- Grilled street corn (it is boiled on the street here in Bulgaria)
- Old men drinking raki at 6am
- Car washes (if you’re driving a $100k car it has to be clean)
- No copy right control (Eagle mobile, Kolomat)
- Everything is for sale (shitet)
- Teddy bears on new construction (to protect them from evil spirits)
- Byrek for 25 cents
- Whole chicken for 2 1/2 euro
- Insane drivers (don’t believe I can count on my fingers how many times there was almost an accident)
Time for Berat and I to part ways. As I board a bus with some new friends, American country music plays and the rear window is donning an American flag, with a Harley Davidson printed over top of it. Berat has a simplistic lifestyle, but has all necessary amenities in town (including a multi-plug power adapter, made in Japan, for less than 1 euro… deal of the trip thus far!); it is only a couple hours south of Tirane. Accessible by a road that is in the midst of being completed, this is another sign that Albania is investing in infrastructure and there will soon be an influx of tourism. It is known as the town of 1,000 windows. White houses with, yes you guessed it, many windows, line the hillside. Atop the hill is a large castle which is still inhabited, making it unique. From the walls, the town can be seen as well as surrounding hillsides. Horse drawn carts carrying a mixture of items share the road with high-end vehicles.
This week was spent mostly relaxing with great company! The ‘true Albanian experience’ included power outages, not having water a couple of times as well as plugged plumbing. Though it is quite a big town it does not have any late night bars or nightclubs, instead there is a nightly ‘giro’ where one of the main streets is closed to vehicles. Locals dress in their finest and parade the streets, from 7-10pm, cell phones in hand and eyes open for friends or a cute face.
The bus arrived in Tirane (I was back for the third time), a slight backtrack for me, but worth it! A laid back evening of good conversation and people to begin, was followed by 4 Israeli musicians (who are on a one year trip busking around the Balkans) playing fantastic music for a few hours as we sat alongside and sipped a bit of raki.
Parting ways in the morning, some of the group set off to continue north to Montenegro and a couple went back to Berat. Leaving a very chaotic tangle of traffic, I ventured south to the small village of Vuno which is up on the hillside overlooking the sea between Dhërmi and Himara. The mountainous road spirals up to around 1000m with astonishing views of the sea, vegetated mountains, and empty beaches.
Forty inhabited houses make up the small place. The school house which once bustled with 120 students was closed until last year. However, thanks to a small group of people making up Outdoor Albanian Association, it has now reopened and has 11 students in attendance. The group renovated and cleaned the house to make this possible and during the summer months uses it as a hostel, putting all revenue back into the project. Being very rural, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, dogs and cats are all part of the crowd. The coastline, not surprisingly, is much like that of Croatia and Montenegro with its turquoise water and mountains stretching to the sea side.
This area, Jal beach, unlike Saranda and Vlore has yet to be invaded by international beach-goers. The sunbathers though have apparently dramatically increased over the last year. The road down to Juni has just recently been paved and the small bars and restaurants that dot the beach I’m more then positive will be replaced by large hostels in the next few years.
Now time to pass through Tirane for one last time (trust me, it really isn’t that good for a fourth visit) in order to get a connection through to Bulgaria.
Annually from August 19-22 the largest pilgrimage in Albania occurs. Pilgrims from all over gather at the top of Mount Tomorri, the highest peak in Central Albania, to Abaz Aliu’s grave for the 4 days. Seven of us made the trek from Berat for the first night. Catching a minibus first to Polican and from there a pick-up truck, riding in the back, up to the top on dirt roads only really meant for trucks. Being the only foreigners there we were as much of a spectacle for them as their rituals were to us. Tents, some shanty bars/restaurants and stands made up the surrounding. Additionally sheep roamed, butcher hooks hung and spits turned. Over the course of 4 days, 6,000 sheep will be sacrificed. To get the full experience we too bought a sheep, hand picked, and watch it be butchered. The family then prepared it for us, cooking it over an open fire on a spit that they hand turned. After 3 hours spent making new friends, whom spoke very minimal English (a few new Facebook friends of course, can’t seem to get away from fb no matter how hard I try) and indulging on beers and raki, our meat feast was ready. At this point it become a bit odd as this animal we had witnessed being alive just a few hours ago was ready to eat.
Traditional Albanian dancing (a line of people holding hands, parading in a circle), along with more beers and raki filled the remainer of the evening and into the night.
Sleeping under the stars it seemed as though I woke up on the sun due to its brightness. Lingering smells of sheep were unpleasant and the thought of seeing life and death very real. I have not had meat now for 2 days.
I’m going to spare the pictures in this post as they could be most offensive. Do email me though if you are interested and I can share them. I also have a 12 minute video, which I have not even viewed as of yet.
Poor Eddy (yes we named him).
Local tourists mull the walkways on the way to the beach and waterfront cafes, we are in Ohrid! In the south west of Macedonia, Lake Ohrid divides Macedonia and Albania. This is a place to simply relax and party. In the summer, droves of people flock from Skopje to escape the heat of the city and enjoy the laid back atmosphere. Following suit, we enjoyed the water and lounging around the first afternoon, but eventually succumbed to finding out what the loud music and screaming down the lake was all about. An all day party was in full swing – tables and lounge chairs on jetties, conga lines, and foam covered bodies. A perfect spot for happy hour and a warmup for the night! The night’s ‘festivities’ began at the ancient amphitheatre (formerly used as a gladiator arena) to see a funk band, from there it was to listen to some 80s and 90s covers and then to a bar serving up live jazz music. A following chilled out day was the needed preparation for a small hike in a national park the following day to a peak where we could see both Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.
That night it was exodus from Macedonia, still with the 2 Dutchies. Mercedes, raki, furgons and bright coloured buildings, welcome to Albania! The night bus arrived in Tirane with the sunrise. A beautiful introduction to a city that through the day and night is full of traffic jams and continuous honking. Though at 5:30 am the streets were relativity empty and shopkeepers prepared for the day ahead. In true Albanian fashion, a young local, also getting off the bus, showed us to the hostel and gave us a Cole’s Notes introduction to the city and country.
So let me try and explain a few of the evident cultural things which are mentioned in the paragraph above. First, what’s the deal with 80% of the cars being a Benz (if not, they are a BMW, Porsche or Audi)? Well as I was told by someone from Tirane, ‘we have a talent’. The translation of this is they are stolen from western Europe. Those without a car use the local mode of transportation which are furgons (minibuses). These private buses run all over the country, though without a set schedule or central pickup place. They also only go once half full. Talking and asking the locals is the easiest (and only) way to find out where and when they are leaving; with people being so friendly this is not a problem! Many houses and buildings are painted very bright colours (not sure if there is a reason behind this) and many still have rebar coming from the top floor. When buildings are still in the ‘construction phase’ it is not necessary for taxes to be paid, and thus why they are left in this state. Now this leaves us only with the raki to talk about, a common drink through the Balkans, as it dates back to the Turkish empire. Its presence here though seems even more so, with cafes serving it up first thing in the am, a few ounces at a time! A strong clear spirit (similar to grappa or ouzo), it is made by distilling grapes, olives or plums, and sometimes flavoured with other fruit.
Tirane is an interesting city once you dig under the surface a bit. Wandering the streets, sitting in cafes and watching people I found to be the best way to take this in! Additionally, many locals sit in the squares playing games, such as dominoes, backgammon and mill (a new game to me, learnt from a group of men one afternoon, none of whom spoke English, who then proceeded to beat me miserably at it!) Food and drink is very cheap in the country, a beer costing 100 leke (80 Euro cents) and Burak about 70 leke (50 Euro cents).
The second stop in Albania was north in a couple of small villages. A 5am departure from Tirane was the first part of the adventure, followed by a small ferry (best mode of transport on the trip yet!). A worn old boat putted along Lake Koman (more of a river it appeared though) as we (a Swiss, French and Israeli) lounged on the roof for a couple of hours. With no docks, the boat simply ran into the shore to pick up and drop off passengers in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Getting off the boat in Fierze we caught a short furgon, then had to wait a bit to get a ride to Valbone at the ‘normal price’. A small village of maybe 50 homes was a large contrast to the speed and noise of Tirane.
The following morning we set out on a hike to Thethi, only taking one wrong pass we managed to arrive in about 8 hours. We capped the day off with a bonfire by the river and raki. Thethi is home to a fortified revenge tower where men went to seek safety after being involved in a blood fued and were fearful of their life. A bit of a hassle to get transportation again for a correct price (correct price about 5 Euros, however all locals saying it was 10 Euro), we did manage to find a honest lady to help out and after a few furgons made our way back to Tirane.
After Sunday night in the capital, Christian (the Swiss guy) and I caught the Berat Express (not really, the bus seemed to stop about every 20 mins). Berat is a fair size place and I think I will hang here for a little bit. Tomorrow night there is a massive annual pilgrimage on the mountain top, where a few of us will go and camp the night. Should be quite the experience from the pictures I have seen.