Our first stop in Albania was Berat, also known as the town of a thousand windows on account of its long, many-windowed Ottoman houses. Driving there on our bus from Athens was not the most pleasant experience. The closer we got, the worse the roads got, slowing the bus right down (which, at least, was a change from the maniacal midnight mountainside driving). Also, as day broke and we could see our surroundings, we got a fairly negative impression of the country.
It is, of course, one of the poorest places in Europe – and it shows. While some of the houses we passed in the countryside were very nice, all freshly painted in pastel shades, with well tended gardens, a lot were unfinished shells, all grey concrete and clumps of rebar sprouting up like dark bamboo, and with no sign of any construction under way. Some were semi-unfinished, by which I mean that only the ground floor was finished, and apparently inhabited, while the upper storeys were grey shells. I didn’t see many of the famous bunkers, but there were a few on the way to Berat.
The other thing that really stood out was the amount of rubbish everywhere. Albania has a beautiful natural environment – lots of mountains, just like Korea – and some wonderful heritage, but there seems to be no culture of clean and sustainable refuse disposal.
Back on the subject of Berat, we stayed at Lorenc Guesthouse in the Gorica area of the town. The place is a seventeenth century house with thick stone walls, a couple of staircases up to the front door and a mini vinyard in the back garden, from which the owner produces a fiery, absinthe-like drink called raki. Said owner, Lorenc (ie, Lawrence), is a short, middle-aged man who could talk for his country. He lives with his mother and they looked after us very well, plying us with simple but good food and lots of tea and coffee – and a few shots of raki.
The Ottoman houses of the Mangalem and Gorica areas of Berat are white-washed, black-timbered structures, the upper floors of which tend to overhang the street below; in this much, they resemble Tudor houses, although they’re different in shape. They’re all built higgledy-piggledy on the hillside, and the result is extremely picturesque. Also in the town are various churches and mosques, but the other main attraction is the castle.
Berat castle is pretty unique in still being inhabited. It’s not so much of a castle as a hilltop fortress with a whole village inside. When we walked up there, there was a lot of construction going on inside – one of the dangers of off-season sightseeing. The place was a maze of medieval stone houses; the view of the surrounding river valley was not bad, except that if you looked down at the slope, it was covered in a scree of garbage.
We spent a couple of nights in Berat and then took an early bus up to Tirana, where we were due to stay another couple of nights with our very first Couchsurfing host, Sara, an American teaching there. The motorway up to the capital was the best road we travelled on in Albania, but another sign of the country’s poverty was the fact that it had neither slip roads and bridges nor traffic lights at the junctions; instead, each junction was a roundabout.
Once we got to Tirana, we took a local bus to Sara’s area and walked. We met her, left our bags at her nice, spacious apartment then went to meet one of her friends, Allan, another teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, and the four of us took a furgon (minibus) to a town called Elbasan.
Elbasan is a castle town part way between Berat and Tirana and is the home of an Albanian holiday called Summer Day. The drive there was spectacular and terrifying. Most of the way, the road clung to a mountainside near the top of the ridge. Out of the windows on one side was a vast gulf extending to the mountains on the other side of the valley. I considered at various points that any accident that sent us over the side would be certain death for us all. At one or two places on the journey there was nothing but air on either side as we passed over saddleback or bridge.
We arrived safely, of course. The town was bustling with Albanians enjoying the weather and festivities. I’m not really sure what the festivities were. There was a concert, which we mostly missed. There were lots of people selling a kind of biscuit that looked like large rusks and turned out to be very crumbly and sweet. We saw a placid-seeming bear sitting in the middle of the street; it was on a chain held by a man and had a gypsy-style necklace and no teeth. The castle in Elbasan was an integral part of the town, with various shops and houses and fancy cafés inside.
My overwhelming impression of Albanians comes from this day. They seem uniformly working class, a nation of chavs, in fact. The men and boys were all dressed in their best fake leather jackets or white tracksuit tops and jeans, their hair military short and gelled up in spikes. The women and girls were dolled up in tight pants or short skirts and high heels; underneath their best downmarket style, they were generally quite attractive.
We walked around, got some kofta – prepared by a guy with cigarette in one hand – there’s also not really any such thing as no smoking in Albania – had lunch, then drank coffee and played cards – we learned a new game, Jacks and Fives – and finally headed back to Tirana. We had left it a bit late to get a furgon back, so we had to contend with a crowd of Albanians running towards any minibus that past the pick-up point (there aren’t any bus stations in Albania). Then we had the joy of the death-defying ride to the capital.
We spent the next day sightseeing around Tirana – once we’d climbed from our slumber. Sara had very kindly and trustingly given us a key to her place and allowed us to stay there during the day while she was at work. We ate lunch at a, by Albanian standards, very fancy place called Era in a trendy area near Sara’s known as Blloku. Our meal cost us about £7 or £8 each.
We walked to a park with a big lake with an inevitably litter-strewn shore. We passed by the Pyramid, a communist era building shaped like, well, not precisely a pyramid, but more of an angular cone. We walked from Mother Teresa Square to Skanderbeg Square (named after a medieval king), which turned out to be the Albanian Trafalgar Square as it was surrounded by various government buildings, all painted in a very distincive mustard and red colour scheme.
We planned to leave Tirana the following morning, so we said goodbye to Sara that evening, as she would leave for work before we would probably even get up. Then, talking it over in our sleeping bags on pallets made of settee cushions, we decided that we weren’t ready to head off yet. So Habiba asked Sara if we could stay another night and the answer was Yes.
We didn’t do any sightseeing stuff that day and only went out to get lunch and coffee. Later, we went to a nearby restaurant with Sara and had deep fried frogs legs for dinner. Quite tasty, like a slightly chewier version of chicken; one pair of frog thighs is not very filling, but that’s OK – you get a plate full of them.
Staying on in Tirana an extra day was a good idea. It gave us a chance to rest and do internet stuff and Habiba and Sara got to hang out more. Sara’s a very nice woman; she’s extremely similar to Habiba – they have very similar interests and tastes, even ways of speaking. They got on like best friends.
So that night, we said our goodbyes again and, early the next day, we headed out and caught a furgon to the north-western Albanian town of Shkoder. The place was a stop on our itinerary mainly, if I recall correctly, because it made travelling up the Adriatic coast easier. However, it also had a castle – Rozafa Castle – which, it turned out, was quite impressive and much cleaner than the one in Berat.
In Shkoder, we didn’t have any accommodation booked. We were supposed to have stayed with a Couchsurfer, but he cancelled a couple of days before we were due to arrive, and we couldn’t find a replacement host. So we booked into a cheap hotel that the CSer recommended, Hotel Rozafa.
This is communist-era hotel and has a distinct split personality. The reception and café were as nice as any mid-range hotel you could find anywhere. Then the tiny room we stayed in – for about €10 a night – was pretty grotty. The walls were graffitied – a little, anyway – the bathroom and wardrobe doors didn’t open and close too well, the bathroom ceiling was missing large chunks of plaster and the light fitting there was dangling by a couple of wires. However, it was as clean as you could realistically expect and the beds were warm and not uncomfortable. Wifi was available in the café, so we were happy enough.
In the evening, after exploring the castle during the day – and walking the two or three kilometres there and back to the town centre, along ordinary town streets, one of which was underconstruction and nothing but an expanse of coarse gravel – we had a look at some of the other notable buildings, including a mosque and a cathedral. Habiba wanted to know why, when I hate religion as much as I do, I always want to look at temples. The answer is that they’re often the most beautiful and interesting buildings around – very much intentionally so; the sense of wonder that is generated by a big building was one of religion’s main selling-points.
We also discovered a pedestrianised high street that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a touristy town in Italy or France – a surprise after the relative environmental and infrastructure poverty of the rest of Shkoder.
In the morning we said goodbye to Albania and headed to Montenegro.