Albania & Macedonia, Part One

I have sort of wanted to visit Albania ever since I saw the “Teachers Pet” episode of the TV show Cheers way back in 1985. You’ll see why after looking at this short clip from that episode.

For some reason that little ditty stuck in my head immediately.

It’s a little outdated now, though.  For one thing, their chief export is no longer chrome.  It’s crude petroleum and chrome has fallen to number 4 or so.  For another, Albania is no longer a communist republic.  They haven’t been since 1992.

One thing that’s still true is that their land is definitely mostly mountainous.  In fact it’s about 70% mountainous and I think we ended up driving through most of those mountains.  The very first photo I took in Albania was of the mountains we were driving through.

After reading about and experiencing Albania, I have so, so much to say about the country that I’m going to need more than one blog entry to do it.  So, this is just the first of at least 2 entries.

Adria Airways has nonstop flights from Frankfurt, Germany to Tirana, Albania so we booked that flight.

By the way, if you want a commercial flight to Albania, pretty much your only choice is to land in Tirana.  It is the only international airport in the entire country.  The name of the airport is Nënë Tereza or Mother Teresa.  Although Mother Teresa lived most of her life in India, she was born in what’s now Macedonia to ethnic Albanian parents. 

Whenever I told anyone that we were going to Albania, invariably their reaction was “Is it safe?”  Now I know the movie Taken starring Liam Neeson was all about Albanian sex traffickers and so everyone who’s seen that thinks Albania is dangerous.  From what I had read, though, I was pretty sure it was a safe country to visit.

I started to get a little nervous, though, when we got to the airport and there were all kinds of armed police officers escorting 3 guys to the plane.  We had to take a bus from the terminal to the plan, so the men were escorted onto the bus.  They were let off first so that they could be put on the plane.  I never saw them again so all ended well until we got onto the bus in Tirana to take us from the plane to the terminal.  A police officer got on and called out a name.  The woman standing next to us got off the bus with her young daughter and they were escorted to a waiting police van.  I have to say those two incidents were a first for me in all my travels and luckily that was the worst of our “safety” issues for the week.  If you have any interest in traveling to Albania, have no fears.  I felt safe the entire time we were there.

Now, safe and uncomfortable are two entirely different things.  There were several instances where I felt uncomfortable, but not because I thought anyone was going to harm me.  In Albania, it is very common to see groups of men sitting at tables outside or inside a restaurant, having coffee or whatever.  That in itself is odd because in the U.S., you just don’t see groups of men sitting outside a café having coffee.  But in Albania we saw it everywhere, all the time.  The problem is that they all stare, hence the uncomfortableness.  I don’t know if they stare at everyone or if they were just staring at us because we were so obviously tourists, but it did make me uncomfortable.  You just have to move past it and ignore it.

We arrived in Tirana the afternoon of April 11th and rented a car from Hertz.  We went with them for two reasons. One is that their prices were more reasonable.  The second is that they allow you to drive their cars out of Albania.  Because Albania borders Macedonia, we had decided to make a quick stop in that country and needed to be able to take a car across the border.

The GPS that we use in Germany has maps for most countries in Europe, so we figured we were all set for using it in Albania and Macedonia.

What we quickly found out was that the estimated travel times on both the GPS and on Google Maps were way, way off for most of the places we wanted to go.

It unfortunately took us twice as long to get to Macedonia from Albania as we thought it would.  Had I known that ahead of time, I would have booked two nights in Macedonia instead of one, but live and learn.

Driving to our destination in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia involved us driving through the city of Tirana, which is both the capital and the largest city.  Saying it was quite an experience is an understatement.  I’m glad Sean did all the driving because I don’t think I could have handled it.  Just know that street signs and rules of the road are mere suggestions in Albania.  You have to be as aggressive as they are behind the wheel if you want to get anywhere.  Traffic lights may or may not work – most of the lights we saw did not work – and even if they do work, people disregard them.  Double and triple parking is the norm on already-narrow streets. 

Sean quickly realized that going with the flow was his best bet.  If he tried to use his signals or yield the right of way it didn’t work nearly as well as just doing what everyone else did.

In addition, people tend to walk in the street even when there are perfectly good sidewalks available, so that adds to the driving difficulty.  They also just dart out into the street when they feel like it so you have to be on the lookout for that at all times.

And then there’s this.

No joke, you see cows walking in the street all the time.

Look, here’s how close one of them was to our car at one point.

We saw so many people “walking” their cows that we started joking about it:

“You’re the one who wanted this damn cow, now you’re the one who’s gonna walk it!”

“If you don’t walk that cow right now, you’ll be eating it for dinner tomorrow!”

“Aw, mom, I walked the cow YESTERDAY!”

OK, you get the idea.  We had to find some way to amuse ourselves while waiting for the cows to get out of our way.

And it wasn’t just cows.  You are just as likely to see goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and horses in the street as cows.  Some of the donkeys in horses are being ridden by people and/or are pulling carts behind them with people or other cargo.  Getting around by donkey or horse is still quite a common mode of transportation in Albania.

Wild dogs are another concern.  Sometimes they’re alone but sometimes they’re in packs.  On our first day of driving, there was a pack in the road and as we were trying to get through, one started running alongside our car and barking ferociously.  It was actually kind of terrifying, so I guess I have to take back what I said about feeling safe the whole time I was in Albania.  I definitely did not feel safe while our car was being chased by a wild dog.  Seriously, I don’t know what I would have done had I been on foot or on a 2-wheeled vehicle or something.

Until 1991, there were only about 600 cars in the entire country of Albania and those all belonged to officers of the communist party.  When the communist party was eliminated in 1992, cars started to become more common but it’s still a relatively new concept.

Here’s something we noticed all over Albania.

That’s a close-up of a stuffed animal tied to a house.  It’s called a dordolec and the concept is a bit confusing, but basically it serves to ward off the evil eye.  We saw everything from life-size scarecrows to stuffed Santas to every kind of stuffed animal you can imagine.  Sometimes we saw dolls as well.

The odd thing is that as often as not, the dordolec was tied to an empty, unfinished house.  Here’s a wide view of the house to which the dordolec shows above was tied.

You may be able to make out the stuffed animal on the roof, and on the upper porch is another scarecrow.  You can also see that this house is unfinished.  That was another common sight in Albania.  Unfinished houses all over the place, and I mean all over regardless of how populated an area was. In trying to research why this is, I’ve read that it could be due to pyramid schemes gone wrong and it could also be that people just ran out of money and construction stopped.  Whatever the reason, it’s just overwhelming.  We saw literally thousands of unfinished homes and apartment units in our short time there.

In the case of multi-dwelling units, sometimes one or more floors would be occupied despite the building being unfinished.  Sometimes the units had electricity and sometimes they didn’t.  I’m guessing running water was probably hit or miss as well.

Albania is a very, very poor country.  It’s the 4th poorest country in Europe.  The average monthly income is the equivalent of about 250 Euro per month.  That is exactly what we paid for 5 nights in a huge apartment in Saranda, Albania.  For the tourist, Albania is a very cheap country.  For dinner at a more expensive restaurant overlooking the Adriatic, Sean and I paid the equivalent of about 30 dollars for both of us.  That including a big salad for two, an entrée each, a drink each with dinner and coffee after dinner.  15 bucks each for all of that.  If you go inland it’s even cheaper than that.

Driving through Albania, we saw people literally living in tin shacks in shanty towns.  I didn’t take any photos of the towns because I thought it would be kind of rude, but if you Google shanty towns in Albania you can see what I mean.  It was really very sad and just made me think how fortunate we are.

OK, I’ll move along to our travels to Macedonia for now and will save more of the information on Albania for the next blog entry.

After we had been driving for a couple of hours, I needed to use a restroom so we stopped at a gas station.  The bathroom was covered in about half an inch of water so I just rolled up my pants and made the best of it.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.  Believe me, that restroom was not bad, and you will see why I said that in the next blog as well.

Upon leaving the gas station I saw this odd sight.

Yes, it’s a Jeep with Albanian plates and a Fort Meyers, Florida spare tire cover complete with a United States flag.  I couldn’t help wondering about the story behind that one.

A short time later, we crossed the border into Macedonia.

The border crossing itself was rather amusing.  We went through the checkpoint relatively easily and then got to another checkpoint.  We had no idea what it was for, and when we stopped the car and rolled down the window, the guy said “Customs”.  We were like um, ok, what are we supposed to do now?  He again said “Customs” and when he saw we were still confused, he said in a heavy accent “Do you have anything?”  We said no and he said OK and walked back into the building.  That was easy.   He really didn’t seem concerned about the truthfulness of our response at all.  (But of course we were telling the truth.)

Our destination of Ohrid in Macedonia was only about 30 minutes from the border.

The streets in Ohrid are very narrow and our GPS had trouble figuring out where we were supposed to go.  We ended up at one point on a square which was pedestrian only but luckily made our way back to the road.  Our hotel was called Villa St. Sofija, and when I saw a sign for the Sveti (saint) Sophia church, I figured we must be close.  Sean ended up just parking the car next to the church and walking around to find the hotel, which, of course was right across the street from the church.  A guy from the hotel came back to the car with Sean, though, so he could direct us where to park. 

Because we had arrived so much later than expected, we went out for a walk immediately after checking in. 

One of the restaurants we passed by had this sign on the wall inside and it was visible from the street.

Sean did not find that to be as amusing as I did.

Oddly, the following morning I was reading a travel blog about Iceland and a photo with that same sign was posted in the blog.  I guess it’s not original as I thought it was.  I just once again thought it was funny to see an English sign like that in a non-English speaking country. 

This square is where we ended up in the car while trying to find the hotel.

Here you see one of the pedestrian streets in the area. 

It almost looks like it had been raining, but you can see the blue sky in the photo.  The tiled pavement was just very smooth and shiny.

This little girl made me smile.

She’s not blowing a giant bubble.  That’s a balloon in her mouth.

Here is another of the squares in town with a mosque in the background.

We walked through the sprawling outdoor market for a while even though a lot of the vendors were shutting down for the evening.

The market had everything from fruits and vegetables to clothing and electronics and everything in between.  We went back the next morning and picked up a couple of souvenirs.  Sean collects shot glasses so he bought a shot glass from one vendor who, when Sean picked the glass he wanted, asked “Full or empty?”  Everyone is a comedian.  It cracks me up that no matter which country you go to, people trying to sell something always have a shtick in English.

I took this photo through the window of an ice cream shop to show you how cheap everything was in Macedonia.

The currency there is the denar and you can see that the sign says a scoop of ice cream is 20 denar.  That’s equivalent to about 45 American cents .

By this time it was getting dark and the sun was setting over Lake Ohrid.

Our main reason for the side trip to Macedonia, by the way, was to see both Lake Ohrid and the town of Ohrid.  The region is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe.  The lake is one of the oldest and deepest in Europe and is bordered by both Albania and Macedonia. 

We were pretty tired after our flight and our unexpectedly long day of driving so we had dinner in town and then went back to the hotel.

At this point I would like to introduce a new feature to the block called – fanfare, please – Libation of the Day.  I figured that the word libation is included in the name of the blog and I should start focusing on that aspect as well as the locomotions aspect.

So, the Libation of the Day for Day 1 of the trip is shown here.

The beer is called Skopsko.  We each had one with dinner (okay, Sean had two) and it was a very tasty beer.  It’s the most popular beer in Macedonia and the first commercial beer in the country.  Sales started in 1924.  The brewery is now owned jointly by Coca-Cola and Heineken. 

The next day we got up fairly early and had a nice breakfast at the hotel.  We were the only 2 at breakfast and everything was individually made to order.  You had your choice of eggs, omelets, bacon, ham, sweet or savory pancakes, coffee, juice, toasted bread and butter, honey or marmalade.   

We then went out and wandered the town a little more. 

We ran across lots of these.

Yes, that’s an authentic Yugo!  Some of you may remember the Yugo cars, which were made by a Yugoslavian corporation.  Macedonia is one of six countries that made up the former Yugoslavia. 

We took a walk down by Lake Ohrid.

The water in the lake is incredibly blue and clear.

If you’ve read any of our other blogs, you may have seen a comment or two about how amused we are by watching tourists pose for photos.  I thought I’d join in on the fun.

The area down by the square where we accidentally drove the previous evening was beautiful.

Josip Broz Tito, who was the “benevolent dictator” of Yugoslavia, had a house at Lake Ohrid.  If nothing else, he had good taste.  This is the second place we’ve been to where he had a house, with the other location being Lake Bled, Slovenia.  We have now visited 5 of the 6 countries that made up the former Yugoslavia and I have to say the natural beauty of those countries is amazing.

On our walk back to the hotel, we ran across this group of colorfully dressed girls.

They were singing and collecting money.

And here is probably the oddest thing I saw in Macedonia.

Yes, for some reason the character Chef from the TV show South Park was in front of a restaurant there.

After we checked out of the hotel, we took a little drive up into the hills.

The building with the flag that you see in the background is Samuil’s Fortress.  Samuil was the tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire during the middle ages, and this fortress was the capital of that empire.

This little church is the church of Saints Constantine and Helena.

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor and Helena was his mother. She supposedly discovered Jesus’ cross. 

After our short look around, we started our drive back to Albania.

We had some more gorgeous views of Lake Ohrid along the way.

I couldn’t resist doing The Sound of Music thing.

One of the things you can’t help noticing in Albania is that there are concrete bunkers like this one all over the place.

And I mean all over.  Enver Hoxha, who was the communist ruler of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, was apparently quite a paranoid guy.  He was responsible for installing over 700,000 bunkers in the country – and they were never used during his reign.  From what I’ve read, some of the bunkers have been converted for other uses such as cafes and storehouses, but all the ones we saw were just abandoned.  As I mentioned earlier, Albania is a poor country.  Most of the bunkers have remained in place simply because they can’t afford to remove them.  The Albanians have embraced this, though, and you see little mini bunkers being sold in souvenir shops.  Sean of course bought one.

At one point, Albania discovered 16 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in bunkers near the country’s capital.  The United States gave them 20 million dollars to destroy the weapons. 

Since I mentioned Enver Hoxha, I’ll tell you a little bit more about him.  His paranoia resulted in Albania being a country that was pretty much completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.  Needless to say, this did not foster an environment of tourism.  Fewer than 10 years ago, Albania hosted only half a million or so tourists each year.  There are now about 4 million tourists each year, a huge increase in such a short time.

As we were driving along, the roads kept getting worse and worse.  By that I mean basically unpaved.  That’s part of what contributed to the travel times being so much longer than we thought they’d be.  It took forever to drive over those unpaved roads.  Even when we were lucky enough to get some paved road for a while, it would invariably just end abruptly and go back to being unpaved.

We just enjoyed the scenery as we were plodding along.

We saw colorful houses.

We saw lakes, blue skies, and fluffy white clouds.

We saw donkeys.

We saw cows, in the field where they belong instead of wandering down the street.

We saw snow-covered mountains in the distance.

But despite the awesome scenery around us, we couldn’t help but notice that the road was getting more unpaved.  It was also getting narrower.  And muddier.  To the left of us the land sloped down, and to the right of us the land sloped up.  The road was barely wide enough for our car, so there was no way for us to turn around.  People were literally farming around us and staring at us in disbelief as we drove by, wondering why on earth we were on that road (if that’s what you can call it).

Sean was doing a great job of navigating the perilous road until we got to a particularly muddy spot.

And then this happened.

Yes.  We got stuck in the mud in the middle of Albanian farmland. 

If you want to find out what happened next, look for the rest of the story in the next blog to follow shortly.

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