Before I start this post let me apologise to my regular readers that it has been so long since the last update, but Dee thought it might be a good idea to rest a plate of watery pasta on the laptop which subsequently spilled and broke the keyboard.
I (Dee) would like to point out that Ross wanted me to hold about four things at once as he was busy eating and watching TV and I was simply attempting to pass him something that he’d asked for.
I guess that out of all countries on this trip, Albania is the one with the worst international reputation. I know that it is the country that Dee was the most nervous about due to the tenuous assumption that everyone in the country is associated with the Mafia and human trafficking.
Even in camp-sites other people I have met have told me to watch out in Albania and more recently been impressed that everything was fine. We actually didn’t feel threatened once. As another traveller once said, “As soon as you adjust to life on the road, you realise that most of the world is actually just ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives”.
The nearest thing to a problem that we had was being a bit ill and the fact that they all look upon MasterCard as some kind of curse, to be shunned and seen only in capital cities, so accessing money was a bit of a trial. Still managed it in the end and spent a bit over budget as the gas bottle had run out and refilling it was and is impossible.
The first night after crossing the border we stopped in a little farmhouse restaurant that let us sleep in a field with the cows after out meal. Lovely lamb dinner for next to nothing and some home brewed wine. Unfortunately Frankie ate all of the bones from the rack of lamb and still hasn’t “passed” them.
The next day we knew we had a long drive to get to the south of the country and back to the Mediterranean. Having driven for several hours and the heat of the day became unbearable even more so for the dog when we spotted a lovely looking river parallel to the road and decided to pull down next to it and lie in the river until the heat passed. Having found a track that lay right down to the river and spending twenty minutes draping the car in every sheet and tarpaulin we had to try and keep the car cool we were walking towards the river for a dip when we noticed some police men shouting at us from the bank to our massive inconvenience it turned out that the river marked the Greek-Albanian border and our attempted swim in it looked to the police like an illegal border cross and we were forced to move on hotter than ever and now a little bit more pissed off.
Having finally reached the coast we found a lovely clifftop bar over looking the silky blue waters of the Mediterranean sea with an empty car-park in which to spend the night, having spent the last six nights wild camping or sleeping in a restaurant car-park we were sticky and dirty and absolutely desperate for a shower but we weren’t prepared to pay for a campsite just for this privilege especially when we knew that we would need to start paying for camping in some of the bigger towns we were going to be visiting. So the best we could manage was a night time dip in the sea to at least replace dirt with salt. The owner of the bar was more than happy for us to sleep on the beach if we wanted.
The following morning we planned to go snorkeling in the same sheltered cove that we had dipped into the evening before. So I stupidly went straight in thinking Ross was still following me and that the waters would be as calm as the night before, but apparently Ross got distracted by his D&G sunglasses and there was a strong undercurrent that pulled me straight under, taking my bikini bottoms too. Battling to get back above water with my clothing in tact with men shouting at me from above, (I’m assuming) to get out the water I was rather upset and something along the lines of “Ross! Help me up, you d**k!” gurgled out my mouth.
So snorkeling was out of the question there and after I had gained my composure we decided to visit the ancient city of Butrint built up by the Greeks and Romans and occupied by the Byzantine’s surrounded by the Mediterranean sea on one side and the clear blue Lake Butrint and rolling hills on the other, it’s set in picturesque surroundings where we spent a couple of hours leisurely strolling around the sights.
This was followed by a drive up the beautiful coastal road along the cliff-tops and past the forest that holds the “Flag Pine” tree which holds the same shape as the black eagle on the Albanian flag. Himare was the first town we stopped in and found a really chilled and friendly camp site as we drove in, big pints, barbecues, showers under the old olive trees and an array of ‘entertainment’. After dinner, we were told that we would be treated to some live music, a welcome surprise (at first). Until the lady started singing, her musical style was, well, different. She had written (I assume) her own songs, which were some weird combination of mid 90’s Acid House and French 1940’s singing. The second song had only one lyric over some kind of Detroit Techno B-side: “I’m trying not to be waiting”. Something tells me that if you’re talking about a record deal, you will be for a while love.
The other benefit, or so we thought about that camp site, was that the majority of the people there were English, not something I almost ever consider an advantage, but after a long time on the road, we were thinking it might be nice to sit and chill with some people without the language barrier, or without me having to pretend I know anything of English league football. However, when I heard the English guy on the table next to me laugh and finish his sentence with the word “Bantah!”, I knew it was not to be. I went over and had a much more pleasurable conversation with an Albanian pill-head about 90’s trance music.
For those of you that don’t know the Land Rover absorbs all the heat in the sun all day long and trying to cool it down in the evening is a struggle, unless we want to baste in our own sweat in the night-time we have to leave the door open to let in a breeze with a mosquito net over the door. Apparently we didn’t put the net on very well, after hearing the high pitched squeak of mosquito’s in our ears one too many times we decided to turn on the lights and kill the couple that we thought were in the car. Apparently the smell of our sweat had attracted every blood-sucker in the area, literally about thirty mosquito’s were swarming around the back of the car having an absolute feast at our expense trying to swat them and put up another net around our bodies took a wee bit of time and patience, needless to say we didn’t get the best nights sleep and Ross woke with about forty bites in the morning.
Even Frankie was itching:
At this point I would like to offer an observation about beach bars in eastern Europe. I have found that at all hours of the day, with bars that are almost exclusively empty, they like to blast out club hit and little local specialities such as this one;
People along the beach try to sandwich themselves in the small slivers where the noise from one bar cannot be heard, but on most beaches, this does not work and trying to place yourself equidistant from two only has the much worse effect of having two competing songs vying to annoy you the most. Invariably the busiest bars are the ones that play the least music. I really don’t understand how they haven’t figured it out. p.s. how funny is that song. I’ve had it in my head for about two weeks now. Enjoy.
We got to the long golden beach of Drymades and enjoyed an afternoon on the beach, where we both discovered that we like Draughts, although Dee doesn’t like chess, and that it makes nice evening entertainment. Board games are fun.
Dee is telling me to write about the fact that we body surfed in the swells coming in that day. I would rather write about how I body-surfed, the nearest Dee got was clinging on my back and using me as a human surf board.
Another little mid-post anecdote here. I am proud to say that I have almost completely gotten over my fear of wasps. A great achievement for me I assure you. I have, however, developed a more real and rational fear of the Mega wood wasps they have here, at least five times the size of their now non-scary cousins. Unfortunately sitting in a bar full of big Albanian bastards, and jumping up and flailing when one comes near you, does not really compute with them, especially as I had seen one guy notice one had landed on his bare chest and he barely even blinked. So, yet again, thanks this time to flying insects, I looked like a pussy in front of blokes. The following morning after staying at Sea Turtle camping (a camp-site run by two brothers, with a really lively bar in the evening filled with many backpackers from around Europe; tents set up with mattresses/pillows etc, breakfast and dinner for £8 per person) we went for breakfast, unfortunately the huge tubs of honey had apparently attracted every wasp, wood wasp and hornet in the area over the course of the summer and there must have been well over 300 flying around the kitchen area. As soon as I picked up my breakfast there was already five wasps sitting in the honey and just as many flying after me, needless to say I had to leave my breakfast on the side as I ran to avoid them.
Leaving Drymades in search of Berat unfortunately meant we had to drive away from our night time saviour; the cool sea breeze. The renovation of Albanian roads seems to mean that any map published more than ten minutes ago does not show the country’s roads at all, so while we thought we were travelling on the motorway that was on our map we were actually travelling on a brand new one so after getting into the farming hinterland at the centre of Albania and Ross getting stung by a wasp that flew up his shorts we decided to screw Berat (by this stage we’ve seen enough old architecture) and head back to the Northern Coast. We knew of a camp-site near Durres so we headed into Durres to find it and/or another place to stay. Honestly, awful place. We have subsequently learnt that Durres is the only place on the Mediterranean where pollution has lead to skin rashes and infections in swimmers. The camp site was actually only 20 km south of there and although a bit pricey it was bloody lovely. Fortunately for us, as we were both ill the following day and had to spend the day laying by the car in the shade recuperating.
Following our sick day, we carried on to stock up on supplies and see what the capital, Tirana, had to offer. We wanted to get there relatively early to find a spot to park the car, see some of the ‘top spots’ and then head up to one of the three national parks surrounding the north of the city. We had heard there were some great off-road tracks leading to some secluded mountain top lakes. As per, the best laid plans of Ross and Dee turned into us being really hot driving around the city, that although interesting, is a drivers worst nightmare. We drove through south to north having decided to not stop and just point the car at the mountains we could see in the distance. However, Mount Dajti and its eponymous national park are incredibly steep and we drove to the base of it before realising that the road was a dead end and the only road to the national park involved driving back through the city and going around in a loop from the west. We reluctantly went and came across a lovely town, Kruje, in between the city and another national park where we stocked up on the vitals (gas, coffee and paracetamol). We then found the road that led up Qafe Shtama National Park along the cliff-face, a drive that rivalled the Transfagarasan, and if Top Gear ever drive it in the near future may pip its title. To crown what had previously only been a prince of a day we found the best spot we ever had to camp, perched in a small clearing at the very top of the mountain with the most staggering view (albeit obscured from the smog from Kruje), still, we had a superb evening and Frankie really appreciated the opportunity to run free to his hearts content with us safe in the knowledge he couldn’t steal food from any other annoyed campers.
Heading into Kruje town the following morning we realised there was a bazaar along with Kruje Castle in the old town, where I could finally get the chess set I had been after for some time. We were chuffed when we got one for £3 and then rather instantly disappointed when we opened it to find it was missing two bishops, one knight, one pawn and a rook. Although I decided it gave me a chance to try my hand at carving. On a totally unrelated subject, I’m not very good at carving. I am however good at improvising. Corks are now bishops, a piece of macaroni is the rook, the pawn is a bottle-top and the knight is the version I attempted to carve. Also, none of it matters, Dee doesn’t like chess so we ended up playing Draughts with the pieces.
We also got to take this photograph with the sale of our chess set. Way more valuable I’m sure you’ll agree. p.s. I refer you to the “proud to be an Albanian” song from earlier in the blog.
The rest of the next day was rather uneventful as we covered some distance, tried to pull in at Lake Koman, when, after following off-road tracks for hours and the dog running away for even longer than that, twice, we gave up and retired to a nearby camp-site in Bababullush.
We were supposed to carry on to the the National Park by Theth village, but thanks to Albania’s new and completely un-signposted roads we ended up at the Montenegrin border sooner than planned, we decided it wasn’t worth turning back and heading to the mountains only to turn around again the next day, so with no plan or prior knowledge of the country we crossed the border.