TUESDAY 16TH OCTOBER.
MORNING GREECE and AFTERNOON ALBANIA.
Morning bus to Ioannina and to Sarande in Albania (afternoon).
The map below was omitted from the previous post. It shows the access roads, walks and monasteries around the Meteora area. I put too much work into this map to leave it out.
After a beef soup breakfast in a café next to the bus station we off on a new adventure. The bus, a new Mercedes, was comfortable and soon after leaving Kalambaka I sat on the step next to the driver because I wanted to take photographs of the route that Bev and I travelled in 1972. The driver motioned to me to sit in the jump seat. Sitting close to the front was like being in the front seat of a big dipper.
A girl behind the driver spoke English and through her I informed him why I wanted to take photographs and he then started indicating when the best photo opportunity was coming up. He even slowed down so I could get the best shot.
The road wound its way through the mountains. The ride was quite breathtaking but at times I closed my eyes, especially when plunging into a village at twice the speed I would have dared even in a car.
The axis of the photograph is a little wonky; understandable when rolling around corners like this at speed.
On the surface, Greek village life hasn’t changed much. The oldies still wander about or sit talking on their front patios. Note how close the table and chairs are to the edge of the road.
The narrow road eventually joined a super highway and the journey turned into one of the most remarkable road trips I have ever done. The road passed over valleys and through mountains and, even though we are not lovers of freeway travel, the experience was really something. After the trip today I am of the opinion that building roads like the one we traversed is a terribly complicated engineering event. What I find difficult to comprehend is the quantities of materials that is required to build such a road.
The upper part of the wall comprised Gabion cubes which are heavy wire baskets filled with rock. The name comes from the Italian, gabbione, meaning “big cage”. In a military context, earth or sand-filled gabions are used to protect artillery crews from enemy fire. Originally, wicker baskets, filled with rocks were used to create hasty fortifications.
During our 1972 trip we had no such luxury but I think in those days it was a lot more of an adventure having to negotiate the ice and snow-covered mountainous terrain.
Arrived Ioannina on time and because it was raining heavily we decided not to stay but push onto the Albanian border, hoping it wasn’t raining as heavily there. There was a connecting bus within the hour and this time we passed through dense mountainous forests. I didn’t realise that Greece had forests like we saw today. As we got closer to Albania there was less habitation and I think it was because people didn’t particularly like living close to borders as they can be in the line of fire if and when border skirmishes erupt.
There was no drama getting out of Greece. Once through immigration we were approached by a kindly looking Albanian who suggested we hire his taxi for a ride to Sarande, about forty kilometres away. We hesitated like all travellers do when confronted with such a proposition. Forty euros was the price and because we couldn’t speak the language and he had no English I didn’t even consider bartering with him. After we agreed to go with him he grabbed our bags and headed for the Albanian checking post.
The 700m walk across no-man’s land was uphill so we didn’t mind at all having our bags conveyed for us. Regardless of the taxi driver’s goodwill to take our bags we always worry when someone else heads off with our luggage.
The number of borders we have crossed in our day amounts to well over a hundred and most times we have experienced little trouble. The crossings where you have to empty your bags or car completely onto the pavement or into the gutter so officials can search for hidden compartments where drugs or contraband can be hidden are the frustrating ones.
According to the guide book a fee of ten euros is payable on entry into Albania. We had the money ready to pay but no one asked so we pressed on to a very new Toyota taxi. Travelling along we kept asking him if we were going to Sarande. According to our map the road we travelled didn’t seem to agree with what was shown on the map. The road on the map indicated a road of freeway proportions and the road we were on was steep and narrow with switchbacks.
Eventually we spotted a sign indicating Sarande so we settled and enjoyed the scenery. It was an unbelievable drive, even more impressive than the road earlier in the day in Greece. We passed through nondescript villages, crossed bridges with guardrails missing and at times washouts and landslides reduced the road to single lane.
The reason the Albanian and Greek border is where it is a matter of geography. The mountains are a natural barrier between the two countries, making it easy to define where the border actually is. Often rivers are a defining line as well.
The taxi driver was a very cautious driver so we arrived safely in Sarande. I’m glad we took a taxi instead of a bus. I searched the internet last night and found one possible place to stay called the Hairy Lemon, a backpacker establishment with good reviews. The Hairy Lemon is run by an Irish lady who serves pancakes for breakfast, which might have been the attraction for us wanting to stay. The taxi driver didn’t know where the HL was and after much unsuccessful searching we abandoned the idea of staying there and ended up at the Hotel Palma overlooking the beach and town.
Notice the only advertising in this photograph is associated with communication. I guess that’s where the money is at the moment all over the world.
The hotel is clean and well run and the proprietor very helpful and friendly, she also speaks good English and has a connection with Melbourne. The receptionist suggested the only room available was forty euros per night and we told her it was outside our price range. The proprietor overheard our conversation and stepped in and said there was a poorer class of room downstairs for thirty euros so after Bev made a quick inspection we agreed to stay. The rate included breakfast so it’s not too bad. Compared to home, it’s fantastic.
I expected the room to be in the basement with no windows but it turned out to be probably the roomiest we have stayed in since the Novotel in Bangkok. It has an ensuite with steaming hot water, a fridge, kingsized bed and a huge veranda overlooking the bay. Rooms in Greece and here do lack some facilities though; there is no way of boiling water for a cuppa and no glasses or cups. The lack of cups is not a problem as we have our own. To overcome the hot water problem we went to the local store and bought a small gas canister stove and a couple of pots so now I can boil water and cook. Advice is not to drink the tap water in Albania so we are sticking to bottled or boiled water.
This huge River red gum was the centrepiece for the main square roundabout. The signs indicate which way to the African and Aloha resorts. Most of the tourists coming to Albania are from Russia and the old eastern bloc countries like Bulgaria and Romania. However there are few tourists about now as the season is officially ended.
There are few electric jugs in Greece and it appears it might be the case here in Albania too. The reason is I think is because a jug draws too much power and, looking at the quality of the electrical wiring in some places, perhaps current draw is a problem. Another reason is that people are conscious of electricity usage so they only heat the bare minimum of water for a brew and it’s hard to do that in an electric jug. Many use a gas stove like the one we purchased.
When walking in the afternoon a couple of street urchins fell in behind us but scurried off when I suddenly turned around. We saw them later scavenging in a roadside dump bin. Kids on the streets like this is a reality in an emerging country. Albania has not had an easy past and it will take time for services and a social structure to evolve where kids like the ones we saw today will be cared for by the state.
Late in the evening we walked the beach in front of the hotel. What a sad and sorry sight it was! There were masses of plastic bits and pieces underfoot, rough beachside structures and buildings falling down, but this is how it is. It is changing though, there are some pretty flash buildings appearing and more will come. The old world of ‘anything goes’ will go forever as time passes.
Albania has many environmental issues to confront as it emerges from a dark past. The main one I saw was rubbish dumped along the side of the roads and on vacant allotments.
Of interest to the OH&S advocates is the drop off the edge of the footpath. These situations are what make Albania a little rough on the corners and worth visiting.
The rubbish problem not only applies to Albania. It’s the same in all the countries we have visited on this odyssey. In some areas of Australia it’s the same but not quite to the same degree. I think Ian Kiernan of ‘Clean up Australia’ should get to these countries and help the inhabitants organise clean up days.
Afternoon strolls along seaside boulevards is a national pastime in Turkey, Greece and Albanian. It’s not a bad way to end the day.
WEDNESDAY 17TH OCTOBER 2012.
Last night we dined in, mainly because we haven’t got a handle on the local eating establishments and I want to test the stove I bought. I made a brew of tomato, carrot, onion and pasta with cheese on top. The supermarket here has lots of packet food but not a lot of vegetables and what they do have doesn’t look all that fresh. The easiest way to buy vegetables for in house cooking is to buy frozen ones. Saves all the peeling, scraping and cutting. Tomatoes here, like in Greece and Turkey, are wonderful so I think there will be lots of tomato based meals coming up.
This morning we were woken by the Muslim call to prayer. It is more melodious and less intrusive than the call in Turkey. The call goes out at 6-00 and every three hours thereafter until 9-00pm. Breakfast in the hotel dining room comprised bread, cold meat, cheese and omelette and fruit.
A couple of the hotel staff asked us were we going to the ancient city of Butrint (about 20 kilometres away) and when we replied in the negative they couldn’t understand why. We explained that after Turkey and Greece we are ‘ruined’ out. If we did travel out of Sarande I would go back to the limestone mountains towards the border but that would mean hiring a car and we don’t have inclination for that at the moment.
Our early morning walk today was through a residential area of the town and return to the hotel via the beach.
Parts of the residential area are going through redevelopment. Many of the old apartments have been demolished and new buildings are being erected in their place. Of interest, however, is many of the new buildings are only partially completed. There were a few being worked on but most were deserted. I was told that there have been surges of foreign investment but various financial crises has meant that funds coming into the country have dried up. Also many Albanians working outside the country lost their jobs and the money ceased to flow into the country. Another factor for the slow down is at the time of the crisis overseas tourist numbers declined so building of hotels has slowed down.
There are about thirty incomplete buildings in the above photograph. This is not typical of Albania though, in other places buildings have been finished and are occupied.
Bev and I walked into this building and in front of it were more buildings in a partly finished state.
What a location! The distant landmass is the Greek Island of Corfu. Ferries cross from Corfu on a daily basis and dock close to the hotel where we are staying. Getting into Albania via ferry is an alternative option to coming the way we did but it means an overnight stay at Igoumenitsa on the mainland of Greece or on Corfu. Bev and I stayed there in early ‘73.
This smaller building might not be at a standstill because of the European financial crisis. It could be lying idle because the owner is building it in stages as money becomes available. Some people put up a two or three storey structure and complete the ground or first floor area where they live and set up a café or small business of some sort. This makes sense to me, paying as you go.
The red brick building in this photograph is the one shown in the previous photograph. The white rock ledge running into the sea is marble. The water is beautifully clear but a bit cold for swimming.
Marble and limestone are the most popular building medium in Albania. It’s great to see local materials being used as such materials are less intrusive from a visual point of view. Marble is limestone which has been subject to excessive heat and pressure during its formation.
Hoxha (rhymes with ‘dodger’) was the communist dictator who ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941 to 1984. Hoxha deceived the people of Albania by telling them they were the richest country in the world and that foreign powers were poised to come and plunder their wealth. Over 700 000 of these bunkers were installed during his reign as part of his strategy to repel invading forces. Let’s hope they are never reactivated. No doubt I will be talking more about Hoxha and bunkers as we travel through Albania.
What intrigues me is the number of small businesses in Albania. The reason for so many is because of the high unemployment rate (around 13% in the towns and cities and up to 30% in the rural areas) and the fact that the unemployment benefit is only about A$9 a week. Even though the cost of living is low it probably isn’t enough to survive on so setting up a business, even if not very profitable, adds to the income. Albania is not on its own when it comes to high unemployment rates. Greece, for instance, has an official unemployment rate of 25% which exceeds that of Albania. I know there is probably more to the story than this but it’s impressive the number of people in Albania who are having a go.
Late in the afternoon we decided it was time to get a bird’s eye view of Sarande so we took a taxi to Lekursi Castle.
A big proportion of Albania’s export income is derived from the export of agricultural products. Photograph taken on way to the castle.
Guidebooks suggest foreigners should not drive in Albania because of the conditions of the roads. I don’t agree as most of the roads, as can be seen here, are in reasonable condition. And anyway, you drive to suit the conditions, don’t you?
There are more Mercedes Benz cars per capita in Albania than any other country in the world. Most are old models but immaculately maintained and the owners are very proud of them.
A great day and even though we are new to Albania I am getting a feeling we are going to love it. Tomorrow we head for Vlore, another coastal town to the north.
Posted Tuesday 6th November 2012 from Rijeka Croatia. Rijeka is about 150 km east of Trieste Italy. Don’t forget to post a comment, We like to hear from those reading our blog. Fred and Bev.