The new yardstick by which hard travel is measured……..
12.02.2009 - 14.02.2009
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.