After two weeks in Croatia, the next leg of our trip seemed short in comparison, but none the less memorable. We were continuing our way through southern Europe by visiting Montenegro and to my Father’s “but why?” confusion, Albania!
It still fascinates me that in Europe you can hop on a bus for a few hours and find yourselves in a completely different country. That’s like getting on in Auckland and finding yourself in Hamilton… not quite the same. This time, we boarded a bus in Dubrovnik and got off in Kotor, Montenegro.
Here we only had a couple of days, but had high expectations. We had heard people sing its praises and read about all it had to offer. Maybe we were doing something wrong, but we weren’t exactly impressed. Yes, the old town was ‘nice,’ but we had just come from the incredible old town of Dubrovnik! (So, really, me being underwhelmed could be more spoiled than anything).
But there was nothing outside the old walls, the harbour was really quite scummy and it was incredibly expensive. I say “incredibly” – i’m a backpacker so our budgets may differ, but we thought it was overpriced. Also, as I mentioned in my ‘Tips for Croatia’, it’s nice when a place has a bit of atmosphere. Kotor had none. We went for drinks on our first night and everything was closed. It was Friday! Time of season maybe? It only chirped up a bit when a cruise boat unloaded a few hundred all-inclusive golden oldies. And I was happy they were there! Who would have thought I’d ever think that…
Some kudos it deserves is for its castle ruins high above the town, and the view you get if you climb up there. Kotor is situated at the end of a bay, nestled amongst big mountains with a beautiful, blue body of water in between. While the fort ruins were cool (albeit unloved) the view from up there was incredible and ideal for the panorama setting on your iPhone.
Leaving Kotor for our next Montenegro spot, our expectations were low. So arriving into Budva was a pleasant surprise. Sitting on the coast the old town was larger and buzzing. Our spirits lifted instantly. We had a nice little room in the middle of town and enjoyed cheap food and cocktails for the duration of our time there.
But, it could be because we had seen very similar places in Croatia, didn’t have enough money, or are actually well versed in criticising destinations fairly, we didn’t think Montenegro was ‘all that and a bag of potato chips.’
After researching how to get to Albania from Montenegro, it was disappointing to realise just how difficult it would be. Buses are long, you have to take three of them and it is very hard to get through the border. Luckily, we found out our Hostel (Montenegro Hostel) offered a chauffeur option, driving us all the way to Tirana. Even better was the fact that the driver, Dean, was actually the owner of the Hostel group!
Dean was so interesting and chocked full of information about Montenegro and its surrounding countries. For example, if you visit Albania and notice that most of the houses and buildings don’t have actual roofs, it’s because there is a roof tax there! So builders seal the top of the building without technically giving it a roof to avoid the tax!
He also had a personal story that is scripted for the silver screen. A Serbian, growing up in Croatia, he and his family had a beautiful house, a holiday home, a business, and an all round good life. When things grew hostile in the country, he and his family had to flee to Serbia almost overnight, leaving everything behind. Then, his brother joined the “People’s Army” and Dean explained, they didn’t know who they were fighting until they became close enough to see the “enemy’s face” – where often they’d be recognised as old school chums. What’s more, Dean’s brother fell in love with a Muslim woman (obviously a big no no). To escape, they approached the Australian embassy who flew them to Australia within two weeks! They now live happily there. What a story!!
When we arrived into Tirana, I was blown away. It was not at all what I expected. The city was absolutely buzzing! And it was so, so colourful. Dean had told us that this is because the Mayor (now Prime Minister) of Albania ordered the old communist buildings etc to be painted with bright colours, to boost morale of the people (and because communist buildings are so heinous to look at). A great place to get a 360 view of the city is up the Sky Hotel Tower. You pay a small fee to go up, then sit down and grab a beer. Little did we know, it is a revolving bar, and we had to convince ourselves that the floor really was spinning and it wasn’t just the three pints.
As we explored the city, its unique vibrancy became even more apparent. There are quirky bars and cafes everywhere. Colour, atmosphere, music and lot’s and lot’s of young people. It came across to us as a university town. This could be because over 50% of Tirana’s population is under 30 years old! (Thanks Dean).
The other thing I loved about Tirana was the food – (“of course it was” says Mother). Huge portions of deliciously grilled meats, tasty salads and mouthwatering, freshly baked breads. So, so cheap as well. The meal in the pictures below cost all of around £6 – and no that wasn’t just for me!
Accompany that with some of the best coffee I have had since leaving New Zealand, and for a cost of about £0.35, I think I have found my ideal second home.
Sadly, the truth hit home about the politically ‘mental’ state of the city when Albania’s football team went to Serbia for the first time in 65 years for a match. We were awoken by car horns, firecrackers and singing outside our window. I jumped on the internet and found out the match had been cancelled because a drone carrying the Albanian flag was flown over the pitch which sparked anger in the crowd and on the pitch. So, a match cancelled and the city erupts in celebration. It again highlighted just how deep-seeded the hatred is…still.
The next day, we decided to take a day trip out of the city to the town of Kruja. There, we explored an old castle and visited an interesting museum, which turned out to be a four-floor shrine too George Kastrioti Skanderbeg – an Albanian hero who defended Albania from Ottoman invasion for two decades. It was very interesting, however not a lot of it was in english unfortunately.
As interesting as Kruja was, the best part was the bus ride out there! Finding the first one from Tirana proved so difficult. There is no bus depot. We had to walk to a big traffic island and hope that a bus with Kruja on the front drove past, which we then had to flag down. From there, it was fantastic people watching. All the locals would stand at any point on the road and hail the bus. Some would even jump in while it was moving! Also, if you are a woman, don’t bother trying to give your seat to the elderly – chivalry certainly has not died in Albania and a 90 year old man will give up his seat before allowing you to.
Tips for visiting Montenegro and Albania
1. Skip Montenegro
This is obviously, hugely personal opinion. But, if you only plan on visiting Kotor and Budva, and are going to see Croatia first, then I truly don’t see the point. I found, what we saw of Montenegro, as a slightly smaller version of a Croatian town. However, if you are on your way to Albania, then it definitely is a nice route to take.
2. Spend more time in Albania
I will forever regret not spending more time in Albania and seeing more of the country. We dropped another (very strange American) passenger off in Durres before our Tirana stop, and even that city looked like it could be worth one or two days exploring. I shall return in the future I believe!
Finishing this particular stint in Albania was perfect. Getting that one last hit of Croatian/Montenegrin/Albanian culture (while obviously different, all are quite similar) it was time to move onto another, one on which the modern world was based on… finally it was see to hit Greece…a large portion of it too (be prepared for a mammoth blog post!)