Getting out of Vlorë proved to be a long difficult process as my shoe decided to not behave. *Sidenote* This is actually 100% my fault for ignoring the issue caused by my crash in Montenegro (for another post...)
Anyways, I'm standing on the side of the road with only one shoe on, searching for my Allan keys that have disappeared in the single moment I actually need them. I've opened all the logical compartments for the 3rd time, with no luck, when a man across the street asks what I need. I make a turning motion with my hand and say 'Allan key!' but I get the feeling that's not a very international term... He comes back a moment later with pliers and a screwdriver. After looking at the shoe, he runs away again and returns with a large set of Alan keys! The dirt that has accumulated and cemented into the bottom makes it impossible to budge the screws though. He tells me to wait a minute and disappears around the corner with my shoe. In the next 10 minutes, practically the whole neighbourhood stops by to see what the foreigner is doing with one shoe and one sock, asking if they can help me. Eventually the man comes back with my shoe in pieces and we figure out how to align it and straighten it out, then tighten it down nice and firm. I thank the man and his possy of friends standing around watching and ride out onto the street. I want to stop to grab some snacks for the road but the stupid thing is permanently attached to the pedal now. I have to take the shoe off and then struggle prying it off the pedal before I change into my runners...
Finally, I'm en route! The first 30km or so is pretty flat and uneventful... I lose myself in my thoughts, singing to myself and moving at quite a slow pace. Then the climb starts. It's steep. And goes on for years! I'm making my own mini switchbacks on the road that is already a switchback and still I'm crawling. When I make it to the top, a majestic sun-filtered foggy view over the ocean is revealed. I can see the downhill switchbacks I had been expecting to be uphill when I was looking at the map. What a pleasant surprise!
I suit up for the windy descent and start cruising down the - also very steep - backside.
Only to be greeted with another 10% grade climb. I soon have to stop to strip again. Around every bend there's another red triangular sign warning me that this too is a steep 10% grade. Thankyou for your kind words of encouragement, you stupid sign. The road curves through small villages, up and back down. A beautiful sunset bathes the whole scene in a golden orange light - photos are a perfect excuse to stop. I'll admit, I'm getting tired and a little hangry at this point.
It's starting to get "late" - as in 4:30 when it starts getting dark. I'm getting a little frustrated and worried when I spot a cyclists with a whole lot of baggage ahead of me. I try not to get too excited, telling myself it's probably just another local doing their groceries or something. But sure enough, around the next bend I meet David from France who has been cycle touring for 2 years. His bike is falling to pieces. "No breaks... I wedge a rock here between the cables... I have to shift manually..." He's easily carrying twice as much weight as I am. Suddenly my whiny struggles seem very illegitimate and silly. We ride together into Himarë before parting ways - me to look for a hostel, and he for a place to pitch his tent.
The hostel is closed, but a friendly English-speaking man who knows everyone in town calls up the owner. They're at the hospital with their mother and can't come in. The man gives me a free shot a rakija and then says the hotel down the street is owned by his friend and would be just 1000lek for the night. I crawl into bed and then out the light and then realize it's only 20 to 7. Oh well.
I'm up before the sunrise and walk around waiting for shops to open to get some breakfast.
From here to Sarandë, the hills chill out a little and it's a beautiful ride along the coast. I arrive before noon to the picturesque harbour town. The waterfront is noticeably developed in contrast to other Albanian towns. There's a gym with the classic "no pain, no gain!" plastered on the windows next to photos of people working out. Pretty standard. But it occurs to me that this is the first one I've seen throughout Albania. I suppose people are too busy trying to put food on the table to worry about how flabby their arms are.