Sunday, May 06, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 41-42:  Podgorica, Montenegro to Shkodër, Albania.  For some time now, I have had an interest in going to Albania.  I have no idea why or when this notion first struck me, but when we started talking about visiting eastern Europe, Albania was the first country I put on the list.  Finally, on day 41 of the trip, we arrived and Albania has not disappointed.
Lake Skadar on the border between Montenegro and Albania
That's not to say our trip from Montenegro to Albania was without incident.  Since it was only a 38-mile drive, we decided we could do a bit of sightseeing along the way and planned a rather more circuitous route, but Google Maps still tagged the trip at 90 miles, which seemed quite manageable.  Until we saw the roads.
Room for two cars to pass without one going over the edge?
By the time we got our first look at Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula, we had already been steered onto a lane and a half wide road—in its best stretches .  Since the road was no more than a paved ledge on the side of a mountain, usually with no guardrails, its lack of width made for some hair-raising experiences when meeting other cars.
At least there's no drop-off on either side.
Fortunately local drivers take such encounters in stride, and Ken has the calm mindset and enough experience on Europe's backroads to deal with whatever comes.  Sometimes I wonder how he does it.  Today he had to maneuver a three-point turn to reverse course in an unmarked one-way back alley not much wider than the car.  After he executed it with no more than an inch between the car's front bumper and a light pole, I gushed, "Wow!  Nerves of steel!"  "Not really," he replied, "I just didn't look."
Rijeka Crnojevića Bridge
We seem to have developed an affection for the arched stone bridges found widely in this part of the world.  Many were built during Ottoman or even Roman times, but the double-arch limestone span in the village of Rijeka Crnojevića, Montenegro, was erected only in 1853 by Prince Danilo I in honor of his father.
The riverside in Rijeka Crnojevića
Like the town of Mostar in Bosnia, Rijeka Crnojevića (pop. 175, founded before 1475) has made the most of its bridge's popularity, offering a pleasant plaza with numerous sidewalk cafes, boat rentals, and other vendors.  In summertime, the area can become quite busy but thankfully not as overrun as Mostar.
Sharing the road
As we were driving along on some unlabeled mountain lane in southern Montenegro—after either Garmin or we made a questionable turn—we rounded a curve to see a group of sheep and goats in the road ahead.  When we slowed to allow them to move aside, we noticed a donkey in front of them led by someone we assumed was a shepherd.
Looking for the simple life
It turned out to be Paolo, a young Italian who had left his home in Trieste on foot with his dog several months earlier.  They stopped in Croatia, where he bought the donkey and the goats and sheep.  He likes traveling in the old style while looking for a place to move where he can live a simple life.  His livestock was well trained and immediately moved off the road at his command.  Smart animals!  They apparently understand Italian and probably Croatian also.

As we traversed these less than standard size Montenegrin roads with varying degrees of maintenance, we wondered whether Albania's could really be worse, as we had read.  A look at the country's history will explain why.

When Germany withdrew from Albania at the end of World War II, no other country was interested in the neglected Ottoman outpost. Its mostly Muslim inhabitants had no common language, and most were illiterate. The country lacked industries, railways and universities. In the power vacuum, Communist partisans—using arms provided them by the Allies to use against Axis powers—squelched minor opposition and formed a government under the leadership of a former school teacher, Enver Hoxha.
Albania's repressive ruler  (image from deviant
A Stalinism devotee, Hoxha assumed absolute power and ordered all mosques and churches demolished or converted into sports arenas or warehouses, declaring Albania "the world's first atheist state, whose only religion is Albanianism." He confiscated land to form collective farms and presided over mass imprisonments and bloody purges of those who dared to oppose his rule. 

During his 40-year regime, Hoxha rigidly cordoned off Albania from the rest of the world, even as he improved literacy rates and modernized the economy with Soviet style industrialization. Not only were Albanians forbidden to leave the country, internal mobility was also strictly limited. Only select Communist party officials were permitted to own and operate cars, and even refrigerators and typewriters required rare special permits to purchase.

When the borders opened after the Communist government collapsed in 1991, more than a fifth of Albanians fled their country seeking economic relief and political freedoms too long repressed. Due to this exodus and the 1912 partitioning by European powers that put large areas populated by ethnic Albanians in other countries, there are today far more Albanians living outside their native country than inside.

Since virtually no one in Albania was permitted to own and operate a car until 27 years ago, the country did not have or need a well-developed system of roads.  Having heard nightmare stories of unsigned and unmarked roads with deep potholes and crumbling pavement, we were expecting the worst.
Our first look at Albania
Before we reached the border, rain was falling steadily.  After a pretty efficient check at Montenegro's station, we arrived at the Albanian checkpoint.  We were unprepared for a passport control experience unlike any other on this trip.  The Albanian immigration agent took us by surprise when she exuded a friendly attitude.  Though she spoke only a few words of English, she smiled, asked if we were going to Shkodër (pop. 135,000, founded 3rd century BC), indicated it was a nice town and wished us a good trip.  Little did we know, this was a sign of things to come, events we've come to call FAEs (friendly Albanian encounters).

It was an auspicious beginning, but when we got to the other side of the checkpoint, we found ourselves driving through a sea of mud.  We never expected Albanian roads to be this bad, and we soon realized it was just a construction project to expand the border station.  When we exited the area, we found ourselves on a better road than we had seen for quite some time—smooth surface, wide shoulders, well marked, helpfully signed.  Another pleasant Albanian surprise.
Roads should all look like this Albanian one.
By the time we finally arrived Saturday evening, we were ready to have dinner and call it a day.  As we were eating, Ken casually asked me what my plans were regarding exercise for the day, and I realized I had completely dropped the ball.  Since the beginning of this year, I have followed the activity app on my Apple watch with an obsession, meeting three activity goals and walking at least five miles every day.  After dinner, I sloshed back and forth on a quarter-mile stretch of street near our hotel in the pouring rain (with an umbrella and raincoat) for more than an hour, finishing just before 9 p.m.  My slacks were wet from the knees down, but, by golly, those goals were met.

Sunday was our day to explore the Shkodër area, and we were treated to one pleasant interaction with Albanians after another, beginning at breakfast and the day's FAE #1.  Though the meals we were served for dinner at the hotel's restaurant the evening before had been delicious, portion sizes were more than we could handle.  The sizable amount of food we left on our plates signaled to the chef that something was wrong with our food.  When he learned from the server that we were there for breakfast, he came to the table to apologize and ended up spending 15 minutes chatting candidly with us about life in Albania as well as our travels.  
Mes Bridge
After breakfast, our intended first stop was another of those arched bridges, this one in the village of Mes, about 3 miles northeast of Shkodër.  What should have been a simple drive turned complicated when we missed a turn in the GPS directions and found ourselves in a maze of unpaved streets, one muddier and more puddled than the last.
We thought (left) was bad until we turned onto (right).
The way back to the main road was not obvious, and Lady Garmin didn't seem to have any more insight than we did as she repeatedly told us she was "recalculating."  Rescue came in the form of FAE #2.  A smiling middle aged woman pushing a wheelbarrow approached the car as we were turning around for the third time.  After establishing that we didn't speak a common language, we showed her a photo of the bridge on the phone.

With a light of understanding in her eyes, she explained to us in Albanian, accompanied by a wealth of explanatory gestures, how to extract ourselves from the maze and arrive at the bridge.  We politely declined what we believe was an invitation to visit her house for a glass of rakia—the fiery fruit brandy that epitomizes hospitality in the Balkans—and drove on.  Following her directions, we soon found ourselves entering the village of Mes.

After checking out the 18th century Ottoman bridge, we took a stroll in town and met Yetmir, who was doing some yard work as we passed by. As we enjoyed a 15-minute conversation with him, he repeatedly apologized for the poor quality of his English (a common event in our experiences), but we thought it was terrific.  In the middle of the conversation, a couple of teenaged boys walked by, heard us talking with him in English and jumped at the chance to try out their own skills.  "Hello," they both said.  "Hi.  How are you?" And they continued, smiling, on their way, apparently pleased that we had understood them and responded in words familiar to them.  FAE #3 and #4.

From Mes, we drove a bit south of Shkodër center to Rozafa Castle.  Sitting regally on an imposing rocky hill overlooking the surrounding area, the castle is Shkodër's most popular attraction.  Three tour buses were parked at the bottom of the hill, with smaller vans shuttling passengers to the entrance uphill.
Though the preserved ruins date from the 15th to 18th century period when the area was ruled by Venice, the hill has seen a series of fortifications since antiquity due to its strategic location at the confluence of two rivers.  Local legend tells that three brothers built the first castle on this spot.  Their initial construction efforts were in vain as day after day they returned to the building site to find the previous day's work had fallen down.  Finally a clever man advised them to sacrifice someone near and dear to them and bury the person's remains in the foundation.
After they determined they should sacrifice one of their wives, none could decide which one.  So they decided that whichever of the wives brought their lunch the following day would be selected.  Unbeknownst to the youngest brother, his two elders warned their wives that evening not to make the delivery, so it was Rozafa, the wife of the youngest who gave her life and her name to the castle.
As we were exploring the ruins, we had FAE #5, and it was a big one.  A group of middle schoolers, visiting the city from their hometown of Elbasan in central Albania, overheard us conversing in English and a couple of boys boldly approached us and greeted us.  "Hello.  Hi.  How are you?"
As we chatted with the guys, more kids joined the group until finally their chaperones signaled it was time for them to leave Rozafa.  But not before a couple of the girls asked for a photo op with us.  Unlike the U.S. and most places we've visited on this trip, in Albania, we see very few people with cell phones constantly in their hands.  Only a few of kids in this group seemed to have mobiles.
Just an hour later we were driving out a scenic lakeside road when we spied a bus parked with a large group of kids nearby.  What a surprise when we discovered it was our Elbasan middle school friends again.  
We stopped and yelled out a hello, and soon our car was surrounded by the bubbly adolescents who were as curious about our lives as we were about theirs.  In a fun role reversal, the ones who obviously filled the "cool kid" roles in the group had to defer to the "brainiacs" whose English skills were far better.  We counted this as FAE #6, since we talked to some new kids and they were all so enthusiastic and so much fun.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
Back in the city, we did a walking tour of some sites we had selected including the elegant Cathedral of St. Stephen.  A portrait of Mother Teresa was prominently displayed near the altar.  An ethnic Albanian, the Nobel Peace recipient was born in Skopje, Macedonia, and is especially revered in the southern Balkans as a native daughter as well as a saint.  When we entered the church, a young couple was sitting in the back row with their toddler son.  After I smiled at the youngster, the mom offered, "Hi,  Hello." Since the church was mostly empty, I asked her if it were okay for me to approach the altar and take photos.  "Is okay," she replied with a smile.  FAE #7

At the risk of setting ourselves up as frontrunners for the 'Cynic of the Year' award, I must admit that, by this point, we had begun to wonder whether we had been been selected as unwitting subjects on some hidden camera Albanian TV show.   We thought we had met friendly locals in Bulgaria and other countries, but nothing like we were experiencing in Albania.  And here comes #8
Anna in the plaid shirt
On our way out the door of the cathedral, another adolescent approached us with the now familiar friendly greeting:  "Hello.  Hi.  How are you?"  It was Anna, who told us she was visiting the city with "the sisters" and some other girls.  We chatted with her and her friend Sarah for a few minutes, and our request to take their photo led Anna to gather the entire group for the shot.

It seems fitting that our final FAE of the day took place in another restaurant.  We wandered into Rozafa Seafood restaurant because it was busy and patrons at the sidewalk tables seemed to be enjoying their food.  Our waiter Edward was FAE #9.  Friendly and gregarious, he told us that his parents and sister both live in New York City.  He would like to emigrate as well but has been unable to obtain a visa, even a temporary one to attend his sister's wedding in July.
Watching a video of Edward's wife singing on his cell phone
With permission from his manager, Edward sat with us and chatted for about 20 minutes after we finished eating.  Insisting that we must have the rakia experience, he brought a bottle to the table and poured a tiny amount in each glass.  Unaccustomed as we are to imbibing hard alcohol, the 80-proof drink straight from the bottle was like liquid fire going down our throats.  But, as much as we've heard about the famous beverage, we thanked Edward for the opportunity.  I poured what was left after my tiny sip in his glass and he threw it down like the Albanian that he is.

Tomorrow we'll leave Shkodër and drive south to Tirana, Albania's capital city, eager to see if the friendliness factor holds in the big city.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Podgorica, Montenegro
    •  Ended in:  Shkodër, Albania
    •  Miles driven:  115
    •  Miles walked: 10.4
    •  Weather:  61° to 79°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Bicycles:  1,724
    •  Goats on the road:  24
    •  Mercedes brand cars:  56%
    •  Smiling immigration agents:  1  (Total for trip:  1)
    •  Street dogs:  347
    •  Quote of the Day:  (Ken's voice command to the GPS)  "Hey, Garmin.  Help us out!"

Loved:  The feeling of welcome extended to us over and over by Albanians.

 The ability to avoid questionable roads

Learned:  Even considering how much American television, movies and other widely distributed media influence global tastes and trends, we're constantly surprised and amused by experiences that result from our viewing the world through an American lens.   At dinner this evening, Ken ordered spaghetti marinara.  In an American version of an "Italian restaurant," he would have been served long thin noodles with a vegetarian tomato sauce.  Instead, Edward delivered a steaming plate of noodles artfully surrounded by mussels and clams.  (**Forehead slap**)  Of course, it was obvious then that, translated from Italian, marinara would refer to seafood, not tomatoes.  

More Photos from Albania (and a few from Montenegro)
We met a nice young Podgorican couple at an overlook, and he insisted on taking our photo for us. 
World War II monument near Rijeka Crnojevića
Another view of Mes Bridge
Sharing the road with a herd of goats in Mes
You never know what you may encounter on Albanian roads.
Everyone shares the road, no matter their vehicle (or their species, for that matter).
Ruins of an Ottoman era mosque at Rozafa Castle
View from the top of Rozafa hill
Another Rozafa view
A pair of the hundreds of street dogs in Shkodër.  Even they were friendly, or at least docile. 
One of several pedestrian streets.  Ebu Bekr Mosque on left.