Farewell Albania,Hello Greece

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May 25th 2013
Published: May 28th 2013
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For the second morning in a row our hosts brought us tiny cups of strong coffee as we were preparing ourselves for breakfast and the day ahead.

One thing we can say with the utmost surety is that the Albanian people we have met in our accommodations, in the markets, cafés and shops and on the streets have all been welcoming and so friendly that at times it can be a bit overwhelming. They are certainly out to please visitors and can appreciate that tourism will be a way this country does develop as fast as its emerging infrastructure will allow.

We had two choices to cross from Albania into Greece and we decided on the new crossing at Qote Bof close to the coast rather than the principal crossing further inland. We chose this for a couple of reasons not the least that we feel it is part of the adventure to try something new when we can and a border crossing can give you a bit ‘of a buzz’ as you don’t know what to always expect. Secondly the road to the border on our atlas map showed as a proposed new road and we had good experiences in Albania of the new roads developed. Our hostess in faltering English had confirmed ‘the new road ‘and that was good enough to think it had been completed and would give us a good ride for the last 30 odd kilometres of Albania’s roads.

There was also the chance of seeing the World Heritage site of ancient Roman buildings at Butrint as it was in the general area of the road to the border.

We must have missed the turn off to the ‘new road’ as we ended up on the right hand or seaward side of Lake Butrint passing through a dusty looking new small town with new houses. What was glaringly obvious was that there was little or no soil covering the rock that makes up the land in the area and apart from a few spindly olive trees there were no trees or grass in and around the new houses giving it a rather barren look.

We also noticed a number of unfinished houses that appeared to have tumbled off whatever foundations they had as if an earthquake had caused them to lean at the angles they did.Although we searched internet records we couldn't find any recording of sizeable earthquakes in the area recently so it may remain a mystery as to what caused these partly finished houses to topple.

We drove on towards the World Heritage site where it became obvious that the road we were on came to an end at the edge of the outlet to the sea of the lake as the GPS was showing an end to the red line of the direction we had been taking and a small width of blue indicating water and then the red line starting again. Sure enough ahead was a car ferry or should we say barge which was coming across the 50 metre stretch of water where the road came to an end. The barge was attached to a length of wire on which the barge went back and forth across the narrow strip of water with one car on at a time.

I got out and walked up to a man who looked like he was controlling what happened on this side of the water and asked what it cost to get to the other side assuming that we would still be on the right road to get us to the border. He looked blankly at me clearly not understanding a single word of my Kiwi English and jabbered away in a language I also did not understand.

Clearly the trip across the water wasn’t going to be for free and we had used the last of our Albanian Lek buying water back in Sarande as we left.

With the language difficulties not overcome and the lack of enough Lek to pay for the haul across the water there was only one thing for it and that was to retrace our steps and try and find ‘the new road’ which if it existed, we knew from the atlas, ran down the other side of the lake.

It was a good thing in a way that we did retrace our steps as we came across two concrete bunkers from the Hoxha communist rule days, close to the road that we could close to and take photos and video of. We had seen others as we had driven the highways over the past 5 days but they had always been just a bit too far away on hillsides to get close to them and although there was one in Tirana it had been moved there as an exhibit rather than one still in place from all those years ago. Here we were right next to them. They must have been hellish uncomfortable for the people who were assigned to them to keep a watch over the area where they were sited with basically just a concrete dome to sit in and a slit to look out from. Such was the paranoia the regime of the time had at keeping Albania and its people locked away from the rest of the world.

Arriving back close to where we had left Sarande an hour before we spotted a road sign that included the border crossing we were looking for and so we headed off in another direction but this time down the other side of the lake. Vicky was a bit unsure of where we were and at times had us driving over open fields. The road was heading in the right direction south but it was hard to say whether it was a new road or one that had just not had a lot of traffic over it as the tar seal was in good condition and for most of the time there was even a centre line.

Eventually though the surface deteriorated and we thought for a moment we were back on the hill in Durres as the surface turned to a dirt track. However that was short lived and as it turned out it was a connecting piece between the road we had travelled on and the new road which had only got as far as being laid from the border.

Leaving Albania was a quick affair and we didn’t even have to pay what we thought would have been €2 per day for driving on the roads while we had been here. Leaving from a more remote border crossing can have its advantages in other ways too such as very little traffic as was the case hereafter a quick look in the boot of the car by one of the policeman who was walking around with nothing to do we were on our way down the hill a short distance to enter Greece.

The right hand side of the driveway which would normally be the entry side was closed and so the only option was to drive down the left hand side and face the opposing traffic. Not that it mattered in the end as you had to park your car and walk up to a window with a policeman sitting inside to get your passports and papers checked.

This too proved to be a breeze with just a question as to where we were going. Our reply brought laughter from a couple of Greek men heading to Albania and they tried to give us a lesson in how to pronounce Ioannina correctly. It was good to see smiling faces and a bit of laughter at a border crossing which is usually such a serious place where keeping a straight face is best so not to attract attention.

Now we were in Greece and the road travelled through farmland on a flat plain with mountainous peaks to our left.

After a stop for lunch at the port town of Igoumenitsa(ferries to Corfu and beyond)we started heading east on SH2 a magnificent 2 lane in each direction new highway complete with median. What was immediately clear was the almost complete lack of other traffic in either direction and we began to wonder if we should actually be on the road because it hadn’t yet been opened. We were climbing quickly but as the gradient was so easy the engine of the car maintained its revs easily.

Looking ahead on the GPS we found that we would soon be turning off this road and taking a lesser route over the mountains as we had instructed Vicky to avoid tolls and there was shortly going to a charge for continuing to drive on this fantastic road.

We must have gone a bit soft since Kotor and “The World’s Deadliest Road’ and ‘The Disappearance into the Fog ‘on the way to Sarande and we decided to splash out €2.40 to cut a good number of kilometres over what looked like another mountain road and at least 30 minutes off the distance to Ioannina. Shortly after paying for the privilege of driving on this masterpiece of a road we entered a 3 km tunnel and upon emerging we could see we had made a wise decision to quicken the trip up and avoid the winding mountain road secondary route.

Our accommodation was in a type of guest house at Perama a small village a couple of kilometres from Ioannina and although the room was compact compared to our last apartment it would be adequate for the night.

It was time to eat local again and during the afternoon we had taken a wander through the small village which has an underground cave as its claim to fame and attraction and had past a tavern where the owner had tried to entice us in for what would have been a very early dinner.

We said we would be back later and we honoured our promise sharing tzaki and a Greek salad as well as veal and tomatoes cooked in an earthen pot and also mousaka.A very tasty meal and eating with the locals was a great way to finish a long day.

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