Having now spent three months in the Western Balkans, I’ve learned quite a lot about how life is lived in the region. It’s interesting to see what you pick up, but also how you do so. Certainly much of it has been through trial and much error, but some seems to be simply through osmosis.
The second half of my month in Albania has been a relaxing whirlwind. After saying goodbye to the last of the hiking group, I left Tirana and travel down the entire country, to the southern seaside town of Himarë.
I originally intended to go a bit further south to Sarandë, but was told byabsolutely everyone that Himarë was much better and much more chill. And chill it was. My hostel had an outdoor bar and lounge with a wonderful view of the water. The town was sort of sleepy, but you could tell this was the local's choice for their seaside holidays.
With three nights in town, I went about my first day by doing next to nothing. The vibe was so relaxed, I immediately extended my stay for another night. The following days were a mix of beach time, lounging and strolls into town for some of the most amazing seafood.
On the third day, after a particularly chilled day at the beach, I decided to join that evenings’ sunset boat tour. I’m always torn between spending money on tours and staying on budget. I’m not a big touristy person, so I don’t have any allocation in my budget, so it’s like cutting into the next day’s coffers. What I will say is that when do join a tour, they tend to be fantastic and worth the money, and this boat tour was no exception.
The boat was exclusive to our hostel, and the owner and his family also joined, which made it extra fun. The tour took us to two beaches only accessible by boat, and two caves, one of which we were able to swim through. We capped off the evening by going farther ashore and taking a swim as the Adriatic extinguished the sun. Unquestionably magisterial.
From Himarë, I traveled to the delightful town of Gjirokastër, known as the Stone City. This journey will become the stuff of legend. There is only one main “highway” in Albania, which runs the length of the country, north to south. Everything else is a crap shoot ... could be paved roads, could be dirt or the road could just end.
I got specific instruction from the hostel owner on how to make my way. Take the bus to Sarandë, and there are buses leaving every hour going in the direction of Gjirokastër. Seems straightforward enough.
Arrived in Sarandë, Lara, my travel partner, and I asked our driver where the buses to Gjirokastër leave from and he indicated in the same location. Mind you, this isn’t your typical bus station. In fact, it isn’t a bus station at all. It’s just a street in town, and different streets are used by different buses.
We had about 20 minutes until the next scheduled bus. After more than 30 minutes, we asked around about buses going our direction, even trying at the “bus office.” We kept getting told there were no more buses going to Gjirokastër that day, or “maybe 5pm.” For the record, its half-noon at this point, so we kept asking.
Finally, a driver tells us to walk up the street about three blocks, and look for a bus going to Berat. We can tell the driver we want to get off at Gjirokastër he said. This is not uncommon in the Balkans, so no problem. Up the street, we do in fact find a bus going to Berat and inquire about getting off early, to which we are told “yes, yes, no problem.”
The drive should take about 45 minutes to reach Gjirokastër, so I settle into a nice podcast and gaze out the window. The views are stunning … rugged mountains, sheer cliffs and an ice blue mountain river. About 30 minutes into the ride, I check my maps app to see how close we are. Well, it turns out, we’re not close at all! The bus has taken a different road through the mountains that completely bypasses Gjirokastër!
Understanding how transportation works in the Balkans, I wasn’t panicked yet, more curious how this would play out ... and certainly alert. Eventually the bus reaches a junction with that one main Albanian highway. The driver pulls off the road and indicates that we should get off here … in the middle of nowhere. I shrug and disembark. He takes our bags out of the hold, and indicates that we should wait here. Again I shrug. We pay the driver and he starts the bus and begins to drive away. At this point, all I can do is laugh… this is by far the most Albanian thing ever, and I love it. We are on Balkan time and things just work differently here.
As the bus disappears from view, a car comes barreling towards us with the most Albanian of velocity. It drives right up to us, and I realize its a taxi. The driver gets out, picks up our bags and gestures for us to enter the car. Again I shrug and do as instructed. As we speed past everything not moving at warp speed, I follow our direction on my maps app. We are, in fact, headed towards Gjirokastër. Fifteen minutes later, the taxi pulls off at a gas station and the driver indicates for us to exit the vehicle. He hands us our bags, says “have a nice day,” and drives away! No payment is made. Lara and I look at each other, shrug once again and laugh. From here, we walked the 2km remaining to our respective hostels.
And what a hostel it was! This is, by far, my favorite hostel yet. The minute I stepped inside, I felt like I was home. An idyllic courtyard with lush, green plants everywhere, providing so much shade. Dark stained hardwood floors lead you to the most inviting common area and a huge, family style kitchen table. Before I had even checked in, I knew I would be extending my stay here, if for nothing else but the hostel vibes.
Over the next several days, I explored the city and drank in its majestic views. I took the chance to join one of the owners on his walking tour to learn more about the city, its history and why it is a UNESCO location. I also joined up on an excursion to a mountain river, to swim and cool off from the near 40º heat.
The extension of my stay meant I was able to meet up with my Norwegian friend, Kris, whom I'd met in Himarë. Turned out, he and his friend Dom, were also heading to Berat and staying in the same hostel.
We spent our one day in Berat, casually exploring the town. As sunset approached, we made our way up to the castle that overlooks the city for some epic views of the surrounding valley.
The next day, we made the short trip up to the capital, Tirana. I had booked into an apartment for the next 12 days and was looking forward to some alone time, and the chance to get some work done.
As previously mentioned, I’m a hopeless romantic, and fall in love with things, people, places pretty quickly. Tirana was no exception. This city is alive and vibrant, and yet, quiet and subdued.
Cafe culture here is off the charts. It's not an exaggeration to say every third store front is a cafe/bar. And this, of course, is music to my ears. Each morning I was able to try a new cafe, in a new location and watch Tirana go by.
With daytime temperatures hovering around 38º, I spent my afternoons working in my very air conditioned apartment. In the evening, I would wander the streets, find a spot for a bit of dinner, or a cocktail or two, and watch the city come to life. After so many difficult and isolating years under communism, this city is exploding with fresh energy. You can feel the optimism and hope floating on the warm summer winds.
I witnessed it most acutely amongst the younger generations. They seemed like 20-somethings in any western country, so engrossed in their personal worlds. That could be easily dismissed, but it demonstrated to me a new freedom to dwell in this space, unburdened by the weight of this country's recent past.
With my time in this beautiful region at an end, its an appropriate time for reflection. It's still fresh enough in my mind, but not tinted with as much recency bias.
In these last three months, I've learned so much about this area of the world and how life happens here. I've also learned a massive amount about myself.
I was excited to discover new places, but also apprehensive. I had grown up being told this part of the world was war torn and dangerous. What I found was a region blessed with natural beauty, rich in history and full of kind and generous people.
Through these people, I learned that even when life isn't easy, it can be simple. Living simply gives you the opportunity to shed unnecessary concerns at every turn. Things have a way of working out, and without the burden of the unnecessary, the people here keep it simple knowing it will be ok.
Their pace of life is slower, never rushed. They take time everyday to enjoy life and to enjoy their friends and family. I've always loved sitting in cafes, but it was always coupled with working. Cafes here are used as a place where conversation happens, where laughs are shared. Again, slower, with an emphasis on being present. It took me a bit to adjust to this ... to become ok with just sitting. I started to enjoy my coffee more, to let my mind wander and my ideas percolate. It's a magnificent feeling to just "be."
I entered the region still wounded from the theft, full of trepidation and lacking confidence. I exited it imbued with calmness, full of self belief, knowing I'm on the right path.
Life is full of ups and down, and I'm certainly riding the crest of a wave that will eventually crash. But I am more prepared for when that happens. The patience and tranquility I've gained during my time here will serve me well and I can only thank the Balkan people for that.
I am so excited continue to choose this adventure and to seek discomfort. As I do so, I will keep coming back to this quote I recently saw.