Today we visit another country as we say goodbye to Albania and head from Sarandë to Ioánnina, Greece. The roads are fairly limited in Albania so unfortunately we cannot just ride along the coast to Greece. To travel from Sarandë to Ioánnina, Greece we have to backtrack over the mountain ranges towards Gjirokastër, on the SH99 & SH78, to the village of Jorgucat then head south on the SH4.
As we’ve already travelled on the first part of the journey from Sarandë to Ioánnina, Greece we already knew what the road conditions would be like.
Luckily the sun was shining as we left Sarandë and the riding conditions were 100% on what we experienced on the way from Gjirokastër a few days ago. The SH99 & SH78 are fairly good in most spots, however there were a few potholes and a washout which kept us on our toes. The first part of the highway follows a huge aqueduct which is almost overflowing with crystal clear mountain water to the town of Mesopotam. Just beyond the town the road slowly starts to rise up into the mountain range. With the drier conditions we were tempted to return to the Blue Eye to have another look at what everyone was talking about but in the end thought if it looks ok from up the hill we’ll head back down. Well it didn’t look any better so we headed on. On top of the mountain ranges we were surrounded by sheer almost barren limestone mountains on either side of the road which were quite majestic. On the way down the hill towards Jorgucat we passed a poor bloke in a truck about 2/3 of the way up the hill. His truck had obviously done a gearbox and he was desperately trying to find a gear to get his rig rolling again but to no avail. Meanwhile traffic gingerly dodged around his truck on the narrow road.
As we reached the bottom of the hill we turned south on the SH4 towards the border at Kakvia, only about 25 km’s away. It’s just over 100 kms from Sarandë to Ioánnina, Greece so there was no hurry.
Passing through the border checkpoint was quite easy as they had a quick look at our passports, commented on how many stamps we had, then waved us through. The customs were pretty busy checking cars and after asking if we had any alcohol we were waved through. The guy was very excited at our adventure and was saying how he had rung his wife to tell her about us. It wasn’t until a little later we realised that we still had a bottle of Rakija strapped to the tank bag oops.
We considered stopping at the coffee shop at the border but as we rode through the barrier, a pack of stray dogs appeared chasing the bike and barking. That was enough to make us change plans and keep going.
The road from the Greek border was really good with nice two lane highway and good surface quality. It didn’t last long and we were soon back to single lane and potholes.
Just as we passed the border we were confronted by a huge Star Fighter plane on the side of the road. It looked bizarre sitting there overlooking the traffic as it passed. It seems to be be some sort of war memorial but of course it was all greek to us so after a short break we continued on.
Around the border the countryside reminded us of Croatia’s northern border with lots of hills covered in dense scrub. The people we saw in the area were mainly shepherds living in fairly humble homes, with decent sized flocks of sheep and goats. The sheep dogs were actually quite tall, and mostly white. They were bred to provide the sheep protection from wolves and probably wolves of the human kind. We were stopped a few times as flocks of sheep crossed the road. It was nice to be back in the countryside.
Along the sides of the road we’d occasionally pass small church like shrines. Set on a pedestal, they ranged in size from about the size of a letterbox to the size of a beer fridge. The shrines are built either as remembrance for someone who’s died or as votives (thanks for answering a prayer). Some of them were quite elaborate with silver icons, candles, flowers and bottles of rakija inside.
Rain started falling as we headed over the hills and down into Ioánnina. Passing through Ioannina we quickly realised that people drove a little more aggressively and there were lots and lots of motorbikes. There are subtle differences in every country with the way people drive even though the rules may be the same. There was a real difference in attitudes from Sarandë to Ioánnina, Greece. So it took a slight adjustment to the conditions with more regular checks of mirrors and more head checks.
Another thing we noticed about Greece was that there are multiple listings of the same or similar addresses after arriving at the same address in another suburb. The bloke was quite surprised when we drove into his driveway and just looked at us dumbfounded. We headed towards option 2 in the satnav and stopped to try and make sense of it when a car pulled up, asked what we were looking for. When we named the hotel he said ‘Follow me, it is my hotel’ , before long we had parked the bike and unloaded our gear. It was in a nice small family hotel with a wrought iron framed balcony overlooking the street. It would be the perfect spot to enjoy a drink on a warm night, however it was raining so that was out.
After unpacking we headed into the city to grab some lunch and soon found our way down to a set of posh restaurants, cafe’s and bars near the lake. After parking outside one with a few motorbikes we were disappointed to learn that not one was serving food. However, a young girl gave us directions which us down a few grubby graffiti lined streets to another area of restaurants and take aways. Oi Vlaxio restaurant was overflowing with teenagers right next to an almost deserted kebab shop so we decided this must be the place to eat. We took a look inside looking for a table and were directed upstairs. Oi Vlaxio must do a roaring trade for there was easily 100 people there. The waiter showed us to a table and after finding out we were from Australia really made a fuss. We ordered one chicken and a pork plate and soon two plates arrived covered in so much food that Steve Hooker couldn’t have pole vaulted over it. We were reminded of the old Perth TV Surprise Chef Aristos, when the waiter wished us Kalí órexi (greek for bon apetit).
Poor Michele had no hope of finishing her meal and despite eating as much as she could, there was enough left over for another few meals. I finished mine off but I was a shot duck afterwards as I couldn’t eat another thing. Waddling out of the restaurant with a belly like a poisoned pup the staff all thanked us and wished us well. It was a really special moment and I think that lunch in Oi Vlaxio restaurant was one of those moments when we both said “if this is what Greece is like, we are going to love this country.”
As the sun was slowly setting we took a cruise along the lake back to the hotel. Tomorrow we head to Igoumenitsa.