Vlorë (Albania) to Corfu (Greece), 133km; total 6,250km
“This is a very important event. Get these bicycles out of here.”
Disdain is probably the best word to describe the facial expression of the British-sounding woman in the poofy, bright orange (bridesmaid, maybe?) dress. The face of the greeter at this suddenly exclusive Corfu beach bar went from curious to cold in an instant.
“Twenty Euros per umbrella chair,” she hastened to inform us. Then gesturing with a flicked wrist and raised eyebrows: “And the bicycles go outside.”
(Oblivious that we were trampling on an important event)
The look on Heron’s face was pure stunned. Of course we’re happy to leave our steeds wherever works for our hosts and fellow guests, but the reception on the hotspot Greek island was in stark contrast to the past week’s jovial greetings we’d become accustomed to in the “Albanian Riviera”.
Several times a day back on the mainland, we would pull over at a thatch-roofed beach bar hut and order cold drinks between desperately needed dips in the Ionian Sea. The owner would swing on over and set us up on shaded beach chairs, asking how far we’ve ridden and (of course) where we’re from. Even though we’d usually spend a couple Euros on multiple cans of Fanta and lemonade (though by late afternoon we often added pizza or ice cream), we received five-star treatment like old friends returned home. A server would arrive with our bevies on a fancy platter, glasses with ice, and most of all a huge smile.
If we tried to clear our own empties, or walk to the counter to pay, we would get a stern warning to relax and let them come to us. In Himarë - a delightful little hamlet with a line of funky beach-hotel-restaurants - they even threw in the umbrella seats for free: “Come on in. You work so hard on the bicycles. Enjoy the beach.”
In Vlorë, we asked the owner about the steep, 20-kilometre-long, thousand-metre high mountain climb ahead - and the series of 10-percent ups and downs immediately afterward. Within minutes two local fishermen sitting at the bar were recruited. Brothers Oliver and Rajeb stuffed their two cars with our bikes and bags tied to the roof - “Made in Albania solution” they boasted as they solved the puzzle of fitting it all in - then drove us past a dangerously narrow section packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was so steep and slow that Rajeb had to stop midway to let his engine cool.
“We weren’t busy with anything,” they signed off at the top. “And it was very nice to meet you.”
We fell in love with the Albanian people last week, and this week we fell for the magnificent landscape on the southern Ionian coast. We sweated just mounting our bikes under the unrelenting June sun, melted on the way up and had to pry our hands open after braking so hard on the way down. But the beach bars (or during longer stretches at higher elevation, cliff-perched cafes with panoramic sea views) cooled our bodies and the spectacular slopes refilled our spirits. It was like cycling through Canada’s Rockies with the ocean right next to them.
The vibe in Albania’s humble, gorgeous beach towns is amplified by the clientele it receives: Bulgarian, Kosovar and Serbian license plates among the eager cyclists from Germany and the Netherlands we met - a spontaneous community of travelers smiling and chatting, happy to share this beautiful space. In bustling Sarrandë, we finally found a “Wibit” inflatable water park in the sea, and within minutes the boys made a friend from Serbia to share trick ideas and help pull each other back on board when they fell in.
In our brief visit to Corfu, the feeling among fellow tourists was markedly different. Those same spaces where we felt so welcome and comfortable in Albania were battle zones for shady spots. The mood was more party and cliquey. Rather than cheery greetings, we got up-and-down stares or no eye contact at all (or, in the customs line-up, audible grumbles when a kind Norwegian woman let us in after seeing we’d been stuck a while on the outside with our bikes). Not long after our unceremonious exit from the swanky beach-bar maybe-wedding, we got a tongue-lashing by another non-local for walking our bikes too far onto a pier where dozens of heads bobbed in the azure waves. Everyone in their own world - which is cool and all, but not the same groove we associated with this corner of Europe.
The Greeks we met, however, were beyond friendly: Vasileios our AirBnB host set out homemade jam and biscuits, freshly pressed olive oil from his family fields, heart-shaped painted rocks, drinking water and a basket full of oranges - then dropped by to be sure the air conditioner worked for us. Nikos and Vasilis the stellar mechanics and owners at Bike n Roll set aside the afternoon to tune up and prep our bikes for our onward journey (“They are packed in the boxes with love, so you will have no problem with anything breaking.”), then insisted on driving us to the airport in the morning. Zoe the manager at Aegean Airlines took us under her wing to ensure a smooth check-in with our lunky luggage, tracking down carts in the only airport we’ve ever seen without any.
On our way home at dusk from the charming old town the previous evening, we biked by a game of kids’ street soccer.
“Hey, where are you from? Can you do a wheelie? You wanna play with us?”
It felt like home - er, Albania - all over again.
Sadly, we’ve come to the finish line of this Mediterranean leg of our Europe Epic: 6,000 kilometres the long way around from Portugal to Greece through 14 countries. Next up: Zurich to Oslo along the Rhine River and North Sea.
So far we’ve seen sights we could never have imagined, and met friends we’ll never forget. We know that if we have a trip-ending injury (Joce’s MCL tear may get that way - stay tuned), we could move in to Hotel Kolagji on the Himarë beachfront for a month and still be in heaven.
And we’ve learned that our daily budget can afford different things in different places: in some spots, a spacious apartment and fresh, healthy five-course dinners and breakfasts out, with several stops for hearty snacks and cold drinks; in others, a small patch of ground for our tent and groceries for salad and grilled cheese (picnic table a bonus). Either way, we’ve been content come bed time (perhaps a bit more content with more room to spread out?) because we’ve biked some of the most beautiful terrain on this big blue-and-green ball. And because we’re together as a family.
(Albanian complimentary breakfast)
We celebrated our accomplishment by joining the touristy masses on Corfu’s west-coast paradise Paleokastritsa. We eschewed the cliff-jumping party crowd and splurged on a motorboat rental (“It’s like driving a really fast canoe, right?” asked novice captain Ed who only once ran ashore a large rock in the middle of the sea) to a set of secluded beaches for cave swimming and diving into the open sea off a motorboat.
It’s not quite the yacht experience the boys have been dreaming of. But then again, sometimes the dream you envision isn’t the dream that you find along the way.