A backpacking trip across Eastern Europe, on a shoestring budget and a fluid itinerary, was bound to throw up some unconventional routes and means of travel — walking from Romania to Bulgaria; entering Montenegro in a shared taxi; and travelling ticketless to Croatia (not having enough cash at hand, the bus driver ferried us in good faith; we paid him in Dubrovnik). But these countries were a part of our plan and visa applications, along with Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece.
Although challenging situations only become adventures in memory, we knew, even back then, that serendipitously stumbling into Albania would be the biggest adventure of the trip.
I would say our lead-up to chancing upon a country outside our to-do list started when Bulgarian Airlines postponed its flight from Sofia to Athens by 24 hours. An entire day! Suddenly, it did not make sense for us to take up a room in Athens for the 2N/1D we would now spend in the city — a few rupees saved on a dorm bed is a few rupees earned for one more night of travel. After witnessing a glorious sunset over Mount Vitosha, the range that springs up just beyond the horizon of the runway, we took off from Sofia and descended at nightfall on a twinkling Athens.
We decided we would spend the 2N at the airport, leave our backpacks at the Left Luggage in the morning, explore the city, and come back to the airport for an early morning flight to Thessaloniki. When we saw facing rows of chairs that could be dragged closer, we knew we had found our nook for the night. What we had not budgeted for was the blaring music that played throughout the night, a fast one the airport authorities had pulled on us to keep the hotel-less away without physically or legally forcing them out. Given the late hour, we braced ourselves, put on earplugs, and waited for travel fatigue to conquer what the earplugs could not shut out.
We awoke from fitful slumber at daybreak and took the first airport shuttle into the city. The capital of the cradle of civilisation inspired much awe. We congratulated ourselves on the early start, for halfway into Acropolis, buses filled with tour groups descended upon us. Travelling through Romania and Bulgaria had spoilt us with abundant beauty and scarce tourists. We rushed out of the city after quickly running through must-dos and well-trodden cobblestoned paths. By the time we watched the fiery ball sink into the Aegean sea from the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, the headiness of exploring a new place was giving way to tiredness.
On that Grecian evening, it was only the shame of losing backpackers’ street cred that stopped me from suggesting to my partner that we head to a hostel for a few hours. I caught a few winks on our bus ride back to the city from Sounion, a few more in the shuttle to the airport, and some, in spite of the noise, in the airport. But, to cut a long story short, we were terribly sleep-deprived when we landed in Thessaloniki on a bright spring morning.
And by the time the airport shuttle dropped us at the inter-city bus station, it was clear as that morning that we needed to get a few hours of sleep. So thinking on our feet, we dropped our original plan of spending the day exploring Thessa and travelling on to Montenegro at night. We quickly scanned the board broadcasting bus timings and, to our relief, there was a bus leaving for Tirana in 10 minutes. A quick scan of the map confirmed the capital city of Albania was on our route to Montenegro. We would catch a few winks on the bus and move on to Kotor Bay, in Montenegro, once we hit the city. I will be honest, till that morning I didn’t know what the capital of Albania was. And since we hadn’t planned on hopping on to a bus for another country just yet, we were not prepared. It took us the 10 minutes we were left with to find the ticket booking office and then the right bay for the bus. We had only climbed up the steps when the bus started moving. We didn’t have enough drinking water, or food, or the right currency. Not that we knew what Albania’s currency was! Also, there was the matter of Albania not yet being a part of the EU — their application is still on the “under consideration” list. When the rush of excitement from an impromptu act had subsided, a niggling doubt crept in about the power of the Schengen visa to tide us across the border.
On the bus, we finally gave in to our travel fatigue. After dozing off for half an hour, I briefly opened my eyes and was greeted with the most astounding scenery. There were miles upon miles of open road in front of me, with verdant fields on either side and horizons flanked by snow-peaked mountains. There was no getting any shut eye after that. We had our noses pressed to the windows as the pristine beauty of northern Greece gave way to Macedonia.
On the Albanian side of the border, the friendliest immigration officers greeted us with “Bravo, bravo!” when they discovered we were from India. They chatted us up while a bus full of passengers waited; we were the only tourists on that bus. By the time the azure waters of Small Prespa Lake and Lake Ohrid came into view, and followed us in our serpentine mountain routes for a good part of the way, we felt like we were a part of a dream world. Beyond the lakes, the snow-peaked mountains also kept pace. In one such turn, in Miraka, we stopped for lunch. With no language and local food knowledge, we scanned the large dining hall and pointed to the meal of an old moustachioed man. We were soon chomping on a deeply flavourful meat (most likely goat) stew and vegetables cooked in a wood-fire oven, with freshly baked bread, grateful that the establishment accepted Euros along with Albanian Lekes.
By the time the bus stopped at Tirana eight hours after we had boarded it, we felt alive at chancing upon a stunningly beautiful country. We were in no hurry to leave for Montenegro.