Albania might not be the first place that springs to mind when you say "motorcycle touring holiday"... but maybe it should be. I've just come back and it was definitely an experience. Challenging, unexpected, unusual – and packed with brilliant riding.
The catch of course is that it's a long way from the UK. I set off on a Saturday afternoon, jumping on the Eurotunnel in what felt like a welcome return to normality – apart from the need to have the passport stamped, thanks to Brexit.
I stopped in Arras on the first night (actually bumping into one of my customers, John Tew, heading off to ride a tour I'd planned for him) then took a mostly scenic ride through the Vosges and southern Black Forest to Friedrichshafen. Next day, I powered through Austria and over the Brenner Pass into Italy, taking a gorgeous route along the edge of the Dolomites to Trieste.
Next morning, I quickly crossed the border through Slovenia and – in the blink of an eye – I was through another border into Croatia. I'd ridden here before a little, on bike launches around Split, so I was expecting two things: some great roads; and 90% of the drivers to be their mobile phones. That did still seem to be true but, once I got clear of Rjieka, it wasn't really an issue as there was virtually nobody else on the road. And what an amazing road it turned out to be...
I was mostly taking the E65 down the coast – I say mostly because I also took the time to explore some of the roads to either side. But the heart of the ride was this one extraordinary road. Scenic, packed with corners, blessed with amazing views... though also cursed with a low speed limit (but I saw only one speed trap and thankfully a rare oncoming driver put his phone down long enough to flash his headlights and warn me of it).
I stopped overnight in Sibenik, a nice but small town just south of Zadar, then next day carried on along the coast. All my poking around on roads off to the side meant I got to Dubrovnik – the historic old town used as King's Landing in the Game of Thrones adaptation – at about 4:30. My plan had been to keep going, to try to get to Albania that night... but a quick nosey piqued my interest so I found somewhere to stay (thank you www.booking.com!) What a great destination...
Next morning I was up early, heading south. Leaving the European Union, into Montenegro. Thankfully this was a nice, fast process – more stamps in the passport, hand over the V5 so the details could be put on some kind of database – then off. My first impressions of the country were mixed: friendly people but the rapidly developing town of Tivat was a mix of new-and-shiny buildings and litter-strewn wastegrounds. Getting out into the countryside was much better – with some fabulous, twisty roads as well.
Things took a turn for the surreal as soon as I crossed into Albania. A group of men gathered round the bike while I was talking to the customs man as as I was putting my documents away, a leather-faced character in his seventies, like a spry Albanian Spike Milligan, started talking to me in, I guess, Albanian. I just smiled and shrugged; he grinned amiably then shouted "Heil Hitler" and, as everyone laughed, he wandered off.
My friend and Globebusters colleague Pete had given me some tips on places to visit and roads to ride, so I set off to explore. Down to the coast to Durres initially, then on to Vlore before looping inland. I was using a mix of dual carriageways and minor roads, genuinely stumped by what I was seeing.
The first thing I noticed was that Albania seems to have more petrol stations than the rest of the Balkans put together – though probably half of them are shut. Of the ones that were open, I quickly found that four out of five didn't want to take credit cards – only cash. "Euro, cash Euro." Horrible sceptic that I am, I assumed there was some kind of scam going on so kept riding to until I found somewhere that would take a card.
The main roads were lined with unfinished building, scrap yards and used-car places – it seems Albania is where western Europe's unloved elderly VWs go to die. I definitely preferred the smaller roads, not just because dual carriagways suck as a matter of principle, but also because suddenly the roadside scenery changed – still plenty of buildings that appeared to have been abandoned halfway through construction, but also houses and farms that seemed to be well cared-for. Villages where old men stood on street corners watching the world go by, where farmers drove sheep down the street and fields where crops were being coaxed into life in the weak spring sunshine.
I spent the night in a castle in Berat, then headed north-east to North Macedonia. At the border, I had to buy additional insurance – at which point I wondered if I was supposed to get it when I came into Albania or Montenegro, but their officials didn't seem bothered so I decided not to be either. Macedonia flummoxed me: a beautiful country with some cracking roads, but the national sport appears to be flytipping and every verge, every layby, was thick with litter. I couldn't understand it.
At this point, the sat nav decided to have a bit of a breakdown. After failing to get sufficient reception to work, it had a few nervous restarts while I just rode on happily. When it finally seemed to have calmed down, I foolishly trusted it... without checking it. And it took me in a wide loop through Macedonia (great riding, but in the wrong direction) back to one of the first towns I'd passed through after crossing the border.
So I adapted my plans on the fly and headed back to Montenegro, rather than pressing on to Kosovo. Crossing back into Albania, I found the most contradictory road: the SH6, which went from perfectly surfaced alpine bends to being like the surface of the moon four or five times in 50 odd miles.
Finally, I reached Podgorica in Montenegro – a wonderful little city, all clean and friendly and great value. Next day I set off for Bosnia, exploring a little of the national parks along the way. The riding just got better and better as it went along.
Then I got to Bosnia... along with the weather. Intermittent drizzle turned the polished roads scarily greasy, the wooden Bon Jovi bridges on the back roads (they're slippery when wet) were a bundle of laughs and the temperature plummeted. I shivered my way north, hoping for better weather by the coast but instead finding astonishing winds – strong enough to stop the bike in its tracks at 40mph. Easily the most dangerous conditions I've ever ridden in. I headed back inland, hunting for good roads in rural Croatia but finding 1C sleet instead. Eventually I gave in and got on larger roads, heading past Zagreb and into Slovenia where the sun, finally, came out again.
Overall, I was on the road for 10 days – or just over 4200 miles. Not necessarily traditional touring riding, but I wasn't really touring: I was working, looking for good roads, good places to visit, nice places to stop. Starting to get to grips with the riding in the Balkans – which might be challenging in places, but is hugely rewarding. I'll definitely be back.