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Dzīvais vulkāns un šimpanžu karavānaRakia and Untamed BeautyKišiņevas danči un Piedņestras kolorīts

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Alternate Routes · Europe · russian federation · Pskov · Guntis Ērglis

Rakia and Untamed Beauty

Author: Guntis Ērglis1 COMMENT

Wherever you look - machine-gun bunkers are looming in street crossings, beaches, hillsides or any other wide-open space...Soviet-time trains and block-houses bring you back into 20 years old history - although being right next to us - in Europe...Marvelous beaches littered with rubbish, although, wildlife itself still remaining almost intact by mass tourism...Hardly any sign-boards of hotels or restaurants coming into sight and guests being regarded rather negatively...a country, possessing untamed beauty that one has to learn to perceive - this is a general impression of Albania.
Last two weeks of September are the optimum travel time to this Balkan country, when crowds of Italians leave their villas along the Adriatic coast and intense heat falls down to pleasant warmth of just about 30 degrees.
Getting to Albania does not seem too complicated, when leafing travel brochures, however, a real travel to the country of black-and-read flag might present a few unpleasant surprises. The most suitable starting point seems to be a flight to Bulgaria. Then, in the next morning it is advisable to hit the road as early as possible, as an idea of reaching 300 km far-off Skopje - the capital of Macedonia - in just half a day in might prove to be wrong. Joggling in a wobbly bus along the local roads with countless potholes takes at least twice as long. Moreover, ferociously guarded Bulgarian -Macedonian border would steal some more of backpacker's time. Bulgarian border guards - perhaps regarding themselves as the last bastion of civilization - rummage not only the contents of your bags but yourself, too. After two hours of waiting at the border, there is no way to escape - everyone, still determined to leave this country, is meticulously searched.

Some tourists, following advice from the locals, in stead of more expensive Skopje choose a Macedonian resort city Ohrid, favored by the local holiday makers, too. Ohrid, located on the shore of a huge lake would make an ideal spot for overnight stay, before moving on, if only a small buss would stop a bit closer. To astonishment of its passengers it turns away, leaving the lights of Ohrid behind in the dark. Some moments later a rattling vehicle suddenly stops at a gas station that turns out to be the final stop and a buss terminal! It is not easy to find a taxi there even in broad daylight and no more buses are running either - the only way of reaching the two and a half kilometers away resort at eleven in the evening is on foot, carrying all you belonging on your back.
And no glowing neon lights of hotels are waiting there - going at random along the dark and empty streets and looking for a room to let - is the only choice. Not so long and a local granny, gesturing energetically, tries to explain that a room costs 10 euros per person, including cold refreshing shower and a separate bed for each.
Do not even dare to oversleep - in the morning you have to rush back to the odd looking buss station to catch the only buss leaving to Tirana at exactly 12.00 o'clock noon. Reaching of 250 km far-away city is no pleasure ride at all - seemingly short 9 hours in an almost antique buss without air conditioning or other conveniences seem to drag on for ever.

The closer to Tirana, the fewer backpackers are continuing their way on the buss and just a few of us have the joy of seeing a city buss station at 9 in the evening. Closeness of the city centre lessens an overall uncertainty as where to go - rooms to let are on every corner - just look for a signs "hotel", clear in any language. Believe it or not, but bargaining for a room in Tirana, the same way as in labyrinths of Morocco marketplace, is very common, too. You may forget about English language as well - a seller and a purchaser understand each other pretty well anyway. An average price is the same 10 euros - no need to pay more as a choice is big enough. Needless to say that no breakfast is included and a TV box in a living room most often is occupied by the owners themselves. Tirana's visitors immerse in the Post-Soviet atmosphere with characteristic images of workers, painted on houses, and a café named "Partisans". A shoe-shop assistant asks to tick in the map, where are we from and kindly inquires, what has brought us here. The answer - just traveling - causes grumble of incredulity - no one comes here just for sightseeing, he says!

The best way to get to know Albania is to rent a car, as traveling by bus is next to impossible. An overall road conditions, except a section connecting Tirana with Durres - a favorite haunt of Italians - is disastrous. The best vehicle for bumpy roads is a jeep, which is almost impossible to get, or a small and maneuverable car, like Chevrolet Matiz. No potholes are obstacle for the first one, while the second slips nicely between them. An idea of journey in a cabriolet - with hair fluttering in the wind - is absurd and ridiculous, as speed pretty often falls to just 20 km/h.

Beaches and mountains are the most beautiful Albania's features - thereby Balkan mountain slopes and the Adriatic coastline are two directions, advisable for a closer look. Exploring of Shkoder, the former Albanian capital, and its neighborhood is not easy, yet, undeniably worth the effort. A village of Koplika and Theti - lying in the north - encircles mountain tranquility and gentle jingle of sheep bells. Air up there is a bit cooler and some warmer garment might become handy. It's an ideal place for meditative observation of white cumulus clouds, gliding slowly over the mountain peaks...
An occasional small house appears in the distance and a concrete cabin, reminding a buss stop, which at a closer sight turns out to be a small pub. Soon a host, too, appears from a neighboring house and shuffles towards the bar to offer us a shot of plum brandy rakija from a huge bottle, for a symbolic price. Having stopped at a roadside café, you realize what a rarity a foreigner in this country is - even in Thailand's rice fields a pallid skin person receives less admirations than on this side of Balkans.
Balkan Mountains are quite unpredictable - the way uphill along a dried riverbed may turn out impassable, when it starts to rain. Moreover, going downwards, it is easy to lose ones way as river splits into several branches and finding the right one is even more difficult after dark. But do not fret - a woman passing on horseback, clad in a national costume, would tell you the way and go on driving cattle as hundred years ago.

A costal city Vlor is one more destination southwards, leaving closely glued together Italian apartment-houses behind. There, along with incredibly littered beaches, you would find a pretty decent hotel with spacious rooms and a lovely terrace offering a fabulous stormy sea view. A hotel has all the conveniences - except electricity. You would realize that only in the evening - trying to turn on the light! Electricity is limited and switched on only when it is too dark to actually see anything.
An amazing place "that never sleeps" even at night comes into sight, when driving along the mountainous road along the Ionian Sea shore. It is not anything else but a nightclub! And not just a nightclub - it can hold about 2000 people at a time. It features a very modern and tasteful interior - an open air space with no roof, a decent lounge and a very good sound and lights equipment. You may feel puzzled, however, as just some people are moving around on the dance floor. An optimistic DJ, trying to keep up spirits, swears that the place goes wild soon after midnight - just a bit of patience! Yet, around half past one in the morning, still very optimistically, he admits that - well, maybe not tonight! Inertia is very deep-rooted among locals - also huge post-Soviet restaurants are almost empty with no life coziness. Perhaps the main reason is that Albanians cannot afford fancy amusements.
Closeness of Greece has partly saved southern Albanian villages from exceeding impact of Soviet ideology, much less noticeable here than elsewhere in the country. You will find a typical Greek landscape, with small houses squatting on hillsides and small orthodox churches there. And in the ancient town of Butrint - a trace of Roman culture, too.
And be sure not to leave Albania without tasting its national drink rakija - strong grape or plum brandy!

USEFUL INFORMATION

- No international car rental company allows its vehicles to be taken across Albanian border. Moreover, a car rented in Albania can be used strictly within the country. Perhaps the reason is being ashamed to demonstrate their vehicles to the other - over civilized world.

- The easiest way of traveling to Albania is a bus. The cheapest flight costs 1000 LVL per person. There is no railway service in the country.

- Traveling into Albania by car requires considerable driving skills.

- Places for overnight stay in Albania are quite few. An environmental pollution is one of the main reasons for that - it is not very pleasant to build a tent on plastic bottles, food leftovers and other litter. Most of the beaches are owned by Italians, with no free access.

- Except for a statistic estimate of 70%, prevailing majority of Islam believers is hardly noticeable. In Albania - unlike in Macedonia - hardly any mosques or women clad in traditional Muslim garments can be seen, too. Moreover, contrary to prohibition of alcohol in Islam, in Albania it is still allowed.

- Albania cannot take pride in culinary achievements, especially, seafood. Squid turns out to be slimy and stuffed with cold tomatoes and sea mussel not well done at all. Seafood risotto, consisting of over-boiled rice with carelessly shredded octopus, presents a real threat to ones stomach. Gruesome! Food at a small restaurant with oilcloth covered tables and plastic chairs at times may turn out to be much better than at seemingly refined places.

- Getting out of Albania may prove to be even more complicated than getting in or traveling around the country. No tickets for inter-country routes are available at buss stations - being strictly a competence of tourism agencies. And finding a way to get to any other place, except Turkey or Greece, is difficult, too. Much time and patience is needed!

- The locals are not very keen on displaying friendliness. Visitors, presenting themselves as tourists, are just bank-notes in their eyes. In other cases attitude might be even aggressive - no one is going to hit you over head, however, hostility is pretty obvious.

Posted in 2007.

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Martinitolove

Visited: 2009

Don't beleve everything you read in this article! I have been in Albania in May 2009 and enjoyed the stay there very much! Came from Montenegro to the border, rented a taxi for € 70 to see Skoder, Kruje (beautifull old town in the mountains with a castle by Skanderbeg) and Tirana. The capital is phantastic at night, with beautifull people, great food and cool nightlife! The international Mother Theresa Airport is also great. As for a hotel, you can easily get a good one for € 50 a night for two persons. Now I am looking forward to see Borat and Girokastra in the next years. Don't take a car, get some money and take a taxi!!!
And enjoy Albania, an exotic country in Europe!

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