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  • Day230

    Only got like 3 hours sleep so taking that into consideration I had a good buzz this morning.
    We left at 9:30 for our 10 o'clock bus.
    I made Will buy food before getting on cause I said I can't handle his Moaning and groaning lol

    The bus ride was really good actually.
    We talked to this American dude from Colorado for the whole time until he got off at his stop around the halfway mark.

    Getting through customs was really chill. They stamped us in but not anyone else and no one of the bus knew why lol.
    They also didn't collect our passports from us - the bus driver just handed the pile over to him meaning they didn't actually ever look at our faces lol. They could have let anyone in.

    One girl was asked to get off the bus which I felt stressed for her about but it was just cause she was from Argentina and the officer want to speak some Spanish with her 😂😂😂 back on she got.

    Once over the border we had to change bus which we did but what was weird was that there were people in the other bus swapping with us to get into our bus. Seemed a bit pointless haha

    We both slept the final 2 hours once the American got off.

    The landscape is how I imagined, cute little farms.

    We arrived and walked to a cafe where our host is suppose to meet us. We had to give them a 30 minute warning so we let them know and had a drink.
    Our house was literally right behind. There is the fattest stray dog who lives at the entrance. He has a water bowl and 2 blankets lol. Obese.

    We had a 4 hour nap..

    Will blocked the toilet with a big poo he made me come look at. It wedged itself so it couldn't be flushed. Disgusting but impressive lol

    We went out to get groceries but too late we realised we had put in the wrong address 😑
    Back home we went - the Main Street is like a bloody wedding expo. Dresses everywhereeee.

    We went out for dinner at some Wok place around 9:30. It was kinda drizzling outside and unfortunately some of the tiles you walk on aren't secured into the ground so my whole shin got saturated with gross water when I stepped on one and it flicked water everywhere 😒😒

    Food was eh but it was acceptably priced :)

    We got groceries on the way home

    We Watched rumor has it and lots of Big Bang episodes.

    The photos are just of some of the area. Nothing exciting.
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  • Day231

    Woke up early to Skype with mum and dad. So good to talk to them. I always have a list of things I want to say but forget every time. Thad looked so fat.

    I spent the day organizing everything. We spent a ridiculous amount of money today. Near the $2000 mark.. but that includes flight to Milan and Berlin and trains from Milan to Venice to Verona to Florence to Rome to Naples. We have paid for the Bnb in Naples and a deposit on all the other hostels. We are hoping to stay in Wills friends house in Milan.
    That will take us to December 12th so that's good. I made a big boo boo with our flight to Berlin though. I mixed up the euro with the pound sign. Ouch. It ended up costing over $400 😦😦😦 eeekkkk. There wasn't really another option though so it couldn't have been helped anyway.

    We also looked at the snow fields in Austria and I sent though an enquiry email.

    We walked to some fast food chain pretending to be a maccas but it was not very good -.-

    More Big Bang hhah

    It's currently 4:13am and I'm still not asleep 😩😩😩😩😩
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  • Day74

    I slept terribly the night before due to my cold reaching its peak ferocity and the bed bugs infesting the hostel, forcing me to seek shelter on the outside couches, which meant I was less than prepared for my 6am minibus to the Lake Koman staging point. The lake Koman ferry was, for many years, the only real way to get in and out of Albania's accursed mountains. The roads have improved over the last few years, but the route remains popular for locals and, increasingly, for foreigners embarking on the Valbone-Theth hike. For no apparent reason, except that it fits perfectly with Albania's general illogical attitude to public transport schedules and life in general, there are two car ferries, plus a number of smaller passenger ferries, plying the route that all leave at exactly the same time and from the same point. This creates an uncomfortably early morning for everyone in order to get a connection from the closest town Shkoder by their 9am departure, but also an insane traffic jam and human stampede as everyone tries to find their ferry amongst the throng of passengers, goods and cars being embarked, disembarked and embarked again as they attempt to overload the ferries by playing a real life game of Tetris.

    My minibus almost didn't make it at all due to locals seemingly wishing to reinforce my theory that all Albanians hate each other with an unabiding passion. Driving along the narrow dirt mountain track along the valley toward the ferry, for no apparent reason an old Mercedes 3 cars ahead suddenly swerved and stopped blocking the entire road. The driver and two passengers got out and started banging on the car behind, who's occupants also got out starting and physical fight, which was then joined by the occupants of the car directly in front of us and our driver who got out and got involved for the hell of it. As more cars came to a halt coming from both directions, more people would get out and jump into the fray without any obvious cause, purpose or allegiance. After about 15 minutes it all suddenly came to a halt and, without explanation, everyone got back into their cars and went on their way. This meant that by the time we got to the ferry we were at the back of a traffic jam trying to get through the tunnel just before the pier, so with nothing else for it we all spilled out, grabbed our luggage and pushed and shoved onto the nearest ferry just in time for it to leave.

    After all the excitement, the ferry ride was everything I'd heard about and more. The ferry takes around 3 hours to make its way all the way along the gorge from Koman to Fiere, all the way surrounded by shear cliffs and awesome geological formations. I spent most of it talking to a Dutch couple who live in Breda learning how to say my surname correctly (still can't get it right) and being blown away by the jaw dropping surroundings.
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  • Day75

    One of the few things that I was determined to do on this trip was the Valbone-Theth hike in the Albanian accursed mountains. I can't remember how I first heard about it, but the idea of taking a ferry way up into the mountains and then hiking between two otherwise unconnected villages in a region of the world that until very recently was cut off from the outside world and still observes its own laws and customs, including blood feuds immediately grabbed me. However, I was also completely unsure if my foot would physically allow it and, after almost crippling myself in the first couple of weeks of the trip, I had almost given up on it. As I had travelled through Albania I had met more and more people who had done the hike, without exception talking about it in reverence and awe, so despite my concerns I became more determined than ever. Little did I know at the time that I would end up walk the track twice in two days.

    My plan to head to Kosovo was proving to be incredibly tricky. My first planned route through Montenegro proved to be a dead end and, back in Northern Albania I quickly realised that I'd backed myself into another corner. My naive thought of getting a direct bus from Shkoder to Kosovo at the end of the hike proved to be a hopeless dream, meaning that it was going to take me at least 3 days to get from Theth to Kosovo via Shkoder, with most of the travel frustratingly being in completely the wrong direction. Ironically Valbone is almost on the Kosovo border, which gave me the idea of walking from Theth to Valbone, but this would have required me to miss out on the Lake Koman Ferry (something I was not willing to do) and carry my big pack with me (I only found out later that you could hire a horse for this exact purpose). So in the end the best option turned out to be backtracking from Theth to Valbone and heading onto Kosovo from there.

    We were met at the Ferry by another mini bus that took us on the 2 hour drive up into the mountains to Valbone. The drive was fantastic as we followed aqua blue streams raging down the centre of dramatic mountain valleys, but what was most amazing was the clarity of the air. Throughout the entire mountains, the air must be incredibly clear as the mountains look unreal in the truest sense taking on the appearance of set backdrops or CGI. It was like looking at a landscape in 4K Ultra High Definition. Unfortunately photos don't do it justice, but it was truely surreal.

    Valbone is still a sleepy little village, literally at the end of the road. However, there is currently quite the construction boom occurring as the hike makes more and more a name for itself and in preparation for the hike being published in this years edition of the lonely planet, which means, no doubt, that the best of it is already over. Checking into the guesthouse it suddenly dawned on me as I was searching for my passport that, in my sleep deprived state that morning I had neglected to collect my passport from reception at checkout and they had neglected to hand it over, which meant my entire plan was in tatters unless I could somehow get the hostel to get the passport to Valbone within the next 48 hours. To make matters worse the wifi was down which meant that I had to rely on a three way translated conversation between the owner of the guesthouse who rang the hostel and hope that the nodding heads and smiles were confirmation that my request had been received, understood and I was going to not have walked all the way back to Valbone in two days time for nothing.

    The hike from Valbone to Theth is 20km, the first 10 or so km are fairly flat as it follows the asphalt road to its end at the end of the village and then follows a very wide and dry river bed at the base of the valley, this is all fairly easy apart from the ankle twisting rocks. At the start of the ascent there's a sign that says the next 9km will take 6 hours, which we sniggered at. However, it proved to be pretty accurate as you tackle the Valbone pass, ascending and descending over 1.2km in the process. It was pretty gruelling, but luckily I was in the company of a gay couple from New York, who were entertaining and diverting and the most incredible views I have ever seen in my life. Even better the views weren't static, but were constantly changing. Around every bend the vegetation and landscape dramatically altered meaning that you were always surprised and engaged and distracted from the insane gradient we were climbing. An added bonus of hiking at this time of year was the berries that were all in abundant fruit and constantly changing, from the blackberries at the start of the ascent to the wild strawberries about half way up and eventually wild raspberries, all incredibly sweet and delicious.

    Eventually we reached the pass, which opened up spectacularly clear views down both valleys and after a last scramble up a close by peak a perfect lunch spot to rest, eat and prepare fro the descent. The descent to Theth is less steep than to Valbone and was completely different again as the path snaked through lush forests and grassy meadows. Eventually we arrived in Theth exhausted, but happy and I left my companions who had smartly booked a guest house near the trail head and walked the last 2.5 km to the village and my guest house.

    Like Valbone, Theth is located at the base of a dramatic valley with a beautifully clear mountain stream running through it. Unlike Valbone, Theth has one of the few remaining blood feud towers remaining in Albania. After the towers I saw in Georgia, Theth's single 3 story tower looked decidedly dinky and cute, but it was well worth the effort to go see it and it provided a nice backdrop as I had a beer and put my feet up. My guest house in Theth was really good, run by a mother who spoke no english and her two teenage daughters who did, they gave me a comfortable bed, fantastic home cooked meals and fruit and copious amounts of tea that got foisted on me every time I coughed (which was a lot).

    With no one to join me on the way out the next morning and not new scenery to see, I was worried I wouldn't have any distractions from my aches and pains and the seemingly endless trail ahead. However, I lucked out and was met at the trail head by a dog I had seen on the hike yesterday accompanying another group of hikers, and toady it was my turn. I found out later that White Walker (as he was called for the day) lives in Theth, but walks with a group of hikers one way one day and then back with another group the next. I couldn't have asked for a better companion for the day to keep my spirits up and all he asked in return was the occasional pat and for me to share some of my lunch with him, which seemed like a good deal to me. Sure enough, as soon as I hit the river bad on the Valbone side, White Walker made it very clear that that is as far as he would escort me and after a final and emotional farewell he watched me from his vantage point until I was out of view and went off to do whatever it is he does until he could find another hiker feel special and happy the next day.

    I arrived back to the Valbone guesthouse and much to my relief was reunited with my passport that had just arrived less than an hour beforehand meaning that after an early night I was free to cross into Kosovo the next day.

    You are going to have to excuse the multiple posts and photo spam, but I took over 500 photos on the hike and can't whittle it down any further. If any Find Penguin developers are listening - GET RID of the artificial limitation on photos per post!
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  • Day76

    Absurdly foreign, strangely familiar and endearingly weird, Albania has become my second favourite Balkan country (Bosnia is still number 1). It has its problems, but it has character and is definable different to anywhere else I've been, which counts for a lot in today's globalised world. It provides a microcosm of what happens when you completely isolate a country for 50 years from the end of the largest war the world has ever seen, let it concentrate its culture in an environment of extreme deprivation, fear and poverty and then unleash it back into the modern world.

    So many of the idiosyncrasies of the place are explained by this, I couldn't understand why Albania has such an insane trash problem until it was explained to me that 20 years ago there was no trash. Not as in, there was no rubbish in the street, but as in, nothing was ever thrown out. This meant of course that, 1. Culturally they have no concept of rubbish bins and tips, and 2. There was zero infrastructure in place to handle rubbish. Similarly, I couldn't work out why I kept seeing the same people in groups dozens of times walking the streets while having dinner until it was explained to me that it's a hangover from when there was literally nothing to do in the evening and there was no money to do anything with, which has led to the rise of the national past time of dressing up in the evenings and parading backwards and forwards from one end of any main town square to the other, for not obvious intent or purpose.

    I've also never met a more masculine culture in my entire life. From the invisible women and the extreme sexism to the bizarre ritual of eagerly starting public arguments and fights and joining in on any that may be happening, even if you just happen to be passing, is something so alien my western Anglo sensibilities as to be simultaneously startling and endlessly amusing.

    It's funny, I'm currently sitting in a town just across the border in Kosovo, a region populated by the same people and a region that many on both sides of the border would like to become part of Albania, but it's unrecognisable. For one thing, the streets are clean, I have been here for a couple of hours and have not seen or heard and fight or argument and, instead of being full of men playing chess or watching soccer, I'm surrounded by women and mixed groups who actually seem to enjoy each other's company. I could be pretty much anywhere in the Balkans, but I am definitely not in Albania.
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  • Day25

    Interesting constantly changing culture with their main part of history only starting in 1920.

    We had great accommodation with a spa bath.
    Funny injury Time, one of the jets was missing from the spa and sucking all the water in. My leg got suctioned to the spa and I ended up with a 3cm circle hicky from the bath on my thigh.

  • Day9

    We took the bus across to Albania this morning. Can’t comment on the views too much as I was catching up on sleep! Luckily I managed to stay awake after passport control as the views when entering Albania were stunning! We were so high up in the mountains and you could see lots of stereotypical Albanian things that we had read in the lonely planet (unfinished houses, bunkers and plenty old Mercedes Benz cars). It was all quite surreal.

    Due to having such a crappy night sleep in the hostel the previous night, we decided to splash out and get a hotel room. I say splash out but it only cost us €15 each and it was luxury!! Albania is very cheap. We also went out to quite a fancy restaurant called ‘Era’ with amazing food / wine and service (they had someone there just to open the door for you and a lounge area to wait for your table- that’s how fancy it was.) we thought we would be spending a bit over budget but it all came to less than €20. Crazy!

    We thought we (well Stephan) would brave the crazy albanian driving and hire a car for a few days to visit other towns around Albania seen as it was so cheap! €35 for 3 days! We decided that getting comprehensive insurance and a sat nav would be a good idea so that bumped up the price a bit but still less than €20 a day each- not bad! - it will get dropped off tomorrow after lunch so we will have the morning to explore a bit more of Tirana before we head off! :)
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  • Day10

    This morning we started the day with a nice hotel breakfast which had traditional pastries- delicious. Then we headed out for the free walking tour of Albania’s capital; Tirana. It was a nice tour with a local guy that knew a lot about the history of his country. Again, there was a lot of history about communism but it was different hearing about how life was for Albanians as they were so cut from any ties to anyone else in Europe really. Learning a lot on this trip! Tirana also prides itself on being a country that does not discriminate against any religion and it was clear to see this with all the different religious buildings all next to each other. Despite being quite a small population in Albania, there seemed to be a lot of people in Tirana and therefore a lot going on. Coffee culture here is big! Old men chilling on terraces with an espresso was a common sight! It’s a cute place to visit!

    After the tour we picked up some local specialties from a bakery for lunch and headed back to hotel to get the car.

    Driving in Albania... some car experiences :

    1. Round-abouts = crazy. No lanes. No rules. Cyclists going around the wrong way.
    2. Pedestrian crossings = no need to stop- keep going.
    3. Police everywhere - yet there seems to be no rules so I’m not sure why.
    4. Junctions- don’t bother waiting- just go for it and hope for the best.

    .... and it’s only day 1! I’m sure we will have some more stories tomorrow!

    We made it to a lovely little place called Berat which is also known as “a city of a thousand windows” (see pics below to see why). Berat has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in order to preserve the culture here. We have only been able to see it by night so far but its so pretty!

    Restaurants were harder to find though- it seems only men come out at night here to sit and drink on the terraces... bit intimidating! But thankfully we found a nice little restaurant which felt like we were getting nice home cooked food. There was one woman who was doing everything (waitressing, cooking, bar tender and cleaning up!) so impressive. The food was so good too! We tried some specialties like baked aubergine and stuffed peppers. Amazing. Only thing that let it down was the home made wine that tasted like vinegar. Can’t complain though as it was the first bad wine we have had yet!

    Can’t believe how well the trip is going so far actually! *touch wood* Feeling very lucky to be able to have such great experiences. :)
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  • Day11

    We started today with an absolute feast at the homestay that we were staying at. The hosts were so kind and absolutely adorable. They spoke very little English and we spoke zero Albanian but we got by! We were fed traditional Albanian pancakes, fresh homemade jams and juice made from fruit from the garden and freshly baked cake! She must have been up so early preparing it all. We felt like we were visiting family as it was so homely!

    We left quite early and headed up to the castle in Berat. So glad we had a car as the path to get there was so steep! When we got to the top we realised it wasn’t just a castle but a fortified town! It felt like we had stepped back in time. Cobbled streets, hidden lanes, incredible views, amazing smells of Albanian cooking... so authentic. There was hardly anyone around too- I’m sure it would get busy in summer but at 9am in low season, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. We came across an old Albanian man who was so friendly and wanted to take a picture of us, so we spent a while trying to teach him the basics of taking a picture on my iPhone (first, removing fingers from the lense and pointing it at us...) I’m sure u can imagine the difficulty never mind the language barrier. He was so sweet though and we got there in the end!

    We continued our drive down south to Gjirokaster. There was a castle up on the hill here so it had incredible views of the city and mountains in the background. We met a local selling jam so bought some fig and watermelon jams to try.

    The rest of the day was spent driving towards the coast. We took a wrong turn and almost ended up in Greece! We also only just managed to avoid many accidents as we tried to work out the road rules over here. In the end I think we have worked out that there are no rules. The police pulled us over at one point which was a bit scary... but as soon as we said “hello” and they realised we weren’t Albanian they let us go. Strange, but we weren’t complaining.

    Tonight we are staying in another homestay on the coast that is run by a Greek couple. Such a lovely place and incredible value at only €22. I’m going to miss these cheap prices when we arrive in New Zealand!
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  • Day12

    We enjoyed another lovely breakfast this morning with an incredible view of the ocean. :)

    Today was mostly just a day of driving up the coast to then return the car in Shkodër (north of Albania) but as the scenery was so stunning, we stopped plenty times along the way. Gorgeous turquoise coast line, next to huge ragged mountains and passing people walking their goats amongst the crazy driving- only in Albania!

    We visited another lovely castle high up in the mountains of a town called Kruja. Very scary road to get there as it was so tiny and steep with two way traffic... but we made it! It was worth it though as the views were stunning and you could see for miles!

    It wouldn’t be a proper road trip with out a huge traffic jam so we finished the day off waiting in traffic for an hour (of what was a 5 min journey). Great fun. I It was amusing watching all the Albanians try to overtake and undertake each other- mad. And there was a guy selling a puppy and a baby rabbit at the side of the road! Can’t say I wasn’t tempted...

    We were happy to arrive safe in Shkodër and give the car back! We ventured out for some food but it didn’t look too promising at first. We then came across a little traditional looking place so thought we would give it a try. It was amazing! The waiter was so lovely and made us feel so at home. He gave us some great recommendations for what to eat and the best wine that €2 (for 0.5 litre!) could buy! Such a great find and a lovely way to finish off our trip in Albania!

    I can’t comment on meat dishes, but if you are heading to Albania and want to try some great local food- you need to try;

    Albanian breakfast pancakes
    Stuffed peppers
    Baked aubergines
    Traditional pie (a bit like a crêpe)
    Traditional beans

    It was all so good!! :) I would recommend this country to travel. (Although I would have felt slightly intimidated if I was traveling alone- often you would struggle to find a girl anywhere in the evening, strange!) However, the people were friendly and did not harass us even in the bigger cities. Driving culture is another story though. A must visit for the beautiful scenery though. :)
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Albania, Albanien, Albania, Albanië, Albenia, አልባኒያ, ألبانيا, ܐܠܒܢܝܐ, Albaniya, Албанія, Албания, Alibani, আলব্যানিয়া, ཨལ་བཱ་ནི་ཡ།, Albanija, Albània, ᎠᎵᏇᏂᏯ, Albánie, Albania nutome, Αλβανία, Albanujo, Albaania, آلبانیا, Albanii, Albanie, Albaanje, An Albáin, Albàinia, અલ્બેનિયા, אלבניה, अल्बेनिया, Albanska, Albani, Albánia, Ալբանիա, Albanía, アルバニア共和国, ალბანეთი, អាល់បានី, ಅಲ್ಬೇನಿಯಾ, 알바니아, ئەڵبانیا, Alibaniya, ແອລເບເນຍ, Alubani, Albānija, Албанија, അൽബേനിയ, अल्बानिया, Arbainiya, Albuanii, ଆଲବାନିଆ, Albaani, Albanìa, البانیه, Albânia, Shkiperiya, Alubaniya, Albanïi, ඇල්බේනියාව, Albánsko, Albaaniya, Shqipëria, அல்பேனியா, అల్బేనియా, ประเทศแอลเบเนีย, Albanya, ʻAlipania, Arnavutluk Cumhuriyeti, ئالبانىيە, البانیہ, An-ba-ni (Albania), Lalbanän, Orílẹ́ède Àlùbàníánì, 阿尔巴尼亚, i-Albania

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