Friday, July 21, 2006

The Tourist Shy Traveller

(warning: traveller's moan ahead)

Wanted, tourist shy traveller to see tourist meccas in the height of peak season tourism. It is a tough gig, and I mean it. After being blessed with a fraction of tourists seeing cool Albania, I have stepped into wadding pool with the rest of crowd and am going shoulder to shoulder, barging my way through. It definitely puts a dampener on it, especially when the sights are obviously worth it, it is a pity that tour guide umbrella keeps getting in the way of the view.

But back to the beginning. I made my way back to the popular coast after a three nights in Tirana. In the end that was probably enough for the Albanian capital. The traffic especially started to grate. It was some of the worst .. actually probably the worse .. traffic I have seen (and I have seen a few cities). They were not shy to use their horn and unfortunately the hostel .. although a very cool place to hang out and meet other travellers .. was right on a busy intersection, sans traffic lights. The horns blared at all hours.

So I hit the road again and headed north to the town of Shkodra. I was going to spend at least a few hours there to have a good look, but as soon as I got off the bus I was bombarded with offers to take me across the border and to the Montenegrin coast. Another traveller had been waiting for another passenger to fill the private car for a couple of hours, so I said why not, and headed straight out of town in the old Mercedes for the short journey west to the seaside beach town of Ulcinj (the towns I have discovered are now getting harder to pronounce).

I have done enough beach side towns in my past to know that they are much the same. And I can have my fill back home at far better beaches, with surf and a quarter of as many people, so I went straight to the bus station and found out when the next bus was off to the next cool old medieval town without a nearby beach. This just happened to be Kotor, which sat grandly at the end of an actual fjord (the southern most one in Europe .. hard to believe, I know, but it is true) and has a picture perfect little walled town with old labyrinthine laneways winding through it. My idea of a cool place .. what else could you want .. but wait there's more. There was also the fantastic ancient fortress built high above the town up the step sided cliff walls of the fjord. Just what I felt like doing, climbing up a mountain to a fortress and get rewarding views.

Prime viewing spot

Luckily with the brilliance of no preplanning and just turning up in town at the end of a long travel day, all the way from Tirana (three buses and one car) I wandered through the old town's lanes and discovered a homestay with a free room. The lovely Montenegrin woman, running the place, chatted with me in a mixture of english, french, italian and serbian, while she gave me a turkish coffee, after I unloaded my pack in the room, and we sat out on the steps in the warm evening and watched the world pass on the little laneway outside the front door. These are the sort of unexpected delights that make travelling worth it. Instead of just two nights, I had to settle for three there.

There were certainly more tourists than Albania in Kotor but it was no plague proportions. So it was hard to leave my little homestay, but I had a date to make. An old mate was going to be in Dubrovnik, Croatia, so I wanted to catch up with her and possibly do some travel together.

I bused my way up over the border and hugged the coast to the famous old town. And it was here that I certainly discovered the tourist mecca I had been dreading all along. I knew it was going to be popular but I didn't realise just how popular. I met up with Jen and we stayed for a couple of nights in a relatively expensive place quite a way out of town. Prices were a jump up from everything I had come across so far (well expect probably Greece), and this transferred across everything, eating, seeing and sleeping. It was enough to put me off doing much there at all, and so I didn't really. I wandered the old town, saw the sights, bumped shoulders, swam from rocks, but then had to escape.

Rock jumping

We jumped on a ferry and tried our luck for the island of Korčula, to see if this would be less touristy .. umm no. It was easy to see on the boat itself, it was full up with backpackers, flashpackers and packagers from all corners. I just wasn't used to it on my trip so far.

Crowded deck space

Korčula was nice, another little old walled town .. somehow I think the coast is somehow just old walled towns .. but the hoards drove us out of town quickly. We were both tourist shy, and we headed to the other end of the island to see if we could escape them. Luckily there were less and it was a nice little spot to spend a night, before catching another ferry to part company with Jen at Spilt (thanks Jen for the company, by the way).

And this is where I currently am, moaning about tourists at an internet cafe in Spilt. But I am about to spilt Spilt and head off out on the next part of my shuffle into, hopefully, less visited, but in my eyes must see places. First up is the historic town of Mostar in Bosnia, scene of bridge destruction and symbolic rebuilding. Then Sarajevo, which from all I have heard should be a pretty special place.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Slipping Through Shqipërisë

Ah Albania, what a cool country .. well not weather wise at least .. bloody hot .. anyway, so I slipped into the country last week and have been making my way around what the locals call Shqipërisë. And it has been a genuinally pleasant surprise.

So far the week has been filled with wandering through UNESCO listed condensed hill top towns full of cobbled streets and brooding castles; being at English like (but with better weather) sea side towns, complete with pebbly beaches, promenades, cafes and the strollers walking past to fill it all; seeing an amazing village inside in a castle, perched on high overlooking valleys below; and the best bit all doing it all with no bloody tourists .. and didn't I need that after the package tourist heaven .. or my hell .. of Corfu. Here you can count the other travellers on your fingers, back then it was by the number on the back to the tour bus.

No tourists doesn't mean it is bad, just undiscovered. The rest of the world is sadly missing out. But who cares, let them follow their umbrella waving tour guide, I don't mind. This place is opening up and throwing off its recent decades of neglect and having a mini boom. It has one of the fastest growing economies of Europe at the moment, but that is really just because it started from not much to begin with. Far removed from the visions being instilled in my mind before I came; of genuine poverty, beggars in cardboard houses, thieves lurking behind every tree, knives in hand, this place is one of warmest I have discovered for a long time. Sorry to say, much more hospitable than the gloomy, grumpy Greeks, and they were the ones instilling my previous visions .. "watch yourself there" or "stay safe and alert" .. ahh how wrong. Why is it that countries so closely linked geographically, but dissociated culturally, always have that fear and mistrust .. England and France, Greece and Turkey, Australia and Indonesia ?? I don't know.

Anyway enough social commentary, as to what I have been up. Firstly I caught a fast hydrofoil from Corfu town into Saranda. It only took half an hour .. or with the time change I gained half an hour .. but they were two different worlds. Like I said I went from tour bus congestion into, sea side town.

Mr Immigration man met the boat as it docked, and with a smile we all .. the 6 of us .. headed with him to the passport stamp office. After the formalities of getting entry into the country I was out on the town proper and heading off to find accommodation. Down the town promenade I headed. Past little black head scarves clad women selling tomatos and bananas from Panama. Past Internet gaming dens. Past Caesars Palace casinos. And past all the cafes and bars already busy in the morning hour.

The first hotel I had a look in was a nice one right overlooking the water. The room would rate with any nice hotel around the world. I was hesitant to ask the price, but then she said €20. Wow, cheaper than my hostel on Corfu. I took it.

I spent two nights in Saranda. I liked the town. It did have a construction zone feel about it as buildings half completed were everywhere, some being worked on others sitting idle. The second night was the world cup final night. I selected an open air cafe with a large TV down by the beach. Just before the game a bunch of older town locals joined my table as chair real estate in the place became scarce, in fact the place was chock-a-block. They had no English between them, but all the same it was amusing to just watch and listen to whole event. Italy were the local favourites it seemed but a few were genuinely supporting France .. well to the extent that chairs were knocked over and arms flying about in disgust or delight. It was a grand old night in the end and I heard the Italian supporters long into it, still happy with the result.

Seaside Albania

World Heritage town of Gjirokastra came next. I caught a bus from Saranda up over some mountains and down the valley, seeing for the first time the infamous bunkers, read below. I stayed here in an ancient house overlooking the valley below and got to wander around the ancient medieval streets. The town was great and the castle brilliant .. in fact it was a tad scary .. wandered in from the bright sun and into a musty smelly dark great hall, lined with artillery canons in alcoves along either side of the passage .. the sound of my shoes echoing down past them. It is hard to imagine, but it was eerie at the time, and the sound of bats helped.

Rooftop grey

The most amusing thing so far for all of the Albania, is seeing the bunkers everywhere. A legacy from the lunatic ideas of former communist party and paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha. He somehow had this idea that because his country was now isolated in the world, not unlike North Korea today, he could defend the country from both external attack and internal revolution by building one-man little bunkers, not much bigger than a car, and placing them in all corners of the country. And they are still hanging around in the weirdest places. To start with I was searching everywhere to see some, and then once I realised how small they were it was like spotting grey hairs, you see them everywhere .. up on the hillsides .. dotted like mushrooms in a row along valley floors .. very bizarre.

I went on from there to Berat. If Gjirokastra was the first "museum town", Berat is the second. And it was well worth it. Another castle, or this time a citadel, perched up on the hill top overlooking the town and valley below. I have seen a few castles around Europe, but this one ranks up there with the best. The best thing was it is actually a small town complete with used whitewashed red tiled houses and small little lane ways between them all. Then there were the ancient churches scattered around the "town". Some of these were really ancient, Byzantine times. I gained a little Albanian friend who took me on a tour around the place. He couldn't speak more than 2 words of English, but it was cool to have him point at things and make hand gestures. I gave him a few coins at the end and told him to go and learn English and then wait for the tourists to come in the future.

Saint Tirade church

And so now I am in the smallish capital of Tirana. I have spent a few days here wandering around the hot streets. This place is, like I said, taking off. Flash cars whizz by. Trendy looking girls dolled up totter past on their high heels. And bars and cafes are full and popular. There is even a bush park to make an Australian feel homesick .. a hot day and gum trees surrounded me with that familiar scent .. and this is after I just walked past a bar swamped with Fosters umbrellas.

Albania Australiana

So I will probably spend a couple of other nights here before continuing up north into Europe's newest state, Montenegro, formally part of Serbia. Not sure how long there before a bit of Croatia will follow and who knows after that. It is all good .. apart from the tour buses .. I am keen to avoid them.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mountain Top, Sea Hop

New Travellers Tips Discovered:

* Better shoes are needed before attempting to climb over high mountains. Mud and snow soak through easily. Boots for next time.

* Wet muddy shoes take a long time to dry .. and they stink.

* Bulgarians will not stop trying to speak Bulgarian, even after you have clearly tried to explain you cannot even say thank you correctly. Blah-goh-dah-reeya!

* Always check how much a taxi in Sofia will cost. When they say "I have meter", check their rates.

* Doing a runner on a scary looking Bulgarian taxi driver should not be undertaken, even after most expensive ride in history.

* Travelling without a guidebook is hard work. It makes "easy" countries more adventurous.

* Bus stops are great sources for local maps.

* Big book shops should be visited to have that quick squint at that English guidebook. Handy for knowing where to catch the next bus out of town.

And so it is another country, another day. Off and around and across. I am making tracks after stalling in Bulgaria for over a week. And a great week it was.

I ended it by having a bit of a hike. And it turned out to be a mini adventure, and I am all into those. I partnered up with Luke, the crazy Aussie, cycling from Thailand to London, and we caught an early bus out of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. We were on our way to the Rila Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the Balkans.

To get there though we needed, to catch two buses and then hope for another one going up to the start of the national park. The first two were easily achieved, in fact almost too easy, we were on and off without any waiting around. The third though just so happen to stitch us up. No buses up to the mountains on a Sunday. Bloody weekends, they can screw around with your travel plans.

Not too fazed we decided, to walk and grab a lift with a kind stranger. I kept remembering the last time I did this .. in East Timor .. and ended up having to walk 20k's in the hot sun. Luckily this time, it was overcast and after the fourth car we got a lift from a couple of guys and a young girl. We squeezed in the back with her and we had fun looking at her Bulgarian gossip mag, complete with pictures of Nicole Kidman getting married. I hope she was impressed when I told her she comes from the same place as me.

We started the hike. We were on the north side of the mountains and we were crossing them to get to the famous Rila Monastery. It was only an overnight walk, but we were planning to stretch it out over a few days to see some of this countryside. No tent was needed, as their were plenty of huts, but Luke bought his along anyway.

To the first hut took about 3 hours straight up. By the time we were getting close the weather closed in and we were in the middle of thick fog. More than 15 metres in front of us was total whiteout. So it was a surreal experience, to hear voices first, then see a light up on high above us, and then to see the outline of a gigantic building loom out in front of us. This was not a hut, it was a palace. Inside we went. A hotel it turned out to be. Complete with restaurant, bar and lounge area. The weather was really shite outside, so we decided to have some soup, as you do, up in the mountains, and wait out for it to clear.

Monster hut

It did clear up and so we headed off to the older hut listed on the maps nearby. Somewhere hopefully with a bit more atmosphere and not as soulless. It turned out to be a laugh with an old woman caretaker, looking after the place, and some young Bulgarian kids sleeping in the dorm room. It was cheap too and the old woman even dried out my wet shoes in her oven. They must have stunk up her little room in the process though.

We filled in the evening by the cooking ritual, and then a few games of chess. One of the other Bulgarian guys sussed out our playing standard and challenged me to a game later. I was completely trounced. He had a skillful defence with his knights. I will have to remember it.

Next day the weather was still closed in, so the beautiful views we came all the way to see were nonexistent. Instead of poking around for an extra night, we decided to high tail it all the way across the tops to the Monastery. In the process we walked through snow and over 2600m mountains. My shoes were almost had it but after 6 hours we reached the Monastery. Just as the last bus back to Sofia was leaving. Nice timing, but we were keen to see something of this place, so we passed on the bus and hoped something would work out.

On top

End of the track

Turns out a nice little French man with a rented car and on business was heading back half way to Sofia. We politely asked if we could get a ride and he was more than happy to help. We kept him entertained with stories to pay our way. After dropping us off it was a bus and a tram back to the hostel, Luckily the days are long here, still light at around 9, so getting in late is no big deal.

I had a couple of options from Sofia. The first was my original plan was to go through Macedonia, but this required getting a visa in advance and I was only planning to go for a few days. The second option was through Serbia and then Kosovo, but this meant I had to do a lot of back tracking from where I wanted to see. The third option was taken, through Northern Greece.

I discovered a bus leaving at a reasonable hour and I jumped in the first cab to the bus station. Of course this is where I got hit up by the exorbitant rate. Bastard. I should have realised when I saw the TV attached to the dash that this guy was a shark.

Across the border into Greece to Thessaloniki, to get a tad lost. No guidebook makes it all the more interesting. Managed to find a cheap .. very cheap hotel .. to rest up. Next day and I was out on another bus heading west. For someone who loves train travel so much, all I have caught so far on this trip are buses.

The bus deposited me at the port town of Igoumenitas, and before I knew it I was off on a ferry to Corfu. Another party place. Beaches and bars again. And it is not really my scene. But I want to get the sense of this culture before plunging back into the place I was really trying to get to all along. Albania. Soon I will be on a ferry heading over there. Should be an adventure, at least I have a guidebook for there though.