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Sun Jun 05 2016: Not So Osum in Albania

"I'm done planning. If you think you can do better, then go ahead!"

I screwed up.

Over the past few years, the way we plan and execute our journey has evolved. When we first started, we'd both put our heads together and excitedly pour over maps and laptops figuring out our routes and accommodations. But these days, in order to preserve our energy and stave off travel fatigue, one person takes the lead for a segment of our trip, doing the majority of the planning and logistics while on the road. Then after some time, we switch up to let that person rest for the next segment.

So far it's worked out. In SE Asia, the locals seem more comfortable talking to me, and I sort of knew Malaysia a little bit so I planned and led that leg. Along the Adriatic coast, Neda naturally took over, since she spoke the language here and was familiar with where she wanted to go.

Until now.

Unfortunately, since leaving Thailand, all I've done is complain about the price of things and the amenities of the places we're staying at. All the while waiting on the bike as Neda ran around trying to find accommodations and communicating with all the hosts. So, finally fed up of my whining, she tossed the reins back over to me. At my feet. In disgust.

It's not my turn yet. I did over two months in Asia and now a month into our European leg, I'm back in the driver's seat. I had a pretty cushy thing going on and I ruined it. Now I find myself riding from hotel to hotel all over this mid-sized Albanian city, knocking on doors, looking for a cheap place to stay with adequate amenities. All the while Neda waits patiently on the bike. She doesn't even have to say a word. I know a Not-As-Easy-As-It-Looks-Is-It? and an I-Told-You-So face when I see one.

Because we didn't pre-book anything the day before, I'm knocking on a lot of friggin' doors. Shkodër is expensive! Every suitable place we find is €40-€60. We ride concentric circles around town getting further away from the commercial centre until I spot a small sign posted on a lamp post advertising a place to stay. It took us a while to find it, and when we pulled up, parts of the hotel looked like it was still being renovated. The owner came out and didn't speak any English, but he conveyed to us that the price would be €20, no breakfast. Perfect!

€20 is the sweet spot we aim for for accommodations in Europe. While that could afford us a mansion with a staff of 20 people waiting on us hand and foot in Thailand, here it's just a simple room. But at least it's clean, comfortable and cheap.

Walking down the touristy piazza in Shkodër

Shkodër is a fairly modern city. Not what I expected when I think of Albania. The tourist centre is very done up, but once you're outside of it, like where we're staying, it seems a bit more older. Not run-down, but not manicured either.

Kids play in the streets in the neighbourhood near our hotel

Just around the corner, we went to a traditional Albanian grill-house for dinner

It's funny, although the language changes dramatically from former Yugoslavia to Albania, the food here is still familiar. Lots of meats and cheeses just like Montenegro and Croatia. Our old favorite Bosnian pastry Burek is called Byrek here. It's more filo-based, closer to the Greek filo pastries found just a bit further south. It's interesting seeing how the food is starting to morph between regions.

Some yummy lamb and steak roasting in the pit

Shkodër is not really a destination town. In the morning, we pack up our bags and the owner's daughter comes out to say hi. She speaks perfect English and we find out more about her and her family. She's starting university in the fall in the capital city of Tirana, and she's just helping out her family as the hotel here in Shkodër is brand new. They seem pretty affluent, which again spoils the stereotype of Albanians. While talking to her about our motorcycle trip, one limitation that came up is the inability for Albanians to travel easily because of their passport restrictions. They need a visa to go pretty much anywhere outside of the country! It reinforces how lucky we are to be from a country that has minimal travel restrictions.

Our new friend gives us some ideas for where to go in Albania. Yes, even though I am now head of the planning committee, it doesn't mean that I've done any work on it yet. We're still wandering around by the seat of our pants and I think we've now crystallized a route through Albania just this morning.

We thank our new friend and wish her well in her new school year. And then we're waving goodbye to Shkodër in our rear view mirrors.

Packing up to leave

Before we leave Shkodër, we need to find vehicle insurance. The Montenegro border is about 14kms outside of town. So we head back towards the coast to find an insurance store. The road is nice and twisty, but our enjoyment is spoiled by the terrible Albanian drivers who take every opportunity to cross over the line onto our side. We hug the right side of the road on every blind turn because 8 out of every 10 oncoming vehicles will suddenly appear in our lane. It is terrible how bad the driving is here!

I read online that driving cars in Albania is a relatively new thing. In 1991, there were only 600 cars in the whole country - most of them owned by members of the ruling communist party. Everyone else rode bicycles, horses and carts (which we still see on the road). After the wall fell, everyone went out and got cars. But they never learned to drive them properly. The licensing here seems not to be very stringent so as a result there are many accidents. We'll have to remain vigilant around here.

Oh yeah, when I say everyone went out and got cars. They didn't get any kind of car. They all got Mercedes-Benzes. Everyone here drives a mid-to-late model Mercedes-Benz. Kind of suspicious for the poorest country in Europe... Not to cast any aspersions, but I was sorely tempted to check the VIN numbers on some of them to see where these Mercedes originally came from. But they were all whizzing by too fast and dangerously close to my left ear for me to make them out clearly.

Back to our hunt for insurance. Every building that advertised vehicle insurance at the border was closed. We finally found a shack on the side of the road that seemed kinda official. €15 for 15 days. Not too bad. If it was real...

Armed with our kinda-official-looking insurance document, we dodged more erratic Mercedes-Benzes and headed further south.

Enjoying the sunny weather in Albania. Oh look, a fort on top of a hill. Haven't seen one of those in a couple of days now...

Downtown Tirana

Tirana was not too interesting to us either. It's the capital of Albania and was just another place for us to sleep while we relocated further south into the country. We did visit the museum while we were there. Not that interesting...

The hotel owners' daughter highly recommended we see Berat. Now I see why...

Berat is 2,500 years old. It's a UNESCO site. Total Gringo-Trail Town. Which is why we're going to stay there for a couple of days! We're absolutely suckers for a good Gringo-Trail Town.

Motorcyle parking, like everywhere in Europe, is free and wherever you can find it

We park right on the boardwalk overlooking the Osum River. That's the name of the river. Osum. How Osum is that?

We can see our motorcycles from the cafe where we're having lunch

Pizza seems to be very popular in Albania. But that is true pretty much everywhere in the world. Here are a couple of random pieces of trivia: There are more Albanians living outside of Albania than inside the country. In New York City, Albanian-owned pizzerias are fast displacing Italian-owned pizza-pie restaurants...

This is what Berat is known for.

White Ottoman houses line the valley on both sides of the Osum River. This has led to Berat being nicknamed the "town of a thousand windows". One side of the river is more commercial, with the white buildings housing restaurants and stores. The other side, the Quartor of Gorica, is more residential and also has some hostels for backpackers to stay in.

Crossing the bridge to see more of these white houses on the other side.

There are three bridges across the Osum, two pedestrian and a main vehicle crossing

Okay, back on the bikes. Let's see where we're staying.

On the commercial side of Berat, we climb a steep cobblestone road up to the Kala, a walled citadel at the top of the hill. There's a few churches inside the fortress, as well as some cafes, stores and restaurants.

At the gates to the fortress

The bumpy ride into the Kala

We ride past all the vendors selling clothing, their wares hanging on the inside of the walls of the citadel. Most people trek up here for the view and to visit the churches. We're actually sleeping here! How Osum is that?

I join in on the cobblestone fun. Also, proof that I ride a motorcycle on this trip too!

This is the courtyard of where we're staying. Our bikes share the parking spot with a lady selling clothing and souvenirs

Every time we ride in and out of our apartment, the old Albanian lady has to move her little storefront out of the way. But she does so obligingly. She's very friendly and always smiles at us!

The building on the right with the umbrellas in front of it is where we are staying

Walking around the Kala. There are a few people actually living up here inside the fortress walls

Neda knows all the nature tricks. Here she is making me laugh by making this snap dragon flower talk.

An old Jawa motorcycle from Czechoslovakia rests up against the inside wall of the citadel.
It's more of a decoration than a vehicle at this point

We walk through one of the gates in the wall to get a view of the mountainside below

Beautiful greenery everywhere. I can't believe the weather we are having!

We can see that a few kms outside of the old city of Berat is the more modern city centre

This face seemed a bit odd and out of place

More Albanian ladies enjoying the weather and scenery

Neda balancing on some of the ruins of the castle walls

One of the beautiful churches inside the Kala. The Holy Trinity Church of Berat

Totally enjoying Berat!

You'll have to excuse me now. I have to get back to planning our route through Albania...

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