Sunday, 22 February 2015

ALBANIA. THE INLAND.THE NORTH, LAKE OHRID AND BERAT

Komani lake, North Albania
Lake Ohrid
Albania may not be on top of your list at the moment but push it up there... The country is still a virgin in the sense that humans have not interfered in nature much. And it is not as popular to tourists as its neigbours Greece and Montenegro. People are still genuinely curious to talk to you and know why you chose their country and are happy to answer all your questions. They don’t want to sell you anything, not yet…And you are not looked at as a walking dollar. Reminded me of what Bulgaria was when I was growing up – no resorts or shiny hotels, lots of wild beaches and camp sites, of course, really bad roads and poor infrastructure but people were much nicer to each other. The poorer, the nicer. Much less to lose, much more to give. So please, hurry up to see one of the few unique places in Europe left…I give it maximum 2 years and all that will change. The big corporations would bring their cranes and excavators to “develop” the country and as a result people would realise that they could actually make money instead of being so nice.


Right after the border. Already in Albania
I got to the north of Albania first, hitching a ride in Kosovo just before the border. As always I knew close to nothing about the country I was getting to. Country #6 in the Balkans, I didn´t do any research and therefore had no expectations. Everyone who is not a traveller was telling me ”Be careful” or simply “Don´t go!”. I think movies like “Taken” could be blamed for the bad fame Albania has. The truth or at least my truth was quite the opposite. The most genuine and generous people I have met on my 3 months travels around the Balkans (together with the Bosniaks). The most incredible beaches and mountain rising up right next to them, huddling together just to give you more privacy. Albania took me by surprise big time! I remember when my couchsurfing host in Uzice, Serbia told me her favourite country in the Balkans was Albania, I said OOoook but kind of smiling inside and doubting that that would be mine too.



Valbona was my first stop in Albania, right in the heart of the "Albanian Alps". The region bordering Kosovo to the northeast, and Montenegro to the northwest, in combination with the adjacent district to the west, is a wild, high, mountainous area inhabited by strong and fiercely independent people, so it was never really conquered or subdued by the various waves of invaders during the last 2,000 years of Balkan history. The village itself is not really a village since it does not have any shop or any public institution and the guesthouses are quite a few km away from each other. But there is no doubt about the beauty and how isolated everything is from the rest of the world. 
Most travellers come here to do the famous Thethi – Valbona hike, which is 8h hike one way from one valley to another. You usually carry all your belongings with you which makes the hike pretty difficult since the elevation is quite big. But once you get to Valbona you can relax and stay at villag house. What most people do, including myself is to take a ferry ride on Komani lake. 
 
A family of 14 picked me up in their van at the last section of 10 km at that forgotten by everyone road. Kosovars from Gjakova who emigrated to Switzerland 20 years ago, all very nice and happy






Leaving Valbona
In Fierzë, waiting for the ferry
It is a two-hour drive to the ferry's Fierzë terminus. When I say ferry I don’t really mean ferry but it is known by everyone this way..It’s more like a big boat but we did take a few big motorbikes on board. The boat tour costs only 5 from Koman to Fierze and 10 euros from Fierze to Koman. It is longer and more scenic the way back because they go inside the canyon and stop at a secluded beach where you can jump and swim. Anywhere else in Western World, this two-hour trip would be hopping with tourists, but Albania is not a big draw – for now.
Three Check bikers were the last passengers
The ride is simply beautiful. I had no idea...The surface of the lake is perfectly still. The steep hills on both sides and the mountains beyond are empty of human life. There are no visible roads, no telephone wires to connect this place to the outside world. It's not difficult, to imagine you're drifting through a landscape that has lain undisturbed for centuries. After an hour into the ferry journey, the tree-lined hills give way to sheer limestone cliffs which gradually close in until it looks like you've run out of lake. Just as you conclude you're heading straight into the side of a mountain, the water opens up again and you turn into a narrow passageway between two vertical walls of rock.
   



The water was freezing but almost everyone jumped in

Arriving at Komani lake
We arrived at 7pm in Koman. Most of the passengers went straight to Shkoder in a van organised from their hotels but I stayed in Koman. There is a cute campsite, called Natyre, right by the river that had very simple cabins for 5 euros. The owner of the ferry - Mario also stays in the summer and nice to let  me use his wifi. There were lots of Campervans and Polish, French and Belgian families travelling around the Balkans.








Tirana
Next day the mission was to get to Pogradec, at lake Ohrid, at the other side of the country. Since I was going from a small village to another small village, it made no sense to even ask about buses. So hitch hiking it is! It went all smooth and fast. I got rides from nice people, no one spoke English but we still manged to get basic conversations (Italian helps quite a lot in Albania). I made it to Pogradec in 6 hours with a stop in Tirana. 






I got dropped of right in front of my hostel in Pogradec. I was prepared this time and had a flyer that picked in my hostel in Prizren, Kosovo and the driver insisted to take me to the hostel. Recently my hitch hiking experience has reached another level - it works almost like a taxi, almost from door to door, no waiting at all. One exception - it is free and the drivers are usually very nice :). If you ask me now how and why I picked Pogradec as a place to stop in Albania, I wouldn't be able to answer. But i am glad I did it. It is right at Lake Ohrid and it might not be as beautiful as its Macedonian rival - Ohrid, which lays on the other side of the lake, the town has something. I stayed in Lake Ohrid hostel, which used to be owned by 3 expats who have a few hostels over Albania but now it was given back to the owners of the property. And they were really nice and friendly. It is the only place in town that has a swimming pool.
 
It was the end of Ramadan and on my second day at the hostel I was invited to have lunch together with the whole family. It was the traditional lamb they always have after Ramadan, even though they weren't religious at all. It was very tasty and very nice of them to invite me. 
I took a bike from the hostel and went to Sveti Naum Monastery just across the border in Macedonia (first time crossing a border on a bike).

The view from the border control
I was surprised how many wedding parties I run into just in Pogradec, It was Sunday but still...I saw at least five. Either on the beach or in the park, they were all posing for their photo sessions. I never come across wedding parties at home and when I travel it happens so often. Sometimes I even get invited to them so I always carry an OK black dress that I can use on any occasion. After my short visit to Macedonia I realised I can´t just go without seeing a bit more of the country (I´ve been there years ago). So next day I left Pogradec to go to Ohrid in Macedonia for a day or two (but of course I stayed longer).
 

Berat, Albania
BERAT - Town of a Thousand Windows
After my short visit in Macedonia, I came back to Albania. I met some cool people in Ohrid, Macedonia so I extended my stay there. Some of them were heading exactly the same direction as me - Berat, Albania. But instead of travelling together we made a bet who´s going to get there first. Me hitch hiking or them (4 Slovenian guys and a Kiwi guy) using the very "efficient" Albanian bus sytem. The result: I won by 5 minutes. 
Actually I should have won the race by hours but I decided to sleep till 11 when the guys left at 8am. So all showered and fed, I was already 3 hours behind when finally I hit the road at 12h. I was quite lucky with the rides (all together 9) in the sense that never waited longer than 5 min but no one took me for more than 40km. And on top of that, my last ride to Berta, was with the milkman. he stopped at every single shop in town to deliver the milk. At this point I already thought I had no chance and was about to go buy beers for everyone (part of the prize the winner gets) but surprise, surprise, no one was there when I got to the hostel. They all came 5 minutes later. 
 
Berat´s most striking feature is the collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill to its castle, earning it the title of 'town of a thousand windows'. It is on the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. 
We stayed in Berat Backpackers hostel which was full of backpackers and had a great location in the Old Quarter. I think it is the only hostel in town and they accept volunteers - they had a Kiwi guy volunteering at the time. In the late afternoon a big group of us headed to Kalaja, 14th century Christian citadel of ruins. The neighbourhood inside the castle's walls still lives and breathes and is perched on the top of the steep hill. When we were approaching the top of the hill, we began to understand the town’s nickname. It’s a twenty walk up a steep cobbled street but it is a high-light and well worth the sweat!
  
All the group. Looks like I am the only girl again...But who won the race??

Berat from the fortress
View from the hostel
Glen being ashamed of taking us to the opposite end of town
Next day me and my group of guys had another race: Saranda, the southernmost beach town in Albania. Again, they wanted to take the bus and me and Glen (who turned out to be smarter than the others and decided to join me) went by thumb. The start wasn´t very successful because we lost an hour on the town bus going to the wrong end of town and then had to go back and get to the other end. Who said that guys are better with directions? 
Anyway, we got picked up by 9 different cars, by all ages and genders but one thing in common - all nice and friendly. We even mad a beer stop in a nice beach cafe in Vlore. Glen loved it and we made it to the hostel before the other group. after that everyone was convinced that that´s the way to travel in Albania. And not only...Two of the Slovenia guys went hitch hiking all the way to Istanbul. I´m so glad that I converted them :))
 
Trying to get us a ride. First timer
 
Some Italian guys who gave us a ride
Apart from its obvious and still unspoiled beauty, Albania is one of the few places in Europe that tourism is still undeveloped and people just wanna talk to you and help you in whichever they can without any ulterior thoughts. And hitchhiking is the best way to travel (I´ve converted so many people already), unless you have Albanian friends (with a car) who know the roads well. And I haven´t even mentioned the beaches yet...

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