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Albanian adventures: travel by furgon

I had met my temporary travel partner, Randi, in a hostel in Montenegro. Since we were both headed in the same direction, we decided two Americans were better than one. We arrived in the border town of Shkodra via private car, from a random guy we had found that morning in Ulcinj (Montenegro). Shkodra is a bit of a blur and we were not there more than probably thirty minutes. But it was a bit of shock. I remember donkeys with heaps of grain on their backs fighting for real estate with bicyclists and modern cars on crowded dusty streets. It was a city of contrast in a country that would prove the same but it was not a strong welcome to the country. Randi and I keep watchful eyes while we took turns at an ATM to withdraw Albanian money, or leke. After our private car, we were hoping to find a furgon, or essentially a minibus, usually a van, that holds 8-10 passengers. Fortunately, there was a furgon stand within eyesight of the ATM so we needn’t walk much of the intimidating city. Still, on that short walk, we were approached by taxi drivers, offering their own rides to Tirana for sums of 50 euro. We declined the aggressive cabbies for the furgon, of which many had “Tirane” in their front window. I remember being rather scooped up by one and we were on our way. This was certainly not a land of bus tickets from the driver; it wasn’t clear when or how much we would pay.

The furgon culture soon became clear—they would stop and stop often. The locals on board with us seemed to have rides all the way to the driveways, even if it was 3-4 miles off the main road. We did observe that an individual’s terminus seemed to be the time to offer payment, though I wasn’t sure how the fares were figured. We had boarded in Shkodra’s city center but on the way to the capital, people hailed the furgon at intersections or even along barren stretches of road; the origin to such a place remained a mystery. It was also an introduction to the aggressive driving culture in Albania. On our three hour trip, we probably passed dozens of cars, often with physics arguing sufficient room was available. Apparently, it was Albanian custom to honk as you passed someone, which seemed less of a taunt and more of a friendly gesture. We were also not sure where in Tirana we should get out; in the end we disembarked when most of the rest of the passengers did as we seemed somewhat close to the center. Our driver quoted us a price around 7 euros, which seemed very reasonable for the length of the trip. Randi and I then had remarkably little trouble finding our hostel in the city center, which was a large villa inside a picket fence with an outdoor patio and a hammock. It was a much better introduction than Shkodra had been. We also came across Nilesh, our British friend who had been at the same hostel as us in Budva (Montenegro) and had left the day before us. His transit had been far more eventful and involved a British cabbie who lied about his initial price for a ride from Shkodra to Tirana, forcing Nilesh to demand being let off immediately. He then found a ride back to Shkodra and found a place to stay even though he arrived close to midnight. He found more reliable transportation on his second try and only beat us to Tirana by a few hours having left more than day earlier.

The three of us made our way into Tirana late that afternoon, though much of the city was closed on Sunday. Having been to other former Communist cities, I marveled at how much difference colorful paint made to all the concrete buildings; it really didn’t look that bad. I particularly liked the Bllovu District, which once the home of the government elites during Communist times but was now a trendy neighborhood with outdoor cafes reminiscent of Paris or Vienna. We also hiked out of town to the statue of Mother Theresa (native Albanian), a location that featured a fine view of the city and surprisingly large mountains looming fairly nearby.

We all felt a bit bad planning to leave Tirana the next morning but it seemed we’d had a good look at the city Sunday afternoon. And, we all had other places to get to. After traveling with Randi for three days, I bid her adieu, trusting her care to Nilesh as they were both on their way to Greece. In truth, Randi was an asset to me and was never in need of any protection or help from myself or Nilesh. Our separate destinations meant we couldn’t even leave from the same bus station. Well, also because even the capital city of Tirana doesn’t really have a bus station. Instead, buses bound for different directions leave from street corners at different parts of the city. So their bus, headed east, left from the opposite side of the city as my bus to the south.

Even though my bus was full sized (not a furgon), we still didn’t buy tickets at a window or even from the driver. Instead, there was an attendant on board who gradually made his way through the bus and asked the destination before quoting a price. My trip was a lengthy one, almost 8 hours to Saranda, in the far south of the country. I had arranged to stay at the Hairy Lemon Hostel, run by a cheerful and youthful British women. Somehow, she found me before I found the hostel. Saranda was further evidence of the riddling juxtaposition of Albania—it was part sea side resort with a pleasant harbor and promenade, but the hostel was located outside of town, along a dirt road, littered with trash, and past half finished edifices. The hostel was actually on the 8th floor and the balcony not only gave a fine view of a small beach below but also of the Greek island of Corfu just offshore and reachable via a short ferry ride from the harbor. After a long travel day, I lounged at the small beach and dipped into the crisp, clear refreshing ocean waters.

I split my second day in Saranda on two attractions outside the city. I took a bus even further south, to within just miles of the Greek border to Butrint, the site of an impressive array of Roman ruins set along a peaceful lagoon, attractive enough to be worth visiting even if amphitheatres and chapels dating back over two millennia didn’t exist in fairly pristine condition. After wandering for a few hours, I took a bus back towards Saranda but got out first at Ksamili Beach, a delightful patch of sand on a mostly pebbly ocean coastline. To complete the Edenic setting, several small islands hovered just offshore, though probably just beyond swimming distance. The beach side café served a more than passable lunch of pasta and a beer from Kosovo for around $3. Rather than wait for the bus back to Saranda, I did what the locals did and waved down a passing car, paying $1 for the thirty minute ride back into town. The evening was spent back in Saranda, strolling along its pleasant promenade.

Not only does Albania operate without bus stations, it operates mostly without bus schedules. The buses instead just leave when they are full enough to justify the trip. However, there are few buses leaving Saranda and one I needed, north and up the coast towards Dhermi, actually had a scheduled departure. Unfortunately, it was at 5:30 am. Contrary to most of what I wrote just above, the bus actually left early, around 5:20 am, with just four of us on board. It quickly became clear that the coastal route should only be left in the hands of an experienced driver and the operator of my bus has my vote as the planet’s greatest bus driver. At times I wondered what crackpot engineer though a road was a good idea, clinging to the cliff with the coast a sharp precipitous drop below. It was both dread and admiration that I rode one of the more scenic bus trips I have ever been on.

Dhermi Beach

Clear waters at Dhermi Beach

The next trick would be getting off at the right spot. The coastal town of Dhermi was supposed to be a twenty minute walk down from the main road. I watched road signs diligently and we came across a sign with “Dhermi” crossed out, the symbol for leaving town. I had been near the front the whole time and stood, asking to be let off. When I got out, a road was just across the street heading towards a village I presumed was Dhermi. Twenty minutes later, I was in the pleasant little town. I strolled confidently to the restaurant/hotel I had read about and inquired about a room. I was not prepared for the answer that they were full. There were several “doma” signs in the town for those renting private rooms. One place wouldn’t rent to one person for just one night person. Another wanted $40. (In a country where my delightful lunch at Ksamili Beach was $3, this sum seemed rather inflated). But I was rather short on options. So I returned to bargain somewhat; my proprietor sending forth their 10 year old son who spoke a small amount of English. I managed to get the room for $20 and though it was very simple accommodation, it did actually have a TV that pulled in mostly Italian stations from across the Adriatic Sea. Satisfied with my bargaining, I lounged on the pebbly beach and swam in the crystal clear waters with towering mountains (and brave bus drivers) looming above.

I set off late in the afternoon to walk to Drymades Beach, rumored to be even more isolated than peaceful Dhermi. This meant walking halfway back up the main road and turning left. I then walked 45 minutes along a dirt road, through olive groves with the Adriatic glistening to my left and the mountains soaring to my right. Drymades was even less developed, which is to say it wasn’t developed. There were no beach bars or foot stands, just a guy renting beach chairs. Civilization seemed a good distance away and the other beach goers (still a dozen or less) seemed almost out of place. The water was refreshingly cool and unbelievably clear. Swimming back to shore, the ground looked just underfoot and so I made to stand but came up with nothing. In fact, diving down, I was still in more than ten feet of water; my eyes had been convinced it was less than half that amount. I returned to Dhermi for the sunset and a pleasant dinner at the restaurant/hotel that didn’t have room for me. I pondered these two very special beaches and this unique country. Yes, there was trash at the back of the beach, but when I strolled past, I saw a man sweeping it into a pile. The contradiction that was Albania had some hope indeed. (It should be noted that when I passed the same man and his trash pile thirty minutes later he had lit it on fire. Baby steps, Albanians, baby steps).

Dhermi is not the sort of village with a bus schedule. Rather, I just assumed if I was at the junction to the main road about the same time I had disembarked the day before, there should be a bus to board. This was a successful assumption, at least within just a ten minute window. I was disappointed not to have the same bus driver as before but I hoped this man possessed the same skill my first driver had. As it turned out, the engineers were even more insane on the road to the north as they had been to the south. We clung to the edge of the cliff and zigzagged up a series of switchbacks I’m not sure I’d even be comfortable walking up. Miraculously, we reached the top (of something) and there were pine trees and an entirely different landscape. I changed buses in ugly Vlora, nodding my true admiration to the driver as I disembarked. I found a furgon bound for Berat and arrived without incident by late afternoon. It was amazingly hot but I had intentions of walking up to the still inhabited Citadel. In retrospect, I suppose I should have changed out of my black t-shirt. With temperatures around 105 °F (I later learned), it wasn’t too surprising that I was light headed by the top. I may have had a touch of heat exhaustion but I remember the grounds and the view to be quite nice. The lower part of Berat is quite nice also (I remember this more clearly because I had a chance to hydrate and change my shirt). Dozens of white Ottoman houses clung to the cliffs above the Osumi River. Dinner was a pizza I had trouble finishing despite its $4 price tag. Back in the hostel that evening, I learned most of the other guests just sat in the shady garden area, deciding it was too hot to walk around much. They were probably right.

Traveling from Berat to Ohrid (Macedonia) took the entire day and encompassed just about every possible land-based form of transportation. In the end, I count six: Albanian bus, furgon, ride from a random guy, foot, Macedonian bus and taxi. Even if you take issue with my separation of the two buses, it’s a good story and you can read about it in the Macedonia chapter.

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