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!


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