Due to the nature of our travel, I’ve procrastinated writing all the posts this time around, such that I am writing them rather after the actual date of travel. I expect that the memories will be less fresh, and the writing less composed, but hopefully some hindsight will also inform my recounting of experiences.
My flights from the US (three in total) went amazingly smoothly, and I even managed to avoid jet lag due to the six hour time difference by going to sleep at midnight CET and getting up and exercising on the plane (I always do pushups in the aisle on long flights) at six am CET. I arrived rather earlier than Brent (his plane was even delayed) so I waited quite a while for him, greeting him with a sign on my iPad that I was quite proud of:
After a long (on account of traffic) ride into town, we met our apartment owner to retrieve the key. He recommended a local restaurant hidden in the parking lot behind the main street. The low quality of the food would unfortunately be a theme for our entire journey. And the smoking inside the restaurant. I tend to enjoy traveling with Brent for food and views, so this trip was certainly a departure from that. I discovered quite quickly via traveling with both Brent and later Lei that one cannot manufacture interest. While I am fascinated by the area and enjoy simply being here on account of my study of the history and art of the the Balkans, Brent and Lei (Lei especially) cannot be so interested. It reminds me of the reverse experience with Brent, who was enamored with the many sights in Rome (having just read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), while I was much more interested in the food.
Due to Albania’s easterly position in its timezone, our days felt very short. It’s one of the easternmost countries still on CET – the sun set at 4pm. Our first few days were absolutely drenched, with constant driving rain keeping us mostly indoors. This was very pleasant, in retrospect, driving pollution down, and making us feel content to head out for hardly any time at all, instead enjoying each others’ company in the apartment, in cafes, and in restaurants.
Tiranë itself is a fascinating city. No skyscrapers, with a small feel, but sprawling. The infrastructure felt quite communist, with the city planned completely around a central government area (Blloku), and relics of Enver Hoxha all over. Brent and I received a rapid-fire nationalistic recounting of the history of the country from a couchsurfer we contacted, Andi, who we couldn’t stay with (our other couchsurfer pulled out last minute due to a family emergency). This conversation was in Spanish, which Andi remarked on as one of the wonders of Albania joining the push for globalization after being one of the most isolated nations in the world – two Chinese Americans and an Albanian chatting in Castillian Spanish (complete with seseo) while eating nutella and banana crepes and drinking hot chocolate.
We also enjoyed a healthy dose of history at both museums we visited. No journey to a country is complete without seeing its pots, so we made a point to visit the Archaeological Museum. Much more fascinating, however, was Bunk’Art 1, Enver Hoxha and crew’s personal bunker built during the paranoid sunset years of the communist republic. The bunker, built five levels deep into the ground, has been converted into an unsettling, kitschy museum-art installation. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, which does seem appropriate, actually.
The cable car to the top of the mountain overlooking the city was closed, unfortunately, on account of the deadliest earthquake of the year, and the strongest in fifty years in the region, which occurred less than one month prior. Brent and I were appalled, fascinated, and unsurprised that we’d heard absolutely nothing about it. All the other city museums and mosques were actually closed as a result. Turned away from the cable car, we took the bus back down to town and went straight for another necessity when visiting a country with Brent – hummus. In another trend for the journey, this five pm meal was our lunch, and we re-emerged at 11 for a bro filled barbecue (much better than the highly recommended and absolutely terrible restaurant “Oda”) during which first our waiter, then a patron from the next table requested that I draw them, ripped out the paper from my sketchbook themselves, and then had me sign. Friendly, but still felt odd.
We took the bus to Berat in the south, a UNESCO City definitely worthy of this title. All along the way, I delighted in pointing out the plethora of bunkers dotting the road. I’m sure we saw at least a fifty on the left side of the bus alone. Truly insane. Unfortunately, with the rain ceasing, the pollution settled quickly back in. Brent and I stayed in a place with a stunning view of the river straddling Ottoman city, and were picked up and returned to the bus station at no charge by the guesthouse owners. Our breakfasts were sumptuous but freezing cold as we ate on the balcony. We were their only guests. We had amicable conversations with them both ways and a few smatterings at other times – with the son in English and the father in Italian.
Berat was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The preserved Ottoman street plan, the walled city overlooking the river below, the ethnographic museum inside a preserved house, and the Christmas (it’s a predominantly Muslim country) market enjoyed to the tune of Azans made for a truly special mix. If only it wasn’t so ridiculously polluted. We had to dodge into a very swanky cafe to avoid the pollution at night fall. Like clockwork, everywhere in the Balkans starts burning trash and heating homes at sundown, such that the pollution jumps from around 70 on AQICN to 150+ within an hour, peaks around 11pm or midnight, then recovers through the early morning hours.
We left Albania with a mix of transportation. We took a bus from Berat to Elbasan, where we used the layover time to get some hilariously unhealthy second breakfasts of bugaçe, a piece of bread squished into butter to soak up as much as possible, filled with shredded fried roti pieces also soaked in the butter, then soaked into the butter again for good measure. The bus from Elbasan to Prrenjas was scenic, with a particularly strange town whose main event seemed to be selling infinite turkeys. Some partial shenanigans ensued in Prrenjas, as our bus driver took us in his own car across the border into Ohrid for an additional 30 euro. With incorrect denominations of bills, we used lek, euro and dollars to pay him.