Sunday, 31 May 2015

Albanian Adventures (Beth)

After a free night by the beach, of which we have enjoyed so many in Greece, it was time for us to say goodbye to this beautiful country that we have fallen in love with, yes, even Alfie. After a quick pit-stop to buy a new camera (ours was suffering from being abused on beaches, some of you might have noticed an irritating smudge in our most recent pics) we set off towards the Albanian border.

We had done some research about Albania, having previously thought it a bit dodgy to visit but had been reassured by many people about it's safety, especially along the southern coastal roads. Our van insurance doesn't cover us outside of the EU, but we had been told we could buy border insurance.

The border was very quiet and on the Greek side we were ushered through quickly after a cursory glance at the passports. We asked about insurance but were told to ask in one of the duty free shops (?) which we did to no avail. On the Albanian side, our passports and V5 were checked, but nothing was mentioned about insurance. We tried to ask but there was a definite language problem and we were shooed away from the border office. Looking around, we could see no obvious place to get insurance, just several cafes and a Western Union. Quite a few dodgy types were hanging around and a few approached us, seemingly keen to try out their English, but not understanding what we were saying. By this point, Nathanial felt we were making ourselves an obvious target and decided that we'd be better to push on.

Our first views of the country were pretty impressive. More lush mountain scenery, possibly greener than Greece had been, with wide open spaces and very quiet roads. The sat-nav decided to give up altogether soon after the border, so we relied on our European map and navigated by looking for signs to places along our intended route, which served us pretty well wherever the signs actually existed.

At this point Nathanial kept saying he should be on a motor bike
We got a bit lost around Sarande but eventually found our way out, after visiting a cashpoint to stock up on the new currency, the Lek. I hadn't a clue how many Lek you get to the Euro, and I had a choice of withdrawing between one thousand and one hundred thousand. I opted to take out ten thousand, which was delivered in two notes.*

The roads really started to test the vans suspension
It was no fun getting lost with out the sat nav
Ever prepared as we are, I had done a bit of research on campsites, but not actually written down proper directions, just the name and town of the one for the first night. It was getting late in the evening when we finally arrived in Himare and found the right beach road. As we drove along, we spotted a lone camper and a few tents in a field and were waved in by the owner to park, just in the nick of time.

Antonio and his wife appear to live in the tent to the left of this photo
After a quick introduction from Antonio, we settled in to have dinner and watch a film. After a while, a knock on the door revealed Antonio with a dish of potatoes, freshly dug up and washed by his wife as a gift, which we thankfully received.

The little allotment on the actual camp site
In the morning Nathanial and I had a long chat with Antonio, who proved a fascinating raconteur, covering a wide variety of topics including his work history (for Siemens we think?) and that of his grandfather (a miner in France and Italy) a history of his region, local and world politics, the rules of Octopus fishing, religion, the creation of his campsite and plans for future construction and the Bermuda triangle.

We're loving waking up to these views
After perhaps an hour of this 'conversation' (we made occasional 'really?' or 'wow' noises) in the baking heat, Nathanial and I were glad to try out the shower block, which was an interesting looking shed with open drainage onto the soil. However, despite my reservations, the shower proved to be hot, powerful, clean and spacious. Much better than many we have used on this trip.

Al fresco potwash, drainage onto rocks!
A very nice shower actually
We waved Antonio a cheery goodbye a little later, armed with business cards to deliver to other campsites along the coast. Seeing these cards, we realised that the reason the campsite hadn't quite matched up with what I remembered from the internet was because our intended destination had actually been further along the beach; Antonio had poached us from the road! Never mind, we're really glad we stayed with him. It just meant that as we had been without the expected wifi on this site, we didn't have a definite destination to aim for, just another town where we knew a campsite was located.

The drive out of Himare was spectacular and soon involved one of my favourites, a twisty mountain road! Luckily, the view was mostly on my side, so I kept the camera away from Nathanial and concentrated on photography. My pictures do not begin to convey the vastness of the view. As we approached the summit along multiple switch-backs the view was akin to being in an aeroplane.

At this point it felt like we were on a Scalextric track 
You can see the road we climbed up snaking all along the coast and then upwards.
The road wound its way up the mountain in the distance
On the descent, the road wasn't quite as good but the scenery was still fabulous and green.

The road had actually fallen off the side of the mountain 
Slightly scary!!!!
In addition to the usual roadside dogs, in Albania we have been seeing cows, donkeys and even the odd tortoise!

As we travelled, we found ourselves on a mixture of roads, some fantastic, others not so great. Outside of Durres, where we knew a campsite was located, we made a massive wrong turn down what seemed like a smooth dual carriageway, but what turned out to be a dead-end road which had been used as a tip, complete with foraging pigs!

Wow, this road is really smooth and really quiet!
Ooo, that's a bit of a mess
Beth, are you sure this is the way?!
Bloody hell woman, where have you brought us ??!!!
Hastily consulting the sat-nav, which had at this point woken up, we could see that our final destination in Albania was actually only another hour away, so we decided to push on. However trying to turn around in the narrow strip at the end proved disastrous as the van got stuck on the central reservation (to the left of the above picture). After some to-ing and fro-ing Nathanial finally got the van free, he was too scared to look under the van to see what damage had been done. It was definitely one of those moments where panic was close to setting in, we really didn't want the van to be stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere with no insurance, and a language barrier, in a very rough looking area.

We think 'Shiten' means 'for sale'. We saw it a lot.
We arrived in Shkoder the promised hour later, but were unsure where to go as we had not been actually written down directions. Spotting an internet cafe, I decided that it would be best to log on to the campsite's website, so I ventured in to be confronted with a roomful of chain-smoking, gaming twenty-something lads, who looked at me as though I had dropped out of the sky.

I was shown to the only available computer and logged on, feeling the stares of a dozen pairs of eyes at my back. I quickly found and wrote down our directions and went up to the desk to pay. The chap told me the cost was 20 Lek. I brought out one of my 5,000 Lek notes and the chap grinned at me, before informing me that he would make an exception for tourists. As I thanked him profusely, turning redder by the second, one of the lads commented that "it was his pleasure". I made a hasty retreat.

This was one of the more conventional modes of transport we saw!
A further ten minutes along the road we found the campsite, arriving just as the sun was setting. The site was everything that the website promised and after checking in we had a quick brush-up to make ourselves presentable and set off across the grass to the restaurant where we enjoyed a fantastic meal for under €30.

Lake Shkodra Resort

Albania's version of that famous print
The following day we got back into relaxation mode, having decided to take advantage of the time saved by getting to the site earlier than planned. In the afternoon we used the sites kayak for a pootle around the lake and also got out the frisbee and the badminton racquets.

Paddle faster Dad!
Left a bit Mum
Prompted by some information at reception, the following day we decided to set out for the 'Mes bridge' by bike. We had been told that we would cycle through several villages and witness rural life. We weren't disappointed.

We saw several ladies taking their cows out for a walk, one helpfully pointed us in the right direction.

Not a combine harvester in sight
They were almost as fascinated by us as we were by them.
Almost everyone gave us a cheery wave
Another cow out for a stroll
You wouldn't believe how much noise these make

Man, wife and horse ploughing
The campsite map was more a back-of-fag-packet type affair, so we made a few wrong turns and had to ask for help a couple of times. The friendly chap below was more than happy to accompany us a few kilometres along the road. He knew everyone we saw along the way and called out a greeting at every house. He chatted away to Nathanial throughout about who knows what, but we did gather that he had been fishing and was proud to show off the catch in the basket on the back of his bike.

Our friend with the big fish
The splash you can see was made by a young lad jumping in this water
The boys had done exceptionally well to cycle so far, but both were flagging by the final stretch. Nathanial ended up going ahead to scout the bridge while the lads and me ducked into the shade. Nathanial came back having seen the bridge but the boys didn't want to look at yet another pile of bricks, so we turned about and headed back.

The heat was getting to him
Mes Bridge, as seen by Nathanial only.
Most of the gardens were beautifully tended with veg, not many flowers
These bunkers are all over Albania, left over from a paranoid communist dictator
When we got back to camp we all sagged gratefully into our chairs and lapped up another few hours of sunshine. Tom had made friends with the two English/Albanian children of the owners and they were keen to get back to their Lego construction.

The universal language of seven year old boys.
Today we have enjoyed our final day at Lake Shkodra. For our four days we have had a mini holiday within our big holiday because we have eaten out every night, spending the equivalent of three days budget on food and the campsite over the time, so quids in. Tomorrow we are up early to try our luck at the border with Montenegro, which we hope to cross in a few hours to arrive in Dubrovnik tomorrow evening. Wish us luck!

*For reference, a euro is worth about 140 Lek, so my ten thousand was worth about €70, or £50 and I tried to pay the roughly equivalent 10p for the computer with a £25 note.

Corfu (Beth)

We had decided to visit Corfu based on the recommendation of a British couple we met at Camping Poseidon. I personally was unaware of Corfu's reputation as a bit of a party destination and didn't know what to expect. The couple had told us that the old town was worth a visit and since we hadn't visited any of the other islands, and were promised a campsite with a pool, we bought our return tickets and boarded the ferry.

A few hours later we disembarked and I have to say, first impressions were not good. We drove about twenty minutes north along the coast which seemed to be rather lacking in beaches and high on large shops with a run-down air about them.

Race on!
At the campsite we checked in and found a pitch away from the other campers (for their benefit, not ours) and within ten  minutes the boys were splashing about in the pool. We had another lazy day on the loungers and ate Gyros for our tea. 

You're just showing off now Alf
The lure of the pool kept us at the campsite for the second day, only venturing onto the (unimpressive) beach in the evening for dinner.

Cool as a cucumber, me


    Less said the better.

After two days of serious relaxation, we set off to explore the old town. The sat nav decided we need to go on the usual tour of the backstreets, so we got to see some more run-down areas.

After a little bit of trouble finding a parking spot, we eventually squeezed the van into a car park and made our way to the old town. The cobbled streets yielded many shops selling the usual tourist tat, with the cafes and ice-cream being slightly more expensive than we have been getting used to. The streets are very pretty however, and my sketchy grasp of history informs me that the Venetians ruled here in the past and their influence is obvious to see, there were many similarities to Venice in the buildings and densely packed streets.

After negotiating our way through the side-streets we eventually found our way up to the New Fort, where we had a quick look around (great views from the top but not much else to see) and then tried to have a quiet coffee whilst the boys chased each other around the courtyard.

Oh joy. Another old monument.

Dad, look at that irritating smudge in the corner of the photo

Views across to the Old Fort on the horizon

By now it was getting late and the boys were getting to that stage where they have to irritate each-other and everyone around them, so we headed back to the campsite, having decided that we would leave tomorrow.

The views from the top of the fortress were spectacular

The next day we got packed up, conscious that the campsite had been very particular about us leaving on time. As is our usual practice, I went to settle the bill while Nathanial was finishing off the packing, as the receptionist was very particular that we leave before noon (quite un-Greek I thought) and then also tried to short-change me, which was clearly intentional.

With a choice of times for the return ferry, we decided to head back to the Old Town (which is quite near the port) and have another wander around, wanting to see the Old Fort.

The Old Fort was much more interesting to visit than it's counterpart and we happily wandered around for a few hours, eventually climbing upwards to gain the sister view of the preceding day.

The Old Fortress Church

No, you can't try my ice-cream.

After a great afternoon sightseeing, we headed back to the van for a quick tea before boarding the ferry back to Igoumenitsa. Corfu Old Town had been lovely to visit, but perhaps not worth forking out for the ferry to see. Apparently Corfu wanted to clean up it's image after letting hordes of drunk British tourists tear up the town for years. This has been accomplished, but the stricter rules and the advent of all-inclusive package holidays has spelled disaster for many of the smaller restaurants and bars, hence the run-down feel of the island. Never mind, there are lots more islands we need to try. Next time Kefalonia perhaps?

On the mainland, we drove back to the beach we had stayed on previously with the intention of crossing to Albania in the morning, slightly sceptical now about 'recommendations' from the British couple.