Balkans 2008

From Budapest to Thessaloniki, via Kosovo

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Back to Budapest

Friday, July 4th 2008

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I'd wanted to go to Budapest for years, and had finally got there in February. A few months later I decided to go there again. I was planning to travel through the Balkans, and Budapest was a nice cheap place to get to, only a night train away from Belgrade. I booked to stay at the same hostel I'd been to before, and arrived two hours late with Wizz Air just as I had before. What was different, though, was that it was incredibly hot.

I only had one day in Budapest. Last time, I'd failed to find the soundtrack to Kontroll, an amazing film described boldly as the best Hungarian film of 2004. This time I made it my first priority, and with some recommendations of record shops from Olga the hostel owner, I got hold of it.

I'd got what I came for, and so I went out to Keleti station to buy a ticket for the night train to Serbia. In breathtaking heat I queued for about half an hour, in a long line of travellers. Serbia was a very popular destination, because the EXIT festival in Novi Sad was imminent.

I had a few hours to kill before the train, and so I went up Gellért Hill, to watch the lights of the city come on as night fell. It was good to be back in Hungary, but I reckoned it would be even better to be in Serbia. I headed back out to Keleti to get the midnight train to Belgrade.

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Train to Belgrade

Saturday, July 5th 2008

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The train was about an hour late arriving in Budapest. I'd been getting paranoid that I'd missed it. On board, it was busy. I found my way to a six seat cabin, in which I met two Serbs going to Subotica, two English girls going to Novi Sad, and a Hungarian who got off somewhere near the border. I chatted to the English girls for a while, then slept very badly. When we got woken up for the borders I felt so tired I hardly knew what was going on, but the Serb official who stamped me in was as jovial as any border guard I've ever met.

At dawn we reached Novi Sad. The English girls got off, and I had the compartment to myself. Dawn was breaking as we crossed the Danube, rumbling over a bridge that replaced one destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999. I slept until we got to Belgrade at eight.

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Belgrade

Sunday, July 6th 2008

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It was 7am and hot. I found a hostel across the road from the train station. It didn't look too nice from the outside, but as soon as I walked inside and found that it was air conditioned, I decided to stay.

I slept for a few hours. When I woke up I had a pounding caffeine withdrawal headache, and I set off urgently to have a look around Belgrade. In the blazing sun I walked up to the Kalemegdan, an ancient fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. In the park inside the fortress, I found someone selling coffee, and bought three.

Nicely caffeinated, I was able to think clearly again, and I walked through central Belgrade taking in the atmosphere. I passed a bakery and grabbed a couple of bureks, a fantastic Balkan snack that I'd discovered in Zagreb five years earlier. The guy serving me jokingly said "15 dollars" when he realised I was foreign, and then short-changed me by 3 dinars anyway.

In the evening there were more travellers at the hostel, most of them checking out Belgrade before they went to the EXIT festival. At the Kalemegdan earlier someone had given me a flier which seemed to suggest that there was some sort of free trance festival at the fortress, so we all headed up there. And it was all true, except for the 'free' bit. Not wanting to pay 1000 dinars to get in, we just sat outside enjoying the open air for a while.

We decided to go to a club. Two Serbs, Stefan and Miloš, had got talking to us, and tried to show us the way to some clubs, but after a lot of walking we gradually realised that Stefan and Miloš were not locals and had absolutely no idea where we were going. Eventually, with the assistance of some friendly passers-by, we found our way to the banks of the Sava, which is lined with clubs on boats.

As we arrived, someone was clambering up out of the river, covered in slime and filth. He was cut, and staggering, and it looked like his night had gone very very badly. As people helped him away, we queued for the club he'd fallen off the back of, but we weren't allowed in. Someone told us that the faller was a foreigner, and so the bouncers were not letting any more foreigners in. We went next door, and stayed there until 4am. We left just as the dawn was starting to break.

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Bus to Sarajevo

Monday, July 7th 2008

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I wanted to get to Sarajevo at a reasonable time.  This meant leaving Belgrade at an unreasonable time.  It was already hot when I got up at 6.30am, so it was very nice to be staying right across the road from the bus station.  Four of my room mates from the hostel were getting an early train to Novi Sad for the EXIT festival, and we all headed across to the station.  As we crossed the road, one of them, Will, spontaneously decided that with the festival not starting for a couple of days, he might as well visit Bosnia too.

After a couple of hours we reached the border and we were through quickly. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and it was a relief to get off the roasting bus for a bit.

After a couple more hours, we rolled into Istočno Sarajevo bus station. We were in the Republika Srpska, one of the two entities which make up Bosnia. A few years ago, travel across the internal border was not possible but now it was straightforward, our only problem being finding the cash for a taxi into central Sarajevo. The cash machine at the bus station didn't work, so we walked under the blazing sun to a nearby shopping centre which had a big sign on saying "Shoping Centar", and exchanged some Euros for Bosnian Convertible Marks. We hailed a passing taxi and headed into Sarajevo.

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Sarajevo

Monday, July 7th 2008

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The word Sarajevo evoked sadness, to me, before I went there. It called back memories of seeing war, death and destruction on the TV in the mid-1990s. My recollections of the news from back then seemed to be mostly of bleak snowy scenes. To arrive on a blazing hot July day was to instantly dispel the preconceptions.

We stayed at Haris Youth Hostel. There were many reasons that I liked Sarajevo a lot, and this hostel was one of them. Haris himself was a young eccentric. At the age of 15, when talking to his neighbour about what careers he might follow, the neighbour had suggested working in the tourist industry. Haris thought this was a good idea, and without telling his parents, he found hostelword.com, and listed the family home as Sarajevo's first hostel. You'd have thought it would have been unbearably awkward when the first travellers turned up. Haris had a lot of explaining to do, but in fact his parents took it in their stride and helped establish the place. When we arrived, his mother welcomed us in and brought us a cup of strong Turkish coffee.

We set out to have a look around. Haris's house was on a steep hill overlooking the historic city centre. On the way, we passed a cemetery, its white headstones visible from a long way away and the year on almost every one of them was 1995. In the evening, I sat on Haris's balcony looking over the city as the call to prayer sounded over the city.

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Bobsleigh run

Tuesday, July 8th 2008

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The next day, Haris took a few of us from the hostel on a tour around the city. It was another blazing hot day. I went to a shop to grab a bottle of water, and as I walked back to Haris's van I got something in my eye. I thought nothing of it, and jumped into the van. Haris put a sign saying 'pimp' in the window, put Right Said Fred loudly on the stereo, and we drove off into the Sarajevo traffic.

We went to the tunnel museum. The city had been besieged for almost four years in the 1990s, and the only way in or out was via a tunnel under the airport runway. Only a small section of it still remains. Walking down ten metres of it on a quiet summer day was claustrophobic; it must have been horrific to walk the entire 800m during wartime.

We drove through the city centre, and stopped near the parliament buildings. The bright yellow Holiday Inn stood nearby. During the war, journalists based themselves here and the façade was covered in bullet holes. Buildings nearby were still pockmarked with war damage, but the Holiday Inn was repaired.

Then we went to the Olympic Museum. Whatever I'd got in my eye early this morning was still there and was now incredibly painful. There was a sad video in the museum contrasting Sarajevo in 1984 when the Olympics were hugely successful, and Sarajevo ten years later when it was filled with misery and death. Moving though it was, I don't think anyone would expect public weeping from visitors, and I felt embarrassed that my eye was watering profusely. Determined to sort this out, I ended up lying on the ground outside the museum while Will and two of the other travellers squirted mineral water violently into my face. Eventually this worked, and I felt much better.

Our touring done, we found our way to an Ottoman courtyard in Baščaršija and drank coffee and smoked shishas as a thunderstorm suddenly raged over the city.

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Mostar

Thursday, July 10th 2008

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I got a tram from near Haris's place to Sarajevo train station. It was in the newer, less fantastic part of town, with a large quiet square in front of it called "Srebrenica Massacre Square". So often in Bosnia it was easy to begin to forget what had gone on during the 1990s, but there were always reminders.

The train to Mostar was a few hours late. It arrived in Sarajevo at the same time as a train heading for Zagreb, and neither station nor train seemed to indicate which one was which. I got on the one that had come into the platform I was on, stood by the door in case I felt the need to jump out suddenly, watched the station recede and then uncertainly decided to take a seat. If I'd accidentally got the Zagreb train, then I would just go to Zagreb. Why not? There was only me and one other person in my compartment and I asked him, in a patronising traveller-style gesturing sort of way, if this was the Mostar train. He replied in normal English that it was.

We started talking. He was called Sasha, and he was a Bosnian Serb, about the same age as Haris. He was a metaller, bearded, long-haired and dressed in black. He told me of the constant grief anyone who looks a bit alternative gets from the police in Bosnia. He said all the police were uneducated country boys and would stop and search him at pretty much every opportunity.

A native of Herzegovina, he said it bothered him a bit that everyone calls the country "Bosnia" when really it's "Bosnia and Herzegovina". But his Herzegovina nationalism was not particularly serious and he was generally more concerned with enjoying being a student in Mostar. We talked a bit about the war, and he said he thought Bosnia was healing, slowly. But I remembered Haris saying he just didn't know if he could ever be friends with a Serb, after all the horrors he'd lived through. I wondered what would happen if these two good people ever met. Would they get on, or would the legacy of the brutality be too great?

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Kotor

Saturday, July 12th 2008

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I got a bus to Herceg Novi. As we drove out of Mostar I watched ruined buildings passing by, and thought that this town was one of the most shocking places I'd been. The rebuilt bridge and amazing Turkish quarter bustling with tourists seemed to symbolise reconciliation and progress, but when every tenth building was a still a shelled wreck how could there be progress?

Southern Bosnia was stunning and mountainous. The bus route went into Croatia, and the coast road was spectacular. For much of the way the road was high up in the hills, and it was like we were flying, with breathtaking views over the Adriatic. We passed through Bosnia's tiny coastal strip, and stopped at a shop where they seemed much keener to accept Croatian kuna than Bosnian marks. Then we went back into Croatia again, requiring more passport checks. The battered and frayed state of my passport hadn't caused problems until now but the Croatian guard looked very unhappy. He looked at it, and me, with slight disgust. "Did you vosh it?", he demanded.

But he let me through and the journey continued. We flew over Dubrovnik; the bus there from Mostar was considerably more expensive than the ones to Herceg Novi, 30 miles further on, suggesting to me that it would be nightmarishly popular and busy. So I contented myself with a brief glimpse of the red roofs of the old town.

We crossed into Montenegro, and I changed buses at Herceg Novi. It was late evening now and in the dusk we wound our way around Kotor Bay to the town of Kotor. I walked from the bus station to the old town, where I realised my guide book was outrageously wrong about many essential things in Kotor. It said that there would be loads of people outside the old town offering accommodation; there was one old woman who sidled up to me and said "Hotel?" but her offers did not tempt me. It said the Hotel Vardar was nice and had rooms from 25 Euros; it was very, very nice and had rooms from well over 100 Euros. Everywhere else in town seemed to be full, and I was bracing myself for a pricy night. Luckily, the receptionist there took pity on me and after phoning around a few places, found me somewhere to stay for 40 Euros, in a noisy hot room above a restaurant.

Accommodation in Kotor wasn't cheap, but the town was pretty awesome. I went for a walk around, and every street and every square seemed to be lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. I had some food, got a drink, and took in the atmosphere.

In the morning I got up early and went to climb the city walls. They looked extremely steep, soaring up into the barren hills surrounding the town. Even at 7.30am it was hot going. I began to think at one point that I wouldn't make it to the giant Montenegrin flag at the very top. My water was running low and I didn't fancy getting dehydrated. But eventually I made it, and spent a while appreciating the wild scenery of the Gulf of Kotor.

On my way back down I bumped into a local family, looking like they were struggling. They asked me how much further it was to the top, in broken English when they realised I was not local. I replied in broken Russian which I guessed would be more or less the same as broken Serbian. I checked later and it wasn't far wrong. I told them it was ten minutes further, and they headed on. I returned to sea level, and got a bus to Podgorica.

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Black Lake

Sunday, July 13th 2008

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I had a choice when I got to Podgorica - head into the mountains of Montenegro, or move on to Kosovo. I had a brief look outside the bus station, and immediately decided to wait one hour here for the bus to Žabljak, rather than wait six hours for the bus to Priština.

It was a good decision. The journey into the hinterlands of Montenegro was amazing. Before very long we were in rugged and remote scenery, wild mountains with waterfalls and streams, all covered in lush green forests. Between tiny settlements where people got on and off, there was little sign of human habitation.

We arrived in Žabljak just after sunset. I wondered if it would turn out to have been a bad idea to arrive in a popular mountain town late on a weekend evening in the summer, but I found a room easily enough, in a house owned by a woman called Dragana.

In the morning I went for a walk to Crno Jezero, Black Lake. It was not far out of town and it was a nice walk through the forest. The lake was surrounded by towering rocky peaks and dense forest.

All was silent as I walked around the lake. Then suddenly I heard a 'plop', and saw ripples of water spreading out. I was mystified at first. Had someone thrown a stone at me from somewhere nearby? I walked on a few metres, and there was another 'plop', but this time I saw the culprit - a large frog who had been relaxing in the sun before I passed by. There were frogs all along the shore, and I set off a wave of jumps into the lake as I walked. In the forest, squirrels ran about; in the lake, a large black fish circled and occasionally grabbed a fly from near the surface.

Once I'd walked all around, I headed back to Žabljak to get a bus back to Podgorica, and found myself there with six hours to kill before the Kosovo bus would leave.

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Priština

Tuesday, July 15th 2008

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The journey to Kosovo was exhausting. The bus had come from Ulcinje, and it was full of rowdy young Kosovar holidaymakers. One of the two bus drivers was the spitting image of Lloyd Bridges. I had met a Dutch traveller as we were waiting at the bus stop, and after we'd boarded Lloyd Bridges spoke to a couple of people who gave us their seat. I didn't want any kind of special favour like that, but no-one spoke English and I didn't quite understand what was going on. Then, about an hour later we stopped at a service station, two young Kosovars came up and angrily shouted at us. Lloyd Bridges was nowhere to be seen and neither of us knew what was going on, but it was clear that the two guys wanted our seats. We could hardly argue, in the circumstances.

I ended up sat in the stairwell. The lights were on all night, music played, and I thought about the various crazy bus journeys I've done in various crazy parts of the world.

In the middle of the night we sailed across the Montenegrin border without stopping. We paused briefly at the Kosovan border, but to my huge disappointment I didn't get a passport stamp. Not long after that some people got off, and I finally got a seat. I dozed as we rumbled on into Kosovo.

We got to Priština at 5am. The Dutch guy got a taxi to a hotel; I decided to sleep in the bus station for a bit. It was spacious, clean and empty, and I slept until about 7.30, when I got a taxi to the Velania Guest House, a cheap place to stay in a hilltop suburb.

It was good to be in the world's newest country. Kosovo's declaration of independence, only four months earlier, had spurred me into visiting this part of the world. War and mass killings were the things Kosovo was famous for in the UK, and I wanted to see what things were actually like here.

I walked into town from Velania. It was pretty hard to find the way; I had a guidebook with very poor maps, and few streets had signs anyway. But I haphazardly found my way into the centre. My first target was a cafe, and I found one on UÇK Street - Kosovo Liberation Army Street. I restored myself with several strong espressos before heading off to explore.

I spent two days looking around the city. I felt a vibe of happiness and optimism about the place. Families promenaded up and down the pedestrianised Mother Teresa Street. People were extremely friendly to me when they realised I was English. The city was crumbling and dusty and mostly quite ugly, but somehow in the warm summer days it looked quite nice.

But at the same time it was obvious that not all was good in Kosovo. An abandoned Orthodox church stood looking dismal and decrepit in the middle of a park, and anti-Serb sentiment wasn't hard to find.

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Peja

Wednesday, July 16th 2008

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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. 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.

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Prizren

Wednesday, July 16th 2008

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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 the town.

It was the usual Kosovan mixture of upbeat and depressing. The town centre was busy and lively, and cafes overflowed with people. Old 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. Free sweets were handed out again. I got back to the capital just as it was getting dark, and walked from the bus station up to Velania.

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Train to Skopje

Thursday, July 17th 2008

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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 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 pulled 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.

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Ohrid

Friday, July 18th 2008

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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. Some people I'd met in Bosnia were at the hostel I went to, 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. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore.

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Tirana

Sunday, July 20th 2008

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I tried to get a bus to Struga but it was too full, so I grabbed a taxi. 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 feigned disgust 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'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 saved me, telling me what the border guard was saying to me and giving me a Euro so I could get in.

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 militaristic 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. 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.

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Bus to Gjirokastra

Monday, July 21st 2008

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I got a bus to Gjirokastra. This first involved finding my way to the right bus station. 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 ten. Before 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. 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.

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Gjirokastra

Monday, July 21st 2008

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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.

Eventually I found my way to the roof, and watched the sun set over the mountains. A warm wind was blowing down the valley. 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.

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Vikos gorge

Tuesday, July 22nd 2008

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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 him 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. 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.

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Ioannina

Tuesday, July 22nd 2008

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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.

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Pindus

Wednesday, July 23rd 2008

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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 for the week and we couldn't get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails and see where we got to, 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 definitely didn't expect to see one.

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