The previous night we had spent next to an ancient bridge ... only the next morning a passer-by informed us that this site is "famous" for dangerous falling rocks from the nearby cliff. Well, we survived!
We set off after a brief brekkie ... the tourist information in the next village is no real help for our "problems" ("Is there a campsite nearby?" - Sóley had thrown up and we need a laundry machine ... "Where is the bear rescue station Greek friends had told us about?"). On the contrary, it is rather difficult to find the tourist information at all as in the building bearing that sign we only find an office responsible for issuing dog tags - which takes a while for us to find out. Only after long asking around and finding our way through the authority djungle, we find somebody who is responsible for tourists - only that he doesn't know about that it seems, and also he cannot communicate with us in English or German (and we don't speak Greek, unfortunately!). ... Somehow, we are still able to find out that there is neither a campsite nor a bear rescue station anywhere nearby. The Greek government had apparently prohibited the establishment of any campsites due to the increasing number of bear attacks. Only a story? A fairytale?
However, we go on to find out where the roads will take us today!
On the way to the next city we find no signs for campsites and also in the city there only seems to be room for hotel-tourists. So, we cross the border to Albania knowing that there it is normal that any guesthouse, restaurant or hotel in the countryside provide free camping opportunities in their backyard or parking lot if you stay at their restaurant for dinner and breakfast (the food is about the same price of a Greek campsite).
At the border we immediately sense the difference between Greek and Albanian border police: while the Greek police are nearly Germanic-correct, polite but a bit reserved, we again experience their Albanian counterparts as being extremely relaxed and friendly if a bit cheeky. It's really nice to be back in this country!
The road to the mountain village our guidebook recommends is in unexpectedly good condition. I hear myself saying "These roads are even better than in Greece!" ... until, well, until it was bound to happen: in the middle of some nameless village on our way, asphalt turns into gravel. Still unsuspecting we continue on our way. We ask a farmer guiding his horse drawn carriage using hands, feet and our map for the way and figure out from his reactions that we still are on the right way and will have to turn right where the roads part (!). So, on we go! ... our travel speed has been reduced by the "road" to roundabout 15 km/h and the "road" - a yellow one in the map and no 4wd-only track - turns out to be the worst agricultural road we had experienced for the last few years. We find the fork in the path which doesn't reveal its identity by roadsigns and our Land Rover ploughs on in the truest sense of the word. ... About 70 minutes later - we are still on this piste turning from mud to gravel to stones to rocks and back to mud - we see the first few houses of the mountain village we are looking for in the distance about 3 km away from us. Frolickingly, we gasp with relief ... not knowing still that the ascend to the village is bettering everything we had before experienced. Apparently, we are on a bad hiking route now and nearly all propulsion is done in first gear with a lot of support from the handbrake. Due to that, we finally change gears to cross-country reduction and activate the diff lock (courageously, I had abstained from that before) ... More than once we nearly topple but still courageously plough on. Really strange is that both kids, who don't like asphalt serpentines and have to throw up every now and then, are rather swinging-cheery and bawl kindergarten songs! Offroad-travel-children! Finally, we are there - only to discover that from the other direction a proper road connects this village with civilization, because this village is supposed to be the most important winter sports village of Albania.
Exhausted and still a bit confused because of the shaky dirt track, we ask the first people we meet on the road where we could stay for the night and which restaurant is good ... We get no directions but Juliane is guided by the man and I follow through the slopy village, in turns I stick to walls (just in case I topple - so I still have at least something to hold on to) until we finally end up at a half level lilliput parking lot where we are supposed to park and setup camp. The pub is only 15 m away. There we get an immense dinner which we are not able to finish for only about 23 € (local sausage, a giant portion of snails which regarding taste are not being camouflaged with the help of sauce or cheese-gratination, fava beans, a mountain of french fries, the local Tzaziki, bread, a giant salad, two ice cream, two mulberry-Raki, one coffee, a tea, a beer, a red wine, four lemonades!). The locals slap us on our shoulders that we managed to come here using the bad road (nobody else takes any more ... "strong car!"). Later that evening, the children are sleeping in the car, we sit together with a professor for Albanian language, who is a local and has also taught in Germany. At the table next to us, a famous TV-host (of the Albanian version of X-Factor), the son of one of the most important recent Albanian writers, who is also here, plays the guitar for a large round of villagers who join in into his singing. Believe it or not, but this is just a normal day on the road in Albania ... it fades away with the chants from the pub which resound into the deep night (cold it was, too!). In the morning, we are allowed to use the showers and toilet of one of the holiday flats - for free because the guy that brought us here is a friend of the landlord.
Where are we?
Location: Gjirokastër, Albania
Weather: some clouds, light wind
From our new friends' beach house in Agkali (Greece) we went on back to Kalivia Varikou still being unsure on whereabout to head next. Turkey and especially Istanbul was one idea, but also we wanted have enough time to go back to Albania to later discover the Greek west coast and the Peleponnes penninsula. The "Turkey solution" would have meant an insight into another different culture and the "Albania/Greece solution" would allow us to travel slowly and delve deeper into the culture. It was a hard decision but as so many interesting countries, cities and cultures lie on our way down to Cape Town, we opted for the slow travel version. Turkey still is "on the list" and we will go there as soon as possible - then including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Iran and whatever country we also have time to visit!
From Varikou we headed for Meteora, which simply was impressive (see our post on Meteora), especially because we discovered it from its less touristy side walking through beautiful nature.
After that we went further north and spent a night at the beautiful bridge of Konitsa, a World Heritage Site.
From there, we went on back to Albania to discover the beautiful village of Dardhë, continuing to Germenj. From there, we drove on to Gjirokastër. Both the vegetation/countryside and the road conditions on the way reminded me on Norway or Sweden about 35 years ago. One thing that annoyed us, though, was the fact that almost everybody seems to be throwing their waste into the nature wherever they want to. This is really sad, as especially the countryside and nature of this wonderful country is so very special and precious and will most certainly attract tourists from all over the world which would give this poor country a chance to make its way into a more prosperous future.