We arrived in Albania in a tamped down grassy plain of an airport. Outside the single-room terminal, we went up a concrete staircase to a platform which went nowhere. It overlooked a deserted bus and taxi station. The wind was blowing just a little. There was a single roundabout where people could catch the bus into the capital city of Tirana from the Airport.
We had some time to kill before the next bus so we changed our liras into lekë. Strangely, lekë are exactly 100 to the U.S. dollar. We bought a sandwich and an espresso for 400 lekë, and the smiling airport sandwich shop man slid across our change. The 20 lekë coin is gold or maybe bronze with an embossed Greek trireme facing some pretty epic storms. We selected this coin as our Fate Coin, our decision-making tool when we couldn’t decide what to do next (as in, flip it. Heads or sails.) Immediately after doing this, while zipping up my backpack, the Turkish ‘evil eye’ broke off its keychain, thus confirming our superstition in the fate coin. When drunk in Serbia, we flipped it to see whether we’d come back to Turkey. That’s what happened. It’s fate.
We sat down next to a young English woman on the bus who was doing a human geography art project. She was picking up her friend at the airport. We talked to them all the way to the city, and then made plans to meet later that night. We learned many unusual things about Albania from them.
1. The country was completely isolated for fifty years because their communist dictator, Enver Hoxha (that’s pronounced “hoja”), was very, very paranoid. He thought that other western nations were out to destroy Albania and ordered the construction of thousands and thousands of tiny concrete bunkers all over the country. The count: one bunker for every three people. They look like little grey mushrooms.
2. Maps were illegal in communist Albania, and would get you sent to the gulag. Older Albanians therefore have difficulty reading them. Having asked several older Albanians for directions using maps, I can confirm this as true.
3. Busking was also illegal, and would get you sent to the gulag.
4. There were only 600 cars in communist Albania, to be used only by Party officials. Now everyone has a car, and it is usually a Mercedes. David Bechkam’s Mercedes, when it was stolen, eventually ended up in Albania.
5. There were 8 city blocks in Tirana known as “The Bloc,” to be used and occupied only by party officials. Now, they are the center of nightlife for the city.
6. Enver Hoxha told all the people of Albania that Albania was the richest country in the world.
7. Enver Hoxha also told the people of Albania to build him a pyramid so that when he died, he could be embalmed and entombed within it in the manner of an Egyptian pharaoh. They did so. Also, just in the manner of a real Egyptian pyramid, it was stripped and robbed within a few years of Enver Hoxha’s death. You can still see this pyramid in Tirana.
8. There may or may not be a secret escape tunnel leading from Enver Hoxha’s basement into the mountains.
9. After Enver Hoxha’s death, the people of Albania learned that the communist-portioned meals they had been eating were not, in fact, the fare of the richest countries in the world, as they had been informed, and actually, their country was one of the poorest, which made them very upset and they started to smash everything in the country.
10. After Enver Hoxha’s death, a lot of people lost their life savings to a Ponzi scheme set up by a used car salesmen, which made them very upset, and violent, and they took to the streets to rob each other and everyone went out with guns for protection.
11. Before the communists, northern Albania was governed by a tribal law code called “Kanun” which was all about blood feuds and how many daughters you could steal if your neighbor killed your cattle, and people used to hide in towers their whole life because it was safer, and then the communists came and partitioned the land into equal strips so there was no reason to kill each other over land disputes any more. Let it never be said that communism doesn’t work.
12. Also in pre-communist times, too many men kept dying from blood feuds, so women were allowed to socially switch and become men, and drink with the men, and play dominoes with the men, and do business, and wear pants, and get married. They are known as the Albanian sworn mountain virgins.
13. Strangely, after all the crazy war and violence and insanity, modern Albania turned out to be a pretty nice place. People are very nice and very warm and hospitable. (Hospitality is part of Kanun. The guest is God in disguise.) All the guns are hidden away in closets now. The nice English people whom I learned all this information from have been coming here on and off for nine years, and she said she feels safer here than back in her hometown. The whole country feels like one big family, children of an estranged deposed communist pharaoh dictator entombed beneath a pyramid downtown.
14. The words for “for sale” look suspiciously like “shit.” It’s “shitet.” This is an apt metaphor, because the country careened into economic stagnation many years ago, and many of the things for sale do in fact look pretty worse for the wear. Imagine, if you will, on the bus ride from the airport, seeing a concrete scaffold of a hotel with a large banner bearing the word “SHITET.”
Albanian sounds like pouring a slushy mix of vowels and consonants into a hole. It’s related to most of the languages of Europe sort of distantly. The Albanians claim to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, which I guess sounds more regal than Albanian, or the endonym they have for themselves, which sounds like Shchip, which is stupid.
Albania is snuggled in between the Adriatic Sea to the West and some rumpled-up mountains to the east. Near Sarande, on the southern tip of the country, things start to become Greek, bit by bit by bit. Winding around the highways scoured into the mountainsides, the graffiti on the cement road blocks loses its charming dotted ‘e’ and becomes the ancient and fun alphabet of the Grecian golden ages (the word “alphabet” comes from Greek. Alpha-beta-gamma-delta-epsilon etc. etc. etc. etc.)
Our primary ambition in Albania was to find some premium beaches. After a long wet winter and lukewarm spring in Istanbul, Anna and I were hoping for some beach time. Italy has a long section of coast, called the Amalfi coast, which runs along the Tyrrhenian Sea and is supposedly a beautiful drive. Unfortunately, it is famous, and clogged by wealthy yachting Russians. The advantage to going to the other side of the Adriatic, we figured, was that it would be the same experience, kind of, for less money and with less people.
The mayor of Tirana some years back was an artist, and wanted all the buildings painted bright unusual colors. The economy was not very good during those years, but the zany color and design makes an impression. A lot of pink zig-zag stripes or huge filled-in orange circles, applied rather curiously to a soulless, blocky infrastructure built by imagination-blind communists. Our hostel was tucked behind an electronics bazaar, where old men with great big mustaches and black berets and dirty fingers spread burlap blankets on the filthy alley floor, and display a loosely sorted pile of spark plugs, machine parts, motherboards, and light bulbs. Walking out the door of our hostel, we saw a woman carrying two dead chickens, an orphan drill with a meter-long bit sticking out of a hole in the sidewalk’s concrete, and a doughnut shop. We saw a city bus pass whose electronic sign was written entirely in Chinese. We saw a troupe of actors rehearsing in the park with their giant robot. What a town.
In Tirana, you might stay at Trip’n Hostel (ten euro a night), which has a white-rock zen garden and a great group of people managing the place. We did not, for reasons that will later become apparent, but we did meet the people in Trip’n and I liked them.
The Bloc is where you go to eat and drink and party, though strangely, young Albanians do not really have a drinking culture. At the bar with the young English couple, when they told us this, we stopped and looked at everyone else in the bar. They were all drinking soda, or juice. It’s a holdover from the country’s Islamic roots. Our favorite restaurant was a place called E7E which was also an Islamic bookstore, where we ordered lamb baked in yogurt and stunningly good grape juice.
The big attractions in Tirana are the communist pyramid and the statue of Skanderbeg, an Albanian general who fought the Ottomans in Century X and everyone loves him here now, I guess, now that they lack some sort of organizing nationalist figure.
There is a nearby cave called Pellumbas which is supposedly the longest cave in Europe. Our original hostel owner tried to bully us into buying a tour there, but we wanted to see it for ourselves. Also nearby is Kruje, a fortress which Skanderbeg defended from the Ottomans. We did not go to these places. We tried to take a bus to Pellumbas one day but got off the bus on a strange concrete complex, and I peed by the side of the road, looking out over a steaming mountain vale, heaped full of garbage and nature. It was really quite stunning. Then it began to rain, so we hitchhiked back to Tirana.
After some time exploring the city, we decided to rent a car. We went to the Bloc and found a car rental place willing to lend us a fuel-efficient hybrid we named “Çelestina” for 25 euro a day. Our ambition was to see some beaches.
The zoo in Fier was terrible. We knew it was a zoo because they had pictures of animals on the outer walls. We parked on the side of the road (which flooded two days later, and just a little up the road, someone tried to sell us a live rabbit as we drove past). We paid two hundred Lekë each and went in. There was a bank of eight big cages, and inside them, collectively, were two chickens, a deer, and a llama. Anna and I cracked up. We walked around to the opposite side to get a better look at the llama. I turned around and shouted: A lion’s head was behind me. Attached to a lion’s body. It was a lion.
What we had thought was the entire zoo was really just the first level in a mazelike compound. Plants and fake plants and big circus-tent cages dotted the courtyard. A big cafe on stilts stood at the center. We followed the path up from the llama and the lions to the second level. The zoo got weirder and sadder. They had seven lions total, separated, in cages no larger than a nice kitchen. They looked a little worse for the wear; like the kind of lions you’d get from a secondhand zoo-bookstore where the owner is behind some cobwebby stack of romance novels and has four colors of post-it notes for “organization.” Around the perimeter were more grungy cages, only about half of which contained any animals. A lot of them were just farm animals. There was a herd of pigs rooting in the corner. Some black ducks roamed free on the grounds. The wolves jammed the upper half of their bodies through a bent opening in the bars, and gnawed the bushes surrounding their cage. The monkeys flung themselves around and around their gigantic birdcage on their ropes, almost suicidally. The saddest of zebras stared at its iron trough of hay, contemplating death. A cluster of bears paced around their cell, waiting for their cousin to leap from the highest point of the enclosure to the concrete floor below. When the ducks waddled past, I cheered for their freedom. “Fly away ducks!” I shouted, and startled the wolves. “Fly away home! To freedom!” We stopped at the zoo cafe and got coffee. A couple of police officers were there drinking before work. I don’t think they came to see the zoo.
After that we drove through the city—a smelly, garbage farm town full of charming Albanians who were all trying to sell machinery or animals. We saw a sign for Appolonia, which I’d heard was a nice little pile of ruins from the Southwest Balkans Lonely Planet.
Anyways. This one was marked in the guidebook, so damn it, we decided to explore. We saw exactly one sign at a roundabout, and received no further instruction, and so just followed that direction as best we could. We passed a business district where everything felt like it was moving, and every store either sold plumbing or aluminum siding. Guys with untucked shirts on bicycles were everywhere. Everywhere! We crossed over a wide flat bridge over a creek, upon which a bird bazaar had been erected. Upon spread-out blankets were stacks of rusted iron cages holding variations on kinds of poultry. Gypsies smiled and waved at us. It was dusty. We followed the road through a tight village, until we finally saw another sign: APPOLONIA 3 KM. We turned on a country road which passed the largest bunker so far seen (it said HI MOM in graffiti over the entryway) and rolled along for the requisite 3 km. We came to a red and white guard arm, which had a basket full of rocks as a counterweight. A man came out of a little booth and sold us tickets, and lifted the arm for us.
Appolonia was nice, I guess. It was completely deserted. They had some old roman ruins, some still-standing pillars, an old church with a museum full of carved panels and statues. The grounds were the real feature, though: a gorgeous cloud shaped pile of doughy hills, rippling green and stacked on top of each other, with spacey groves of wicker trees, witch trees, and the occasional pile of broken marble. A shepherd guided bumbling sheep in a low valley. We grabbed the cheese, bread, salami, and cherries from the car, and found a nice spot upon the grassy ledge to eat our picnic lunch. The breeze made all the willow leaves move. It was a truly beautiful spot to have lunch. Anna and I talked about how in the old days of the Victorian empire, young well-bred men would get on carriages and take the “grand tour” of Europe to see all of the old classic art things.
“This wouldn’t be on it,” she said.
“Yeah, but it looks sort of like Tuscany,” I said. It did. A cluster of open bunker holes could be spotted on the hills in the distance. Some crumbling farmhouses with red tile roofs stood in fields below.
“Poor, isolated, communist Tuscany.” We threw our cherry pits towards the sheep. I also sat on a piece of damp white feta-like cheese, called djath.
Black Eye and Berat
We drove to this village, Black Eye. (This is a translation of the Albanian name, which was not written anywhere.) We didn’t really intend to. We were trying to get to the famed city of Berat (“City of a Thousand Windows!”) and following a sign, we took a junction off the highway down a village road. The percentage of good stuff dramatically increased. Donkey carts (2) bunkers in yards (4) bunkers outside of yards (4) open face living room with a couch and a fold-out bed, except the bed was piled high with straw (1). Old men on older motorbikes. Road problems. The sky had been awful screwy, and the contrasts of light and dark and cloud made everything look epic. We listened to some tortured autotuned Arabic pop and traditional Albanian polyphony, then to talk radio (in Albanian), then to someone singing the Quran. I remembered that our English hosts had told us Enver Hoxha had imposed atheism on the mostly Muslim population, and now the Albanian people were mostly over it. I was impressed someone could still sing the Quran on the radio.
We passed between some construction on either side of two aggressive lump hills, and wound up in a village—a few scattered houses with big farmy gardens, and a small flat bridge over a stream. There was a donkey. Some people were clipping its donkey nails. One guy spoke good English and wanted to hang out with us. This was the town of Black Eye, they said. They guys clipping the donkey nails were all in the same family, and they lived in the two houses next to the small flat bridge. A young guy, Eneo, and a younger girl, Maria, did most of the talking. The family invited us in for coffee, then some homemade floral rakija (delicious), and then to Berat, then to stay, but then it got confusing becase their friends in Lushnje called and told them to have dinner over there, but the young guy, Eneo, still wanted to come with us to Berat, so he agreed to play tour guide.
Berat was an Ottoman stronghold, and is called the City of a Thousand Windows. I think there are not actually a thousand windows, but there is a pretty dramatic view of the town which everyone prints in their travel guides of a city of single-story rock houses on a slope, and the picture is taken from a castle, which we were standing on. The river Osum flows below, and under a long stone span. We declined to stay in the hostel in the town (Berat Backpackers’ Hostel), because we were banking on getting an invitation to stay with his family.
Wikipedia on the mountains surrounding Berat:
According to an Albanian legend, the Tomorr mountain was originally a giant, who fought with another giant, called Shpirag, over a young woman. They killed each other and the girl drowned in her tears, which then became the Osum river.
It had been nice blended overcast back in Black Eye, but now the rain spattered the dirt road into mud. Çelestina had developed a peculiar high-pitched whine which persisted about four minutes after you started up, and especially at the lower gears. I began to grow nervous. We rolled into the town surrounding Black Eye, which looked like the art from Sin City. If you haven’t read Sin City (or watched it), it looks like someone drained a fountain pen onto each page for the sole purpose of making noir atmosphere. We passed a long stone bridge across the river Osum, which as you recall, was made from tears. We jumped out of the car and got blasted by the rain. Several black-ponchoed old men dashed across the rocks of the bridge, and I remember thinking as I snapped the picture that they’d slip into the tears of the Osum and drown.
We parked and followed a zig-zag rock road up to the citadel, and explored its rainy summit. The citadel walls protected a sprawling castle town. We walked to the edges of the hill and looked down at the spread of three-hundred-year-old buildings below, built by the Ottoman rich. It looked like a city of pert little gnomes, assembled in regiment in white and gray and brown on the hillside. Eneo was a terrible tour guide. He would point at things like a church, and say things like, “It’s a church,” or, sometimes, confusingly, “it’s a mosque.” Sometimes I asked him things like “who was the castle for?” or “who occupied this area?” and he had no idea. We had a teenager for a tour guide who didn’t know his head from his ass, and I was desperately trying to manufacture an interesting story from what was most certainly not. “Is this cool enough for my readers?” I thought, standing on the ledge of a 16th-century Ottoman castle.
The sky turned dark and we had to drive our ineffective tour guide home. Çelestina whined the whole way home. We slowed to a crawl and bumped across slimy mud holes I could not see upon the village road. It was a tight-lipped half hour drive back to Black Eye.
We finally got to the small flat bridge over the stream, edged the car over the bridge, and stopped in his driveway.
“I do not feel good driving anymore because the car is making a bad noise,” I said, dimming my English, “and it’s dark and raining and this is a bad road,”
“Can your girlfriend drive?” He said.
“You don’t understand. Can we stay somewhere?” He smiled uncomfortably.
“I don’t know…my relatives, they do not speak English. I do not know. I am sorry. I do not have the key for my house. I do not know.”
“What about your relatives?”
“No, I do not know,” he said. This went back and forth for a few minutes before he stepped out into the car with another apology.
And then we said, “fuck it,” and went back to Maria’s place and they welcomed us with dinner (tomatoes in olive oil, fried cheese, hard boiled eggs, a good deal of flower rakija) and a TV show about missing persons and gave us their living room to sleep in. Maria spoke really great English and wanted to travel everywhere and be everything. She was thrilled to have guests.
Durrës is the closest city to Tiranë, and was the ancient capital of the Albanian kingdom. This is all that I can say about it. Now it is a ghostly stretch of beach condos.
The wind blew garbage around in the streets. Shopkeeps were greedy for our attention. I got the impression that it had been a long time since anyone had come through. We saw Albania Fried Chicken (AFC; quality rating was a solid Not Bad) and bought a squashy Albanian flag cube for the windshield at a gift shop. We parked at a hotel and scrutinized the beach. It was grey. It was windy. The tiki tiki umbrellas were upended, or stacked, or blown into drifts. We took pictures of ourselves frowning, and left.
The next town was very similar. I barely remember what it was called. A skeletal strip of identical hotels on a beachfront. We got gelato and left in a hurry. What I loved was the contrast of development: the strand seemed to be plucked from any California condo town, but as soon as you moved off main street, the roads became weeded dirt paths where locals parked their tractors and cows.
The road lifted off. We had no idea where we were on the map, and wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn onto a strange peninsula out into the Adriatic. From a meandering exploration of empty condo towns, we were suddenly in a green mountain vale. It was astonishing; tall parabolas sprang from the earth and closed us into the valley. We lost sight of the water as we climbed. We saw a lot of cows through the fog, mooing plaintively. Little village houses sat on lumps, overlooking their own private valleys. The road twisted higher along the slope, and the fog got denser. It was a little nerve-racking. We didn’t even know if this was the right road out of Vlore, since we’d lost the coast. The clouds broke as we crossed the summit, and we gasped. The mountain sank all the way to the ocean below in one long slope. Our highway glided across the coasts before us. We parked at the Panorama restaurant and took pictures. We looked at our map and said ohhhhhhhh, that’s what all these switchbacks are. We’re going to be heading down from this mountain for a long time.
The coastline is rugged and unspeakably beautiful, and mostly unpopulated. Occasionally a village bus connecting the various towns will roll through in all its janky glory. We spotted a sign along a bend in the two-lane road which showed that there was actually a hostel in the town below. It was starting to get overcast. We were running out of gas and didn’t really know where we were staying that night. I was worried about sleeping in the car because it was kinda cold.
We came down and ended up in Himarë, a navigable roll of road underneath the mountain. The town of Himarë is really just that: a seaside town. There is one street about two blocks long along the beach, and another street on the Rafferison bank. We couldn’t find the hostel, so we walked back up to where we’d seen the hostel sign. Anna took a picture of the map on the sign with her digital camera, and so we had a reference point, so it was sort of like hide-and-go-seek find the place we’re sleeping tonight. I don’t know why I think this sort of thing is fun. I really wish we’d brought camping gear. What is wrong with us. We walked along the coast road, hungry from only having eaten road food that day (nuts, bread, cheese, etc) and got a gyro and a free shot of rakija from the gyro guys. We consulted Anna’s camera to find the hostel—we walked down a dirt alley in between high white stucco walls until we came to the hostel gate: two huge blue Wizard of Oz doors. Someone had rigged up a mechanical pulley and rope system to ring the bell. The same someone, probably, had also nailed a bike gear to the door.
Himarë hostel charged us 20 euro (10 each) for a private room. It was a pretty neat place; they had grape trellises and bikes hanging from hooks on the bright blue walls. It looked like a Portlander’s industrial workshop. The owner, a youthful man of about thirty, did not speak great English. His name was not Milo, but it was similar to Milo, and that is all I remember. His dog just had puppies, and we played with the little furry animals for a minute before he showed us the facilities. Some Peace Corps guy had helped him set up the hostel but had since left. I was a little disappointed; it would have been nice to see some Americans. We did see an Australian guy, a big red-headed guy named Jack. He’d been all over western and central Europe, and was continuing his trip through the Balkans and Turkey. I gave him advice about traveling in Turkey over some homemade lemony rakija Milo had distilled. That night we went to Lefteiros’ taverna, and had garlicky Greek seafood and yogurt appetizers. Anna got shrimp, I got cod, we all got fat.
When we got back, Milo and Milo’s girlfriend offered me one of the puppies as a joke. “Do you want one?” she asked with a smile, as if to ask, “What I am going to do with four small dogs?”
The next morning we were driving off and I said to Anna, “…and she asked us if we wanted one! Ha!” and Anna said, “And you didn’t take it?!” We mulled it over and thought about it. This was a book about adventure, right? This was supposed to be a book where we did unusual things and had adventures not found in guidebooks. We could totally give it to the people at Hostel Albania, they already have a dog. Or I bet they know someone who wants one! In my secret heart of hearts, the dream was to acquire a lil Balkan dog and have it follow us everywhere as a spirit of our trip.
We turned around and got one. When we got back to the hostel, Milo was sitting down and doing nothing, staring off into space, by himself. It was a little odd.
“Can we take a dog?”
“What?” He didn’t understand. I repeated myself two or three times, and then he got confused.
“But you are traveling. What will you do?”
“We have friends in Hostel Albania, they will take it.” He shrugged, and said alright. I plucked the top puppy off. It was sandy brown with a white collar of fur, and a little white spot on its butt quarters. We wrapped it in green fabric, and put a piece of cardboard down in the rental car to pee upon.
“Wait,” he said at the gate. We turned around, new puppy cradled in my arms. Milo smiled and scruffled up its head, stroked its back. Then Milo stuck his finger in his mouth, then into the dog’s mouth, and rubbed its gums.
“Now he will know me,” he said.
Adventure suggestion: Adopt a travel dog
We’d been traveling together in this part of the world for a long time, so getting out of our comfort zone meant when we stayed at this one hostel and the owners offered us a puppy, it meant taking a stupid wild chance. Yes, we adopted a Balkan puppy. It pushed us way, waaaaaay outside of our comfort zone. Mostly it was never having a spare second of consciousness to relax. The puppy instinctively knows what you don’t want him to chew on, poop on, or touch, and then he bites it, pees all over it, and eats a plastic bag. He gnaws at thumbs with razor pup teeth. If you’re just hanging out at a restaurant, he will pee in front of the waiter and then sniff around towards traffic. He whines in the middle of the night and wakes up other hostel guests. He is so irresistibly cute that everyone gawps and awwws and wants to pet it, and so poorly behaved that nobody wants to stay around longer than a few minutes. EVERYONE. He brings out the dog experts, who inform you what breed it is, how large it will be, and that you’re feeding him (her?) too much or too little of the wrong thing. We didn’t have a collar or leash for a really long time—when we finally splurged and got one, it was in Belgrade, a small orange collar with little dog bone print on it, and a long thin red leash. The day we got it he kept following other people and exposing his belly cutely as if to say “please adopt me and free me from my captors.” He is able to follow people because we keep him off leash—if he was ever on leash, he sits on the sidewalk and refuses to budge. He bites Anna’s ankles when she’s trying to clean up. I have far more respect for parents now. I have far more resentment for people who offer parenting advice, and will never, ever do so again unprompted.
When we first got puppy, we had him wrapped in a piece of rough green paisley fabric, and he shivered all the time from cold. He shivered at the Adriatic beach in Albania south of Himarë, on the stone hotel floor in Gjirokastër, and on the Tirana hostel’s porch in a cardboard box. He met the New York slavs who had miserable personalities but turned out to be instrumental in getting him shots, kibble, deworming pills, and a puppy passport from the Macedonian vet. He slept in a drawer in Sunny Lake, and in a box at the bottom of the stairs in Pristina. He ran with us for the first time in a park just off the bus to Herzegovina in Trebinje, and fought with (got swatted by) a calico cat in Mostar. He got on a radio station website and became famous in Sarajevo. We smuggled him across six borders under hoodies and in backpacks. The goal was to bring puppy home. To America. To a better life, just like the old-fashioned immigrant dream.
My brother Jari was once explaining to our much younger brother Eliot the comfort zone—and he used me as an example of a person who never hesitates to jump outside of it. Indeed, I have to be reminded to take it easy on myself and relax once in a while. Adopting a dog totally pushed it. I found myself and Anna to be completely separate from the experience of first-time travelers. Like, saying yes to everything and having an open Kerouac soul and blah blah blah I kind of know the drill. Traveling with a puppy—we’d been abroad for almost a year at that point, and traveling with a puppy ensured that I was incapable of having a normal exciting youth-type travel adventure. I was content to let other people leap from high bridges into water. Honestly, I felt old. I didn’t want to be over it—I wanted to be having a totally wild adventure and meeting best friends and changing my plans at the last minute to go fishing in a crazy Bulgarian village and so forth.
The Balkans make you want to feel this way—crazy youth adventure time. Most hostels have a little slipcover for your passport that has a stamp chart on the back where you get stickers at each participating hostel. At each place you’ll meet more engaging young people and have zany drunken adventures with them. It’s not like these are bad things. For me, though—I really don’t want to sound like a crabby old traveler here—but taking that ideology to heart, that you just accept what comes up, run with the moment— Anna and I accepted a dog, and took it really seriously, and we were met with resistance every step of the way. People thought we were irresponsible monsters, that they knew best, and etc etc etc. Very rarely did people actually help us with this strange burden we’d taken on, and when they did, it was immeasurably appreciated. (Honestly even then much of the help was given with the qualification that we had to kowtow to a beneficent overlord and proclaim our own ignorance. It was nuts.) Again, it’s not like it’s a bad thing to have crazy youth adventures. Just our crazy youth adventure involved us not being able to join in anybody else’s. It made me sort of jaded. And here I was, traveling around the Balkans on other people’s money, and I felt jaded! Can you believe it?! All in the name of researching the definition of travel I have carved for myself—leaving the comfort zone.
But the puppy made a lot of good decisions for us, too. In Herceg Novi we were trying to figure out what to do and we talked and stressed about it for like an hour at the bus stop, and a crazy woman stopped to coo over the dog and offered her apartment for cheap that night, and then we drank homemade rakija and took a walk through a weird graveyard on a hill and stole cherries from someone’s yard. Or when we went to Centinje the next day but couldn’t stay overnight because we’d left the dog in Herceg Novi, and they said, “Fuck the dog!” The dog would faster detect assholes and creeps than any personality exam, and made me so much more willing to get rid of people who couldn’t accept us as we were. When we got back home, I sent the hostel in Himarë an email saying “Look, the dog is safe and happy in Alaska!” and sent them a picture, and they sent back this bitchy little note about how I hadn’t dropped off the dog in Tirana like I’d promised and that’s why they’d given it to me. I did what I had to do to take care of the puppy.
It wasn’t the smartest decision, but what’s the fucking point of life if you can’t trust yourself to make giant mistakes and follow them through to the end. My sister Libby in Alaska adopted the dog and renamed it Biscuit, in the manner of Ellis Island immigration officials rewriting the names of the old world. The best thing I can say about the trip is that we helped out a shitty little dog whom nobody wanted and everyone loved. I am proud of this, at least.
We drove along the same stretch of coastline for the third time that day, the dog upon Anna’s lap. (I drove through Albania. She didn’t want the pressure.)Our first stop was to purchase homemade rakija in a big plastic bottle from an old woman by the side of the road. She braided some flowers together for Anna. She didn’t have change for the 2000 Lekë bill we passed her, so she had to shout down the slope to her neighbors.
The road passed a few abandoned resorts to an empty seaside village. The high season must be the time to go. The coast road becomes the main street of these villages, and then in the villages, lots of men putter around and avoid constructing buildings. The road to the beach crossed a gas station under construction, and we stopped at the mouth of the road. We almost decided to skip this beach because of what we saw on the gas station’s fence.
This is a good time to talk about the horrifying good-luck custom found in Albania. For tax reasons, Albanians add rebar to the top floors of their houses. The rebar sticks out about three feet and makes all the buildings look like skeletons. Unfinished buildings are in a lower tax bracket than finished buildings, so you can stick some rebar in your roof, and tell the government you’re waiting from money sent by relatives from abroad to finish the successive floors (which, in many cases, they are). HOWever, it is custom as a macabre symbol of good luck to take a stuffed animal or doll or some sort, tie a rope around its neck, and hang it off the side of the building. These creatures get left outside through years of moody climate until they have become battered, forgotten homunculi and wretched familiars, so horrifying that nobody, not crows nor criminals nor tax agents, would even want to come into the buildings. We’d seen a daffy duck doll, so old it had turned completely grey. We saw a scarecrow next to some abandoned brick factories, a scarecrow assembled from wires and wet paper bags. We saw dollies with their eyes hanging out, and teddy bears hanged from the highest tower, and action figures left to dangle against the walls. It is a truly fucked-up custom. Turkey just has the evil eye.
So, when we saw the mannequin head impaled upon a spike outside the gas station, while it was still horrifying, it was not completely unexpected. It was very, very threatening though. Someone had applied makeup and tied a pink bandanna around it. You know, the whole point of this trip was to prove that the cheaper, more exotic Albanian Riviera was equal to or better than the Amalfi coast in Italy. The first indication this might not be the case was this mannequin head, impaled upon a spike. I grew sad. We heeded not the warning and proceeded to the beach.
It was a rocky stretch of abandoned shacks along the moody sea. We passed a Danish hippy bus and I stopped the car to change into my red, white, and blue speedo. America!
A disfigured young man with a horrible expression walking opposite some pigs came up the road. Anna said, “I’m not staying in the car with that guy right there.” I said, “Do you really think I’d abandon you to him?” And there I was, car door open, my body swung out the side to remove my shoes, and the man stopped next to us. He had wiry, dirty hair, and wore a heavy black canvas trenchcoat and a snarl. He was holding a long piece of flaccid black rubber tubing, like a switch, and a handful of rusted, twisted metal hooks in his other hand. He stared at me. I stared at him. He yelled wordlessly at us, then stared some more. Was he going to flash us? Ask for money? Murder us?
“What do you want?” I yelled at him. He jerked his head up and flicked the switch over his shoulder. The pigs hooted in the mud nearby. I got back in the car and drove off. Anna and I agreed it was: fucking eerie.
“Maybe he was herding the pigs?” she suggested. We drove to the end of the beach, turned around, and then drove back up the road. As we passed him, pig-man stopped to stare at us. I drove faster, and wished I’d kept my shirt on.
Our next stop was through a village where the men were selling milk from tractors. A bunch of hollowed-out resorts stood on either side of the single lane road, and we followed a dirt path through what looked like a jungle to the beach. Finally, a real beach! There was a small cafe/bar and we took out our shorts and read books on the beach chairs. We both felt a little guilty for just using our money to have a good time on a beach, and then we remembered that we’d driven through the Albanian coastline, through ghost towns, with a dog, and it had been overcast and shitty, and had a bottle of homemade rakija. There was a broken concrete pier jutting out into the water, and the beach was made of tiny sharp flat pebbles. I jumped in. The water was cold. The puppy was shivering after we gave it milk from a tiny green tupperware container, so I put it up against my skin while I read.
After about an hour a guy approached us and was like “Italiano?” and we said “Americano!” and he said, “Fresca!” I immediately thought of the grapefruit soda. “Fresca?” we asked. “Fresca, fresca!” he said. He brushed the air with an impatient gesture and smiled. “Fresca, fresca, fresca!” and then mimed shivering, and then we got it. We looked at the sky: potent clouds had obscured half of our sunlight. It would soon be cold. We thanked the guy and I walked up the broken concrete and dropped puppy back onto the passenger seat.
I saw a small apartment nestled in a broken fence patched by a colorful pet’s tent. Town after town was deserted, full of apartments under construction and restaurants awaiting the high season. It was odd. We’d heard wonderful, beautiful things about the Albanian coastline, and the beautiful villages that dot its shores, but Anna noted that it felt like a post-apocalyptic honeymoon, driving along the broken rock wasteland where people no longer lived in their falling-down concrete homes. New and shiny apartments stood, unrented (we gave serious thought to breaking in and sleeping inside one or two). It was a beautiful stasis.
We almost didn’t stop in Sarandë, but they had a castle, called Lëkurës. It’s situated right outside the city proper. We drove to the top of a dirt plateau where a bunch of cows protected a lighthouse. Atop the castle was a little restaurant with iron chairs. The top offered a view of the sprawling archipelago below, islands sliding above and out of the water, buildings clustering together like mushrooms on the shore. We saw those same green parabola mountains arcing down the coast. A band of yellow beach made a sine wave up to the horizon. We sat on the half-buried concrete bunker and took pictures of ourselves with the pup. The pup did not understand the majesty of the view.
We were over budget for Albania, and hoping to bring down the cost of living by sleeping in a car or getting hosted for free (!!!) or something that day. But the city itself had the first signs of life on the entire Albanian Riviera, so we went in.
We first got solicited by Tom, who saw us on the street and asked if we needed cheap accommodation, which we said no to reflexively. After getting enough Turkish offers for whatever, it was just exhausting to get asked if we want things by everyone. I inherently distrust the sellers. It repels me. But we did need a place to stay, so said he would show us his hostel. We went into an unmarked apartment building, and up the stairs, and it was deserted, and there was a good three or four seconds when I made eye contact with Anna and tried to telepathically say “This is pretty sketch we will get murdered in this apartment,” but then it was fine, it was a normal hostel with signatures and notes all over the walls from hip and young travelers who were so excited (!!!) to be on their first European backpacking trip. Two French Canadians were on the balcony, talking loudly, and Bald Tom gave us his flyer. We asked the price but I already didn’t want to. We left and got ice cream bars at the shop downstairs.
“Oh Tom! Tom is! Very good! Very very good!” The women kept laughing and scanning the ice cream bars, over and over, doubled up with their raucous Albanian joy. Anna said a few things in Albanian. They loved her. We left and took the dog downtown.
“This dog is a good luck charm,” I said. “Maybe if we can bring it around someone will see it and take us in.” Anna thought it was good enough to try. I had her drive, for fun, and I snuggled the puppy in between my fat thighs. We trawled along the boardwalk. It was a parody of a New Jersey boardwalk. The beach was meager. There were a few carnival rides, some written in big Cyrillic, some with eager clowns beckoning children into tiny teacups. There was a tourism kiosk rotunda, which was closed. A fake cannon jut into the sky, perhaps an art thing/children’s climbing apparatus. A low-density teenager cloud crisscrossed the boardwalk on rollerblades, bouncing off the railings and each other like atoms in a vacuum.
Couchsurfing had listed two Americans in Sarandë, and we’d hoped to run into them, but apart from the teenagers there was nobody out. We went to a pizzeria and heard two people speaking English, clearly engaged in some sort of Albanian lesson, and hoped he would invite us in. He turned out to be a stodgy Slavic businessman, and was not interested in talking to us. The pizza was three dollars.
We saw on the street, of all people, Jack, the Australian guy from the hostel in Himarë! He waved and said he was staying at Hairy Lemon. It was the same price as Tom’s-whatever-murder-apartment-hostel, but somehow… less aggressive. Anna was a little worried about spending yet more money on a hostel (this one was also ten euro per person), but I was eager to not drive out four kilometers and sleep in the car. We shopped for juice (to mix with the rakija) and parked, and looked around for the hostel.
The Hairy Lemon was an eighth-floor apartment run by an Irish woman in the area of town still under construction. It was in an enormous 10-story building which had maybe 50 apartments and less than ten human occupants. We saw laundry hanging aaaaaall the way up on a corner balcony, and figured that was it. I found it on the door and buzzed it.
“Hi, where are you in the building?”
“Hi! We’re all the way at the end of the right hallway, eighth floor.”
We parked in a lot secured by a stuffed eagle and a corrugated tin garage door (paid 100 Lekë for the privilege) and took our stuff in. We met the staff, got our beds, and the Irish woman immediately made us Bailey’s and cream with homemade Bailey’s. We looked out over the balcony. Cold blue water and little beach umbrellas and one little peak thing poking out over a long tape of coastline. This one in particular was neat because I got the impression Sarandë was just the tip of an archipelago—it’s across a narrow straight to Corfu, which is Greece, and there’s a lake to the south, and some other tinier islands and hills. It’s cool.
We played poker with the puppy as collateral with the staff that night, and we offered Jack a ride to Blue-Eye spring in the morning. This was supposed to be a site where 15 natural hot springs made for a really cool watery place. In the morning, the hairy lemon people made us pancakes. We drove for the springs. Blue eye was just one big puddle in a jungle. Not bad, really. But our journey had taken us inland. The beach quest had ended.
The Irish woman gave us a lot of suggestions for expeditions out of Sarandë. There’s Blue Eye (Syri I Kalter) where apparently 15 different hot springs created a spring so potent you could throw a rock in and it wouldn’t sink; there were more mosques and castles. We’d had our fill of old buildings for the moment, so we opted out, but the hot springs sounded great.
But just so you know, the ancient city of Butrint is a UNESCO world heritage site. The stomped remains of a Roman city, stone pillars and standing churches on a forested peninsula. Nikita Khruschev visited the spit it was built on and recommended Enver Hoxha turn it into a submarine base. You could also visit the Monastery of Forty Saints, or kill time on the Ksamil islands, or the ancient town of Finiq (named for the Phoenicians, naturally.) Remember, Sarandë is almost Greece. Greece has been inhabited for a looooooooooooooong time.
I find it amazing that one can traverse the entire Albanian Riviera, stay in derelict hotels where all the plaster flakes off in huge chunks, have a lonely beach to yourself, and then go visit some long-ignored Roman ruins and just hike all over them. Remember, in Greece or Italy, it would be three times the price, have three times the people, and lack all the charm of a derelict soviet town.
Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter)
We cantered across a one-lane bridge spanning a swampy lagoon. Çelestina whined. Slow-moving tourists strolled at the speed of guppies on either side of Çelestina’s hull. The industrial water tank squatting in the lagoon and the concrete bridge had long been neglected, and weeds poked out anywhere they could.
The bridge transitioned into dirt road, which transitioned into parking lot. Anna and I wrapped puppy in a blanket and, since he was asleep, left it in the car with the windows down. We took stock of the area.
We were in a transcendental jungle. A pure clear river cut across the forest’s floor, and someone entrepreneurial had set up a white cafe on its banks. We followed a hand-painted wooden sign to Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye, which was zero feet from the parking lot. Huh. It was all beautiful, but sort of a disappointing hike.
Rather than being 15 separate hot springs, as we had been told, the Blue Eye was actually 15 springs emptying into the same pool with such force that you could throw a rock in and it would float. I tried this with four different rocks. None of them floated. One of them was sort of buffeted off to the side before sinking deep into the blue of the pool. The water was clear and cold. Teenagers on a field trip laughed and took pictures at the water’s edge, and a frowning teacher adjusted her shades and looked at her watch. How many teenagers were in this country, anyways?
We walked around the jungle some more, and found the rusted iron skeleton of a bridge across the river. We found a defunct cafe where a waterfall splattered onto the stone walkway. An old woman with a wooden-handled squeegee mop pushed soapy water across the stones.
I went back to white cafe and got an espresso and watched tiny fish in the grassy water.
St. Koll Church
We drove east from Sarandë, and up into the mountains. Pulled off the road following a sign reading “St. Koll church” and some “ruins,” and followed a single-lane dirt road over and down and over and down some hills, which gave us great views of the Albanian wilds (where if you remember Voldemort was hiding for some time) but mostly just made us nervous about the state of the rental car. And led nowhere. We were going in second gear through rock puddles for half an hour, with the engine’s whine becoming progressively more worrisome, before giving up. If I’d had a four wheeler, maybe. Instead we just went up and down and through some hella big puddles and up to a point where a single black bra was hanging from a branch. There was no church and no ruins.
A little while later, we stopped at a roadside stand to buy some of the carrot bouquets they displayed. There were a lot of carrots. We ate carrots and threw the greens on the highway.
One can only spend so much time describing cities made of rocks—and I have no idea why cities made of rocks are so fascinating, unless it’s because that in America, nothing is made out of rocks unless it was some intentional throwback to the old world—but I really like Gjirokastër. Of all of the large cities made out of rocks we saw on our Balkans trip, this was my favorite. This one had crazy steep roads and staircases and wide platforms, am impossible tall castle topped by a clock tower, an up-and-down neighborhood of the white facade ottoman houses. It felt more like an improbably wizard’s town than an archaeological dig, possibly because people still live there. Enver Hoxha is from Gjirokastër. The entire old town is built on four hillsides, like someone shook out a blanket. This is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Not that that’s any mark of quality, but it is amazing all the same. We walked up and down the main bazaar streets, looking through the many fine tourist goods such as postcards and mugs, until we found a restaurant, just someone’s townhouse they’d converted into a tourism-ready kitchen. The ground floor was barely long enough to turn around in, and an iron spiral staircase took us up to a tiny, well-lit attic, lined with carpets and cushions. The husband, who was wearing a real chef hat, brought us baked cheese, pilaf, pasta arrabiata, some kind of spinach borek, and stuffed peppers. It was astounding.
I’ve seen descriptions of hotels on tripadvisor which say things like “lovingly restored” and “impeccable service.” The Hotel Sopoti was charming, in a sort of empty, careless way. We found it near the main bazaar. It advertised rooms for ten dollars, and even from the outside I could see why: it looked like a sanatorium designed by a chain-smoking French architect who wanted to depict the barren inhumanity of interior design as a lifestyle choice. The lobby was empty. The owner was an old half-drunk man in the bar next door, who was happy to usher us in, give us a cartoonishly large key, and take us up the stairs. Because the rooms were all arranged around an open-air courtyard, it didn’t really feel as though we were inside a building at all. There were no decorations on the bare stone walls, save for some faded pink curtains on the windows. The building was made of stone. The doors to our room were tall slabs of oak, painted a light, nauseous blue about ten thousand years ago, and did not lock. We tipped a nightstand over, lined it with towels, and used it as a puppy box.
I didn’t know this until I left, but there is a hidden bunker complex underneath the magnificent castle. We parked near the castle and found a tunnel which ran underneath it, the whole way across, and perhaps this connects to the bunkers somehow. Perhaps it is a good rule of thumb for Albania, that due to many years of paranoia, there will always be a hidden bunker complex. I believe you can ask the ticket-takers at the castle’s gate to help you find the bunker’s entrance.
Jesus, don’t go here. This is the town RIGHT NEXT TO GJIROKASTER which supplies the entire continent of Europe with 75% of its marijuana. You read that right. If you get offered pot somewhere in Paris or Malaga, chances are it came from Lazarat, Albania. This is because the locals are all mobsters and are so well-armed that police don’t dare approach. From the road, it quickly transforms from charming village farms to a labyrinth of walled-off concrete compounds buried beneath garbage drifts, full of meandering strung-out teenagers. Everyone was staring at us. We pretended we were just driving up the hill for a picture and a view. I was terrified.
I have been informed that the police burned this city to the ground in July of 2014, just after we visited, so everything’s hunky-dory.
While driving back to Tirana to drop off Çelestina, we picked up some German hitchhikers. Some children standing by the side of the road waved us down, and thrust sticks into the air, sticks with dozens of cherries tied to them. We stopped and bought some. Not 50 miles later a grown man did the same wave, and thrust his live rabbit into the air, hanging from his fist by its ears.
Adventure suggestion: Smuggle a dog across Balkan borders
When we’d arrived back in Tirana, our skinny German hostel owner was not happy to see the pup. He was not at all interested in having it around, let alone adopt it. “You cannot just take a dog around between countries,” he said. “You need to get all sorts of papers. Its best chance is to get a shelter here. I will call my friends.” He was skeptical. Honestly, we were skeptical. This whole thing was a bad idea. The German told us a story about a group of Spanish kids who’d done the same thing at his hostel a while back, and released the dog on the street. It was one of those stories with a moral. He looked at me.
“No, I wasn’t going to do that,” I said.
“Yes, good, because, sometimes people do that.”
“No really, we just wanted to take the dog around with us. I had no idea it would be a problem to take a dog around.”
“Yes, well I tried to take my dog into Germany, and the passport takes three months, and they still denied her at the border, because they have to stay in quarantine for six months.”
After a day of calling around and sending emails to dog shelters and strangers, nothing had really gotten us any leverage. We were sick with worry. We went to sit on the porch. A thirtyish man wearing a dirty plaid shirt only half-tucked was smoking there, staring off into the middle distance. He said that it might be possible to bring the dog back to America, and then we wouldn’t have to make a bus trip all the way back down to Himarë to return the pup. His lawyer mom had adopted lots of dogs from abroad, and he was eager to help, to email his mom and ask for legal advice.
“Michael,” he said, introducing himself. “It’s nice to see some more Americans. I’ve been on the road a long time.” We asked him if he wanted to come with us to dinner.
“Well I’ve got some meat, you want hamburgers? I can make hamburgers, like gourmet hamburgers, I just have to run out and get some things. I can make hamburgers.” I blinked.
“Actually, we just want to go out and get food and, uh, have someone serve us.”
“Ok. I know a place. You want chicken? You like chicken? You want a big chicken or a small chicken? What size chicken?” He measured with his hands. “Big chicken or small chicken? You want chicken?”
It was relentless. He took us down the street to the little roundabout near our hostel. It was a blue restaurant with a grill on the street. There were skewers half full of roast chickens. On the other half: roast sheep heads.
“I love trying to get with the locals, trying to be local, you know, eating like the locals, learning the language. I’ve been here for a few weeks. I like to try and learn the language. I like to be local, you know, learn the language.”
“Ok,” I said.
We sat down and Michael began shouting confusing instructions at the poor people running it, a drunk man who was barely able to talk but was very happy to have guests. Michael’s enthusiasm for being local, I noted, overshadowed his actual knowledge of words like one, or two, or beer. The wife brought Anna some wine and brought me a beer. We split a whole golden chicken and it was delicious. All the time, Michael was lecturing me about the state of travel writing and then asked me if he could write for me.
“What?” I said.
“You need someone who knows how to travel. I can do that I can get you an app. You should write an app. You want to teach someone how to backpack, how to be in hostels? You need experience for that, I have experience. This could be big.” He talked the way a drowning man swims. It was like war. He talked about working for big finance and abandoning that job because of some legal troubles and leaving the US. He wore a dirty plaid shirt with the collar uptucked in the back. Everyone at the hostel had avoided him, and I was beginning to see why.
I told him to write me a sample article. He backed off all of a sudden and pretended like that was impossible. That was our meeting over a whole chicken. Anna was hungry and tired and staring at her lap with round dead eyes as Michael rattled off weird things. Besides being an expert on Dog Law, he was also a Financial Expert, an IT Expert, and a Foodie. And truly, the worst part was that he was right—that was a really good chicken.
Back at the hostel, we reasoned that if we could find the dog a place to stay during this trip, we could bring it back to America from Tirana, or something. Michael said he was a “regular” at another nearby hostel, and he offered to bring me there and ask him to see if they could help out. I was desperate. I accepted.
At the other hostel, Trip’n Hostel, I immediately felt a sense of calm. Twelve-foot high stucco walls blocked out the chaos of the old man bazaar. Inside, they’d painted it in nice blue and white shades, and filled the garden with white stones. A group of people sat around a table. One of the guys was designing a new logo for the hostel and using an exacto knife to slice it out. The owner brought out a glass of tea for me. Michael was winding the conversation like a ball of hairy twine around and around and around himself, and I could see that the group, peacefully sipping tea in the quiet of the garden, was not thrilled to see him again. I cut in. I explained my predicament and asked the Trip’n’s owner if he could take it while we traveled around, and then come back. The designer didn’t even look up when he spoke.
“Just take it around with you! This is the Balkans. You got a hoodie? That cutie would fit in a kangaroo pouch. Make big eyes if they catch you, what, they’re gonna take away your dog?” I admired his aplomb. I thanked them. Anna and I talked it over, and realized if it really didn’t work, if they turned us away at the border, we could always just come back and try something else. We bought a bus ticket for noon the next day.
We wrapped Puppy in Anna’s towel, much like a burrito. Then we dropped that towel into a plastic bag, and then I put my sweatshirt on top of it. It was completely undetectable. I was super worried he wouldn’t be able to breathe and kept checking on him. Nobody realized there was a dog in the sack in the bus office, and the bus, when it came, was almost empty, so we went all the way to the back, where nobody else was.
He slept most of the time anyways. We stared out the window at the green highlands and the graying skies in anxiety for a good three hours. Our bus climbed through a village where everyone seemed to own a car wash, and in every driveway, a hose was shooting a parabola of water ten feet into the air.
Everyone stayed on the bus at the border crossing. The Macedonian authorities came on the bus and collected everyone’s passports. As they left, the dog began waking up. I removed him from the bag and put him straight on my lap, and dropped the hoodie over us like a blanket. He was becoming squirmy and restless, and I was trying to pretend I was holding my stomach, casually. I casually held my lumpy stomach. The Macedonian authorities came back on the bus, with huge flashlights, checking the overhead sections. For dogs, probably. Smuggled dogs. The closer they got to the back of the bus, the more our puppy kept squirming. The border cops came up to us, and shined their lights in our faces, above our heads, at our casual stomachs. It was at this precise moment that I discovered why puppy was so antsy. My lap grew warm, and very, very wet. The Macedonian cops seemed satisfied, gave us our passports, and left. The sun had set. Our bus rolled past the border gates. I pulled off the hoodie and Anna laughed, and laughed, and laughed. This was my first moment in Macedonia.