East Europe Land Cruise – II (112)

 When I left you last Dena and I had finished Share the Sail Croatia and were headed SE by bus to see what eastern Europe was all about. We had passed through Bosnia and Montenegro and had now arrived in Shkoder, Albania. Downtown Shkoder was not pretty. Like around much of eastern Europe, the communists had come in and built it up and then split (like a town east of Trogir). Things eventually started to fall apart. Big dilapidated buildings, old permanently parked cars and broken up ‘sidewalks’ greeted our arrival.

Earlier, while still careening through Sound of Music hillsides and with a fairly thick language barrier between us, we impressed on our driver that we wanted cheap accommodations. The guy took us to the Hotel Rosafa. It was a giant Vegas Hilton looking place, only imagine what it would look like if the maintenance guy retired two decades ago. For $15 we got a clean room with a mini balcony. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway but since there didn’t seem to be anyone else staying in the 300 room hotel, we had it to ourselves.

It was still light so we decided to venture out to get some grub. We found a place where the guy spoke some English. Dinner was great and third world cheap. From inside the café we could safely watch the world go by. What we saw surprised us. Yes, the city was dilapidated but the people still lived the high quality life of villagers. The first thing I noticed was that the bicycles were not locked. In a big city – not locked! And most people rode bikes. The ones that were not riding bikes were walking. Whole families were walking together, hand in hand. I know, strange. We suddenly felt a lot safer.

We followed the crowds to a newly fixed up part of town where there was a jazz festival on. It seemed like a very modern event for a people living so simply. But they were having a great time embracing the West. We walked all over and always felt safe.

At 10pm we were back at the room when we got the message from Allah. There was a loud chicken-getting-strangled sound coming from outside. From the balcony I could see the towers of the mosque where loudspeakers bellowed out the night prayers. After that night I noticed the mosque spires in lots of places. I come from a country that was founded on religious freedom. As long as the tenents of your religion aren’t forced on me, I’m cool. The different religions in Albania all seemed to get along. It was good to see.

The next morning we cabbed to the big fort on the hill. Another thing about traveling to places with little tourism is that you’ve got it to yourself. Not only are there no tourists but there are no tourist management guards. The drunk guy who collected our 30 cents at the big wooden gate was the only person we saw. No rules? This was my kind of place. The fort was riddled with secret passages. A flashlight gained us access to the nether regions.

We packed up and took a big bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania. At the train station we enjoyed Tirana Birra (I think the locals referred to it as a coldy – could be mistaken). We were told that neither the train nor the bus went to where we wanted to go. We found an English speaking cab driver who took us to some random corner where he arranged a couple of spots for us on a minibus to Elbasan. Elbasan seemed fine with a nice downtown fort but if we could make it all the way to Ohrid then we could spend two nights there – an unheard of treat when traveling Bitchin style (never 24 hours in one spot). We pressed on.

We made a deal with an off duty minibus to take us across the Macedonian border to Ohrid for 3000 leke – $30. It was the most beautiful part of our land adventure so far. Through both rain and sunshine we cruised along cool lush hills below snow capped mountains. We passed through small villages with kids playing and adults hanging out. Rad old dudes manned their repair shops, vegetable and butcher stands, when they weren’t sitting in cafés.

Our Albania minivan ride ended abruptly at the Macedonian border. The driver got out and pulled our packs out the back, dropping them on the gravel. I stiffed him, only giving him 2900 leke. We walked through the border and caught a cab to the bed and breakfast in Ohrid that we had booked online.

Paradise. It had taken a while to find it but Macedonia was what we were looking for. Like most of E. Europe it felt safe with the families out walking and the unlocked bikes but this place was cleaner and as cheap as anywhere we had been. When cruising, it’s dollar beers from places with stellar views that we are looking for. It was all here. Our room was real nice. We had payed a lot ($30 a night) but got a beautiful room with bath and balcony right on lake Ohrid … for two days! We were stylin’.

I decided that this was the place that I would see a dentist. I had a cap come off one of my teeth and had been carrying the thing around for weeks knowing I was headed to Europe. In civilized countries, basic medical and dental services are free or nearly so. The dentist office was immaculate and the dentists were funny. They permanently attached my cap and cleaned my teeth for $60. I’m sure the locals weren’t paying that much but I didn’t complain. At no point did they try to force an X-Ray on me.

My dentist wanted me to check out the Ohrid Yacht Club, which we did via water taxi driven by a classic Popeye-hat dude. We also hiked out to the point where they had an old church (if you consider 1240 old) and around to the castle on the hill where they charged us 60 cents to check it out, again unsupervised.

We thoroughly enjoyed Ohrid before heading up to the Macedonian capital of Skopje. Being a big city, there wasn’t much to see besides a kewl ancient Turkish part of town. The hippy hostel we stayed in came with a bunch of backpackers that wanted us to help them drink their beers in exchange for stories. In the morning the nice manager girl made us a great breakfast: eggs, musli, wheat toast and fruit – refreshingly healthy.

As we flew out of Frankfurt to return home I looked down for one last glimpse at Europe. There were small towns separated by green farms and woods. On the hills, wind generators slowly turned – not a coal plant in site.

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