Helen in Europe travel blog

Having exhausted the 'must sees' of Tirana, travel writers suggest getting out of town on one of many day trips to other Albanian towns and cities, such as Berat to see pretty houses or Shkodra for the photography museum, or the coastal Durres. Whilst renowned primarily as a port city, Durres in Albania offers more than beaches. My initial reason for wanting to visit Durres was mainly to discover some of the 750,000 bunkers that are supposedly littered across this relatively small country rather than exploring the beach. Actually finding out where to see the bunkers however, had proven quite difficult. Unlike other tourist attractions, there seems to be no online map plotting their location; there's a book or interactive website in the making! My online search revealed the possibility of a day tour from Tirana to Durrea, alliteratively titled Beaches and Bunkers; it all sounded perfect until I was quoted the price of 149 Euros (around AUD $250).

Up for a challenge, I decided that, despite the lack of online information about public transport to Durres, it must exist and I was determined to persevere, despite being alone and having no Albanian language. Whilst some of my friends have attempted to instill fear into me for travelling solo, my mantra for this trip has become 'What's the worst that can happen?'; usually for me, the worst that happens is getting lost, frustration at language barriers, embarrassment at getting something wrong, or walking longer distances than planned, all quite survivable. After comparing various travel blogs and online sites which varied in terms of where and when you could take the bus, I gleaned that at least they all agreed on the following: buses depart every 30 minutes and you can catch either a large bus or a 'furgon' which is a small mini bus. Day of excursion: first stop, a bus stop roughly in the direction the blogs suggested; no signage whatsoever, but as there were people were catching buses every 5 minutes or so I figured I was getting close. I knew I would have to ask someone for more information as there was really no other way to know if I was close, so I approached a handsome young couple and was firmly told that no, I would need to go around the corner and cross the road to get the bus to Durres. Sound advice this was, and eventually I found what appeared to be a yard full of buses. Instead of the usual visual signage, the drivers impart their destinations by wailing and chanting the names of the locations; although some of the buses, helpfully did display signs in the window, this was not the case for Durres; realising I would need to ask for help yet again, I randomly I enquired of a driver, an older man who, speaking no English, proceeded to indicate and eventually walk me to where the Durres bus could be caught. The Durres bus, a furgon, was not displaying a sign (although the drive actually put the sign in the window halfway through the trip) and I mustn't have heard his Durres chant. I had read that these mini buses only depart once full, so lucky for me, it was nearly full and I found a seat near the front, affording me a great view along the way. When I politely gestured whether this seat was free, the large woman sharing the seat deliberately ignored me and refused to make eye contact; helpfully the woman on the seat opposite indicated that I could indeed take the seat; at this point I doubted that my seat companion and I would be swapping contact details and becoming besties; in fact she even wriggled her large posterior partway over onto my side, affording me barely any space on my seat. Part way along the road, the driver pulled over and climbed into the back to take our money; feeling thankful for being prepared, I procured appropriate lek in change; the cost being 150 Lek, around $2, great value for 40 minutes of travel and entertainment! The bus stopped in the middle of the highway from time to time to pick people up; there were no formal bus stops and the passengers at times were dropped off in the middle of the highway too, necessitating stepping over the railing to get off the busy road. Durres provided an interesting mix of promenade people watching and visiting ancient ruins, peppered with stops along the way for coffee; Albania prefers to keep cafes specific; coffee shops sell coffee and nothing else; most people drink an espresso and it seems to be a way of life to meet people several times during the day and night for an espresso. Bars sell alcohol and restaurants sell food. In Tirana, this meant sometimes searching somewhat to find a cafe that sells food as most of them do not. Content to conform with the Albanian way of life I enjoyed multiple coffee stops. After yesterday's pasta, risotto and seafood, salad was the preferred lunch and thankfully I found a Mediterranean style 'fast food' cafe; fast means you order at the counter. My English pronunciation of Caesar salad was corrected by the stoic young server as 'suzza' and so I listened carefully when my 'suzza' salad was announced as ready. Once back at the bus stop, this time, I alighted a large bus with an obvious Tirane sign; it seemed too easy. This time, the cost was only 130 lek - even more of a bargain! Along the return trip along the industrial highway I noticed a familiar pattern: large hotels with sans serif font signage, shells of buildings, either transitioning into decay or left half built, old men on bicycles and cows on median strips. I wondered if Callum Morton, the architect trained contemporary Melbourne based artist had used Albania for inspiration for his Hotel 'sculpture' viewable along the East Link freeway in Melbourne. After tallying up my daily expenses on xe.com I realised that the AUD $16 total I spent was a huge saving on the AUD$250 I was quoted for a tour, and although I missed out on the bunkers, I caught public transport like a local and wished I could have a few more days to day tour to the many other Albanian towns and cities, all for AUD $16.

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