With Charlotte in the Netherlands for five days, I went back to camping in the wild. The arrière-pays, or back country, to the north-west of Nice was rugged and largely devoid of both inhabitants and tourists, a perfect retreat from a world that is increasingly hanging out the “sorry, we’re full” signs. A few days in a stony riverbed, some weblog maintenance and a fair bit of pondering, and I was good to go on.

On the way to Marseille to pick Charlotte up at the airport, a detour via the Gorges du Verdon meant a chance to get close to a colony of vultures that nest in the steep cliffs, fly out around midday when reliable thermals have formed, ride a thermal to its ceiling, go off in different directions to find something dead to eat and come back late afternoon, before the thermals die down. These big birds may not inspire much sympathy when on the ground, but in the air they are majestic.

Egyptian vulture

Griffon vulture

I nearly didn’t make it to the airport in time. Stopping at a scenic spot near a stream to have lunch, the right-hand front wheel dropped into a hole in the river bank that I had not seen, causing the car to rest on the chassis, with the wheel stuck against a vertical wall of earth.

A group of French tourists came to see if they could help. One, a retired army man, assessed the situation and sprung into action. Happy to relive the days in which he would be presented with challenges to find solutions to, he started thinking about winches, length of cable, angle of pull and immovable objects, and went as far as wading into the stream to attach the winch cable to a steel pedestrian bridge. His plan worked: once he had everything in place, I operated the remote control for the winch while at the wheel, simultaneously working with clutch, diff lock and low gearing, and the car came out of the hole as if it had always been meant to be that way.

There is always discussion between 4wd-ers about, for instance, what should be considered essential gear. A friend of ours removed his winch from his car because he saw no need for it, but he would not leave home without two spare tyres, whereas we do have a winch and carry only one spare tyre. This little incident set me thinking. It had happened near a town and I could have called a tow truck. But not long after that we found ourselves driving on tracks in very remote terrain in the Spanish Pyrenees, with little or no traffic. In the not too distant future, we hope to leave Europe and drive through even remoter terrain. Sure, the winch has its drawbacks. You need to have something to attach the cable to. But the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. The winch stays.

From Marseille, now together again, we drove through the Camargue, which was much less the wetlands where wild horses spend their days galloping with manes flowing and hoofs kicking up water than one is led to believe, and on to the small border town of Cerbère. This happens to be the French name for the six-headed dog that is known in English as Cerberus, but Cerbère has long ceased to guard the entrance to Hades. It was only a relentlessly thundering, buffeting Tramontane that made us cross quickly into Spain to get to the lee side of the mountains.

On Wikiloc, we had found a 4×4 route through the Pyrenees, from east to west, and we were going to follow that.

Photo: Charlotte

Beginning rather benignly, it became increasingly challenging. We crossed other 4x4s and found there were other routes that people were following, both west to east and east to west but almost entirely on the Spanish side of the border. We began to mix routes, following one for a while because it offered good off-roading, then doing a loop from another that seemed to have a preference for paved roads but led through some spectacular scenery we would otherwise have missed, and eventually even deviating from that deviation to follow advice from Spaniards who lived in the area we passed through.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

We camped in ridiculously beautiful spots, with no one else around. In Catalonia there was a mountain top at something like 1600m above mean sea level that would have received high marks with its 360° views. But a forest ranger came up, surprised to see us there. He had not come because of us, he said, he had come to check on the trees that were slowly dying, victims of climate change. But since we were there, he had to tell us that camping in the wild was prohibited in all of Catalonia. He suggested we go somewhere else where we would be less visible. I said, ‘I did not just hear you say that.’ ‘And I did not say that’ , was his smiling reply.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo:Charlotte

In Aragon, we had lunch once in an unlikely, out-of-the-way restaurant that had taken in an Afghan refugee cook who produced dishes that were a welcome change from Spanish fare. The Afghan had, back home, worked for American forces, until the Taliban tried to recruit him to kill Americans with a convincing argument: you don’t do what we say, we kill your relatives. He had fled his country. It had taken him six months to reach Greece, where he had spent time in a refugee camp before moving on to Germany. After six months there, he had been told to leave and he had found a temporary place to stay in the Spanish Pyrenees. He was still waiting to find out whether his home country was considered by the Spanish authorities to be sufficiently dangerous for him not to be sent back. How is anyone going to assess that?

Photo: Charlotte

Griffon vulture. Photo: Charlotte

Throughout the Pyrenees, we kept seeing vultures, up to a hundred at a time. We would watch them fly out and try out different strategies, given the ever changing weather conditions. They seem to be sociable animals, always flying together, watching each other, following the lead of those who find thermals and then, as they see those at the top of a thermal begin high-speed transitions in various directions, following those. Some were less lucky than others, less experienced perhaps, losing too much altitude during a transition and ending up ‘scratching’ a hillside until finding that thermal that would get them back to where the others were, a couple of thousand meters higher. For an animal with a wingspan of two and a half meters, climbing on its own power is out of the question. At one point, we saw many of them flying very high, but not circling. Could it be that they were flying in a mountain wave? It is a technique that glider pilots use to gain more altitude than thermals would allow them to, a technique that is notoriously difficult to master.

Looking ahead…

… and back.

We were told the story of the river that disappeared. Water from a glacier on Mount Aneto, at 3400m the highest peak in the Pyrenees, flowed down the mountain side, down a waterfall, into a hole in a hillside that should have acted as a barrier, and… was gone. Nobody knew for certain where all that water went, until in 1931 someone decided to settle the matter once and for all and poured dye into it. It resurfaced on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the border, thus becoming one of the sources of the Garonne, which, further along the way, has seen Toulouse being constructed on both of its banks, traverses Bordeaux and joins the Dordogne to form the Gironde before ending up in the Atlantic Ocean.

We went to see for ourselves. It is a bit unsettling. You hike up, there is no water. You cross a small ridge, a mere ripple in the landscape, and climb on. There is now a stream to your right, a waterfall a bit higher up, and you arrive at a marshy plain where you see water coming down from several of the surrounding slopes. And then you go back the way you came, from the plain, down past the waterfall, over the ridge and downhill again, and as soon as you pass the ridge, you realise that there is no more water. It takes time to sink in. But… Where did it go?

The river that disappears is not the only thing that is interesting about the Benasque Valley. Benasque, it turns out, has its own language, with influences from Aragonese, Catalan and Gascon. And a cuisine that relies heavily on local produce, game, fowl. And it is a hiker’s paradise. Did I mention plant and animal species, which change with every turn you take?

View through a hole in a bird watching platform near Riglos in Aragon.

Sorry, can’t tell you where this was. Camping in the wild – not allowed.

Tandem paraglider overflying the Loarre castle. Photo: Charlotte

The picturesque town of Agüero in Aragon. We saw climbers who had just reached the top of a pillar begin to abseil.

Not quite done yet in the Pyrenees. We’re loving it.

Before and after. Can you spot the differences?

First of all, there is the change from white (French) number plates to yellow (Dutch) ones.

You may have read about how, two years ago, we bought this car in Italy and then needed four months to import it into France. At the time, I came very close to pushing the car off the nearest cliff and walk away, that’s how frustrating and endless the whole process was. Eventually, following protocol, it was registered as a fourgon, a commercial vehicle. Then, only a few weeks later, a law was changed and it became clear that we would need to go through the whole process again (and more), this time in order to register the car as a camper. As long as the roadworthiness certificate was valid, we could drive and try not to think of it. Drive we did, but this sword of Damocles was hanging over our heads: when the roadworthiness came up for renewal, we would be taken off the road for having the wrong kind of registration. But going through that hell again in order to comply with the new regulations was out of the question.

It wasn’t about safety or some such almost justifiable goal: it was about maintaining a tangled, bureaucratic mess. It was about a multitude of documents that needed to be produced and to get each of those, more documents needed to be shown, more authorities visited. It was about nobody taking responsibility, about maddening indifference. It was about cheques that needed to be written (cheques???), and when finally everything could be done online, even payments, this was launched overnight, with no more recourse to people when something didn’t work, and immediately, the system ground to a halt. It was about incompetence at every level. It was about four months of growing despair. And we would have to go through all of that again? Over my dead body. Absolutely not.

We decided to import the car into the Netherlands. We thought it would be easier and faster, and that turned out to be… true. From applying for Dutch registration to actually receiving it took not four months but less than a week… It was only because the insurance company refused to insure the car until our cooking gas installation was compliant with regulations, and a few other repairs were made, that we ended up staying in the Netherlands for six weeks, hosted all this time by Charlotte’s sister and brother-in-law.

OK, so that is one of the more obvious changes. Another difference that is clearly visible: the orange sandplates that had proved to be unmitigatedly useless every time we had tried to use them to get us out of trouble were unceremoniously dumped. In their place came a pair of genuine Australian-made Maxtrax™ which found a perfect niche on the roof, behind the solar panel. Also, the winch received a new window, with rollers this time, so that the cable would not cut into the window when the winch was in use.

One of the most satisfying changes can also be seen, though less clearly, in the picture above: bigger wheels, new tyres. BFGoodrich KO2 235/85 R16. We had not been allowed to put those on in France even though everywhere else in Europe, it’s a bit of a go-to tyre. With a profile that is suitable for many types of terrain and made of a rubber that is soft enough for it to be used as a snow tyre, I don’t think there is a better all-terrain compromise. Our Troopy sits confidently high on them, the size is a much better match with the gear ratios than our old 205 tyres, and the handling of the car has improved noticeably.

We went to see various professionals while in the Netherlands. Rijk of RV4WD in Harderwijk (they do only Toyota Land Cruisers) surprised me by suggesting that we go for a drive before doing the oil change and a few other things that we had come for. During the drive, he explained that he had Paris-Dakar rallye experience and then let me in on what he had found. Something in the steering wasn’t right. I knew that, but had ignored it. Clutch, too, not right. Standard clutch, put in only a year ago by a Toyota dealer in Spain after our old clutch had given the ghost. With its aftermarket turbo, the engine had too much power for a standard clutch, but the Toyota dealer had apparently not known about that. Was he trying to sell me a new clutch that we didn’t need? I don’t think so.

Interesting, though. I had worried about the weight of the spare tyre on the rear door. He said, ‘forget the door. If you are going to spend money, spend it on a stronger clutch. You don’t want to burn your clutch while trying to get out of a sticky situation’. That made sense.

Tyres and rims: I had been thinking about aluminium rims (light weight, no corrosion) and not only higher, but wider tyres. He said, ‘Rims? Get steel rims. They last forever, and in the unlikely event that they do break, they can be welded. As for tyres, 235/85 are not wide, but they will give you good height. In mud, rather than get stuck in the top layer like a wider tyre might do, they press through the soft stuff onto the hard ground and find grip there. In sand, it is not width you need, but a longer footprint, which you get by airing down. And 235’s are sold everywhere, in case you need a replacement’. Point made, advice accepted.

We had new seats installed by a professional seat installer. Big difference: the seats are firmer, offer more support and, together with the new tyres, give me the impression that I’m driving something solid, trustworthy. You would not believe how much of a difference that makes.

And so on. New fridge: this one uses much less power than the old one and doesn’t keep me awake at night. The gas supply for our cooking stove was upgraded and a thermocouple replaced. We bought a better table, and replaced a push-pull lock that had broken on a drawer.

Meanwhile, Charlotte found all sorts of useful stuff online (like the fridge that had exactly the same dimensions as ours and had been hard to find, or the only hiking boots that fit me but that were sold out in shops, etc etc) and had it delivered.

After leaving Albania, we were reminded that the Netherlands is one of those consumption-driven countries where ‘I buy, therefore I am’ can be an important reason for some to leave, as well as a good reason to return, from time to time. Should we draw conclusions, draw up principles? But no. No need to get existential about that. A paradox, that’s all it is.

After that was all done, we drove off towards the French Alps. Three weeks in Châtel, filled with hiking and visiting old friends in and around Morzine, some of whom I had not seen for a couple of years, others for much longer.

Charlotte during a hike above Les Contamines-Montjoie

We then followed a trail found on Wikiloc through the Alps towards the Mediterranean. Neither the Route des Grandes Alpes nor the Route Napoléon, it consists of a series of dirt roads that are connected by highly scenic sealed roads. None of this really 4×4 terrain, but sufficiently off the beaten track to give us a sense of adventure as well as some stunning scenery.

High above Val d’Isère.

Strada dell’Assietta, in Piemonte.

Strada dell’Assietta, in Piemonte.

There was a permanent police presence to make sure no one continued past the rifugio to the Colle Sommelier. That was OK, the parking area of the rifugio was a perfect place to camp. Signs had already warned us that the road was ‘interrupted for course milling’. Confused? It must have been a machine translation. ‘Frana in corso’ can also be translated as ‘frequent rockslides’.

Occasionally, we came upon towns, villages, hamlets that I had passed during my hike through the Alps to the Mediterranean, two years earlier. Memories came flooding in. Les Contamines-Montjoie, my feet had healed sufficiently to carry on. Val d’Isère, where, nearby, I had had my first encounter with a couple of ibexes. Briançon, the only way that anyone should ever consider entering the city was on foot, on the GR5, crossing the bridge that connects the two parts of the fort that had protected the city against invading Italians for centuries. Ceillac, smack in the middle of the Queyras, surrounded on all sides by mountains and with only one way in and out, yet with a wonderful vibe. And then…

No, hang on. Not yet. First, we followed a dirt road up, and up, and up, and the further we climbed, the less likely it seemed that there would be a passage anywhere in the rock faces that towered above and ahead of us, there was a continuous, vertiginous wall all around us, no pass anywhere, how on earth were we going to… And then we arrived at the solution that had been found at the end of the 19th century to cross over into the next valley: a tunnel. A tunnel at over 2600 metres altitude. Built without the use of power tools, its purpose had been to enable the quick transfer of war equipment from one valley to the next. Think about that. In an attempt to counter a possible Italian invasion, the Tunnel du Parpaillon was built by men who swung their hammers, braved the cold and the snow and were fed soup, at 2600 metres above sea level.

At the entrance of the tunnel, looking back.

After passing the tunnel, descending towards Jausiers. Photo: Charlotte

And then…

Laurent and I used to fly paragliders together in Morzine. He had worked a temp job in Avoriaz as a night watchman, wanted to be a pilot, worked his way up the hard way: private lessons, instructor on small planes, small charters, an overseas stint in the jungles of French Guyana. Speaking no English, would he be able to progress? I lost sight of him for a good ten years, we met up again in the south of France while I was hiking and he was on his way to Barcelonnette to go glider flying. He was a captain at an Air France subsidiary then, and he had learned to speak English.

Barcelonnette again, second half of August this year. Sun is shining, clouds burgeon. Grapes and figs will soon be ripe. Never mind that. In Laurent’s words (he works for Air France by now): five things come together. I am in Barcelonnette. You are in Barcelonnette. The weather is perfect. And duo gliders are available.

Laurent has offered to take me flying. A friend of his will take Charlotte, but for various reasons, she will have to wait and ends up flying for an hour and a half. Still, pretty good. Laurent and I take a gamble by deciding to take off while the westerly valley breeze that should be in place by late morning is still countered by an easterly flow. The gamble pays off and we fly for five and a half hours.

Being towed to where hopefully, we will find a thermal.

One of the highlights: paying a visit to the White Glacier (Glacier Blanc) that flows from the Barre des Ecrins (4100m). We approach it, fly over the glacier at 3500m, turn around and fly back to find Pascal and Charlotte, who have by then taken off and climbed to a similar altitude.

Flying towards the glacier. The Barre des Ecrins can be seen in the top left corner.

Approaching the glacier. Over 3500m: sufficient altitude to go on.

After turning around, looking back at the Barre des Ecrins.

Another highlight: sharing thermals with several vultures. Our masters, we take our cues from them. And get clues from them, yes. Surprisingly, they seem to take their cues from us as well.

Throughout the flight, Laurent patiently described what he thought of doing next and why, where to find thermals, how to read the signals the changing weather was giving, where to turn to if we happened to lose too much altitude to carry on, and so on. And he listened to my input as a former paraglider pilot and tried things out that I suggested. For five and a half hours, we were a team, with him obviously being my teacher as well as my companion. It was unforgettable.

Laurent and I. Charlotte took this photo from the glider that she was flying in.

Charlotte and I continued south and returned to hiking as well as lazing in the sweltering late-August heat. I dropped her off in Nice, from where she flew to the Netherlands for her mother’s 90th birthday, and I will pick her up in Marseille. We would then like to go further south and cross the Pyrenees from east to west, continue via northeastern Spain to Portugal and spend some of the colder months in Morocco. More stories coming up!

In the Mercantour National Park. Photo: Charlotte

Where were we? Ah yes, Albania.

We woke up at a quiet spot in the hills around Gramsh, where the night before, darkness had brought relief from the stifling afternoon heat (yes, recently there had been some serious stifling going on), a brilliant display of northern hemisphere stars, and then hours of uninterrupted sleep.

We had tried to drive from Gramsh to Prrenjas via Kukur on the previous day, but found the road east of Kukur rough going, with the number of barely passable sections increasing as we climbed. We slid sideways at one point into a deep muddy rut from which it took an hour to get out, got through a few more muddy sections on sheer willpower, and finally faced up to the fact that going on, especially since our travelling buddies had gone off in different directions and we were now on our own, would simply not be reasonable.

It was the second time that we used our sand plates and the second time that they proved useless. Photo: Charlotte

Some clever digging with the Incredible Folding Shovel. Photo: Charlotte

On the way back, again passing close to the spot where we had got stuck before. Photo: Charlotte

So with a new day dawning in the hills around Gramsh, we felt relaxed about our decision to avoid the often treacherous high-country roads that probably nobody travels on for months on end, and stick to, not necessarily paved roads, but at least dry ones. For now, at least. Elbasan, Librazhd, Peshkopi was what we had in mind. It is interesting to note that we continue to describe roads by the human settlements they connect, although these settlements have little of interest and we rarely stop in them longer than is necessary to have a meal or get supplies. Albania’s beauty lies where only shepherds and subsistence farmers live, an endless succession of changing landscapes that can only be travelled through at a pace that allows an exchange of greetings between us and them.

Then I saw that we would be passing close to the Macedonian border and I suggested that we cross that border, fill our diesel tanks with good-quality, cheap diesel in Debar and then continue back into Albania. The map showed a way to cross the border by following what looked like a few decent dirt roads. Charlotte agreed.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

It was another beautiful part of Albania that we drove through. The presence of the border was almost tangible. Where, I wondered, lay the allegiance of Albanians who lived here, much closer to ‘the other side’ than to their own capital? Strange question, because those ‘on the other side’ spoke not Macedonian but Albanian, as is the case with most living near Albania but on the other side of its borders. Kosovo, of course, comes to mind. Borders define countries but cut right through communities. Really, there is no other side.

The border post consisted of a single cabin that was shared by an Albanian and a Macedonian policeman. The Albanian was jovial. The Macedonian said, ‘Cross the border? No. Albania citizen, yes. Macedonia citizen, yes. Holland citizen, no.’

The next border crossing was closer to Debar, but since we would first have to drive back to where we had come from, it would be an hour and a half away.

While driving back, I looked at a glistening black trail on the ground. I did not remember seeing that when we were going in the opposite direction. Nor did Charlotte. I stopped to check our engine oil – no problem. The trail continued for a while until we came upon a Mercedes that was standing still and blocking the road. Its driver was on the phone for some time, then came over to us and tried a Greek word: λάδι. Oil.

I gave him the 5 liter bottle of engine oil we carry. Carried. As he poured it in at the top, I looked underneath the engine to see confirmed what I expected: it was coming out as fast as he was pouring it in.

I pointed that out to him. He stopped pouring, got into his car and tried to start the engine. What is this clown doing, I thought, he has just lost all of his engine oil and he is trying to start his engine. I went to get our tow strap and showed it to him. He still tried to start his engine, then lit himself a cigarette and tried again. Meanwhile, I reversed downhill and got out of the way so he could roll past us and we could then tow him to the nearest town. Charlotte said, ‘This doesn’t feel right’. Between the two of us, she is normally the optimist.

He seemed to understand what was expected of him and, looking very relaxed, started to roll back downhill, zigzagging wildly and with his door wide open. O dear.

He did close his door, but he continued to zigzag, one hand on the wheel, the other one still holding his cigarette, looking ahead instead of where he was going and unfazed by my honking that was meant to warn him about the impending damage to both our cars, until he deftly parked his car against the side of ours.

I got out to assess the damage. His rearview mirror had scraped along the side of our car, leaving a long scratch. Nothing else, as far as I could see.

Surprisingly, another car has arrived. Traffic jam. Photo: Charlotte

He motioned for me to move up. Are you kidding? Right in front of us was a tree. So he turned his steering wheel, scraped past our rear wheel well and managed to get behind us, still holding his cigarette, still looking very relaxed. Totally in control. And he came over to me, rubbed his thumb and index finger together and pronounced one Albanian word: sa? How much?

I released myself from the obligation to help him and got behind the wheel. We drove off. You figure it out. You clown.

In the two months that we have spent in Albania, we have found ourselves, more often than not, on barely passable country roads where what little traffic there was consisted of Mercedes minibuses that those who do not own a private car rely on for transport, and decades-old Mercedes sedans for those few who do.

In the towns, Mercedeses tended to be younger, with the most recent models driven by totally unapproachable types with dark glasses and tinted windows and the slightly older ones driven by young men aspiring to become one of those unapproachable types.

The way they learn to drive is not immediately clear. We had the impression a few times that we were behind student drivers who were being taught by their father, their uncle, a friend. We also saw official-looking driving-school vehicles, which often went no faster than 20-30 km/h and in which regularly a hand could be seen extending from the passenger seat and grabbing the steering wheel to make adjustments.

I am reminded of something else. Shepherds, goatherds, cowherds in Albania can be heard yelling monosyllabic commands at their animals and seen running after them, while their dogs look on briefly, mildly amused, before dozing off again.

Albania is a surprising country.

And then, suddenly and decisively, we began to head north, on highways and motorways, back into an entirely different world. Destination: the Netherlands. After fifteen months of travelling through Europe. Why? Find out in the next report.

A week after we had turned our backs on Croatia by taking a ferry to Italy, we found ourselves taking another ferry back to Albania.

Photo: Charlotte

Sure, it was nice to be in what Italians call Puglia and is known in English as Apulia. We feasted on myriads of pasta dishes, drank local wine, sampled fig ice-cream… The wonders of regional Italian cooking can never be sung enough.

It was a bit annoying though that the restaurants that served those delights consistently found ways to inflate the bill, such as a cover charge, side dishes (like the humble potato) that were charged seperately, high prices for water or a glass of wine, and so on. Of course, with time, one gets to know these additions, but going out for lunch wary about what else they can spring on you is unpleasant, and finding yet again something on the bill that you had not expected leaves you with a bad aftertaste.

Camping in the wild turned out to be problematic. Nice, secluded spots happened to be the domain of Italy’s marginalised: prostitutes and their clients, drug addicts, gay men out to encounter other gay men. Not the sort of scene those who are looking for a quiet place to camp automatically feel at home in.

So when it began to rain abundantly (rain had been the main reason why we had left the Balkans) and the German couple with whom we had visited Bosnia wrote to us, ‘we are in Albania, wishing you were here’, Charlotte started to look at ferry prices. A day later, we were in Albania.

It has been three weeks since then. We have off-roaded with the Germans (Tim and Sarah have been travelling for two years through Africa, Central America and Europe with their now two-year-old daughter Elisabeth), then with Australian couple Jordan and Stacey (who will continue to travel through Europe until the money runs out, that is for another six months or so), then briefly met up with the Germans again, are now still exploring with the Australians, and may meet the Germans again later.

Albania must be Europe’s off-roading and wild-camping paradise. We cannot get enough of it. Oh, and the weather is perfect now.

In the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park

In the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park. Photo: Tim Hösel

In the Divjakë-Karavasta National Park. Photo: Tim Hösel

European Bee-eater. Photo: Charlotte

Near Laguna e Nartës. Photo: Tim Hösel

Near Laguna e Nartës.

On Gjipe Beach. This time (see previous post) we did drive down to it, in spite of our lack of ground clearance. We made it. Just. Left is Tim and Sarah’s Hilux, right is us, and in the middle Dutch couple Sjoerd and Marieke’s Defender.

The Adriatic is… blue.

A small beach we found between Gjipe and Himarë. This is where we met Jordan and Stacey, their car is on the other side of the beach.

May have been a bridge once.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Jordan and Stacey

Photo: Jordan and Stacey

The ‘road’ from Kuç to Nivicë consists partly of a riverbed track. Our navigation app (Mapy.CZ) agreed to show us the route provided we were not motorists, but cyclists. Photo: Jordan and Stacey

The stream in it needed to be forded a few times. Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

When you get stuck because of the ridiculously small wheels the French authorities made you put on your car, it is nice to have another vehicle nearby to pull you out. Photo: Charlotte

The reward after a day of driving.

Same spot as seen from a bit higher up. Photo: Jordan and Stacey

On the way to Frashër.

On the way to Frashër.

Somewhere between Frashër and Përmet (I think)

Somewhere between Frashër and Përmet (I think)

Somewhere between Frashër and Përmet (I think). Photo: Charlotte.

The landscape often changes dramatically.

Jordan and Stacey working out a puzzle with water, rocks, a tight turn and a steep slope.

Jordan crossing a stream on his own.

Charlotte lazing in a thermal spring near Përmet.

We had met French/American couple Quentin and Ashley in April. They had been cycling for a few months as part of their trip to Kyrgyzstan and told us they were planning to leave their bicycles in someone’s care, buy horses, trek with them through Albania and then continue cycling. And suddenly, here they were.

How can a tree grow here?

South of Çorovodë. Jordan and Stacey are on that bridge somewhere.

Bridge with a view.

Charlotte and Stacey having a chat and a bite to eat.

Tim, Sarah and Elisabeth have come to join us.

All of us try to ‘climb’ mount Tomorr (by car, yes). But we get stuck in snow at 2100m and turn around. It is a soggy day.

On a soggy day, huddling together and getting the awnings out keeps spirits high.

We have played our get-me-out-of-here-now card, and I think we have played it well: a ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari has brought a few welcome changes. But let’s first pick up where we had left off in the previous report, we’ll get to the latest developments in due time.

Photo: Charlotte

Charlotte arrived at the airport of Tirana and we stayed to spend a day in the city. It was nothing special. We made the mistake of eating tasteless food in an ‘Indonesian’ restaurant and buying avocados and strawberries at the market that were much too expensive. On the way back to the campsite outside the city, we passed a spot where a car was standing in the middle of the road and police were taking its driver’s statement. A shoe and a blood stain that looked like it had been caused by a single powerful spurt lay nearby. Passing cars slowed to a crawl, hoping to catch a glimpse of something more.

The owner of the campsite was outraged at how much we had paid at the market. I felt I had brought this on myself and wanted to forget it, but he made a few phone calls and then gave us half of the money. I’ll get it back from the vendor, he said. It had been easy to locate him, no one else was selling avocados.

Note to self: before handing over money, stop to calculate how much it is worth and ask myself if the price is right. After all these years, I am still too easily overwhelmed and confused when it is time to pay, and others will happily take advantage of that. So next time: Stop. Calculate. Decide.

Our plans to look for dirt roads and camp in the mountains were thwarted by cold and wet weather that came to dominate all of south-eastern Europe (again…) for an extended period of time. The weather forecast that we consulted several times a day, every day, in the hope of witnessing a miracle, showed no improvement. Half-heartedly, we left Albania in the east and drove through neighbouring parts of North-Macedonia and Kosovo. An attempt to enter Kosovo via a high mountain pass was abandoned before we even started it when residents told us there was still too much snow on the pass (which made the word ‘pass’ a bit of a misnomer), so we drove around the mountain range that formed part of the border and entered Kosovo at a lower elevation.

As we drove through these wet but scenic parts, we began to feel slightly uneasy. We had decided to do a short loop through North-Macedonia and Kosovo before re-entering Albania because someone had told us about the scenery we could expect to see, but we began to realise we were doing injustice to these countries by spending only a few days in them. What was more, their recent history hung in the air like something too big to ignore.

But inclement weather kept us going. From Kosovo, we crossed the Albanian border and set course to Valbona National Park, hoping for a break in the clouds.

Valbonë or Valbona is a hamlet that is reached by following a valley that is home to a clear turquoise mountain stream and occasional meadows with farmhouses. It gets more beautiful with every turn, narrowing and then opening up one last time before ending in a series of forbidding rock faces that only hiking trails continue into. The only way out for cars is to follow the same valley in the opposite direction.

One of those hiking trails leads to Theth, another hamlet that lies only 11 kilometers to the west as the crow flies but requires 18 kilometers of hiking with 1000 vertical meters uphill and 1200 downhill. It is possible to drive from Valbona to Theth. For this, one needs to follow the clear turquoise mountain stream east, back down to the plains, drive all around the mountain range and its unbridged drainage system and make a final approach from the west via a road that is closed by snow until well into spring. The distance that is travelled via this route totals 255 kilometers…

Screenshots taken from Mapy.cz for Android. In both cases, start is Valbona, end is Theth. Left is on foot, right is by car.

But wait, there is another option. Between Fierzë and Koman, point 2 and 3 on the map below, a dam near Koman has turned the river Drin into Lake Koman. A ferry sails back and forth on that, taking two and a half hours to connect two bits of road that would otherwise be cul-de-sacs. We took this ferry on the first day of the new season and in spite of the dreary weather, the ride was fairly spectacular.

Map made with Mapy.cz for Android.

View of Lake Koman from a road near Fierzë.

On Lake Koman

To reach Theth, a pass at 1900 meters needed to be crossed. We got as far as 1700 meters before accumulated snow blocked our way. And this was on the south-facing side, the other side was likely to have more snow. We’ll visit Theth some other time.

One of Enver Hoxha’s ubiquitous bunkers, most of which were intended to be occupied by one ore two brave souls whose task it was to repell invaders. They are Everywhere. Oh. Right. That’s what ubiquitous means.

Another road not far from there hugged the Montenegrin border which followed an uninviting mountain range on the other side of a fast-flowing river. Dry and rocky, the valley offered few possibilities for the occasional farmer to eek out a living.

The river seemed popular with kayakers and, possibly for that reason, the road had recently been paved. We continued upstream to where there were no more kayakers and there was no more traffic. Then the road crossed the river and turned into a gap between the mountains. The asphalt stopped. Soon, Albania did, too. Trying in vain to avoid potholes on what was now a dirt road, we slowly advanced towards a rusty hand-operated barrier. An Albanian border guard emerged from a simple border guard building, leisurely inspected our passports, handed us a business card of a campsite that he felt we should stay at if we ever passed through here in the opposite direction, and opened the barrier for us. After we had passed, he returned to his border guard building with the unhurried pace of one who has learned to accept the vicissitudes of his employment, and probably life in general. There did not seem to be anyone else there. Likewise, the Montenegrin border post presented no problems.

Most border crossings we have seen in south-eastern Europe have been like this: like an afterthought. Oh yeah, we have a border, there should be border posts. But very few people actually use these border crossings. Perhaps the main routes are busier. If there are any.

In Montenegro, that feeling of uneasyness came up again. Why had it taken the Montenegrins so long to declare their independence? They had not done so until 2006. Why had they sided so long with Serbia, when it was sufficiently well-known that the Serbs of Serbia, as well as those of Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, had committed every imaginable atrocity?

Without discussing it, Charlotte and I had both been reluctant to visit Serbia. But while reading up on the Yougoslav Wars that had baffled me in the nineties, and comparing accounts from different sources, written in different languages, Croatia became equally repulsive.

Imagine thinking wherever you go, wherever you see people who are old enough to have been there, ‘Were you there, applauding from the sidelines, while those bolder than you were obliterating your neighbours? Were you perhaps one of the bolder ones? Can you even sleep at night?’

Since Croatia and Serbia meet in the north and we were travelling north, we would have to cross one of them at some point. There was a definite psychological barrier there. We would have to give that some more thought.

Riverscape in eastern Montenegro.

Montenegro proved to be a country with few inhabitants and impressive scenery. Along the east and north we drove, past sheer mountains and fast-flowing rivers, across high plains with sparse vegetation, then back to the coast, once more hoping to find better weather there. Ah, the weather…

The bay of Kotor, in the country’s north-west, is renowned for its natural splendor and the medieval beauty of its towns. Apparently.

Campsite on a peninsula west of Kotor.

To go in or not to go in… The water is freezing.

Wild camping spot on the same peninsula.

I remained blissfully unaware of Kotor Bay’s renown while we camped far enough away from it, but after a few days, we went to pay the eponymous town in the bay a visit.

Then it hit me we with the full weight of its implications. This town that had wet the appetites of marauders who had come from every direction throughout its history was now besieged by a new kind of seaborne invader. Euphemistically called cruise ships, two of the invading vessels lay ominously before the city walls, belching out colourful warriors who glanced around somewhat hesitatingly before following their comrades through the gates that had already been opened in what could only be surrender.

Although the siege was still in progress, we too entered. At once I understood the tactics behind what had looked bizarrely benign. Other troops had come before these, and others would follow. Wave after wave, they came, did their inoffensive work, and left. The population of the town had already come to see them as benefactors; trinkets were being offered everywhere. Quite possibly, the troops themselves did not realise they were troops. I was reminded of spiders who inject a venom into their victims that turns their insides into a liquid the spider finds more easily digestible.

But where was the spider? Who or what was behind this diabolically insidious way of taking a town? Who was this higher being that had succeeded in getting the town’s inhabitants to cooperate and its invading troops, a ramshackle horde of innocents, to think of their mission as something enjoyable?

We were in and out in less than five minutes. Charlotte could have stayed longer but I felt I had no choice but to get out as quickly as possible. We took refuge at a nearby campsite and talked about our priorities.

The owner of the campsite had some interesting theories to share. Yougoslavia would have still existed if it hadn’t been for the German secret service which had been ordered by the Americans to sow discord, and the British who had ‘had their fingers in the region’ before that. All of Europe was being manipulated by forces that had not been democratically elected. Ask yourself, he said, how a liter of coloured water (he was referring to Coca Cola) can cost the same as a liter of petrol, with all the cost of research, exploration, extraction, refining, transport and tax that goes into the latter.

This seemed to complement what someone had told us in North-Macedonia: our Western-European governments, he had said, were corrupt, and they were keeping the Balkan region poor in order to exert their power over the region. What was more, our media were not independent. We might think they were, but that was only proof of how effectively they were misleading us. Excuse me???

I felt insulted. How dare some half-literate try to feed me such rubbish? Who had spread this nonsense in the first place and why had people believed it? But then I read the results of a survey in Germany, which stopped me. A sizeable minority of Germans, it found, believe all kinds of conspiracy theories… It seems it is not only Eastern-Europeans who prefer to believe rather than form an educated opinion. Come to think of it, hasn’t mankind always tended to prefer believing to thinking?

Charlotte and I found middle ground. We drove to Perast, which she visited while I stayed in the car. We then continued once more to Kotor, which she visited while I stayed in the car.

Determined to give Croatia a chance to prove our prejudice unfounded, we drove north.

But Croatia wasn’t going to present its most amiable face. At the border, I handed our passports and car registration to a hand that was extended through a sort of ticket window, but instead of seeing the border guard’s face, I was looking into a mirror-glass pane. The owner of the hand barked something in Croatian, then repeated, after a pause, in English: ‘car document!’ ‘You have it there’, I replied wearily. Man, how difficult can it be? He could be heard grumbling something that didn’t seem to matter. He returned the documents to me and we drove off without another word.

It would not be an isolated incident of someone just having a bad day. After spending a lot of time in the Albanian countryside, where people had smiled at us, waved at us, talked to us, it came as a shock that Croatians sometimes reluctantly returned our greetings, sometimes ignored us, and sometimes just eyed us suspiciously.

We have seen that suspicion before, and for some reason it has usually been older people in Slavic countries who have tended to be reserved with strangers. Non-Slavs, such as Romanians, Greeks and especially Albanians, have been much more open and friendly.

We stayed at a campsite close to Dubrovnik. While Charlotte went to visit what is often cited as one of Europe’s most overrun towns, I stayed at home. It had not been busy, she told me afterwards. Of course, she had gone there in the afternoon, after the cruise ships had left, and besides that, it had rained most of the day.

The rain…

Perhaps if we went inland, into Bosnia and Herzegovina, things might get better. Less visitors, better weather, perhaps even a chance to learn more about the wars that had hit this country particularly hard, with its diverse population, changing alliances and changing fortunes, although it was always muslims who were caught in the middle and murdered, raped, made to flee, put in concentration camps, all in the name of Serbian and Croat nationalism.

Tell me, can you even sleep at night?

We drove on gravel roads to Mostar, no, not only gravel roads, at first there was bitumen and houses that had been shelled and burned out. Then there had been a long gravel road, and mud as well, and deep puddles of water, it went on for a long time, we loved it and there was nobody else. Two farmers that we came across, the only two living souls we saw, seemed excited to see us foreign explorers. But were they Serbs, Croats, muslims? If we had been able to talk to them, what would they have told us?

And then Mostar. Usually, the name Mostar is mentioned together with the word bridge. The bridge in question is – no, was a 16th century masterpiece that was the only bridge left standing after the first siege of the city by the Serbs in 1992, then destroyed by the Croats in 1993. It was later rebuilt by the Turks in a show of soft power and solidarity with Bosnian muslims.

So what we, and many others, got to see was a copy. Many others, because – would you believe it – the cruise ships had sent passengers on buses this far inland. The rain still kept falling.

Jumping from the bridge was a source of exhilaration before. Now, it is a source of income and a business. Young men who were born after the wars will only jump if sufficient funds have been collected from visitors who have come to see the famous bridge.

In the meantime, we had met two other couples. Between the six of us, we decided we would meet again in Sarajevo. Charlotte found an excellent route to the capital of a still very divided country.

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

From the tram that took us through Sarajevo we could see the impacts of bullets and artillery in residential buildings. The ‘old town’ that had been destroyed and rebuilt housed a bazar with items on sale such as:

And still, the rain fell.

Bosnian high plain

Back to the coast, then. The outlying islands on the Dalmation coast might offer better weather. We drove back into Croatia, past a border post where a hand extended from a mirror-glass pane…

A ferry to one of the islands. A few nights spent camping ‘in the wild’ but not really, because every dirt road led to someone’s house or someone’s olive grove.

We camped not far from here, where the police would not easily see us. Like most other pictures, this was taken during a sunny spell.

Our way of saying thank you for a night spent at a pretty spot: collect a few bags of rubbish.

And then, again, foul weather came closing in on us.

Enough. For six months now, the weather has been fickle. Enough.

Let’s call it a tactical retreat. We were not going to learn anything meaningful about the wars. Croats were not going to be hospitable people. The weather… Enough. We bought a ferry ticket to Bari and, once there, began to visit historic towns and eat local dishes, drink local wine… Ahhh… Life is much too short to spend it in Croatia.

Photos: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Photo: Charlotte

Island in the Nartë (or Narta) Lagoon

A day after we drank coffee with the two border guards from our previous report, a regular police car drove past us without stopping; they just waved and drove on. Could they have been warned by their border colleagues not to risk being invited for coffee?

One of the guards had only taken a few sips from his cup. The other had emptied his but declined a refill. Later, when we had left our wild camping spot and returned to civilisation, a lady we offered coffee to said she only drank Turkish coffee. A man who was curious about ‘Dutch coffee’ tried an espresso-cupful, said with a smile, ‘no sugar’, and refused to touch it after that. Is our filter coffee without sugar really that hard on other palates? Apparently. Of course, we might have offered sugar, except we didn’t have any. You can’t offer what you don’t have. Only politicians can do that.

Sugar is an interesting word from an etymological perspective. Suiker in Dutch, Zucker in German, sucre in French, azúcar in Spanish, zucchero in Italian, ζάχαρη in Greek, сахар in Russian, sheqer in Albanian and similar-sounding words in Arabic and Farsi, this is one of those words that is not traced back to the usual roots (Greek, Latin, Germanic) but beyond them, to Sanskrit and a common Proto-Indo-European root, which gives clues as to where sugar was first produced, and when.

Bakery in the citadel that overlooks Berat

What our coffee had been to them, Albanian bread was to us. The tasteless white stuff that is often the only option in bakeries and supermarkets made me wonder why people inflict this kind of misery on themselves. And who would aspire to baking it? But then we found round, generous bukë e zezë, or black bread, and it, together with fig jam and kaçkavall, or tomato and kaçkavall, was a delight.

Kaçkavall, referred to in English as kashkaval but perhaps more recogisable as linguistically related to Italian caciocavallo, is a term that can be found throughout the greater Balkan region in various spellings. It generally means yellow cheese, as opposed to white cheese, and it can be made from cow’s and/or sheep’s milk. After stuffing ourselves with Crete’s graviera during the winter, we had bought some kaçkavall from the mountains around Gjirokastër on our first day in Albania. This area happens to be the home of some of Albania’s most flavourful cheese, and we had continued to be very happy people.

Saying goodbye to the coast, we stayed in Berat for a few days, at a campsite that was no more than a courtyard with sanitary facilities but had the advantage of being within walking distance of the historic town centre.

View from Berat’s citadel

There seems to be a pattern in this: the campsites we have seen in Albania so far have been small areas near private houses or restaurants that provide an extra source of income for the owners. These are not campsites that one would take children to for there is no swimming pool. Nor are they places where groups of friends will sit around a barbecue and produce increasingly more noise as the night progresses. Instead, they are simply places to spend the night, run by people who take an interest in their guests.

Similarly informal was a ‘restaurant’ that we had lunch at. Three tables outside a private home were waited on by the owner while his wife did the cooking inside, in their kitchen. Dolma (in this case stuffed tomato with rice), Imam Bajalldi (Turkish İmam Bayıldı, which one of my first cookbooks translated as The Swooning Imam) and Fërgesë (in this case a dish of porridge-like consistency made with white cheese and tomato) made for a very satifying meal, while in the informal setting all six guests (and the host) ended up chatting together and staying much longer than had been intended.

View from a hill opposite the citadel

A trip to a rafting spot was useful to better understand Albanian driving habits. The basic idea seems to be this: if everybody gives a little, then everything is possible. Our driver drove faster than I would have and overtook vehicles in tight spots, but others moved over and slowed down so that it always ended well. He also managed to combine driving with maintaining conversations on What’s App, answering his phone and tugging on a rear window that wouldn’t move up. None of this seemed to worry him or his companion: they had not fastened their seat belts and were visibly relaxed. During lunch, when a traffic accident was shown on tv, he told us that there are many traffic deaths in Albania because the roads are so bad.

The rafting was great, by the way.

Charlotte was going to fly to the Netherlands, so we drove to Tirana. She had found a restaurant in the countryside with an artificial lake and with spaces in its parking lot for campers, not far from the airport. We settled in there and prepared for the night.

Just before sunset, I noticed a column of smoke that seemed to come from behind a hill next to the restaurant. Shortly after that, flames were visible at the top of the hill and ashes started to descend around us. It was a bush fire and the wind, though not very strong, was blowing the fire our way.

I went to tell the people at the restaurant about this but from where they were they could not see the flames and so they didn’t seem to take it very seriously. By the time the flames had descended halfway down the hill and their crackling could clearly be heard, they were taking it very seriously. The wind shifted, though, and instead of the fire heading straight to the restaurant, most of the flames were now spreading away from it. Most, not all. A small front was still creeping closer.

In the meantime, a police van had shown up. It sputtered up the driveway to the restaurant and disappeared from sight around the back. Later, some frantic engine-revving could be heard and I wondered what could be going on up there. Then, the police van could be seen hurtling down the driveway without its lights on. It stopped at the bottom of the driveway. There was some discussion and two policemen got out. They tried to push, but the van didn’t budge. More discussion. Eventually, they managed to push the van next to where we were standing. Did they need our help? No, another vehicle came up to them and its driver produced a set of jump leads. There was more frantic revving. The engine of the police van reluctantly came to life, then wailed while it too was being revved. We were enveloped in black smoke.

They left. We turned again to the bush fire. The flames had continued to inch their way towards us. We had had enough fun for the day, packed the car and went to spend the night in a hotel.

While Charlotte boarded her flight to Amsterdam, I drove off into the mountains north-east of Tirana with food and water for a week. Not without apprehension, I had filled the main diesel tank for the first time since Greece. It seemed that every service station in Albania had its own brand name, although there were a few names that came up more than once. An online report suggested that the smaller service stations only existed for money laundering purposes and claimed that a few samples taken from established chains had shown Albanian diesel to vary mostly from bad to unusable. But the majority of Albanians drive diesels, and those were still running, so hopefully, it would be OK.

The idea had been to withdraw to a quiet spot and do some hermiting, purify the soul, that sort of thing.

The first night was spent above Krujë, a town with historic buildings, souvenir shops and a bartender in a café who made me coffee, was happy to chat in German for a while and then said, ‘coffee is on me’.

For the second night, I took a fairly random unpaved road into the mountains with a vague idea of looking for a place to stay next to a reservoir. But then I came upon a point where several of those unpaved ‘roads’ met, decided to spend at least one night there, reversed the car onto a small hill and unpacked. Here is why:

There was very little traffic. Occasionally, someone stopped for a chat, but no one spoke anything other than Albanian and so they would smile, shake my hand and carry on.

In the morning, the sun had barely come up when a man arrived on foot at the junction. In spite of his limited English vocabulary (hello, bye and geography teacher covered about all of it), I understood that he was on his way to work in Tirana. In the distance, about five kilometres away, I could see the village he had walked from. From a different direction, a minibus bound for the capital arrived and he got in. He had about 30 kilometres left to go, and since much of the road was no more than a stony path that could only be safely negotiated in first gear, that part of his commute would take an hour and a half.

Road to Tirana. (Sounds like a movie title, doesn’t it? Bob Hope, Bing Crosby…)

From that junction, there were four ways I could go. One would take me to Tirana, which was not where I wanted to be. Two others led to villages and then stopped. The fourth option was to go back to the paved road I had come from, but not to worry: I had been told that if I continued east on that paved road, after a mountain pass, it would turn into a track that only 4×4’s could take for a few kilometres, and then into one of those stony paths that the locals commute on, all the way to Burrel. So that was the obvious choice.

Soon after setting off, I passed a man walking in the same direction. I stopped to offer him a ride. He got in and when we reached his village he said, ‘pimë kafe’. That I understood and I gladly accepted. He led me past several small plots with crops, apparently for personal use, some fruit trees and a few chickens to a cabin in which there was just enough space for a double bed, a couch, a refrigerator and a few cupboards. He took his shoes off before entering but intervened when I began to take mine off as well. Don’t, he motioned. I protested. Don’t, he motioned again.

Inside, he took some meat from the freezer compartment and made Turkish-style coffee while his wife busied herself putting the meat into a casserole, cutting tomatoes and cheese and going to find olives. It wasn’t going to be just coffee…

What is a guest to do? Politely refuse? Accept graciously? Whenever I stopped eating from what was offered me (they took very little themselves), I was urged to continue. No really, I couldn’t… Eat!

Two more men came in. They, too, spoke only Albanian, but the younger one had a smartphone with Google Translate. This, however, did not offer the unmitigated help both he and I had hoped for. It produced sentences like:

Will you take the shoemaker?
With the beating you do well.
How do you look in the ship?

Part of the confusion could be attributed to the use of names and to spelling errors. The latter of these examples had been translated from a sentence in which he had written shiperi. That looked like Shqipëri or Shqipëria, the country’s name in Albanian, so I thought he might mean ‘How do you like Albania?’ and I replied that I liked it very much. He seemed satisfied with that.

I managed to convince my hosts not to put the leftovers from the meal in a doggy bag for me, but I still left with a few fresh eggs and some hazelnuts…

Very hospitable and generous people

Next, on the way to Burrel, a collection of abandoned army barracks provided a perfectly secluded spot to camp; I stayed a few days.

Inside the buildings were swallow’s nests. Thorny creepers had found a way in through the open windows and grown ‘feelers’ several metres long, looking for a place to grow new roots.

Though hidden from the ‘road’ that led past it, the place had sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. At night, it was absolutely still. During the day, fruit trees, abuzz with several types of bees, bumblebees and carpenter bees, dropped petals like rain. Barn swallows flitted back and forth, sat in the tops of as yet leafless trees and chattered away. Various kinds of tits sang their songs but, apparently not used to humans, kept their distance. One bird sang a particularly brilliant song – what was it? Resembling a marsh tit without a bib, it was a blackcap. A lone jay immitated the buzzard’s call, then reverted to its raucous crow-like screeching. What was probably a raven soared across the valley, occasionally doing a half roll, gliding upside-down momentarily and then rolling back. A kestrel appeared; the swallows darted around the intruding raptor and managed to chase it away. A few hours after the sun had come up, gusts of cool air indicated that thermals were forming. The sky remained cloudless, the thermals were short-lived.

Top: one would have to assume that we are looking at a male (right, standing up) and a female specimen (left) of the same species. Bottom: I looked away for a moment. When I looked again, she was gone. Had I been too intrusive?

It was bliss. But once again, bliss proved to be ephemeral. After four days there, the sky clouded over and I left the mountains to stay at another of those small campsites, this time not close to a house or a restaurant, but at an Italian catholic mission with four nuns. ‘I cannot remember when it last rained’ said one of them while the rain came pouring down. Albania continues to surprise.

We had heard about Albania from others but we had to experience it for ourselves: this is not just a must-visit country, it is a must-visit-now country. That is, for those who travel and sleep in their own vehicle.

Top: in Germany, EU founding member, many things are not allowed. In Albania, EU candidate member, for many things, no permission is needed – for now.

What I thought I knew about Albania consisted of fragments of memory, bits of information picked up from news media long ago and stored in dusty corners where they would have languished forever. Albania was a country inhabited only by those who had the misfortune of being born there, prisoners in their worker’s paradise, desperately poor, divided into criminals and their victims.

Watching Theo Angelopoulos’ film ‘Eternity and a Day’ recently had not helped: it showed a Greek-Albanian border post as a cold, foggy, desolate place with a locked gate and the shapes of people stuck to the border fence in climbing postures, the ghosts perhaps of those who had paid the ultimate price for trying to cross the mountains in the dead of night and slip into Greece, land of hope.

And I had seen Albanians gather in a village on Crete at dawn. Greeks who needed workers for odd jobs drove up to them and hired them for much less than they would have had to pay their fellow countrymen. And without declaring them, of course. Sure, that didn’t help the Greek economy or the unemployment statistics, but hey, in these troubled times…

We crossed the Albanian border, it was a beautiful day. Ahead of us lay a wide plain with mountains on either side.

With a few days of bad weather forecast we decided to spend those in nearby Gjirokastër. After a first night at a ‘campsite’ next to a restaurant outside the town, Charlotte found a room in one of the oldest houses in the historic centre, a magnificent stone building with, so we learned, walls 110 cm thick on the ground floor, 100 cm on the floor above that and 90 cm on the top floor. Part of the house had been destroyed in an Italian bombing raid at the onset of WWII, but what remained was carefully maintained by the current owner, who left only the work on the roof to professionals. The house must have been the family home for many generations and he had never lived anywhere else. For some, destiny is something that is written before they are born.

To get there, we found a road on the map that would bypass an area where we knew that extensive road work was in progress and seemed to lead straight to our destination. It began as a fairly narrow cobblestone road going uphill. It narrowed and steepened. I switched to four-wheel drive. It became even steeper. There was nowhere to turn around and uneasy about reversing out, I switched to low gearing and pressed on.

Photo: Charlotte

We came to a point where two houses jutted out towards each other, sentinels of the world beyond. We folded both side mirrors. Only when there were scraping sounds on both sides of the car did I resign myself to what could no longer be denied: we were not going to pass and back in reverse was the only option left. The sentinels had been implacable; we had made it to within a few hundred metres of our destination when we started the long way down.

After arriving at the house via the centre of the old town, where all the roads were torn up but cars could still manoeuvre around each other on muddy passages, we realised that our front number plate was gone. Because the front centre spot of the car is occupied by the winch, the number plate had been fixed to the side of that and had protruded slightly. It must have been torn off when we started to reverse. Sure enough, that’s where we found it.

Photo: Charlotte

Our host didn’t hesitate, bought self-tapping wide-head screws and screwed the plate back in its place.

It rained from time to time while we were in Gjirokastër; the mountains on the other side of the valley received a sprinkling of fresh snow, even at the lower elevations. We had wanted to move into those mountains, but seeing that winter was not quite over yet, we decided to first join the coast and follow that north. Charlotte would fly from the capital Tirana to the Netherlands for a week, and after her return, in April, we would head back south and east.

Gjirokastër was to be our introduction to Albanian hospitality. Outside a café, an old man waved us over and bought us coffee. When we left, the owner of the café gave us some snacks to take with us. We bought sim cards and the man who sold them to us asked if we needed help with anything. In the street a retired Italian teacher spoke to us; we joined him for coffee and had a long discussion in Italian, French and Russian, all of which he spoke fluently, although his one remaining tooth and his stammer made understanding him a bit of a challenge. Our hosts went out of their way to ensure that we were not lacking in anything.

Photo: Charlotte

Our hosts’ eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter were learning English. We told the boy his English was very good. ‘I know’, he replied. Later we heard the two practise together, with the boy saying to his sister, ‘Oh my God! Are you kidding?’ I was reminded of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film ‘Like father, like son’, in which a young Japanese boy mumbles ‘Oh my God’ occasionally in a clear and intentional sign that someone has been cutting corners in raising him correctly. But then the question ‘what does that mean, raising a child correctly?’ becomes one of the themes that are developed.

Better weather returned and we left Gjirokastër. In Ksamil, at a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Corfu, we were welcomed at a small campsite with a tray loaded with coffee, tea, mineral water, cookies and sweets.

I asked the owner if the campsite is his main source of income. He said no, both he and his wife are teachers. I told him I have great admiration for teachers, because they have skills and character traits that I don’t have and they do important work. He hesitated for a moment and then admitted he had never wanted to be a teacher. The job had been selected for him, he had had no say in it. The more popular careers were reserved for party members back then. He would have preferred to be an engineer, an English translator or a physician. When the rules were relaxed, he had studied law for four years, but he would have had to study for another four years to get work in a law firm. Now however, his daughter is studying law. When she finishes, they will be able to open a practice together.

Having done a bit of homework by now, I mentioned the state-sponsored Ponzi schemes that rattled the country in the mid-nineties during the transition from a communist to a market economy. By then, the borders had been opened and he was in Greece. His parents told him that they wanted to sell everything they owned and invest in one of the schemes; this way, they would soon be rich. But people in Greece implored him to persuade his parents to buy land instead. Land was cheap because everyone was selling it in order to invest in something that seemed much more profitable. His parents heeded their son’s advice. Soon after that, a third of the population had lost all their life savings.

His time in Greece had been enlightening in other ways as well. For the first time in his life, he had had to consider, however reluctantly, the possibility that not all those who had been tried for treason and executed had been guilty of anything other than getting in Hoxha’s way. He could not believe it. Enver Hoxha, the father of the nation, had rid himself of adversaries in this manner? It could not be true! Or was it?

He had one more gem for us. He had been one of the first to establish a campsite in his area. Or rather, he allowed foreign campers to stay on the land around the house and built sanitary facilities for them. The neighbours watched all this and said to him, why do you allow gypsies to sleep around your house?
Just like riding a bicycle is sometimes seen as a sign of poverty in poorer countries, in Albania, camping had been reserved to those who did not have a proper home.

Finally, I asked him about Albania’s candidacy for EU membership. He shook his head. It will bring in money for infrastructure, I suggested. Bringing in money will only make corruption worse, was his reply. We have heard that from others in Eastern European countries.

Moving up the coast, we left the road and descended along a dirt track that was described as ‘four-wheel drive only’ by travellers who had been here before us but is negotiated, without much fuss, by the ubiquitous twenty-to-thirty-year-old Mercedeses the locals drive. At the bottom, there was a beach restaurant where chairs were stacked and cups and glasses from last summer’s last guests were waiting to be cleaned. We found a spot between a few olive trees and stayed for two nights. A goatherd came to see us, left with his animals, then came back with armfuls of oranges. Plenty more over there, he gestured. He watched me take our Coleman stove apart, then helped me clean it, occasionally saying things I didn’t understand.

The Gjipe gorge was another of those places that we had heard about. But the way down didn’t look good:

After trying to squeeze through a gap that was two centimetres narrower than our car was wide and reversing into a tree stump in less than a week, I thought I shouldn’t try this.

We walked down and found, besides the entrance to the gorge, a pretty beach with a campsite where only a few Albanian and German volunteers were staying. One of them was practising walking on a tightrope, some were cooking, a climber walked around on crutches, joking about ‘having been falling’. The bohemian vibe of the place made us wish we had driven down; with bigger wheels and more ground clearance, I would have.

Near the entrance to the gorge

Inside the gorge, which is lit up by the sun only briefly at midday.

The following night was spent on the grounds of a restaurant at a mountain pass. Having a restaurant nearby has definite advantages.

From its terrace, we spotted a Eurasian Hoopoe, talked to the waiter about it and showed him what it looks like on the Collins bird guide app. Spectacular bird. I asked him what the Albanian name is and realised too late that he couldn’t be expected to know, but now, being Albanian and therefore naturally eager to help, he had to find out. He took my phone over to a couple of Albanian guests, they looked at the illustrations and came up with a name. That turned out to translate into ‘jay’. No, not even close. Never mind.

North-west of Vlorë (Albanian ë is a schwa, so it is pronounced like a in vegan, e in maiden, o in station, u in cajun. In Albanian it is always ë: simple!), where the Ionian Sea meets the Adriatic Sea and the shore changes from mainly rocks and pebbles in the south to mostly sandy beaches in the north, there is a large lagoon. We stayed a few days on the west side of that, with the sea on one side and the lagoon, and a small lake, on the other.

The nights were getting less cold, while curiously, the days were uncomfortably hot in direct sunlight but uncomfortably cold in the shade. We saw few people besides the occasional cowherd. On the beach, tidal pools were teeming with shrimps and crabs. From the lake many different bird calls could be heard, although the birds themselves, shy and elusive, fled before we could see them. After sunset, frogs started croaking; fireflies lit up as they flew past. The sea rumbled quietly in the background. The sky was immense.

A border police vehicle on patrol passed where we were camping. We waved at each other. When, having reached the end of the dirt road, they passed again on their way back, we had coffee ready so we held it up to them. They stopped the car and joined us for coffee and a chat. Far from being authoritarian, they were the friendliest people and we had a great time piecing sentences together from words in different languages, gestures and a lot of laughter.

Soon the snow in the mountains will have melted sufficiently to drive through them on roads less travelled.