Sunday, November 22, 2015

Butrint - Another UNESCO Site

The ancient city of Butrint is one of the top attractions in Albania and another check on the UNESCO list. The earliest people who settled here might've done so in 6th century BC, and it was inhabited until the 19th century. After that it fell into decay until a couple groups started to uncover the treasures in the 20th century.

It's a quick drive down here from Saranda, so after our beach time at Ksamil, we kept on down the road. Pretty easy parking, not too crowded.  A few shots from on the way.

This is the fortress and aqueduct, just across the way.

You can cross for free on this ferry, you just have to wait until a car goes across.

In the earliest days, Butrint was part of Corfu in Greece, and later was under Roman rule, with Italy just across the water. I'll leave the rest of the history story for you to lookup, should you so desire.

We paid our small fee and heads into the grounds. You can tour with a guide (maybe I should've done that, I always learn more), but we just followed the signs and used our guide book for more information.

This main area has a sanctuary, bath house and theater, I think emperor Augustus had something to do with it.

Here's the museum. I forget when it was built, but definitely newer and updated.

This area is the baptistery, one of the coolest parts of the place. It was the largest baptistery east of Rome, right after the one in Constantinople. It has a beautiful mosaic floor, but sadly it's kept covered up for preservation. I hope they can figure out a way to display it. There are all sorts of symbols built into this structure.

Nearby is the great basilica. 

Gorgeous tile hidden around. 

Here's a bit of that mosaic floor. I'd really love to see the whole thing.

We didn't stay here too long since it was starting to rain and we had some major driving to do, but I'd definitely recommend a stop at Butrint.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Albanian Riveria - Beaches Galore!

After settling into Vlore, we got a good night's sleep at the Rrokaj home, acting out our conversations since we don't speak each other's languages. We managed to tell them that we were going to drive south and go to the beaches, and they acted out a steep and curvy road. Um....yeah. Don't make us more nervous.

We planned to just drive all day and stop at beaches along the way, until we ended up in Sarande, which was about 4 hours south. Off we go! Time to drive like an Albanian.

Our GPS wouldn't charge in the car at this point, and while we found a camera cord to charge up before we left, we didn't rely on it. But who cares when you're driving next to this?

When Enver Hoxha ruled Albania, he isolated the country and prepared to defend it, and as part of that philosophy, he had bunkers built all over the country. I really wish we'd been able to see more of them up close, but there are no places to pull over on the side of the road. I'm sure an Albanian would've just stopped on a curvy, mountain road and had other people deal with it, but I wasn't quite that brave.

We came over a mountain pass and saw some beautiful water down below, so there we stopped. We found these little structures and some chairs, and maybe 4 other people around the entire expanse?

We gladly laid out our towels and got down to relaxation. When we left, there was a guy in a snack hut that had us pay a couple dollars since we used the chairs, but a very small price to pay. 

If you're looking at a map, this is probably just above Palase - you'll see the crazy curvy road, and we popped down to the water after getting down the mountain.

Back in the car after a bit, and on to Dhermi, which was probably my favorite stop of the day. A bit more action here, with some jet skis and boats, and a few more people, but definitely still not crowded. 

I mean, look at that water.

A bit more time in the car, as it was getting late in the day and I didn't want to be driving after dark. A common appearance on roads - livestock.

We made it into the city of Saranda where we'd stay the night, and we hunted for more beaches. Sadly, they're not great right in town, but we took what we could get. Once the sun went down, we were off to hunt for our rental house.

We got a bit lost, as it was further from the center than maps indicted (really, don't believe Google/GPS here), and we found these lovely furnishings in a huge house we had all to ourselves for about $25?

Our rental host left us the keys and a recommendation for a fish restaurant around the corner. We walked over and found a few other people dining, but it was very quiet. Pretty food food though! I ate so much cheese in Albania and loved it, especially baked like below.

We called it a night and got cleaned up at the house, though they didn't leave us any towels. Good thing we brought our own foldup/super absorbent ones. Good call on purchasing that before the trip. At least this house had Internet too, since we hadn't been able to figure out how to ask our Albanian hosts in Vlore, and they weren't exactly tech savvy.

The next morning we got up and drove outside of Saranda to Ksamil, which has some lovely beaches that we'd read about. The sky was a bit overcast, but I was determined to have some beach time. With more time here, I think you can find even nicer beaches, off on Ksamil islands. Or if you search past dirty construction sites. This worked fine for us though. We stayed til noon and only had to share the cove with a couple other people.

From here we went to Butrint, which will get its own post, and it was starting to rain. The next place we had to see was the famous Blue Eye - Syri i Kalter. We drove off the road down a dirt path, paid a small fee, and parked to explore. 

Since it was raining, we were basically the only people here! Us and the cows.

The Blue Eye is a natural phenomenon, and still no one has been able to determine how deep this spring goes. Back in the communist rule, this site was fenced off and only the communist elite could play here.

There's Meghan on the platform where you can see into the eye.

And there's the eye!

It's really beautiful.

That covers it for water attractions in Albania. I highly, highly recommend the coast, and early September was the perfect time for avoiding any crowds.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Intro to Albania, Plus a Transportation Overview

Our shuttle from Montenegro to Tirana really saved us a lot of hassle. We took off in the morning with a handful of other hostel residents and headed down the road.

Quick pit stop in Bar, Montenegro. Our driver disappeared for a bit, and we wandered around.

Back in the car, we survived a hair-raising trip. Our driver was quite aggressive, the roads are narrow, the mountains winding, and as soon as we crossed the border into Albania, there was a car accident that had just happened. Looked like everyone was okay, but a car was flipped over and it wasn't the best welcome.

Meghan and I gone back and forth on the decision to rent a car for Albania, and eventually booked one (the day before arriving!) since we wanted the flexibility, and as soon as we got into Tirana's outskirts, we were majorly second-guessing that decision. Traffic was insane. No rules. Chaos. Cars, people, tractors, animals everywhere. It was not a good feeling.

Still, we pressed on. Our driver dropped us off at a central place in Tirana, and we grabbed some money, food, and found our rental car place. 12,000 lek. Seems like a lot of money.

The people at the car rental place were beyond kind and friendly. I went outside with one of the guys to review the rental car and take photos of it before we took it. Rental cars in the US are shiny, new ones; rental cars in Albania are older, beat up ones. It's for the best. He gave me a few tips for the road, and took it as a compliment when I said Albanian drivers are a little bit crazy.... I was nervous, but we piled in and took off. The rental office in the city didn't have a GPS on hand, so we had to drive out to the airport to get one.

Finally we made it out of the city and drove a couple hours down to Vlore, where we stayed with Meghan's friend's parents. Getting into that town was a bit nuts, and we didn't exactly have an address. She was texting her friend back in the states, and he just kept saying, we don't really have addresses in Albania, just drive down the main road and look for this grocery store - my parents live above it. We did find the place and parked, and his dad came out to find us. He even ran back outside with me later to move the car to a better spot. I pulled so many illegal maneuvers to get it to a spot, but more on Albanian driving later.

We got settled into their place and our hosts don't speak English. Lots of gesturing! But they were so kind. Eventually their 17-year-old granddaughter came over, and she speaks excellent English.

We took off on a walk around the city with our new teenage friends so we could catch the Albanian soccer match that was on that night. We settled at a bar outside that had a large screen, and that was our night. 

Alright, now here are my transportation recommendations for the region.

Most of my European trips involve cheap flights (EasyJet, RyanAir) or trains, but these modes of transport aren't strong suits in the Balkans and the countries are so small that they don't have interior flights (with the exception of Croatia).

Here's what I learned while researching before my trip and what I gathered while there:

Slovenia/Croatia - Great train connections to other major European cities  and usually within the country. Not as much train flexibility up and down the coast of Croatia.

It's very easy to drive on highways/toll roads, and they major roads are very good. For Slovenia, you need to make sure your rental car has a pass that allows you to drive on the highways, otherwise you need to purchase one. I didn't explore bus options, but I'm thinking they're good. I saw plenty of bus tours from Croatia for short excursions into Bosnia or up to Plitvice.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Most of the railways were damaged during the war, so it's hard to get around on rail. It's coming back up, but slowly. There are train links to Croatia and Hungary, but that's about it for the region. Bus connections are good if you want to go that route.

There are new highways under construction, but latest figures I saw report fewer than 100km of four lane roads in the whole country. Most are small 2-land roads. Also, land mines are still very prevalent, so when stopping by car, do not leave the paved area.

We needed additional permission from our rental car company to drive into Bosnia. They gave us extra paperwork with a green insurance card to show at the border. I don't think we were asked for it, but sometimes they do check. GPS coverage here is not good, so I'd almost recommend a paper map and having someone help you map your routes. We relied on a faulty GPS, Google maps (which told us to turn on a road that didn't exist) and still ended up well out of our way. Go with the flow and you'll be okay.

Montenegro - Small country, and flights that go into the capital don't have a bus service to the coast, which is where most people want to be. It's easy to get from Dubrovnik into Montenegro, however, and we took a bus. Plentiful bus service around and to other countries.

Train links are few, with most service to Belgrade only.

There are no major highways in the country, and while our rental car company would let us drive here with extra clearance (like Bosnia), we weren't able to drop off our car here at the end.

Albania - This article was really helpful as I got ready for my trip. Albania has been very cut off from the rest of the world, so there are no train links to other countries. I don't think the train station in the capital of Tirana is even functioning anymore. A few trains operate within the country, but they are very slow and very old.

We were looking at bus options to get from Montenegro to Tirana, and it was going to involve multiple transfers, since there are not direct bus links into Tirana. There is a bus from Ulcinj in Montenegro into Shkoder in Albania, and apparently a mini bus, if you can find the driver in a cafe.

Within Albania, most people take minibuses (furgons) to get around, though they don't really have a set schedule, and I get the feeling that you need to be a bit of a local to know how to find one, how to figure out where it's going, and how to tell the driver where you want to go. We saw many people standing on the sides of highways catching these buses. Also, jumping over guardrails into other traffic to get to a bus. Not my idea of fun.

We went with the car rental option, but we had to pick one up separately within Albania. I couldn't find any rental companies that would let us drive a car into Albania. When we got our car, they asked us which regions we'd be visiting, as some roads are very poor and require a four-wheel drive. Thankfully we didn't need that.

Car Rental - Based on all the information above (few flights, slow/old or no trains, flexibility factor) we went with the car rental, and it was definitely a great call.

I had to search a bit for a car rental company that would let us drive the car into multiple countries and let us do a one-way rental. We used Sixt for the first part of our journey, and it was an easy experience. They had everything ready for us, including additional insurance information since we'd be going into Bosnia. Very nice car, we had an Opel Astra. More premium cars can't be driven into certain countries.

For the Albanian portion, we decided on a car last minute, and we used AutoEurope. You book a car and they send you a voucher, which you redeem at a local car rental office. Ours happened to be at Enterprise. We had an older Skoda, which was small and few amenities and quite a few dents and dings, (our cigarette lighter didn't work, which rendered the GPS charge useless), but it's better to not be driving a shiny, new car in Albania. Driving there is a mix of courage, fear, and faith that other people will move out of the way. I ended up parking on sidewalks, dodging livestock, and doing a a few illegal moves, one in front of a police officer. You do what you gotta do, and so does everyone else.

We rented a GPS for our trip, which served us well, mostly. Not great coverage in Bosnia, so be prepared, but everywhere else worked well. We had our Google maps location dot visible on our phones, so we could tell where we were, we just didn't want to use our roaming network to actually map things out (nor was that reliable all the time).

Overall - I'd definitely recommend a road trip here!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Mighty Little Montenegro - Bay of Kotor

Ah, little Montenegro. While laying out this trip, we figured we might as well stay a night here on the way down to Albania. Kotor looked absolutely stunning in photos, so from Dubrovnik, we caught a bus there, since we were now car-less.

We checked the bus schedule online and had a couple options in the morning. We caught a cab to the bus station in Dubrovnik, bought our tickets for an earlier bus that we'd planned, and entered the chaos.

There was a surly bus driver and no direction as to how to line up, where to put luggage (an extra charge) and the boarding process. Utter chaos. We finally boarded (some people not realizing seats were assigned) and there was a constant beeping from the bus.

We took off, and the driver would pull over and stop the bus for a couple minutes, then restart, and we'd keep going. This happened a few times. And when you're on a cliff, this isn't very comforting. I had no idea what was going on.

We got to the border of Croatia and Montenegro, and once again, no directions on what to do. Get off the bus and line up? Someone would board the bus and check our passports? The first stop I think we all eventually realized we'd have to get off the bus and line up one by one to go through passport control leaving Croatia. And then when we got to Montenegro's booth, the driver came back and took all our passports in order and took care of stuff.

Eventually we made it into Kotor. Our Airbnb host told us how to get to the place where he'd meet us, and we realized we could walk there instead of taking a cab. Our place was inside the old city with no cars anyway, so we took off on a little walk, after we inquired into a bus from there into Albania, but that wasn't super fruitful. We decided to figure it out later.

I was obsessed with this building near the bus station.

We met Goran at an old gate to the city, and he showed us to his apartment. It's one of the nicest places we stayed. Great linens. Those towels were Shaq-sized.

Looking out our window.

After a little internet research, we realized that getting into Albania from here would involve several connections and take all day. Lucky for us, Google told us that a hostel in Kotor would operate a shuttle into Tirana if enough people signed up. We threw some laundry in and walked over to the hostel to inquire and get tickets to Albania. This was an excellent idea. With our next move settled, we took off exploring. The old city here is another UNESCO site.

This pizza to go was really good.

Beach time! Once again, not sandy beaches, more docks and rocks, but I didn't care.

After our sunbaking, we went back to the place to hang laundry, changes shoes, and prep to climb the fortress! There was a stone fountain outside our place with fresh water, so we filled up our bottles and took off. I was convinced I wouldn't make it up these walls, since they were pretty high, but of course I had to make the summit.

My laundry!

Did you know that Montenegro received independence only in 2006?

Back down the mountain and home again, then more exploration. We chased the sunset to the bay.

We found a group of girls here who were shamelessly taking selfies. Not of their group. Each of them separately. I should've taken their photo. What's the world coming to? I fear the next generation.

 We came back into the city walls and found a lovely place to sit outside for dinner. I had a pasta with prosciutto that was a bit too hammy, but still pretty good. We called it a night for laundry and a soccer match. Well done, little Kotor.

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