The day after we returned to Athens – Saturday – we did some more sightseeing – the Temple of Olmpian Zeus, which was very close to our hostel – and planned our journey to Albania the next day. We should have done that planning earlier, really. We thought we would be able to take a bus to Ioannina in north-west Greece, then another to the border town Kakavia, then another to Gjirokaster in southern Albania, and a final one to our destination of Berat. Probably doable.
However, Habiba spoke to the travel agency that had organised our trip to Santorini, and found that there were Albanian travel agencies that run buses to the country. So we went to the area where they all reside and bought tickets for a direct night bus to Berat for €35 each.
Habiba’s mum left very early for Istanbul and a flight home the next day. We were going to have breakfast together, but she decided she needed to get to the airport as early as possible. We said goodbye to her at the hostel and then went back to bed.
As we were now not travelling during Sunday daytime, we had another day to look around Athens. We had breakfast at a café with lots of baked stuff near the Acropolis. A small flock of little birds sntached up our crumbs – which we provided readily enough from our crumbly pies.
Then we went around the Roman Agora and the Ancient Agora. We didn’t have to pay any entry fee for either because it was Sunday. The Ancient Agora is in a large park that contains a completely reconstructed ancient building, the Stoa of Attalos (a stoa is an arcade), and the Temple of Hephaestus, which is perhaps the best-preserved ruin we saw.
Afer that, we walked up a nearby hill called the Areopagus, which provides a great view of the nearby Acropolis. It started raining while we were up there, so it wasn’t all that pleasant. We headed back to Snytagma and watched the soldiers dressed in traditional tunics in front of the Helllenic Parliament building. They were evidently in service of the Ministry of Silly Walks, as they slowly marched back and forth with exaggerated leg movements. Behind the parliament is the National Garden, which was not exactly bursting with colour, as it was a rainy early spring afternoon.
In the evening, we picked up our bags from the hostel and made our way by subway to the Albanian travel agency and – with some communication difficulties – got on our coach bound for Berat. The seats were pretty small. The bus was less than half full; we considered moving to different seats to get away from people behind us kicking our seats, but we reasoned there would probably be more pick-ups later. We never did move and there was only one person picked up along the way.
The ride was pretty hair-raising. The driver powered the bus along narrow, winding mountain roads. As it was night-time, we couldn’t really see much outside – probably a good thing. The drive was so hectic that getting any sleep overnight was out of the question.
When we got to the border, we got out of the bus and presented our passports one by one at the Greek Immigration desk. Then we drove on to the Albania checkpoint, where a man got on the bus with a passport-width wooden box and collected everyone’s passports. A while later, the driver’s assistant gave them back to us. Habiba and I check our Albanian stamp – plain black and not very interesting.
Then we had more windy roads to navigate up through Albania. Past Gjirokaster, closer to Berat, which is in the southern central of the country, the roads degenerated to patchy country lanes. The bus had to slow right down in many places in order to pass. Then there were various stops at small towns near Berat that drew the ride out to thirteen hours. I showed the driver the address of the place we were staying at and he eventually let us off at a footbridge we had to cross. From there it turned out to be a short walk to the guesthouse.