'Bunkering' up the coast of Albania


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Europe » Albania » West » Durrës
October 5th 2010
Published: October 5th 2010
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Albanian coast


From Saranda in the south of Albania I planned to return north along the coast - this time with my new travel companion. Not only did we share the same name and passport we also shared the same birthday. Jon, was originally from Penang in Malaysia but had lived in the UK since he was 18 and had worked for the National Health Service as a radiographer for ten years. He was now a British passport holder and had moved to Alberta, Canada to work. This was Jon’s fourth time to the Balkans and we shared the same basic itinerary of Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia. He loved it, especially Slovenia which I had also loved having been on an activities trip in the Soča River a few years previously.

The morning we headed to the bus station in Saranda it was raining cats and dogs - a shock to the system in mid September in this part of the world. Neither of us had an umbrella so we had to get a cab to the bus station (more of a space on a street). We were determined to head to some beaches in Albania - it was meant to be the least developed of the whole of the Mediterranean so we headed for Dhermi and the beaches. The coast line was very pretty and dramatic, with mountains jutting into the sea and road winding around it along the coast. At one point we passed a bay where there was a hatch inside the side of the hill which was like a James Bond villain hideaway - in fact it was used as a subterranean submarine base during the Cold War.

We were dropped off in a town and looked around the place - on a drab overcast day, it was practically deserted as we strolled around to get a feel for it. We both decided to move onwards but everyone said that there were no more buses for the day so we did the only thing we could - hitch hiked. We waited five minutes and a Mercedes Benz soon stopped and we jumped in. Using bits of Albanian, English and Italiano we managed to make ourselves understood about ourselves and our intentions to the two men in the early fifties who were travelling back to Tirana. Soon, these guys then stopped for an espresso at a very dramatic set cafe overlooking one of the beaches high above on a cliff - then a waiter brought us a pair of binoculars to view the scene below.

They next dropped us off at our intended destination of Dhermi a deserted beach with a few hotels built along it. The weather was a bit depressing but we managed to find a room to share at Hotel Luciano and we settled downstairs for some lunch overlooking the bright beach and brooding sea. We didn’t really do much for the rest of the day, Jon took the double bed and I took the bunk bed in the next room which was covered in pink Barbie doll duvets. The toilet had a broken seat, the shower hose holder was also broken and there was no-where to hang up your clothes or a towel but at least I had my Barbie doll to comfort me.

The following day was bright and sunny and Jon and I went for a stroll along the beach which had concrete bunkers interspersed between the hotels. These things are usually tiny and almost impossible to dig up so people just paint them in bright colours or use them to lose their virginity. We decided to leave that day to continue our journey northwards so we hiked back up the steep road to the top of the town and the connecting highway and waited for the 12 O’clock bus. It didn’t turn up so we asked a local and he said 1 pm, we asked the guy on the bus from the opposite direction and he said 2pm and another bloke said 12.30pm. ‘Sod it!’ we thought and stuck our thumbs out again and after about 3 minutes we got a ride with Bruno. Not only was the baldy in a blue Adidas tracksuit not wearing a seat belt but the roads were tight, right on the cliffs’ edge and often hair pins but Bruno decided to chat on his phone and do some speeding . I was in the back with a seat belt on feeling a bit worried but then Jon showed me his seat belt wasn’t working and he was getting all the front seat action. We soon stopped for (what else?) an espresso and seeing as he was driving us we paid for him and us. We were soon at Vlora - a city that was over a third of the way up the coast - Jon and I discussed what we should give him as a tip and even about getting a photo with him - we had read that in this part of the world people expect the equivalent of a bus ticket. However, this Del-boy turned into a cheeky bastard and actually asked for money - the equivalent of 35 Euros no less! Neither of us was willing to tell him to f___ off so we had a hoo and ha about the real price and explained about hitch-hiking and then chucked around 20 Euros at him; but the greedy git still wasn’t happy but then neither were we and it kind of soured the experience from the other geezers who had picked us up.

Anyway, he had dropped us off at a place for furgons (a nine to twelve seat van) and wee soon on one and on our way northwards up the coast to the busy port and brief capital of Albania (1918-1920) - Durrës. I had a couple of hours stuck on this furgon to look forward to - but I can’t read anything for long without getting car sick - a major impediment to actually doing some reading on a country. But thankfully I had my Microsoft Zune (rival to the ipod) - and another gripping episode of my favourite Mormon polygamist TV show Big Love (second series). Then suddenly there was knocking on my window - Jon was outside the furgon pointing for me to get off - we had reached Durrës.

Or rather that’s what we thought; some sort of busy intersection with flyovers meant that we weren’t in the city centre so, after passing the eager taxi drivers I followed Jon who had his face in the thick Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe (it’s so big it’s like carrying a bible). I’d noticed that Jon had a rather annoying habit of walking ahead of me and seemingly oblivious to the travel companion he had - and it wasn’t as if he was much taller than me. I had already made a point in refusing to walk in my flip flops as if I was in his beat-up hiking boots - with him perennially some distance ahead of me it must have looked as if had had an argument.

After twenty minutes of walking - we didn’t seem any further into the city and we wondered where we’d actually been dropped off. It was then that we passed some Albanians who were staring as we passed and an unexpected, ‘Hey how’s it going guys?’ which produced an internal reaction of ‘...smart arse’ but which quickly turned to, ‘Hey! You speak English?, ’Yes...?’ to ‘Oh, great, can you tell us how to get to this hotel? In the city centre’. Sure, he said and went out of his way to look at our map of Durres only to announce that we were ‘about ten miles from downtown’ - this fella had either spent some time in America or had been watching onehelluvalot of Hollywood movies/episodes of Friends. But he very helpfully put us on a bus that would take us all the way into the city centre. We said our goodbyes and I shook his hand in appreciation for saying ‘ello when he did.

The orange coloured bus was from France - stolen or legitimately bought I couldn’t tell but I definitely didn’t have a carte to scan as instructed but I did have the 40 Albanian leke (20 p) with which to pay the conductor. Don’t think uniformed bus conductor of all nations - this was a middle aged man dressed in a fashionable plaid shirt with random English words written on the back (à la mode) in fashionable dark jeans and wearing flashy pointy Italian shoes. What’s the male version of mutton dressed as lamb I thought? Anyway, I was sat at the front and so had a front row seat of this guy and the driver act out a comedy scene. Approaching a red light the bus suddenly jolted forward which sent the conductor grasping for a handlebar - he looked at the bus driver with a look of disgust and then rebuked him with exasperated words and choreographed hand gesticulations. The driver listened and looked at the conductor’s dramatics - he had the look of someone who’d heard it all before.

At the front of the bus the conductor began laying out his coins on the dashboard - but the bus suddenly swerved to the right and he nearly went out the closed doors. This produced a howl of angry rebuke from the conductor towards the bus driver - I imagined an English translation as: ‘What are you trying to do, kill me? I’m trying to count this money and you nearly crash us into a wall? Can’t you just drive straight?’ This produced from the driver a comic ‘I’m listening to you’ quickly followed by a wry grin at which point I couldn’t help myself from laughing. But the conductor noticed my mirth and looked at me so I tried to cover my mouth with my hand. It was ’On the Buses’ - Albania style.

From the central square we walked to the B&B Tedeschini listed in the Lonely Planet but it was fully booked for a couple of weeks by an archaeological team from Italy. Durres has the remains of Roman amphitheatre which held 15,000 people, Roman baths and impressive Byzantine fortifications from 481 AD - so they will have plenty of opportunities to dig. The B&B was formerly the Italian and then the Austrian consulate in the 19th century - the owner kindly offered us to come inside and look around - a wonderful house of antiques and old furniture - the best place we could have stayed at in Albania and at only 15 Euros a night - a steal.

Instead, the owner phoned ahead to another hotel - so we walked to the multi storey concrete building but when we entered the owner wasn’t around. An elderly gentleman babysitting the place led us downstairs into the basement - a dark reception and breakfast area full of leather sofas, statues of shit and dust covered bottles of whisky and other spirits. The owner eventually turned up (he had been in the toilet) and showed us to the room and we settled in. The bathroom was tiny and flooded the place when I took a shower which I had to hold above my head. The TV remote control didn’t work but at least the air conditioning worked - however, when we returned from a walk about and a meal we found that the owners had come in and turned it off. We went out and stopped at an outdoor restaurant and shared a huge platter of grilled meats that had very little seasoning and some pieces were just bits of bone - a very disappointing meal.

We then went for a walk around the city and stopped by Bar Torra set inside a huge Venetian tower - but there was nobody about and we felt a bit bored sat at the top overlooking the port.

The next day we went on a day trip to a place called Kruja - catching two furgons to the castle of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg (real name George Kastrioti) who repulsed 13 Turkish invasions over twenty five years during the 15th Century. The town is set in a hill top and is very picturesque - but the museum within the castle walls is pointless with no explanations in English and the murals painted in comedy Disney widescreen (the Turks being like something from Aladdin). The museum was designed by Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son in law - nepotism never felt so bald.

We walked back down to the town, watching our step along the slippery cobbled streets as well as the gantlet of tourist souvenir shops. But there were some good antique shops and I spent a good hour looking for some in a shop. I was vaguely looked for something Communist but didn’t ignore the reality of totalitarianism in Albania but there were no posters and only a few tatty overpriced books and medals. Everything was a bit overpriced and on reflection I didn’t need any more things to carry - but the owner was unimpressed with me ‘no good for business’ she called out but then she shouldn’t have needlessly followed me around picking things out for me and equated this to buying something.

When we got back to Durres we went for a walk along the beach front - or rather a dump for building materials and some odd brown compost. It’s here that Albania comes into its own, cafes and hotels alongside decrepit fun fair rides and groups of males sitting at tables drinking espressos and smoking cigarettes. Some of the bars further along had actual sand but it was strewn with rubbish and broken boats and bicycles. We grabbed a table at a cafe and after waiting 30 minutes for our pizzas to turn up it was the most underwhelming meal I think I’d had in months. How can herbs not be added to pizzas? How can pizzas be fucked up so badly? We watched the sun set as the locals came out in their finest for promenading along the waterfront - not an unpleasant way to end the day.

We got up early the next morning and walked to the bus station for a bus to Shkodra, a city very near the border with the former Yugolsav republic of Montenegro. This was to be our last day in Albania. We missed the 7.30am bus by a couple of minutes and the next was at 9.30 so we placed our bags underneath the bus and watched it keenly from the cafe where we ordered two espressos. From our table we watched the station in action: The man who sold packets of crisps from a chair and the cat who persistently jumped up onto his leg every couple of minutes. The shoe shiners who busied themselves polishing up white trainers.

We arrived in Shkodra and immediately looked for the travel agency to buy our tickets onto Montenegro - but it was shut. So we retreated to a busy cafe/restaurant and ordered some Tortellini and other dishes and waited an hour or two passing the time writing up my travel blog. Jon went back to the agency and came back with two bus tickets to Ulcinj in Montenegro.

We then for a walk about the town - and I noticed the strangest thing - people rode bicycles here - much more than anywhere else in Albania. We put our bags onto our backs and in the later summer heat went in search of the Fototeke Marubi - a permanent exhibition of old Albanian photographs. It wasn’t sign posted and wasn’t in a very prominent building - but it was well worth the trouble as it was a real eye opener into how different Albania looked 50 years ago and beyond - a different continent I’d call it.

As we waited outside the agency for the bus to arrive another young fellow with a backpack was stood with us - he wore flip flops, shorts and a backpack but he had the shiftiest eyes - and asked us Jon (playing the Asian) if he was going to Montenegro for work. We got on the bus and Mr Shifty didn’t get on for some reason.

Anyway, we soon reached the border but there was a delay of about an hour - Jon witnessed a border guard getting bollocked by his superior for some reason. Then I noticed three young Albanian men got off the bus and walked back towards Albania - clearly Montenegro is an access point for illegal workers into the E.U.
Anyway, an or two later and we were in amongst the lovely rolling hills of Montenegro - Jon noticed that immediately there was less rubbish dumped about the place - which was partly true - I still spotted some.

At Ulcinj bus station we decided our next move would be to go further up the coast to Bar and then try to hit Budva. So we got a bus to Bar where we were once again dumped on a motorway in the middle of nowhere. By this time another Chinese Malaysian had joined us, ‘Michael’ and we walked to the bus station asking directions from locals along the way. There we waited for the bus to Budva with a beer in the station bar and talked Malaysian politics. Both were pretty scathing of Malaysian society and government and how it was going down the toilet - a universal sentiment from people I’d met from Malaysia. Michael and Jon were both unusual Malaysians in that they were frequent travellers and backpackers - Michael having previously been on a two year sojourn around the world. ‘Way too long for me’ I thought to myself.
The bus soon arrived and we were on our way along the coast. It had turned to night and we could only imagine the dramatic coastline from the dark mountainous shapes and flickering lights from towns below.

At about 9pm we arrived at Budva and as Michael was heading onto Kotor we said our goodbyes to each other - a short acquaintance not requiring email addresses and facebook Ids. Jon and I then walked our way out of the station and walked to the Kanagroo Hotel - the owners having spent a few years in Western Australia. At 48 Euros a night for a twin it was the most expensive of the trip so far - and as Montenegro had adopted the Euro without joining the Eurozone - immediately more expensive than Albania.

It had been a long of travelling and hit the hay pretty quickly after a quick meal of chicken schnitzel and game of Waiting for the Service.


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8th October 2010

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