English, cheap food, and beauties everywhere

Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania


Zagreb

September 19, Wednesday - Budapest, Hungary to Zagreb, Croatia Main square, Zagreb

After 5 days in Budapest, we were ready to move on to our next stop, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. It was formerly part of Yugoslavia. Of course, most people go to Croatia to see their coastal regions, like Dubrovnik. We met the apartment owner again early in the morning to return the key and head to Zagreb by train. The train was not that busy and we had a compartment to ourselves. But later an Australian couple decided to share the compartment. They were on a four-month trip across Europe. Before the trip started they both went to London to work for a few months to earn some money first. The guy told us he was a high-school teacher. Kind of surprised me that an Australian teacher could get a short-term teaching job so easily in UK. They complained that the UK's weather was really horrible that summer. It was just cool and wet, hardly like Summer at all. Unlike us, they decided to bypass Zagreb completely, once there they would continue to Split, a seaside town on the Adriatic.

In terms of sightseeing, Zagreb is pretty small and you can pretty much see the whole place in one day.

At the Zagreb station, we got a map that highlighted what to see in the city core. There are a cluster of buildings near the downtown main square and then there are some museums and an opera house a bit further out but everything is within walking distance. Tourism is relatively new here and there are not many budget hotels in this city. Tourists only started showing up recently. Estrella had booked a youth hostel at downtown, at an excellent location because it is next to their main downtown square and all the outdoor cafes. The hostel is located in an old building, really accessed inside a small courtyard. The ground floor had a bar and the second floor was a small lobby and a common area with books and TV for guests to hang out. The third floor had two rooms, one had four beds for four people and a much bigger room for 10 people. We had booked the one with four beds. The rooms were pretty decent but the stair was so old that these looked like it could collapse anytime. The place was run by two brothers who spoke fluent English. One told us he studied tourism in university, and as part of their training program they spent a couple of years in Cleveland. That is why his English was so good. He also recommended some restaurants for us. After checking in, we went out to do some sightseeing. The map was pretty good, listing all the highlights that we could follow. We even came across a McDonald's but for some reason, we just could not find it anymore later on.

When we returned to the room, we found out that our roommates were two Scottish girls, both university students studying civil engineering. They were near the end of their summer trip and would return to school soon. Unfortunately for them they could stay in our room for only one night. Someone else had already booked the same room next night. The hostel owner told them that he would see if he could arrange for them to stay at the same room. Estrella decided she would go to bed early so I went down to the common area to check the place out. As expected, everyone there was pretty friendly and it was fairly easy to talk to each other because we had one obvious common interest - traveling. Everyone was happy talking and sharing their stories. One guy from Taiwan was traveling by himself. But I ended up talking to this semi-retired British guy who had lived all over the world as a city-planning consultant. He had been away from the UK for so long that he had lost almost all British accent. From what I could figure out his job was to determine the population growth and demographics in each region for companies like Toyota so that they know where to invest or sell stuff. He was quite a talkative fellow and had this ability of coming up to a complete stranger, like me, and then proceed to talk for hours like he'd met a friend he had not seen for a long time. He did not just talk about himself but he also asked questions about other people. Combining his need to travel as part of his job and his love of travel, he had covered a lot of places. Pretty much everywhere I mentioned, he had been there.

Slovenia

September 20, Thursday - Ljubljana, Slovenia View of their national cathedral.

Staying in Zagreb offered us a chance to visit Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, another former region of Yugoslavia. It was the first country that decided to break away from Yugoslavia and was able to do it without getting too many people killed. We arrived before lunch at the train station. We asked how to get to town, and were told we could just walk there. Would take about 20 minutes or so. But I just felt I did not want to walk anymore and decided to take the bus. It probably took us a bit longer to get there but we did save some walking. The city center is also pretty compact with several churches and the city hall.

Slovenians like to eat wild game and there was this restaurant in Ljubljana's center where tour groups would stop for lunch. So we decided to give it a try. We ordered a wild game plate, which consisted of three meats, and also randomly picked a sausage dish from the menu because I don't mind eating sausage occasionally. After waiting a while the two dishes came out and they were not that great at all. First, the sausage we picked was a black sausage, basically stuffed with rice and black clumps of blood. The taste was not that good. As for the wild game plate itself, that cost 34 Euros, and was three small pieces of meat, each about the size of a deck of cards. They were stag, deer, and boar. (European elk, venison, and wild pig?) Each one covered with a different sauce. One tasted sweet, one peppery, and the last had just a plain gravy. I was not impressed.

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana

After the lunch, we found a little tram that took visitors to the hill-top to see a castle. From there we had a good view of the city. At the center of town is a small river with three bridges spanning it. One of them is called Dragon Bridge, with small green dragon statues at each end of the bridge. Looked kind of cute. We visited their main church. It has this black weird-looking metal door with heads protruding out. Not far from the bridge was a farmer's market that sold all kinds of vegetables. At one spot, they were selling gigantic mushrooms much bigger than your normal mushroom.

By late afternoon, we took the train back to Zagreb. That night we found an Internet cafe among the row of outdoor cafes just on the street behind us to do some e-mail. We also went to try the Cevapi at one outdoor cafe. Cevapi is a dish made of grilled minced beef moulded into small pieces and served in pita bread with slices of raw onion. It was a rather inexpensive meal favored by the locals. The waiter served us water too. Estrella was too scared to touch. She said you would get sick if you drank it. But I drank it without any problem. After dinner, I went back to the room and found out the two Scottish girls had to move out to the bigger room after all. Instead, there were socks, shoes, and a backpack all over the floor and one guy with a bad cold resting in bed. We were quite worried that we might catch colds from this guy.

That evening, I went to the common area to watch TV. The Scottish girls were also there. They had spent the day visiting museums. The Taiwanese guy was also there. Estrella came down and we talked to him a bit. He said this was the first time he came to Europe. He decided to come here, rather than the usual place like Rome and Paris, because places like Croatia were much more exotic. With his Taiwan passport, he found he needed to apply for visas just about anywhere he wanted to go. From here he was thinking of going to Split and maybe buy himself a bicycle to bike from there to Dubrovnik along the coast. Seemed to me the scenery would be certainly nice but I would imagine it would also be hard to go up and down the hills. Not sure that is something I'd want to do. After Estrella went on back to sleep I sat a bit talking to the Scottish girls and the British guy I talked to the night before. Then a young Australian came in. He happened to be one of those that could not say a single sentence without a couple of four-letter words thrown in. As they say, very foul mouth. At that point, I decided to go to bed also. The upper berth of the other bunk was still empty. At the end, we never met that fourth guy, even though I saw him sleeping when I got up to use the washroom in the middle of the night. And next day we left really early for Sarajevo.

Bosnia

September 21, Friday - Sarajevo, Bosnia

Our bus left for Sarajevo at 7AM for a 6-hour ride. The bus was about half full and the scenery along the way was surprisingly spectacular as the road wound along inside a narrow river valley with steep mountains on both sides. This part of Europe is very mountainous indeed. Sarajevo itself is located at the bottom of a valley surrounded by tall mountains pretty much all around. The bus made several stops at major towns. Some of them are controlled by Serbian forces, like the city of Banjo Luca. On the bus was a Croatian girl traveling alone. Estrella ended up talking to her a bit. Her English was not perfect but was good enough that she definitely was able to communicate. She said she was Muslim but she wore no head scarf. She was a sociology student in university. She had a boyfriend who lived in Sarajevo. And now she had some time off so she planned to spend the vacation with him.

Bašcaršija Guesthouse

Estrella found a pension at the old town but we needed to call them to find out if they really had a room and if they could come and pick us up. After the boyfriend arrived, she was kind enough to let us use her phone to call the pension. The owner said no problem. They would come right away. The weather was sunny and warm so we sat outside and waited. The young owner drove us into the old town. On the way, we saw the yellow Holiday Inn building. Apparently all the journalists stayed at this place during the war. The building was severely damaged during the fighting. The pension's location is excellent, right in the middle of several pedestrian-only streets with a lot of shops, restaurants, and outdoor cafes, perfect for strolling.

Bašcaršija street

Here is the old town is called Bacarija. When we arrived at the pension, the owner insisted that we should try Bosnian coffee. We sat outside on the street, sipping coffee. The owner was a very cheerful man who spoke excellent English. According to him he went to Norway once and could speak Norwegian even better than English. He told us he is a happy man. He said there is really no reason to be upset about anything, His view was you would be much better off by being happy rather than the other way around. Next thing we knew, he took out his guitar and put on his cowboy hat and proceeded to sing us a nice song with his guitar. He said he could not read any sheet music, Yet he managed to play the guitar very well. At the back of our pension was a mosque where the locals go. And not far was a Pigeon Square that is surrounded by shops and cafes. The shops are inside one-story traditional wood buildings. The shop windows here had a very interesting design. At night, each are protected by 3 horizontal wood panels. During the daytime, the top two panels fold up and hang below the extended roof but the bottom part folds down to become a bench for sitting or displaying items. It is great to have such benches for tourists or shoppers to sit on when they are tired of shopping and walking.

Connecting the old town to the new is also a nice pedestrian street. Here you could see the line on the street that separates the Western Christian culture and the Eastern Muslim culture. Indeed there is an Roman Catholic church just across the line on the Christian side. The shops here are more modern and upscale. The street was full of action during weekends, when hundreds and hundreds of young people promenade. Estrella read from Lonely Planet that there was a travel agency next to Pigeon Square that offered a city sightseeing tour, as long as more than 6 people signed up. We found the agency and found out there were already more than 6 signed up for next day. That means it would go for sure. The tour guide's name was Sunny. So we reserved and paid for the trip.

At Pigeon Square, we found a couple of stores that sold key chains made of whole bullets. We read about them from some tour books. Apparently, during the war, there were many bullets left over. So some entrepreneurs decided to turn some of them into souvenir. After draining the powder, they cut a small hole at the base of the bullet and then put a metal ring into the hole to turn it into a key chain. They also turned some of the large-caliber ones into ballpoint pens. Very creative people indeed.

We checked out some bullets on display outside the store and asked the vendor about the price. To our surprise, he just handed us one, as a small gift from him. We figured we should come back later to buy a few as souvenirs. While walking around the old town, we saw people dining in outdoor restaurants and they all seem to be eating spinach pies. Baked spinach pie is a specialty here and they have cheese pie too. They had a unique way to bake it by heating them from both the top and bottom. They do it by covering the pie with a heavy metal cover that was raised up and down by a metal chain. On top of the cover, they piled a lot of hot charcoal. Cooked this way, when the cover is on, the pie is also heated from the top as well. The nice thing about eating out here was you did not need to tip. It was not expected and certainly nobody gave. So if you were on a tight budget, it was a pretty good situation, making dining out more affordable. We found the food here were very delicious and much more reasonable than other places. One restaurant we went to had a young good-looking lady chef with a red bandana on her head and wearing a very tight white tank-top standing at the cooking counter inside the front window, cutting, chopping, and cooking up a storm. We did not notice her when we came in but I am not surprised if some people might come in to eat JUST because of her.

Spinach pie near Sarajevo's Pigeon Square

On one side street, there were a lot of outdoor restaurants. There was this gentleman wearing a traditional Bosnian outfit standing outside a nice restaurant, soliciting business. He spoke excellent English. We chatted with him a bit. Toward the end, he thought we were going to eat there, so he went to arrange a table for us. But we were more interested in the one across the street and had to say no to him. He was very disappointed but graciously said that was his mistake. Not only he was not mad, he even apologized to us. Very nice guy here.

September 22, Saturday - still in Sarajevo

This morning, we went to Pigeon Square to join the Sarajevo sightseeing tour. The regular tour guide Sunny was sick and was replaced by a young fellow. We had to split up into two cars because there were around 9 of us. The group consisted of a Pakistani couple who lived in Dublin, a backpacking New Zealander young couple, a couple of backpacker guys from Australia, and a lady from Canada. We were separated into two groups. 7 of us in a mini-bus and the rest in a taxi. The driver in our mini-bus did not speak a word of English. He just drove quietly and we had no idea where we were going.

At one point, I asked him where we were going and his reply was 'No English'. After about an hour of driving, we found ourselves at a city suburb near the airport. Here they showed us the tunnel that were dug below the airport to connect to the outside area that were controlled by Bosnian forces. During the three-year-long siege, the rest of the city was completely surrounded by Serbian forces, who occupied the mountains and bombarded the city. The snipers on higher ground were able to kill pedestrians who dared to venture out. There was even a street going from the old town to the Holiday Inn called Sniper Alley, where a lot of people were killed by snipers. The owner showed us a short video showing the bombing footage.

View from Olympic slopes, Sarajevo

Then we went to look at the museum and the tunnel itself. We asked the museum guide a lot of questions, such as How they could tell who were Bosnians and who were Serbians during the war, or even now? The answer was, you really could not tell. Since they are really the same people., the only thing set them apart is religion. According to him, there were Serbian people that did not want to leave and they were killed too. We also asked them questions like, Do these two groups of people marry each other? If they marry, which group their kid belong too. etc. He patiently answered all our questions. The guide told us he was just a kid during the siege. And he attended school while the bombing and shooting was going on. The UN actually occupied the airport that separated them from the rest of Bosnia but they would not let them out. Instead UN shipped them food to keep them alive. He remembered he ate a lot of canned cheese from UN and he just hated that cheese after a while but he had no choice. After the tunnel visit, we drove up the mountain to see the Olympic bobsled run. The run was pretty much in ruins and there was no such thing as an Olympic stadium anymore. I guessed everything just went into decay. They just could not afford the upkeep. Before the end of the trip, we stopped at an overlook where we could see the whole city from high above. The view was very amazing. Unfortunately this is also the kind of place where the snipers could set up to do their nasty work.

At the end of the tour, we were dropped back at Pigeon Square. There we went to the guy to buy the bullet key chains. To our big surprise the price was almost double what he told us the day before. After some bargaining and telling him we wanted 6 of them, he finally agreed to the old price.

At the hotel lobby, we talked to this young lady who looked after the hotel. Sometimes she would sit at the small table outside the hotel, smoking. Sometimes she would sit in the lobby. She told us she was a Muslim, but she did not wear headscarf at all. She sounded like other young people we saw here who seemed to enjoy going to party more than to prayer. She said she loved skiing in the winter time. On top of that she would not hesitate to smoke and drink during a party. We asked her about fasting during Ramadan. She said she could not really do the whole month. At most, she might do one or two days only. Overall, I got the impression that people here were into religion because of tradition or culture and not necessarily something they intensely believe. Of course, some are more religious than others. You do see some few young women wearing head-scarves (hijab) and praying in the mosque.

After talking to the young lady at the hotel, we went out for dinner. Tonight was Saturday night and the streets in the old town were just jam-packed with locals. Here was where all the young people of the city hang out. We decided to join the crowd and do some extreme people watching. There was this couple of young ladies wearing very tight pants and fashionable cowboy boots. Since they were cruising up and down this street and we were also walking up and down the same street, we must have ran into them 3 times at least. Overall, I was really glad to be able to join the locals and share their weekend fun.

September 23, Sunday - another Sarajevo day

Today being our last day here, we went to check out a few remaining places of this city. One interesting site is the bridge where the Crown Prince of Austria was assassinated and that event started the whole first world war. It cost millions of lives. The river that separated the city is pretty small, probably around 30 feet wide. The bridge itself is also pretty small. Somehow, you could not help but feeling that the size of the bridge just did not seem to match such a monumental event in history. There is a small museum at the street corner leading to the bridge. Outside there were some old photos taken right after and during the event.

Crossing the bridge, we went to check out a beer hall. It looked like a nice restaurant. We just took a look and left. The other place we went to check was an old traditional Turkish house. It was a pretty big house that has been turned into a museum. It is made of wood and a lot of the furniture is also made of dark brown wood.

Holiday Inn/sniper target, Sarajevo

Afterward, we went to the new part of the town where the Holiday Inn is. We were hoping to see the so-called Sarajevo Roses. Basically during the war, the bomb shells from the mountain landed on the roads and sidewalks around the this area. The impact created small craters on the surfaces. The locals painted the craters with red paint and called them 'Sarajevo Roses'. We walked around outside the hotel but could not find any. Eventually I decided to go to the lobby and asked. But to my surprise, the young guy at the reception desk could not really understand English. Consider, this is an American hotel and most of the guests staying there would only speak English, so it was almost shocking that the front desk guy could not handle English. After looking around a bit and still could not find the Roses, we had no choice but gave up. There is a national museum across the street of the hotel but because it was Sunday, it was closed so we could not get in. Late afternoon, we went back to the old town.

Tonight is Sunday night, so the streets are almost completely deserted. What a big difference from last night. Again we went to the side street that had all the restaurants. We again saw the gentleman in Bosnian costume standing outside his restaurant soliciting business. He was happy that we finally wanted to try his place. It was a bit cool now at night, so we went inside and ordered some mushroom chicken and veal stew. The price was a bit more expensive but the food was as usual very good. Maybe we should have visited the place earlier.

As we would be leaving for Dubrovnik tomorrow, we went to an Internet cafe to check the weather there. It said it would be nice on the day we arrived but after that, it would rain. We definitely hoped for nice weather in Dubrovnik. Our plan was to go there via Mostar and see its famous stone bridge.


September 24, Monday - Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, Croatia via Mostar, Bosnia Street cafe, Mostar

The bus to Mostar would leave at 7:30AM. To allow us plenty of time, we got up at 6. Downstairs at the reception was a young guy we had never met before. We gave him the key and the Lonely Planet book we borrowed from the lobby. At Pigeon Square, we somehow managed to get on the wrong tram. Good thing we asked a guy on it. He told us to get off and wait for the correct one. At the bus station, we were told the bus would leave on platform 4. But there were no bus. 7:30 came and went and still no bus. There were also a few local women waiting but none of them could speak any English. Eventually the bus showed up at 8:30, a whole hour behind schedule. Almost all the bus and train we took so far always left right on schedule. This was the only one that was so far behind. One reason was the bus was not an express bus, because it made many additional stops picking up passengers, probably on the way to the bus station, and also on the way out of the city. The bus driver was a young guy who was smoking and spending half of the time turning his head to talk his girlfriend sitting in the front row. On some of the winding road, it was just a bit scary and entirely possible that he just might run off the road because he was not exactly focused on his driving.

Turkish quarter, Mostar

Eventually we arrived in Mostar without accident at 11AM. Our plan was to make a short stop here and continue to Dubrovnik. Unfortunately the last bus was going at 12:30. This would just allow us about one and half hours in Mostar. We were hoping to have a bit more time, but one and half hours was doable since the old town should be within walking distance from the station. So we stored our baggage in the station and walked into the old town to see the famous old stone bridge. It was an half hour walk. Mostar was in the news for a while when the fighting occurred between Croats and Bosnians. During the war, the bridge was destroyed. Recently, UN provided the money to rebuild it. What surprised us was the bridge's road surface were made of very smooth and almost slippery marble-like material, making it rather hard to go up and come down. There are narrow horizontal bars on the bridge so that people can step against them with the heels or toes of their shoes. Otherwise it would be almost impossible to use the bridge. Around the bridge is the old town with some nice outdoor cafes and restaurants but we did not have time to lunch. While looking at the place, we ran into the young New Zealander couple we met on the Sarajevo city tour. They told us they would overnight in Mostar before heading to their next stop. After seeing the old bridge, and a mosque which was damaged during the war and had since been rebuilt, we had to hurry back to the bus station. There we could only get some chips and cake for our lunch from a kiosk. The lady was nice enough to take all the Bosnian money Estrella had, and converted it into Euros.

The bus was full and it appeared that majority of the passengers on board were independent tourists or backpackers. In a way, it was almost ridiculously easy to tell who were tourists and who were local. Of course, the tourists were all holding a Lonely Planet book. Besides, I guess there would not be a lot of locals from Mostar who wanted to go to Dubrovnik, because they did have a war between the two countries not too long ago. The drive along the Croatian coast was pretty nice and it was the first time we saw the sea since the start of the trip. Really glad to be able to finally see the beautiful Adriatic seacoast. The weird thing was we crossed into Croatia without problem but not long after we entered Bosnian territory again at their seaside town called Neum. This is the only sea access that Bosnia has, such a small precious one. If not because of this, Bosnia would be a land-locked country. Looking at the map, you realize it has the effect of separating Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia.

Dubrovnik cafe, old town

We arrived at Dubrovnik at mid-afternoon. It is known as the Pearl of the Adriatic because it has a beautiful walled old town that was full of finely carved fountains, palaces, baroque churches, monasteries, and museums. The streets in the old town were even paved with marble. As a result, visitors, including a lot from Mediterranean cruise ships, flock to this place. According to the tour books, it is popular in Dubrovnik for locals to rent rooms in their private homes. Such rooms are known as Sobe in their local language. Because of this, we did not book anything ahead of time and just planned to try our luck at the bus station. As expected, when we got off the bus, we were approached by several local ladies who offered us a room. One lady said she had a room with private washroom and balcony for 40 Euros a night. The place had bus stop outside that we could take to the old town. When we asked her for a picture of the place, she said she did not have any but we could go and had a look if we did not like the room then her husband would take us back. We decided to take a chance. So she called her husband to pick us up. The lady and her family lived in a two-story house, a bit up the hill. Her mother, who owned the house, lived on the first floor. Our hostess lived on the second floor with her husband and daughter. The room was quite nice, with a private bath room that was nicely renovated recently. It also had a small balcony with a picnic table where we could sit and have meals outside. There was even an ocean view but the sea was pretty far away. Anyway the price was right and it was nice enough for us so we took the room.

Around this place, we saw several other houses with the Sobe sign hanging outside. So people here are obviously used to see foreign visitors in their neighborhood. After settling in we took the bus to the old town right away. Of course the reason that so many tourists came to Dubrovnik is because of this old town. It was a classic medieval Venetian town surrounded by a tall and thick wall. The main entrance is called Pile Gate, which opens right into its major street called Stradun Placa. The part open to the sea has a beautiful harbor with a lot of small fishing boats. With all the red-roofed houses on the hill as background and the harbor in front, it is very picturistic indeed. The wall was built in such way that it allows people to walk on the top all the way around. From the wall, you can see a small island named Lokrum, which is a national park.

Croatia

September 25, Tuesday - Dubrovnik, Croatia Dubrovnik's old harbor

To catch the bus from our landlady's house, there is a five-minute walk downhill to the bus stop. Around the bus stop, there was a couple of convenience stores and bakeries, and even a restaurant. It was handy for us later to buy some fruits and breakfasts from the stores. We usually got some pastry, like apple strudel, for breakfast. Apple strudel is interesting because it has fruit inside too. That meant we did not need to buy apple separately. The bakery also sold meat pies and spinach pies that could be used for dinner.

Estrella having calamari.

This morning we headed back to the old town again. It was a perfectly warm and sunny day. An excellent day for sightseeing. The guide book mentioned two nice restaurants inside the old town. We managed to find one famous for seafood, called Lokanda Peskarija, that was facing the harbor and provided an excellent sea view. We even got a good corner table, close to the waterfront. We ordered some grilled calamari and mussels. We noticed the way they served the food was in the same pot in which it was cooked. Convenient and less dishes to wash. The mussels were good and the calamari was even better. This restaurant had a solution to solve the problem of how to deal with the tourists who all speak different languages. You see, the menu was printed like a booklet. Each language has its own page. The place was really busy this time, with thousands of tourists milling around sightseeing and taking pictures. Obviously some cruise ships must be in town, bringing in a lot of day-trippers. One in town was the Celebrity Cruise, as we could see their guides leading the groups.

After we ordered the food, we saw two ladies were looking for tables and we invited them to share the table with us. They ordered a calamari risotto to share and were talking in a language we did not understand. Eventually we got to talk to them and found out they were Croatians from the capital Zagreb. They came with their husbands to attend a conference. So while their husbands were in the meeting, they did some sightseeing on their own. What amazed me was both of them could speak English and one of the lady was able to speak English so fluently that she almost had no accent at all. Obviously they were from the educated elites associated with universities. They told us the house prices inside the old town had gone up so much that a lot of the original residents sold their properties and moved on. We asked them how long would it take to walk the wall. She said it could take up a couple of hours.

Dubrovnik's old harbor from the town wall

After lunch, we climbed up to the top of the wall and did the walk. With a higher view, you could see the red tile roofs of the houses and the sea beyond. The roof colours are in different shades of red. Some are darker. Some are much newer and lighter shade. The reason was during the war, a lot of roofs were destroyed by howitzer shells landing on them. Good thing they managed to rebuild the whole place. We saw at the entrance a big map of the old town showing the spots that were hit. It was a quite a long walk but the rewards were worth the effort, being able to see the old town with all the beautiful churches and palaces.

Dubrovnik's square

Inside the old town, we came across a small memorial museum with 30 or so pictures hanging on the wall. These of were the people that were killed during war. I guess people here do not intend to forget the war anytime soon. At night, we went back to the house and asked the landlady a bit about the war. She was very friendly and invited us to her living room to chat. Her English was not fluent but she managed to tell us a lot. She said her husband's parents lived in Slovenia. So after the war started in 1991, when the Yugoslav army decided to shell the old town from Montenegro, intending to destroy it, she took her three kids to Slovenia while her husband, who was a bus driver, stayed behind to fight. Initially in Slovenia they stayed at a Red Cross refugee camp and later moved in with her father-in-law. They thought they would stay for only a couple of weeks, but ended up staying for months so nobody was happy. Overall she was not impressed by the people in Slovenia. Lucky for them, their house in Dubrovnik did not suffer much damage because the cannon shells were fired from behind the hill, aiming to hit the boats in the harbor. So mostly the shells just went over their house. But interestingly, the very first shell managed to land at her husband's car and destroyed it. Before the war she had a job working in a office but stopped working after the war. She said she would never go to Montenegro. But her daughter worked as tour guide, taking French groups to visit Montenegro.

September 26, Wednesday - Dubrovnik Dubrovnik's waterfront

As predicted, the weather started to turn bad. We were extremely lucky yesterday but today no more. The sky turned dark grey and rain started to pour. We were considering taking a ferry to visit the island's national park, just outside the harbor. But with the bad weather, it was out of the question. Since we planned to leave next day to Montenegro, we figured we better go and get the tickets first, to make sure we could leave when we wanted. Also we liked to check out the main harbor, near the bus station. The bus station actually was pretty close to the house so we just walked down the hill in the rain, using a broken umbrella borrowed from the landlady. From the station, we bought the ticket to Budva, Montenegro. The bus would leave next day at 10:00AM. Near the bus station was a supermarket, so we picked up some lunch then headed over to the marine terminal to eat and stay out of the rain. The terminal was pretty small. At the harbor, there was a nice 40-foot sailboat with two couples aboard, flying the Norwegian flag, ready to dock. We helped to catch their dock lines. Previously, while the bus going past the harbor, we thought we saw some stores around there but it turned out there were really not much to look at. Also we wanted to find an Internet cafe to copy some pictures to CD. Anyway we ended up back to the old town again. Here it seemed you could find everything you need. The cafe we found was pretty new and nice. It had several small coffee tables with brand-new laptops. so you can even burn CDs directly yourself, if you have blank ones. This last trip to the old town also allowed us to finish a few spots that we missed the days before.

From the old town, we picked up some brochures describing the excursions available from the city. The English version was written by some local so it had a bit unusual English. Kind of amazing to read. For example, there was a biking trip to a 'non-trafficated' village. You and I know what it meant but nobody says it that way. About a horseback riding trip, it said "a vacation that both the horse and the rider will be sure to enjoy". Wonder how much the horse has to pay for the trip. It was hilarious. We had a good laugh just reading all those travel brochures.

Montenegro

September 27, Thursday - Dubrovnik, Croatia to Budva, Montenegro

This morning, it was still raining a bit. We packed and left the house around 9 to catch the bus. The landlady's husband gave us a ride to the bus station. The husband, a big tall guy, did not say a single word of English or Croatian. Looked a bit grumpy all the time. We did notice he had a small ear ring in one ear. We did not know what to make of all this. Probably just a fashion statement.

At the station, we met a friendly guy from San Francisco, California. He graduated as a pharmacist but he loved travel so much that he was only willing to work on a contract basis. In other words, he would work for a few months and then go on vacation for a few months. He said anyone who had a property in the Bay Area would be a millionaire by now. He said he definitely missed the boat. The weird thing was he came to Croatia to do some kayaking even though he does not own a kayak or do it at home. But he would fly over all over the world, any beautiful places that have water, to do it. His last kayaking trip was in Baja California, Mexico. The bus was completely full and it ran along the coastal road that let you catch a glimpse of old Dubrovnik from a higher vantage point. We crossed into Montenegro, cruising along the edge of the amazing fiord of Kotor. The scenery was spectacular. Believe it or not Montenegro is the newest country in the world. Only recently, it peacefully broke off from Serbia and became independent.

Kotor, Montenegro

By the time we made the stop at Kotor, I had to rush to the washroom. Estrella found out that we had to change bus, switching to a local bus. In the process of transferring the baggage from one bus to other, she almost forgot my backpack I left on the seat. Good thing there was this Korean lady traveling by herself who reminded her. If there was close call of losing something in this trip, this would be it. We switched buses an half hour later, and arrived finally in Budva. A couple of local ladies were there to greet the new arrivals. They were saying 'Sobe' to indicate they had room for rent, just like those in Dubrovnik. The one we talked to offered us 15 Euros per person. At first she thought the Korean lady was with us so she said she had room for three of us. Anyway we told her we just needed a room for two. We followed her to look at her ground-floor one-bedroom apartment in a fairly new low-rise condo, which was within walking distance to the bus station and the beach.

It was quite decent, so we decided to rent it from her. We would share the bathroom with her and her daughter. The bedroom was on one side of the apartment while the kitchen and living room was on the other side, with the entrance and bathroom in the middle. One thing about the bathrooms in this region was the shower stall does not have screen or curtain. So when you took shower, you had to be careful about where the shower head was pointing, because you could end up wetting a whole room. There was a small TV on the living-room and her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend was watching. I kind of jokingly asked her if we could have the TV. To my surprise, they said yes and immediately moved the TV from the living room to the bedroom. She was right when she said they had several English stations. There were CNN, BBC, and a bunch of other US stations like Discovery, Animal Planet, etc. in addition to a couple of American movie channels. Besides CNN and BBC, all the rest of the English stations have Serbian subtitles. That was how they could watch the programs. With the only room rented out, the lady and the daughter stayed at the sofa bed in the living room. Anyway I was a bit sorry about taking the TV away from them. On the way to her apartment, the landlady showed us how to go to the beach so after we settled down, we headed to the beach right away. There was this small street that we went thru with a lot of Sobe signs hanging in almost every door so this place must be very popular for private rentals.

We went through a big parking lot of a big hotel called Slovenska Plaza before we got to the beach. The beach was mixed brown sand and pebbles. It was nowhere nearly as nice as those in Caribbean or even Greece. Other than that, the view was certainly amazing, with a lot of waterfront cafes and restaurants lining the path winding around the whole bay, the kind of place that I like to hang out. While promenading on the waterfront, we met a retired British couple who came here on a week's holiday package. We asked how they liked the place. The guy said if things did not change soon, they would like to leave soon. Not sure what he meant, we thought they did not like the place. Turned out he was complaining about the weather. Apparently in the last two days there was heavy rain. We also saw two young Chinese guys with a Chinese girl. They spoke Mandarin. Estrella talked to them a bit but could not figure out if they were tourists or not. We kind of wondered because we saw a clothing store called Kina Butik in town. Kina Butik means China Boutique in Montenegrin.

In the hotel parking lot there was a big exhibit and convention for the local building construction industry. We mingled with hundreds of other visitors. There was also this guy called Darco with some big posters, advertising various day-trips to tourists. There were several available to tourists after they had had enough of lying on the beach. As a beach resort town, this place definitely provided enough activities to keep visitors busy for weeks. There were boat cruises, visits to remote monasteries, white-water rafting etc. And even trips to Dubrovnik and Albania. It was the trip to Albania that we were interested in, because there was no direct bus that would take you from Budva to Tirana, the capital of Albania. You would need to take a bus to the village nearest the Albania border. From there you get a taxi to bring you across the border. Once across the border, you may or may not be able to catch a bus on the same day to go to Tirana. All this sounded pretty complicated. So if there was a tour going to Tirana then we could simply take the trip one way and just did not bother to come back at the end, as somebody suggested in Lonely Planet.

Albania at one point was completely isolated from the rest of the world while it was controlled by a communist dictator named Enver Hoxha. This guy was so paranoid about other people attacking his country that he built thousands of bunkers across the country. Some big and some small. According to local rumour, the way they tested the construction and design was to put the designers and builders inside and then bombard it with machine guns and bombs. If they came out alive, then the bunker passed the test. As a result of his policies, the infrastructure for going in and out of Albania was not very good. We asked Darco whether we could take the trip one way. At first he said no but after he called the tour operator, the answer was yes. But the problem was the tour did not go everyday. Only on Friday or Monday.

Since today was Thursday, it meant we either had to leave the next day or stay for another three extra days. We figured this is a beach resort with plenty of things to do and the cost of accommodation was reasonable so we decided to stay for a few more days. We booked the trip and also asked Darco about other excursions. He suggested we sign up for the trip to the Ostrog Monastery. So we booked for these two trips. The next day we would go to the Monastery. We were to meet the bus at the front of Slovenska Plaza Hotel. From the picture, the Monastery was carved into the face of a cliff. Darco, the agent standing there all day talking and booking thru his cell phone actually spoke very good English. He had no office, desk, and no chair, but a cell phone was all he needed. The tough part about for these people who had to deal with tourists was they would be forced to learn multiple languages. You just never know what kind of language the customer used and which Darco spoke. He collected 20% deposits for the trip from us. We would pay the rest on the bus. We suspected that 20% would be the commission that the agent made for the booking. Seemed like a very efficient system, because the tour operators did not have to pay the booking agent. He would just keep that 20% for his service. If for some reason, the trip is cancelled, you just get your 20% deposit back from the agent. The tour company is never involved.

At night, we strolled to the waterfront promenade,. A couple of outdoor bars were closed as this was almost the end of their season. But there were still plenty of tourists and locals milling around, enjoying the warm night out. We went to one seaside restaurant and did not see any English menu. So we asked the waiter for one. He said he was the "English menu", a walking one and the only one available in his restaurant. What a sense of humour. Turned out he spoke very good English. We asked him about fish. He said they had two types of fish, Class A and B. Class A cost 10 Euros and class B was 6. Basically the size of the fish determined the category. So I ordered an A fish. When it came out, it looked very nicely grilled and also tasted very good. For seafood and food in general, Budva was quite reasonable. So good thing we chose to stay a few extra days here. At night, we told our landlady we wanted to stay three extra days. She mumbled something about the room being already booked but said that it should be okay.

September 28, Friday - Budva, Montenegro Budva's chapel

Friday. Got up around 7AM to join the trip to the Monastery. Darco and some other agents were already there in front of the hotel to direct their customers to the right buses. Different ones came and went to pick up passengers for different trips. In the confusion, Darco almost pointed us to the Tirana bus by mistake. The Monastery one was a medium-size bus with both a driver and a young tour guide. The guide made his commentaries in two different languages, Russian and Serbian. Unfortunately no English whatsoever. I suppose English-speaking tourists are still a rarity here. But he did speak English. He told us to stay close to him once we got there and he would try to explain things to us. The weather was kind of cloudy and got worse. It turned into heavy pouring rain while the bus climbed up steadily along this narrow mountain road.

Needless to say it was quite a bit scary at a lot of places. Even though it was raining, you could tell the mountain scenery was incredibly rugged and beautiful. Some of the mountain ranges were covered completely with dark forest. That kind of fits the name for the country, Montenegro or Black Mountain. By the time we got to the base of the church, it was around noon and you could still need to hike up a lot of stairs or ride up on a mini-bus taxi. Since the weather was getting even worse with heavy rain and wind, walking up was out of the question, so pretty much everyone paid 3 Euros and went with the taxi. As said, the white monastery building was hacked into the face of the of a cliff. The couple of chambers were simply stone caves the size of a small room that were richly decorated with every square inch of the wall covered by colorful religious paintings. A lot of worshipers would kiss a part of the painting and made the sign of cross with their hands. One thing that bothered me a bit was the fact all these people was kissing the same part of the wall. Not sure I would want to kiss a wall, especially one just kissed by a lot of others. But according to local custom if you believe in God, that is what you would do.

The church was dedicated to a local saint, Basil, who helped fight the Turkish invasion and was honored for his effort of saving the faith, by preventing wholesale conversions to Islam. Here the tour guide kept his promise and after giving instruction to the group on where to go and what to see, he spent most of the time with us, explaining the history of this Serbian holy place and the meaning of the icons etc. He even asked for some English brochures for us. At the top, there was a skinny grape shrub that grew out of the actual rock. At such high altitude and out of the rock, it was considered a living miracle. Too bad, with the rain, we could not take the picture from outside at all. We had a very late lunch at a very crowded restaurant. Apparently other restaurants were already closed for the season. By the time we got back to Budva around 5PM, the rain finally stopped and the sun actually peeked out a bit.

Outside the apartment where we stayed, there were several parking spots. At the center of each parking spot was a small metal triangular structure about a foot high, bolted to the ground. It had a small lock to hold it up in a standing position. But when the lock was removed, it could lay down flat. Obviously it was a device designed to prevent people from using the spot when the owner was away. When he came back, he just unlocked it to park his car. Interesting design. First time seeing one.

September 29, Saturday - still in Budva Seafood lunch in Budva

No more rain this morning. It was a nice and sunny beautiful day, compared to yesterday. We took a local bus back to Kotor to visit their walled old town. While not as famous, some people referred to it as mini-Dubrovnik. Like Dubrovnik, it is a citadel built with thick stone walls. The amazing thing about the wall surrounding the town was it was not only built on the flat ground but it actually continued up the steep slope all the way to the mountain-top. Building a high and thick stone wall on a flat was already tough enough. Building on steep hills must be much worse. People in the old day was certainly able to do some pretty amazing things. Here they also allowed you to climb and walk on top of the wall. After taking a look, we had absolutely no intention of climbing to the top. Sure the view up there would be very nice, but our knees would refuse to do this for sure.

The place was nice, with a lot of tourists. We came across a small Greek Orthodox church with a wedding going on inside the chapel. Outside there were several musicians, wearing band uniforms, waiting for the wedding party to come out. Curious about the ceremony, we waited a while watching the wedding process from the entrance. Eventually, the wedding party came out. The waiting musicians rushed over to play music and greet them. What happened next was a complete surprise for us. Instead of following the wedding party, they were told by the groom to bug off and don't bother them. You see., the band was not hired for the wedding at all. They were simply waiting for any wedding party and was hoping to be hired on the spot.

While this place had a lot of trendy outdoor cafes and bars, there was not many restaurants to see. At lunch time, the cafes were all pretty full though. So it seemed everybody was either having coffee and cake for lunch or just drinking beer for lunch. Weird. Eventually we found a nice but busy restaurant. After we ordered our meals, I noticed that next table a large Japanese tour group of about 10 people had finished their desert and was ready to leave. Since it was a tour group, everyone was served an exactly identical meal and dessert. But everyone in the group left their steak main course untouched. Obviously something about the steak that nobody in this group wanted to eat. Maybe Buddhist vegetarians? Why their tour guide did not check with them ahead of time and so wasted so much food was just completely puzzling.

After the Japanese left, the waiter told us it would take a while for the food because of the crowd. Nice of him to tell us so we decided to leave and find another one. Eventually we found a really nice place actually sitting on top of the citadel wall. We had a delicious spaghetti for a change. While enjoying the lunch, I kind of figured out some thing about how the locals greet each other. Local here are very friendly and they tend to greet each other by a little kiss on the cheek. By observing the interaction between the waiter and some of the known customers and between local customers who ran into each other, I figured more or less the protocol they use when they meet: If you know someone, a casual friend or friend of friend, then you just kiss on the cheek once. If it is your friend or relative, then you kiss twice on both side of cheek. If it is your very close friend or relative, then the greeting would mean three kisses. Starting from right then left then right again. Wait a minute. Maybe starting from left. Well should pay attention to more details later. Anyway, at a minimum, they would shake hands with anyone they've met or barely know.

After getting back to Budva in the afternoon, we went to check out Old Budva, which is enclosed as a citadel as well. The old town in the local language is called Stari Grad and that is how we asked for direction if we get lost. In the olden days, every town, especially the coastal ones, built a big stone wall around the town to protect themselves against invaders and pirate attacks. Budva's old town was also very charming with narrow alleys and outdoor restaurants and cafes to explore. While on the way back to our apartment, passing by the pier, we saw some excursion posters, including one for a boat trip to the Bay of Kotor.

Seeing Kotor town was one thing. Seeing the bay which looks like a fjord on a boat would be very different. So I decided to sign up for the boat cruise to Kotor Bay. The guy told us his parents were originally from Hungary. He could speak several languages including English and Russian. He said about 30 percent of the tourists were Russians, 10 percent British. The rest were mostly from other Eastern European countries. He pointed to two nearby ships and told us that if there were over 200 passengers, they would use the bigger boat. Otherwise they would use the smaller one. As usual, we paid him a 20-percent deposit for the trip. When we got back to our apartment, we found the hosts were gone. Two young Australian sisters occupied the living room for the night. One of them was quite chatty. They were from Melbourne and on a six-month Balkan tour. They just got back from visiting Romania and spent the night here before they had gone there. They had reserved our room before they left. But because we extended our stay, the landlady had to give them the living room sofa instead and she went to stay with a friend somewhere. So our sudden change of plan created some inconvenience for her.

September 30, Sunday - still in Budva Kotor Bay

Today the weather was sunny and warm so it should make for a nice boat trip to visit Kotor Bay. We packed our swimming gear and headed down to the pier to the excursion boat. Arrived there shortly before 9AM. A lady came out and told us the trip was cancelled because not enough people had signed up. They had only 50 people and that was not enough even for the smaller boat. I was really disappointed. The lady said this was near the end of season. They might make one more trip later. After that, this excursion would be shut down until next year. In a way, the vacation season here is almost a bit like Greece, and even Canada, since the prime time is only 4 to 5 months long. While we were talking, a large group of about 25 Russian tourists showed up. They were also very disappointed. It was a bit hard to believe that with almost 50 people they still could not make money by using the smaller boat. We went back to the main beach and saw a much smaller boat there that would do a two-hour trip around Budva Bay. It cost 10 Euros and it dropped people off at Sveti Stefan for swimming and visit. The bay would not be as nice as the bay of Kotor. But it was better than nothing I suppose.

Sveti Stefan Hotel

So we signed up for this one. Sveti Stefan is a very expensive hotel sitting on a small island that was connected to the mainland via a narrow and short road. Apparently a lot of celebrities have stayed there. From what we heard the rate was well over a thousand dollars per night. The gate to the hotel was closed so we could not go in and look. Anyway, at one point the island would charge 8 Euros if someone just wanted to visit the island. But they do not do this anymore. On the way back, the boat cruised around the old town to give people a good look of the town's wall from the sea. By mid afternoon, we went back to see the Hungarian guy to get the refund. Obviously this was bad news for him and he knew it because he could see the boat was not going anywhere, still docked at the pier. Like all the people we dealt with here, he was a very nice guy. He apologized about the situation and returned our deposit right away. He also said the boat would be leaving tomorrow for sure for the last trip of this season. But it was too late for us as we would be leaving the next day. Next to the hotel parking lot, we saw Darco again and he confirmed that the trip to Albania was definitely on. After what happened to the boat trip, you just never knew. He promised that it was on and should be no problem. He told us to wait at the Slovenska Plaza at 6:30AM.

At the apartment, we met the Australian sisters again. They were leaving that night on an overnight bus to Macedonia to stay with relatives for a month.

Albania

October 1, Monday - Budva, Montenegro to Tirana, Albania  Opera House and Mosque in Tirana, Albania

Got up 6AM, packed, and wheeled our baggage to the Slovenska Plaza hotel to meet the tour bus. While waiting at the lobby, there were hundreds of young locals gathered in the lobby. From what we could tell, they were here for a Judo tournament and waiting to be picked up. At 6:45, there was no bus but we found a couple of Russians also waiting. Then we saw Darco and eventually the bus showed up a half-hour late. Beside the bus driver, they had a Russian-speaking tour guide and a tour manager. The friendly tour guide, who was an older gentlemen, came over to talk to us. Unfortunately he could not speak a word of English. Meanwhile the tour manager was concerned because he was worried that we had to pay an extra 10 Euros for visa. We told him we knew about it and it was okay.

It was a big bus and it picked up more Russian tourists from other hotels. Surprisingly the big bus was almost completely full. Along the way, the only commentary was in Russian. The tour manager tried to give us some information in English here and there. He also gave us a couple pages of descriptions in English about the trip. Basically an English version of what the tour guide was telling the passengers along the way. It was quite helpful and useful information for understanding Albania. At the border, I found out what the Albanian flag looks like, a double headed black eagle on a red background. Kind of nice. As part of the tour, we stopped at a couple of smaller towns before continuing to Tirana. One was a border town called Skhodar. Here there is a law saying that no building could be more than 5 stories high. Another peculiar thing about this town was that everyone drove a Mercedes. The residents are just crazy about Mercedes, does not matter how old or what model, as long as it is a Mercedes.

Another town we drove through was a seaside town called Duress. This is where Albanians go for beaches. The tour guide showed us some bunkers built by that dictator who was so paranoid that someone might attack the country. At some place near Duress, we lunched at a restaurant, which was included as part of the trip. It was a very good meal. We got soup, salad, a choice of fish or beef followed by fruit and cake. They even served us wine. There was one young guy traveling by himself. He was talking in English to the tour manager but in Russian to other passengers. We were not sure where he was from. During the lunch, we got to ask him. Turned out he was from Moscow, a student studying Human Resources and the reason he was speaking English to the tour guide was because the guide's Russian was not very good, much worse than his English.

Once in Tirana, we stopped at Mother Theresa Square next to their university. Mother Theresa was Albanian but apparently, she was not born in the Macedonian province. Then the bus took us to the Radio Tower building. After that, we went back to the bus and found the bus was locked and everyone was gone. Apparently this was the free time part but nobody told us when we were supposed to meet back. So we were stuck. Our plan was to look for a hotel during the free time but we could not do it because we did not know exactly how much time we had. Our luggage was trapped in the bus. So we could only try those nearby. Luckily we ran into a couple of Russian tourists from our bus. And via hand signals, we more or less figured out the bus departure time.

One nice hotel that we could walk to asked 70 Euros a night. We did not want to pay that much. Estella had the name of a budget hotel from tour book that she wanted to try but we did not had the phone card required to make the call. Since it was a busy area with a lot of people, she approached a well-dressed professional-looking guy talking on his cell phone. She asked to borrow it to call the hotel. The guy was very nice. Not only he could speak some English, he actually let us, total strangers in need, use his phone. What an amazing guy. Estrella talked to the son of the hotel owner and confirmed a room was available. The owner's name was Patrick and he would come to pick us up. He told us he is a short guy with glasses and driving an old Mercedes. He came to pick us up on time and drove us to the hotel. He actually spoke petty good English. The hotel was not far from downtown. But it was not exactly your typical hotel. Most likely Patrick just bought a couple of units in an old apartment building, which was quite rundown on the outside, and turned them into rental rooms so there was no hotel sign at all outside the building. We would never have found this place on our own. The room he gave us was actually very clean and looked newly renovated. He charged 30 Euros per night. We asked him about the bus to go to Saranda. Our plan was to go to Saranda to catch a ferry to Corfu, Greece. He said he would gave us a ride to the bus station early next morning. The bus departure time was 7:00AM. Then around 5PM while we were in the room, all the lights went out. Due to a shortage of electricity, the city would shut off the supply sometime between 5 to 6PM every day.

After we checked in, we went to look for dinner. Patrick told us one restaurant near by but when we went there it was closed. So we walked back toward the university. There we saw a McDonald's look-alike which served hamburger and fries etc. Estrella went in to do the ordering in English and it was no problem at all. It appeared that, like the rest of Europe, young Albanians all study English and could mostly understand it and speak some too. The younger the person is, the more likely he can handle English.

After the dinner, on our way back to the hotel we came across a Chinese restaurant called New Shanghai. We were a bit surprised that even in Albania, there are Chinese restaurants. Curious, we decided to continue walking down that street. There were some high-end European fashion boutiques, so we knew this must be an upscale area. As we continued walking, we started seeing outdoor cafes. And we saw more and more young people hanging out with their friends, drinking espresso and having a good time. We kept walking along this street and the whole place were packed with young people and trendy cafes. After another half-hour walk, we reached a casino building with a big outdoor fountain. The place was well lit with neon lights. Clearly this area is the center of all action. Did not really expect this much action in Albania, considered to be the poorest country in Europe. A lot of nice cars, like big Benz and BMW SUVs were cruising around. It is always kind of amazing to see all these nice cars in a poor country like Albania. According to rumour, and most likely, these were stolen cars from other parts of the world. We stopped at a big outdoor cafe across from the casino for a drink and watched the people parading by. At one point, not sure what happened, all the power went out, including the street lights. But all the businesses seemed to have backup power. A couple of minutes later, most of the lights inside all the businesses came back on while the street lights never recovered. Anyway, the weather was nice and that was an definitely a fun night to watch all these young people having fun. The partial blackout did not dampen anybody's enthusiasm for having a good time.


October 2, Tuesday - Tirana to Saranda, Albania

We went downstairs at 6:30 to meet Patrick. He drove us to the bus station. I asked Patrick what people thought of the old communist leader. He said the people actually liked him a lot which was different from what I read somewhere else. As typical of the poorer countries, the 'bus station' was really just a series of buses parking at the curb of a major road. Since most of the buses leave early in the morning before the rush hour, it was not a big problem about blocking one lane. One thing I noticed was the number of garbage piles, which seems to be directly proportional to the poverty level of a country. The poorer the country, the more garbage piles you see in its cities. Tirana had large piles in certain parts of the city, and nobody seemed to care. The buildings in Tirana were not going to impress anybody but a lot of them were painted with pastel colours similar to those you see in South Beach in Miami.

The bus trip took 6 hours heading toward the coastal city of Saranda, which is just a short ferry ride across from Corfu, Greece, our next destination. Yet it only cost 10 US dollars. The price was extremely reasonable. Otherwise the locals might not be able to afford the trip. The bus was half full. Interestingly the bus itself was non-smoking, even though Albanians smoke as much as other Europeans. Because of the no-smoking situation, the bus driver and some passengers had to make smoking stops, not pee ones, about every two hours. Maybe when you smoke so much, you stop urinating as much? At one stop, there were some vendors selling soft drinks, cooled by naturally running mountain stream cascading from the mountain-sides. The bus stopped at all the villages to pick up passengers. Obviously this must be a daily scheduled bus service running between all these small villages.

The scenery along the road was not particularly interesting, other than occasionally a bunker out in a field or next to some house. Some of the houses were half built. For example, often there is a two-story house, one floor completely finished with people living inside, while another floor is just bare concrete with no windows or doors installed. The road tended to be winding bumpy country roads but certain parts were a nice highway. In fact, a new highway was being built, as we drove through one section with heavy road-construction activities. There was even a roadside sign in Albanian and English, apologizing for the inconvenience. Before lunch, we came across another broke-down bus, so we picked up all their passengers. When we arrived at Saranda around 2PM, we were not sure when there was a ferry going to Corfu. If there was one, then we could go to Corfu right away. But because the schedule changed all the time, Estrella could not find out ahead of time.

When we got off the bus, an Albanian guy approached us and asked if we needed a room. His rate was 15 Euros per night which is very reasonable for sure so I did not mind staying overnight. The place turned out to be quite decent, clean, with private bath room and even a TV and fridge. We kept asking the hotel owner if there was a ferry going to Corfu that afternoon. They kept saying they did not know. I suspected even if there were one, they would not tell us because they would lose one night of our business.

After we checked in, we went to the ferry dock. There were two ferries and a high-speed boat catamaran called Dolphin. We even ran into the captain of the Dolphin. He told us there was a ferry leaving at 3.00 PM. Turned out we could have been able to go directly to Corfu and not overnight in Saranda. He told us the next-day's ferry would leave at noon.

Saranda is a not very well developed seaside resort. Also because it was rather late in the season, it was fairly quiet. We went to the seaside promenade. A few nice outdoor restaurants there but hardly any customers. One restaurant waiter came out to get our business but they only served pizza. I guessed the regular chefs had all left for the season. There were a bunch of German tourists doing a daytrip from Corfu and were waiting for the ferry to go back. We went to a small local eatery, and had a pork chop and half of BBQ chicken for dinner. Albanian chicken is the skinny type. Half a chicken looked more like a quarter North American chicken.

Estrella wanted to get over to Corfu as soon as possible so she asked a lot of locals if there is an earlier ferry. Some told her there should be one at 10:30AM, so we planned to catch that one instead of the noon one. We did not have any reservation in Corfu and in fact we did not know of any hotel there, except one high-end youth hostel called the Pink Palace. That place is mostly for backpackers. They charged 50 Euros a night for two and the price included breakfast and dinner. The only problem was this place appeared to be pretty far from the downtown part known as Corfu Town, so we decided to forget it and aimed for something closer to town.

Next day, a ferry to Corfu Island of Greece.


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© Dave Cheng 2008