Everyone we asked was a little unsure of the bus schedules to Tirana, Albania. We finally decided to do what everyone suggested and took a taxi to the Struga bus station. It was cheap and worked perfectly. We bought a ticket for Tirana, the capital, and sat down to wait for our bus. I took this time to explain to mom that the blogs said to be ready for anything on the buses. Most people talked about a lack of brakes, crashing off the side of a hill and sitting on the side of the road for a few hours. I wanted her to be prepared. She looked at me and smiled and said "oh well, too late now." We were ready for our adventure. The stories you go home and tell about your surviving the run away bus.
|Mom waiting for the bus to Albania.|
It was a short ride to border/passport control. We didn't have to get off the bus, so much better than the Turkey-Bulgaria border where we stood out in the cold for an hour in the middle of the night! The officials came in and collected our passports and then returned them. It was quick and painless experience. Our entire trip to Tirana was easy, no issues. I kept waiting for something to go wrong our problems to happen. Nothing. Guess no funny travel stories in Albania.
|Mosaic on the National Museum in Tirana, Albania|
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Tirana. Albania does not have typical bus stations. They drop you off and pick you up on the side of the road. The location depends where you are traveling. We were lucky and were dropped off near the main square. That meant a short walk to our hostel, Freddy's. I am getting really good with google maps and we walked straight to our hostel. We checked in and the man said we could pick a room, any room. Mom saw the twin room on the first floor and put down her bag. No stairs tonight!
We went to walk the city. First stop was an ATM for Albanian Lek. Afterwards we walked to the main square and enjoyed people watching.
|A family on their way to prayer.|
We both noticed the smell of BBQ at the same time. Mmmm. Food! The smokey smell was enticing and we went in to have dinner. It was a new country so, time to try a local beer. Dinner was good and we were exhausted and ready to go to the hotel and relax before bed. Those 6 hour bus rides wipe me out.
The next day we were up early and ready to tackle the city and explore the top of the mountain. We had the day planned and it would have been perfect except we did not realize it was Monday and the museums and mountain cable car were closed. Ugh! No worries, we decided to explore the city by foot and enjoy a relaxing day.
We started at Skanderberg Square. A park sat in the center. The first thing I noticed was the number of trees in the area. Young trees were planted in rows upon rows. I found out the Albanian President decided to have 2000 trees planted in the city to reduce air pollution in Tirana by 2015. I looked around and saw the city didn't have significant pollution. We enjoyed the park benches and mom flirted with the old men. What am I going to do with her?
We walked across the square past the Equestrian Statue of Skandberg with his goat head helmet.
Then to Et'ham Bey Mosque, an elegant mosque which survived the 1960's atheism campaigns. We entered and appreciated the beautiful hand paintings on the dome. I walked next door and climbed the Clock Tower for a view of Tirana.
|Mom at the park by the clock tower.|
When I came down, I met a man that was Albanian but had moved to Detroit, Michigan 15 years ago. He walked over to me as I was looking at the map and asked "what is your home country?" I told him USA and he said me too! I was confused and that was when he told me he was here visiting family. He patted his heart as he told me America is now my country with a smile on his face. Then he asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said no he asked if I wanted to go to lunch. Mom came around the corner and stopped to ask if I was ready to continue. I introduced them and she said she would wait for me on the park bench. He looked at me and said "you better go or momma will be mad." I laughed and he gave me his business card and told me to contact him if I am ever in Detroit. I said goodbye and went to find mom. She was sitting in a park waiting for me. Once again she was chatting with the men!
We walked on through a couple of parks to Tanner's Stone bridge. The parks seem to be the social place for men to meet, gossip and play board games.
We walked through central Tirana and over the river to the Blloku, which use to be the communist area. We passed several old communist style buildings and noticed the capitals traffic. It is not often you see a four wheeler in a capital city traffic jam!
|Tirana, Albania traffic jam.|
This neighborhood was fun and alive with cafes, bars, bakeries and restaurants. We decided to try a traditional Albanian restaurant and the food was fantastic! We started with a mixed appetizer plate.
The rain started as we left the restaurant and we decided to make plans to go south to Berat. The weather forecast was predicting rain for the next 2 days in Tirana. There was no point in staying to go to the mountain.
In the morning, we noticed the poverty of the city as we travelled through town to the minibus station for Berat. There were men with no legs sitting and sleeping on the curbs. Children ran out to cars begging for money. I never get use to these scenes. The poverty breaks my heart and I am conflicted every time I see a child begging for money.
We arrived at a square with minivans headed in different directions. We got out of the taxi and were approached by 3 men asking where we wanted to go. Berat. A man took us to his van and we gave him our bags. We crawled into the van and waited while he found others headed towards Berat. We waited 20 minutes until the van was full. It was suppose to be a 2.5 hour bus ride. Our driver was speedy and we arrived in one hour and 45 minutes. We flew over the potholes, through villages with men farming the land to Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage town. The old town sits on a hillside below the fortress. When I saw the city, I understood why it was called the city of 1000 windows.
All you see are windows! As we walked from the bus station to our guesthouse, Nasho Vruho, a local man saw us stop. Mom needed to rest before we walked uphill. I checked my map to make certain we were walking in the correct direction. The local man came across the street and started speaking Albanian. I asked if he spoke English and he responded with "Hotel?" I told him the name of ours and he pointed to an alley, turn left, turn right and put up one finger. I thanked him and we started walking. A few moments later, he was walking with us to our guesthouse. He ran ahead to get the owner. I had read in the guidebooks this would happen so I was not scared or concerned. It was really kind. I think he was more concerned to see me dragging my mother up a hill with a backpack.
|A narrow and steep alley up to our guesthouse.|
He got the owner to come meet her and take her backpack. I thanked him for his help and said goodbye. The owner and his wife welcomed us and offered us tea and fresh fruits. We sat in the bar enjoying the ambiance before going to our room. Once again, another fantastic guesthouse with lovely hosts.
We walked down to the park and wandered the streets of Berat. We took the typical tourist photos.
|Mmmm! I needed a large cold Coca Cola!|
And walked the bridge to the opposite side of the village.
We explored the area until a thunderstorm started. I looked at mom and we both knew it was time for a nap! I would wait and walk to the old town on top of the hill after the thunderstorm stopped. It didn't stop. At evening it was still raining and lightening. Our stomachs won the battle and we walked down the hill to dinner. It was perfect soup weather! Then back to the hotel and a good nights sleep.
The next morning, I walked up the hill to the old town. I didn't realize it was straight up a cobblestone hill until I started my walk. This was brutal, it felt like a session with my trainer. I was huffing and puffing but refused to stop. An older couple were following me up the hill and they were each carrying 2 gallons of water. I couldn't wimp out and stop to rest. They were old and I couldn't let them pass me. This was a challenge!
I reached the top of the hill and explored the cobblestone streets and alleys.
I was joined in my walk by several animals. Roosters, horse, donkey and a goat.
I met several Albanians on my walk. Each had the same response when I told them I was from the USA. They each smiled, patted their heart and said "America good" with a thumbs up. I think this country has had the warmest welcome for Americans. Many people thanked me for visiting their country and told me where they lived and to come for tea while I was in town. I thanked them but told them I was leaving today.
The view from the top was splendid.
I looked at my watch and realized I had a half hour to get back to the hotel before our driver would arrive. The owner of our guesthouse persuaded us to take a private driver from Berat to the northern boarder of Albania and Montenegro. The cost was a little more than the bus but saved us 5 hours. It was an easy decision!
When I returned to the hotel, mom was sitting in the sunny courtyard under a lemon tree.
I had a few minutes to relax before the driver arrived. I sat wishing I had more time in this amazing and friendly country. But we had to keep moving on. I was happy we had booked the private driver for this part of the journey. We relaxed in the comfort of the van and enjoyed the Albanian countryside.
We noticed the differences in Albania. The farms are small and the majority are farmed by oxen. Animals roamed in fields. We saw farmers out with small herds of cattle, sheep and turkeys. None of them were caged. There were no barns. Homes had a teddy bear on the top or hanging off the roof. The Albanians are superstitious and believe little teddy bear wards off evil.
One of the most unusual sights are the bunker spotting the farmland.These were typically at the base of hills. The Albanians built 700,000 cement bunkers which could withstand tank assaults. This was done to protect the Albanians from potential attack by the USSR. They were never used but are seen across the countryside.
We arrived in Shkoder, a small Albanian town along the northern border of Albania. This was just a stop over to get a bus to Montenegro in the morning. We checked into the hotel and met a cute 10 year old boy, Maxasimo. He pointed to a picture on the wall and said "that is me!" We looked at the wall and realized his family owned the hotel. But more interesting was it use to be a dentist office. His family had 3 generations of dentists with his great-great grandfather the first dentist in town. We asked if he was going to be a dentist and he laughed. When we met his grandfather, the owner of the hotel, we were told Maxssimo lives with his father in Italy and is visiting the family in Albania. The owners only spoke Italian and Albanian so the woman at the front desk became our interpreter. As we talked, the owner kept insisting we move to a larger and nicer room on the second floor. Mom thanked them but insisted she did not want to walk the flights of stairs (2 floors since it is Europe and the ground floor is 0). The wife laughed and said her husband makes her do those things but on her own she wouldn't move either. We continued our conversation and the receptionist started telling us about life in Albania. It is hard and difficult to get ahead. She is saving money to get her daughter a good education. She has friends in America and is thinking about moving there to get her daughter a better education. Her friends have found her a job and will help her get the necessary documents. She told us she wants to go to America legally and only to get her daughter through high school. Then she wants to return to Albania because it is her home and she lives it here. She told how she only makes $300 USD/month and wants her daughter to have more opportunity in life. She feels that opportunity is best in America. Once again, I am reminded that the opportunities I had were only because I was lucky to be born in America. That is pure luck. Nothing else. Not everyone gets to start off in the world with the same basic opportunity. Meeting people and seeing the daily struggles makes me realize I am lucky. I don't take these opportunities for granted and I am thankful every day. It reminds me to be humble and thankful. No judging of others. I have this amazing opportunity to get a better understanding of the cultures and struggles around the world. These experiences will always be with me. It is shaping my thoughts, ideals and the way I see the world.