Bus-ing Round the Balkans travel blog











An earlier start today for two reasons: I actually want to go for breakfast, and - slightly more importantly - I need to find a furgon out of town that will get me to Berat.

A furgon is a "minibus" (in reality, a passenger minivan) that operates without timetables, leaves when full, drives like the road is one great go-kart track, drops off and collects passengers at random locations along the way (including pulling over in the middle of nowhere for passengers to transfer from different furgons), and then drives around the final destination dropping passengers off individually wherever it is they want to go.

On some routes you have a choice of bus or furgon, but from Gjirokastër to Berat it's furgon or not at all. Talking to the B&B owners this morning they tell me there's one leaving "direct" to Berat at 9am and two other guests are already booked on it. She makes a call to reserve a seat for me (the last one) then shoos me back to my room to pack (it was 8.40am, and I was already packed - go me).

The three of us share a taxi to this furgon's departure point, the driver calling ahead to check (and it's a petrol station by a roundabout, hey!). Only it's not there. We wait a few minutes then our driver gets back on the phone and starts shouting. I really wish I understood Albanian.

Next best thing: my fellow passenger is Greek, and a lot of southern Albanians have lived and worked in Greece, and therefore speak the language. He has a chat with the driver; the furgon's on its way, we just need to wait. It's making its way to us from the border with Greece.

The taxi driver clearly feels the need to let off some steam, because our tyres are squealing as we charge back across the roundabout, narrowly missing another car that had the nerve to already be on the roundabout before us. The very cheek of them.

We hurtle back up the hill, round a corner or two, back down the hill at breakneck speed, and then pull up in the same spot by the petrol station. I'm still sitting there feeling confused when a yellow Mercedes minivan parks in front of us and it's suddenly all stations go.

We load our bags in the back, and the driver and his mates start gesturing where they want us to sit, as we are the last pickup. My new (male) Greek friend is squeezed into a corner in the second row, whilst my new (female) Dutch friend and I are riding shotgun with the driver. Interesting. My last minibus journey where there were passengers riding up front with the driver - well, they were both young foreign women too. Maybe it's a coincidence.

I usually at least doze for a bit on my bus trips, but there was no way that was happening today. The driver's phone keeps going off, with him answering it to shout down the line. He also shouts (what I think are greetings) out the window. A lot. At everyone it seems: other drivers, pedestrians, shop keepers, traffic police. Pretty much most of Albania gets a holler and a wave.

We also stop a lot more than I had expected from the "direct" label. Sometimes the stops are to let people on or off; there's one stop for a meal break; one to collect a stack of tyres and re-arrange the luggage to make space for them; one at a pharmacy where the staff come out to hand the driver some packets; another where the driver hands a packet of advil to someone waiting by the road (let's not ask); and various other places along the way.

I particularly liked the stop at Aragosta Muzik, a large stand selling all the latest CDs and DVDs ("best music hits of 2005" anybody?) on a deserted stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Not even a petrol station near it, nothing. The obvious location to open a business.

The driving style is interesting too. Thankfully I have a working seatbelt, which I am wearing. We drive fast, we overtake frequently, and the horn is used with such regularity and enthusiasm I'm amazed it hasn't worn out yet.

Turning left? Don't indicate, use the horn (especially if you're about to drive into someone in the way - but whatever you do, do not use your brakes). Turning right? Use the horn. Overtaking? Use the horn, they might not have noticed you tail-gating them until you had an opportunity to overtake. Want someone to yield? Use the horn. Frustrated it's raining? Use the horn. Spotted your mate from way back when? Use the horn.

Oh, and if there's no likelihood of being able to overtake the slower car in front? Why, that's not a problem, just go off-road and undertake them on the right instead. (No, I'm not making that up).

No, things were far too entertaining on this journey to even contemplate closing my eyes. Which isn't bad going for a four hour journey.

So, what else kept me awake? A bit of Balkan "spot the difference" and the amazing scenery. It was great to have such a prime viewing position, although as my Dutch friend pointed out, we were also in "the best position to see all the ways things can go wrong", as we drove along on the wrong side of the road for the umpteenth time.

Less scary sights though were the roadside stands selling fruit and vegetables, the stands themselves simple wooden pole affairs, "thatched" with corn sheafs. The goat herder making his way along the side of the road. Cows in harnesses reluctantly being pulled along.

We pass through a lot of countryside, farmland. Unlike in the UK the fields aren't the great sweeping expanses I'm used to, but more of a scattergun patchwork of smaller strips of different sizes, largely without fences between them.

Many of them have donkeys in them: working, feeding, pulling carts, loaded up with the harvest. A donkey brays as we pass, the sound follows us down the road, its cries carrying much further than I would have thought possible.

And as if all that wasn't enough, at the midway point conversation turned to 1997, when 70% of Albanians lost all of their savings and the economy collapsed. Apparently many moved to find work in Greece, and just as many obtained guns and began robbing people (like those returning from Greece). Our driver unabashedly informs us he was in the latter category. I'm not quite sure how one should respond to such a revelation. Another passenger explains he was repeatedly robbed at gunpoint, being in the former category.

By the time I'm dropped off in Berat we are the final three passengers left on the furgon. Someone from my new hotel meets us and leads us up the narrow, steep cobbles, which are now lethally slippery from the rain that has been falling off and on all day. Even my boots are struggling here.

Later in the evening, while I'm walking along the road back towards my hotel, I hear a cacophony of beeps as someone approaching behind me leans on their horn. I ignore it, but it continues, so I turn to see what's going on and find my furgon driver waving at me and shouting hello. Apparently I'm now on his list.

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