I had booked a shuttle from Budva to Tirana, the capital of Albania, through a nearby hostel. At the early morning meeting point, I was introduced to my fellow passengers and to Bato, our Montenegrin driver. Once Bato learned of my Slovenian heritage, it was like we were old friends, and we chatted almost the entire way to our destination. He knew an incredible amount of information about both Montenegro and Albania, as he is a trek and tour guide as well as a driver, and is planning to open his own tourism company next year. Look out for this guy: he is awesome! We stopped to take a photo break overlooking Sveti Stefan, a tiny island on the Adriatic coast that has now been turned into a private resort, so no actual visiting allowed unless you shell out the big bucks :(. As we headed away from the water and towards the more mountainous parts of Montenegro, I soon regretted not allotting more time there: just between visiting monasteries and outdoor excursions like rafting and hiking, there is so much to do there! Add that to my ever-growing list of countries that I need to revisit.
Crossing into Albania in a way was like stepping back in time. It seems like the entire country is under construction in some way, shape or form, but there are still constant reminders of how much has yet to be done in terms of infrastructure. (I will delve further into this and transportation in a later post).
Bato took us to an atypical garden restaurant not far across the border for a lunch break. The owner had designed the restaurant and gardens himself, with hand-painted murals covering the walls inside. Delicious and inexpensive food!
When we arrived in Tirana in the early afternoon, the van’s temperature gauge read a sweltering 42 degrees Celsius. Bato dropped us off near Skanderbeg Square, which- thank God- was not a far walk from my hotel. Drained of all energy from the unbearable heat, I promptly passed out in my air-conditioned room and slept the rest of the afternoon. I emerged not long before dusk and strolled around the neighborhood. Passing the beautiful mosque in the square, I continued past parks where green-aproned ladies watered the lawns and children played. Everyone had come out, it seemed, to finally enjoy the evening now that it had cooled slightly, and the streets were abuzz with people of all ages.
The following morning, I left by bus for the town of Berat, nicknamed “The White City” (from its former Slavic name of Beligrad) and “City of a Thousand Windows” due to its hillsides covered in squat white Ottoman-style houses. The bus dropped me off near my hotel, the Hotel White City, whose immaculate inside lavender-and-white painted walls stood in stark contrast to the dusty, torn-up street outside. With the exception of a distractingly blinking fluorescent light in the lobby (if I were epileptic, I would have been very upset), the rooms, service, view, and location were spot-on. It was possibly the nicest hotel that I have stayed in this year. I was offered a complimentary welcome beer which I gladly accepted to quench my thirst, only to realize halfway through, temporarily woozy, that perhaps an alcoholic drink was not the smartest idea in this intense heat. it looked like it was going to be another afternoon of napping in the a/c! I quickly introduced myself to a British couple that had also just checked in, Will and Camille, and we made plans to meet for dinner later that evening.
Once the sun began to set, the three of us ventured out to walk up the nearby hill to get a view from the fortress on top. In the previous few days, I had begun to feel little twinges of tenderness in both hip flexors similar to what I had on the Camino. On our walk up the hill, this rapidly deteriorated from a mild discomfort into “Owowowowow!”
My tendinitis was back. Yippee.
Unfortunately, this occurred at a spot that was most of the way up the hill, so it was pointless to turn around. I’m glad we didn’t, because (hip pain aside) we spent the next half hour exploring in the fading light. Unlike most other UNESCO sites that I have visited, this area only had a handful of tourists, and much of our wanderings took us past intact local neighborhoods on the hill. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live next to fortress!
After dark, we painstakingly made our way back down the hill (I say this because of both my hip and the extremely slippery cobblestones of the steep road. I think at one point Will gave up and went barefoot, but tendinitis plus tetanus was not something that I particularly wanted to risk). We ate dinner at the roof patio of the Hotel Palma, which had fanastic views of the old town in addition to its yummy food. Thumbs up to Ferdinand, our waiter, who was a sweetheart!
Will and Camille left the next morning, but I still had another day planned. Remaining indoors and resting my hip during the heat of the day, I went out in the early evening to explore again. I crossed the bridge near the Hotel Palma to take some photos of the river, which had dried to a shallow stream in the summer heat. On the opposite side of the bridge, the Gorice section of town, lay a tiny roadside produce market. I watched as a middle-aged woman led a much older white-haired lady in a black dress down the steps from the Orthodox church.
As I wandered, a friendly Albanian man who was missing most of his teeth beckoned to me and offered to show me a spot with good views of the town. Hesitant at first because of my hip and the upwards hike, I accepted and followed him up the steps. Introducing himself as Vasil, he became my tour guide for the next hour. We stopped at the Orthodox church, where we met a young boy of about 11 by the name of Dmitri. The enthusiasm of these two was infectious, as they leapt around the building (sometimes literally, as when Vasil climbed to a benchtop to get an aerial shot of me in the church!), pointing out important works. “See! This is St. Nicholas! Very important! This is Last Supper! Take a picture! Wait, stand here! Good view!” I admit, Vasil has some great photography skills.
I thought the tour was done, but we continued on, winding upwards through the labyrinthine Ottoman streets of the town, talking in a gibberish of English and Italian and Albanian but able to understand each other well. Vasil, like the majority of Albanians that I met on this trip, had a very favorable view of Americans. He scrambled up a roadside wall to pick me a ripe fig off a tree. I got to see every nook and cranny of that neighborhood. Above us, a head popped out over a roof. The woman overhead and Vasil had a conversation in rapid Albanian. The next thing I knew, I was being led onto the balcony of a family home and taking pictures like this:
The family was incredibly gracious, with little Elena handing me a tissue to wipe off my fig-covered hands. Liliana, who appeared to be the matriarch of the family, is going to be opening a guesthouse next year and so gave me a tour of their property, complete with a tiny kitten in the still-unfinished bedroom. It was a beautiful view. If I am ever back in Berat, I’ll know to look up Hotel Elena. I was thankful for the opportunity to meet such a nice family: it’s experiences like these that make me glad that I am traveling alone. I don’t know if people would have reached out in quite the same way if I hadn’t been solo.
Back in town, I stopped again at the Hotel Palma for dinner (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) and prepared for my trip to Saranda the next day. The promenade between the hotels and the city was flooded with people, who avoided the ubiquitous areas of construction and open holes in street during their evening stroll.
Berat was a very special city for me due to its beauty and warmth (if not its mid-August heat!) I know that as the construction finishes, tourism will flourish here, so I was happy to get a taste of it while things are still a bit simpler. Do yourself a favor and visit, and while you’re there, say hi to Vasil for me.
Hooray for those special solo-traveler experiences!! Makes me nostalgic!