part 1 | part 2 | part 3
thursday, september 27
Day 4 : From Greece to Albania
We say goodbye to Greece today as we travel to Albania. On our way there, we'll visit the Ottoman town of Gjirokastra, located on a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino, 300 metres above sea level. Known as 'the city of a thousand steps', Gjirokastra is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Gjirokastra, we'll make our way to our hotel in Albania's capital city of Tirana - one of Europe's sunniest cities. You have the rest of the day to relax at your hotel or explore the city independently.
OVERNIGHT : Tirana hotel
despite the thin walls of the hotel - i could hear EVERYTHING in the halls before i went to bed - everyone stayed blissfully silent & i wasn't awakened. i skipped the breakfast bar & headed to the van for our long drive to albania. on the way, beckham played his albanian music cd again, & i sang along to track six, which i swear had a chorus of "you spoon me up some of your goo". (i later found the lyrics, for those interested in the albanian translation of "your goo".) we passed the huge green hills of western greece, & saw sheep & some little towns in the hills. i bought a carbonated lemonade when we stopped for gas (C-) & we all walked to the nearby coffeeshop where jovo insisted on buying my agros sour cherry juice (A++). the coffeeshop itself was titled something totally unreasonable like "the blood & flesh of christ" - okay, dude, whatever works.
i took a screenshot of my phone doing something cool as we arrived at the greek-albanian border. when we were stamped out of greece, i realized i'd never been stamped IN - my last stamp was the one in munich, & i was so utterly exhausted by the time i made it to greece that i didn't even note that there was no customs line. we also weren't stamped into albania, but jovo said we'll get stamped out when we cross to montenegro. bizarre. i learned that (phonetically) "merdita" is "good day" in albanian, & "miraparshon" means goodbye; i asked about "thank you" but it was too many syllables. jovo said no one speaks english in albania, though italian is common, but i was seeing english signs as we drove in (& it turned out everyone i interacted with knew enough english at least to do business). the road after the border crossing was utter shite for a kilometer & we couldn't do more than 5km/h while rocking back & forth through the myriad potholes. we passed a rather pretty cemetery... then another... & i realized we'd seen far more dead albanians than live ones so far. the road cleared up & we traveled several hours to gjirokastra.
the drive was fine, but i came to realize that albania can't decide if it wants to be industrialized, rural, or simply abandoned. there were big fancy buildings next to abandoned ones, farmers & small cornfields next to tire manufacturers, skeletons of half-finished buildings with no scaffolding or appearance of continuing efforts... it was weird. Hopeful Zone thought it was due to their many wars, but that seemed too old an excuse to me. there was also constant trash by the side of every road, plastic bottles & paper & whatever - enough to make me wonder if albanians just don't respect their own country.
arriving to gjirokastra, we stopped for coffee & jovo bought me another drink, a fizzy orange juice thing. (he wasn't buying anyone else drinks that i saw, but i was maybe the one engaging him without demanding constant trivia, so...) we were all set to hike up this enormous winding hill to visit gjirokastra castle, but Bobbsey wanted to take a cab & i jumped at that. we were joined by Phantom & Inverse Luke Perry, & the ride was just 1€ each - totally worth it - to save the sweat & the time. we four went into the castle - for free, actually, as it was "national tourism day" or some such - then paid 2€ to visit their three museums. the prison was cool, the armory was way cooler, & the actual museum-y part was interesting - i didn't know that albania had so many badass females fighting their wars wearing dresses; they clearly take no shit. there was also a bunch of info on albania's role in world war two; i didn't know they had sheltered & hidden their jews - go albania! oh, & the albanian flag is this awesome double-headed black eagle on a deep red background - very sexy. on the less cool side, albania was previously a dictatorship, & enver hoxha declared it an athiest country & murdered all the religious leaders in the 80s... eesh.
we walked down the slippery-assed marble steps in the hill, even more glad we'd spent the euro to drive up, & met the rest of the group for lunch. i sat at the end of the table with Lola, Bobbsey, & Anticat, & we went family-style on the traditional menu - qifqi (amazing), musaka (way better than in the states), sarma (better than the dolmas i've tried & hated, but still not my thing), & shapkat (tasty but i was too full for more than a bite) - & with drinks & tip only had to pay five euros each. albania is crazy cheap! (the menu had english descriptions, so i won't bother transcribing the photo below.)
back in the van, we all napped on the long drive towards tirana. i fell asleep after jovo & woke before him, & he couldn't understand why i was the only one conscious (besides beckham), heh. speaking of beckham, he played his albanian music cd at least ten times during the day & i no longer loved it. -___-
jovo made a quick stop in durres, a little town with some sights & shops. on the way into the town center, i noticed that a lot of buildings & even some cars had signs on them that read "shiten" or "shitet". i laughed & photographed as many as i could to compile for your amusement. as expected, one means "sold" & the other "for sale", but you don't often get to see one of your country's favorite swear words written everywhere you look. i also found several tattoo shops?! we parked & i took a photo that jovo said made the bay look about a thousand times prettier than it was. we changed out some euros for albanian leks at what jovo called "too small" a rate (10€ for 1220L), but i was able to get an albanian "dime" for my dime collection. (technically, an albanian dime would probably be 10 qindarka, but they're no longer issued. since 10 lekë is worth 9.2 cents USD, i called it good.) (also, i brought home a euro dime for greece/montenegro. also ALSO i found a RUSSIAN dime - 10 kopecks - on the street at some point; it doesn't go into the dime collection yet, but it's got a pony on it, so i kept it. :D)
on the main drag, i saw small birds in cages hanging outside of the shops - no one could explain why. jovo again insisted on buying me something - really spectacular blueberry gelato this time. i got my first outright freak-rudeness then: a woman walking towards me gave me a very disapproving look, & her speed was just the right pace for me to laugh in her face as she passed me. she flinched & i laughed harder - bitch, i've had way worse than what you can dish & i do not care that you'd never let your son marry me or whatever. walking back, jovo made me hold his gross cigarette while he rushed into a smoke shop, & he came out with two lighters in our astrological signs - he'd asked me that on the bus earlier. (hmm i think maybe jovo liked me. too bad he was twice my age. X) )
tirana was only another twenty minutes or so, & looked much more like a real city. we pulled up to our hotel & there was some kind of crazy street rave going on? i couldn't hear it in the lobby, but it was VERY loud in my room, so i called down to see if i could move. they were fully booked & couldn't move me, but did say it'd be over by 9:30 or 10, so that was fine. i took some video of it from my closed eighth floor window, & please note the audio was NOT enhanced - that's as loud as it was in the room, haha. i decided to check out the hotel restaurant for dinner, & ended up with another traditional albanian dish of lamb & yogurt. when it arrived, i found it was just lamb & eggs & yogurt & cream, all protein, so i ordered a plate of grilled veggies to go with it. the lamb was pretty good, not fantastic though enjoyable, but those veggies were perfectly charred. the bill was silly - just 1400 lekë/12.50 USD for what would've easily been three servings for me. i took the veg with to snack on, but left the rest of the lamb dish, begging the waiter to give it to someone so it's not wasted. (i'd scooped my portion with the serving spoon, so it was otherwise untouched.) he promised they never waste food.
i went back to my room & was pleased to find the party had stopped completely. i had a soak in the longest single-person tub i've ever seen, & turned in on a fairly comfortable bed.
ps. while greek toilets have one button on the top center of the tank, the albanian toilet in my room had basically a vertical doorknob that you pulled up to flush. & thus continues the documentation of weird foreign toilets.
friday, september 28
Day 5 : Exploring Tirana, then travel to Montenegro
Our day starts with a walking tour of Tirana, as we visit its Clock Tower, the Et'hem Bey Mosque, St Paul's Cathedral and the National Historical Museum. We'll also make our way to the Piramida, the National Art Gallery and Mother Teresa Square. After some city exploring in Tirana, we'll say goodbye to Albania as we cross the border to Montenegro's coastal town of Budva, known for its sandy beaches and eclectic nightlife. Budva also has a rich historical and cultural heritage, which can be seen during visits to the the Church St. Trojica, housing the tomb of writer Stjepan Mitrov Ljubisa, the Churches of St. Ivan, St. Bogorodica and St. Sava. Today will end with a short drive to the ancient fortified and cobbled town of Kotor, where we'll spend the night.
OVERNIGHT : Kotor hotel
i slept great, but breakfast was not great. i tried something called "chicken ham" that indeed tasted like a lunchmeat mix of the two, & i didn't care for it. there was a chunky watermelon jam & a quince jam, & i liked neither on a stodgy croissant. the eggs were good, & the "jam cake" was pretty nice, but the smoked veal sausage was rinse-your-mouth horrible.
we met up with our guide for the tirana city tour, ergys - pronounced like "eric" without the c. we learned that "yo" means no in albanian, "po" means yes, & "thank you" is, phonetically at least, "filamenderath". we talked a lot about communist times, saw a communist mural that sure didn't look communist (that's how they get ya!), & their kickass flag was explained that the red field is for the blood of their fighters, & the double head on the eagle is because they never agree on anything. nice. we walked through the city square, & ergys told us it's named after skanderbeg, the most important person in albania. i liked the square - it was huge & open, & was meant to bring the people of albania together, so the tiles on the ground came from every city & town. a third of the population lives in tirana, which made sense considering how vacant the rest of our drive through the country had been. the square was also full of tiny fountains & other water features that turned on & off throughout the day - the story went that the desperately poor used to beg for water in the square, & so the square is always kept wet to honor those who struggled for water. ironically, ergys admitted the water isn't potable, but it's not like anyone still begs for water nowadays.
there was an unfinished building, like the others i'd mentioned, & ergys said it hadn't been worked on in four years. we visited the only mosque that had survived the leveling of all the religious buildings - it had been built in 1779, so it's even more amazing that it was still around. he also told us cars are relatively new to albania - they were first brought in only 27 years ago, so the drivers have good reason for not being great at it. they don't really follow any rules, & i saw people cutting each other off & shoving in where they shouldn't be, but there was very little honking considering that.
i liked the bunker museums they made, then we saw "the cloud", a japanese modern art installation by sou fujimoto that travels the world. i got a photo climbing around on it, too, & then smacked my head on it. insert pun here. i photographed some big sculptures of stalin, lenin, & a "lady fighter", & for some reason ergys then told us that bananas only came to albania in 1991, & related an incident about his mother not wanting to try them. local color ahoy!
someone in our group asked about all the litter around town, which i'd already written about - turns out it's not due to lack of pride or laziness or anything, but instead it's a bounceback from being under communist rule - people litter because they're free to do so. while i hate that as an excuse, i can't deny how very human it is to see things that way.
we had seen paintings of cartoons on junction boxes & such around town - kenny from south park on the drive in, & bender from futurama in the square itself. there was an artist who'd been painting them around town secretly, i suppose albania's answer to banksy, to protest communism. edi rama, the artist in question, was eventually found &... though i expected ergys to tell us he was summarily executed, the story had an upbeat ending, as he's currently the prime minister of albania, hahah. talk about a success story!
next, we visited the pyramid of tirana & heard how albanians were each assigned a day a year to "go cry there for the supreme leader". ergys said the pyramid is so ugly it's interesting, & i said that's also how i get dates. :D we also saw one of the real bunkers still standing. i walked down into it for a photo, & liked it - it was private in there.
we said goodbye to ergys after that, & packed up the van for the three hour drive to budva. we passed mother theresa airport - i was mildly surprised albania has an airport - then we got into some drama as the engine mildly overheated (a ten minute rest & it didn't reoccur), & the cops pulled us over. we thought they wanted a payoff, & jovo said it might be ten euro, or maybe 200... but they'd pulled us over for passing during double lines & apparently 40€ was enough to end the situation. (i don't know if it was trumped up for a bribe or was a genuine ticket, since traffic laws there were so sketchy, but maybe albanian cops have quotas too? it was getting to the end of the month.)
at a restroom stop, i bought another amita sour cherry drink. there was a cute albanian guy there who didn't speak english, but nevertheless found ways to ask in gestures about my sleeve tattoo. i nerd-flirted with him by typing "thank you, you are cute" into the google translate app & showed him the result - he got all blushy & said, "i am?" Hopeful Zone laughed at that with me, as i'm pretty sure that was all the english he knew. i finished my drink & blew him a kiss as i walked to the van, & he reciprocated. ^_^
near the border of montenegro, there were a few small souvenir shops together, & i bought a black currant drink from serbia (C+), a one liter carton of the amita sour cherry drink i liked so much, & received a 50 lekë coin with a horse on it - into the "keep this" pocket it went. :) jovo continued his streak of insistently buying me things - this time, he handed me a small bottle of albanian brandy & said it was "for pride" - which made little sense to me since he's from macedonia? but okay, i accepted it since he was clearly not going to listen to "but i don't ever drink", hah.
we crossed the border easily, but without an albania stamp (booo!), & stopped right away at a gas station - apparently montenegro's gas is far superior to albania's - where i spent five euros on delicious-looking candies i've never even heard of (giotto, delirium, & EUROCREM BLOK which i fear may turn me into an angry german hausfrau) plus a kinder surprise (because they're illegal in the states & that's all the reason i need! though it got a bit smashed by the time i took the photo, heh). (note that i rarely eat candy on vacation; i buy all the weird stuff & then go through it very slowly back at home.) & beckham finally put on the radio or played a different cd or something, so we got to hear some montenegrin music. (i liked it too!)
the roads were utterly tiny as we twisted & turned down montenegro's answer to the pacific coast highway, but that didn't stop the drivers - ours included - from passing at speed. (it wasn't as bad as that one road in hawaii, but it did elicit a few gasps from the group on some turns.) i took a ton of photos of the adriatic sea, which jovo said was so shallow that you can walk 500 meters into the sea & it's still only knee-high. he also said it was warm, though, so i would've done so had we encountered an opportunity. we also saw st stefan, an island literally covered in fancy AF hotels - the whole place is guarded & some rooms are 30k euros a night!
we arrived to budva (which always sounded like "boudoir" in jovo's accent), & met our guide, iva (pronounced ee-vah), who walked us through budva's "old town", established in the fifth century. she taught us that "budva" means oxen, & that's how people first came to montenegro. the language is basically similar to serbian & croatian. in 1979, there was an earthquake that made a roman basilica appear out of nowhere, & we saw it (but i didn't photograph it as there really wasn't much to see). montenegro has a huge bell near their old town, but it's from a pirate movie filmed there in the 60s, &, iva confided, is plastic. for present day, the average salary per month is 480 euros, & families live together their entire lives.
apparently it's common in the balkans to skip lunch, so we were starving by then. jovo suggested his favorite local fish restaurant, the old fisherman's pub, & i ran off there with Hopeful Zone, Kinesis, Lola, & Anticat. Lola split the fish platter for two with me, & we had some delicious sea bream (the larger fish in the photo), sea bass, mussels in tomato sauce, head-on shrimp, baby octopodes (which i've been trying not to order anymore, because they're becoming smart enough to take over the planet, & i don't want dna testing to out me as the oppressor when that happens), & some of the best grilled squid i've had, plus rice & veggies. (also of note is that they put their sides on the menu under the heading "intensification"?? i wish i knew the story that translation took.) after, we passed an enormous selection of gelato, & i failed to resist a small scoop of cherry gelato - & i'm glad i didn't, as it was pretty exceptional. it even had chocolate chips hidden in it, & here i'd been considering a second scoop of chocolate. :)
we said goodbye to budva as the sun began to set, & drove the short distance to our hotel in kotor. kotor is known as "the pearl of the adriatic sea", & i got to photograph the sunset over the black mountains of montenegro. the photo with the pool is from my hotel window, practically right on the water.
my room was quite nice, but buzzing like mad - i found the source & unplugged the mini fridge, which needed a thaw anyhow. (i waited for the first hunk of ice to drop, then knocked off all the rest & put the chunks in the sink to melt - don't worry, i wasn't doing it to be kind so much as to avoid being startled by falling ice, & equally to avoid making a puddle to step in with socks.) i also had to unplug the phone, as it kept beeping every fifteen minutes for no discernible reason; but since i'm a tech nerd, i couldn't help but be intrigued by this super weird german phone... wtf, who needs this odd handset feature?