Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Greece

Athens is weird. So many strange people, it seems like a ghetto. I read about it enough in the comments online, but seeing it myself is something completely different... like everyone's is a bum. Taxi driver wanted to charge me 5 euros to go 1km to the hostel, but after I told him that I'll walk, he was actually nice enough to explain me in detail how to get there on foot.
Athens, Athens, Athens ... haven't seen that many tourist in a while, and I don't understand why. There is nothing special here. Some ruins, but that's about it, they're just ruins. You can see most of them from the street, and they're all the same, columns and more columns. No details, no statues, barely any shapes, just columns. It's 30 degrees outside, and I'm sweating, but all the sights close at 3 because it's the winter season!!
I'm still tired due to my sickness. I'm second day in Athens and mostly I just lied on my bed in the hostel bored waiting for tomorrow to come so that I could get out of this hectic city!
Wow, I've never seen a port that big, I see just my gate, and it's E8, it means there are at least 7 more gates out there, where are they? on the opposite side of Athens??
Arrived on a nearby island of Aegina. There were no other backpackers on the boat, in fact I haven't seen any on the island, not many international tourists either, mostly Greek. I barely found a hotel, cause this is Europe and prices are crazy expensive! I figured that if I can't find anything, I'll just take an evening boat back to Athens. The cheapest hotel wanted 25Euro for a room, I told him that I can't pay more than 15. The hotel is completely empty, and of course he tried to help me saying that I can sleep in his bed for free, but then finally agreed to give me a room for 15, even that's too much. A boat to the island, a room, and I'm at my budget limit. I still haven't eaten anything yet, and didn't rent a scooter. A scooter is another 15 (compared to $2 in India!) so I had to skip on that idea.
Went for a lunch Greek style. Ordered grilled fish, and sat there for 3 hours slowly munching on it and listening to traditional life music. I don't know how Greeks are not all overweight. The food keeps coming and coming to their table and when they leave, the plates are all empty. I never even managed to finish just 1 plate. Speaking about Greek food, I remember it being my favourite since University exchange 10 years ago, but now I'm not feeling it at all :( Ukrainian food is amazing though :)
On the island lied on terrible beaches, right near the port with brown wet sand. Didn't even go into water cause it was all in seaweed, so the island didn't impress me at all. But it was still nice cause it was very relaxing. Barely any cars, barely any people, and small alleys with blooming flowers, oh, and cats of course :)
Next day I decided to get brave, hire a bicycle and ride 40kms around the island, but couldn't get up on time cause I was having a fight with the mosquitos till 5am who kept buzzing around my ear all night long. Even when they weren't buzzing, my head was buzzing already, so I only woke up at 10am after barely 5 hours of sleep. Took a bus to a little village and from there walked back to my town stopping for quick swims at the beaches that I found along the way.
Next went to north of Greece to Meteora. Wow, what a place! What all these tourists are doing in Athens I have no idea. Meteora is extremely beautiful with only handful of tourists. People, check trip advisor, and make sure you go to places that have 5 star ranking from 1000s of reviewers! There are huge boulders and on the very top of them the monks built monasteries. When you look at it either on pictures or in real life, it seems magical, unreal though from a fairy tale. Who knew that Greece has much more than the islands to offer?!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Albania

What a difference between Macedonia and Albania. Macedonia is clean and cute, and first  impression of Albania is dirty and broken and every single undergoing project that we've seen is sponsored by EU.
Apparently there are no bus stations in Albania. The buses leave from where ever, and without schedule ... once they're full. It took a few people to find out where the bus to Shkoder goes ... pretty much from some alley.
We checked-in in a very central hotel for $10/night, communist style. I'm not sure what it means, but apparently it means that nothing works, all walls are broken, in different colors, it pretty much looks like it hasn't been maintained since it was built which was a long long time ago. But it was ok, the beds were good and clean, and we didn't mind to save some money. The lady in the reception spoke perfect English as well, though she didn't know anything about the surrounding area.
What a surprise, we thought that Albania is a muslim country, apparently there are only 19% muslim, the rest are christians, orthodox and agnostic. It seems that there are more churches than mosques, and women on the streets wear shorts, skirts and high heels.
In Shkoder there is one tiny street that's full of cafes, bars and barbers. Even the park near 5 star hotel needs maintenance. Needless to say, I don't want to stay here, and I'm still in a bad mood.
It was a very strange sight to see that all the tables from 6-8pm were full of people drinking Espresso. All of Shkoder drinks espresso with a glass of water. Not one dish with food, no coffee, no tea, no latte ... just espresso!
Shkoder is a gateway to the Albanian alps. I want to go, Alex doesn't want to go. But it's only 1 day trip, so he gave in. We woke up at 6am to catch a jeep into the mountains, but first we drove around to pick up cements, some other building materials and sacks of fruits and vegetables. The road into the mountain was beautiful, first passing the valley and then climbing a mountain. With a narrow 2 way road, we did a lot of driving in reverse to stand on the edge of a cliff so that the other cars could pass by. Pretty, but scary. When we reached our Thethi valley it was all covered in clouds and by the time we got into the room it started to rain heavily.
It's 13 degrees, but it's so humid that the cold gets to the bones. I wore all the warm cloths that I had to warm up, and when the rain stopped we went for a walk. The valley is surrounded by mountains, and I'm not sure if we were lucky or not when we met a guy who showed us a map of a hike route. I was not prepared for a hike at all, I just wanted to walk around, and with the fast moving clouds it rains then it doesn't rain, it's very unpredictable. We found what looked like a path and started climbing up. Man I hope Nepal trekking will be more level than that! On the way we found a huge mushroom, probably 30 cms in diameter. Alex picked it up, and I was sad, why if something is beautiful it has to be destroyed? :(
It took us 3 hours to reach the top, it was now 5pm and it gets dark at 7. We covered only about a quarter of the route. At the top there was a valley with unknown continuation, no signs, no obvious openings in trees, no nothing. Above all, it started raining hard again, now with addition of hail. I told Alex that it's better to go down the same path we came from. We don't have much time, I'm sure that I can come down in less than 2 hours, we won't get lost, lets not take the chance. No, he got stubborn and said that he wants to continue. It's getting dark soon, the route is poorly marked, we still have a 3/4 of the way, and we don't have a flash light, nor water, nor food, for me it doesn't make any sense. Alex told me that he wants to continue, I told him that I want to go back. 5 minutes later of stubbornness from both sides, I said that I know the way back, I'm going back on my own, I don't have time to waste to argue about nothing. 5 minutes later he caught up to me, all mad, saying that women make wuses out of man, and that because of me he's a loser! I told him that women make men smart, and in contrast to them we think with our brains, not with our balls. We got back 15 minutes before it got dark, and we were all wet. My waterproof shoes turned out to be not very waterproof. Alex didn't have a dry spot on him. I put the remainder of the cloths that I had on and crashed to sleep.
In the morning the weather was much much better. Warm, sunny, only a few clouds, but no time, we have to  move on. The road back was beautiful, maybe because the driver was more careful than the first one and I was actually relaxed instead of squeezed in on my seat.
Back to Tirana. What a boring capital. There is the main square, some mosque, church, park, and that's pretty much it. Not that any of it was exceptional. 2 hours was more than enough to see everything, but too bad we missed an exclusive ex communist leaders neighbourhood "the block" which is now a posh neighbourhood with bars, restaurants and night clubs, because Alex all over the sudden became very sick for no apparent reason :(
What is kinda interesting in Tirana is that back in the communist times, all the building were ugly and grey. So now to move forward, most of the building were painted in whatever colors and shapes that came to someones mind. You could find 10s of different colors on one building. First you'll have lines, then circles, every balcony will be with a different color, then they'll add some trees or birds. It seems like it caught on, and you could see very colorful buildings, even new, all over Albania.
When I woke up, I was in no mood at all. I don't like travelling like that. 2 countries in 12 days is just way too fast. Every day are long bus rides, every day is a hotel search, I'm tired, I constantly want to sleep, I'm not enjoying anything, I want to crawl under the blanket, and I don't care for any more sights.
We went to Berat. It's a nice little town with Ottoman architecture. Some old man found us at the bus station and took us to his guest house. It's right in the center, very cute and charming, and we could pay 20 Euro only for his smile :) The castle was quite nice. The views are as always amazing, but people actually are still living in there. So you get these charming, narrow streets with a bunch of cats and pick all you want grapes from someones backyard :) and right near it - castle walls with slots for shooting arrows.
We caught the first morning bus to Gijorat. The second we got there, Alex said that he wants to get out. But common, we haven't got to the center yet. Berat and Gijorat are similar, except that Berat's houses are white, and Gijorat's are grey. The communist leader lived there, and he wanted to make this a museum city, so a lot of the buildings were preserved. We stayed at a very nice apartment for 20 euro, right in the center. Here is a difference between a very touristic and a less touristic place. In Berat we had a cute little room, and here we have an apartment 5 times the size for the same price.
Here we saw another castle which wasn't that impressive, but it had a gallery of WWII machine guns, and a bunch of fig trees with ready to eat figs :) I then walked off the path, and found myself face to face with a huge fig filled tree all to myself :) I found out that dried figs are the best. They're kind of a mixture between dried and fresh, and each one has a different flavour somehow.
We then went to a traditional restaurant only to understand that Albania's traditional food sucks! You can't compare it with Macedonia's which has bigger dishes, better quality and cheaper price. Here we just eat to fill our stomachs, not to lick our fingers :) An example of traditional food is a deep fried ball mixed with rice, egg, mint and oregano. Another one was some creamed meat which I gave up on, and Alex shoved down with non tasty wine, just because he doesn't like to waste food.
And again we're on a bus to Sarande, the beach town. The guide says "unforgettable beaches", but I guess we've seen better. It was nice though to finally be in a relaxing beach town where time seems to slow down. Not for us though, we take a bus to Albania's famous Burtrinti ruins which Alexander the Great built. Nothing was great about them, and I'm having a hard time walking up and down the ruins, cause now it's my turn to get sick. I have no energy at all. We had to hitchhike back, as the bus that goes from the UNESCO (the pride of Albania) ruins back to town stops running 2 hours before the site closes.
Next day we went to Ksamili beach, nice beach, nice water, nice views of islands nearby. But the water is cold and the breeze is chilly. At least we got to use the beach chairs for free. Alex as a chronically late kind of person made me run for the bus which goes once an hour. I can barely walk, now I have to run. In the bus, I started to feel my throat firing off "be careful" signals.
In the morning Alex left back to Ukraine and I moved to a hostel which I didn't get out of for 3 days cause I got totally ill, and in addition to feeling like crap, I lost my voice. The owner was nice though, he prepared me lunches, bought me lemon and honey, gave me some sweet stuff and made me mountain tea. No wonder all the walls of the hostel are with "You're the best host" comments.
Overall impression of Albania ... I don't know. I didn't get into the culture, I haven't talked to anyone cause either they don't speak English or just don't care about you. Maybe that's the impression ... everyone keeps to their own. Oh, and they don't know how to cook! And you could never tell an Albanian from someone else. They look completely different, from blue eyes and blond hair to Turkey looking someone. Very strange.

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