Buses in Albania leave a lot to be desired. Saranda is one of the few towns that has a bus “station” with some sort of organized effort to get people on and off the buses in a routine fashion. Often, travellers are dropped off on the side of the street in the middle of a city and left to fend for themselves; particularly a challenge when one doesn’t speak Albanian and noone seems to know how to take the bus to the hoped-for destination, and no bus station to consult. Occasionally “fugons,” essentially vans, leave from various corners toward an agreed upon destination once they are full. But one cannot count on this possibility as it is at the whim of the owners (and passengers). If there aren’t enough passengers, they don’t go. Vehicles are also quite scarce in the off season.
Our challenge was that we wanted to take the coastal route northbound (which is a very picturesque but unpopular route through a national park), see Apollonia on the coast, and then cut over to Berat. Based on some posted information, we showed up at the bus “station” intending to take a 10:00 bus up the coast, but the only one available had already left for the day. Undeterred, we set out the next morning at 5:00 am to Vlora, a major city on the coast with supposed train (sorry, closed) and bus (sorry, no station) connections, only to be dropped off in the city center with no clue how to venture onward. After making the rounds of travel agencies, the general consensus was that the bus for Berat left at 8:00 the next day. Only a taxi or a complex trip to another town and a taxi would take us to Apollonia, and unsure of the exact times that the site was open (e.g., Butrint closed around 3:00), we gave up on that. Around 7:30 the next day, we began asking buses, taxis, anyone we could get to answer us in English or Spanish (many speak Italian) where exactly the bus stopped for Berat. We eventually found someone who called us a taxi and we spent too much for a trip a few blocks away where in fact, a bus was sitting with a sign saying “Berat.” Success!
Fortunately, Berat was worth every effort to get there. Cute little whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs lined cobble stone streets, one stacked on top of the other up several steep hills topped with a lovely “castle.” Snow-topped mountains rose in the distance. The town was quite clean and neat by usual Albanian standards. As we explored the town, several of its citizens came up to greet us and practice their English. Here was the Eastern Europe we were looking for! At the suggestion of a local student, we hiked up to the obligatory monastery carved into the rock cliff face.
Evidence of the Ottoman/Turkish past is everywhere, from the restored harem building to the three mosques within the city. Two-hundred year old murals still adorned the walls of some prominent buildings, with a picture of the blue mosque clearly visible on one of them. We adopted a local guide of the “castle” which was a fairly well-inhabited city of over 200 people, able to withstand foreign invasion through their secretive way of collecting and storing water from the now-polluted stream below. Our hotel was also in a 200-year-old home with a lovely wood-carved ceiling and view overlooking the town and the intricate power distribution system. Berat and Butrint proved to be highlights for us. And did I mention that Berat has a bus station with an organized transportion system??