Sorry... Dropped the Blog ball for a while there, but have just picked it back up ... Enjoy.
01.08.2012 - 13.08.2012 38 °C
There is an estimated 1.18 million traffic related deaths world wide each year. I am willing to bet that a substantial amount of those are in Albania. (This statistic also puts into perspective my fear of flying as there is a 52.6 million to 1 chance that you will actually be involved in a plane crash, let alone die.) Pat has informed me that I should 'just go with it' and 'if it's your time, it's your time' ... That shit doesn't fly with me. I am always terrified in situations that are out of my control, particuarly those that involve driving, flying or sailing. Cue Albania. We had a brief relationship with this country, three days, but it was love at first sight. Much like the time I met Pat and his way of 'picking me up' was to spill a full can of passionfruit UDL on my brand new Tony Bianco's. That's another thing that doesn't fly with me, but it was love and at first sight, none the less. Albania is a small country wedged between Montenegro, Greece and Macedonia. However small it may be, it is bursting with history and culture and having only recently opened it's borders to tourism, the country remains untouched. This brief encounter has really opened our eyes and had Pat and I kicking ourselves for not spending more time there! We came on another stinking bus. On every bus there is always a broken chair, I had the priviledge of being seated on that one broken chair while Pat enjoyed a short trip of being completely at ease and slept most of the way. The border between Montenegro and Albania was an unorganised mess. There was a kilometre long trail of cars waiting to get through. Our bus pulled out into oncoming traffic and just drove that kilometre on the opposite side of the road. Why not? All that was keeping from a major accident was our bus drivers off-sider, strolling down the road with a ciggie in his mouth, telling them all to move to the side of the road. This is Balkan high rollin' bitches. We arrived at the border and had out passports taken for stamping etc. whilst we sat waiting we noticed at the border crossing leaving Albania there were several young children, no older than eight, attempting to pry the doors open of the cars in line to Montenegro. There was one in particular, about 6, a young girl in a red T-shirt and no shoes, grabbing door handles and being dragged along the road, ducking down and sneaking to the passenger side and trying to get in. It was heartbreaking. It also had us wondering what Albania had in store. We arrived in Shkodra, there was no bus station, just mayhem. Most buses that operate within Albania are privately owned. There are no tickets, no stations and no rules! We jumped off and I ran to the nearest guy offering rides to Tirana while Pat grabbed our bags. 5 Euros, thankyou very much. Because of the private ownership, bus drivers squeeze as many passengers as possible onto their tiny little buses which meant that there were bags, and bodies, everywhere! It was a cosy 2 hour journey between Shkodra and Tirana in airconditioned comfort. There were - again, no bus stations in Tirana so we were dropped at Skanderbeg Square (The city centre) and told that this was the end of the line. Lucky, our hostel was just around a couple of corners. We followed the instructions on the booking email. We arrived at Freddy's Hostel. This was not our hostel. We presented our booking confirmation and the unfriendly man at reception made a phone call and within minutes a very loud Albanian man burst through the door with a smile from ear to ear... 'Nellie Russell!? this is you yes?' - He shoved his iphone in my face and scrolled through all his messages to find our booking. 'Yes, that's us!' A swift handshake, and a 'Aha! You come with me!' later, and we were at 'Loreni Hostel' home of the self proclaimed 'friendliest welcome in Tirana' - and I am not here to disagree. The hostel is located on the third floor of an apartment building, in a quiet area off the street but still in the heart of Skanderbeg Square. He has the floor, half of which he uses for the hostel and the other half he lives in with his wife and children. He showed us to our room with great enthusiasm. Put us in the elevator and gave us our keys, we could only just fit in there with our bags so he took the stairs, obviously not his first time, as it was three floors up and he still beat us! We were taken into our immaculately clean room. Private bathroom and small balcony. It felt more like a home than a hostel. Which is refreshing. He moved very quickly, showing us how to lock the door, where the washing machine was (I never thought I would be so happy at the sight of a washing machine! We felt ten times cleaner just looking at it!) and knocked on the doors of other rooms to show us that there were people in there (I don't really understand why, that happened to us a few times during our stay as well. We often had to walk out and say awkard 'hello's' to people who don't speak even the slightest amount of english). He then had to rush back down the stairs to let some other travellers into their rooms, but of course, was back in a matter of seconds and before I knew it we were posing for photos,'liking' his page on facebook and being shown other people who were also caught off guard at the thought of a photo after hours of bus travel on a thirty-something degree heat. A warm welcome indeed, so warm that he also volunteered to take us to the airport at the ungodly hour of 3am on the following Monday to catch our 'cheap' flight to Athens (I say 'cheap' because it was in terms of the price we paid for it, but we 'paid' for it, I say 'paid' because we paid a price in terms of having to be out of bed at 230am to catch it) We spent the next three days wandering the city, we even spent a good two hours in the Museum of Albanian History. But we were finding it very difficult to tear ourselves away from it. Albania was used as a battle ground throughout the World Wars and is still considerably dangerous at some of it's borders and roads less travelled, due to landmines remaining from the more recent wars. It is still a developing country and still trying to find it's own identity, and though it is beginning to welcome tourism we were often met with stares from the locals who were obviously unsure of what we were doing there. None of the signage is in English nor are the menu's. We would just go to places that had pictures, or just point at something and hope it was tasty! Albania still uses their own currency, Leke, but the Euro is still widely accepted, though you get things cheaper using Leke. If you do find yourself in Albania, don't change any more than you need, as it isn't accepted at currency exchange outside of the country, though you don't need much at all to get by. We only changed 100 Euro for the three days that we spent there and that was just enough - and we enjoyed a life of luxury while we were there. Even though there isn't a strong english speaking culture in Tirana, there is a world of hospitality. We spent Saturday night at 'Kaon' a restaurant and brew house that specialises in traditional Albanian cuisine and also brews their own beer, which you can get by the 'tower load' and poor yourself at your table! - Towers come in three sizes, 2 litres, 3 litres and 5 litres. Pat & I enjoyed two of the 2 litre towers (Saturday night!!) and two main meals with a complimentary bread, for a modest fourteen euros. Another place worth seeing is 'Era' this place is renowned for it's hopsitality and also specialises in traditional Albanian Cuisine, which was inexpensive, homely and delicious!! We then spent about four hours looking for a bar that Pat had read about in Lonely Planet, appropriately named 'Radio' due to all the antique radios on display throughout. There were no two chairs that matched and the room was filled with tartan and jazz music. What a wonderful place to spend a Sunday afternoon, and well worth the 4 hours spent looking for it. I have often heard of some places around the world being referred to as 'the cities that don't sleep' - Tirana is not one of these cities. The days are filled with bustling traffic, with horns that beep for anything and everything! They beep when they are mad, when they are happy, when there is a bridal car driving around (often followed by another beeping car with a man and a camera hanging out the window) They beep to say thanks, and they beep to say 'Get the fuck out of the way!!' My best advice to you when you hear that beep is to do as it's saying! pedestrians have no place on the road and you can bet that if you don't move, they will simply run you over. By the time the night starts to fall the traffic has calmed and the busy people running have been replaced by old men, sitting crosslegged in couples with pipes and cards in the grass surrounding the square. It's little things like that, that make the city so endearing. Theres so much warmth in Tirana that doesn't seem to exist in other cities. While there isn't alot of sight seeing or attractions, the city has a personality and a heart which is enough to make it worth the visit.
We went home on Sunday evening so we could squeeze in a few hours sleep before having to be up at 2:30am to leave for the airport at 3am for our plane to Athens. We were taken by our hostel owner. The city was desserted and we had almost a complete free reign of the roads, though we did come accross a car pulled over by the police, when we asked why, we were told it's because the speed limit is 60kmph. I had sneaky glance at the speedo and noticed we were travelling at 120kmph and it was probably best to put my seatbelt on.
We arrived at the Tirana International Airport in one piece, checked in and waited to board our flight. We flew with Belleair and after the 120minute flight, a little time in customs, an hour on the bus followed by 35 minutes of walking and losing an hour in time difference, we had arrived!
Welcome to Athens!
Our accommodation centered in the trendy Exarchion district. Right around the corner from the uni and therefore, the place where all the uni students come to play, though rather than sitting at one of the many little bars or coffee shops, you would usually find them sitting in groups drinking cheap beer in the park. Obvi, Uni' students are the same in every country! Something that we noticed when looking around at them all, the heavy metal look has well and truly made a comeback! The guys were covered in tattoos and had hair that was longer than mine. They were slinking around the park in those black band t-shirts that had 'Slipknot' and 'Metallica' along with dead animals or a zombie looking thing printed on them. The girls were all wearing black, with hair often in dreadlocks pulled back in ponytails. They wore platform black boots and those stripey leggings that made them look like 'Witchy Poo' from the television show 'HR Puffinstuff. I was always extremely thankful that I wasn't old enough to remember this style the first time it came into play, I am very disappointed that it has made such a strong comeback in Athens, and that I happened to be there when it did, but I am not a convert! You'll never catch me spending anytime in a CD shop names 'Serial Killer Record & CD Shop' (FYI. That shop exists). We stayed in a hotel run by a middle-aged Greek man, with a 24 hour check in, who, so graciously let us check into our room 2 hours early. Bliss! He gave us a map and told us where all the sights were, gave us our WIFI code and offered his assistance if we needed anything. He was so friendly, but in complete contrast whenever we came down from our fifth floor abode, we could hear him shouting from the second we entered the lift! Always in greek. Sometimes he would shout down the phone, sometimes at his employees or a man fixing the air-conditioner and sometimes at randoms outside. But as soon as the lift would 'Ding' he would turn or slam down the phone and greet us with a warm and welcoming smile, asking how we were today and where we were off to and offering to get our room cleaned. We would leave our key, he would wave us off at the door and then as soon as he thought we were out of earshot - begin yelling again. Every. Single. Time. It was hilarious, and never got old.
Greece has been getting a bad rap lately, and it's no secret that it's in financial turmoil. Having recently been faced with an upsettingly large tax bill myself, I know how easy it is to hate your own goverment, and want to rally in the street carrying on and throwing things. But I have to say, following a conversation with an Australian man who moved to Athens twelve years ago after falling in love with a babe of a greek woman, opening a cafe with really great ice-cream and having some kids, that the rioters are clever little buggers! They are well aware that their most fruitful season is Summer, tourists from everywhere flock there on Summer holidays to see the sights and use Athens as a hub to get to the Islands, so there are no riots. Because scaring their tourists, is scaring off whats left of their income! Sneaky devils! We saw no violence, no riots and no demonstrations at all during our five night stay, but the city was awash with police, guards and riot buses. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have guessed there was a problem (had it not been highly publicised, obviously). I haven't ever met a person who has been to Greece and hated it. Despite all it's troubles, the magic is still well and truly alive! We were lucky to be staying in a safe area of the city, though the surrounding areas - Omonia Square in particular - are dotted with junkies and prostitutes. As a country town girl, I have never been subjected to people shooting up and passing out before my very eyes and I was often scolded by Pat for staring, but I couldn't help it. I find it amazing that nobody else does! The city and it's occupants are so used to such scenes, that they just keep walking, not batting an eyelid. I have never felt so sheltered! The streets are covered in graffiti and street art. The only places in the city that you will find without it are the archeological sites, but some of the work is so intricate and well done, that you can almost spend a day just walking around looking at it, the same way you do with the acropolis. Which we did. We also spent some time seeing the sites, doing the 'touristy' thing, we got a two day pass on a 'Hop on - Hop off' bus, which BTW was one of the most costly things we have done on the whole trip. But worth it. We went up and visited the Parthenon on the hottest day EVER. This is another time when it sounds like I am embellishing, but I'm not. We had a bottle of water, and it boiled in my hands. I unknowingly sipped it, and it burnt my tongue. Anyway, It is up very high, and there is nothing but dirt and rocks surrounding it, it was a stuggle to walk it in havi's, but you can always bet in Europe there will be several idiot women doing it in wedges or five inch heels! There were a million people all doing the same thing at the same time, scrambling to get photos and ruining all of ours. There was scaffolding and men at work accross the whole site, restoring it. The damage had been done in the early 1940's from the last time they tried to 'restore' it. It's my personal opinion (and we all love those!) that restoration is much like plastic surgery, excluding boob jobs and the old 'deviated septum' line, used by most celebrities to cover the fact that they have had a nose job. Shit always looks better BEFORE you try to fix it, your face didn't need that lift, and the acropolis don't need yo' cheap sandstone brick. Now you look like a human cat lady and the acropolis is falling to pieces after it stood it's ground perfectly fine for thousands of years.
Moving on, Seeing the sights and travelling Greece has always been a dream of mine and it has lived up to every expectation. The people are friendly and hospitable - and we found ourselves often being treated to a free beer, dessert or bread. As I mentioned previously, you would never know that they are struggling. I love the Greeks! They are loud, happy and filled with so much warmth and this is just Athens... The Islands next. I get a hangover just thinking about them. Thank goodness for our new found love 'Gyros' those bad boys have got us through some pretty sketchy times. Now for those of you wondering, Gyros is heaven sent. It is a popular Greek food and can be purchased anywhere for about 2-3 euros. It's either chicken, pork, lamb or beef (like kebab meat) smothered in tzatziki, with fresh tomato, cucumber, capsicum or peppers, onion and hot chips wrapped in a pitta and devoured in seconds. I have been known to have more than one per day and I'm pretty sure they are the reason my shorts are harder to do up and my shirts feel tighter, but I wouldn't take any of them back! The best Gyros to date, was from 'Porkys' in Ios. But that, my friends, is another story...