A Travellerspoint blog

Albania

The new yardstick by which hard travel is measured……..

sunny

Until we reached Albania, with the exception of the Blagoevgrad stuff-up, we’d been fairly spoilt with the types of transport we’d been taking. The buses had been comfortable and the trains quite civilised with their old but private compartments. So we weren’t much looking forward to travelling through Albania given that the trains were largely reported to be decrepit and the availability of information non-existent.

Arising early, we took a bus from Ohrid around the shore of the lake to Sveti Naum on the Albanian border. The bus stopped right at the border and we got out and walked to the border patrol booth. It was freezing cold and we stood outside in the wind while the border guard scrutinised our passports. After exiting Macedonia, we walked 1.5km in the freezing cold mountainous breezes through the grey zone to the Albanian border and customs ‘caravan’. Granted entry, we were met on the other side of the Albanian border by a taxi driver eager to take us into the transit town of Pogradec. We paid him more than we should have on account of the huge shotgun on the back parcel shelf of his alarmingly new Mercedes. Pogradec train station is 4km out of town and we wisely chose to get out in town and get cashed up before we went there. Finding another taxi was not a simple task and only possible with the help of a kind local who parked his car in the middle of the road while he found us a taxi. Pogradec train station, despite its waiting area and price listing, was where Bec’s frustration began to surface. Cursed with being female and the subsequent inability to pee standing up, Bec was pointed in the direction of the ‘public toilets’ which she’d previously deemed derelict and overgrown and had the worst toilet experience of her life. Enough said. It made her very grumpy.

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Train timetable

The arrival of our train was also fairly interesting. It would seem that along with drinking coffee, the other national Albanian pastime is throwing rocks at train windows. We chose a carriage with the most number of intact windows (by no means all of them) and settled in for a heater-less and toilet-less ride to Durres on the Albanian coast. Though painfully slow, the time seemed to pass quickly as the train made its way through mountains, across valleys and past backyards full of children who derived great joy from throwing rocks at the train. Reminders of Albania’s grim past are everywhere in the form of about 700 000 concrete bunkers dotted all over the country side. Some of them are painted and others are hidden behind plants but most are in various states of disrepair and dilapidation. We again arrived in the dark and found ourselves an overpriced hotel in the centre of Durres.

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Albanian bunker through the cracked train window

We’d only intended Albania to be a transit visit on the way to Croatia. After investigating the possibility of taking a ferry to Dubrovnik we were again foiled and found ourselves at Durres train station with the plan of taking the train to Shkodra on the Albania/Montenegro border. Internet research had shown an early connecting train to Shkodra so we (stupidly) defied the woman in the ticket booth and got off the train at Vora to aghast looks from the locals on the train. Naturally there was no connecting train and we had four hours to kill in the middle of Albanian nowhere until the next train came through. We spent an hour drinking coffee and lemonade in a smoky Albanian pool hall where Bec seemed to be the only woman to have ever set foot in the place and then decided to hang out at the train station (read: closed shack beside the train track).

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On the platform in Albania

We got a good lesson in rural Albanian life by watching the comings and goings of the sheep and cows and their shepherds. Bec has unashamedly taken to peeing behind buildings, not caring who sees her, caring only that she doesn’t get arrested. Eventually our train arrived, preceded by its usual cacophony of whistle, grinding breaks and rattling window panes. The train was older than any we’d seen before and so full we had to sit in the little fold out seats in the aisle. Eventually we moved into a cabin with a very friendly Albanian couple who seemed fairly intent on determining whether we were married or not. We couldn’t understand a thing each other was saying and reverted to the usual charades-like conversation before they got off the train a few stations later amidst a lot of handshaking and farewelling.

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A typical Albanian train station

We eventually arrived in Shkodra, again at nightfall, and found a taxi to take us to the Montenegren border. After an uneventful border crossing we paid someone to take us to Bar, Montenegro’s coastal playground.

We both had a bit of a dummy-spit in Albania. Glenn was the first to announce he was sick of it and Bec was soon to agree. Travelling frustrations are beginning to get to us. Glenn is sick of the effort it takes to find the transport and sitting on trains all day and not really doing much. Bec is sick of having a dirty jacket and smelling like a homeless woman and having hair like a scarecrow. Happy Valentines Day to us.

Posted by TDL 10:18 Archived in Albania Comments (0)

Macedonia

And the advent of difficult travel………

all seasons in one day 4 °C

We’d read, and heard from numerous people, that it is possible to get to Ohrid in Macedonia from Bulgaria without having to go through the large capital cities. Maybe so, however arriving at the bus station in Blagoevgrad at 6am to be told that the advertised bus doesn’t exist (not told exactly, but received the waving finger and no further information) proved somewhat frustrating. We legged it to one of Blagoevgrad’s equally uninformative bus stations and eventually decided to take a bus to Sofia (Bulgaria’s capital), then to Skopje (Macedonia’s capital), then to Ohrid. We’d hoped to avoid the big cities and the touts and confusion that goes with them but could see no other timely way of getting to Ohrid. Twelve hours, three buses, one unconscionable tout and one border crossing later we arrived in Ohrid. The border crossing between Bulgaria and Macedonia was time consuming and disorganised. Crossing by coach meant that all 50 people on our bus had to get off and open their bags for both Bulgarian and Macedonian customs.

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Macedonian rail station

We arrived in Ohrid in the dark and didn’t wander around for long before we were approached by Antonio who owned a set of reasonably priced studio apartments and as a result became our new best friend. We spent two nights in the studio apartment and then moved to Antonio’s family home. We woke the first morning to clear skies and set about exploring Lake Ohrid and its surrounding old town. Ohrid is set on the sure of a huge lake which forms part of the border between Macedonia and Albania and is absolutely stunning.

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Beautiful Lake Ohrid

We weren’t wandering for long before we were befriended by our own personal tour guide in the form of a shaggy grey dog who led us around for almost four hours. We’d get to an intersection and he’d take us in the direction of the next point of interest and he even traipsed across the turrets of the fortress in the rain with us. He sat with Bec while Glenn viewed some frescos in a local church before taking off to find his next group of tourists. We suspect he has a tourist sensor and gets fed well by the tourists he hooks up with.

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Glenn and his tour guide at the fort

On our second morning in Ohrid we woke to snow which only served to make the place prettier and we walked along the lakeside in the opposite direction.

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A typical Macedonian car

That night we moved to Antonio’s house where we met some other travellers and availed ourselves of Antonio’s mum’s biscuit-bearing hospitality. We went out to dinner with our new American, Australian and Swedish friends and enjoyed a much needed night of snow fights and general stupidity before heading to Albania the next day.

Posted by TDL 10:14 Archived in Macedonia Comments (1)

Bulgaria

English Smenglish!!

sunny 10 °C

Farewelled by half a dozen community dogs from Bucharest train station, we set off for Veliko Tarnovo in central Bulgaria. Alone in our little train cabin, we devoted the first hour or so of the painfully slow ride through Romania to attempting to learn some of the Cyrillic alphabet so we could at least know when to get off the train. Our train was ultimately bound for Thesalonikki in Greece, fairly inconvenient should we miss our stop. We ‘checked out’ of Romania at Giurgiu, a process which involved the snatching and subsequent disappearance of our passports by the border official and the inspection of the roof compartments of the carriages for contraband vodka by the customs official. This done, we proceeded through the grey area to Ruse where, after a lot of muttering about ‘Australians’ into walkie talkies, we checked into Bulgaria. While at Ruse, we were turfed off the train and left standing on the freezing platform while they undertook a not-very-well rehearsed shunting manoeuvre which resulted in the train having the exact same number of carriages and direction as it did pre-manoeuvre.

Very few Bulgarian train stations are clearly named and those that are named are named in Cyrillic only so we’ve taken to sitting at the front of the train so at least we can see it pull into the station. We also entertain the locals with a lot of poor pronunciation and finger pointing. Just before arriving at Veliko Tarnovo, a very agitated man entered our little cabin and began yelling Излезте с колата at us fairly wildly. Completely unnerved, we used our best Bulgarian to say ‘No Bulgarian, English only’, to which he spat ‘English schminglish’ with complete disdain before producing his train conductors card. Turns out we were in the cabin he wanted to use as the conductors cabin. We moved out and five conductors moved in and promptly began taking off their clothes and settling in for the night.

We arrived at Veliko Tarnovo at about 8pm and walked from the train station along a winding, dark, scrub-lined road (the type our mothers told us never to walk along in the daylight, let alone at night in the middle of Bulgaria) into town to our hostel. The next morning we woke to the most dramatic view across the valley. The houses seem to cling precariously to the cliffside and are in various stages of disrepair.

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Houses cling to the cliffsides

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A typical Bulgarian house

Veliko Tarnovo has a very impressive set of ruins and we spent a morning exploring them. The same set of ruins is also the setting for the Sound and Light Show which takes place once 300 euros have been collected. Basically, uninformed tourists pay and the rest of the town gets a free show from the bottom of the hill, albeit without the sound. It’s impossible to know whether the show will go ahead so we hung around hopefully at the bottom of the hill with a considerable group of locals and were eventually rewarded with a bells-only light display circa 1985.

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Veliko Tarnovo by day

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Blurry sound and light show

We spent a good few days wandering through the beautiful old town. We hiked through the Bulgarian hillside to Albanasi, another old monastic town, and Glenn went riding with some local bike enthusiasts through the Bulgarian countryside.

Bulgarian food is superb. Bec was in her feta cheese/olives/salad/yoghurt element and Glenn was loving all the different manifestations of pork. We both enjoyed the variety and quantity of Bulgarian beer. We ate in the same restaurant several times because the food was so good and the menu so long it would have been possible to eat there every day for six months without ordering the same dish twice. The shropska salad proved the favourite. We went to the local market for fruit and veg and the nameless (for us) local street food which resembled a toasted pocket of ham and cheese filled with ketchup and mayonnaise.

We left Veliko Tarnovo and spent a night in Plovdiv before taking the scenic (but very uncomfortable on account of the hardness of the seats and the choice of music blaring from the mobile phones of the local teenagers) narrow gauge railway from Septemvri to Bansko. Very slow but beautiful rail journey. From Bansko we caught a bus to Blagoevgrad to cross into Macedonia.

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A Bulgarian churchyard with death notices posted on the gate

Bulgaria is excellent and we’re lucky to have seen it before it succumbs to tourism and the euro. Even the owner of our hostel referred to his people as harsh people but we saw nothing but helpfulness and compassion. The Bulgarians always seem to have their wallets open for something: people begging outside restaurants never walk away empty handed, women selling holy pictures on trains always make a sale and we watched two young women buy two slices of pizza and a bottle of water and place them in front of a homeless woman in the street in Plovdiv.

So onwards to Macedonia………..

Posted by TDL 10:06 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Romania

(aka SlowTrainia)

all seasons in one day 3 °C

After taking the 4am shuttle bus to Madrid Barajas Airport, it seemed we should have just spent the night at the airport sleeping on the baggage belts beside the check-in counters like everyone else did. Though swearing never to fly Easyjet (elbowjet) again because of their no seat allocation/get-your-elbows-out policy, we eventually found ourselves being shoved to the outside of a throng of five foot tall, matronly Romanian women at the boarding gate. Last on the plane, we managed to find seats across the aisle from each other. Before the plane had even reached the arrivals gate in Bucharest, the aisle was full of Romanian woman yelling at Glenn in Romanian to hand them their oversized cabin bags from the overhead compartment.

We took a new-age bus from the airport to the train station in Bucharest to meet Soph and Jimi and Troy who were arriving from London on a later flight and then jumped the next train to Brasov. According to a certain travel bible, Bucharest's greatest annoyance is it's enormous number of 'community dogs' (read: stray, often mangey, sometimes rabid dogs) that roam throughout the city. There were nine dogs on the platform as our train took off for Brasov. Our train took more than three hours to cover the 120km to Brasov, hence Romania was re-named SlowTrainia.

The plan was to go to Brasov for a week of skiing at a resort called Poiana Brasov, 12km north of the town of Brasov in Transylvanian Romania (home of Dracula and all that). Again, we were foiled by the weather. Brasov has had an unseasonably mild winter with no recent decent snow. We took a day trip to the stunning Bran castle (often referred to as Dracula's castle, when in fact he's most likely never set foot in it) and spent most of our days planning our next meals. We're embarrassed to say that most nights we didn't make it past our local restaurant whose sausages and cabbage dishes were highly rated, even amongst the Irish in our group. The beer flowed freely; Romania produces a remarkably good black beer called Ursus Brun.

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Bran Castle

Soph and Jimi departed early, which left Troy and Glenn and Bec to head to the ski resort to check out the action anyway (and for Troy to feel justified in hauling his snowboard bag and gear all the way from London). Troy's snowboard made for a good but uncomfortable sled.

In the middle of Brasov's old town square is an ice skating rink which we were keen to try out. Troy was good at it, Bec (decked out in a pair of ski crash pants she'd borrowed from Troy to protect her previously broken backside) was average at it and Glenn was rubbish at it. Even the lessons we got from a seven year old Romanian boy didn't help us.

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Ice skating

It snowed on the Thursday night and we decided to head back to the mountain to see what the ski conditions were like for one final time. There proved to be enough snow for Bec and Glenn to have a ski lesson and for Troy to do a few runs on his board. Troy was good at it, Glenn was average at it and Bec was rubbish at it. At least Glenn had the decency not to gloat about it, unlike Bec who gloated famously about the ice skating. As predicted, Bec was the first to ditch the ski slope for the ski lodge while Glenn perfected his snow plows and turns.

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Poiana's sludgy ski hill

Set into the hill above Brasov, alongside the cablecar station, is a giant Hollywood-style sign (that reads Brasov, of course). The day before we left town we took the cablecar to the top of Mt Tampa (Glenn and Troy were feeling almost at home) and climbed all over the Brasov sign.

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Bec climbing Brasov

We then took the train back to Bucharest. Troy took an early morning flight back to London and we were left to our own devices for a couple of days in Bucharest. We're not adverse to big cities, but just prefer places that are easy to get around on foot. Bucharest has its charms, but we were keen to move on to Bulgarian pastures. Farewelled by a mob of community dogs, we took the train to Bulgaria.

Posted by TDL 07:44 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Spain

Mi espanol es no muy bien. Habla mas despacio, por favor!!

semi-overcast 7 °C

Having made our break from the Funny Farm, we found ourselves with a bit of time on our hands which we thought might be best spent in Spain. With two years worth of Wednesday night Spanish lessons under her belt and with Glenn's Spanish repertoire gleaned from the Simpsons ('un momento por favor') and Terminator ('Hasta la vista, baby'), we were fairly confident in our ability to get by in Spain. Until we were booted off the bus at the Portuguese/Spanish border at what resembled a truckstop with market stalls, with no further idea of how or when we'd arrive in Seville. Bec was able to understand that there was one bus per day to Seville and that it would leave from said truckstop/market stall at 3pm. We wandered off to kill some time. Not as much time as we'd thought though, as we'd changed a timezone at the border and this only became apparent while sitting in a smokey bar with a clock above the cash register.

We caught our bus and it took well over four hours to arrive in Seville via every tiny town and narrow street along the way. It's amazing the only damage the driver did to the bus was on backing out of a bus station and not while weaving down the narrow cobbled streets.

After finding a bed for the night, we set out for some Spanish cultural immersion in the form of a tapas bar. We spent four days in Seville, which is quite possibly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The orange trees were full of fruit (apparently more ornamental than edible though) and Seville is home to some of the most beautiful buildings.

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Gorgeous Seville

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Plaza de Espana, Seville

Still in search of some warmth, we went south in our hire car to the small town of Cadiz on the Costa del Sol. Deserted as the coast was, it's not hard to see how it could become a British enclave in the peak summer season. Our lunch stop enroute to Cadiz was the setting for Bec's first severe language failure which resulted in a 40 euro lunch and a budget-imposed diet for the next two days. We'd only planned on staying one night in Cadiz but found ourselves in the middle of a festival known as the 'Spikey Fish' festival (still not sure what this was about given that we saw no fish and definitely no spikes) and decided to partake in the merrymaking. We bought a litre of beer for $2 and took to the streets with the rest of Cadiz.

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Alocal fiesta in Cadiz

Our next stop was just outside of Gibraltar to spend a couple of nights with Bec's old Bundy neighbour, Steve, and his very pregnant wife Tatiana. It was excellent to catch up with them (and play with their crazy dog) and though we wanted nothing more than a bed, Steve and Tati turned on the hospitality. Tati is an excellent cook and we spent two nights by the fire eating, drinking and generally just being merry. Steve and Tati have an awesome view from their home and the most beautiful nursery awaiting the arrival of the bella baby Boge.

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The view from Casa del Boge

Enroute to Gibraltar we passed the most enormous windfarm with no less than a thousand wind turbines dotted across the hillsides. Very impressive. We spent a day in Gibraltar itself (a British territory on the southern Spanish mainland) which necessitated us parking the car in Spain, flashing our passports as we crossed the border (which also happens to be the airport runway, they have to close the road when a plane is about to land) and then reverting to spending pounds instead of euros for the day. We paid a cabbie to take us around the famous Rock of Gibraltar. We like to say that Glenn got a trip to England and a view of Africa for his birthday (you can see Africa from the very south of Spain).

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Bec on the runway/border at Gibraltar

From Gibraltar we ended up in Granada. The weather was still rubbish and our hotel was in the middle of a slushy, muddy, cementy building site that made parking difficult. We thought we were being clever in avoiding parking tickets by moving our car after midnight, no such luck. We'll see if we're billed through the credit card for that one!!

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Bullring in Ronda, Spain

We then meandered our way north to Madrid where, nerves and patience shattered after a week in a hire car together, we spent the night in an airport hotel before flying to Bucharest the next day.

Posted by TDL 05:56 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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