Week 3 Most of Albania!

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Europe » Albania » South » Vlorë
June 25th 2023
Published: July 9th 2023
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Landing in Vlora we managed to do the necessary, buy insurance for the motorhome, take out lek from the ATM and buy a vodaphone SIM! Although Albania is working hard to become a member state of the EU I think there is still a way to go until they satisfy the requirements regarding corruption of the police, government and general safety standards, the manner of driving being the least of it. If you are in Albania keep your distance from drivers of black Mercedes Benz . Many were imported here illegally (stolen, I've been told) and somehow the drivers feel they are above the law. Double lines on a hairpin bend, no problem, a line of traffic you want to get past heedless of oncoming traffic, no problem. A problem only for the drivers coming towards them!

We found a beach and had breakfast and a cup of coffee before heading off on the coast road towards Butrint. Beware of Google. Our satnav didn't work in Albania and Google had some strange ideas but mostly we found our way with some odd detours. The fantastic Llogara Pass gave beautiful views of the coastline, both developed and developing, in between me clutching the door handles, gasping and squeezing my eyes shut at the breathtaking hairpin bends down and up very steep inclines and descents. I spotted the size of HImare and we turned off to Livadhi Beach which was a great choice. Although undergoing promenade development itself it was a small seaside village made up of camping sites, guesthouses and two luxury hotels at the far end.

Stony beaches and crystal clear water, good food and great coffee (usually made by Graeme in Gino - can't beat it!) saw us staying at Camp Moskato in Yuri's grandfather's olive grove for more than a couple of days.

Driving throught the chaos of Ksamil we were glad to find a tiny camp in Oni's Mini-Market. Definitely rustic it was a great spot for catching a bus down to Butrint. A must-see destination after watching Bettany Hughes' documentary on Albania. Catching an early bus got us to the ruins before it opened! But we were still amongst the first to enter and wander around taking in the layers of history from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. Have I mentioned it was hot here? Hot every day and getting hotter. A huge ruined city located on Butrint Lake and the straits of Corfu it was obviously strategically important for the Greeks, the Romans and then the Venetians to control trade routes throughout this neck of the woods.

Next stop Gjirokaster. A winding road through the mountains took us to the Blue Eye, a famed spring which formerly had a winding walk through cooling woods, now a very hot hike along a road purposely built to accommodate the tour bus groups and endless streams of tourists. It was, however, beautiful and lunch at the riverside restaurant was great, especially the no alcohol beer!

We cycled up narrow cobbelstone streets into the heart of the old town of Gjirokaster and entered the castle, free on this night as there was a folk festival. We took happy snaps of those in costume, heard songs being practised and hung around hoping for them to start performing on the stage but by eight our hungry stomachs got the better of us and we descended gingerly back to the family camping across the river.

Berat was a highlight. After witnessing the end of a liturgy, an orthodox priest in his golden robes, congregationists with boxes of candles, in the oldest church in the castle of Berat (wonderful frescoes) we were summoned onto the 'balkon' of an elderly lady for coffee. Her granddaughter Mikela swiftly appeared and we chatted about Albania, her life, her grandmother's life and school holidays. Violeta, her grandma, a venerable 82 shuffled back onto the terrace with some delicious honey cake and many woollen socks she had knitted. It was rude to say no. We sampled burek, quince jam and left with socks, jam and many hugs and smiles. A non-touristy experience in the centre of these winding alleyways in the castle village. Priceless. Worth the woollen socks!

We were treated to a homemade meal in Villa Juri camping down at the bottom of the hill next to the old town. It's funny how some places just leave such good impressions, such a lovely vibe in Berat, I would certainly visit again.

More delights awaited us as we negotiated the terrible conditions of the road between Durres and Tirana and headed north to Shkoder.

Camping Legjenda, complete with swimming pool, very welcome in the continuing heat, arranged a boat trip up Komani Lake to the Shala River the next day. The increasing tourist traffic must, surely, necessitate an upgrade to the access road. There was no dodging potholes, the whole road for many kilometres was one huge pothole. At the ferry port where a sign telling us there were no trashes in heaven was studiously not adhered to, we were herded onto a small boat and set sail up the river to our lunch location. A journey reminiscent of a Norwegian fjord passage unfolded as we headed upriver. Not what I had expected, a stony beach in the middle of the river linked with rickety bridges which must surely be washed away during snow melt, but a most splendid meal in Bee Eco restaurant. Plentiful portions of soup and salad. The local fish marinated in a secret marinade, (honey and spices?) and grilled to perfection. To top it off we had a moist nutty honey cake. Did I mention how many hives we had spotted on our journeying through Albania? Every roadside stall selling honey, mountain tea (possibly camomile) and other concoctions. We swam in the icy river and walked further upstream to a less frequented area which we wish we had noticed at first.

Our next adventure was to Theth in the Accursed Mountains. Reading about the Theth to Valbona trek I had concluded that in this heat, (have I mentioned the heat?) it was not something I wished to do. The distance is a punishing 19k, a bit too far for me these days. But I did want to see Theth. We journeyed up after a farcical bus trip. What did drivers do before mobile phones, how did they conduct their business? Think of the many stops as bus stops but not to let passengers on and off but to deliver packages or chat to someone or whatever else the driver needed to do. Not speaking Albanian meant I could indulge in fantasies. Police stopped him on one occasion, could it have been for shouting on his phone and gesticulating wildly with no hands on the wheel? It did keep him quiet for a few miles but he soon started up again. We stayed with Ada in her family's guesthouse, Zariklis. We took a walk to the Grunas waterfall, wandered around the village passing mostly younger hikers and one older group who passed us with vacant stares and heavy tread and deliberate pole placement. Decidedly 'knackered'. We made the right decision but spent a very pleasant 24 hours there. Again, Theth is a victim of its success, with its instagrammable church and the proliferation of guesthouses and the other dubious construction activities make one wonder whether it will be able to retain its charm as an authentic mountain village where family feuds still exist and farming is gradually declining. We are to blame, after all, those of us who can travel and visit these out of the way places, and I find it a conundrum. Better long-term planning and infrastructure are needed in most places, tourist destinations or not.

Leaving Albania we had two excruciatingly long border controls into Montenegro but finally rolled into Green Bar camping, a low-key place outside Ulcinj with a muddy beach (we are spoilt in Australia) and a genial host and staff who genuinely wished for us to join in on the drinking activities but we managed to decline, swapping drinks for seafood and a noisy night from the entertainment at the hotel next door. She did have a good voice though.

Things we observed:

1) Seat belts clearly need to be only worn in urban areas

2) Taxi and bus drivers must talk on their mobile phones in very loud voices and sometimes resort to video calls if their shouting gets them nowhere

3) The drivers of black Mercedes are exempt from road rules and speed limits

4) The Accursed Mountains are truly blessed

5) Shitet is not an insult; it means for sale

6) Albania's GDP seems to be based on watermelon, honey and wildflowers

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