We sat and waiting in the Gyro shop in the town of Larisa north of Athens. We had to return our rental car before 4 PM and our bus to Albania did not arrive until 12 AM. We had a lot of time to kill, and our last few hours were spent at the bus station Gyro shop. The only warm place open until that sort of ridiculous hour, and the owner didn’t seem to mind us and the approximately ten other Albanian passengers killing time there.
The bus was late, but it was warm. There was no room under the bus for our luggage so our backpacks and stroller ended up precariously packed in the aisle of the bus. We somehow managed to get a little bit of sleep, and Dan had his first experience with an overland border crossing in southern Europe. All his life he had been taught to never hand over your passport and let it go out of your sight. He wasn’t in charge of the passports though, I was, and I am a veteran overland border crosser. When the border attendant came to collect the passports, I handed them all over and promptly went back to sleep. I never even noticed the moment of panic in Dan’s eyes. He told me later that he became calmer when he saw everyone else on the bus do the same thing.
Morning came too soon after a disjointed sleep on a bus, and we found ourselves kicked off the bus in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. While Dan located all our luggage I struggled to find our current position using the GPS on my phone. Either my GPS was wrong, or we were no where near the city centre of Tirana. In fact, we were not even in Tirana. Apparently this is to be expected, as we were the only ones looking even slightly alarmed. An Albanian gentleman bundled us into a taxi and off we went to Tirana. This time our arrival agreed much more with my GPS. We were a bit annoyed at the idea of having to pay for more transportation after our bus ticket most definitely said “Tirana” on it, but our taxi driver refused payment even after repeated attempts to give him some money. To this day, I still don’t know if this shuttle was somehow included with our bus fare, or if this was our first glimpse at the famous Albanian hospitality.
After trial number 1) killing time in Larisa and trial number 2) actually getting to Tirana, came trial number 3) getting to our hotel.
I had booked our accommodation a few days prior to arriving. We had the address saved into the map on our phone and our booking number written down. After discovering that not all streets were actually on the map we had downloaded, we still managed to find what we assumed must be our guest house. Except the gate was closed and locked. Or so it appeared. After standing in an alley, outside of an unmarked gate in the cold for what seemed like ages, ringing a doorbell that received no response, I decided to try the gate again… but this time with a little more force. It turns out the gate was not locked, but just very stuck, and we managed to enter the front courtyard. Knocking brought the same response that ringing the bell did… which was nothing. But the front door was also unlocked, so we let ourselves in.
Dan was completely uncomfortable with the entire process and expressed his dissatisfaction as I wandered through the house, opening doors and looking for signs of life. There was none. So I picked out a room which seemed nice and we moved in. Apparently all this was the correct process, as the owner seemed completely unfazed when she came home and found us in one of her rooms upstairs, and even brought us some cakes.
Every interaction we had that day was with people who were eager to show us their country and who seemed genuinely happy to have us there. Even our waiter at dinner that night sat with us for a while to discuss travel, politics, and his desire to go overseas to complete his studies. Even those who didn’t speak English were warm and welcoming.
In the small town of Berat, where we broke the front wheel off our stroller, and Jacob finally started crawling on his knees instead of army crawling, we learned to love the slow pace of life in the Albanian countryside. Here we enjoyed beautiful views from the castle, beautiful meals in the restaurants, and some of the fastest internet ever found (shame on you Australia and your poor excuse of an internet.)
It was our drive down to Berat which first introduced us to driving in Albania. We had previously driven in Tirana, but this was just a whole level of insane only found in the capitol. Driving in the countryside was a completely different experience. It was from the country roads that we were really able to get a picture of life in Albania. We saw both sides of the country; the good and the bad. We saw innumerable bunkers littering the country side. We saw countless buildings half finished, with exposed concrete and rebar sticking out of the stop like broken bones. We saw pollution and littering which all seemed to end up clogging the rivers and waterways. But we also saw a lot of beautiful and happy people. We saw farmers herding their turkeys to market. We saw old men driving a donkey and cart. We saw smiling couples having their wedding photos taken. Driving through Albania was the absolute best way to see this country; both the good and the bad. And the act of driving through Albania itself was also one of the biggest adventures we had in Albania.
Albania will always hold a special place in our hearts. It was here we met some of the most beautiful and generous people. We saw some of the most breath taking ancient ruins, and had some of the most delicious food. It was here that even with my most in depth planning, every day still held numerous surprises. The challenges of travelling in Albania have now become some of our favourite travel stories.
There are not many places in the world that I yearn to return to, but I am happy to have Albania on that list.