Butrint, The Blue Eye & Gjirokastra, Albania
Technically our car insurance doesn't extend to Albania, but that didn't stop us from having a smooth border crossing into our next country. We thought Garmin struggled in Greece, but Albania was a whole new ball game. The GPS device contained hardly any towns or roads for the entire country, so we had to rely on road signs. Thankfully Saranda, our first stop, was a big enough town to warrant plenty of directional information.
It wasn't long before we were stopped by police. This hasn't happened to us on the open road (only border crossings), so we were fairly nervous about what would transpire. The fact that it was dark outside didn't help. It turned out that they were just curious, asking us where we were going then sending us on our way.
Soon after our police encounter we hit a dirt road, and that was what we travelled on for the rest of the journey. We had read that the roads here are supposed to be the worst in Europe, and at this stage we definitely concurred. Much of the road was corrugated, making the whole car vibrate incessantly. Every now and then a massive pothole or dip in the road would appear, which I was sure would tip the van over on its side (it didn't). We also had to be vigilant for the local wildlife, which included dogs, foxes, and even a cow walking down the road with no owner or family in sight.
Saranda itself is a beachside town and to our surprise it was packed full of resorts – it was way more modern than what we were expecting. Unsurprisingly, there weren't any campsites around, leaving us to brave it on the road. We found a street outside of town that gave off a safe vibe, where there were enough people around to not feel completely isolated. Really, our only concern at this stage was how we were going to navigate ourselves around the country without a sat nav.
It turned out our great parking spot was not so great after all. Cars, trucks, motorbikes and people went past all night (literally, there wasn't a moment's peace). I'm not sure if either of us slept much. We cut our losses at about 7 a.m. and wearily got out of bed.
Once we were ready we headed out of Saranda and down a “road” to Butrint, where a variety of ruins had been discovered. By variety, I mean Greek, Roman and Venetian ruins, all built up next to each other at different times in history. On top of a hill was a castle, with views in all directions. The site was located in a national park, which was beautiful, quiet and thankfully, shady.
The Blue Eye is a freshwater spring that is popular with tourists and locals, and we decided to find out why. After a one hour drive we parked the van and walked along a crystal clear river through dense green forest. It contrasted sharply to the dry landscape we had been travelling through. Not far along the river we hit a crowd of people, indicating we had found the right spot. In the middle of the river was a small, circular patch of deep blue water, which is supposedly more than 50 metres deep (no one has found the bottom yet). Water bubbles up here from some mysterious underground location, producing a stunning natural phenomenon. A few brave souls were jumping into the hole from a few metres above the surface. I stuck my toe in the water, discovered it was freezing cold, and didn't think twice about staying on dry land.
Our next drive was to Gjirokastra, along roads that were half paved and half rocky nightmares that would have been better suited to all-terrain vehicles. I think we averaged about 30 kph. The roads were also narrow and winding, meaning it was impossible to overtake the trucks who were somehow going slower than us. Again animals dominated the streets, including cows, donkeys, goats, chickens and even turkeys being herded by a farmer. The scenery was mostly mountainous, dotted with grey, sharp rocks. Danny said it looks like Mars. Then he said he didn't know what Mars looks like.
Out the window we could periodically see small, concrete domes dotted across the countryside. Apparently these are the tops of bunkers that were built during communist times “just in case”. They say there are hundreds of thousands of these bunkers all over the country, and that they have proven to be tank-proof. Although only the top of the dome sticks out above the ground, underneath the soil the bunkers come in a range of shapes and sizes. We read that now they are used mostly as public toilets.
Once we made it to Gjirokastra we drove straight up the hill to visit the castle. We had to walk the last 15 minutes, which felt like hours in the blazing heat. It was a great castle, mostly because we were free to roam around and go in or on anything we wanted. They even had what Albania claims to be an American spy plane (America denies this). From the top there were hazy views over the countryside, which did have a Mars-like appearance to it.
More Garmin issues. Garmin had found our location, and we were actually on a road that it knows. With that little win, we were able to plug in our next destination. All was going well until it tried to take us down a road that didn't exist – there were houses physically blocking the way. At this point we could not see any signs telling us where to go and we had no idea where we were, even on the hard copy map. We ended up driving half an hour back to the main road (losing an hour in total) and going the long way around. The state of the roads hasn't improved either - one of the bumps we drove over caused a drinking glass to jump out of the cupboard and smash into a million tiny fragments inside the van. In the end our supposedly two hour drive took five frustrating hours. Right now we are apprehensive about the quality of the infrastructure in the rest of Eastern Europe.