Weekend in Albania

When JR’s co-workers asked if we wanted to join them and get out of town over the long weekend, we said yes without really knowing where we were headed. There was some discussion of Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania, and obviously, we decided on Albania. I can’t say I’ve ever given the country much thought, but I’m certain I didn’t expect this.

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Or this.

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I was prepared for a beach though. I packed sundresses, my swimsuit, and beach bag. Even though I looked at the weather ahead of time and it said highs in the low 70s and a 50% chance of rain each day. So, even though the water looked pretty, it is not quite beach season in the Balkans.

It was beautiful weather for visiting a few different towns. We stayed at a very nice hotel in Vlore, about a six hour drive from Pristina. Here’s the view from our balcony.

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On Saturday, we drove south along the coast. We initially thought about driving down to Sarande, which is supposed to be a great beach town. But we took our time with the drive, and after a few stops for pictures, we decided to have lunch in the small town of Himare. The water was a beautiful, perfect blue.

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On Sunday we drove further into Albania to see the city of Berat. The drive itself was an adventure, because some of the roads had even MORE potholes than we’d seen before, and for a decent portion, it wasn’t even a paved road. Once we arrived in Berat, we found a place for lunch and then walked around the town. Berat Castle sat on a huge hill (I’m not entirely sure when it’s a big hill and when it’s a mountain. Ohio is quite flat, so they all look like mountains to me.) overlooking the city. Before we even entered the gates, we took a ton of pictures of the great view of the city.

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The castle itself is a fortress dating back to the 13 century (thank you, Wikipedia). I assumed we’d walk around a small castle for a bit and that was all. But behind the walls there was an entire little village. A very nice local man saw us wandering around and offered to give us a tour and show us inside some of the ancient churches.

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We had briefly considered bringing our umbrellas from the car, but since we expected this to be a short stop, I said we didn’t need them. This was a mistake. It started POURING while this kind man was giving us a lengthy tour and detailed history of the town. Eventually we told him that he’d done a great job but we needed to get out of the rain. I assumed he was just passing by when he decided, out of the goodness of his heart, to tell us about his town. The others say he probably does this for every group of tourists that he sees and makes money from it. That makes me feel less special, so I choose to believe my version.

We drove back to Vlore that night, and the following day made our way back to Kosovo. As it was Memorial Day and no doubt many of our friends and families back home were having cookouts, JR and Amy both ordered “burger cheese” at our lunch stop. What they received was a square glass dish with melted cheese, peppers, and what appeared to be two Spam meat patties on top. They said it tasted fine, I didn’t try it. 🙂

Overall, it was a great weekend and it allowed me to add one more country to the list of places I’ve been.

Driving in Albania

The drive to Albania deserves its own post. We left Pristina Friday afternoon to spend the long weekend exploring Albania with two of JR’s co-workers, Amy and Elizabeth. Amy was resourceful enough to check out GoogleMaps before we left, and it had approximately 64 steps to the directions. And we were off!

I’d only been in the car in Kosovo twice before this weekend, so I was still pretty nervous. People drive very fast here, no one uses turn signals, and there are these traffic circles that seem to be “anything goes, try not to die.” Also, when you slow down to enter a traffic circle, or make a turn, people come up to your car and try to sell you a bunny rabbit. This happened a lot.

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We were in Amy’s car (our car is being shipped over, and could arrive in anywhere from 4-8 weeks), and she was the only one with experience driving over here, so she drove for quite sometime. With about an hour and a half left in the drive, she asked if someone else would take over. I volunteered myself. It seemed the lack of road rules would be perfect for my driving style. JR was scared, but our other passengers were blissfully ignorant to my driving record.

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What you see there is a highway. They don’t have many of those in Kosovo and Albania. Much of the drive was spent on back roads that had pot holes, people, goats, bicycles – you name it, it was something we had to swerve to avoid. There appeared to be no laws on passing -you could do that at any time, at any speed, regardless of whether or not you were going into oncoming traffic. There were some road signs, but they were in Albanian, so they were not much use to us.
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The only stoplight we saw the entire weekend!

Anyway, the driving was sometimes fun (it’s a bit like Mario Kart – doing your best to avoid banana peels and red koopa shells) and sometimes scary. But I thought I was handling it quite well. On Saturday, we wanted to drive further south to find a beach town. We were driving quite high into the mountains, and the roads were very narrow and much to my dismay, they often didn’t have guardrails. Still, I wanted to give a try behind the wheel.

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I only lasted about ten minutes. It seemed like as soon as I started driving, the cliffs got steeper, and the curves got sharper. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to pull over immediately! Everyone was great about it, and so I crawled along super slow until we found a safe spot to pull over and switch drivers again. Mountain driving is not for me.

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See how you could keep going and just drive into the sky?

JR drove us home, and he was a rockstar while I gripped my door handle and seat belt so tight my hands hurt. As we were leaving, a really cold and thick fog was coming over the mountains.

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fog

Luckily, he was fearless and we left the fog behind.

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Packing Again

But this time, it’s just for a short weekend trip to Albania! I’m pretty sure that is a sentence I never expected to write. Kosovo’s location in the Balkans was very appealing to us, and one of the big reasons it was on the top of our list for possible postings. Our car is being shipped over, and once it arrives, we hope to take trips to Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, and as many other countries as we can. This weekend, we’re joining some of JR’s co-workers and traveling to a seaside town in Albania. The pictures look beautiful.

I really only have one major concern – and that is my hair. I haven’t purchased a local hair dryer (or straightener), or a portable adapter that would allow my devices to work with the outlets here. Three days without a hair dryer sounds…tricky. This is how I picture myself looking:
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Anyway, I’ll do my best “roughing it” in a hotel by the sea for a few days. I’ll be sure to update and post pictures upon our return!