Albania
September 2008

 
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The border from Macedonia into Albania, at the far South of Lake Ohrid, was easy to get through. It was a beautiful day with lots of sun, and everyone we passed smiled and seemed to be happy to see us. There are lots of lovely houses being built at the coast.

We drove into Popgradec, which turned out to remind me more of Kabul than any city I've ever been in (the architecture, the colors, the dresses for sale in store windows, the poor roads, all the men on the street, etc.). We pulled over to find an ATM, and waited for a funeral procession to pass: there were kids walking in front with giant wreaths of fake flowers, and one kid was more interested in Stefan's motorcycle than looking mournful. The children were followed by a hearse, then men walking behind, looking emotionless. Then came the car of the immediate family, and a young woman was sobbing in the back seat. Then came the female mourners walking, some crying. And I had to fight back tears. And all the while, cars buzzed by, caring only about getting to wherever they wanted to go. We tried to head out of town, but were hopelessly lost in the chaos of the city. A group in a mini-van seemed to know what we were looking for, and started motioning us to follow them. They directed us to the right road, through lots of arm motions. Though "road" might be a bit of an over-statement.

The road to Korçë was, in a word, hellish. It was a wide, white gravel, grated mess. I was terrified. I imagined the bike frame cracking every few seconds. I was barely in my seat, hoping that I was helping by keeping my weight off the frame. The horror seemed to go on for hours. There was no way we were going to make it to the South of Albania if this is how the road was. I was ready to tell Stefan, forget it, let's go North to Croatia. But, joy of joys, when we got to Korçë, we were on a paved road again, and it stayed that way. We pulled over in Korçë to recover from the ride, and a young local guy walked up to us, excited to practice his German. He had studied in Bonn, and obviously missed it. It made me feel welcomed.

We headed out of town to Gjirokastra, and the ride was beautiful, and the roads were just fine. I was singing in my helmet the whole way -- it was gorgeous. We climbed beautiful mountain passes, and the landscape was breath-taking -- and dotted with mushroom-like single-man bunkers. They are EVERYWHERE. Some sources say there are as many as 700,000. As they are virtually indestructible, there's nothing that can be done with them, except build around them. And so, you will them in people's yards, at the edges of parking lots, right up next to new buildings... crazy.

I loved waving at shepherds in Albania and all the countries we visited on this trip -- they almost always wave back.

The scenery of Southern Albania is stunning, and I was as happy as could be at the beautiful countryside (but there's still too much trash). I loved seeing old men riding donkeys side saddle, and seeing people working so hard in the fields. At one point, we pulled into a small village and several guys on the street started making the sign for us to turn around. They were smiling about it. Turned out we had missed a turn, as apparently many, many people do, for the main road. Amid the incredible drive, we also passed two packed soccer games -- the whole town was watching!

We arrived in Gjirokastra, and after just a bit of bad road, started looking for a place to stay. We decided to try the recommendations for Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, but it rarely has directions for the places it recommends, at least in this book. We took a precarious drive up and down the road leading to the fortress that overlooks the city looking for a recommended guest house, but despite several very patient people trying to help us find it, we never did. I had seen a sign for a hotel off the main road heading to old town (the road with a Greek National Bank office on one side and an Alpha bank on the other), and so we circled back to it. It was only the second time a place obviously did not want us to stay there. So I went across the street, to what I think was called the Green Hotel, or the Hotel Green... something. It has an old abandoned children's Ferris wheel outback, and small train tracks where a small children's train once ran. The yard in back of the hotel was entirely fenced off, so we felt comfortable parking the bike there. The woman working the bar wrote down the price, which was quite reasonable, and the landlord grabbed the paper from her and fussed at her. I thought it was because she'd quoted a price he thought was too low. In fact, it as because he didn't like how she wrote the Euro symbol, and he re-wrote it with great flourish. She just rolled her eyes. Too funny.

We unloaded everything, then decided to go looking for food. That proved to be quite a challenge. As we were looking, we got to see an a cappella folk music concert up close, which was interesting. It was a warm night full of atonal voices. We found a pizza place (Pizza del Fuego -- I kid you not!) where the menu was either partly in German or English -- I forget which. As we were leaving, I heard the people at a nearby table speaking English, and I almost stopped to say something, but then decided to just walk on. Sometimes I really love meeting fellow Americans abroad, and other times, for no good reason, I don't say anything. Maybe I was tired.

For those of you who don't know: Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. But just like the Muslim women we encountered in Bulgaria and Macedonia, most in Albania don't wear a headscarf, and dress however they want to. Few people go to mosque, even on Friday. Unlike its Balkan neighbors, Albania did not consider religion as a central element of its national identity -- it's language is much more important. That lack of religious fervor mixed up with nationalism may also have something to do with the country having atheism forced upon it by a Communist dictator. To me, it seems that Albania identifies with a modern version of Islam, a "living" Islam, one that grounds them spiritually but allows them to continue to live in the here and now. Islam has made a comeback here in this very poor country going through an identity crisis but, inshallah, it will remain a forward-thinking, welcoming version.

Our hotel continued to make us laugh. Once again, frog legs were on the menu (we never tried them). And the menu had some funky English phrasing. What could "baked head" or "chopped piggy" actually be? Yes, it really did say "chopped piggy." Somehow, we managed to order a nice breakfast sans those two items -- it was bread, honey, greek-style cheese and butter, as well as a NesCafe Frappicino, and I have NO idea how I ordered it or why I got it! But it was yummy. While I was packing, Stefan went down to look into the long utility building out back where we figured the train was parked -- and was rewarded with a visit inside by the landlady. I was so jealous when I found out later!

As we pulled out of town, Stefan decided to stop at a roadside stand and get a carton of smokes. While he was ordering, a mini-van on its way to wherever pulled up. It was packed with people. A guy jumped out, bought a carton, and jumped back in. And his fellow passengers looked like this was as normal as can be, which I guess it is in many places -- when someone's desperate for cigs, ofcourse it's perfectly okay to delay your fellow passengers in a quest for smokes.

At some point the day before, I had noticed that most houses or buildings that were under construction (and there were a LOT) had a scarecrow hanging somewhere above the ground floor. This day, I was still seeing scarecrows, as well as a stuffed animal or doll substituted for such. So, just now, I typed this into Google

scarecrow house construction Albania
And here's what I found out: it's called a Dordolec. "The dordolec is used to protect against a look of envy that is believed to cause real and sudden damage to valued possessions including the home, livestock, and even children." It's an Albanian folk tradition that become popular again only recently.

I love the Internet.

We headed South through Saranda, through many olive groves, to the ancient ruins of Butrint, a large, well-preserved set of ruins in a truly picturesque setting. It's an area that's been settled long before the Greeks showed up in 6th Century BCE, and it was an important Roman city as well. The Greek theater is outstanding, as are all the other ruins. The museum at the top of the hill is excellent (but they don't sell food or water -- bring your own!). The whole museum is excellent, but the highlights of it, for me, were the ancient unfinished statue (I've never seen one before; it looks like modern art), and the bust of Antinous, Hadrian's male lover (who was murdered in the Nile). There was also a bust said to be Demeter, but as it also said she was the wife of Hades, then it's actually Persephone (don't mess with me when it comes to Greek and Roman mythology, people). We could have stayed there for many hours, but decided we didn't have such time to spare. It threatened to storm heavily, and I was convinced it was only a matter of time before we were drenched, but despite all the thunder, somehow, it never rained where we were.

In the parking lot of Butrint, as we arrived, there were about eight motorbikes from Hungary, including two African twins, and two more touring bikes from Austria. We parked in the middle of them, and it looked like a massive biker gang was visiting the site. Unfortunately, we never did run into any of the riders, and by the time we were done with our tour, they were gone. We ate some food we had in our bag, and I left the stale pretzels by the outer wall for whatever stray dog that might happen by. Our entertainment was watching the tiny ferry cart cars, RVs, trucks and buses back and forth over the channel.

We lunched in Saranda at a restaurant called "Havana," at the only place that looked open (the season was oh-so-over), looking out over the coral blue sea at the not-so-distant Greek island of Corfu, while the staff of the otherwise empty restaurant sat mesmerized watching Waterworld on a big screen digital -- which was fine, because they didn't see me throw my leftover seafood down onto the sidewalk for stray dogs and cats. Saranda is all under-construction and, sadly, they aren't going for picturesque, quaint development but, rather, big, gawdy-building development. Then we headed up into central Saranda, in search of an ATM. And that's where we had our second mishap of the trip: I pointed out what I thought was an ATM, Stefan was startled and stopped the bike suddenly, and when he dropped his foot to the ground, he stomped onto the top of my foot, forcing it painfully and unnaturally downward while the bottom of my foot was forced up against my foot rest. I screamed in pain as the bike fell over, drawing several shop keepers to the doorways to see what was up. Three people came up to help put the bike back up (one guy just watched and ignored Stefan signally him to come over -- very strange), while I stood on the side of the road, wondering if my foot was broken. Geesh but it hurt. But while I grimaced in pain getting on and off the bike for the rest of the day, and cried once from the pain, surprisingly, it was perfectly fine by the next morning.

Added to the inconvenience was that none of the five ATM machines worked with Stefan's bank card. I guess the entire international network in Albania was down. We had Euros with us, and hoped we could use those if we needed a hotel. But what we really wanted to do was camp.

As we headed North along the cliffs of the coast, roads were either terrific and freshly paved, or barely there at all (just a bit of narrow dirt and gravel). One pass in particularly had me terrified: no barriers, barely one lane, and no pavement or gravel at all, just dirt and mud. A mistake would have sent us to our deaths over the cliff. And given how many roadside memorials we saw, apparently that's not a rare occurrence.

Per a recommendation in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, we decided to try to camp on the beach at Dhërmi, before the climb to Llogaraja Pass. There was one tiny sign on the road for Dhërmi, and as we turned down it, we saw new signs for a camp site on the beach. We followed the sign onto a dreadful narrow road full of potholes. It didn't at all look like it was leading anywhere. We asked a shepherd on the side of the "road" if there was "kemping?" and, at first, he though we were asking for tea. Hmmmm... But then he got it and signaled for us to continue down the way. We passed a very upscale private home or hotel being built, and only in front of it was the road good, but then it got extremely bad again. Then we came out on to a lovely white sand beach, and there were two signs, one pointing to the left for the camping, and one pointing right for a hotel. We drove left, but when we arrived at the camp site, it was only small wooden bungalows, no places for tent camping, and the grounds were entirely fenced off to keep everyone out -- it looked like it had been closed for many, many weeks. We thought about camping on the beach nearby, passed some bunkers, but there were a bunch of men burning and using earth-moving machines to clear brush right next door, and they gave no indication of stopping any time soon. So we headed in the other direction on the beach, determined to stay somewhere on the beach, dang it! We came to the hotel, which turned out to be more small wooden bungalows, but still open for the season (barely). A young couple from Belgium was there, and they were going to camp on the beach down a ways, and we thought about doing it as well, but we decided to stay in a cabin, as it really did look like it was going to rain and we got a good off-season deal.

We sat down on the CLEAN beach (yes, Romania, it was CLEAN), cooked outside (I was jonesin' for some ravioli!) and enjoyed the sunset as we finally finished the Melnik, Bulgarian wine. There were two kids in the beach restaurant, one of them screaming while they "played" (destroyed everything), but happily, at 8 p.m., their parents put them in the car and they all drove away. Hurrah! We tried to buy a bottle of wine at the restaurant but the guy wanted freakin' 20 Euros a bottle. BITE ME!! So, we sat in the room and watched a little satalite TV, trying to get a weather report and catching up on the latest news: the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan, the USA finally winning the Ryder Cup (in Louisville, Kentucky!), the USA financial bailout (more $ than for education yet again), and leaders in South Africa and Israel resigning. I'm such a newshound. Then we put in our earplugs, as we could clearly hear the guy next door snoring (the only other guest) and went to sleep.

The next day, I woke up before Stefan, and was mortified to see just how poorly constructed the bungalows were; light from outside leaked in from a variety of places, and the walls were paper thin. I was cold when I went to bed and so slept in my sleeping bag and, indeed, it had been quite a chilly night. But daytime was bright and sunny and warm -- and so, we put on our bathing suits and swam in the sea. It was the first time I have swam in the ocean (to me, all salt water is the ocean) since I lived in California, probably sometime in 1993! It was heaven. We had the entire beach to ourselves! The water was warm, and oh-so-clear and blue. Heaven heaven heaven. It was the one-more oh-my-goodness-I'm-so-glad-we've-done-this-trip moment that I had been wanting since Macedonia. Stefan pointed up to the oh-so-high mountain above us and pointed to the road of many switch backs and told me with a smile we would be going over that later in the day. Oh. Joy.

The Belgium guy came up to use the restaurant bathroom, and challenged the young camp site manager to a ping pong game, for which I served as cheer leader. I think the place closed up completely once we left -- the manager was taking all of the TVs out of the cabins and putting them into the one closet to the restaurant. We stopped on our way out to get photos next to more bunkers, one of which is Stefan's favorite of us on the trip. Then it was time to go back up the scary crap road and head over Llogara Pass.

Even with the morning swim and stop for photos, we made it out onto the road by 10:30 a.m. We wanted to get as close to the Northern border as possible. Llogara Pass just seems to go up and up and up and up. At one point, I looked over and saw an Eagle flying level with us, and looking at us as if to say, "WHAT are YOU doing up HERE?" It's over 1000 meters high (over 3000 feet), and when you are coming straight from sea level, that's a LOT. I found it beautiful and terrifying. Stefan stopped at a big turnout at the top, and I wouldn't go anywhere near the edge. He says there's a ledge of ground on the other side, but I'll never know, because I would NOT look over. There was a lone young man at the top selling honey, and he watched us with mild amusement.

The Northern side of the pass brought us to a completely different-looking place; we had left the Albanian Riveria and were now in forests. It was startling how different everything suddenly looked. If there had been less trash, it would have been so much more beautiful. We continued down, on our way to the town of Orikum, where Stefan had read that we could find Roman ruins (Oyteti Antik Orikum). There was a sign off the main road pointing to the site, so obviously, Albania wants people to visit the site. Or do they? It took a while to find the entrance, but once we did, the armed sailors on guard at the gate refused to let us in. Despite the large sign at the gate with photos of the site and an admission price, the navel guards would not let us in, and one of them did that dismissive wave with this hand, that "shoo shoo", that has to be the most disrespectful movement you can do to someone short of flipping them the bird. I was FURIOUS. My bad mood persisted when, after we left the site and got back to the main road, we saw a man beating a donkey with all his might, the donkey trying to pull away, the donkey's ankles bloodied from the ropes around them being too tight. Had I been on my own bike, I swear, I would have stopped and taken the whip away and beaten the holy hell out of that man. Enough of sad Jayne: I was MAD JAYNE. And believe me, he never would have beaten a donkey again when I was done with him.

We stopped in Vlorë, and Stefan went around looking for an ATM that would work with his bank card, while I tried to calm down and entertained some pre-teens who were fascinated with the motorcycle. The maps on Stefan's panniers help a lot when trying to communicate with people about where we are from and where we are going. I had another nodding-head-confusion moment, when I asked the kids if they spoke English or German, and one of the kids nodded his head up and down once and said, "Ja!" Not only do Albanians nod in the opposite way from most of the rest of the world, "ja!" in Albanian means "No!" So confusing! We drove on and ate at a tiny local place where the owner was a little flustered that we didn't speak his language and, yet, he managed to bring us a very tasty local version of a döner, which we were so happy with that we had seconds. It was nice to people watch. The disparity among kids bugged me though -- some kids were in school uniforms, on their way to or from classes, while others were in dirty clothes, working to wash cars or whatever.

We headed to the ruins of Apollonia, which were hugely disappointing: the maps handed out onsite are woefully outdated, there are NO narrative signs at the individual places (we found them later stacked in a corner of the old church in the middle of the former monastery on the grounds), the bathrooms were locked, and there really isn't all that much to see. If I had it to do over again, we would have definitely skipped Apollonia. It might be nice in a few years, when more of the theater is excavated. We had such high hopes, since the roads to the site are actually quite good (except for over the railroad tracks -- YIKES!). Not even an encounter with a turtle, meeting two funny Brits and playing with a puppy made me think it was worth the stop. Had we not stopped here, we might have been able to make it out of Albania that day, which would have allowed us not to rush so for the rest of the trip.

We pushed on to Durres, which is not at all a pretty town. We tried again to find a place recommended by Lonely Planet for the evening, since there was no camping anywhere, but the city was a heaving traffic mess. Stefan pulled up to a grocery store and said we should just push on and find somewhere less chaotic to stay. While I was inside buying things for the next couple of days, he was harassed by a group of very aggressive Romani men. We were very happy to get out of Durres. We should have headed back the way we came and tried staying in one of the "beach" hotels, but they had all looked quite closed for the season, and we thought we could get more riding in for the day. Big mistake. There were NO hotels as we went further North. None.

Night fell. Panic set in. You do NOT want to drive at night in Eastern Europe, let alone Albania. Finally, in the distance, behind a gas station, I saw a place called "Hotel Class." It wasn't cheap (it was a four-star, I think), but it had private, locked, underground parking, they said they accepted credit cards, and we were spent. It was the only hotel we had seen since before Durres. We decided to stay and splurge. At first, it was okay -- they had free Internet access on the second floor, so I was able to be on the Internet for more than an hour and answer critical emails. The people in the room next to us were oh-so-loud, so I went downstairs (always by the stairs, as there is no elevator), and asked to move because of the people next door to us. The very nice receptionist said, "Room xxx? Is that the room that's loud? They will be gone in the next two hours." So... these were friends of hers? And who checks out of a room at 9 at night? The bar had no Albanian wine and no Albanian beer. The decoration was all in RED. Our room TV didn't have CNN. We slept fine, but the next day, breakfast turned out to be a JOKE. To have paid as much money as we did, our breakfast should have been FABULOUS. It was a little bread and cheese! I threw major attitude. Then we go to check out, and the new girl at the reception desk has no idea how to operate a credit card machine. I can feel my blood boiling. We are being asked to pay a very high price, a price that would pay to camp every night for the rest of the trip, and this was the last straw for the so-called "Class Hotel" of Albania. I told her she was going to make the machine work or we were going to walk out and not pay. She just flittered around like a trapped bird. She was STUPID. She never apologized, just kept saying, "Oh, please, don't be mad at me, it's not my fault, I don't know, please don't be mad at me, I don't know, oh, oh."

Grrrrrrr.

Stefan ended up operating the credit card machine for the idiot, and I stomped down to the parking garage, with a male hotel worker hurrying behind me with my bag (dang right I made him carry it). I think the guys were mortified at the way idiot girl had acted.

We drove out, and needed to find our way back to the road headed North, rather than the road to Tirana (which we were on). Stefan turned towards Tirana, then headed onto a ramp and started going on another road, drove for a while, then did a complicated turn at the Mother Theresa airport, and I'm thinking, wow, the GPS is amazing. We never would have found this way with just a map. Then, just after we pass the airport and enter another road, the car in front of us pulls over, and Stefan pulls up along side it. The guy starts signaling and I think, oh no! It's that roadside scam where they tell you that you have a flat tire, and while they are talking to you, someone else comes up and picks your pocket or robs your car! Stefan nodded to the guy, thanked him, and we continued on. I was so confused. When we stopped, I asked what was up and it turned out that it was the hotel driver, who had volunteered to drive and have us follow him to the correct road. His kindness doesn't make up for him working for an over-priced rip off of a hotel, but it does re-affirm what I've said again and again about this trip: most people were unbelievably kind.

Stefan said that, at the hotel, a security guy had told him to "follow the Mercedes." And Stefan's thinking, which one?! You see, almost everyone in Albania drives a Mercedes...

Northern Albania isn't nearly as nice as Southern Albania. I even saw raw meat hanging outside of a shop, just like in Kabul. We stopped at a small roadside store and Stefan was able to spend all of his Albanian money, so we wouldn't have to look for an exchange office. As we neared the border with Montenegro, however, the scenery started to get nicer. We passed a couple on an Africa Twin going in the opposite direction, all loaded down just like us. ARGH! It would have been so nice to meet another couple and give each other advice, trade stories, etc.! Then, we passed another couple traveling like us on a motorcycle, not four minutes from the border -- how cool would it have been to talk at the border with other travelers?!? We so rarely saw other motorcycle travelers on this trip, mostly because of the time of year (it's too late for most).

As we neared the border with Montenegro, I considered that we might have one, maybe two more sites we could spend time on, but at some point, we were going to have to start pushing for home. I wondered if the weather would hold out for the rest of the trip.

Pictures of this part of the adventure.

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