Balkans 2008

Pindus

Jul 23, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Pindus

On the last day of my trip, we went for a drive in the mountains. We headed out towards Metsovo, to the Pindus National Park. We had wanted to go hiking, but it turned out the national park office was closed this week and we couldn’t get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails, and found ourselves going through some seriously remote forest. Eventually we reached a clearing where a lone shepherd was tending his flock. The track after here became impassable, so we turned around and headed back.

We took another road into a different part of the forest. We wound up in another clearing near a river, where we stopped and hiked downstream a bit. There was no-one else around and the woods were calm and peaceful, except for the distant bark of sheepdogs.

It was getting late and we had to head off. Back where the car was parked, some shepherds were working and their dogs were pretty aggressive. They chased the car, barking furiously as we drove, and followed us for quite a while. Eventually we shook them off. Then, we rounded a corner and saw a large animal sitting in the road. For a second I thought it was another dog, but we’d hardly seen it when it got up and shambled off into the forest. It was a bear; I didn’t even know there were bears in these forests so I was definitely didn’t expect to see one.

We headed back to Ioannina. In the morning I said goodbye to Iraklis and his family, and got a bus across Greece to Thessaloniki to catch my flight home.

Ioannina

Jul 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Ioannina

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Ioannina itself, but we had a look around the Mediaeval fortress, and got a boat to the island in the lake and explored that. The town was the last stronghold of local legend Ali Pasha, who went rogue and declared his own personal fiefdom, ending up holed up in a small house on the island, where a crack squad of Ottomans eventually turned up to terminate him with extreme prejudice.

Vikos gorge

Jul 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Vikos gorge

I got a shared taxi to the Greek border. I asked how much it would be in hacky Albanian, and understood that it would be either 500 or 5000 lekë. 5000 would have been about 30 pounds so I assumed it was 500. I did slightly fear an ugly situation at the border when I handed over my 500 lek note, but luckily I’d assumed correctly.

I walked across the border. Waiting for me on the other side was my friend Iraklis, who was from these parts and was here over the summer. It was strange to see a familiar face from London here at the border with Albania. My trip would finish with three days in north-western Greece, staying with Iraklis in Ioannina.

We drove from the border straight up to the village of Monodendri, where legend had it we could obtain the best pie in Greece. But when we got there, the famous pie restaurant was closed and we had to make do with the second best. From there we hiked a bit of a way down the Vikos Gorge, supposedly the deepest in the world relative to its width. It was impressive. We hiked until we got to a point where insanity would have been required to carry on, and then turned round and headed back to Monodendri.

Gjirokastra

Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Gjirokastra

I felt pretty sure I was the only traveller in Gjirokastra. I didn’t see anyone else foreign-looking, and I seemed to be the only person in the place that I stayed. I headed for the castle, and on the way got into a strange conversation with an old man. He spoke Italian, and the best I could do was reply in Spanish. But we chatted for a little while. He said he was 70 years old, and lived in one of the very highest houses in the city. He sparked up a cigarette and set off up the hill.

I went on to the castle. It was supposed to be closed, but the two ticket sellers were just relaxing outside enjoying the views, and waved me in. And it was awesome. The castle was huge and crumbling and a lot of it was totally unrestored. I picked my way down corridors with walls that had fallen in, and at one point a bat flew past. It was very atmospheric.

Eventually I found my way to the roof, and watched the sun set over the mountains. A warm wind was blowing down the valley, and the city looked amazing. On the roof was a captured US fighter plane from the 1950s, once the pride of the Communist regime’s anti-Western military museum. I stood up there in the warm wind until it got dark.

Bus to Gjirokastra

Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Bus to Gjirokastra

I got a bus to Gjirokastra. This first involved finding my way to the right bus station, no easy task in Tirana. My first guess was wrong, and I had to take a taxi to the right one. The driver was very friendly and told me long rambling anecdotes in Albanian. I didn’t understand a word but laughed with him as he seemed to be enjoying the stories. On his radio, incredible atmospheric Albanian electro-folk music was playing. Just as his story ended, with him saying “(something in Albanian)…Deutschland….(something else in Albanian)… Holland!!” and roaring with laughter, we pulled up at the bus station.

It was a hot morning and nothing much was happening. The bus was supposed to leave at 10, and at 9.30am I was the only person on it. I had visions of Zambia, and wondered if the bus would leave before noon, but it left at five past. We rolled out of Tirana, and before very long we were in hilly bunker-strewn countryside.

At a rest stop somewhere in rural Albania, one of the other passengers said to me “You’re not from around here, are you?” He spoke excellent English, having lived in London for many years. We chatted for a while and he said that if I needed anything at all I should just ask him. He, meanwhile, had just been bitten by a spider on the bus, and his hand was starting to swell up a bit. I’d been worried by a giant wasp which was buzzing around during the journey but I hadn’t seen any spiders. I kept an eye out for the rest of the way.

We arrived at Gjirokastra in the mid-afternoon. The new city was nestled in a steep-sided valley; the old town climbed the hillsides, and a huge atmospheric crumbling castle loomed over it all. I headed up there.

Tirana

Jul 20, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Tirana

I tried to get a bus to Struga but it was too full, so I grabbed a taxi. It was a good move – the driver was very friendly and spoke some German, so we had some broken conversation. He was an Albanian Macedonian, and had spent some time working in Munich. He was happy that people were visiting Macedonia but quite shocked when I told him I’d only been in the country a few days and I was leaving already. He told me all the places I should go if I came back.

At Struga I got a bus to Tirana. On board were an Australian family, the children born in Australia but the parents born in Albania, and returning for a family wedding. I chatted to them on the way. They were very good company, combining Australian outgoingness with extreme Balkan hospitality. They’d brought a mountain of home-made food with them for the journey, and insisted that I share it. I was very well fed.

We crossed the border. It turned out there was a one euro fee for any non-local to enter Albania. I didn’t have any Euros with me, but the Australians helped me out. As soon as we crossed the border, it was clear we were somewhere a little bit different. There were bunkers everywhere, on every hill and in every valley – a relic of the not very distant past when Albania was as closed to the outside world and as armed and paranoid as North Korea is now.

It was hot and stuffy on the bus. I fell asleep for a while, and when I woke I found that one of the Australians, sat next to me, had also fallen asleep, and was slumping into my lap. It was a very awkward situation. I avoided dealing with it by sleeping most of the way to Tirana.

We got to the capital in the late evening. My map didn’t show me where I was, but I navigated by the sun to find my way into town. Immediately I liked Tirana. All the buildings were colourful. A fantastic urban regeneration project had seen all the old Eastern Bloc style concrete boxes repainted in all sorts of pastel shades. The city felt like no other I’d been to on this trip.

Ohrid

Jul 18, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Ohrid

Macedonian buses were very organised compared to the others I’d been travelling on. My ticket had a seat number, which I didn’t notice until a girl evicted me. She was very helpful, pointed me to the right place, and helped me to evict the guy who was in my place. After that it was plain sailing across the rugged Balkan scenery to Lake Ohrid.

Ohrid town was roasting. I walked into town and found myself a place to stay. Some people I’d met in Bosnia were there, and it was fun to see them again. We relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lake until the air cooled enough to move, and then we went out for fun times in the town.

The next day I did some sightseeing. Ohrid town is overflowing with churches and monasteries. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were amazing views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore.

Ohrid could have been addictive. If I’d had a lot more time I’d have happily spent a week here, relaxing in cafes and by the lake. But Albania was calling me, and all too soon I had to find my way into one of Europe’s most mysterious countries.

Train to Skopje

Jul 17, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Train to Skopje

Early the next morning I walked down from Velania to Priština’s train station. I’d checked it out the day before, and found that one train a day left from here to Skopje, at 6.24am. The station was tiny and grotty, and I did not have any particular faith in the timetable. But I got there at 6.15am, after a nice walk in the dawn light through the deserted city. And the train left exactly on time. I was the only person on board.

The train wound its way through southern Kosovo, through impressive forested valleys and alongside rivers. Only an hour and a half later, we were at the Macedonian border. I got no Kosovo exit stamp, but luckily I got a Macedonian entry stamp. I also made the acquaintance of an elderly Albanian man, who appeared at the door to my compartment carrying immigration forms and passports for himself, his wife and his daughter. For a moment I thought this might be because he was illiterate; in fact it was because all the forms were in Macedonian and English only, despite the large Albanian minority who live in the country. I filled in all the forms, and we all made it across the border.

It was a bright sunny morning. About half an hour after we left the border, we chugged into Skopje station. I wouldn’t have minded staying here but I didn’t have that many days left before I needed to be in Thessaloniki. So I just bought myself a great espresso from the station cafe, a snack from a shop, and a bus ticket to Ohrid.

Prizren

Jul 16, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Prizren

I didn’t have too long to spend in Prizren. The last bus back to Priština left at 6pm, and I didn’t want to get stranded. So I hurried into town, not knowing where I was going because the map in the guidebook didn’t say where the bus station was. But I found my way, and before too long I was in the historic centre of this Turkish-influenced town.

It was the usual Kosovan mixture of upbeat and depressing. The town centre was busy and lively, and cafes overflowed with people. Impressive Ottoman buildings lined the streets. But right in the centre there were burned-out buildings, and up on the hillside an ugly scar of abandoned houses showed the ethnic conflict that still existed. Kosovo had been overtaken by violence in 2004, and Prizren had suffered. The remaining Serbs had more or less all abandoned the place, and their empty houses remained.

I sat by the almost-dry riverbank for a while in the warm sun, but soon my time was up. I got a bus back to Priština as the sun was setting over the hills of southern Kosovo. As usual, free sweets were handed out, and I decided that this was something that should be tried elsewhere. I got back to the capital just as it was getting dark, and walked from the bus station up to Velania.

Peja

Jul 16, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Peja

I got a bus to Peja. It was not a long run through the Kosovan countryside. We passed a lot of memorials to fallen KLA fighters on the way, all with the Albanian flag flying over them. Half-built houses seemed to be everywhere. It was hard to tell if they were ruins being rebuilt, or just haphazard new construction. As we headed towards Peja, someone came around the bus to collect tickets, and also to hand out sweets, which I thought was very cool.

In Peja I had thought I might go to see the Patriarchate of Peć, an orthodox monastery outside town which is supposed to be very impressive. I walked through the city, along Tony Blair Street, and out towards the monastery. Ahead of me, the fantastically named Accursed Mountains looked gloomy and forbidding, their peaks wreathed in cloud. But my plans were soon thwarted when I reached the Italian KFOR post which protects the monastery from Albanian harassment. They asked to see my passport, then searched my bag. They said they’d have to take my camera, and apologetically removed it. Then they decided that actually they’d have to take my whole bag. Even if I just wanted to walk up the road a bit, I couldn’t take anything with me. And according to my book it was far from certain that I’d be able to get into the monastery anyway. So I decided to abandon the plan.

I got the impression that my visit was one of the more exciting things that the Italian KFOR guys had had to deal with. They had to be here to stop the monastery getting attacked, but I supposed that their presence put off most would-be attackers and that they probably didn’t have a whole lot to do most days.

I walked back to Peja, and got a bus to Prizren.