Former Ottoman Empire: Albania & Istanbul

We booked another tour with Far & Away Cycling, this time to Albania. As it turns out, Turkish Airlines had a massive fare sale for our dates, and the cost to fly from Houston to Tirana to Istanbul back to Houston was only $800! I normally hate flying from Houston (or Dallas), but this fare saved us over $400 per person, so I agreed to make the drive.

The drive to Houston took forever. It rained the whole way. There was a lot of traffic. Ugh. Aside from the drive to Houston, it was a fairly uneventful flight, and I sat next to a young couple on their first trip to Europe.

Day 1

We took a long bus transit out of Tirana and started near the border with Macedonia. Since the previous dictator was paranoid, bunkers littered  the mountainside. We cross the border into Macedonia and had lunch on Lake Ohrid. When we rode around the lake, I got dropped at the climbs and took some photos. I met up with the group again by the split to the monastery and did a short tour with them.

Bunker along Lake Ohrid
Monastery of Saint Naum

We crossed the border back into Albania and stayed at a hotel on the lake.

Lake Ohrid
View of fishermen in the morning

Day 2: Korce

We took an easy ride out of Korce and saw gorgeous farmlands. Just as the tempo picked up, it started to rain and hail. We ducked into the gas station to wait out the storm. As soon as we got started again, another hail storm rolled in. We skipped lunch and did the bonus miles to the monastery in Vostepoje. The roads were rough on the way to the climb and the climbs were steep. I was so glad to get to the top. Since the monastery was closed, we rode back down in the lightening and rain. I loved the disc brakes on the bike.


Day 3: Trout Farm

Of course, there was a long climb out of Korce. After a long downhill to a coffee stop, we did some fast riding to lunch. Being a roadie, I crashed on some bumps going out of town. I cleaned out the rocks while my adrenaline was flowing and got back on the bike. We  went up more climbs with rocky descents and then did a really long climb to the trout farm. I lost my mojo after the crash, so the descents were just brutal. The trout farm was relaxing. It was isolated and quiet, and we had amazing trout for dinner.

Day 4: Benje

As the pattern goes, we climbed out of the trout farm. We saw Armand’s (the ride leader’s) land and then descended through the gorge. It was a crazy bumpy downhill on torn up roads. The scenery was gorgeous, but without my mojo, the descent was hell.

We did the extra mileage to go to the Greek border and time trialed to catch up with the other folks. We did sprint attacks on the way back. At the much needed coffee stop, we chatted with some Belgians. They were quite surprised Americans were biking around Albania. We climbed more hills with rough roads to Benje. There, we had an amazing lunch with roasted lamb.

That afternoon, we biked to the hot springs with more rough road. Instead of getting into warm water, I hiked through river bed and soaked my legs in cold water.


Day 5: Girocaster

The group started the day riding together until our coffee stop at Permet. After coffee, the pace picked up,  and I learned to downshift on rough roads to add some power and smooth out the ride. We rode through a gorgeous valley and picked up honey at the lunch stop. The ride to Girocaster was rainy with dreadful headwinds. I tucked into a pace-line until the steep climb into Girocaster. After cleaning up, we toured an old house and castle and sat at the city corner for “happy hour.” The dinner was incredible with melted cheese and sweet pumpkin byrek.

Some fisheye fun atop the Girocaster castle
In an American fighter plane atop Girocaster castle (scarf and sunglasses added later)

Day 6: Sirande (coastal town)

Of course, the group did the extra mileage to the start with a flat, tailwind assisted ride to the climb. The climb was long, yet doable. I caught up to Janice, and found out her competitive nature. The descent was winding, but fun.

We took a short ferry to Butrint, and toured the grounds. After lunch, we had a long, undulating climb and descent. I pulled my companions into Sarande and promptly got lost. We finally found hotel. I felt a bit of overtraining at dinner and went to bed.

View of Corfu from Butrint
View from hotel room at Sarande

Day  7: Hiram

I took the first climb out of Sirande a bit hard. At the coffee stop in the mountains, a sweet old lady patted my head and talked to me. I clearly had no idea what she was saying. After the stop, we took it really easy. Roman left his camera on the side of the road and had to go back for it at lunch. After Roman found his camera on the side of the road (!), we toured the Venetian fortress.

When we finally arrived in Haram, it was hot. I quickly changed into bathing suit and headed to the beach. The beach was a bit rocky, but the water was nice and cold.

Day 8: Vlore

We climbed out of Himare and then started a steep climb. I caught up with Janice, and we stopped at the gorgeous overlook coffee shop. We climbed through the town and wondered when the climb of the day started. When we rounded the corner, we saw the climb above us. We climbed, climbed, and climbed. It started sprinkling on us, and I got cold. At the top, I took as selfie with Janice. Armand arrived and took us through the cold descent. At lunch, I could barely warm up, and I seriously thought about jumping into the car for the rest of the day. I soldiered on. When Janice decided to stop to put up her hood, I went on and ended up riding the rest of the way into Vlore by myself. The hotel was isolated resort on the water with nice beach chairs. I spent the afternoon in the sun relaxing

Day 9: back to Tirana

We took a brutal bus transport back to Tirana and hung out at the hotel. I had Merlut (small fish) for dinner and went to the Brauhaus with Adriene, Bob and Roman to close out the trip.


We saw the touristy sights in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, and Bosphorus cruise. My favorite memories were eating: breakfasts in a dive joint and fresh sour cherry and pistachio Turkish delight.


Hagia Sophia
Topkapi Palace