Part II – Conquering the Balkans One Sneeze at a Time!

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I apologize for the huge delay in my posting of part two of my 6 day adventure. Hopefully, I’ll be able to remember it as vividly a month later. So without further adieu – I give you Days 3 & 4. . . .

DAY 3 – ALBANIA

In an effort to see more of Albania aside from the capital, we decided to wake up early and take a bus from Tirana to Berati, one of the UNESCO World Sites because of its Ottoman style architecture. So we asked the head of our hostel where we could find a furgon or bus to take us to Berati. So we left at 7am with map in hand (and several tissues) to find a bunch of random buses that were set to leave at 8am to various destinations in Albania – Oh how I miss the simplicities of a “Bus Station.” So after walking for a while we think we found the area, only to be told in limited English – “No Bus Berati” and random hand gestures pointing to go around somewhere to another area. So finally we get to the random side street right before the bus leaves. We ask a couple people “Berati?” and point to the bus just to be sure.  There is a grandmother kissing goodbye her young teenage grandson who is getting on the bus — she then turns to me and points to her grandson in the window and starts to seemingly talking about how  wonderful he is – I smile back and nod my head. Some things never change.

When we stepped on the bus I learned that the grandson’s name is Ermal and I told him that his grandmother seems very proud of him. He smiles back and blushes a bit. Ermal is 15 years old (actually 16 now – we are friends on FB) and he is an extremely articulate and well-spoken in English. When I joked that he would be late for school (it was a Monday) he explained that he was in Tirana where his Grandmother lives to pick up cheaper books for his school to use in a town near Berati – therefore the teachers would excuse his lateness. He was very excited that we were traveling in Albania and from the U.S..  He even pulled out geography book  and he showed us photos of all the places in Albania we should visit and at times along the bus trip he would point out and name the respective mountain ranges and rivers we would pass along the route. When I asked him if he considered going to college in the U.S. – he said he’d like too, but it can be expensive. I of course mentioned Clark and how they offer loads of scholarships to international students and said I hoped he’d look into it, because he is extremely bright.

When we arrived in Berati I immediately understood what they meant my “historical Ottoman style architecture.” All of the houses and shops were built up into the mountain with identical brown roofs. We walked around a bit and were hoping to check out some of the museums, but found out that apparently everything is closed on Mondays in Albania.

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So we ended up going straight to the castle that looked over “Old Town Berati.” The hill you see in the picture on the right was extremely steep and long and because of my congestion I was extremely out of breath – so we ended up stopping several times on the way up. Finally when we reached the top we took some pictures in front of the castle and entered the gates – where we were immediately met by a begging woman we had to continuously avoid throughout our time in the castle. As it turned out people still lived on the castle grounds and there is a tiny village with houses made from the original castle structure. As we walked around enjoying the view and a church built on the castle property a man approached us and offered to take our picture in front of the Church, which he claimed was built by his family many centuries earlier. He spoke extremely limited English, but wanted to show us around his home and also lead us to and amazing underground well within the castle walls that was used hundreds of years ago. Of course Charles and I knew at this point he wanted us to pay him for being our “guide” so we gave him some of the limited Albanian money we had on us at the time. We spent over an hour walking around the castle grounds and ultimately went back down to grab some lunch and then take the 3PM bus back to Tirana.

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The bus ride back to Tirana was definitely less pleasant — See what I failed to explain earlier was that not only do concepts like bus stations and schedules not exist, but neither do bus stops. So the method of getting passengers is for the bus to stop every time the driver sees someone waiting on the side of the road. This is the drivers choice of course, because they make more money per individual who rides the bus — but I have seen them pass by people waiting. There are two drivers who switch off – when not driving the other collects the bus fare, “markets” the bus ride, and smoothly gets roadside passengers onto the bus so it doesn’t stop for too long. Now this was not what was so annoying about my ride home. One of the methods this particular driver used to advertise his services was to honk his horn repeatedly every 5 seconds to let people know he was coming and to just say hi to people he knew. This was no ordinary horn either – it played the most annoying tune that was obnoxiously loud. So even though I really wanted to take a nap on the way back – it wasn’t happening. Imagine 3 hours of horn honking . . .So instead I looked out my window to see the Albanian landscape which was scattered with bunkers in the most random places and half built homes. Ermal had explained to me during the morning ride that this was because families were saving money to finish building the second floors of their homes and the bunkers were remnants of the old communist leader who wanted indestructible bunkers built throughout the country.

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When we finally got back to Tirana it was already dark and we decided to take a walk to see Mother Teresa Square. When we got to the square we had a little trouble finding Mother Teresa (the statue) because we assumed it would be in the center of the square, but alas it was not. It was randomly off to the side next to another columned building that had garden with Mother Teresa spelled in grass facing the square. Above which, was a statement pronouncing someones love for President Obama.

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We then found a nice outdoor pizzeria. Where I proceeded to drink 3 more cups of tea and one of the best pizza’s I’ve ever had. Which proved to me above all that Albania has been seriously influenced by Italy. As soon as we got back to the hostel I passed out.

DAY 4 – ALBANIA & MONTENEGRO

We woke up the next day giving ourselves enough time to grab some breakfast and get a taxi to where ever the furgons were in Tirana. Luckily, someone had pointed it out to us the day before so we told the taxi to take us to a particular square. At this point we had become familiar with the system and simply said “Shkodra?” our destination and someone quickly pointed us to the appropriate van. I of course immediately laid down to not get sick, knowing the kind of ride to expect ahead. When we arrived in Shkodra we were dropped off near the bus station because we needed to find a bus to take us across the border into Ulcnji, Montenegro. While walking we were approached my several taxi drivers offering to take us across the border for 30-50 Euro. We both knew that the bus supposedly cost 5 Euro per person so we immediately dismissed them and looked for the bus. When we were asking directions to where the bus station was and talking in English we heard a in an obvious NY accent “Are you Americans?” – so I shouted “yeah” and he asked “Where from?” and of course I turn around and respond, “New York.” So this huge guy (we are talking like 6’7″ easily) comes over and is like “No way, what part – I’m from the Bronx.” I of course mention that my parents are from Queens & Washington Heights, which gives me a little more street cred than Rockland County. And by the end of our conversation we made 2 new friends: Albanian brothers who were born in NY, but moved back to Albania in 1999. They negotiated with a taxi driver to take us across the border for only 15 Euro – and we’d get there in less time and with less hassle than if we took the bus.

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We took the bus from Ulcnji up the Montenegro Coast to Budva . . . it was a beautiful ride at sunset. The views up the coast were just spectacular and I wish I could have taken better photos from the bus. When we got to Budva we took a taxi to the Old Town for dinner and we found the cutest little restaurant right near the entrance. I was excited to order seafood so we ordered appetizers and a plate of mussels to split, which were amazing and easily the largest I’ve ever seen. And after our meal was over they came out with an orange & pomegranate plate for us to eat. This was the first time I’d ever eaten a pomegranate and I can now say it is the messiest and funnest (yes, I know this is not a word) fruit to eat. And to top of the meal they brought out complimentary shots of some liquor that oddly tasted a bit like tequila. Before heading back to the Bus station to go to our hostel in Old Town Kotor we walked a bit around Budva.

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Both the Old Towns in Budva and Kotor reminded me so much of Venice – just the way the cities were built/mapped out and their architecture. The only thing missing was the canals. The next day I found out that Kotor and Budva on the Montenegro Coast are known as “Little Venice” because they were also trading posts on the sea.

STAY TUNED FOR THE FINAL CHAPTER – PART III 🙂