Into Albania, the Land of Blood Feuds

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
What I did
Sveti Naum Monastery
Korca Cathedral

Flag of Albania  ,
Sunday, August 28, 2011

I went to sleep expecting that if we rose early, we'd get all the way to our goal, the city of Gjirokastra in southeastern Albania, in one day. But in the middle of the night, I suddenly woke with the realization that it would probably be impossible to do so using public transportation (our only real option). In my drowsy state, I looked for any new information online that I might have missed before, but wasn't able to solve my dilemma (for future reference, travel information about Albania is extremely scarce). 

Bearing the likelihood of our "failure" in mind, we got up at 7:30am and made tracks to what we thought was the bus stop. The general level of English speakers in Macedonia is quite high, but we must have had really awful luck that morning -- everyone told us the bus picked up somewhere different. After waiting and wandering and waiting and wandering and waiting and... we finally saw a bus sail by us that looked like it might be headed in the right direction. We were lucky enough to flag it down, then scurried on board, paid our 110DEN each, and sat down to enjoy the lakeside scenery as the bus made its way south towards the border.

By this time, the idea of getting all the way to Gjirokastra was fairly unrealistic, so we opted to make a pit stop at the Sveti Naum monastery and Galicica National Park, both of which are very close to the Albanian border. As it was quite early when we got off the bus, the two places were still fairly deserted, with only a handful of other people sitting on the beach or touring the monastery. The quiet was only occasionally interrupted by the cries of the wild peacocks roaming around the park and the monastery grounds, making it a pleasant way to start what was sure to be a long day of travel.

The original church here, the Church of the Holy Archangels, was built by Naum in the 10th century, only to be replaced by a much larger church bearing his name in the 16th century. The saint himself is entombed here, and rumor has it that you can hear his heartbeat if you listen closely enough. Whether or not that's true, I'm not sure; it cost extra to go into his tomb, and we didn't feel particularly inspired to drop the coin, so we skipped it and just walked around the lovely garden area. The garden bit was populated by an ostentation of oversized peacocks (no joke, that's what it's called -- we had it on a pub quiz once), whose giant, curved talons were quite frightening. I did my best to circumvent them while still snapping pictures of a few and exploring the monastery grounds. 

We contemplated walking from the monastery south and across the border, but were worried that we might get stopped by the military and be forced to turn back, all of which would just take up that much more of our day. Taking the bus seemed the more certain option, so we returned to the bus stop, pausing briefly on the sandy beach to quickly dip our toes in the cool waters of Lake Ohrid. 20 minutes later, we were back on the bus, and 3 minutes after that we were at the border. It had been a short, but very enjoyable stay in Macedonia, and seeing just the bits of the country that we did made me keen to see more of it.

We took great joy in passing the line of waiting cars and walked swiftly through both checkpoints -- tungjatjeta, Albania! We could see a town close to the border, so decided to ignore the offers of taxis and just walk there under our own steam. The little town was clearly one of Albania's big beach resorts; here Lake Ohrid was lined with big hotels and private beaches that looked a fair deal pricier than any of the places we'd stayed in Macedonia.

Unfortunately, the town's only ATM was out of order, so we couldn't get any Albanian Lek, which we needed to make the onward journey to Korca. Eventually, we were able to negotiate with a furgon (minibus) driver who agreed to take us to the ATM in Pogradec, where we would then get on another furgon to Korca. The journey lasted less than an hour and a half, and took us from the shores of Lake Ohrid up into the mountains of eastern Albania.

After two buses, a visit to a monastery, a border crossing, two furgons, and a number of miles covered on foot, we were surprised to discover it was just after noon when we were dropped off in Korca. We spent at least 45 minutes looking for a hotel, both of us feeling a bit discouraged by the apparent value for the money (or lack thereof) at all the places we looked. We knew it was for just one night and that we wouldn't need to spend any real time there, so in the end we chose the place with the lovely lobby but shabby rooms for 36,000LEK per night. 

After all that traveling, we were starving, so made our way out into the baking streets of Korca to scout out a spot to scrounge up some grub. The city was once was called "little Paris", but I would have been more likely to call it "little ghost town." On the afternoon we were there, the wide streets, restaurants, and cafes were all virtually deserted. The only groups of people we saw were the numerous wedding attendees crowded around the city's cathedral. It was a Sunday, after all, and it seemed like a very popular day and spot for weddings in ol' Korca -- despite our late arrival in the city, we counted at least four wedding parties come and go through the cathedral doors.

After devouring our lunch (pasta, of course -- we were in the Balkans!), we decided to explore our first proper Albanian town a bit. We made a wide circle, eventually finding ourselves in a sketchy area that frightened us a bit -- perhaps Korca wasn't all sunshine, weddings, puppy dogs, and flowers? We did our best to hightail it out of there and worked on navigating our way back to our hotel and "safety", only to leave the room immediately to try and find a bar where we could watch Konrad's favorite football team play. We'd inquired at a bar near the cathedral earlier in the day and learned that they would be showing the match; it was a pleasant enough spot to spend the early evening, and the Korcas (the local brew) were nice and chilled, but the game itself was (as quoted from my journal entry) "pathetic." 

Once the match was over, we left the smoky (a constant problem in the Balkans) confines of the pub and hit the streets in search of dinner. Instead of retracing our steps over and over again, we walked down Republic Boulevard. It was a shame we hadn't tried that direction earlier in the day; Republic Boulevard took us to a whole new world, completely different from the other areas we'd seen in Korca. No longer were we in a shady ghost town; instead we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by Albanians decked out in their full Sunday finery, simply making a circuit or popping out for dinner with their families. There were some lovely places along that road, and you could see that the city was really in the middle of a transition from a fallen Paris of the East to a posh and modern city once again. 

We knew our options were going to be limited, so when we saw a cuter-than-average pizzeria, we walked in the door and claimed ourselves a table. Unlike some of the other restaurants on the strip, this one was not busy -- in fact, we were the only people there for most of the evening. We decided not to let that dissuade us, and it turned out to be a very wise decision since the pizza was phenomenal and the service fantastic. The whole evening left us feeling much more positive about Korca -- but we weren't going to let that stop us from boarding the bus bound for Gjirokastra the next morning!
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