Hitchhiking through (mainly) Albania
The rain just started to drip when we stepped out the door and started walking towards Bitola. We had no idea how our first hitchhike would go, and the weight of the backpack pulling me down was an odd new sensation (packing list here). 20 minutes later we were already sitting in and old guy’s old car. The passenger seat was broken and I was tilting every time he had to hit the brakes, but instead of an hour of walking, we were in the centre in five minutes. He stopped for us barely after a few minutes of standing on the main road, and we were hoping to get this lucky most of the time.
Rehersal in Macedonia
Our timetable was pretty relaxed. The main goal was getting to the Peaks of the Balkans, which is a mountain range spreading over three countries, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. The hiking trails are sort of newly established, but the land itself is ancient and the tribes there supposedly had menacingly sounding blood feuds for centuries. If you want to cross borders on the trails, you have to get a permit first through online application, which can take a few weeks. We were not exactly sure when we would end up there, so we planned to check out only the Albanian side.
Since our main area of interest was really close to Southern Montenegro, where my mom was planning to spend her holiday in late August, we agreed to meet up with her first. This way, she could also deliver the new phone and a mattress for Alan (his Thermarest was full of holes and he was using a yoga mat) without any postage fees. There was plenty of time though, almost two weeks to get there, so we made sure to stay at beaches and take the travel part slowly. After all, this was our summer vacation.
The first destination was Lake Prespa, so after restocking some bulk goods and finding a paper map for Albania in Bitola, we hitched a ride in less than 10 minutes out of the city and hit the road. A few hours and several cars later we were already putting up the tent and the hammock, and felt strange how fast we managed to get some distance behind us. We suddenly got a lot of time on our hands, and we mostly used it to rest and chill, generally not doing much, as anyone on a vacation. The water was finally clean and perfect for swimming, and being in desperate need of a good bath (Goce’s old house only had a garden tap), we enjoyed it thoroughly. It is interesting how many things you take for granted, living in a city can be appreciated after being away from civilization a longer period of time. Also makes you think how rich everyone is actually, if they have a house, heating, running water and electricity.
Our next destination was at Lake Ohrid, where we intended to go to a secluded beach on the south, recommended by the wildcamping.info webpage. The city of Ohrid was a necessary stop to stock up on food and find a ride, so might as well look around we thought. We ended up camping in the middle of it, not so far from a 13th century monastery, on a small little gravel beach. The people hanging around until sunset must have thought us weird for taking out our stove and whipping up a full meal there. 😀
The city had a nice feel to it, a bit touristy in the central parts but has a ton of parks where you could get away from the buzz easily. To our joy and surprise, we discovered a falafel place there, which we couldn’t resist trying out, and it was worth every cent. Must have to do with being one of the most popular locations in the Southern Balkan area, because otherwise we haven’t found any real vegetarian options or places in the past few months – they love their meat around here.
We traveled south in the morning to Trpeica, the town closest to where we had the info about the wild camping place. I am not exaggerating when I say we found the best spot on the tour (so far). It was right at the water (which was super clear, and even though still water is usually not advised, we even risked filtering it to drink), had plenty of space and shade for a tent, fireplace, and a few kilometres away from everything, with a gorgeous view. We spent three days there and only went into town to resupply and charge the laptop once, otherwise the days were spent in total relaxation, swimming, reading, and I even had time to write for the blog.
Albania, at last
A few days before we were supposed to be in Montenegro, we hit the road again, and learned the wonders and tricks of hitchhiking through Albania. It was a total change of pace, as we saw the steep, hilly roads rush by us while we covered huge distances in just two days. Most of the time we got picked up fast and easy, and often we found ourselves together with Italians. It turned out a lot of Albanians immigrated there and married locals, so there is a big Italian connection going on (lots of family visits and such), there was even an Italian dentist advert in Tirana, the capital, which I found quite strange.
At least wıth the Italians, we could mostly communicate, especially since I picked some up from our one month spent there. When it came to Albanians, usually they were really nice too, but the problem was that apart from getting down the basics (where are you from and rarely, where are you going), most of them spoke no English, so we spent some rides quietly sitting in the car for an hour or more, just waiting for our destination.. funny and awkward at the same time I guess. We were looking forward to getting to know the country a little more by interacting with the locals, but eventually we didn’t manage to learn much because of this barrier (and as I mentioned in the blogpost about Kosovo, Albanian is super hard).
With hitchhiking, the beauty is that you can never know where you end up at the end of the day, and sometimes just go with the flow. For this reason, we slept at a beautiful beach we otherwise would have missed, because the family picking us up happened to head there, and then one day we hitched a ride in two minutes from Shkoder to Ulcinj in one go, a famous party beach town in Montenegro. Ok, we had to sleep next to the big parking lot, but the scene as I went through town in bikinis to have a bath in the sea while other people were having dinner and partying was worth it.
What we saw from Albania in the first trip was not much different from the rest of the Balkans, other than being even cheaper when it came to food, but otherwise people were super friendly and there was trash lying everywhere, at the roadside, on the beach, and the few recycling bins in the major cities were overflowing with normal garbage. On the plus side, wild camping is legal and the tap water (despite being told otherwise on the internet and in other countries) is drinkable, they even have spring water quality in the mountain regions and near Lake Ohrid. This meant we didn’t have to bother much with filtering the water (most cafés served iced, filtered water for us for free anyway), and could set up camp wherever we felt like it, which was nice and stress free.
Back to Montenegro for the last time
Originally we wanted to camp next to Lake Shkoder too, so arrived in the area a day early, but after looking at the map more thoroughly and searching for info, we realized that the surroundings are mostly swampy, making it impossible to do so. Hence we decided going straight to Çanj, the resort town where my mom was supposed to arrive in a few days, although we stopped and hiked around in Bar for a day, which was really worth it, the mountains there are amazing, and I recommend it especially if you like rock climbing.
The fig season was also in full bloom, we had such a big supply that it felt like we were constantly eating jam. We also found that the prices for fresh produce in the supermarket was quite ok, compared to how touristy the whole old town was, so we could easily keep our budget low.
This was true even for Çanj, although there was another reason we spent so little there. Apart from my mom giving us a lot of food when she arrived (and her friends as well, even inviting us for dinner), we got food poisoning from a simple salad in a restaurant for the first time since we started the trip.
The good thing in the bad situation was that we stayed a week instead of two days there, so we could spend more time together and she and her friends also helped me get through the sickness. We left the same day even, getting all the leftover stuff she had, and her delicious homemade muesli bars were pretty handy for the days coming ahead. Because we finally set ourselves for the direction of Teth, where we intended to start the Peaks of the Balkan trail. I don’t want to get this post overblown with the tons of pictures and adventures we had there, so you can read about that next time. Stay tuned 🙂