Once again, we’ve completely failed to travel slowly — this week we stayed in Podgorica, Shkodra, Tirana and Berat and visited other places in Montenegro and Albania along the way.
Monday 14/10: Sad to leave Kotor but excited about exploring more of Montenegro, we made our way through the drizzle and arrived at the bus station just as a bus was pulling out. Luckily a quick-thinking attendant asked us where we were going and motioned to the driver to stop, so we were on our way sooner than we’d have imagined.
Budva, like Dubrovnik, is a medieval walled city, and we enjoyed walking around the top of the walls and checking out the sea views on one side and the mountains on the other. We poked our heads into several beautifully decorated churches then followed a green fenced walkway around the rocks to a white sand beach that had a few people sunbathing on it — the cool breeze of the morning had melted into a warm early afternoon.
A thirty-seater bus took us onwards to Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica. The journey was full of switchbacks as we climbed the mountains behind Budva; on one side was the blue sea, on the other hills formed of stacks of grey rocks adorned with dark green bushes, their leaves just starting to fade to yellows, oranges and reds.
Tuesday 15/10: Our hostel, Montenegro Hostel Podgorica, is located in a quiet area of town, so we woke up refreshed and ready to hit the town. Podgorica is a small city and doesn’t have a lot of stand-out attractions, but it’s got a good vibe; we spent a good four hours walking around exploring. The green market with its wide aisles and clean floors was a favourite; we didn’t buy any fruit or vegetables on the ground floor but we made some clothes purchases on the mezzanine — Craig finally has more than two pairs of socks! In fact he now has an oversupply, as he was given two pairs for free just after buying some at another stall.
Wednesday 16/10: When I was researching transport connections for this trip, I found a link between Podgorica and our next stop, Shkodra. However, it no longer exists; the only way to get there was to first catch a bus to Ulcinj and then hop on another to Shkodra. Since the last bus from Ulcinj leaves at 12.30, we had to make sure we were there in plenty of time. We were. In fact we had a whole hour in an almost deserted bus station — it was an important Muslim holiday and the restaurants and cafés were all closed.
The onward trip was straightforward and not as scenic as the morning’s journey had been, with its lake and coastal views, but we enjoyed chatting with another couple of travellers, who were travelling from Kotor to Tirana — a journey that involved three bus changes.
We arrived at our next hostel, Mi Casa Es Tu Casa, just as an impressive rainstorm made its own appearance. Staying inside seemed like quite a good option, especially when the staff whipped up a late pasta lunch for everyone. We had a great afternoon chatting with some of the other guests as well as with the owners Ana and Giogio and the manager Juli.
Later a group of us went in search of an elusive restaurant called Ana; the next day we found out it wasn’t called Ana at all. We ate somewhere else.
Thursday 17/10: While Craig stayed behind to work, I headed out with a young québécois called Vincent to explore the city. Almost by accident we stumbled upon the barely used train station with its collection of decaying carriages, and couldn’t resist having a quick look inside one of them. A grey-haired guard in a patched-up purple uniform lay his bike on the platform and came over to ask us what we were doing; our efforts to communicate weren’t the most successful. However, when I said we were just taking photos, he seemed happy enough and we parted with a cheery “ciao”.
On our return, I managed to convince Craig to leave his computer for a few hours and we started towards the castle. Along the way we saw two horses standing unconcernedly in the middle of the main road as cars navigated around them; someone doing a driving lesson with three kids in the back seat; and a father shouting instructions at his ten-year-old son, who was trying to parallel park a car on a hill.
The castle attendant gave us sweets instead of tickets when we paid the entrance fee, and we spent a pleasant hour or so exploring the ruins and taking photos of the spectacular views of the town, the lake, and the flat plains.
Back in town, we found out that the real name of Restaurant Ana is Lille France, so we went there for dinner at our host’s suggestion.
“Can we see a menu?” we asked.
“No menu,” was the response.
We decided to take the risk and to eat whatever they served us, and it was delicious. For €3 per person, we devoured a plate of bean soup followed by a traditional Albanian dish of eggplant, red and green peppers, and rice. Plus we were treated to free entertainment courtesy of the owner’s grandson, who danced around showing off his flashing shoes.
Our last stop of the night was at a fancy looking pastry shop, where we paid almost nothing for a delicious creme caramel and pastry, and chatted to a couple of local guys about their travel experiences and how much they love Albania.
Friday 18/10: Despite an accident on the main road that left traffic backed up in long queues, our furgon trip to Tirana took exactly the time we’d been told it would: two hours. Unfortunately the walk from the drop-off point to our hostel was quite long, but had the benefit of passing through the centre of town — so we got to see a lot of the city as soon as we arrived.
Saturday 19/10: Our morning’s explorations took us to the gypsy market and through many of Tirana’s narrow streets and alleys, before leaving us at a booking agency where we found our onwards plan just wasn’t going to work. We wanted to visit Ohrid, across the border in Albania, but the only bus there leaves Tirana at 7.30pm, arriving at a nearby town five hours later — and from there we’d still have to catch a taxi. Since getting to Pristina from Tirana is relatively straightforward, and we have reservations for a hostel there in three days, we decided to scrap Ohrid and explore a bit more of Albania instead.
As we were working all this out while sitting on a sunny park bench in Tirana’s central square, Sergi, Sutton and Marc came along. We’d met them in Shkodra and got on well with them, so we decided to join them for a while — we had a fast-food lunch then headed to a second-hand/outlet store that Sutton had been told about.
We were running out of time to see the city by then, so we said goodbye and visited a couple of other key points of interest, such as the decrepit pyramid which was supposed to be a museum/mausoleum of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and “the block”, the nightlife district.
Sunday 20/10: Everyone at our hostel (Trip’n’Hostel) had been raving about a certain local restaurant that closes in the early afternoon, so we delayed our departure to have lunch there. One of the owners accompanied us to translate what was on offer and to order for us, and we ended up with a delicious array of dishes that filled us up and set us back a grand total of €3.50. Unfortunately, our attempts to get to Berat weren’t quite as successful.
We managed to catch the local bus in the direction of the furgon stop, but got off late and then couldn’t find a furgon (mini bus) going in the direction we wanted. A driver going to Vlore took us in hand and explained at length how he could take us to Lushnje, where he’d personally make sure we’d find a bus going on to Berat. We weren’t sure, thinking he was just looking for another couple of passengers, but he was true to his word and the transition to our second furgon was quite painless.
The journey, as always, was stunning: flat plains stretching out to low rolling hills that sometimes morphed into craggy grey mountains. Building skeletons lined the roads, mostly under construction rather than on their way out, but some caved-in roofs spoke of better times.
Berat Backpackers is on the opposite side of the river from the main part of town, and when we arrived we found Vincent was already there. We didn’t have much time to talk to him though, because we took the receptionist’s advice and hiked up the hill behind the hostel to check out the sunrise. The soft pinks and striking yellows gave the town and several mountains a new look, and we sat for ten minutes or so, taking photos and enjoying the scene.
We were careful to leave with plenty of time to get back before dark, but didn’t count on missing the turn-off. Hiking down slippery stone steps lit by the light of our iPhone lanterns was Craig’s idea of a great adventure; I was happy to get out of it without twisting an ankle.