Albania: Pogradec & Korce

The bus that I had arranged was overnight from Thessaloniki to Pogradec. I figured that by taking one overnight, I would save on my lodging costs and find myself in a position to get an early start on the day. Unfortunately though, it was scheduled to arrive at about 3 am, so a bit earlier than I would have preferred.

I was very much the only foreigner on this bus, and I was situated in the front seat. It was filling up and then my heart sank as soon as I say a very large woman climb aboard. Somehow I just knew that she would be next to me, and of course I was right. I wouldn’t have minded were I a smaller person myself, but I have a bit of girth to my torso. I had nothing to look forward to but cramped conditions and lateral friction. Immediately after we started off, the bus driver got on the phone and pulled out a cig.  I was amused.

Pretty dark by you can see the driver and a girthy arm

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My quality of sleep was significantly worse than I had expected and we had to spend 2 hours at the Greek and Albanian border in the middle of the night. When we finally did get through, I actually managed to sleep a bit. When I came to and checked my GPS, we had already driven through the city where I had wanted to get off.  I guess this wasn’t like Japan where they woke you up where you told them you wanted to go. This meant that I stayed on the bus for an extra five hours until I got to the capital city of Tirana. There was a fort and some other things to see here, but I wasn’t particularly interested and set to work getting myself back down to Pogradec.

Even with the extra time, it was still only about 6am so the city was just coming to life. There was a taxi driver right off the bus trying to extort me though. When I asked where the bus station was he said he would take me for 600 Lek, which I also knew was the same price I would pay to go a couple hours back to my intended destination. He hounded me as I got my bearings and was really upset when I called him out on the terrible price. With the help of a nice lady at a hotel, I took a bus over to the minibus depot for a mere 30 Lek.

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Here in Albania there are no bus stations though, just areas where the vans drive around looking for passengers. I just have to shout out ‘Pogradec’ and then someone would direct me to a driver shouting the same. The driver suggested I have some coffee while I waited for the van to fill up, and it was here that I met the first person who could utter a word of English. They were some younger people who were nice, but also gave me flak on behalf of the American government. They taught me some basic words and soon it was time to depart. There was a nice guy sitting next to me with English good enough to answer my questions and teach me a lot about the country.

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After about three hours, I finally arrived at my intended destination and checked into my hostel. It was still only about noon, and my fiasco did let me see a whole lot more of the countryside that I originally intended and it also saved me a cold morning without anywhere to stay. The hostel was great and was owned by a cool German guy. I was just one of a couple guests though, so it was bit quiet.

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The first mission was getting some food, and for that he recommended that I get myself down to a local place where they just serve whatever they made that day. I have no idea what I got exactly, but there was a stew, a pilaf and of course a local beer.  The flavor was immense and I was very much satisfied. The bill came to about three dollars.

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The next mission was to make use of the swimsuit I had been carrying along with me all this way.  I figured that for sure I would use it in in the Mediterranean, but for whatever reason that never came to be.  So here at Lake Ohrid I was able to swim out a bit in the freshwater a ways.  I just swam until I hit a mass of floating seaweed, at which point I turned right around back to shore.  It was refreshing and about the only exercise beyond all my walking so far this trip.

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Back at the hostel, I just hung around until dinner and then the two employees and the three guests went out together.  The owner took us to a very local place that I can only describe as a table in a living room.  The chairs were upholstered in shag and the walls covered with odd paintings.  Since none of us had any idea about anything, the hostel master just ordered a whole slew of savory food.  Veal, homemade bread, chicken stew, all sorts of stuff.  We also had a little bit of raki, an Albanian brandy that can charitably be described as harsh.  Once stuffed, we just sat there for a while.  I was really done with the meal, but I had to wait until the group was ready to leave.  It was reminder of why solo travel can be so great. We finally got out of there around 11 and then I retired to to my suite.

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The next day was going to be a bit of a day trip to the village of Lin with the same crowd as the day before. For this we hopped on another furgon and after some negligible amount we arrived to the lakeside town a few kilometers away. Right away it was clear that this was some real authentic Albanian living. We walked along a street that kept getting narrower and narrower. I thought that the grapes growing everywhere were pretty cool.

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The road became an unpaved pathway that followed the rocky shoreline. No one had a clue where it would terminate, but we kept going. After briefly leading us back towards town, it took us to what looked like nowhere at all. We rounder a bend and found a resort waiting for us. And it was there that we would break for lunch.

Afterwards we made our way back to the main road, threw up our thumbs and waited just a moment before some curious Albanian stopped to see what we foreigners were about. His backseat had all sorts of stuff in it but we just repacked until we could fit. Back in Pogradec he wanted nothing for his troubles, and according to the German, such hospitality was standard here.  Here is some fruit. 3 kg of plums for 70 cents is indeed a fair price.

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Whereas the last night was quiet, four Australians checked in with no goal other than to party. After they destroyed a case of beer, we went our for dinner at that first place I ate. Myself and a couple others all sat in complete disbelieve as they spoke in one enormous innuendo. It was a bit inappropriate. We walked on down to the shore where the waves were really coming in. The weather was cold and we soon called it a night.

The next day was going to be my last in the country, and before crossing the border I felt an obligation to at least see a bit more of the country. On the way to the bus depot I stopped at a flea market to pick up something warmer than what I brought along. After rummaging through mountains of garbage, I struck gold: a blue hoodie celebrating the Michigan Panthers. Finding something with Michigan on it, that also fit made it an obvious choice. After my success, myself and two girls boarded another furgon with plans to go to Korce. This was a larger city about an hour away and I figured that I would be enough to feel good about the county.  Aside from the beaches, there isn’t too much to see.

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This city wasn’t really famous for anything in particular, but one of the girls had a guide book which really scraped the bottom of the barrel in order to send us to some pointless places. The two also had no sense of direction so it seemed as if we were stopping at every corner to check how we were coming along. One of the highlights included another church! Actually the most interesting thing was that it was built in 1992, the year that Communism failed in the country and religion was finally allowed to come in.

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Summer of our other stops included a market place, a park, a restaurant and some assorted streets. The best part of this day trip was honestly the return. We arrived back to Pogradec just in time to watch a large van strike a motorcycle. It is rare to witness an accident taking place, but even better was the result. No one was injured, but the motorcycle diver was really upset and just got up and started punching the other driver. I was able to capture the moment, but just a couple of the punches.  As an added bonus, there was a police officer present the whole time.


Back at the hotel, there was nothing left for me to do but gather my things and go to the border. I had seen enough of this country, and it was good, but it was also time to move on. One of the peculiarities about this country is the hundred of thousands of bunkers that dot the fields. Back during the rule of their crazy communist dictator these were all built. Most of then still remain today because being bunkers, breaking them down is more trouble than it is worth. Take this one, in the central park for example…

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The other endearing part of the country was were the old men. Every day, they dressed to the nines in their great recession era caps, sweaters and suits and then gathered in the parks to play dominos. I always had to smile when I saw this.

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And finally, in Albania there are an incredible number of old Mercedes Benzes.  This isn’t because people have money to buy luxury cars, but those that can afford transportation want to buy something without electronics that they know can be repaired for eternity.  Literally, every other car on the road was in fact on of these automobiles  It is strange to associate an entire country with an automobile, but this detail is really impossible to miss.

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