Albania

Written by on August 15, 2012 in Europe, General with 0 Comments

Albania is directly south of Montenegro and north of Greece.  It wasn’t even on my radar until my friends introduced me to Mark, a guy who’d worked in the Balkans for several years and said that I just had to go.  Sooo…off I went.  The bus / taxi connections to cross the border seemed like they would be a lot of effort and take a lot more time than I had to spend, so I’d done a little checking around town and found a 1-day tour to Albania and convinced the tour company to let me bring my bags and then hop off the tour in Tirana.  It would have been about 15E, a few buses, a taxi and several extra hours to go the backpacker way, or 35E on the tour bus, so it seemed like a no brainer to me.

The 6:30a start time was pretty brutal, especially after being out all night the night before.  I stayed awake for the first 30 minutes as the bus wound it’s way down the beautiful Montegrin coastline, but the second the bus turned inland, I was out like a light.  We had a brief stop at the border for passport control, and then went to a small town called Skhodra, which was the 2nd largest city in Albania.  Our tour guide was horrible.  For the tour commentary, she would speak in Russian for about 5 minutes, and then about 20 seconds in English.   Somehow I feel like we missed a lot of information…lol.  In Skhodra, I realized there were about 6 other native English speakers on the tour and we mentioned something to the guide, hoping she might change her ways for the rest of the tour.  This is when I met a nice British couple from Nottingham, who were also quite annoyed with how the tour was going, and we traded stories of other Montenegro experiences that went exactly the same.

We ended up hanging out for the rest of the tour, which was nice.  There is not much to see in Skhodra.  They had an interesting looking mosque, and then the guide took us to a quaint pedestrian street that she said had recently been renovated to look like how it used to when it was new, and to imagine the rest of the city looking like that.

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She said that because the rest of the streets were quite run down and not at all a place where I’d want to hang out.  I’m glad our stop here was only for 30 minutes as I was anxious to get back to my nap!We drove another 1.5 hours through the countryside of rolling hills and cornfields that reminded me of Kansas or Nebraska, but with tall mountains looming in the distance.  I was awakened from my catnap for our arrival in Durres, Albania’s biggest port city.  Our guide told us that the vest view was from the hotel with a revolving restaurant on top, so we went up there.  With not much to see, we decided to stay up there and have a beer instead of wandering around a dirty port city.

It was only another hour or so to Tirana, where I grabbed my bag off the bus, but decided to join everyone for lunch before saying goodbye.  I learned that the couple from Nottingham worked at a school, and have been carrying around two little fuzzy things and taking pictures with them in all the countries they visited as there was some sort of prize for the best travelled fuzzy thing.  I offered to take the pink one – whom they called Stephanie – with me as it would surely help them win the contest with all the countries on my list this year.  So, I’ve adopted a mascot for my trip, which is proving to be kind of fun, and who you will see in various pictures on facebook or in my blog from time to time.

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Anyway, I went off in search of Freddy’s Hostel, which turned out to be about a mile away.  I had supposedly booked a bed in a triple female-only room with an ensuite bathroom, air conditioning and free wifi…all for the bargain price of 16E/night.  Well, after walking a mile with all my stuff, you can imagine my disappointment to learn that a/c in Albania actually means that you get a slow fan in your room.   And, I’d booked ensuite instead of a shared bathroom as my stomach had been acting up and I really didn’t want to be running down the hall everytime I needed the bathroom.  The hostel guy thought he was doing me a favor putting me in a twin room by myself…with no bathroom and no a/c.  Ugh.  They spoke so little English and I was tired of dealing, so I just dropped my stuff and was about to go out exploring.

But before doing so, I asked Freddy if he knew of any place to play tennis in town.  It was the weirdest thing…he said to follow him upstairs, and then he introduced me to a 60 something American guy who had just asked the same question.  In fact, after talking with Richard, I learned that he is from NYC, recently retired and travelling around the world playing in tennis tournaments and writing a book about it!  Wtf?!?  He said he was a strong 4.0 and that he’d played a couple ITF tourneys this summer already.  Wow – jackpot!  We talked a bit more and agreed to meet up later that evening to grab a drink and make a plan to hit the next day.

I liked Tirana.  The center is well laid out around Skanderburg Square, with museums on one end, a mosque and clock tower on another end, and a large horse statue in the middle, an interesting mix showing its Ottoman, Italian and communistic past.

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There are some interesting looking churches scattered around the city, too.

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I liked the neighborhood called Blloku, which had 10 square blocks with dozens of boutiques, outdoor cafes, restaurants and bars that felt young, alive…and really safe.

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Not that I didn’t feel safe elsewhere in Tirana.  I had talked Richard into joining me for a drink and after one at the Style Cafe, we found an Irish Bar that let us use the big screen TV to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  I always love watching them announce each country and to see all the proud athletes walk behind their flags.  Richard left really early…I was enjoying my Paulaner hefeweizens too much to leave before the ceremony was over.

The next day started out as a very lazy day.  The one thing that did work in my hostel was the wifi, so I caught up on emails/facebook and eventually headed out for more exploring.  I was in no mood to go into any of the museums, and with the temp hitting close to 100 degrees, got tired pretty fast.  I tried to talk to a couple travel agencies to find the best way to get to Saranda, a beach town in the southern part of Albania, and finally had somewhat of a plan together.  Information about bus times and onward journeys was tough to come by, but I found out that I could take a 6am bus that would take about 8 hours to get to Saranda.  Unfortunately this blew the tennis plan I’d made with Richard, so instead I booked a court at the Rogner hotel where I knew he had hit with a “pro” on their slow turf court.  I was walking all around Tirana, and had heard they had a travel agent inside the Sheraton, so I walked over there to check it out.  They were closed on Sunday.  But, the Sheraton had excellent air-conditioning, and free wifi in the lobby, so I hung out for a bit.  They were also connected to a mini-mall and movie theater, so I checked the times and was waiting to see Madagascar 3.

When it was about that time for the movie to start, I passed two men talking and overheard one was an American so spun around to see who it was.  I hadn’t heard English in awhile and hadn’t run into any Americans for even longer, so was curious.  But, he was old and kind of fat, so I spun right back around and headed for the theater when the other guy he was with came running over to me asking if I needed anything.  He thought I was looking at him.  It turns out he was a 30-something Albanian guy named Aeberi who worked for the American embassy and couldn’t believe that I was travelling in Albania by myself.  He kept chatting to me and asked if I wanted to continue talking over coffee.  At this point, I’d missed the start of the movie so figured, why not?  I thought we were going to have drinks in the hotel or near the hotel, but he walked over to a car and opened up the passenger door for me to get in.  Small red alarms started going off in my head, but then I figured, why not?  It was a Mercedes after all..not that that should make a difference.  He noticed my apprehension and said we’d go someplace close to my hostel, which is where his next appointment was.

We were on the way to the café and passed the Regency Casino.  I’d seen many casinos throughout the Balkans, but thought that most had only electronic games/slot machines.  I’d noticed this one was advertising table games so I asked my new friend if that was true and what the table limits were.  He lit up like a Christmas tree.  I guess he liked to gamble, and asked me if I wanted to go.  I said why not, of course.  So he spun the car around and we went to the casino.  I asked him about his next appointment and he laughed and said it could wait.  So we went down to the casino, which actually looked really nice, but I was denied entry because I didn’t have my passport with me.  Bummer.  I try not to carry my passport with me when I can safely lock it inside my suitcase back in the room.

The good news was that right across the hall from the casino was a bowling alley!  I asked him if he liked to bowl and he said absolutely.  So, we went bowling.  He wanted to bet, so we bet a drink in the first game.  I was just getting warmed up, so only beat him by 2 pins.  Btw – the shoes here were the most disgusting shoes I’ve ever seen.  They were even giving away slip-on socks to go over people’s socks to protect their feet from how bad these shoes were.  The bowling balls weren’t much better.  But, I got over it and hit my stride…and bowled one of the best games of this decade!  At first he thought I was getting lucky.  Then it finally sunk in that he was betting against someone who could actually play.  Here was our final score…

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He was ready for his appointment now, and not loving that he just got spanked.  Haha.  I had to laugh. And was glad he wasn’t up for pursuing anything else.  He was nice…dropped me off near my hostel, as now I was in a big hurry if I wanted to catch the next showing of Madagascar, which I did.  I hadn’t seen a movie in a theater in over a month and had been craving popcorn all day.  I barely made it in time, and ended up ordering 2 bags of popcorn (they were small) for the USD equivalent of 15 cents each.  Why can’t it be like that back home?!?  OMG…I would eat a lot more popcorn then!

After the movie, I went to the Rogner to play tennis on the turf court against the resident “pro”.  She was about my age and a decent 4.0-4.5.

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It cost about $30 for me to hit for that hour, but it was worth it as I needed the exercise.  And I needed something to tire me out so I could get some sleep in the hot room before having to wake up early for my bus the next morning.

I totally slept through my alarm, so the older Freddy from the hostel came banging on my door when the taxi arrived.  I paid 500 leke for an English speaking driver to take me to the bus station. Initially it seemed like a lot, but proved well worth the extra $$$ as he got me on the right bus to Sarande at a very chaotic station that had 3 different buses going to the same place, but all in different ways. None of them sounded great, but one of the 3 was taking the coastal route, which is exactly what I wanted to see.

I had looked at the map and the distance we had to go was only 162 km, yet the bus ride was supposed to take 8 hours.  I had heard the roads in Albania weren’t that great, but come on…8 hours to go 100 miles?!?  I quickly learned why it took so long.  The road was paved, but was a twisty, windy road that was barely wide enough for 2 cars, much less our big bus.  It was really strange that it was so curvy in the early part, as it didn’t seem like it needed to go around anything in particular from a topographical perspective.  Why couldn’t they build a straight road?  lol.  Well…once we got closer to the coast, the road got ridiculous and bus luckily slowed to just more than a crawl to tackle what felt like a 10% downhill grade on switchback after switchback.  It was beautiful to approach the coast this way, although would have been more so had the windows on the bus been washed anytime this century!  My pictures out the window were pretty useless as they were shot through the dirt and grime built up over what must have been years.  At least the front window was somewhat clean, although this picture doesn’t do the views any justice.

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On the bus I was sitting next to a sweet woman with a 7 yr old that didn’t speak a word of English. But, she spoke German, and somehow we were able to communicate about basic things, even though I speak zero German.  I guess I’m good with hand gestures.  The bus finally stopped for a quick bathroom and lunch break after about 5 hours at an interesting restaurant built into a mountainside where a natural spring ran right under it.  It had made a couple other smoking stops for the driver, but nowhere near any facilities or restaurants.
I had lunch with the woman and her son, which was nice, but tough to communicate.  I excused myself to find the bathroom, and couldn’t believe that when I’d returned she’d paid for my lunch.  No!!!  I would’ve bought them lunch as they didn’t look like they had any money to spare.  So generous.  She wouldn’t even let me buy her son an ice cream, explaining through hand gestures that he gets very carsick.

Backing up a little, there was no sink in the bathroom to wash my hands, but then I realized that the crazy animal “fountain” out front was actually the sink…and the water fountain everyone filled up their empty water bottles with. Hilarious!

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More people had gotten on the bus, so I was going to have to give up the empty seat next to me, so I moved to sit next to Ben, an English speaking Albanian I’d met on the way to the bathroom earlier. I’m guessing he was late 20s.  Although he was from Albania originally, he had moved to London as a teenager and had studied there, but had come back for the first anniversary of his father’s death. He had not been to Saranda before, so was going there to take the ferry across to Corfu to catch a flight to London to get back to go to support some of the Albanian athletes in the Olympics.  We chatted a bit, and then I was getting very restless with no a/c and the endless switchbacks, so I broke out my ipod again and shared my headphones so Ben could listen too.  The scenery driving down the mountain to the coast, and then along the coast was beautiful, but not in comparison to Croatia or Montenegro.  There were definitely a few unspoilt beaches, but they just didn’t look as appealing against the arid, brown mountains dropping off into them.

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And, without a car, they were really tough to get to as you were at the whim of the buses that may or may not show up when scheduled.  There were a few small towns, mainly with concrete block apartment buildings not really worth mentioning.  A long 3 hours later, we finally arrived in Sarande, which was ok…it was right on the water, but kind of depressing with many unfinished new concrete block buildings with very little character.

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Ben was catching a ferry to Corfu, Greece, but wasn’t sure when the last boat left.  He walked me to my hostel and then we were going to go get his ticket and grab a beer before the boat left.  The hostel I was meant to stay in was small and hot…no a/c.  After 8+ hours on a bus with no a/c, and arriving in a town where temps were 95+, I wasn’t thrilled.  But, checked in and dropped my bags off nonetheless.

We found out the last ferry was leaving in about an hour, so plenty of time for a beer.  The ferry terminal was right next to a nice looking hotel with a pool that looked out over the water, which we figured would be as good a place as any for a drink.  I inquired about any vacancies and was surprised and happy to find out they had single rooms with A/C and wifi and a view for 25E.  My bed in the 4 bed dorm in the sweatbox across the street was 11E.  Easy decision!  I hadn’t paid for anything yet, and figured I could talk my way out of the night as they seemed pretty full and probably wouldn’t have a problem selling my bed that night.  But, after 45 minutes of looking across the Ionian Sea towards Corfu…and taking in the little town of Sarande…and a little cajoling from Ben, I decided that if the hostel let me check back out without paying, then I was going to Greece!  Why not?!?  I hadn’t been to Corfu before, was happy to have a travel buddy to hang with as the last couple days had been quite lonely, and I’d just take the ferry back the next morning without missing a beat.  The hostel was fine with me taking my bag back out, so I headed to the ferry office, paid 23E for my ticket, and I was on my way to Greece!

 

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