had no wi-fi, there was no seat on the toilet, and the bedding suggested bedbugs (I travel with a Sea to Summit silk liner precisely for this sort of accommodation). Any other travelers would do better to continue down the main highway, and I would have done so had night not already fallen.