After a few days in Sarajevo, Bosnia, it was time to continue our way south through more of the Balkan countries and on to Greece. I could have spent a few more days in Sarajevo but we had a lot of ground to cover and our Europe travel itinerary was filling up quickly. It was time for one of my least favorite parts of traveling – an overnight bus. We took a series of three buses for over 16 hours through Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
As many of you may know, there’s conflict between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo was part of Serbia until 2008 when Kosovo declared its own independence. Many countries such as the US, the UK, Australia, Turkey, Canada, and most of Europe quickly recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. However, Serbia still doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence from them so there is definitely tension. We crossed the border from Serbia to Kosovo in the middle of the night and several guards walked through the bus. Don’t make the mistake Bryan did if you visit Kosovo. Our bus stopped for food and Bryan asked if he could pay for it in Serbian Dinars. The woman cashier was not pleased with his question and sternly told him no (Kosovo uses the Euro). Except for Bryan, Americans are well-liked in Kosovo. There is actually a huge statue of Former President Clinton in Pristina, as well as a huge mural of him and a major boulevard bearing his name. We just rode through Kosovo on a bus though, and only stopped to get food and unfortunately offend the locals.
Our series of buses landed us in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. It’s the main tourist draw of the country and a popular vacation spot. Lake Ohrid is a gorgeous, vast, emerald lake with crystal clear water. However, the beaches were rocky and it hurt my feet to walk to the water barefoot so I really don’t consider that a beach. The town was peaceful and the views were breathtaking so it was an enjoyable couple of days.
Crossing from Macedonia to Albania made us feel like we had returned to South America. With the crazy markets, the trash issues, the traffic, honking, and crowded minibuses, I was definitely having Bolivia flashbacks. We hopped on a packed minibus to head towards the city of Berati. I was the last one on the bus, and there were no more seats, so they pulled a plastic stool out of the back for me to sit on in the aisle. I think my seat was more comfortable than Bryan’s though. He was squished in the far-back seat with three other people and was smashed beside a big, sweaty Albanian guy. We were all drenched with sweat though because although the air conditioning was blasting, the driver had the front windows open so the cold air blew right out the window before reaching us. We actually experienced this Albania air conditioning situation twice on long bus rides during our two days in Albania. We tried to ask if the driver could put the windows up so the AC would actually work but we were unable to communicate that through the language barrier.
Communication can be a bit tricky in Albania, especially because the body language for “yes” and “no” are actually opposite of ours. Another source of confusion is that sometimes a zero is added to the end of prices unintentionally. In the 1970’s, Albania chopped off one of the zeros on their prices but some people still are in the habit of writing the extra zero. We had a bit of a scare when our bus driver accidentally wrote down an extra zero at the end of our bus fare.
We had heard great things about the city of Berati, Albania. The rows of Ottoman- style homes climbing up the hills beneath the 14th century citadel Kalasa was a nice sight, but other than that we were honestly underwhelmed with Berati. It was hot, dry, dusty, and there wasn’t much to see. On Saturday, they had an interesting sidewalk market that really brought back South America memories. You could buy underwear, live ducks and sheep, ripped and mismatched shoes, fruit, and nearly anything in between. We saw an old woman walking home from the market with her weekly groceries – a bag of fruit in one hand and two live ducks she held upside-down by the feet in the other.
A common sight in the Albanian countryside are gray, dome-shaped bunkers. Beginning in the late 1940’s under the 40 years Enver Hoxha was in office, huge amounts of bunkers were built. There are estimated to be as many as 750,000 bunkers in Albania – that’s more than one bunker for every four Albanians. If war began, every healthy Albanian man was expected to head to the bunkers with their weapon prepared to fight. The bunkers never served their true purpose and were a huge economic drain on Albania. Now the bunkers are mostly a “romantic” place for couples and there is also a Bunker Festival in Tirana where people party in them. Some bunkers have actually been converted for worthwhile purposes such as cafés, residences, or shelters for the homeless or animals.
Although we weren’t overly impressed with Albania’s sights, we were impressed with the Albanian people. Maybe we should have expected this since Mother Teresa was an ethnic Albanian (and was born in Macedonia). They were extremely friendly, welcoming, and seemed to love Americans. There were American flags flying everywhere, alongside the red and black Albanian flag. Bryan and I were walking down the street and two men at a café yelled out to us “Americans?!?” They happily shook our hands and welcomed us to Albania. I’m not sure how they knew we were Americans; we weren’t even talking to one another so it wasn’t because of our accents. Another amusing thing we noticed about Albanians is what we coined “The Albanian Man Belly-Pose.” Countless times, we saw men with large bellies holding up their shirt and proudly rubbing their bellies. I guess they were just trying to cool off from the heat. 🙂
In the south of Albania along the Ionian Coast lies the city of Saranda. From Saranda, you can see the jagged mountains of the Greek Island of Corfu in the distance. The area supposedly has beautiful beaches but we just decided to spend a day and visit the ruins of Butrinti before heading to Corfu. The impressive ruins date back over 2,500 years. We caught a ferry to Corfu that afternoon. Bryan spent his birthday in true traveler style – sight-seeing and spending half a day in Albania and the other half in Greece.
As you can probably tell (by my writing and Bryan’s lack of photos), Macedonia and Albania didn’t top our list of favorite travel destinations. We didn’t want to waste precious time in places we weren’t “feeling” when we were so eager to go to Greece. Bryan and I were really looking forward to Greece, so we wanted to allot as much time there as we could.