Leaving Ksamil we, in fact, headed just a little further south along the coast to one of the most important and largest archeological sites in Albania.
We sat outside for a predinner drink and snacks, but with winter coming and the clocks now forward it was getting dark and cold very quickly. It was so cold, I was in my tracksuit pants, hoodie and even my beanie! Wasn’t I swimming at the beach only a day or two ago?
The next morning we continued to Gjirokaster famous for its castle and well preserved Ottoman era town. At a small campsite about 2km from the centre we were greeted by the friendly owner, who assisted us with dumping our grey water and chemical toilet, having been free camping recently they were pretty full and getting a bit on the nose. We set up camp then wandered into town, stopping at a small hole in the wall bakery for a delicious meat filled filo pastry Byrek .
It is now a rather informative museum that not only tells its long history, it was still being used as a prison by the communists until 1968, but also houses a small military museum including canons, tanks and even American plane (that has 2 stories of how it got there, depending which side tells it).
She explained local customs of that era, especially in relation to men and women being segregated in the house, the newly wedded couple who get their own room until another family member gets married and how the house has summer and winter areas.
After the tour we zig zagged our way down to the bottom of the hill and the new town. We had seen a butcher on our way up the hill that had some great lamb chops and promised to come back to him before he closed at 3pm. We suddenly realised the time... it was 10 minutes to 3... so we ran! We got to the store and he had already closed - no way! It wasn’t 3pm yet! We called a phone number on the door, the owner answered and said he would be right down, he actually lived above the store. Unfortunately the chops he had on display were all sold out so after some sign language and google picks he happily carved 6 lovely chops from the whole carcass he had hanging behind him!
Over the road from the campsite was a local taverna specialising in lamb. We had seen the whole lamb slowly cooking on the spit as we headed into town, it was too hard to pass up for dinner. It was a great local restaurant, the waiter spoke a little English and was very keen for us to try several of the local foods. Obviously we knew we had ordered way too much food, but most of it would make good for leftovers! As it turned out we took away enough food for breakfast, lunch and part of dinner the next day! We ordered a spinach and egg pastry that was a side dish (also made a great breakfast); plate of the slow cooked lamb (leftovers used for lamb sandwiches at lunch); grilled mixed vegetables (leftovers in sandwiches and used for dinner); local sausages (leftovers for lunch and snacks) washed down with a carafe of house wine. The meal was so cheap and we got 3.5 meals out of it! Bonus. Waddled back across the road to bed.
We noticed a first floor window with a whole lot of loaves on its sill so I went up the stairs and greeted by an absolutely heavenly smell of baking bread and lovely Albanian Nona selling bread through a hatch in her door, Super cool! With a warm crusty loaf in our possession we were on our way but finding a nice location to eat it proved more difficult, by late afternoon we gave up and just stopped in a lay-by for lunch.
We camped that night in an NGO carpark / turned campsite on the edge of Korce. This company looks after homeless and those in crisis. They opened the grounds of their building to campers to get a bit of extra funding. We were happy with that. It was cheap and the money went to a good cause. The showers were hot and toilets were clean. Dinner that night were the fresh lamb chops we had bought in Gjirokaster.
Korce was an interesting town, not quaint, not classically picturesque but an eclectic mix of dilapidated communist era hosing, restored medieval neighborhoods and little to try hard modern glass and aluminum corporate buildings. It also had a couple of buildings by renowned architects Bolles & Wilson. It had a take us or leave us vibe that was nice.
In the local parks groups of older men gathered playing dominos or deep in debate and coffee shops were filled with young guys.. okay where are the females in this town!?
During our ambling we stumbled across a museum dedicated to the Photography of Gjon Mili, who was born in Korce. It was free to enter and the manager was super friendly and passionate about Mili, his photography and style. He was keen to share information about both the photographer and life in Korce and Albania. Many world famous photos were taken by this photographer. He was famous for his use of light and was the first photographer to explore strobe flash photography. He also took a pictures of Picasso using a method called “painting with light”, for a small price, you could try your hand at this style and have it printed. I gave it a go, keen to understand how it was done. It was pretty cool to be able to move about in front of the camera making light shapes but in the final print you aren’t blurred!
We drove for about an hour to the border following Lake Ohrid where people on the side of the road were waving fish at us, strange, I think they were trying to sell us the local trout!
We arrived at the border for North Macedonian, and, as we had done at about 10 borders so far, handed over all the required documentation - both passports, the car registration papers and the “green card” which is the insurance for the car showing coverage in European countries. The officer started to scrutinise the green paper and obviously he felt there was a problem. He took it to the officer inside the building and we were called for questioning. It appeared that there was a problem with the green card and the lady said we could not enter. She said it was not completed properly and we could not enter. Pete tried to explain we had already crossed many borders with it, and no issues. But she playing by the book and would not let us enter. She suggested we go around to the other side of the lake to the other border crossing where we could ‘purchase’ separate insurance.
As night fell we entered North Macedonia a little later than expected and headed to Ohrid...on lake Ohrid!
We crossed the border into Albania late afternoon, the sun was low in the sky and we were bolting to Tirana. The van was booked into Citroen at 7.30am the next morning and we had no tail lights. The setting sun, potholes and winding roads were dashing our hopes of getting there before nightfall. Being a campervan we already were a good target for the police, we didn’t want to attract any more attention. Decision, drive without tail lights at night or early morning. We choose the morning figuring the coppers would be in bed and we could try and explain we were on the way to the repair shop if they weren’t.
We found a proper campsite across the border at Greenland Hotel. They had turned their grounds into a camping spot and had recently built an ablution block fitted out with hotel quality fixtures, rather upmarket. The lawns were immaculate. It was a lovely spot. We decided to dine in the hotel that night. What a surprise, the food was great.
As dawn broke the next morning, we headed off, my red head torch and our safety triangle tapped to the bikes as makeshift tail lights. About 5 minutes into the journey we realised we needn’t have worried, we had more operational lights that most vehicles in Albania!!
The guy at Citroen checked out the car and found a cut wire which neither we nor the guy in Ulcinj had seen!
Thankful that we now had an almost fully operational van (the rear camera still isn’t connected) We could relax and discover Albania.
The first thing you notice driving in Albania is the sheer number of petrol stations and car washers there are literally one or two every kilometre, as ‘Ausworldroamers’ noted its hard to see how they all stay in business, the second thing you notice is the lack of panel beater shops, given the way they drive I would have thought that it would be a thriving business, they are maniacs, even worse than Bangkok!
An ethnographic museum was located within the castle grounds. It was really very interesting. It was set out within an old restored family house, the lady who managed it would keep coming into each room where we were to explain the use of the room, the objects on display and a little bit of history. Very informative, very friendly, laid back and enjoyable. All the doorways were quite low, constructed on purpose, to force the person entering to bow as a mark of respect. I can tell you, for me, I payed a lot of respect in the houses I visited in Albania! After looking around the rest of the castle, the town area and bazaar, we headed into the centre of Tirana to find our camp spot for the night.
According to our ‘app’ there was an overnight carpark for busses which allowed campervans. It was walking distance to the city centre, perfect for a city visit. It was a big carpark but the only spot available for us was right by a junction of a busy road and a fun fair. Never mind, it was cheap and extremely convenient. Sometimes we choose beauty others times convenience.
In the afternoon we walked into the city centre via the city’s Grand Park that was over the road from our camp site. The park surrounded a large man made lake and was very popular with the locals, running, exercising, drinking coffee or just generally hanging out.
‘House of Leaves’ so named not only for its lush vine coverage but also because it was full of “leaves”’ as in pages in files...on people. The house itself was built in 1931 as a medical clinic, during WWII it was under German occupation used by the Gestapo. Between 1944 and 1991 the the Stalinist communist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha developed an elaborate surveillance network as it became increasingly isolationist and paranoid. Thousands of Albanians and foreigners they felt had ill intent against the regime were spied on tracked then often charged. The museum is a show case of the lengths they would go to to gather information, the horrors that were performed on those found guilty and even the propaganda films that were made to show how the perfect communist life would be destroyed by these imperialist sympathizers! Very interesting and intriguing place - but in reality, what is so different today? We are all being monitored, just in a more high-tech fashion and we are complicit in it I suppose.
We found a campsite at Green House Restaurant. A family run business who had a large car parking area out the back which he set up for campers. It had a toilet and shower block, electricity and a beautiful view - so I was happy.
We came across a group of construction workers were repairing the river retaining wall. It was great to watch. A small front end loader was parked, at a precarious angle in the river, the shovel being used to hoist men and stones up to the hole while buckets of cement were being lowered from above. A group inside were carefully rebuilding the wall stone by stone. Both the craftsmanship and lack of health and safety wouldn’t be seen in Australia!
We headed back to the coast of southwest Albania and the town of Vlora situated in front of the Karaburun peninsula and Sazan island. It is the starting point of the Albanian riviera and surrounded by sandy beaches and rocky shores. We found a cheap camp spot in a marina car park. Quiet, with a 24 hour guard and a view of the marina pier where several locals fishing.
Sarande is the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera where we overnighted in the grounds of the Mediterranean Hotel. Here at least we had electricity, showers and a toilet. The town centre was a short walk down the hill. So really quite convenient. After setting up camp, we wandered into the town centre. It is a nice town but is now almost exclusively aimed at the summer tourists as it is also a main port for the ferries to and from Italy. We decided to have dinner in town, cheap and cheerful gyros! A local speciality - and they were good.
We had booked a scuba dive with a local company, so the next morning after a lovely and appreciative birthday phone call from Pete’s family, we walked to the dive centre. The diving along the Adriatic coast is reported to be pretty amazing due to the visibility, the waters are crystal clear. I was looking forward to this! Our dive was on the wreck of the Italian hospital ship MV Probitas that was sunk during WWII. It was only a couple of hundred metres from the shore in the port area which made it easily accessible the visibility wasn’t as good as it would have been further out. However, saying that the dive was pretty cool. The ship was pretty much in tact and we could do a few swim throughs into the cargo holds where medicine bottles were still laying around. The ship is 150m long, with the top of the ship at 10m and sitting on the bottom at 20m. Fish life unfortunately wasn't that plentiful again due to its port location. Overall though it was an interesting dive and we both enjoyed it.
We had booked into a restaurant nearby that had a reputation for quality local seafood, was little more upmarket and sounded good for a birthday dinner. As we were about to head to the head to the restaurant the whole town had lost power! It was pitch black! Hopefully the restaurant was on gas, but how would the chefs see... Luckily the restaurant’s grid was fully functional and they were still open for business.
The restaurant lost power a couple of times making for a spasmodically romantic candlelight dinner! The food was great, we shared a local spicy meatball dish for entree and then a large platter of grilled seafood, washed down with a couple of glasses of bubbly.
Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro has had a turbulent recent past, Modern Montenegro is only 13 years old after seceding from Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 yet it history dates back thousands of years.
The plan, as it stood, was to work our way down the coast of Montenegro toward Albania then visit its hinterland as we returned north in a couple of months. Our first destination was Kotor a small medieval town we had recently read about on Culturetrip (one of our go to websites when it comes to researching our next destination)
Leaving the ferry we hugged the inner western coastline along a single lane, two way road, that Bea assures me was spectacular, I was busy avoiding oncoming traffic haring around the hairpins as if it were their own private F1 circuit!
From the island the boat took us to explore Perast a Venetian era town on the lake shore before taking us back to Kotor past 2 more cruise liners that had arrived overnight, time to head out of town!
I was busy avoiding oncoming traffic haring around the hairpins as if it were their own private WRC stage! This road made the trollstigen in Norway feel like a cruise on the A1. At one point I had to reverse the van back 150+m around the turns to a pull off to allow a bus past, the car behind the bus actually clapped my performance, Bea just sat there frozen forgetting to even film it!!
Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans lies across the border between Montenegro and Albania and is an important fishing resource with abundant carp, bleak and eel. After winding our way down from the final pass we followed its northern shoreline through its national park to a campsite that sounded interesting.. and open! The site was in the front yard of a fishing family’s home. They had decided to use their spare land to generate a little additional income and were in the process of building 6 small chalets and a new toilet block. They were really hospitable and apologised that the facilities weren’t fully operational. They offered to cook us a fish dinner which we happily accepted at which point they escorted us to the rivers edge to select our fish from their live holding net. They were lake carp so I was a little dubious about the meal. I needn’t have been, simply seasoned, shallow fried whole and served with fried potatoes, fresh salad and a mug of local red wine, the fish was delicious, as was the entire meal, rustic goodness.
We were finally on our way to Split, the scenery along this stretch of coast is spectacular. Lush terraced hill sides end abruptly as sheer cliff faces that drop dramatically into the crystal clear aquamarine waters of the Adriatic
We arrived in Split in the late afternoon and, as Croatia does not permit free camping, we had to find a designated campsite. We found a nice place right on the foreshore in Stobrec a few km’s from Split.
The next morning we rode into Split. Pete told me it was only about 8.5km, which was fine... he failed to mention we had to go up and over a massive headland!! OMG it was a tough ride, but admittedly worth it.
We took an evening stroll along waterfront and checked out the campsite, the camp site was huge! We walked past a very impressive expedition vehicle, major van envy. While we were admiring it, we noticed that although it had Ukraine number plates, there was an Aussie sticker on it! The lady heard us speaking... and said OMG are you Aussies? They hadn’t yet come across many Aussie campers.
Thanks Liz and Wayne of “WorldRoamers” (“AusWorldRoamers”) for your time and advice. After taking too much of their time, we left to go back to our “cozy” home for dinner. I stopped enroute at the wellness centre in the campsite for a much needed jacuzzi to sooth the sore knees after the ride ;-) (sometimes paid campsites pay off).
Woke early, planned for a run but decided to do that the next morning and go take photos instead. Definitely worth getting up for. The sunrise was lovely, peaceful and hardly anyone around.
The towie was struggling to find a service centre willing to assist, eventually he found a place and dropped us and the van off. Unfortunately these people weren't that helpful, they just wanted to get us going rather than solve the problem. They assumed it was the new rear camera as it was the last thing we had done. We had them talk to the guys who installed it but couldn’t agree on the problem or a solution. We were now in Dalmatia and they were blaming the “Istrians” who installed it. The Istrian’s were saying ‘lazy Dalmatians’ cant be bothered looking for the real problem!!
The service centre proceeded to disconnect the camera but would need to keep the car overnight to charge and test. We found a cheap apartment 500m away so we booked that. It wasn’t that close to Split town centre, but unfortunately, or fortunately, Pete wasn’t that well so he had no desire to go into town, a much needed afternoon and evening on the couch was called for.
The next morning we collected the van. It appeared that the battery was perfectly ok. We could hit the road again minus a rear camera (maybe it was that after all??), and now a blown tail light, bugger, but not a problem Pete could fix that next stop.
We stayed a little outside Dubrovnik the first night, near the airport, as we had a early morning booking to get the camera fixed and now the tail light. As it turned out they checked out the battery 100% ok, but didn’t check the camera or the tail light!! When Pete asked why, they shrugged, looked at their watch, and said no time! Thanks for that waste time. Sick of wasting time, we headed back to Dubrovnik to continue our adventure.
We found a small campsite in the grounds of a family home. Good location, over the road from a shopping centre, 10 minutes walk to the beach and 5 minutes walk to the bus stop.
The sight of Dubrovnik from the coast road is pretty spectacular, teasing you and building anticipation. The old town sits on a headland jutting into the Adriatic Sea and encircled with massive 16th century stone walls. Pretty impressive.
The new town itself doesn’t have as much to offer, but of course we sort out the local market and managed to pick up some lovely marinated white anchovies at a very cheap price. We also were in need of a coffee one morning so we popped into the University, as according to its sign out the front ‘made the best coffee in town’... admittedly it was pretty good, and our reasoning was it was a university so surely it had to be cheaper than the main tourist area - we were right.
Dubrovnik is also a very popular destination for cruise ships. Fortunately for us, only 1 ship was in during our stay so it wasn’t too crowded. In summer the place is heaving with tourists off the ships, making it hot and unpleasant to walk around. We were certainly very fortunate. In fact when we heard there was another ship or 2 due in the following day, we decided to book a boat trip to the islands in the Elafiti archipelago as that was probably the last thing these tourists would do
Overall, the day was a great day a nice day out on the boat which included a grilled local fish lunch, which was very simple but delicious and included a bottle of white wine - not a bad day out.
Another filming fact... did you know that Star Wars VIII was also filmed in Dubrovnik?