Days: 514 (21 November 2015)
Total distance travelled: 131,473.8 kilometres (81,660.75 miles)
It’s 9am aboard a furgon destined for Tirana, although our journey isn’t set to take us that far.
There’s an old guy seated behind who with every exhalation shares with me his breakfast (and possibly dinner) of beers.
This is Albania.
In truth, it hasn’t at all been the difficult place (to travel) that we’d expected.
The roads have been good and the country not at all the backwards, quirky destination we’d expected and secretly hoped for…
Having just left Gjirokastër for Berat, the other city with which they share a UNESCO World Heritage listing, we’ve also seen our first rains in a month, although the drizzle we ‘endured’ (from our dorm room windows) barely counts… and this is Autumn… in Europe!
No trouble passing the time, I simply started counting the concrete bunkers that dot the countryside and before we knew it, the journey was over… well at least the first leg was.
The plan when we hit Lushnjë was to find another ride headed east that would take us the final forty kilometres to Berat, only we didn’t know where we’d find one.
Our driver however, seemed to think that he did, and we suddenly found ourselves camped on the side of the road, on the outskirts of town (that would be Lushnjë) hoping that we’d been dumped in the right place.
Vans occasionally passed us by, but none seemed either willing to stop, or perhaps they weren’t in fact actual furgons, but eventually an old beat up set of wheels with a Berat sign in the window pulled over in response to our waving.
With our bags piled into the back, the old beast coughed and sputtered its way back to life, although it’s entirely possible that our top walking speed might match the cruising velocity of this dented Ford.
Our driver, who was soon our only companion as the only other passenger left us just beyond Lushnjë, was a beret totin’, cigarette smoking kind of guy. A man of few words, happy to cruise along as we crept towards our final destination.
The problem being, when we got to our final destination, we were still about three kilometres distant from the old town, our ultimate goal and where we hoped to find a bed for the night (or two).
We had a hostel in mind, but I’ll be fucked if we could find the place within the narrow cobbled laneways of Gorica, an equally old district across the river from old Berat.
No matter, we soon found another option where it turned out that we were the only guests, a welcome coffee and nip of home-made red (wine) helping us unwind after the hot walk from the bus station.
Turns out the other place, whose website stated they would be closed in December, had decided November was close enough and had shut their doors a week or so ago…
Now rested, we thought it time we had a look around town, grey skies or not, as lunch was by now long overdue!
A kebab later, and we’d formed the vague notion of a plan… it was time to ascend the big arse hill that overlooked the town and check out the old fortress that sits atop, known as the Kala.
Several minutes after starting our climb up what was a rather slippery (the ancient cobbles had been polished smooth by hundreds of years of traffic), we were presented with a ‘Choose your own Adventure’ moment.
Continue along what was quite a slow route, or take a hard left and follow a rocky path which appeared to lead up towards the walls of the fortress itself.
Left it was, and suddenly our path was even more treacherous, however we were gaining elevation at a much faster rate.
A Spanish speaking couple had appeared for company, and although not walking together, we did all make our way through a narrow gateway at roughly the same time… only to discover that we weren’t actually within the fortress.
Turns out there’s an old village atop the hill as well, historically enjoying the protection of both this wall and the castle’s proximity.
It became necessary for us to make our way through a maze of narrow streets, but eventually we found it, an entrance archway through which we strolled.
This proved a surreal moment, as before we could fully appreciate our surrounds, we were confronted by a large cow appearing through another arch, directly opposite.
Before we could even process this, we were met by a leathered old fellow with a slicked back wisp of greyed hair. This was Vasili, and whether we wanted him to or not, he was insistent on showing us around.
With the fortress just one element of this ancient Ottoman town that has UNESCO World Heritage listing, we had to wonder what that organisation would have had to say as he led us not only through, but actively encouraged us to climb atop certain areas, all so we could see what he insisted were the best photography spots.
In truth, we couldn’t understand everything that he was trying to say to us, but we got the gist there was a lot of Ottoman and Byzantine elements in this place, we were shown the old cistern, still full of a decent volume of water, but these days the lower water level is supplemented by a huge increase in tourist and local rubbish!
The place was also home to two mosques, one known as the White Mosque which was usable by the citizens, the other Red Mosque which was used only by the military.
He took us a little further, showed us some views of both new and old Berat below and then, as a few other tourists arrived, probably realised he’d chosen his mark quite poorly (and was therefore eager to latch onto this fresh meat), stuck a paw out asking for some money.
This was a bit of an awkward moment, as sure, he’d shown us around and given us a spiel on the history of the Kala, but at the same time it was at no point a service we’d wanted or requested…
I stuck my hands in my pocket, fished out a few coins and he was on his way.
Only then did I realise how little I’d given him and felt a little embarrassed, as I’m sure he could have done with a few extra Leks more than we.
By now however, he was busy chasing another foreigner, so we said hello to the cow we’d spotted earlier (because of course, a UNESCO listed site is the perfect location for cattle grazing) before taking a closer look at the Red Mosque.
Unfortunately it was the scene of some ongoing repairs, and as such, one side was completely covered in scaffolding and broken tiles, but some creative positioning meant we could leave them out of any shots.
The views from the parapet down upon the town below were pretty special as well!
We took our leave from the castle and wandering our way along the stone battlements that marked the boundaries of the village, eventually stumbling upon a fruit vendor selling her wares on a most remote stairway, which didn’t look as though it had seen much traffic other than us for the whole day!
She spoke a little English, so we had a brief chat in passing as she tried to (unsuccessfully) woo us with her wares, before we continued on down the hillside.
Back at the ranch (our hostel), we found fresh company in the form of a late afternoon arrival (who had the same experience as us, looking for that hostel that closed weeks earlier), whilst the last highlight Berat had left to throw at us was a surprisingly decent and large pizza that served us well for not only dinner, but also breakfast the following morning…
* Our furgon from Gjirokastër to Lushnjë cost us 700.00 Lek per person.
* The final leg from Lushnjë to Berat cost us another 200.00 Lek each.
* Entrance into the Kala (the castle atop the hill) is FREE!