The fourth weekend since I left Stuttgart was dominated by getting forward. The goal was to reach Thessalonik in Nothern Greece from Shkoder in Nothern Albania within 36 hours. The roadmap indicates a distance of roughly 550 kilometers, according to my information to be done by two bus connections.
On Friday I learned that there was a bus from Shkoder to Tirana, the capital of Albania, at 10 o’clock. This is a very traveler friendly time, such that I could sleep in, have a relaxed breakfast and head to the bus stop. Even though I took my time, I was almost an hour early. Fortunately, buses are only one of 3 major means of transport in Albania, the others being private cars and furgons (minivans). The drivers of the furgons are very busy finding people who need a ride to maximize their income. It so happened that I hadn’t even crossed the road towards the bus station, that I was asked by a driver whether I needed to go to Tirana. Since the price for the ride was the regular price, I hopped on. Since four spaces remained empty when I got on the furgon, I was a little bit worried, I would be sitting in that minivan for an extended period of time, until the driver had the bunch complete. The worries were unfounded, since we left 5 minutes later. The extra on this ride: right-hand drive vehicle. This made it even more interesting, since traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road and I always get a ride with the most ambitious drivers.
In Tirana, I was let go just somewhere in the city, at least that was my feeling. A fellow passenger helped by translating English to Albanian and vice versa to find out that I had to walk for 15 minutes straight to find a hotel at the left side of the road, where I could ask where the buses to Thessaloniki (Selanik) were going. First I was worried about finding a ride, but once I got in the area of aforementioned hotel, I found more than half a dozen bus companies willing to give me a ride to Thessaloniki. Since no central schedule exists, I walked into every single of their sales office to ask for times.
Finally I had found my connection: sunday morning at 8:30am leaving Tirana. Unfortunately there is no night bus, but in the meantime I know why…
Next topic was to find a place to sleep. These days, one does not roam the streets looking for accomodation anymore, but one takes a few minutes in an Internet café to find the closest and cheapest options. I was looking for a place near the bus stops, so I didn’t have to cross the city early Sunday morning. I wrote down some names and addresses and off I went. I was again in for a surprise when I arrived at the address I had noted: there were meant to be two hostels. I found a third one with yet a different name. The price and the rooms in Freddy’s Hostel was reasonable, such that I stayed. All settled, I started my mandatory walk about of the city. Goal: none in particalur except for getting a feel for the city and maybe find a some practiical information where the shops are and where there are nice cafés. First thing on my journey was an half open/half closed market. Main goods traded on this market are clothes and shoes as well as vegetables and fruits. Continuing my trip, I ended up in a nice café with loads of students. Since I was thirsty, I stopped for some healthy artifical fruit mix.
The main square in Tirana, the Skenderbeg square, is currntly under major reconstruction, which was a major challenge when trying to cross it. One had to find one’s way among cars, people and fences. One thing, I did not figure out until I left Tirana: on which side of the fences the construction workers were meant to work and on which side the pedestrians were meant to walk. Everybody was everywhere… typical Albanian?
Sunday was the day of coffee. The coffee story started already in morning, when I was about to leave the hostel. I did not expect any breakfast, when the cleaning lady asked, whether I didn’t want to drink a coffee before leaving. Who am I to resist such an offer? Coffee was soon to be followed by the guy from the reception bringing on a croissant. Surprise breakfast was in store!
On the way to the bus stop, I picked up another two croissants and stood at the bus stop. While waiting I began eating one of the croissants, when I taxi driver asked me in broken English, whether I needed some help. I told him I was waiting for my bus and that everything was fine. He then suggested we have some coffee together while waiting for the bus. Since time permitted a short coffee, I readily agreed. we had a nice chat about different topics, among others how proud he is of his daughter working at the ministry of justice, giving him the possibility to speed as a taxi driver, whenever he wants to. Upon leaving, he left his phone number for my next time in Tirana. So should you ever need a ride in Tirana, let me know!
The bus was right on schedule and under protest of the driver, because I wanted to take my daypack on board, boarded the bus. Seats were numbered, but after my experience in the other countries on the Balkan, I did not worry about my seat number. The ride from Tirana to Thessaloniki opened a whole new dimension of bus riding to me.
First we headed West to Durres to pick up some speed for the trip to the East later on. The city of Elbasan, about two hours into the ride, proved to be an interesting destination for discovering more rural Albania. First thing to notice was the bus station. Basically a small square with one access filled to the last square meter with buses. Buses of course have to turn around in this narrow spot, which makes for quite a sight. Secondly there is the market on the main 4-lane road on the center island. All kinds of birds were sold, from chicken and cocks to turkeys and ducks.
At the bus station of Elbasan, there was suddenly a commotion in the fron of the bus. Issue was that a boarding passenger wanted to sit on his designated seat, where a woman and her child were already sitting. All I understood, was him mentioning that this was a bus and not a taxi where everybody could freely choose the place where to sit. Interesting to note that about two thirds of the passengers did not care about assigned seats…
During the lunch break followed part three of my coffee sunday: the bus stopped around 11:20 at some restaurant on the road side in the Albanian mountains. Since all passengers got off the bus, so did I. I went to the bathroom and upon returning stood in front of the bus, not wanting to miss the bus once it drove off. Another passenger approached me, asking whether I would like to drink a coffee. Who am I to refuse? I followed him into the smoky restaurant and ordered a coffee. Even though we had no language in common, we managed to have a very simple discussion, like when is the bus going to continue, where are you from etc. Finally he did not let me pay for the drinks, which is how I got my third free coffee for the day.
The next part of the entertainment program was a less enjoyable one: two passengers, traveling together, suddenly started having a more and more heated discussion. Finally they started real fight in my row of the bus. The bus driver immediately stopped, to let them know, they could get off the bus, if they continued their fighting. So they kept quiet until the next stop, where they got off the bus and managed their argument like real men. One of them was quite a bit intoxicated, which is why he also ended up being the loser of the fight. He came back aboard looking quite beat up. End of the story: one hour later until the end of the ride in Thessaloniki, they sat next to each other and everything was fine. That’s what I call male friendship!
The re-entry into the European Union at the Greek border was a preparation of what I expect later on during my trip: spending a lot of time at border check points. Border crossing here took 2 hours. It took the Albanians one hour to check all the passports on exit of their country and the second hour followed at the Greek control point on entry of the country. The Greeks didn’t just ask everybody to get off the bus, but for everybody to bring all their luggage and open the bags upon request. There didn’t really seem a request for opening the luggage, so we put it back in the luggage compartment of the bus.
The guy sitting next to me was quite happy, the Greeks didn’t check the luggage, so he pulled out his 1.5 liters of liquour and had a drink. He meant it was good for his heart, firstly, because he was quite nervous and secondly because he already had a heart operation.
Just before nine Greek time, we arrived at the train station in Thessaloniki, where I said goodbye to the other passengers. I headed off to the place I will be staying for the next three nights, the Hostel RentRooms…