The region of Balkan is getting more and more famous as a perfect spot for hitchhikers avid for adventure. Its history is rich and natural beauty abundant – what more should you ask for? Even the post-communist feel is becoming hip these days.
As for me, Albania doesn´t seem exotic (no palm trees and no coconuts, that´s why! …ok, I guess they do have some palm trees!) – my homecountry is too close and its history too similar. That is why I am rather attracted by an urge to discover the same story told by other people. Are we really the same as I always thought, or is Balkan a wilder counterpart to the fairytale-like Slovakia? I set on a hitchhiking journey with my husband this autumn to find out – this is what hitchhiking across Albania was like for us.
Durres to Tirana
We arrive to Durres with a ferry early in the morning and watch the sunrise as we walk towards a red Welcome to Albania sign. We pass through the customs fast and continue on to the streets, beautified by the dramatic golden light. It looks a little bit like Slovakia, but also a little bit as Colombia and so we feel a little bit at home instantly – however, this feeling is interrupted by our lack of knowledge about the local language or culture.
Our breakfast consists of a stale bread and a can of tuna fish we brought from Italy. The chocolate cookies meant to sustain our sugar and spirits up on the road immediately end up in the hands of a beggar girl walking past. The waiter from a nearby cafe offers us cushions to sit on – which we refuse – and then continues arranging the tables in the rhythm of 90s rap music. (Dilemma, anyone?)
Going home from work
Stray dogs relax on the green grass as we walk towards the highway. Following the example of an elderly man crossing the concrete fence through a hole with his bicycle, we stumble to the other side, make a TIRANE sign and wait for a few minutes; a man stops and helps us to put in the bags, however, the ride only takes five minutes before we figure out he is not our good angel of the day but an improvised taxi when he repeats “leke, leke…dollar, euro”. We politely thank him and jump out of the car as quickly as it gets. F. gets nervous; “they have no idea what we are doing, we are not going to get a ride here”, he says. Of course they know, I say, but they see us as an opportunity. Just wait and see. F. gets negative and doesn´t believe me. We argue stupidly about words and who said what.
In a short time, another man stops. Fortunately enough, he speaks English; it is a professor from the university who tells us it is a holiday that day and also that the economy of the country is growing. He drops us in the downtown with his best wishes and goes on while we look for an exchange office.
We have found no couchsurfing in Tirane and, although we don´t know it yet, this curse won´t leave us during all the trip in Albania. We eat byrek (a delicious pastry filled with spinach and cheese) and drink ayran. The day is rainy and we spend it in a cafe. Later, we find a relatively cheap airbnb (15eur with breakfast) to hide from the cold weather.
Want more visuals? Click here to see my Tirana photojournal!
Tirana to Elbasan
Luckily enough, the day is sunny. We get out before lunch and head towards the road – there is construction going on, but there are no fences and people walk across the sand and dirt carefree.
In a narrow lane, we run into a man in a suit, talking on the phone. He shows us the way and invites us for coffee and juice. His name is Toni, he runs a big construction company and he informs us that everyone hitchhikes around and that it is easy – he himself takes in many hitchhikers.
Encouraged, we say goodbye and walk, walk, walk, around parks, panel houses and mosques, seeing impressive mountains on the horizon, until the city gets thinner and goats munching on grass become more frequent. It takes us less than an hour to get a ride. The driver is a young man who is taking his uncle and aunt to Elbasan. As the road gets tangled, turning left and right and left again in the hills, he merrily explains me in German that he seasonally works in Stuttgart as a construction worker. His German is faultless, his driving safe and his aunt seems not happy about us at all.
We don´t mind too much because we get dropped in the Elbasan downtown, near a roundpoint adorned with a weird statue.
We walk around, wondering if the communist regime destroyed all the historical buildings in the country or if we just miss them, taking to the right where we should take to the left. I take photos of a thick fortification wall that is obviously the most popular selfie place in the city and we walk through the gate, around a mosque, watching the sky reflecting in the potholes filled with rainwater. People chat in the street, cafes are full, the facades are colorful and the sun is warm at this time of the day.
It´s time to rest in a park for a while; there are nuns walking around, elderly men play chess and ride bicycles and perhaps everyone in this country is smiling this afternoon.
We buy fluffy white bread and an aggressively colored juice in a supermarket where they suspiciously don´t let us enter with our backpacks and we walk on, out of the city. It is getting colder as the sun sets. We peak into abandoned buildings but they are way too dirty; besides, big dogs bark at us and there are still many people in the streets; kids play and fruit sellers watch over their produce.
The muezzins start calling from the mosques; it gets dark and it is the time for prayer. I think of the famous Muslim hospitality and hesitate when we pass the sleek building with lit up windows. We get closer reluctantly, not poor enough to feel good about asking for favors, but cold enough to want to try. We hang around for a while. When men start pouring out of the mosque, we say hello. The imam speaks English, they say.
We ask, could we sleep here under this roof?
The floor is concrete and not so wet as the ground, we think, which makes it the best camping place in a 5km radius.
Why would you sleep outside, the imam says.
I have an empty house where you can stay.
We won the lotery for the night – happy, we follow the imam´s son to his house. After a while, he brings us dinner – a huge bowl of soup and another one with rice and meat, complete with a loaf of bread. The news spread quickly and soon, the kids from the neighborhood are practising their advanced English skills with us. At the same time, we learn some Albanian basics.
In the morning, we get a bag full of mandarines (it is the season now), gift some wooden earrings and wave and say goodbye again and again. We continue walking as the sun gets higher and kind people working in the garden gift us some more fruit.
Continue reading here: Albania on a Thumb: Hitchhiking Adventures (pt.2)