February 29-March 1, 2016
Getting to Tirana
We took a hired car service to Tirana from Kotor. One of the hostels in the city chartered the service as there are no public buses that make the route. 4 of us loaded into a small hatchback Audi and spent 4-5 hours speeding through winding roads. The driver was completely reckless. He was even pulled over by a cop for going too fast.
We struggled to find our hostel through the twisting unmarked roads that turned from paved to unpaved without any notice. Finally we were able to locate our hostel and were showed in by a very nice and enthusiastic young Albanian guy. The room was decent, clean, and sufficient for a night.
We walked around the city and quickly realized it was not worth our time. It was depressing and didn't offer much. There seemed to be nowhere to eat, just places to sit down and drink. We'll be spending the majority of our time here in our rooms catching up on much needed rest. We did try authentic food and drink (a very strong grape brandy called Raki). As we walked around we noticed very small concrete bunkers scattered throughout the city. I had actually noticed quite a few during the drive as well. The bunkers are large enough to hold only a few people. There are actually 24 bunkers per square kilometer within the country (700,000 throughout Albania). The bunkers were built 1 for every 4 people during the socialist era. For those of you that cannot do math that makes the population ~2.8MM.
The country is the least developed of all countries in Europe and we have noticed this almost immediately. Albania has only just received adequate waste removal within the last 15 years. Trash littered the streets and small streams. Albania is known for having poor air/water quality. Much of the gasoline used in their cars is imported illegally--it contains higher levels of sulphur than is permitted by EU. See article here for Albania's pollution problem.
40% of Albanians smoke and they seem to smoke everywhere and always. Even our hotel room had an ash tray. The drivers are extremely reckless. They seems to ignore pedestrians and even when they see them they feel as though they still have the right of way. Its shocking to see that many of the cars are Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, etc. given how poor the people are. We've read that many of the cars are actually stolen from Western Europe. However we've also read that despite having low incomes many of the people here like to portray an image of wealth.
Hopefully Berat will be more impressive.
Getting from Tirana to Berat
After reading several websites (mostly blogs) we learned that we had to go to December 21 square to catch a bus to Berat. Once there we can take furgons or buses. While the buses are cheaper the furgons are smaller and only leave once there are full. Also the buses don’t have a regular schedule.
We walked all around December 21 and had no luck tracking down a bus. We asked a few people, who pointed us in a direction, but they did not speak English and we’re sure they had no clue what they were talking about. We asked a group of young adults eating at a café and then confirmed again with a hotel staff member about where to catch a bus. They pointed us to the Tirana bus station 1.5 miles away. We both were a little confused because all the blogs that we had read said that Tirana has no official bus terminal and that buses depart from various locations around the city. I can conclusively say that this is not the case. Please see the pictures below of the location of the official bus terminal of Tirana and where to catch a bus from Tirana to Berat. The bus was 800 Lek ($6.40 USD) for the both of us
After a short 2 hour bus ride we took a cab for 400 Lek ($3 USD) to our guesthouse. We wanted to make the most of our day and didn't feel like wasting 45 minutes walking into town. Our guesthouse is right off the street in the center of town behind a mosque. The call to prayer projects directly into our room. We'll no doubt have trouble sleeping through the night. Nonetheless the man who owns the guesthouse is a very nice guy and has offered to make us breakfast before we head our tomorrow for $1.65 each.
The Town of a Thousand Windows
We walked up an old steep rocky road towards the 2,400 year-old castle. As we looked behind we could see the multiple mosque spires scattered throughout the city, the white houses, and the beautiful mountains in the background. As we took a very weathered rocky switchback path up a nearby hill we noticed pine trees growing out diagonally. The path to the castle was not marked and I relied on my phone’s GPS and downloaded map of Berat to find the castle. I was expecting a building but the castle was more of a walled city with very old houses. The walls contained a small community of homes, a museum, and some shops. It was fun getting lost in all the cobblestone alleys.
We continued to walk through the city and enjoyed the gorgeous, much needed, sunny weather well into sunset while sipping on coffees and eating Albanian cuisine. Everyone we’ve encountered seemed to be extremely eager to please us. Maybe it’s because we are the only tourists in their city or maybe it’s the fact that we come across as wealthy, though many Albanians dress nicer than we. The coffees were each 50 lek ($0.40 USD) and an order of peppers stuffed with ricotta cheese was 150 lek ($1.20 USD).
We strolled around some more taking advantage of the weather and beautiful lighting before heading back to our guesthouse.
A Much Needed Nice Meal
Finding good (and healthy) food has been close to impossible in many of the developing countries we’ve been to. So many places serve pizza, hamburgers, French fries, burek (savory fried stuffed pastry) and the like. We ventured to a nearby restaurant and were pleasantly surprised. We ordered grilled veggies, a Greek salad, and grilled beefsteak. I initially thought the wine was expensive at 500 lek ($4 USD) because I assumed that was the price per glass. I was shocked to learn that was the price for an entire bottle. Bo-yah! We obviously split a half bottle of local red wine.
Balkan Coffee Culture
People go out and socialize with friends over itty-bitty coffees at cafes all over town. The coffees are served with water and sugar. I think the small coffees are due to Italy’s influence and their espresso. When we ask if someone speaks English oftentimes they reply that they don’t and ask if we speak Italian. Most of the time people are smoking while they enjoy their 3 sips. I really don’t understand how one can spend so much time sitting and nursing such a tiny little drink. I really wish these cafes served some type of food if even a damn biscuit. It makes searching for food quite an ordeal. We much prefer Argentinian cafecito culture where the coffees are a bit larger and accompanied with a sweet.