It proofed to be not so simple, getting from Northern Greece into Albania. Sensible people – unlike me – seem to fly via Athens to Tirana, which, as previously explained, is not an option for me on this trip.
There is no direct bus from Ioannina to Tirana, although rumour has it, that a long distance coach between Athens and the Albanian capital is passing by Ioannina and that it can be flagged down at a cafe just outside of town.
With a bit further digging I find out though, that there is a direct bus between Ioannina and Gjirocastër – a UNESCO World Heritage site – in the South of Albania. Once over the border, I trust (correctly) that there will be ample transport options to the capital.
Entering this time a considerably more comfortable coach at the central bus station, I am within two hours transported for 90 kilometers across the border, through a long valley with beautiful green mountains on both sides and along a river with pristine water.
Just before sunset I am arriving in Gjirocastër, the “Stone City”, which is the site of an impressive mediaval fortress on a nearby hill. I am picked up by a lovely man who doesn’t speak any English or any other language we a both are able to converse in and brought to “Grand Pa’s House” which is beautifully kept and conveniently located at the foothills of the castle.
Gjirocastër, its history and its site would provide ample material for another chapter in this diary, but following a short stroll through its deserted streets very early the next morning (ahead of the daily bus loads of tourists)
I am on the road again, catching another bus – this time again of the battered minibus variety – which is promising to take me for 14 Euros the required 230 kms further North to Tirana.
Following an hour’s wait – as I had just missed the 11 o’clock schedule – I am somewhat surprised that the bus driver, who could also have earned a living as a night club bouncer, is ushering me further down the aisle exactly to my alocated seat, based on my pretty rudimentary and certainly not machine readable ticket……
Here I am unmistakably told to remain for the duration of the whole trip.
The reason for this becomes clear over the next 4 hours, which develop into a colourful caleidoscope of Albanian village life, which no guide book or travel programme would be able to provide.
While our little bus is rolling through the stunning mediterranian countryside of Southern Albania, the driver is stopping at everyone who is indicating that he or she in need of transport up North, lining his pockets with unrecorded banknotes and coins.
For a couple of Euros a fellow foreigner with a hugh back pack is entering the bus. It turns out that he is on a mission to maneuver the Vlora river with his inflatable kanu. After 10 kilometers he is leaving again.
Villagers dressed in black, clearly on their way to a funeral, are entering and then leaving in the following village. A young boy is handed over to the driver with clear instructions by the mother where to drop him off again. The little boy is hugging his mother and his brother who has come along to see him off and then the bus continues on its journey.
At a spring next to the road, the driver stops to fill up a 5l plastic container with the water.
A parcel is handed to the driver, which after a journey of 100 kms is leaving the bus again.
A guy with a damaged car radiator is been refused access to the bus because he doesn’t seem to be able to pay the fare ?
Throughout the whole trip, the bus is filling up with a colourful mix of Albanian society and then emptying again.
At a roadsite cafeteria, the bus drives on to the gravel car park, the driver shouts out of the window and a young girl comes running with a ready made Turkish coffee.
At a larger service station, we are taking a break and I make the pointless attempt to invite the main protagonist of this trip to a coffee…. of course he doesn’t need to pay here for his food or drinks, as he has just dropped off a whole bus load of new hungry and thirsty customers…..
However, I seem to have scored some points with the man, as he then tells me – after guessing my nationality correctly – that he has a couple of children living in Berlin.
In just over 4 hours this incredibly entertain trip comes to an end at the North-South Bus Terminal at the outskirts of Tirana, from where for a further bus fare of 0.35 cent, a local commuter bus is bringing me to the doorsteps of my home for the next few days.