Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Albania and the best birthday ever!!

After a reasonably ruthless 10 days in Greece, J and I were ready to kick back and relax a bit.

Fortunately our insane schedule prevented such slacking off, and before long we were waiting at the Greece side of the border while Albanians, evidently much keener than us to return home after shopping trips, continually cut the line. We walked 200m of no man's land, crossed the Albanian border without incident, and were immediately accosted by half a dozen minivan (fulgon) drivers, who had about 10 teeth between them. Thus we made it to Gjirokaster, a UNESCO listed town in the south of Albania, of which we saw very little.

Soon we found a connecting fulgon to Berat and left in a cloud of dust, garbage, and quivering steel reinforcing. Thus it was that we got our first view of Albania through a moving window. We had been warned to avoid the fulgons in favour of buses, as the vans are operated by Albania's allegedly-organized criminal networks...

While the drivers evidently knew each bump of the road personally, we were surprised to see carwashes (lavazho) every 10 meters or so along the road. Additional mirth was derived from the Albanian word for "for sale" (shitet) which appeared frequently on road side cars, trucks, buildings, and so on.

About half way the fulgon ground to a stop for a break. On the side of the road metal pipes emerged from the rock face, gushing with water that everyone enthusiastically gulped. Spring or cistern? I have no idea.

Soon we continued on. I should add that there was no real concept of 'sides of the road', particularly exciting while passing trucks and buses on winding mountain roads.

But we were too busy looking out. People rode cows and donkeys along the road which, to be fair, was partially rebuilt, and partially non-existent. Donkey drawn carts also shared the road, laden with hay, vegetables, strings of onions sold on the roadside, and family members. Fields were harvested with scythes and dotted with haystacks.

About halfway to Berat the haystacks were replaced with antiquated oil wells, and the air with something to which, I imagine, the fish in the Gulf of Mexico have become accustomed.

Also dotting the country side are hundreds of thousands of randomly placed mushroom-like prefabricated concrete gun emplacements. Their construction consumed the national budget during the communist years.

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw was the proliferation of scare crows, one of which was hung from the roof of a petrol station!

After only a few instances of our fare being 'bought' by another fulgon going in the relevant direction, we arrived in another UNESCO listed town called Berat. Preserved for its unique blend of Albanian, Ottoman and Greek architecture, it had many, many windows. The Muslim quarter was decorated with a selection of mosques, all connected by narrow cobbled streets and a few bridges crossing the river to the Christian quarter.

J and I bumped into a couple of Czech backpackers who recommended us a very nice guest house. J negotiated the deal in broken Italian, then we set off for a walk through the town. Gradually my usual travel feelings of paranoia seeped away. I am by no means rich, but it's surprising how little is needed to remind me just how wealthy I am. Even if, hypothetically, I was totally broke, my health and education are still priceless (though non-tradeable) commodities in some even European countries.

We found a net cafe which had wireless eeePCs for 5c/hour. I left J after finishing my Internet and went for a walk up the hill, discovering the third quarter; a well preserved medieval town within the hill-top fortress. At the citadel I had a great view of the town and spent about 30 minutes clambering over the ruined battlements in the dark. Fortunately there were not too many hidden precipitous drops!

Back at the town I chatted with the Czech couple over Albanian wine and olives, wrote my journal to the strains of the first organ symphony of Vierne, and went to sleep. But not before the clock struck midnight and I turned 24.

While lacking much of the transition and indulgent adventuring of my 22nd year, 23 was highly successful in its own way, marking the commencement of grad school in a new country and the writing of a new chapter in my life. Regular readers may agree that 23 was not entirely devoid of adventure either!

Next morning we woke to a complimentary breakfast from our wonderful host (details on request) and wandered to the bus station to find a lift to Elbasan. We worked out that the 9:30 bus had been delayed until 11 due to low patronage. Fortunately we ate a rapid breakfast, as the bus left at 10:45. After a slow, hot, dusty and extremely authentic journey we arrived in Elbasan and found a connecting fulgon to Pogradec. We fare-swapped at a roadside spring, then climbed a crazy road over a pass to see Ohrid lake below us. Not only is it at 750m above sea level, it is fed by spring waters that flow under a mountain from an adjacent lake in Macedonia. The surface was smooth, shiny, and blended with the horizon in a very Baikal way. We walked along the shore from Pogradec towards the Macedonian border about 5kms away. We were picked up by a couple of unlicensed French-Albanians in Pogradec on holidays who drove us a bit closer and, after dropping us off, backed into a signpost!

At the border we met four Aussie/Kiwi backpackers on their way from everywhere to everywhere. Before long we had left Albania behind. Although I was not entirely immune to its many charms, crossing that border was one of the best birthday presents I have ever received!

UPDATE: Photos.

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