Riding across Montenegro to meet in Podgorica, we first encounter signs for a multi-day off-pavement route outside Mojkovac, one of the larger towns on this 300km loop route. The Top Biking Trail 3 is billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”, and is offered to riders through an official guide, limited trail signage, and a free GPS download of the route. After meeting Przemek and Saŝka in Podgorica, we loop around Shkodër Lake and into aspectacular valley amongst the Albanian Alps along the northern border of the country, through Tamare, Selca, and Vermosh. Our goal, thereafter, is to spend more time in Albania. To do so, we have the option to turn back the way we have come, ride into Montenegro and make an unofficial (illegal?) crossing over an unmanned mountain pass back into Albania, or ride through Montenegro and Kosovo to reach the next official crossing into Albania. Some friends of the blog had suggested visiting the valley of Valbona. While only a short flight for a bird from Tamare to Valbona, a cyclable route will be much longer, necessarily. No matter, as we reason that this way we get the chance to check out the Top Trail 3 in Montenegro and make a quick visit to Kosovo on our way back to Albania.
The Top Biking Trail 3 is a government project, in a series of other cycling and hiking routes across the mountainous country. The official brochure is available in local touristic offices for 2€; surely, I can verify that it is available in Plav, which is home to a tourist information office and a national park office, which are both stocked with maps. The region also boasts an international hiking trail called the Peaks of the Balkans, connecting the high mountains along the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania. The full guidebook for the Top Biking Trail 3 is also available online for free, as is the GPS track.
Our overnight ride from Plav to Rožaje covered only a section of the route. From this experience, a GPS device is recommended. The maps in the guidebook are reasonably detailed, although the route notes are purely literary and do little to aid in navigation. In fact, I was missing some of the GPS track information and was forced to navigate via the guidebook entirely. Not that there is much risk of not making it back to a paved road, but at one point I was running laps around an alpine meadow to decipher which faint singledoubletrack was our route, or at least the correct drainage towards town.
The route is comprised mostly of dirt roads which can be traveled with a common high-clearance vehicle or small truck, or in the case of the Montenegrans, like the Romanians, Serbians, and Ukrainians, a small 2WD Yugo, Zastava, Dacia, Lada, or Fiat. Larger sections of quiet paved roads connect highland sections. In two places on our ride, short hikes over steeper grassy ridges are required to connect otherwise unconnected roads. As such, some locals will swear that you can’t reach the city of Rožaje by bike. A proper mountain bike or dirt touring set-up is recommended, and as for the steep climbs, it is recommended to pack light, as always.
Leaving the predominantly Albanian city of Plav, Lael and I decide to climb the first major ridge at dusk, as Przemek and Saŝka hang back for the night. No surprise that within minutes of looking for a campsite they find a host for the night. They leave in the morning with more food than when they arrived–this is the spirit of these mountains. The mountain people along the borderlands of Albania and Montenegro, an historical region known as Malësia, are famously hospitable. Anymore, it seems we can’t ride off-pavement segments without invitations for coffee every time we meet someone near their home. The coffee is brewing, and then comes the offer of homemade rakija. “Oh, and you’ll have a little cheese and bread won’t you”, as fresh yogurt and butter also populate the table, alongside the possibility of sausage or salo, homemade juice, and the offer of some tobacco. And four hours later, stuffed and smiling and a little stupid, there are hugs and handshakes and photos and Facebook names to share; smiling faces in the sun, spinning legs in cycles they know so well, and the knowledge that riding bikes over mountains simply to hear the sound of dirt is not enough. Riding over mountains is not the reason but the invitation, to drink with shepherds in the morning, to eat foods unavailable in local markets, and to play with children and share the language of laughter. These are not one experience, but many. I will come back to this region.
From the border of Albania near Vermosh, you connect with the route at Gusinje and ride to Plav on quiet pavement.
If is possible to cross the borders here unofficially if you plan to return to the same country (as no one will know, and seemingly from all accounts, no one will care). If you plan to exit the country at some point, it seems best to make official border crossings to keep the passport in order. You don’t want the Republic of Kosovo or Albania questioning your route into the country, although the borders seem open and friendly. Technically, there is a rideable dirt route over 6000+ft mountains from Plav to Valbona, through Cerem, over a pass that Wikipedia claims will someday house an official border crossing. The local tourist office says it can arrange a permit to make the crossing official, which should provide documentation of your exit and entry. The cost is 10€ and can be processed within 24hours, although it is possible to apply for the permit without local assistance which may take up to 5 days. The route through Cerem utilizes part of an alpine loop section of the Top Trail 3 route. The descent into the valley of Valbona would be spectacular.
Full article: Gypsy by Trade