Day 8

Thursday, 1 April 2010
Start: Ohrid (MK) 09:15
Arrival: Elbasan (ALB) 14:00
Total: 119 km

The next morning, a Thursday, we had breakfast in our apartment in Villa Kale. The place was equipped with an electric water boiler as well as instant coffee and tea bags. Once our batteries were recharged, we set off to our last destination in Macedonia: Struga.


The Rock Churches of Struga

Struga is a town ten kilometres northwest of Ohrid on the road to Albania. Its main attraction are several Medieval rock churches on the outskirts of town, right on Lake Ohrid. We soon reached Struga and made a left at the first major intersection. After driving through a busy shopping street, we reached sparsely populated surburban flatlands. The street became really bumpy. We were beginning to wonder if we had made a wrong turn somewhere. I felt like in a computer game: Avoid the Potholes. I have never seen such large, deep and numerous holes before. Some places looked like a meteor shower had hit them. It was also quite windy, the sky had long since clouded over and the houses became few and far between. As we hobbled past a cluster of houses, a car overtook us recklessly, dangerously veering to the left and right with his engine howling loudly. Was that guy drunk? I concentrated on the road. A teenage boy crossed the street with a rifle on his shoulder. I slowed down to let him pass. Pedestrians might not have the right of way in Macedonia, but I wasn’t so sure about armed youngsters. I let out a sigh of relief when we left the village behind. Now rocky hills appeared on our right, with Lake Ohrid still on our left. A promising landscape for rock-church hunters. Passing an open barrier, we finally reached the Monastery of Kališta. The rock church Uspenie na Presveta Bogorodica (meaning The Ascension of the Holy Virgin Mary) which lies in its precinct was said to have some spectacular old frescoes from the 14th century.
When we got out of the car, the wind howled around us. We looked out onto the lake. The waves crashing on the shorewall were impressive. And it was really cold, too. We gathered our jackets and set off in search of the church.
The first building we reached was an old hotel. At first sight it looked distinctly derelict, but there was some obvious construction work going on, so maybe they were renovating it. We entered the reception hall. It was empty. Hello? Anybody there? We climbed over dusty panels and work tools into what had probably been a restaurant in better times. Odd. An elderly man sat at a table, smoking. We sent some desperate-tourists-looking-for-help looks his way, and he got up. We explained that we wanted to see the church Presveta Bogorodica. He nodded and motioned for us to follow him. Back over the work tools, through the dark reception room and along the wind-swept promenade to an inner courtyard with a chapel in the middle. Inside, there was a church service going on. He motioned for us to wait and cautiously opened the door. My sister and I looked at each other. He wasn’t going to call someone out of mass just to let us have a peek at some frescoes, was he? He obviously was. We tried to convey with hand signs that we didn’t mind waiting for the church service to end, but he gave us a reassuring smile and disappeared inside. We waited apprehensively. A large dog lazing behind the chapel wall looked up at us. We shrugged and smiled apologetically at him. He shook his coat and dozed off again.
After about a minute, the man reappeared with the keyholder in tow. We apologized for any inconvenience, but he didn’t seem to mind and took us to a little building behind the hotel. Looking all the way up, we indeed spotted walls protruding from the rough rock face. The keyholder unlocked the door and let us in. The tiny room was evidently a souvenir shop and ticket booth in one. We paid a small entrance fee and he showed us the wooden staircase up into the church. He was going to wait for us down here. This was adventurous. We started to climb the stairs. Round and round they wound, three stories up into the rock. On top, we reached a tiny landing which opened onto an equally small cave. Its rock walls were covered all over with frescoes of saints and biblical scenes. I’m not a spiritual person, but the cool, semi-dark atmosphere and simplicity of the paintings was impressive. For me, this little cave had more quiet grandeur than the Cathedral of Chartres or the Pyramids at Giza.
We clambered back down the wooden steps. Stepping back into the little reception room felt like shaking off a wondrous dream. We wanted to thank the keyholder for his patience and as we had not bought any souvenirs yet, we took a closer look at the wares on display. Next to postcards and religious items stood wine bottles, spirits and locally produced preserves. Excellent! We bought two wine bottles and a local delicacy called ajvar, a relish made from red bell peppers, eggplant and garlic.
Outside, the wind howled with unabated fierceness. The dog was still lying in his sheltered spot behind the chapel wall. We waved him a last good-bye and got back into the car. Our next stop would be in Albania.



Bumping back into the village, I was on the lookout for the berifled youth, but he was nowhere to be seen. Once on the main road, we had no trouble finding the way to the Albanian border. The Macedonian-Albanian border control is situated high up in the mountains, and a large overland road quickly brought us there. Again, the few cars in front of us filed through in minutes and we drove up to the checkpoint.
The officer looked at our passports and ennobled them with a colourful Albanian visa stamp. Contrary to what we had read on the internet and in travel guides, we did not have to drive through a “desinfection basin” with our car, nor did they ask us any money for an entry-tax. Only on our way out of Albania four days later did we pay two euros highway tax (or whatever else it was for). Like at every other border so far, they asked whether we had anything to declare, but they took our word for it and didn’t inspect the car. We rolled on and were, actually, in Albania!
The first thing we noticed was the state of the road: a brand-new large road wound from the border down into the valley. The second thing we noticed were the bunkers: all over the hills, little round concrete structures poked their heads out of the grass. The bunkers are a legacy of Albania’s late dictator Enver Hoxha. Fearing an invasion by some foreign power, he had 750,000 of them placed in strategical places all over his country. No invasion ever materialized, but the bunkers are difficult to dismantle, so they are simply left where they are. Ignored and neglected, they look alien and forlorn in this bustling new century.
The third thing we noticed in Albania was a petrol station. So what, you might say. After all, petrol stations are just as ubiquitous in our world as the Golden Arches. Well, there’s no McDonald’s in Albania yet, but there is a wealth of petrol stations. Our travel guide, barely five years old, warned us that it would be a good idea to fill up whenever we had the chance, but there was not a single town we drove through, no matter how small, that didn’t have at least a couple of petrol stations. Many of them looked brand-new and modern, and all of them had their own lavazh. Now there’s a word for you. If you do not know what lavazh [pronounced like the French lavage] means, you have not been to Albania. It translates, quite simply, as car wash. Every street, and I do insist every single one, seems to sport some hand-written sign announcing “lavazh”. If you decide to have your car washed, the diligent boys with their high-pressure cleaners and towels will do a better job than any of our mechanized car washes. The Albanians are crazy about their cars, most of them drive a Mercedes, BMW or Audi. Many cars look brand-new or at least spotlessly clean. Our little Honda Civic stood out like a dirty duck among their shining swans. We finally had our car lavazhed in Kruja, but more of that later.
Pleasantly surprised by the excellent road conditions in our newest host country, we sped along towards Elbasan, where we had booked a room for the night. Soon we reached Librazdh, a mountain town of about 9000 inhabitants half-way between Struga and Elbasan. Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the centre of the town. We quickly lost our sense of direction and had no idea which way lay Elbasan. There seemed to be no road-signs either. When in doubt, follow the next-best car. The truck in front of us seemed to know where it was going. After all, where else than the main road would a truck with a licence plate from Elbasan want to go? We followed him up a rather large street and, sure enough, soon we left the highrises of Librazdh behind. Unfortunately, we also left the convenient asphalt road behind and after just minutes, we were bumping along a dusty dirt track. Could this be the main road to Elbasan? Our book stated that the roads in Albania were in dire condition, so maybe the road from Struga to Elbasan was only half-way finished and simply ended in Librazdh? With no road-signs around and no-one there to ask, we resigned ourselves to our fate and drove on. We came to an old stone bridge. I eyed it in horror. It was only a few metres long and led over a shallow creek, but there was a deep hole to the side where the stones had crumbled away and the whole structure looked like it was ready to fall apart at the first opportunity. The truck driver before us did not seem to share our doubts. He manoeuvred his ungainly vehicle onto the bridge. We caught our breath as the heavy thing rattled over it. The structure seemed to hold. Should we dare…? I’m no angel and definitely felt like a fool when I navigated my trusted Honda over the wobbly thing. On the other side of the creek, the dirt track changed into a potholed sorry-excuse-for-a-road sort of thing. With the truck long gone behind the next bend, we bumped along at a snail’s pace. Too fast and you risk a flat tire, too slow and you’ll be stuck in one of those holes, I thought. “They’re working on the road”, Sonia said, and pointed to some workers who were eyeing us curiously, like an exotic insect caught behind a tilted window. “They’re working to MAKE this a road, more like,” I answered tensely, studiously ignoring their astonished stares. If this was the road to Elbasan, how come there were no other cars on it? Apart from the truck, we had only encountered one other vehicle, a shiny new Mercedes. No comment.
After some more minutes, Sonia and I agreed that, just maybe, the truck was not on its way to Elbasan after all and that we should ask for directions. Just when we had taken that resolution, like a deus ex machina a newly-built house appeared in the lonely landscape. A boy of maybe sixteen was working in the front garden. As I was on no discernable road anyway, I drove up to him and asked: “Excuse me, do you speak English?” He just stared at me blankly, probably wondering what galaxy I had beamed myself from. I tried again, this time in sign-language. “Elbasan?” I pointed up the path ahead. He shook his head and pointed back in the direction we came from. Was that a smug grin on his face? Trying hard to keep a neutral face, he shrugged his shoulders and let out a sympathetic grunt. Too bad, you’ll have to drive back, the grunt said. Sighing, we thanked him and hobbled back down the mountain path, past the workers (they had probably bets running when we would show up again), over the bridge and down the street back into civilisation.
At the first intersection, we accosted a young girl. “Excuse me…” “Yes?” She looked more than happy to practice her English. “Elbasan?” “Up that way,” she smiled and pointed up a large new boulevard. Oh. This seemed a much more obvious choice than the dirt track we had just come from. We thanked her, she peeped a happy “You’re welcome”, and we were soon back on the main road to Elbasan. Lesson learnt: When in Albania, forget Frost and DO NOT take the “road less travelled by”, because that REALLY makes all the difference.
After a while, I got hungry and so we decided to stop at a small roadside restaurant. The interior looked pleasant enough with clean tables and, praised be modern technology, a “normal” toilet seat. Unfortunately without a key to lock the door, though. Albanians don’t seem to mind people rushing in on their private sessions.
A young man came to our table to take our order. Encouraged by our earlier encounter with the English-speaking girl, we asked him for the menu. Blank stare. No problem, luckily we Luxembourgians are multi-lingual. “Eat? Manger? Essen? Mangiare?” How do you say that in Russian again? The waiter tried to guess what we wanted: “Cola?” Oh my, we were having a major communication problem here. I resorted to sign-language: food, you understand? It looked like he did. He took me by the hand and pulled me into a clean, modern kitchen. On the stove, several pots and pans exuded a mouthwatering aroma. Our waiter explained the language barrier to the cook. The latter, obviously a man of action, took a glazed earthenware bowl and dumped a ladle full of goulash into it. With a quizzical look, he held it out to me. I couldn’t really refuse it, could I? Besides, it did look yummy and I was really hungry. “Riso?” he asked matter-of-factly, and pointed at a steamer. Rice, now there was a good idea. I nodded vigourously. He reached with his hand into the steamer, formed the rice into a neat ball and plopped it into a second bowl. Meal ready. I balanced my food back into the eatery. Sonia looked sceptical, but it was actually quite delicious. The goulash was a bit greasy for my taste, but all in all, it was a really good meal. When we wanted to pay the bill, we realised that we did not have any Albanian money yet. No problem, like almost everywhere on the Balkans, the waiter took our euros and gave us back the change in lek.



Around two o’clock, we reached the outskirts of Elbasan. This is quite a big town with around 100,000 people in a wide plain surrounded by high mountains. We had a map of the city that showed exactly three major roads, including the old fortress, next to which our hotel was located. Needless to say, we were soon hopelessly lost in the bowels of the city. The traffic was dense and there were not many road-signs. Ever the level-headed co-pilot, Sonia argued that we just had to try out all major boulevards and be on the look-out for old walls (fortress) or an old-fashioned high-rise (our hotel). A crazy plan being better than none, I cruised around Elbasan, leaving it to Sonia to do any spotting. Right onto a large street, all the way to the end, make a right again, another large boulevard, and “Over there!” She pointed to a grey facade looming up behind some small, modern shops. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It really was our hotel. Somehow, we had managed to find it.
We parked next to a hi-fi shop and hopped up the steps to our hotel. In front of the hotel, we saw several large, European cars. British, German and Italian license plates, there was even a US-American car, but hardly any Albanian ones. Elsewhere in the city, we had had the same impression: foreign license plates wherever you looked. Could it be that Elbasan was a magnet for international businessmen and tourists? Pondering this mystery, we turned towards the entrance hall. Outside stood an elderly doorkeeper in a decorous livery. Impressive. We felt like at the Ritz. That feeling soon evaporated. The entrance hall was dark and draughty. The walls were stripped bare and, apart from a TV playing in a corner, the place looked deserted. We walked up to the reception desk. There was no-one behind it. Maybe the hotel was closed? We stood around, unsure what to do, when we spotted a young woman in a pinafore cleaning the floor. We went over to her and asked whether the hotel was open. She didn’t seem to understand, but as she smiled encouragingly, we tried again: “Reservation. Hotel.” I would have thought that those two words were understood pretty much anywhere in the world. Obviously not. But she understood that we desperately wanted her help, and obligingly watched our charade: sleep. here. we. room. up here. Understanding dawned in her eyes. She motioned for us to wait there, and took off.
Several minutes ticked by. “Let’s go find another hotel,” Sonia proposed. “There were plenty of new hotels on the way in.” I had seen them too, but somehow I didn’t want to give up that easily. A few years ago, we had spent a night in a Tito-era hotel in Slovenia, and I had completely fallen in love with its stuffy 70s charm. I had hoped for a similar experience in Elbasan. In our travel guide stood that the Hotel Skampa was an “old concrete block from the Hoxha-era” (so far, we heartily agreed) that had recently been renovated and “brought up to an acceptable standard”. That part we doubted. Still, who knew what gems might lie hidden behind its unwelcoming facade.
The gems remained elusive, but the cleaning maid resurfaced with an English-speaking young man in tow. He asked us, full of wonder, if we indeed wanted to have a room at this place. I explained that I had made a reservation on the internet. The reservation had obviously not gone through. But he offered us a room for two people. The price? “Oh, well, maybe 20 euros?” We agreed to the transaction and the cleaning maid motioned for us to follow her. Broad, heavy concrete slabs led up to the first floor. The landing was very draughty. A closer look revealed that the entire back wall of the building was missing! In front of the large gaping hole hung a forlorn plastic sheet, flapping in the wind. I kept well away from it. We proceeded to the second floor. The same gaping hole, all the way down to the ground, secured by a thin sheet of plastic. The maid climbed up another flight of stairs. Was this hotel really so booked out that she had to give us the penthouse? On the third floor, she stopped. By now, we were high up. Uncomfortably high for someone who (like me) gets clammy hands from just standing on a stepladder. Especially in view of that missing wall…
None of the doors had numbers, so we had to remember that ours was the third to the left. The maid unlocked the wooden door and let us in. At first glance, the room wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Two wooden bedframes and nightstands, the inevitable telly and a heater. The place even had its own tiled bathroom with toilet, washbasin and shower. There was no bath curtain, but then, what do you expect for twenty euros. At least all four walls were standing. We thanked the maid and she left us. Upon closer inspection, the room was really clean. No dustmotes or mould stains. We stretched out on the beds. I noticed a draught to my left and looked up. The window wasn’t completely closed. When I tried to change that, I noticed a cable running from somewhere outside into our room and… into the back of the TV set. Now what? We couldn’t just pull the cable out and throw it out the window, could we? The last ten centimetres or so, the plastic protection was gone and the wires lay free. The same thing with the little electric heater. Behind its grille rotted innumerable arthropodal casualties of its glowing bars. Great.
We decided that we had played long enough at find-something-to-whine-about and instead set out to explore Elbasan. On the way down to the lobby we noticed that many of the rooms had name plates of firms on it. The hotel seemed to be chiefly used as office space.
Out on the street, it was a lot warmer than inside the hotel. The sun literally burnt down on us. We wandered around. The shops didn’t look different from what you would expect in any small town and the people were dressed just like us. Well, not exactly like us: compared to some of the young women we met, we looked distinctly underdressed in our comfy holiday clothes. There was traffic in the streets, but it wasn’t more chaotic than back home.
We didn’t really know what to do. Elbasan had been meant as a first stop in Albania, a place to rest, should the streets in Albania turn out as bad as I had read on some blogs. Of course they had not. I was starting to get annoyed at these look-how-brave-I-am-to-face-Albania stories. There were not more people “driving like they have a death wish” down here than back home. Rather less, I’d say. So far, Albania looked like an ordinary European country, modern, secular and busy.
We found a place to change some of our euros into Albanian leke. At least now we had money. We later noticed that we need not have worried: there are ATMs on almost every street corner in Albania and they take VISA and Mastercard, so getting money is no problem at all.
We decided to buy some stamps, in case we found postcards. Upon our enquiry, a young man at a bus-stop sent us to the Telecom building down the street. The door was locked, but there was a security guy sitting in a reception booth. Not very welcoming. I asked him whether this was the post-office. Instead of answering me, he got up and left. I watched him disappear up the stairs. Now what? I don't look so frightening that people have to run away from me, or do I? Maybe this wasn’t a post-office after all. Unsure what to make of it, we set out to leave when the security guy returned with a middle-aged man in a suit in tow. He had gone to fetch someone who spoke English. How very considerate of him! We explained our errant, and the man pointed at a building next to the Telecom. The post-office, of course. Silly me. He told us he would wait for us here for three minutes, in case we encountered any language problems at the post-office. Why didn’t he just come with us, then? But maybe he didn’t want to force himself upon us. He seemed very formal and correct. We thanked him and went into the post-office. One of the ladies behind the counters understood our request for stamps, so we were soon all set. Just as we wanted to pay for them, our man from Telecom came in. He wanted to make sure we were alright. We small-talked a bit and he told us that he was at his office until five o’clock. In case we needed his help, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask for him at the reception. Wonderful, we had already made a friend in Albania!
Next, we had a look at the fortress. Not many walls were standing anymore, and there was a modern building erected inside what looked like an amphitheatre. Funny. We walked along the promenade in front of the fortress. The sun was unforgiving, and there were not many people outside. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, I thought, looking for some shade. There was none, but instead I spotted a shoeshiner. He looked really cute, and he didn’t have any trade, as there were so few people around. I decided to have my boots polished. As expected, he didn’t understand English, but he understood immediately that he had trade. I was complimented onto a chair under a large sunshade and he inspected my shoes. I quickly saw that he knew his trade. My boots were an unusual reddish-brown colour, and he took his time getting the colour right before he set to work. He was very thorough – after about twenty minutes, my shoes looked shinier than the day I’d bought them in the store. He even used a tiny little brush, like a mascara stick, to carefully blacken the rim of my soles. What dedication and pride in his work!
I asked him how much he wanted for this excellent job. He put one finger up. One. One what? Euro? He must be joking. Maybe one thousand lek? Language barrier again. Afraid that he might settle for one euro if I gave it to him, I showed him my wallet instead. Take whatever you want. He pointed hesitatingly at a 200-lek-bill. Barely one and a half euro. I would have loved to give him more, but I was afraid to make some faux-pas and hurt his pride, so I handed him the bill, thanked him again profusely, and wandered off in my shiny boots.
We walked around the city, but there was not too much to see. Just ordinary shops, a small park, plenty of houses. It could have been any town in Southern Spain or Italy. We started to get hungry. I remembered the building inside the fortress, next to our hotel. The place had looked like a restaurant. We walked back and, sure enough, we found a pizzeria on top of a long flight of stairs. It looked really nice with beautiful stone walls and potted plants. There was only one other party inside, a group of ten people. An office outing, by the looks of them. A middle-aged man kept telling elaborate stories at which everyone laughed politely. The boss, no doubt. Unfortunately, several of them smoked. Like in Macedonia, every place sported a no-smoking sign. Unlike Macedonians though, Albanians don’t seem overly bothered by this. There was always at least someone with a fag in their mouth. Fortunately, all the places we ate at where airy and roomy, so the smoke didn’t really bother us.
We set down at a table and waited for a waiter. There’s a reason he’s called a waiter: We had to wait an inordinately long time. At last he showed up with several plates of pizza for the other party. He handed us a menu, which was luckily in English as well, and disappeared again. We waited for him to come back. Which he did, just when we were about to give up on him. I ordered a dish of scampi, and Sonia had penne arrabbiata. He wrote down our order and took off. Never to return, it seemed. We were ready to go hunt him down, when he came back with our drinks, Sonia’s pasta, a basket of bread and my French fries. Since he was there anyway, he also collected the money from the other party (I had been right – the joke-cracker must have been the boss because he paid for the meal). “I’ll start eating, ok?” Sonia asked, and tucked it. I nodded, and helped myself to some French Fries. By now I was really hungry. The minutes ticked by. I was on my second slice of bread. “Want some?” my sister asked, sympathetically, “it’s really great.” So we shared her pasta. Five minutes later, we’d made short shrift of her food and I had given up on my scampi. Maybe we should just put some money on the table and leave? The building seemed completely deserted. But then, out of no-where, our waiter reappeared, with a dish of delicious scampi bubbling in a hot tomato broth. Yum! Ignoring Sonia’s empty plate, he set the bowl in front of me and vanished once more. We looked at each other. “Want some?” I asked my sister, grinning, and we raided the bowl. We had almost finished the meal when I spotted our waiter outside. I jumped on the opportunity and ordered a coffee for later. I was getting good at his peek-a-boo game. Maybe this was standard behaviour in Albanian restaurants?
When we left, night had already fallen. We rounded the corner to our hotel and found ourselves amid a crowd of people. Hundreds of men and women, slowly walking down the promenade. A xhiro! [pronounced like the Giro d'Italia] I had read about this in my Bradt travel guide: in the early evening, “families go out together and walk up and down the town’s boulevard”. I had never expected to see so many people just happily strolling about on a quiet evening. We fell into step and xhiroed with them. To the right, you see the boulevard a few hours earlier. During the xhiro, it was packed with people, but we didn't have our camera with us then.
Back at our hotel room, we did some reading and then tried to sleep. But it was really cold and draughty. Wearing socks and a warm jacket, I snuggled as deep into the thin wool cover as I could. And these bed springs hurt. Feeling like a spoiled brat, I tried to get into a more comfortable position. The hours ticked by, I fell in and out of a fitful sleep. Maybe I should try and get the heater to work? But that loose wiring really spooked me. I looked out the window over the town. The street lights were on, and some houses had the lights on, too. Reassuring somehow. I’m not sure how I would have dealt in this situation with a blackout, which apparently happens quite often in Albania. But maybe that is, like so many statements we have read, a thing of the past. Still, I couldn’t sleep. I buried my head in the pillow, trying to shield my ears from the draught. Uneasy thoughts whirred through my head: that gaping hole in the wall. And we were so high up. Albania is in an earthquake zone. And everything in this room was made of wood. That cable coming from who-knows-where outside. That wiring. Needless to say, it was a long night.


Day 7                               up                               Day 9