Albania is a small country when you look at it on a map right? It sure doesn’t feel that small when you try to cross it though! Especially on an old bus but all this adds to the experience and adventure of exploring this beautiful and warm country tucked away from the masses.
So we managed to haggle a deal on a taxi from Ohrid in Macedonia to kick off the Albanian leg of my recent long and extended exploration of South East Europe. Off the beaten path and interesting had become the norm the past few weeks, which is what I was looking for and Albania certainly delivered the goods.
We crossed the border leaving the lake behind and headed in to the mountains. The scenery went from nice to fairly epic in a short time as we sat in the back of our Mercedes ride sipping a beer and taking it all in. It turned out the driver we had hired did this run a good bit and doubled up as an entertaining and knowledgeable guide. About an hour in to the journey he turns around smiling and tells us.. This is the area where they farm the weed, the Police tried to stop the farmers and they had a gun fight.. The Police had to call the army he laughs. I don’t know how much truth there is in this story but given the reputation of the country I have to admit I felt a little uneasy. As it turned out the reputation is not deserved and Albania is a safe, friendly and beautiful country. With an edge that seems a little crazy and raw. All the right ingredients for adventure.
We drove for a few hours through what I can only describe as some of the most amazing mountain and countryside scenery I have seen in Europe. We passed through little villages and towns that had that traditional and working look to them. Horses and carts, old people sat round drinking coffees and cows on the road etc. I kept wanting to ask the driver to stop so we could stay a while in each place but we had to keep moving towards Tirana. This was one cool way to spend a sunny afternoon and definitely the best taxi ride I ever took. At this stage unfortunately I was still without a camera so no pictures until further down the page I am afraid.
We rocked up in Tirana early evening. Found a hostel then hit the town, after a big feast on a mixed grill that filled the table we went for drinks and a wonder round. Tirana as it turned out was a pretty lively and bustling city to spend the night in, so different than I had imagined it to be.
The next day it was time to move again. It was also time to bid farewell to our travel buddy who I had met a week or 2 previously in a hostel in Bulgaria. She was heading to Montenegro for the rest of her European tour, we were heading south, we had been on quite an adventure together and I had made a new good friend so it was sad to part company. All this constant moving though meant I had to stay still somewhere for a while to catch up on work so with 3 becoming 2 myself and my girlfriend set off on our journey from Tirana to Saranda to settle for a few days by the sea.
With directions to Saranda at hand and a vague idea of buses we jumped in a taxi to the bus station. The taxi dropped us off on the side of the road, pointed, said bus station and left. Now forget all thoughts of a bus station in the conventional sense. This place was crazy! lots of old buses in a car park full of gravel and mud, street vendors and people shouting everywhere, busy and hectic. Stray dogs barking, a random horse and no visible sign of organization, information or even a ticket office. It took a bit of asking around to finally find a place to buy tickets, a smoke filled travel agent up about 5 flight of stairs on a side street. This whole experience was quite different to the norm of European travel. Again it made Albania so much more interesting and exciting. You never know what you are going to find next.
So after an hour or so enjoying the atmosphere we were on our bus, which was probably older than me. And as this leg of the journey panned out we were on it for what seemed like one hell of a long time. As I stated at the opening of this post Albania seems small on a map but not when your on a bus! It took so long. We went as it seemed everywhere. We stopped off in the middle of nowhere and ended up drinking Rakia with the locals in a cafe / shed. Then it went dark, we slept till the end of the line.. We had finally arrived in Saranda, wondering how it was even possible for it to take that long.
But the fun was not over yet. I had to find the apartment I had booked, easy enough you would think? Seeing though I had booked it on booking.com. We went in a bar, 3 guys sat at the table were looking at us and smiling, then one asked where we were from and do we like Albania. They were really curious to see foreigners in the bar and friendly. But they did not have a clue where the apartment was and neither did the taxi driver they pointed us to when we left after a good chat. We ended up driving all over the town looking for ages but got there in the end, all part of the fun!
The next few days I spent working from the balcony over looking the sea and exploring the town. As it panned out Saranda was a good call for a place to stop for a few days. The apartment was up a hill, the view was awesome and every hour or so I could hear the mosque calling out over the microphones, giving the surrounding sea and mountains that cultural edge. The town was cool, some nice beaches, restaurants and bars and a few but not many tourists. Mainly day trippers from nearby Corfu which is where we eventually sailed to after a few days rest, relaxation and computer programming.
So I could go on but will wrap up by saying Albania was a fairly epic experience. It is well worth a visit! And I finally got my camera working again so here is a few shots from the last day in Saranda.