The seeds for my journey on the Trans Euro Trail were planted in 2015, when I toured Europe on my BMW R 100 CS. I had the briefest sample of Albania, an afternoon riding the most dramatic mountainous landscape on a pristine ribbon of tarmac. Smooth riding perfection soon turned into a perilous off-road trail that put my bike and me well out of our comfort zone. As snow fell and my extended sump rebounded off rocks, I made a rare sensible decision and turned back to Montenegro, vowing to return better prepared one day.
This time around I took my 1982 BMW R 80 ST. It’s not a true off-road bike, but modified with a wide handlebar, a 21-inch front wheel, a longer rear shock, and a bash plate, it’s more than capable of taking on tricky terrain. With countless days on Wales’ toughest greenlanes, plus an enduro race under my belt, I was ready to take on Albania properly.
Choosing a route was easy. The Trans Euro Trail is an incredible resource. With nearly 32,000 miles of off-road trails mapped across Europe, it’s a lifetime’s worth of riding. The Albania section covers 500 miles, which could be a day’s riding on tarmac but is a lot longer off-road. Free GPS routes are available at TransEuroTrail.org, and there’s even a TET app for Android phones that allows you to download all the routes.
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Getting There and Sampling the Trans Euro Trail
Albania is inconveniently located nearly 2,000 road miles away from my home in Wales. No doubt there’s some spectacular riding on the direct route, but I’ve traveled its roads plenty of times before, and there are too many motorway miles that crush spirit and wear out knobby tires. Instead, I took the ferry to Santander, Spain, with further ferries taking me to Sardinia, Sicily, mainland Italy, and finally to Albania. It’s a great alternative route with fewer motorway miles, beautiful landscapes along the way, and overnight ferries costing not much more than a hotel room – and you can sleep while the boat does the work for you.
The route also gave me a chance to sample other sections of the TET and get a feel for what to expect from it.
When the ferry landed in sunny Santander, I headed south to join the TET at the nearest jumping-on point. As soon as my wheels left the tarmac, I hit thick, wet clay, and within 800 yards, I was on the ground and struggling to pick up the heavily loaded bike as my boots slipped in the slick clay. For a moment I just stood there, staring at my once-pristine bike wedged in the mud on its side. Maybe I wasn’t as ready for this as I thought.
Eventually I got the bike upright, and the next 10 miles was an arduous crawl through deeply rutted clay across unremarkable farmland. The Michelin Anakee Wilds, usually a very capable 50/50 tire, failed to get any real grip as the clay filled the tread, and I had to paddle my feet just to stay upright. The bike was caked in clay, filling every gap between wheels and frame and baking itself solid against the hot engine. I was dirty, hot, exhausted, and soaked with sweat.
Is this what the TET is about? I can fall off my bike in muddy fields back in Wales anytime I want.
As I made my way to Barcelona via the Pyrenees, I hopped on and off the TET at convenient points, using paved roads to make up some miles in between. Thankfully the riding improved in both trail quality and scenery, although I was occasionally hindered by deep snow in the higher ground.
I rode a short section of the TET in Sardinia, fast gravelly trails over beautiful hills, and for the first time I could see the wheel tracks of other bikes.
In Sicily, I enjoyed a few easy days of touring and sightseeing before making a beeline for Brindisi on the southeast coast of Italy, where I boarded the overnight ferry to Vlorë in Albania.
My Welcome to Albania
On arrival in Albania, I realized my first mistake: I had my passport, motorcycle insurance, Covid pass, and international driving permit but no vehicle registration documents, which turned out to be vital for crossing borders in this part of the world. In the early hours of the morning, I woke my fiancée back home to email a PDF copy. The border guards were not overly impressed, but it was enough to get me through.
To join the TET, I took the most direct route, which seemed like a major road when looking at Google Maps. On arrival, that road turned out to be a stone military road built by the Italians during World War II – and barely maintained since. The frugal suspension travel on the stock ST fork made for a bumpy ride as I tried to pick the best line across the stones. As spectacular as the views were, it was tough going.
If this is just the road to the TET, how hard is the actual TET?!
When I joined the TET to make my way to the most southerly point of the route, I was surprised to find a smooth tarmac road that winded up in the hills past some spectacular monolithic war monuments before turning to dirt as it dropped down to the warm sunny coast. A spectacular ride, not too challenging, and I finished the day with a pannier-cooled beer on the beach watching the sun go down. A trail rider’s dream!
The next day, I began making my way back north and inland, using tarmac roads to skip the section of the TET I’d already done. When I rejoined the dirt trails, they once again wound into the hills, passing tiny villages of makeshift homes, friendly farmers herding livestock, and rivers cutting their way through gorges and flowing under precarious bridges. One thing the TET has done is bring commerce to these faraway places that otherwise see very few tourists. Groups of trail-weary bikers buy drinks and food and camp in the fields – or in my case, take refuge in the basic B&Bs that cost next to nothing to stay in.
The Trans Euro Trail to Some; the Daily Commute to Others
It was my third day in Albania, but I’d already been away from home for 15 days. The trails had been spectacular, but I’d heard they were tough, and so far I hadn’t experienced too much of a challenge. That was about to change.
After an early-morning meal of a banana, cheese triangles, peanuts, and some unidentified tinned fish purchased at a small corner shop, I dropped down the mountain into the town of Gjebes where I saw a battered old Kawasaki 200 trail bike. Its owner soon appeared and introduced himself with well-spoken English. His name was Djem.
When I checked the GPS that morning, I noticed the TET offers two options: a straight(ish) 10-mile section or an alternative 40-mile detour into the hills labeled as “wet option.” The shorter section follows the river, so I asked Djem if it could be ridden this time of year.
“Sure, I’m going that way to work this morning. You can follow me, but I’m running late.”
Djem set off at a pace down the mountain trail, ably carving the best line at speed, which I tried to follow while taking liberties with the ST to keep up. So far on this trip, I’d ridden with a “this bike has to get me home” attitude, but that was thrown out the window.
As advertised, we left the road and dropped onto the vast rocky riverbed. Djem weaved a line from bank to bank, bouncing over the stones and occasionally plowing through the river. As exciting as chasing Djem was, after five minutes, I thanked him and said farewell. He left me with one bit of advice: “When you see the second village, make an exit. After that the water is too deep.”
Realizing our last river crossing was rather photogenic, I decided to take the opportunity to take a much-needed rest and shoot a picture. I made the crossing several times until I was happy with the shot and continued on my journey – only to completely misjudge the climb up the riverbank that I’d just done five times over and topple into the river.
My bike was upside down, and my phone mount fell off and went floating down the stream with the phone inside. Petrol was pouring out of both carbs, so I immediately shut off the taps. With the bike at an awkward angle on the riverbank, I couldn’t get it fully upright with the weight of all the luggage. I was forced to drag the bike to a more favorable position, which meant the whole bike was now in the river. After a lot of swearing and my new deadlift personal best, I got it back upright. Thankfully the bike suffered no damage, and I came out with just a nice lump on my shin as a prize. I managed to rescue my phone from farther down the river, but it was fully drowned and lifeless.
After draining the carbs and a few nervous cranks of the starter motor, the ST spluttered back to life, belching a plume of damp, oily fumes as it cleared its left cylinder. With a dead phone and no GPS to follow, there was just the small matter of navigation. I could see where other vehicles had traveled for the most part, but in sections the pathway seemed to disappear into rocks, leaving me aimlessly bumping around the riverbed searching for a passable route.
Every now and then the reappearance of Djem’s wheel tracks reassured me I was on the right track, only to disappear into water, nowhere to be found on the other side. I plunged in and out of the river, one time beaching the sump on a hidden rock and losing all traction. After that, I began walking the river crossings first to assess a safe route, my boots filling with water as the crossings got deeper. I started wondering if, while focusing on my riding, I’d accidentally gone too far. After nearly two hours, I was relieved to see the second village, and I rode back into relative civilization. Finally, a chance for a drink in a modest Albanian refuge and to empty the water out of my boots.
This was my big adventure for the day, but to Djem it was just another commute.
The Climb to Theth
In stark contrast to the slog across the riverbed, the next day involved fast, open, well-graded trails. For the first time, my speed stayed consistently above 30 mph, and I made good progress, leaving only 75 miles of the TET remaining by the time I reached my accommodation. It was a smart-looking hotel from the outside, but inside it was barely decorated and revealed some dubious building standards, such as a 230-volt socket in a wet room within splashing distance from the shower head and a polished public balcony with no railing.
After surviving an overnight stay in the hotel, I was ready to take on the final section, a jaunt into the Albanian Alps arriving at Theth, one of the country’s top tourist draws. The trail started as tarmac but soon degraded into tough, rocky, technical riding on a path not much wider than a small car and a plunge to certain death as the reward for lost concentration.
By midday I felt like I’d been climbing forever, but I’d only covered 12 miles of the road. The ST was already losing a significant amount of power due to the altitude. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I finally reached Theth, but the effort had been worth it. The harsh, desolate landscape gave way to an oasis of color and beauty in the hills. Charming little houses dotted a towering, snow-tipped landscape, with a blue crystal-clear river running through a deeply cut gorge.
Mercifully, the ride back out of the hills was a smooth tarmac road, albeit with 6-foot walls of snow towering on either side, razor sharp hairpins, and a dizzying descent down the mountain. Despite the evening drawing in, the air warmed as I got closer to the sea, the roads opened up, and the ST regained power as it breathed more oxygen. Not only did the 40-year-old BMW complete the Albanian TET, but it had excelled as a riding companion.
When it comes to an adventure bike, less is certainly more. Traction control, ride modes, adjustable windscreens, and TFT displays are all just distractions around what you really need: a solid, dependable machine that’s easy to live with day to day and can be fixed with basic tools on the road. The ST is light for an adventure bike, coming in at just over 440 lb with fluids compared to a whopping 550 lb on the latest R 1250 GS. In fact, with most of Albania’s vehicles being around 30-40 years old, the ST fit right in!
I don’t like describing my bike as a “classic.” The word suggests a machine kept for its history and novelty, but Airhead BMWs aren’t there yet. To me, they still cut it amongst the best, and their work is not yet done. With the Albanian TET under my belt, I’m now looking toward the next adventure on the ST.