Our original plan after Greece was to skirt along the coast of the Adriatic Sea via the Balkans. As it was late November and coming into winter we decided to have another look at the map. Both our fellow travellers Simon and Georgia, Nic and Tim had decided on a different route through Bulgaria and Romania. The reports we heard back from them were enough to entice us. Rather than heading for the coast in gloomy cold weather we geared up for the snowy mountains and the less travelled road. From northern Greece we planned on visiting a group of lakes that lie on the border of Greece, Albania and Macedonia. Making Albania the next country on our itinerary. We only needed to cross the north eastern corner of Albania to reach the lakes. A UNESCO heritage listed town called Gjirokastra was a short drive from where we were crossing the border so seemed like a logical next stop.
First thing we began to notice after crossing the border was how run down and dilapidated the towns looked. Only thing I’ve really heard about Albania was the Albanian mafia which doesn’t really say much for the country. Apparently they stretch from South America to China and all across Europe. Even running more than 75% of the brothels in the United Kingdom alone, as estimated by the police.
This maybe tied in with the occasional top range new Mercedes we saw cruising through these rundown towns.
Anyway, as we headed for Gjirokastra we noticed some really interesting valleys with huge rocky escarpments towering above the sides. I happened to spot a rough looking trail climbing the floor of one of the valleys so we decided to go check it out. It was in the afternoon so we thought we would fair better finding a camp in the wilderness than near to a big town. It turned out to be a really interesting and challenging track. Almost reminiscent of the blue mountains back home.
We passed a Shepard with his flock high up in a grassy plateau and spotted what looked to be like an abandoned church overlooking the valley. We found a brilliant campsite in a nice grassy field next the church with great views of the valley and the steep and tricky looking climb waiting for us the next day. Jess had spotted a dead tree and decided to man the chainsaw and go on a wood run. My god she’s like a pack horse, after chopping the tree down I then watched her struggle back up the mountain with it. It took some time and when I finally saw the size of this thing I understood why. It was a seriously big and solid chunk of wood probably at least half her weight. Also dragged up a steep rocky slope, fair play. Although I was kinda left wondering how we were actually going to burn that much wood.
Well we were warm that night despite the looming winter and also had another good feed cooked on our hot plate over the fire.
The next morning we geared up to continue climbing higher up the valley, not actually knowing where or how far it went we thought we’d press on for a little bit as we were quite low on fuel.
Turned out it was only another 20 min of driving before we reached what seemed like a rock fall. It was challenging and fun with some great views up top. Jess jumped out to see if there was a way around I decided to turn around and see if I could get to a structure I could see up a short slope. Turned out the slope was a bit too loose and I lost traction towards the top when I went to reverse back I misjudged it slightly not quite following my tracks up hence leaving the car in a precarious position. Jess returned to see me there more or less stranded as I couldn’t really go forward or back.
Needless to say she was not impressed. We through we’d try and winch out. Problem being finding something to winch off. We chose the biggest rock we could find as there were only shrubs around and gave that a go. The rock moved. We then tried part of the concrete structure but that also turned out to be too weak. On too of that the car now was not starting. The angle had put what little fuel we had left in a corner of the tank where it could not be retrieved by the pump. Great!
We had no choice but to try and find some help for the first time on our journey. Jess was delighted to volunteer for this and she packed a back pack took a radio and was off. With in 15min she had reached the shepherd we saw earlier. She explained as well as she could the problem, he then called his mate. Jess was keeping me in the loop with our radios. About an hour after leaving she was back with a Good Samaritan to help us out. After assessing the situation he just kept saying its “fine” it’s “ok” signalling for us to keep reversing. Because of the terrain I was unable to assess the situation from outside of the car so we were pretty much in his hands. After packing a few rocks under one of the wheels I started slowly rolling the car back. Without being able to start the engine the brakes were less effective and there was no power steering making maneuvering the car quite tricky. In the end we were back down the bottom of the slope and keen to get out of there. Problem was the car was not starting either. We pumped fuel primer a whole bunch of times but still couldn’t get going so once again he took over. After pumping it furiously he signalled for me to try starting it again. God were we happy to hear the troopy spring to life.
After wasting half a day trying to get the car right we decided to camp at the bottom of the valley that night and head for Gjirokastra in the morning.
The castle sits atop a hill overlooking the town that cascades down below. It’s a bleak and austere looking town with weathered grey walls that blend into the surrounding landscape. It was built in the 13th century,
like many settlements of the time it was occupied by both the Greeks and the ottomans. We spent a few hours navigating the ancient cobble stoned streets that surrounded the castle. Stopping in the old town we got one of our best local feeds yet. Freshly made crispy pastries stuffed with either goats cheese or spinach. They cost next to nothing and made a perfect quick lunch.
To make up for time lost we hit the road and continued for the Macedonian border. We took some more scenic routes through the hills of Albania. Although I don’t think there are all that many main roads there anyway. We hit Ohrid lake that borders with Macedonia as the sun was going down which made a nice finish for Albania.