Sunday, 27 October 2013

The end of civilisation

So I left Albania on the night bus - the first time I've been on one of these things, and I'm already not a fan.

I knew sleep might be hard to come by, so I chucked a sheet over myself and dozed off - at 7pm. Because that's how I roll. And I was right - every time the lights came on, every time we stopped in the middle of nowhere to let someone on the bus, I was awake. 

Then the border came around. I do a good confused foreigner look at the best of times, but sometimes I outdo myself. So first, trying to find the toilet on the Albanian side. "Toilet?" "Toilet?" Eventually a border guard who spoke English bailed me out as I stood in a cafe, in my socks (?!) looking like a total moron. Then they said something in Albanian and laughed as I left. I smiled like the polite British idiot I am. 

Then the Greek side. Everyone started to get off as they opened the hold. I thought I'd join them. I didn't have a clue what was going on, but I presumed they wanted to check the bags. But everyone was just standing there. So I tried to find someone who spoke English. No, no, no, oh, you do. Spoke it quite well actually, and he confirmed what I thought. 

Then everyone got back on the bus. Oh, they've decided not to check the bags. At least I understood what was going on now. 

At some point, I'll actually learn the language of the country I'm going to.

Though "customs are checking the bags" is fairly advanced Albanian.

Or maybe it's basic Albanian, but fairly advanced English, if you get my drift.

And having sat at the Greek border for an age, everyone got off the bus again. 

I sat like a confused foreigner again. My new English-speaking friend helped me out.

"My friend, you must come to the front of the queue. You go first, you are from a foreign country."

Actually, I think it's because I'm an EU citizen entering an EU country so I don't need to be stamped in, but yeah, we'll go with that. Foreigner privileges for the confused foreigner. It's not quite the autographs and photos I get in India (yes, genuinely), but it'll do. And they're disturbing my sleep, so it's the best they can do.

And one of the Albanians who I tried to get some English out of, but couldn't, gave me a couple of biscuits because I was British. Albanian hospitality, I love it. Some of the friendliest people in the world as a whole. 

Anyway, enough of the sucking up to Albania for now. 

We were into Greece. 

And we got into Athens at 5:30am. Well, 6:30am, as I found out to my great bemusement when I went into the metro station to work out how on earth to get to the hostel. Timezones are great fun.

Nearly as fun as when you get out of the metro then don't have a clue where to go, so you just guess and end up walking down some back alley with graffiti everywhere, people sleeping in the streets and the pungent smell of urine. It was only when I got my compass out (yes, I'm that cool), that I finally twigged that maybe this wasn't where I wanted to be. I still don't do mornings. 
Always a good sign when this is opposite your hostel
Eventually I had the brainwave of maybe looking at a map rather than just wandering aimlessly (if only I did that more) and found the place. The sun still hadn't come up, so I thought I might be able to see sunrise over the Acropolis from the roof terrace (this would have been possible, and I'm not lying, just making you jealous). The receptionist said I could dump my pack in the basement and get on with it, or just rest in the common room. I still hadn't had breakfast or coffee so it took me far too long to make any sort of decision, but I (in hindsight, sensibly) chose the common room. 

It'll have to wait
And I crashed out on the sofa, and missed the sunrise entirely. 

But places were actually open for breakfast by then. 

Well, just about still open. 

Some of them were charging 10€ though. When your country has 30% unemployment and major economic and social problems, and there are protests outside Parliament every day because of it, then this doesn't make sense. 

It's all part of my theory about the euro though: countries who adopt it seem to have prices that are a good 20% higher than they should be, or higher than their neighbours. I saw this in Slovakia, I saw this in Montenegro, and it happened in France when they dropped the franc as well. 

And that's before I start ranting about how stupid an idea the euro is: locking countries like Greece into a currency highly inappropriate for them, where they aren't competitive and don't have the required tools of adjustment in times of trouble. The way out is either to drop the euro, return to the drachma and devalue; or to reduce both prices and wages in order to become competitive again. And we know the second option just isn't practically possible. 

Anyway, enough of the politics. 

Travel. Travel. Travel.

Oh yes, the Acropolis.
And I still managed to get lost.
So had I stayed awake, maybe I could have made it in at 8am when it opened and avoided the masses of tourists. 

No, not my day. 

Maybe I shouldn't have gone in at 11am when the place was full of people following umbrellas, the contents of about 6 cruise ships and more stereotypes than I thought existed. They even employ people to stand there with a whistle, blowing it when some fool decides that stopping in the middle of a mass of people to take a picture that's probably on Google Images already, holding EVERYONE up in the process, is a good idea. 
I'm normally too British to queue jump, but I figured that if I could climb up the rocks with half an ankle then it was fair game. And I wasn't following an umbrella or a giant number like a sheep either. 

The place itself was packed, and slightly spoilt by the totally stereotypical American tourist. I mean, take all the things you think of when I say "American tourist", and you'd have found them here. And more. I overheard more cringeworthy statements than I ever wanted to. But I forgot to write them down as I heard them.

I'll never make it as a travel journalist. Oh well, I might have to get a real job.

While we're on that subject: this post is quite hilarious.

And they wonder why they get bad rap. Luckily I've met plenty of decent Americans on this trip.

Also, to the cruise ship "Independence of the Seas". That is not an appropriate name for a CRUISE SHIP. I might have to get the Sales of Goods Act out on you for that one.

Especially when everyone on your ship wears a cap with "Independence of the Seas" on it around the Acropolis. It just looks ridiculous.
How ironic that the place where civilisation began now resembles the end of civilisation, some theme park for halfwits?

So I escaped and had some lunch. Yes, octopus sounds good. No, I expect more than that for what I just paid. Oh wait, this is Greece, so I should assume I actually paid half of what I did. OK, maybe I can just about let you off.
No tourists. Good job.
Nap time.

3pm and I thought I'd have a look round the Ancient Agora for a bit - basically more ruins, but still with a lot of history. No, it shuts at 3pm. Because this is Greece and they can't afford to pay people to stand around doing nothing for another couple of hours.
I'll just take far too many photos of it from far too far away then.
So I thought I'd post the souvenir I bought in Albania back - carrying it round the world didn't sound like the most fun thing ever, and knowing my luck Australian customs wouldn't let me take it in. I was going to post it back from Albania but then figured that posting it from an EU country might be cheaper.

After locating the post office and failing to locate a cardboard box, I headed back to the hostel to pack it all up. The receptionist had an empty phone box, but at this stage any cardboard would do. So out came the swiss army knife and the duct tape and a makeshift package was made. In went the stone carving and all the postcards I've picked up so far that are currently pushing my plastic folder out of shape. On went the address and some generic "Caution - Fragile" writing that the Greeks will definitely ignore.

I thought queues were bad in Britain. But I sat in the post office for well over 40 minutes while the 2 cashiers tried to process everything. 2 windows open out of 15. I take back my criticisms of the British system.

Eventually up to the window. It was just over a kilogram. That'll be 14 euros please. WHAT?! That's more than I paid for the bloody stone carving in the first place. But this is Greece, and everything costs too much. And they didn't even take card. Not fun when you have to pay to withdraw from an ATM.

Overpriced services - this, Russian visas, bus tickets in Dubrovnik - and they all require cash payment (well, postal order in the case of Russian visas, but that's a cash payment and has an additional fee on it). Which requires that I pay £1 a time to withdraw MORE money than I budgeted from an ATM.

Should have just sent it from Albania.

So I had some souvlaki to keep me going. Souvlaki is just a nice way of saying kebab, so it's still in keeping with my staple diet. But this is Greece, so they're blooming good. Tzatziki (the sauce it comes with) is also my new favourite thing.

The Acropolis looks good at night too - they light it up. And I could see it from the roof of the hostel. And as I walked up there I walked in on some Ukrainians taking a photo, so they asked me if I wanted to join them. OK then. Just met you, don't even know your name, but I want a photo with you. That's travelling for you, and it's pretty cool to be fair.
Not a bad view eh
They were from AIESEC, which seemed to be taking over the place (they had some conference or something). And I met a guy who I coached last year at Warwick, which was incredibly random.

And I broke my sunglasses. Snapped them clean by walking into a low ceiling. Smooth. They lasted all of 3 weeks.

So I had some ouzo to cheer myself up.

Second day there and I finally made it to Agora, but I wasn't missing out on much. Given that I'd blagged a free ticket with my expired student ID I shouldn't complain too much though!
The latest victim of Greek budget cuts
So souvlaki eaten and hill climbed, I realised that Athens was massive but also too expensive, and too touristy. Apart from the hill I climbed, which apparently noone knew about. The trees needed trimming so I could actually get a good shot of the Acropolis though!

Athens is SO BIG
Once I'd had a wander of the local district, and seen the various bits of street art, people sleeping on the streets and suchlike, I was even more annoyed at how overpriced the place was. Time to leave.

On to the metro to the port at Piraeus, and the final leg of the journey to Istanbul had begun.

Maybe I'll actually make it to Australia eventually. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

An Albanian Adventure, part 2

Albania, Albania, Albania.

I liked the concrete jungle that was Tirana, so what would happen when I went to somewhere in Albania that actually looked nice? So nice that it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Berat was the next stop, a preserved Ottoman town that even Hoxha and his communists left intact.

I went with John and Hiro. Hiro was doing a daytrip - the crazy man - even crazier since we wouldn't get there until at least 1pm and the last bus was at 4 or 5, depending on who you asked.

So step 1: Find where the bus left from. There's no central bus station in Tirana, and buses to different places go from different places in the city. And these places change every so often, so who knows where it would be going from.

I wasn't even out of the street that the hostel was in before Albanian roads demonstrated their lack of maintenance and down I went. I'd turned my ankle again. Lovely. Straight to the ground with my pack on, which was just lovely.
This amused me though. Sorry dad, don't tell me off
So on to a city bus to get to where the bus was meant to go from. I emphasise 'meant' for a reason - this is Albania. 30 leke and the friendliest conductor ever - he was a proper Albanian. He asked someone to move so I could slot me and my pack into a convenient gap Tetris-style, then told us which stop to get off at.

Albanian hospitality. They just go out of their way to help us annoying tourists! Got to give them major kudos for that. We're a bit of a novelty I suppose.

Eventually we found the bus station - it was a bit of a dump but everyone wanted to point us in the right direction - and they actually knew the right direction, which was refreshing after Montenegro, where noone wanted to admit that they didn't know where something was, so just pointed you in any direction at all.
This is what counts as a bus station in Tirana.
A return to the national sport of "how many people can you fit in a minibus" was on the cards, with children sat on laps, people standing in the aisle (of a MINIBUS) and luggage everywhere.

So on to the motorway to Durres (heading west in order to reach a destination to the south-east, as Albanian logic dictates). Durres is a fairly nondescript port - like Tirana but less atmospheric and closer to the sea. They still insisted on waiting there to fill the ONE FREE SEAT on the minibus - but after half an hour they'd given up and had enough of buying cheap hot dogs from the stand by the stop. Maybe that was their real motive.

So then we gave up and on we went to Berat, on the motorway. Well, whatever passes for a motorway in Albania. There were vegetable stalls on the side of the road, people waiting for the bus, people riding bikes, and ROUNDABOUTS. Roundabouts ON THE MOTORWAY. That is not a motorway. And I will end that rant there before I bore you any more.

Logic level: Albania.

Eventually we went off the motorway and on to a proper Albanian road. It was bumpy all the way, and mostly tarmaced - but now and then you reached a section of gravel, or a load of potholes, where everything slowed to a crawl. Then back up to far too fast for this piece of road, then see a bit they've forgotten to build, and repeat.
Not sure if Albania or Japan
Then overtake a horse and cart.

After far too much concrete (seriously, why?) we rolled into Berat - and wow, it was incredible. This was the view as I got off the bus, and says it all really:
There's a hostel in the Old Town owned by a Geordie called Scott, and I had a view something like that above out of the window of the dorm. For 10€ a night you just can't complain. Pizza's even cheaper for a huge serving, and the place felt really deserted, and us tourists still got stared at!

Off the beaten track: yes.

We had a wander up to the castle, but not until after discovering the Albanian word for castle, kala, which meant that like excited children we had to ask everyone we saw where the kala was. It's that big stone thing on top of the hill.

Then we came across a guy herding goats up the road to the castle. Yes, tourist trap this is not. Even has proper cobbled streets, the type that are an absolute pain to walk on with this ankle. Stones sticking out in such a way that British health and safety officials would have a fit. And no stalls selling utter rubbish passing as "souvenirs" to uninformed idiots who are following a guy with an umbrella.

Albanian tour groups
100 lek to get in - an absolute bargain. People live inside too, which meant that every other car was a black Merc here, in keeping with the unwritten Albanian proverb. There are churches and mosques inside as well as some people selling souvenirs that are actually quite decent. And not overpriced.

In the end I actually bought a souvenir, which happens less than once in a blue moon. He wanted 1800 lek (£11/12) for a stone carving of Berat, which looked decent. I couldn't be bothered to haggle, and didn't want to push him too low (Albanian wages being what they are) - see I have a heart really. Offered him 1500 lek and he happily took it - the castle being as deserted as it was, I'm not surprised!

Bag in hand I had a wander, trying to find a decent view, so however much my ankle was in pain I had some sort of reason for coming up here. But there were trees surrounding the thing from all directions, and especially in the direction of the old town. Shame.

And John found himself an Albanian flag! It was just on the floor, in a pile, a bit dirty but certainly washable. It even had a bullethole in. Authentic.

Then back down we went. Hiro still had to get back to Tirana tonight, so he asked around for where the bus was.

He'd missed the last bus.

The look on his face was priceless.

But seriously, why do the last buses here go at 2-3pm? Who does this? Especially when the first ones go at about 4am - who's up at that sort of time?!

He got bailed out though - Albanians are friendly like that.

Go to Lushnje and change there.

None of us knew where Lushnje was, but we figured it was a good idea to send him on to that bus, and off he went. (Spoiler: he made it back)

Anyway, this is why you shouldn't do Berat as a day trip. Because when the sun goes down, it looks like this:

And I really hope that this doesn't cause an onslaught of the tour bus crowds. Actually, I'm not sure that the tour buses would make it down the road there. But it's even better in the flesh, and I highly recommend it. Not only that, but real people live in the houses. It's just like any other village! Incredible.

After much raki the night before, it was up for the 8am bus to Gjirokaster. I was going to Saranda for the night, but thought I'd break up the 6 hour journey with a couple of hours at Gjirokaster, also on the UNESCO list for a similar reason.

8am is also far too early. And the reason I had to leave at 8am was clear: we were heading north, to a destination in the south. OK then. The road was even worse than the one to Berat!

Albania looks a lot like this actually. Worth the 8am start? Hmm.
Eventually we made it on to some sort of modern highway, but even that turned into gravel and unbuilt bits and bobs now and then.

And we got pulled over by the police.

Should have done what an Audi going the other way did and just speed past the checkpoint.

They didn't even bother chasing him.

Routine stop apparently.

3 hours later, and very hungry (why does toast and cereal pass as breakfast ever?!) we stopped at a roadhouse. It didn't have a menu so I just pointed at a plate of meat and rice that the locals were eating, which came out quickly enough.

Then the bill.

7500 lek.

You what?

I thought I'd been had.

But no, this is Albania. They took a 0 off the end of the lek in 1964 and some places still quote prices in old lek, but you pay in new lek. Peculiar. So it was 750 lek. Which is expensive by Albanian standards, especially for what I got. But I was hungry and didn't particularly care.

So on to Gjirokaster, and out into a shared taxi with a Swedish couple who asked if I was headed for the old town. 400 lek total the driver said. But he was heading for his mate's guesthouse. They'd booked somewhere else, and I was staying in Saranda. They got out and paid him 300, but I just said KALA, KALA. It was the only Albanian I knew and it meant I could just walk downhill with my massive pack. On cobbled streets. Lovely.
"No problem".

Yes, of course it's not a problem when you're going to take me up there then demand 500 lek off me for the privelige. And then take the 500 lek out of my wallet yourself, because I'm incapable of doing it myself.

I hate to generalise and stereotype, but from my experience, and that of others, taxi drivers across the world are the same - they love to just get the money out of your pocket through dishonest means. On the contrary, I've never heard a good story about taxi drivers.

At least tell me that you're going to rip me off before you do it.

To make me even more annoyed, my bag had been squeezed into the back of the furgon and the shower gel and toothpaste packs had split, filling my washbag with some mix of purple and white liquid. Lovely.

So I cleaned it out, and spilt a bit of it on the castle. Sorry UNESCO, I made one of your world heritage sites a bit more purple.

Blame the taxi driver.

That said, after Berat, Gjirokaster was a little disappointing. Nice, and maybe I needed to spend more time there to give it justice, but I just couldn't wait to get out. So I walked down and down. My ankle cried a bit. I saw the 2 decent streets of Gjirokaster. Eventually I discovered where the furgons went from.

Yeah, it's alright really

He was about to leave. Perfect. And I even got one of the good seats with shoulder and elbow room.

But one of the passengers decided he'd get off, and got shouted at by the driver. So they decided to have a fairly loud argument, in Albanian, in the front of the bus. Who knows. But the passenger was wearing a pink Calvin Klein polo shirt, with the collar popped up. And then he put a Nike AirMax jacket on. I think I blame the Albanian chav.

The journey down to Saranda is probably quite nice, but I crashed out for most of it. 6:30am is not a time that I'm meant to be awake. Ever.

Eventually hobbled across Saranda to the hostel, SR Backpackers, which I highly recommend purely becaus the owner, Tomi, is an absolute legend. Such a friendly guy, so welcoming. It felt homely. After the Croatian grandmother, I now had an Albanian dad as well.

"You want fast food? Come with me. I go with you."

"You want to book bus to Greece? Come with me, I know best place."

What a guy.

Saranda's a bit concrete, a rubbish attempt at a holiday resort, but Butrint isn't far away, as is Ksamil.

But actually I never made it to them. The next day I was feeling lazy, so it was a day on the balcony for me (Saranda only has a poor attempt at the beach). By the time I decided that I wanted to go to Ksamil, it was too late. My night bus to Athens left at 6:30pm and it would be a bit of a push to get back on time.

But I liked Albania. The people are so, so friendly. The people who say that it's unsafe should be ignored, as they are simply ignorant. I felt safer in Albania than in any country so far - the people are honest and friendly. Plus it has a good lot of scenery that makes it well worth it!


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

An Albanian Adventure, part 1

The first thing I had to do in Tirana was get some cash. There are 165 lek to the pound, which had the potential to make me feel quite rich.
That is, if I could find an ATM that would take my card.

Tirana Bank wouldn't let me.


Wandered down the street past a drunk policeman who was meant to be directing traffic. Or he was making those signals, but to pedestrians, on the pavement. Standard.

UniCredit on the other hand took Mastercard. I wasn't going to use my Visa and incur a load of bank fees, then have them asking why I'm withdrawing money in Albania.
Welcome to Albania. This is what we do here.
Got to the hostel and the Japanese guy who was also on our bus, Hiro, was already there and seemed to have settled in quickly enough. I thought we'd walked fast (and spoken to Albanians as well), but apparently he'd used his GPS. Rich man he must be.

We also got stared a lot. John thought it was my shorts. I had many hellos as well as my personal favourite, an old lady staring and following my walk until she finally broke and cracked a smile under the pressure.
In Albania, even the rivers are concrete.
So off to grab food at some Greek souvlaki place, and we had the Albanian waiters fighting over us - highly amusing. We got the one who was overly friendly and keen about his job, and who actually spoke very good English, something I found quite unusual in the place overall.

Then Hiro flew past at a speed that could only trigger many, many bad jokes about his GPS. Because we're hilarious like that.

That evening I went to have drinks with a load of cyclists who were staying at the hostel too. Then a French guy who was going round Europe on his scooter turned up. I thought I was crazy.

Except we had to be quiet, because a couple in the next room had to be up for a bus at 5am. We were now meant to be considerate, unlike them who stank out the place as they made counterfeit Interrail passes. The passes looked rubbish anyway. And they were going to Kosovo. Interrail doesn't work in Kosovo.

Lesson of the day: John has some sort of love affair going on with the Albanian flag.

Lesson 2: EVERYTHING here costs 1000 lek (about £6). Flags, clothes, sunglasses, the lot.
Or maybe it's just us foreigners.
Or maybe it's the only number big enough they know in English.

I wonder what a house costs. 1000 lek?
Lesson 3: every other car is a black Merc.
The night gone and off to go for a wander as per usual.

Skenderberg Square seemed like an obvious first choice - just had to talk John out of stealing the Albanian flag which is in the middle of it. I'd have preferred the horse statue to be honest. Might cost a bit too much to post home though...
Tirana's sights in one photo
But before we got there, we got invited into the mosque. While wearing shorts.

They made us take our shoes off though.
Quite nice inside actually. Wonder what they thought of my legs.
And then we tried to communicate, realised it wasn't going to happen, and off we went.

But the tourist information was shut. As was the clock tower.

It was Mother Theresa day, which is apparently a public holiday here. The only way you'd tell is that government buildings and other such things are closed. But it's a Saturday, so even more difficult to tell. None of the locals have a clue. Even Mother Theresa Square was dead.
She wasn't even born in Albania
So off to find an alternative view of the city, and just then we stumbled on the old Enver Hoxha museum (he was the dictator of Albania from 1945-85, or something like that), which is now a deserted building. It's a pyramid, and in the UK it would probably be cordoned off.

But not in Albania.

Health and safety is most certainly not a thing here. There are random holes in pavements and streets all over the place that you could probably fall down.

In Albania, the locals climb it.

So me and John just had to join in.
It's a long way down
Free view of the city? Sorted.

Pictures with the locals, because we're rare specimen around here? OK then. We're in this bit of the world.

And then to get back down.

It's pretty steep, and takes it out of your legs. If I'd slipped then I'd probably be on my second visit to A&E already, but no problem.

So down from the pyramid, we went to look for Classic Albania Part 2. The bunker. These were built by Hoxha when he got even more paranoid than usual and thought that they might be attacked.

Original colour: grey. Obviously.
So standard photos taken, and jokes made to other tourists about a 2€ entry fee (of course not, entry to EVERYTHING is 200 lek here), and we were accosted.
Hi. I am from the evil capitalist west. How do you feel?
By a "friend". Who was definitely not just after our money. Because this is Albania and everyone is friendly.

First of all it seemed like he was just giving us directions to Hoxha's residence.

Then he took us there.
Presidential residence this rubbish and it's not surprising that it didn't last, really.
Then he tried to take us on a guided tour of Tirana at breakneck speed, showing us his broken arm and saying he had no money for food. Rumbled. I gave him 200 lek, which is all of £1.50 to me but quite a bit more to him, and told him to have a nice day. I needed some food and not his guided tour.

Tirana's a bit mental though. It's a bit of a monument to communism, which sticks out in certain places more than others.

How about stone seats in an outdoor concert venue in the park? OK then.

Hi. I'm still from the evil capitalist west.
Being able to fire a gun in the park? Standard. But no John, I'm not going to aim at the birds on the branch above the tree, because (1) it would be harsh and, more to the point, (2) I'd probably miss them and be very embarrassed.
Not even lying. 7p a shot. Even cheaper than alcoholic shots.
Back to find some dinner after attempting to recover from the attempt at a guided tour (who actually does these things, really?!) and we had a few recommendations. The first one, Oda, is also recommended in Lonely Planet - but not only was it empty, but it had a weird handwritten menu of such things as "lamb's head" and "lamb's innards" etc. I just hope it's been lost in translation! We bolted and back to the place we went yesterday which seemed a safe bet.

And the waiter was very excited. They actually had lamb kebabs today.

They were good as well.

A bit of (very strong) ouzo later to finish the night and it was off to grab some sleep before heading to Berat the next day. Goodbye, concrete jungle. You've treated me well.
Take a long hard think about whether you actually want to name a street this though.
He's from the evil capitalist west after all. Among other things.