Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Athens to Tirana to Berat to Tirana to Shkodra to Ulcinj to Budva to Dubrovnik


Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted, I have been on a total of seven long distance buses in the past 4 days. I’ve been in a different place (usually country) every night. The route was Athens → Tirana, Albania → Berat, Albania → Tirana, Albania → Shkodra, Albania → Ulcinj, Montenegro → Budva, Montenegro → Dubrovnik, Croatia. Here are some highlights:

I decided to leave Athens a night early, even though I still had to pay for the hostel bed I had booked a few weeks back. It turns out this was a very, very good idea, as I only barely made it to Dubrovnik in time to meet up with Julia Hanlon’s wonderful family, who I expect to meet in about half an hour!

The thirteen hour bus ride from Athens to Tirana was awesome. I got to know the primary bus driver, Edmond, a middle-aged Albanian with family in the United States. He worked as a truck driver out of Wisconsin for twelve years, and could not get over the fact that I was traveling alone, and had absolutely no idea why I was visiting Albania. This tended to be the case with everybody there. I also sat next to Reveka, a 30-year-old originally from Fier, Albania and a long-time resident of Athens. She was pretty much assigned to protect me from the eleven other passengers on the full-length bus (supposedly it is usually more full, but I doubt this is true) by Edmond, and she did an excellent job. Our bus stopped a total of six main times: once to eat a late dinner at a roadside cafeteria, once at the Greek side of the border, once at the Albanian side of the border, once to get gas, once to eat more food around 4am—the bus drivers each got a massive bowl of what turned out to be a special Albanian type of yoghurt, which they made me try and actually tastes like pudding-consistency sour cream—and once to buy watermelons from the side of the road. We also stopped once for nearly every passenger, as in Albania there are not really bus stops, you just ask the bus driver to drop you off wherever you need to go- sometimes, if you live on a main road, this can literally be your front door.

When we got to Tirana, Edmond and the second driver treated me to coffee at Edmond’s favorite bar. It was about 7:30am, and Edmond was drinking something a little stronger than coffee, so when he offered to personally drive me to my hostel, I turned him down. However, he still insisted on paying my cab fair to the hostel.

At my hostel in Tirana, I pulled a move from a trip a few years ago with my dad outside of Barcelona- I registered at the hostel, put my bags in my room, used their bathroom and read the entire Albania section ripped from my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe book, and then proceeded to realize at around 11am that I was not, in fact, interested in staying in Tirana, but would actually prefer to travel to Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage site town with an old, still-inhabited citadel and very few tourists. The hostel owner was very kind and let me off without paying, and even gave me a flyer for the only hostel in Berat, run by an English guy who was just coming off a week-long binge with some of his guests. Once again, on the three-hour bus ride to Berat, a woman sat next to me, this one with even less experience speaking English. We practiced Albanian, English, and German, which, strangely, she spoke quite well. In Berat I walked up the steep hill to the citadel, and was soon followed by a 20-year-old university student named Johan who grew up in Berat but lived now in Tirana, where he was studying to become a soccer team manager. Johan was very nice, but a little too nice, so I carefully avoided telling him where I was staying and said goodbye a good distance away from my hostel. Safe traveling for solo women, 101. That night I took a stroll as part of the town’s nightly giro, in which every single member of the town walks a three-block stretch with a tight group of friends or family, back and forth, for a good hour or so. It was one of the strangest things I have ever seen, mostly because (as Scott, the hostel owner pointed out) nobody stops to talk to people in other groups, probably a practice leftover from Albania’s communist days.

The next day I awoke bright and early to make it to Montenegro at least, hopefully into Croatia. I took a 3 hour bus back to Tirana, a 3 hour bus up to Shkodra, a 1.5 hour bus to Ulcinj, and a 1.5 hour bus to Budva, a beach town on the coast of Montenegro. Though it’s not Western Europe by a long shot, Montenegro has significantly more established infrastructure than Albania did- for example, buses don’t pull over to pick up hitchhikers off the highway, the roads go straight when possible, and don’t curve for absolutely no reason, and it is possible to find buses out of actual bus stations.

By the time I got to Budva, it was dark outside, so I called it quits—the next bus to Croatia was not until the next day. I had not brought the Montenegro section of lonely planet with me, and I had no idea where to stay or what the deal was there, but my new Australian friends, who I had met up with in Shkodra and two of whom had been traveling for sixteen months (16!), lent me theirs and were generally really nice. I have yet to meet anybody my age or even anybody who hasn’t yet completed at least a year of college. Most people are Australians who are travelling for between 6 and 16 months around Europe, and occasionally adding South America, the middle east, or southeast asia to their circuits. It’s actually quite interesting to hear where people are going or have been, because it shows me what’s on and off the beaten path. Nobody I talked to had been to the silk road area or west Africa, two places I’m considering going.

A side note: I love Lonely Planet with a passion, but I have been rather disappointed with their coverage of this region. There are usually tons of hostels and cheap hotels in nearly every town and city, but my guide usually only has two or three, and they aren’t always the best ones. More significantly, Lonely Planet focuses on the journey south, from central or western Europe down all the way to Greece, which is why it was so hard to plan the trek up from Athens to Dubrovnik, and I’ve already realized it’s going to be hard to get to Budapest from here. There’s practically no information about buses heading north, but nearly always information about southward routes.

Today I woke up late after nights or sleeping little or on buses (and therefore not at all). It was a little weird to have my own room (I could not find a hostel, just a cheap hotel), and I felt less safe there than I did in a room full of strangers. It was interesting.

This morning I had yoghurt bought from a supermarket the night before, but no spoon, so I spent about half an hour asking around everybody if they knew where I could find a spoon. Eventually I gave up and went and bought a banana split so I could use the spoon for my yoghurt. Looking back, I could have gotten something a bit less extravagant- like a coffee, say- but it was a bit more fun to have a banana split for brunch.

I then took the bus to where I am now, beautiful Dubrovnik. I’m about to go meet Julia Hanlon’s family, which I am so excited about! It’s more expensive here than Albania and Montenegro, but cheaper than Greece, so I’m happy about that. Even though it’s not yet peak season there are a lot of tourists! I plan on spending time walking around the old city here, and the islands around the city, maybe by kayak. I hurt my back a little somehow—not really surprising given the amount of time I spend sitting on bouncy buses, carrying a heavy pack (and three other bags, usually, as well), and sleeping in strange positions. So hopefully it will feel better in time to kayak here. After this city, I may go to Sarajevo if it’s conveniently on the way to Budapest, where I am meeting Willie Levitt! Yay!



  1. omg you are crazy. which is why i love you so much.

    have fun with julia's family, enjoy more banana splits, and keep meeting super cool people (and bus drivers...do you remember the one who sang like a girl in spain???).


  2. Hi from Mom
    can you do photos?

  3. Very cool Katie! Please don't die! Have fun, be safe!

  4. Hi, my name is Natasa and I am heading toward Athens through Tirana in a month. I am trying to find prices and timetable, but so far absolutely unsuccessfully. I know it's two years, but do you maybe remember how much was the ticket from Athens to Tirana? Thank you very much,

    Natasa from Ljubljana, Slovenia

  5. hi
    I plan in july 2014 from athen to Tirana