Saturday, October 19, 2013

LOST IN ALBANIA, REDUX

We left Berat late in the afternoon with the goal of getting to our hotel near Tirana, the capital city, before dark.  A distance of about 75 miles would normally be an easy two-hour drive, but we had learned not to "count our miles before we drove them" in Albania. Our companions on the road kept the drive interesting for me and required that Bob be ever vigilant:
The parts of Albania we saw were drier than other Balkan countries--not as green, rockier, and with red clay dirt in places.

In the picture below, note not just the man on his bike, but the housing in front of him as well. As a side note, we saw very few mosques or Orthodox churches on this drive. During the communist era (1945-1991), Albania was declared an atheist state, and many community churches and mosques were torn down or burned.
Hey! Is that a STREET SIGN?  WOO HOO!  Problem was, we weren't going to any of those places.
There are also the ubiquitous farmers' stands that slow the traffic:

And tourists like us have to slow down to check out important sites like laundry lines hanging over restaurant entrances:
Besides the animal and wagon and bicycle and haytruck and fruit-and-vegetable-stand obstacles, there are the roads themselves. The roads are truly awful--much worse than anywhere else in the Balkans. From our viewpoint, Albania's infrastructure seems to be the weakest of all the Balkan countries.
And yet, we saw lots of Mercedes cars. Go figure.

Yep. These are not really roads that allow for 60 mph driving--or 50 mph, or 40 mph, or sometimes even 30 mph.

However, we successfully navigated several small towns as we slowly made our way north.
Elton, our guide in Berat, told us that Albania basically has two parties: the Democratic party (right-wing, ruling) and the Socialist party (left-wing). We saw banners for both sides.
Yay! A sign that was actually HELPFUL. This may have been the first sign we saw that actually directed us to where we hoped to go: Tirana via Durres.
However, somehow we got messed up, big time, in Durres, the second-largest city in Albania. In my trip journal I note that we asked for directions five or six times before we finally found our way.

Not everyone was helpful:

Never EVER drive in Albania without GPS.

I will end this saga with four random observations.
Observation # 1: The Albanian National Lottery started up last year and is being run by Austrian Lotteries, a massively successful international corporation that already runs the lottery of twenty other countries, including Hungary, Russia, and Argentina:
Maybe focusing on this red sign is why we missed the blue sign underneath it.
Observation #2: Jeans Couture can be found everywhere. Somehow, even in Albania, teenage girls find a way to stay current with world fashion:


Observation #3: As we wound through the countryside, we noticed that almost every town of any size had a dilapidated castle or fortress on the hill. In some respects it reminded me of the castle corridor on our Rhine River cruise last year. If Albania could only spend the kind of money on the restoration of its citadels that Germany must pump into its castles, this area between Berat and Tirana would be a fantastic tourist destination. Some were in pretty good condition:

Observation #4: Since crossing the border from Macedonia, we had noticed the word lavazh or lavazho painted everywhere--on professional-looking signs, on the sides of buildings, on scraps of wood mounted on posts.  We wondered if it was a kind of food, or perhaps a sign for bathrooms or a rest stop?  Maybe a chain, such as a 7-11 or a gas station? Then I thought of the Spanish verb lavar, which means "to wash."  Could it be a car wash?

Once we figured it out, it was obvious. Car washes have to be the #1 cottage industry in Albania. I'm sure we saw five or six hundred. There is at least one on every block, some connected to gas stations, some connected to homes, some free standing. After a day of driving in the country, it was clear why there are so many. Our silver car was brown, and we could hardly see through the windows.

Naturally, before we left Albania the following morning, we desired to participate in this national past-time. Fortuitously, there was a lavazh near our hotel. (Heck, there were 20 lavazhes near the hotel.)
We thought the guy (who spoke no English) would spray the dirt off our car and be done, but no. He took a full thirty minutes vacuuming, spraying, soaping, rinsing, and polishing, inside as well as out.  It was like having the car detailed. He charged 300 leke (about $3.00), and Bob gave him 400. He seemed pretty happy about it. That level of car wash would cost ten or twenty times more in California.


While waiting (and waiting and waiting) for our car to be done, we walked over to the river that runs through town.  Not exactly a scenic view.

That this landscape co-exists with the hard-working young man doing such a good job on our car is hard to understand.

This post is long enough, but I still have one more Albanian story to tell that involves our hotel stay. It's coming up next.

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. No, John. Our communication was done by bringing out our map and lots of gesturing and pointing. Occasionally we'd run into someone who could speak a little English, but that was often not the case as we tended to ask for directions in gas stations because of their easy accessibility. That's what made this so hard!

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    2. Or, as Bob would say, "Such an adventure!"

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  2. With all of the carts, haystacks, and animals, this drive looks like you're cruising through a movie set for a period piece. I love the car wash story--I'd happily pay several times that amount for a good cleaning.

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  3. Part of the reason I loved Albania because it was so different from the culture we are used to and that's part of why we travel, right, to see different cultures? When you find one so different, that adds interest. The drive through Albania was as interesting to me, although very stressful at times, as most any of the other attractions we visited on our trip. I would love to spend more time visiting other parts of Albania and eating their food, intestines and all, which was so different and fun.

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  4. I'm really enjoying this armchair travel this morning, with the different experiences that this rural country delivers. Driving can be really stressful, but the few signs you've shown to me have been in English-type writing, thankfully.

    I agree with your assessment that a little (no, a LOT) of money and this area could be a touristing mecca. But part of its charm is its slight backwardness, which reveals authenticity more than a polished-up restoration could do. Of course, my fantasy is that I'll discover a place that shoots the middle--rustic enough to be left alone, but polished enough to provide some easy and interesting traveling and well-preserved landmarks.

    lovely post, once again.

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