Bus-ing Round the Balkans travel blog










I know the city's awake from the symphony of car horns floating up the hillside and in through my window. I'm only half awake myself though, and struggling to fully leave sleep behind. I need to get up, because I've got to get myself to Tirana today. But I don't yet know how I'm going to achieve that, and as a result I'm reluctant to leave the comfort of my bed behind.

After breakfast the hotel owner leads me down the hill to find someone who speaks English and can interpret for us. With the help of two of his friends, they explain that buses for Tirana leave every half an hour from the bus station at the edge of town. Someone else then explains how I can get there on the orange municipal buses.

All checked out, I trot back down the hill to the bus stop and hop on the next rickety-looking orange bus to pull up. I pay my 30 lekë fare and resume my new role as the town's latest curiosity for people to gawp at.

I hadn't realised that travelling solo through Albania would mean I would become the main attraction. It's a bit overwhelming for someone more accustomed to, and comfortable with, flying under the radar to instead be confronted with stares, whispers, and pointing with almost every step I take.

Apparently Albania doesn't see many solo travellers yet, especially not women. I understand why I'm drawing the response I am, but it's becoming wearing. It's not the first time I've made myself a "curiosity" in this way; it was a similar situation in Rwanda. Only there it manifested as warm smiles, children waving at me, and people saying hello and trying to make me feel welcome and looked after. None of the starers here are smiling. I know it's not hostile, but sometimes you start to feel under attack all the same.

Arriving at Berat bus station for the first time it's clear it's brand new. So new they haven't actually finished it yet. It has a shiny new parking area with lines of buses, and a couple of bars and restaurants. No ticket office though. And definitely no timetables. That's not how it works here!

I find the bus with "Tiranë" in the window, and the conductor stows my luggage away. We don't get on the bus though, because it's not leaving yet. I move to stand in the shade and ponder my next move, when my thoughts are interrupted.

Three passengers who were on the municipal bus with me, and who are taking the Tirana bus as far as Durrës, ask me to come and sit with them inside the bar. They don't speak English, and we already know I don't speak Albanian, so we don't actually do much talking! They talk amongst themselves and I sip my nice cool drink and wonder when the bus is leaving.

For the first time since I set out from Corfu I realise nobody's staring at me or giving me funny looks. Bliss. I wish I could tell them just how grateful I am for their act of kindness.

We continue to sit as time ticks past, minutes turning to an hour, turning to an hour and a half. So much for Tirana buses leaving every thirty minutes. It gives me some comfort that the Albanians I'm sitting with seem to have little idea what is happening either.

One of them wanders back outside to check the progress and then motions for us to follow. Finally time to get on the bus and we're off. The guy who loaded my backpack up earlier comes down the aisle handing out tickets. He doesn't ask for money yet, returning a while later for that. 390 lekë. Not even £2.50.

We stop regularly to let people on and off, almost furgon-like, except the driving is much more sedate and he only hits the horn once. There's a very random mix of 90s hits and current pop music coming from the speakers. I stifle a giggle when "macarena" starts to play.

As I had expected, Tirana is very different. Big, bustling, modern, commercial. Everything you would expect from a capital city. The bus drops us at a seemingly random spot at the side of the road (because there is no bus station) and I walk the rest of the way to my hotel.

In the centre at least, the pavements and roads are in pretty good shape. In the towns I've come from there is a tendency to wander along the road itself, even where there are perfectly adequate pavements. Crossing the road is just as casual: most vehicles won't stop for you, so on busy roads you just have to slowly make your way across between the lanes of traffic, waiting for a gap to let you progress.

Tirana's traffic is heavier and busier, with more lanes. I keep catching myself wandering into the road without thinking. In the end I force myself to revert to the "human shield" approach, if only to make me pause longer before I step out.

Heading back out later in the evening I wander through green parks, filled with people relaxing, playing, socialising, eating. Down boulevards lined with trees and trendy restaurants. Past Albania's answer to American fast food chains: Albania Fried Chicken and Kolonat, whose golden arch-like logo looks suspiciously familiar.

I'm not really a city person, but I am enjoying this one. Maybe because it's bringing back memories from my last trip, but also because it's refreshingly different. I'm also drawing slightly less attention, which is most welcome at this point.

It's also nice to walk past cafes and restaurants and see both men and women sitting in the chairs. Elsewhere it's generally only men sitting out. In Berat I was able to walk the entire length of the riverfront (several blocks) - the whole way lined with eateries - without seeing a single female face. Even when you're expecting it it's still a bit unnerving.

Amidst the upheaval of today, I like that I haven't entirely left the mountains behind: they loom over the city in the distance. Oddly comforting when everything else is so different.

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