We had heard that Albania wasn’t like the rest of the Balkans. Rumor had it that it was a pretty complicated, chaotic, but entertaining (and beautiful) country. Turns out that this is all true! We get a lot of our information from a few places: the Lonely Planet Guidebook we bought in the US, online forums, and asking people for travel suggestions. From all the information found in these places, we discovered that entering Albania from the north like we had planned would be very complicated. So much so that I almost wanted to bypass Albania entirely. Did you know that there are levels of “travel difficulty” out there? Like different levels of hikes, travelling gets rated. Albania ranks as one of the more difficult places for travel.
Even though we knew that Albania was going to be crazy, we decided to give it a shot anyway. Rather than enter from the north, we decided to enter from the east from Lake Ohrid. This was definitely a good idea. We took a taxi from Lake Ohrid to the border crossing. We then got out of the taxi with our things and exited Macedonia on foot. They stamped our passports for exiting, but we never got an entrance to Albania stamp. All we saw was a road, the lake, and some random mobile homes on the side of the lake. So we walked. After about 15 minutes of walking, we saw the “Welcome to Albania” sign. Laughing, we walked to the border crossing to get into Albania. Where did we just walk? Whose country/territory were we in for the last 15 minutes? Hilarious, I tell you! Anyway, after what seemed forever, they stamped Pete’s passport. They were much faster with mine (I am glad that I don’t have the Russian and Chinese visas that are in my old passport; I have a feeling that would have complicated several border crossings).
We knew that after crossing the border that we needed to get a taxi to a city called Pogradica. Right after we crossed the border, a black Mercedes pulled up and asked us where we needed to go (in Albanian). This was our taxi, apparently. We agreed on a price and got in. the taxi driver found out we were from the US and responded by saying, “Texas! Western cowboys!” It’s hilarious to hear what places people identify with in the US. We made it to the town after passing through farming areas and lots and lots of cows. Albania felt very different from all of the places we’d been so far.
Once in the city, we found an area with a million furgons (large vans that could fit about 15 people). We had heard that we needed to get a furgon to go to a city called Korcu. The driver said it would be 2 Euro (what we had expected), but we only had a 20 Euro bill. Pete asked for a “Banka” to exchange the Euro into Albanian Leke and the driver (along with about 5 other drivers who were curious about us Americans) led Pete to the “Banka,” which ended up being a guy on the side of the road who was able to break the Euro into smaller bills. Once Pete came back from the “Banka,” we got in the furgon. A few more people got in and we headed to Korcu.
The roads in Albania are pretty intense—not very well paved and very windy. They don’t really go through mountains in Albania; they simply go up and over them using tons of switchbacks. While on the furgon, we were really thirsty. Pete had bought a water bottle somewhere, and when he opened it, we realized it was carbonated. It took about 5 minutes for the bubbles to calm down! I’m not a fan of carbonated water, so I took a sip and called it good.
Once in Korcu, we asked around to get to the city Gjirokastar or Serranda. Remember, no one speaks English (well at least none of the bus or taxi drivers). Not even numbers or a “yes” or “no.” From what we could find out, there were no furgons or real buses that went from Korcu to the cities we wanted to go to. It was pretty chaotic with several guys dramatically telling us what to do and how things worked (although I can only assume that’s what they were saying to us). Using a map, they routed out how to get to Gjirokastar and apparently Korcu is not the correct city to go to! (Turns out that if we had stayed the night in that city, a morning bus could have taken us there.)
A taxi driver said that it would be best if we went to Elbasan and then got either a taxi or bus to Serranda. So we decided on a price (by him showing us the amount in Leke from his own wad of cash) and jumped into his van/taxi to go to Elbasan. Guess what route we took? Right back to the original city where we had gotten the furgon to go to Korcu! Blegh. A little backtracking, but whatever. Our taxi driver was very entertaining. He was very active during the entire drive. He had a little button on the dashboard that would make a siren noise. He clicked this button on whenever he saw a car, person, turned a corner, slowed down, looked out the window, ect. Basically, the siren was going on and off every few seconds. But it wasn’t random; oh no, it was very clear that he was using the siren for specific reasons. Part way through the drive, he pulled off to the side of the road and (along with about 5 other people) filled up a canteen from a fresh water spring. Pete and found all of this hilarious.
We made it to Elbasan and the driver took us to a hotel. He kept saying something about a taxi in 5 minutes to Gjirokastar. We had no idea what he was talking about, but luckily, the hotel receptionist spoke English. The taxi driver’s friend pulled up in a green minivan, planning on taking us to Gjirokastar the next day for $20 per person. We were so confused, declined the offer, knowing that we could pay half that total for us to take a bus. Albanians are very passionate and dramatic people, so it seemed like the end of the world that we weren’t going with the taxi driver. Finally, we convinced both drivers that we were going to sleep at the hotel and take a bus the next day. And then they each smiled and drove off.
Our hotel was pretty nice and a great deal! (Although side story: we had been told that the price was 2000 leke, but when we went to pay in the morning, a different guy said 3000. We said that we had agreed on 2000, so he just said “ok!” and took the 2000. And the kid didn’t look older than 18.) Anyway, back to the time when we were checking in: The hotel receptionist found out the time of the bus in the morning (5 am!) and said that we could get a taxi in the morning to the bus stop. It either wasn’t communicated to us, or we misunderstood, but they had called for a taxi the night before, but they didn’t tell the hotel person who was there in the morning, so when we came down at 4:30 am the next morning to check out, we had him call a taxi. A taxi came, took us to the bus station, and overcharged us. Whatever.
When we got out of the taxi, who did we see? The guy who wanted to drive us to Gjirokastar! He said something to us (probably trying to convince us to go with him, even though the bus was right there), we smiled and sat down in the bus. A few minutes after 5 am, a guy in a real taxi pulled up and got into the bus. He proceeded to yell at us in Albanian about how we were supposed to take his taxi. We kept saying “sorry, we didn’t know” and whatnot, but of course he didn’t understand us. I’m sure he chewed out the hotel guy when he got to the hotel and we had already left. I must say, I really don’t like getting yelled at in a foreign language; I feel like I can’t defend myself and they hate me at the end. Finally, the taxi guy left. A young girl (about 20 or so) got into the bus and she could tell that we were foreign. She smiled and sat across the aisle from us. At 5:30, the bus left.
Our bus driver was quite the character. He was probably 55 and he had to hold up a microphone-like device to his throat when he spoke. I can’t believe that people smoke, knowing that something like that could happen to them! As we headed to Serranda (a 6-7 hour ride), the driver blasted some sort of Turkish pop music as loud as possible (he must be going deaf, too). I tried to listen to my iPod to block it out (because it was terrible music), but it didn’t work. The ride was a rough one. If the roads were better, it could have been an ok ride.
Along the way, we saw lots of “bunkers” on the side of the road as well as up in the hills. These bunkers are little domed buildings made of cement with a slit on the side for a window. Some are so small that I don’t think you can stand up in them all the way. These bunkers were made from the 50s-mid 80s in order to protect the Albanians from outside forces (this was when Albania was a communistic government). Apparently there are thousands of these bunkers. And they are also indestructible. The man who designed them in the 50s had to prove his design was solid by getting into one of the bunkers while a military truck drove over the bunker multiple times and then proceeded to shoot mortars at the bunker!
About 2/3rds of the way through the journey, we all stopped at a café for a break. Because of course you stop for a café break while taking a bus somewhere! We sat with the nice Albanian girl from the bus. We couldn’t really talk to her because she didn’t know much English (and Albanian is a crazy language, it took me days to figure out how to say “thank you”).
After the café break, we headed back on the journey. At one point, the bus was driving over the mountain, and on the side of the road, there was a car on fire! Like on fire for reals. 1-2 foot flames. This must not be that common of an Albanian experience, fortunately, because we were not the only people who looked shocked at the situation.
Anyway, rather than going to Gjirokastar, we headed right to the beach in Serranda. We were hoping to spend about $20 for a night there. We went to a hotel and the lady said that that price would work. She spoke Italian, which is kind of like Spanish, and Pete kind of speaks Spanish. So that was interesting. The room was nice, but when I checked to see if there was wireless, there was no connection. I’m in the middle of my TESOL online classes, so I had to have internet. She got all mad that we said we were going to stay and then we were leaving. Blegh. Another Albanian who hates us! I take this very personally! But I’m slowly getting over it.
We quickly left the hotel and headed to a hostel we had heard of. The hostel owner, Tomi, was super helpful (and I’m sure he’s the only 40 year old who can rock an oversized sweater, shredded jeans, and cowboy boots). The hostel only had dorm rooms (which we had to do in Skopje, and that’s no fun. It’s like having to live with roommates who go to bed at random times… but they’re strangers, not friends). But Tomi helped us go to a hotel nearby that was nice and clean (and the hotel owners were so happy to have us. Whenever we’d see them, they’d give us huge smiles and say “hello!”). He said that none of the hotels have wireless internet, but there was an internet café near this hotel. We decided that would work.
View from our hotel:
We checked out the beach, but it was cold and rocky:
After getting settled in the hotel, we went to wander around the little promenade along the harbor.
This was along the promenade (it says “Monument Kulture”)… ha
And this was a guy doing crazy dangerous things while working on a construction site:
Anyway, we ate some good food, and then, death hit me. Stomach pain of all stomach pain. I’ve never been in so much pain! I didn’t sleep at all that night, and I couldn’t eat anything without throwing up, so I was exhausted the next day. Long story short, I couldn’t leave the hotel room the next day. But I’ve survived and I will never allow myself to get dehydrated ever again! So, because I was feeling so sick, and Albania is a complicated country, we decided to go the next day to Greece. So we bought overpriced ferry tickets to Corfu, and got on the ferry.
Did you know that the Greeks hate the Albanians? I didn’t know this either, but it was very clear when we got off the boat and crossed through customs into Greece. There were a few EU citizens, so they got right through the line. All other Albanians had to get everything they brought inspected and it seemed like they were all getting interviewed before allowing them into the country. While everyone was waiting, a Greek guy kept yelling at everyone, saying that everyone needed to be in a single file line before they would continue (which in my mind, this would have been impossible). He threatened to make it so that people wouldn’t even have any time in the country because they’d be stuck in line the whole time. Everyone was clearly frustrated and sick of getting yelled at. Because we aren’t EU citizens, we thought we had to wait like the Albanians. But then this guy in a striped polo shirt asked to see our passports. I didn’t trust him (no uniform), but he kept saying he was police. So we watched him as he took our passports, walked into the little customs office, and then he gestured for us to come in. We passed all of the Albanians and went into the office. They stamped our passports, smiled, and welcomed us to Greece.
That was all fine and dandy, and I was happy that we got through the line quickly, but what about the Albanians? Moments like this frustrate me. History is history and I wish that countries could get over the histories and treat everyone like humans. We really are all the same. All of the Albanians in the line looked like nice, clean, decent people. They didn’t need to get treated with such disdain. Anyway, that’s another tangent. But, there you have it: that’s Albania. Pete and I decided that we’d like to go back to Albania at some point (because we missed out on so many of the wonderful parts of Albania), but we’d have to do it as its own separate trip. And we’d want a guide who spoke English and Albanian.