Interrail day sixteen – Thessaloniki to Lushnjë

13 May

Today I am going to Albania for the first time since 2019, when I completed a rather enjoyable tour of Albanian wineries. Like in Switzerland, here there’s no free roaming and they don’t use euros. Unlike Switzerland, though, where that left me feeling a bit at sea, in Albania I know what I’m doing.

But first I had to find the bus to Albania. Helpfully, Jason at Crazy Tours had sent me the address of the place by email, which was much easier to handle than a slippery Greek placename over the telephone. Less helpfully, he sent me another email after I had gone to bed saying “I’ve reserved you a seat – please get there by 8.” I read this email as I was having breakfast at ten to eight. Oops.

Anyway, it wasn’t far to the office and, as I suspected, it didn’t matter a jot that I was late. The bus was scheduled for nine, so I had plenty of time to grab some paracetamol from a pharmacist at the train station and take this photo of a train.

I got back to the office in plenty of time, and at that stage they decided to mention that the bus doesn’t actually go from there. Instead I was to follow an old lady down the street to find the bus park. I tailed the pensioner and found the bus park, sure enough. The old lady spoke Greek – not surprising in Greece but by now I felt that she was the one at a disadvantage, as this bus trip has already become an outpost of Albania, with Albanian as the language that everything was being done in.

The stops on the Albanian bus are somewhat different from the Greek ones. Between Igoumenitsa and Alex there was a stop every two hours. The driver announced that we would stop for 20 minutes, and approximately 20 minutes later he summoned us to the bus. On this bus we were initially stopping at least once per hour because the driver wanted a ciggy. Then we stopped for the border and changed driver to one who preferred to chain smoke while driving (and often while making phone calls, too) but we have stopped for “five minutes” to fill up the bus and while I didn’t time it, I’ve already been to the toilet, had a coffee and a byrek (savoury pastry), bought water, and still had time to sit in the sunshine writing this. It’s an Albanian five minutes.

Albanians seem almost allergic to order and regularity sometimes. At the border, one man complained volubly about having to wait in a line “like sheep”, even though the alternative was standing in the vehicle lane, and while I’ve sometimes been the only person in a mask before (the rules vary a lot by country so I’m generally just keeping it on in indoor public places), this is the only place that anyone has commented on it.

The moment we crossed the border I saw a bird of prey, which is appropriate as Albania is the ‘Land of the Eagles’ in Albanian. The countryside is rugged and attractive, but I’ve struggled to capture it through the window. I did get one shot at the petrol station, though.

This is supposed to be an adventure and it is, ahem, thrilling when your bus overtakes a lorry on a blind corner and your seatbelt doesn’t even work. But I lived up tell the tale.

We followed the edge of beautiful Loch Ohrid and then climbed into the mountains briefly before descending to Elbasan. At the third rest break, I was rumbled as not being an Albanian – one woman twigged and asked me where I’m from so then they all found out. That’s not bad going.

I got off the bus just beyond Rrogozhinë, having been advised by a woman on the bus that this was the best place to catch something going to Lushnjë. In fact there was a man already there who offered to take me to Lushnjë in his car for 1,200 lekë. (This is a totally normal arrangement in Albania, however dodgy it may appear.) I refused because I only had 1,000 😂 So he took me for 1,000 (£7) and picked up another couple of people on the way to make it worthwhile.

When I got to my mother-in-law Dafina’s house, the bell was broken and although I shouted, no one came, so I went round the corner to her cousin’s house to see if she was there. She wasn’t, but her cousin Tefta and Tefta’s husband Bektashi were very pleased to see me. Bektashi called Dafina (who was in the house but hadn’t heard me) and instead of saying I was there, said his wife was ill and Dafina should come immediately 😮 Dafina turned up a few minutes later and dhe appreciated the joke, but only after she had got over the shock of thinking her cousin was dying or dead! (It turned out Tefta had been in the hospital the previous night, so this was not as much of an overreaction as it might appear.)

After a bit of recovery time, I went out to get a sim card (which I obviously managed to do, since I’ve uploaded this), some money and something for my chest infection. I ended up paying 650 lekë just to withdraw, which is daylight robbery, but still less than than the first bank I tried. This is still a cash economy (even the Vodafone shop doesn’t take cards) so I will need a supply of ready cash. I just hope I don’t need to use a cash machine again!

Antibiotics were also a bit tricky, as you’re not supposed to able to get them without a prescription any more, but fortunately I have known the pharmacist for a long time and have a good relationship with her, so I have the pills. There are times when Albanians’ disregard for rules is handy.

We’re now watching a film that’s mostly people swearing at each other, so I think I should make a better use of my time by getting an early night. Natën e mirë!

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