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Published: September 30th 2017
Geo: 40.71, 19.96
Albanian travel is SLOW ... I cannot emphasize this enough! The guidebooks warn of it, as do all the travel forums, but they don't really prepare you for the snail's pace of transport in this country. Knowing this, I left Ohrid early - instead of catching the 8:30 bus, I splurged and opted for a taxi, despite it being several times more expensive than the slow, meandering bus.
Being the terrible negotiator, I ended up paying 15 Euro for the ride to Sveti Naum, despite being told by another taxi driver yesterday that the rate was 13 Euro - while this used to matter to me in the past, I've realized that a Euro here and there is insignificant. For North Americans it's chump change, but for a local it does mean something - why bargain hard for something that in the end, matters little?
The border is an interesting one, with a five to ten minute walk through no man's land separating both countries, a likely by-product of Albania's former Communist leader Hoxha, and his infamous paranoia. Crossing the border was far less painful than I had envisioned, having read tales of two-hour waits to get through customs,
taking maybe 20 minutes, including the walk and waiting at both borders.
From the border, you need to either catch a taxi or a furgon, an Albanian minibus, to Pogradec, the nearest transport hub. There is no such thing as a bus schedule here in Albania, as official buses are rare, and even then, their times are subject to change. The furgons are often a far more efficient method of transport, as they run more frequently, but they don't leave until full, which can sometimes take an hour or more. Further complicating matters is the fact that there really are no bus stations in Albania, only places where buses and furgons congregate.
Luckily for myself and an American lady I met in Pogradec, Nikola, we only waited for about 30 minutes before our first furgon departed, and we were dropped at an intersection in Elbasan, where the driver instructed us to watch for the Berat bus coming from a certain direction, and flag it down. In Albania, you just need to have a little faith, as you just never know when that next furgon will show up, and simply hope that some how, some way, you'll get where you need to
View of Kala, From the Gorica Quarter ...
... Kala is home of the 14th-century citadel, and is one of the historical Christian quarters in Berat.
We waited for a little while, with a number of furgons and buses passing by, none seeming to be headed to Berat. Finally a large bus came by, with the driver doing his best to ask us where we were headed, with his non-existent English and our non-existent Albanian. Luckily for us, a passenger hopped off and told us that the bus was headed for Kucove, a short 5-10 minute ride from Berat.
We hesitated at first, not wanting to be headed on a slow bus to nowhere, only to be stuck waiting another hour in the sun in Kucove for the Berat bus. But Bledi assured us this was a quick bus to Kucove, and that there were frequent connections from there to Berat - so we had a little faith and hopped on board, with his promise that he would take us to the next bus and make sure we made it to Berat ...
Shortly after that, we saw epic Albanian driving idiocy at its best, with our bus driving through a little town, attempting to pass another bus through a narrow road. That wasn't so bad, but it was the oncoming traffic that had us worried,
with the bus slamming on the brakes, and the oncoming car sliding off to the side of the road. Disaster averted, but the bus stalled, and was unable to start up, sitting in the middle of a busy road.
In typical Albanian fashion, Bledi hopped off the bus, as did others from their vehicles, trying to push the bus off to the side, so that traffic could get through without having to pass a bus stranded on the wrong side of the road. After much monkeying around with the engine, the driver was able to get the bus going again - hooray!
Shortly after that, we were making a slow-speed left turn and of course, the bus stalled AGAIN, but this time in a far worse position, in the middle of a busy intersection. Once again, locals jumped out of the car and pushed the bus off to the side, while the driver once again monkeyed around with the engine and fired it up once more - hooray!
Overjoyed at our driver's work with a wrench, we were on the road once more, until ... it crapped out a THIRD time. This time the bus driver gave up, and told us to
Kermit and Miss Piggy ...
... didn't expect to see frog legs at an Albanian restaurant, but they are apparently quite popular here. Fried in something like a beer batter, they weren't greasy at all, but were delicious, crunchy and salty. These were probably taken from the river today - though a fan of frog legs, the ones I've had before must have been frozen, as the flesh on those ones was a tad fishy and chewy. Not these, however - tender and super fresh. We chuckled at the sight of these, as we expected to see only the individual legs, not the entire frog!
get on another bus to Kucove that had stopped behind us. Bledi took us over to the driver and asked him not to charge us, since we had already paid for the bus that crapped out, and hopped on board with us. We were on our way again - hooray!
After one last transfer in Kucove, we were finally bound for Berat, with Bledi purposely going out of his way to make sure we made it there, though it meant him having to backtrack to his home in Kucove. Feeling bad for all of Bledi's help (he even carried Nikola's backpack a fair distance, and tried to carry my day pack, as well), we checked in and took him out for a traditional Albanian meal of salad, french fries, bread, grilled pork, and ... fried frog legs??? Yup, frog legs - the Albanian surprises continue! Pork and frog legs ... the Albanian version of Kermit and Miss Piggy!
Settling the bill was another interesting affair, as we were handed a bill for 12,500 leke, equivalent to 100 Euros - was this an attempt at a cash grab on the stupid tourists? Any other country, and that might have been the case,
View of Mangalem, From the Gorica Quarter ...
... Mangalem is the traditional Muslim quarter of Berat. Though there isn't all that much to see in Berat, the most enjoyable part is just relaxing and soaking in the city's atmosphere, in addition to enjoying the lovely views.
but not in Albania. I had read something about this in the guidebook, but Bledi explained to us that in smaller Albanian towns, when they say 1000, they actually mean 100. WTF???!?!? So our bill was actually 1250 leke, a much more reasonable 10 Euros.
I have no idea why this is, but you just have to chalk it up to being in Albania - stories of the quirkiness of the country are infamous amongst backpackers in the Western Balkans, with tales of oddities such as roadside markets with a dozen stalls, and each of them selling lemons, and only lemons.
Tales of sitting at an outside terrace hoping to have something to eat, only to be told they must eat inside, as outside tables are reserved only for coffee drinkers. And then sitting down inside and ordering pizza, only to be shuffled again upstairs, where pizza eaters were to sit, as the main floor was reserved solely for those ordering other food items. I shudder at the thought of what were to happen if a group of three people came in, with one looking for a coffee, the second for a pizza, and the third for a mixed grill
Berat's University ...
... it's privately-owned by a man who also has three or four other universities spread around Albania.
- the World as we know it may very well cease to exist, if this situation were to present itself!
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