Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Love Albania, and Now We're In Greece

I left off in Kotor, which unfortunately was also the end of our stay in Montenegro. We had a long day of buses to get to Tirana, the capital of Albania, where we stopped on our quest to get to Greece before bad weather moves in. 

I really liked Tirana the last time I was there. It's not a particularly beautiful city, but it's interesting and has a good vibe. It's definitely different from any other European capital. Steve and I ate dinner at Era, the same restaurant I went to last time with my mom, and it was just as good as I remembered. They had an option to try all the appetizers, so we did that and it was so tasty--lots of cheese, peppers, and eggplant.

After that we went to a brewpub called Brauhaus and it was enormous, but mostly empty. On our quest for one last drink before bed, we stopped at a bar called Duff (obviously). I instantly knocked our beers over with my big butt. Oops! 
A football game was playing and Steve, eager to talk to someone who knows what an offside is, asked the server which team he was cheering for. He didn't speak English very well, so the owner of the bar came over to see what Steve was chattering about. It turns out he'd lived in the US for a few years and we ended up talking to him for a while. He mentioned his friend, who owned a bar nearby, made really good cocktails, so we went to visit and see if this was true. Steve was very sketched out at this point, but I thought it was fine.

It did turn out fine: we went to the bar and had some really good cocktails and a shot of scotch, and it was all on the house! So anyone who is in Tirana and misses having good cocktails: a bar called Pass in the Blloku area is great.

The next day, we had a long bus ride to Saranda, on Albania's southern coast. We arrived in the evening and decided to stay two nights, since it looked like there was a lot to do in the area. Albania was playing against Denmark in the European Cup qualifiers and we heard a thunderous cheer when the Albanian team scored, and a very sad murmur when Denmark scored. They ended up with a tie, though, which I think was good-ish news...although, the Serbia-Albania game was abandoned due to a brawl...! Is anyone super surprised? When I heard about the match I couldn't even imagine what an intense game it would be.

We spent our day in Saranda first at Butrint, a set of ruins that has been built upon throughout the centuries since 6 BC, and then swimming at a beach in Ksamil. The water was so blue and clear, although it was kind of cold, but whatever, it's still warmer than Lake Washington, which I don't think I've ever swum in before so what do I know. That night, our hostel in Saranda had a fire on the beach with dinner, and we chatted with an American couple from Colorado while drinking a giant plastic bottle of beer. 

In the morning, we set off for Gjirokastra, a UNESCO World Heritage city with Ottoman architecture and a fortress on top of a hill. I visited the city on my last trip to Europe and it was one of the places I was most looking forward to--steep cobbled street and grey slate roofs? Very atmospheric. I recommend reading Ismail Kadare's Chronicle in Stone, which is based on his upbringing in Gjirokastra. Anywaaay, our hostel was totally deserted so we had a huge (though only 4 bed) dorm to ourselves. 

There's not a lot to do in Gjirokastra other than visit the fortress, which we did. Steve was really hungry when we got in so we stopped by a restaurant where he got a plate of fries, tzatziki, tomato, cucumber, pita, and cheese. He was obsessed with this meal, so we ended up going back later for dinner. They had raki for 50 cents, which is great. The guy we met in Tirana made fun of me for thinking raki came in shots--apparently you're supposed to sip it, which makes sense, since it's bigger than a shot. Haha!

Finally, we were on our way to Greece. We took a very early morning bus to Ioannina, a city in northern Greece only a couple hours from Gjirokastra. We finally camped in our tent together at a campsite on the lake a couple kilometers from town. We walked around the old town and went a couple museums where they had a bunch of really old religious icons and decorative metalwork. 

I'm sure what everyone wants to hear about is the desserts we ate: there was a frozen yogurt/ice cream place where I had a swirl vanilla/cookie flavor frah yah with praline chocolate sauce. Then, we ended up in this dessert restaurant type place where they had all these cakes on display that you could choose from, and when they asked if we wanted ice cream as well...well, is there any answer to that question other than HELLS YEAH? They gave us SO MUCH ice cream, with an ice cream cone on top for some reason. It was great.

After one night in Ioannina, we headed for Meteora, where we are camping again. We went to a couple monasteries today and it truly is a surreal landscape, with weird rock formations on top of which the monasteries were built. Greece is a lot more expensive than Albania...2 euro for some ouzo? Um, whatever, I guess I'll drink it.

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