Berat, Durrës & Tirana, Albania
The first thing we saw in Berat was a street full of cafes and bars, so of course we immediately stopped to check it out. It wasn't long before we discovered that there were only men at these cafes, no women. It was dinnertime, I was hungry and I wanted to eat, but I felt like I was breaking the rules. We found a restaurant down a side street with no one in it and asked in a charades-like way if we could sit down to eat. The owner welcomed us like family, and immediately brought us grilled meat, bread and salad. A friend of the cook sat with us and tried to hold a conversation with his limited English. He frequently drew in younger people from the street to translate for him. He was so friendly and entertaining that I didn't feel uncomfortable at all being the only female out in public.
After dinner we drove around looking for a spot to sleep. That's when we stumbled upon the old town, which was considerably more touristy. We parked in a semi-quiet area and then took a stroll around the streets, admiring all the buildings lit up at night. The were people everywhere, probably due to Ramadan, although it wasn't as crowded as Saranda. We popped into a souvenir store and found a drinking glass to replace the one we had lost earlier today (thanks to Albania's appalling roads).
The next day didn't start so well for us. First, we did our usual test of the UHT milk, because in this heat it goes off within a day or two. The milk was off. So I opened a new one, and after I had poured it onto my cereal and taken a mouthful I realised that it was sour too. We had no bread and no more milk, so there was no breakfast for us. Second, we discovered the lid wasn't on the sugar properly and sugar had spilled everywhere (again, I blame the roads). Thankfully there were no ants or other critters around, but it took forever to clean up. Our day did get better after that.
In Berat we walked up a long, long hill to reach a citadel at the top. We are used to climbing hills, but today was the hottest day we had suffered through so far and we were melting. It seemed to take a lifetime to reach the summit. When we finally made it I was just expecting some sort of castle, or perhaps the ruin of one, but there was a whole village up there, surrounded by castle walls. Ramshackle buildings lined cobblestone streets, local handicrafts were being sold from shops, and incredibly people actually lived up there. The buildings weren't anything amazing, although the views from each side were photo-worthy. Danny thought the place was great. I was so exhausted after the climb that I didn't know how I felt about it.
Once we returned to the town of Berat (even going downhill we were drenched in sweat) Danny decided to get a haircut, hoping the shorter hair would keep him cooler. I was very grateful to the “berber” who also convinced him to get a shave, cut-throat style, so that he came out looking like regular Danny (not hobo Danny).
After leaving Berat we drove on to Durrës, a popular beachside town. Halfway there we miraculously found a motorway - an actual paved, double-laned road, where we could finally hit the speed limit. There were still a few crater-like cavities but it was a million times better than what we had been driving on.
In Durrës we found a car park and made a beeline for the beach, which was overrun with thousands of people. We had to pay for deck chairs, but I didn't care because it was 38°C and all I wanted to do was swim. The water turned out to be warm and knee deep for the first 100 metres, after which it gradually became waist deep and slightly cooler. It wasn't ideal, but we couldn't think of anything else we would rather be doing. We stayed in the water long enough to forgot how hot it was, then spent a significant amount of time lying on our deck chairs under the umbrella, eating burek and enjoying not being active. Loads of vendors carrying large carts were plying the shore, selling everything you could ever need on the beach: food, toys, inflatables, clothing - even a donkey went by selling goods out of baskets.
Once we had absorbed enough beach action we walked back to the car and headed towards Tirana, the capital city. As we drove along the smooth motorway we found a large shopping centre with a supermarket inside. This was the first supermarket we had seen in Albania – so far we had purchased food in mini markets with only one aisle. This was a proper, big, Western-style supermarket. Although we loved the range of foods on offer, and we were impressed by the food court with an ice skating rink in the middle, nothing can beat a solid spell of air-conditioning. We spent a long time here.
Back on the road to Tirana we saw a sign saying "Camping 25 km". For a moment we were excited, but that was the only sign we saw. We didn't bother trying to look for it.
We stopped in the southern part of the small city (it felt more like a large town than a capital), close to Grand Park. In the middle of this park was an artificial lake that was only half full; it looked forgotten and depressing. However, this didn't stop the locals coming out to wander around the grounds, and dozens of street vendors lined the paths to sell them all sorts of unhealthy treats. Danny found one vendor selling grilled white corn, which he couldn't resist. I'm not a corn fan, but the burnt bits tasted a bit like popcorn, so I didn't mind it. We spent the rest of the afternoon in a cafe before reluctantly heading back to our oven-like car for the night.
The next day started with a walk through the Blloku district of Tirana, which is supposedly the trendy, ritzy area. There were a few cafes along tree-lined streets, but that was all we could find. Underwhelmed, we left and walked along the river (i.e. concrete canal) to the centre square, taking in the brightly painted and patterned houses lining the waterway. Disappointingly, the centre square ended up being one big construction site. It looked impressive in the postcards, but all we saw was a massive patch of dirt. The only highlights were a small mosque to one side and a few red and yellow government buildings. With nothing to sustain our attention here, Danny went off to explore the dirty, uninspiring market, while I meandered aimlessly around the streets, taking photos of nothing in particular and getting into trouble for being too close to a restricted zone (they really needed better signs).
We met up the National Art Gallery, observing first the communist propaganda paintings, and then the works completed after the Communist Party fell. A big difference in styles. There were a total of six people in the Gallery, and four of us happened to be from Australia. We hadn't seen many tourists in Albania and it blew us away to hear the Aussie accent.
The last sight we saw in Tirana was a building called the Pyramid, which used to be a museum in honour of a former Communist leader. Now it's a derelict building, full of rubbish and graffiti. It looked like a spaceship - I'm not sure what the architect was thinking.