Day 75: Sarandë

25.08.2013. It was raining, quite unusual in the Balkans at this time of the year, and the streets in the old quarters began to lit up, though no match for the sheer darkness that had begun to envelop the city. The furgon ride from Berat was long and almost arduous, but the inspiring views of the beautiful country had more than made up for the lack of road comfort.

I found myself a quiet corner in the Sofia restaurant, strangely empty at 8 o’clock, forming a stark contrast to the string of bustling cafes just across the street. Men on stools were chatting and arguing and ultimately laughing away, accompanied by ubiquitous cups of espresso, unperturbed by the seeping rainwater. It was the perfect place to observe life, my favourite thing to do. As the waiter approached, the lights in the restaurant went out. With a smile and a shrug, he returned with a candle and a light stick before taking my orders. Well, what can we do?

This is Albania, a country that seemed lacking in so many regards, but for that very fact, became so endearing for me. I had found great tolerance in this country.

I was in Gjirokastër, the city which had produced two famous sons- Enver Hoxha, the tyrant dictator who had ruled the country for many years; and Ismail Kadare, Albania’s world famous writer. This fact encapsulates the country rather well. To the foreigners, the unfamiliarity may be abrasive, but once that friction wears off, there is something almost poetic about it.



Gjirokastër is another ancient Ottoman city not too dissimilar from Berat, and was another place I looked forward to visiting. Unlike Berat however, whose splendour laid out open even for the laziest of viewers; Gjirokastër requires a little bit more patience, tempting visitors to turn one more corner, or climb just another cobbled slope for wanting of its most secret and inspired views. The sight of white washed Ottoman houses perched uncharacteristically on the rolling hills is truly breathtaking. It was impossible for me to pick a favourite.

When I head south to Sarandë and surrendered myself to the beautiful Ionian beaches in Ksamil village, the mysterious ancient ruins of Butrint, or even casting my eyes on the enchanting blue waters of the Syri i Kalter, I knew that the magic of Albania had seeped away as surely as mass tourism had encroached.




And it was time to move on.


Day 70: Berat

20.08.2013. On route to Berat, the furgon stopped in the middle of a road, almost 2 hours after we departed from Tirana. Without que, all the other passengers got out of the car, and so I followed. Through very limited English exchanged, one passenger, whom I understood to have lived in London briefly, went to get two bottles of water. One he offered to the driver, who then also offered me; and the other he shared with another passenger. I didn’t see any money changing hands.

We were waiting for someone, or something, but I wasn’t sure. Moments later, a lady arrived by another car and got on to our vehicle. She was an acquaintance of one of the passenger, who must have informed the driver to stop for her impending arrival. It delayed the rest of us on the furgon for what seemed like half an hour, but no one kicked up a fuss. It was life as usual.

Furgon stopped in the middle of somewhere

Furgons are minibuses which run from town to town at no fixed schedule, from no fixed destinations (no such thing as central bus stops), are most likely unregulated, and have the incredible habit of picking up one too many passenger from seemingly impossible locations than it can feasibly carry (No seat? No problem. That kid over there can sit on his father’s laps. Or how about you stand at the back of the van?). But furgons are also the best way to travel, or indeed, only way to travel in Albania. Driving in Albania should be attempted only by the truly adventurous sort.

Hot, chaotic, noisy, random, dangerous (but only seemingly so) and incredibly charming, nothing shouts Albania louder than the honks of furgons.

Northern Albania did not leave much impression. From Kotor, Montenegro the journey was challenging: 3 connecting bus rides to arrive at the border of Albania, where I crossed on foot; followed by another bus to Shkoder, Albania’s most northern city. I continued southward to its big and noisy capital, Tirana. But all these were just transits for me to head further south of the country, and to Berat, my main reason for visiting Albania, or indeed, the reason for this entire Balkan trip.



The furgon driver to Berat was a kind soul. Despite our language barrier, he paid special attention to me in helping me find my accommodation, often at the expense of other hapless passengers who themselves speak no English. He needn’t trouble himself though, as when we arrived at Berat, my foot was rooted, enchanted by the sight of this old Ottoman city. Finding my way to the guest house became secondary.

Berat is incredibly beautiful, probably the most beautiful city in Albania.The old city can be roughly divided into 3 parts: Gorica, a little village perched on a mountain across river Osum; Kalaja, the old citadel and fortress overseeing the entire city; and Mangalem, the most dramatic of all, with buildings staggered and layered randomly upon each other. What binds these 3 parts are the beautiful white washed Ottoman stone buildings with its characteristically large windows. It is this very image which gave Berat its nick name, the city of a thousand windows.




Mangalem at night

I spent 2 nights in this marvellous city, exploring its every nook and cranny. Near dusk I strolled the promenade of the Osum river, crossed both the old and new bridges; and as I do so I met often the high fives of cheeky kids running past me, or a smile or an acknowledgement nod from the older towns people on their post-dinner walks. Some times I was even asked in English where I came from. “Kinë! (China)”, I will often shout from across the street, knowing the specifics of where I came from didn’t matter. To which, I was usually greeted with more smiles, or silly laughter, possibly for the weird pronunciation by this foreign stranger, who seemed to have been thoroughly spell-bound by the magic of their city.