Albania to northern Greece

Saturday 2d to Tuesday 5th November – Tirana 

We spent a total of 4 nights in the flat. The second day the owner “upgraded “ us to a bigger flat in the same property. It was probably used by his family as it was filled with personal stuff, photos of babies, folders, computers, suitcases, books, clothes… 

The kitchen was filthy. The cupboards all sticky. After a bit of cleaning we managed to cook some meals. 

We explored the town.The centre was nice the rest a bit more soviet style. There seemed to be  a lot of construction work, although most building sites showed no sign of much activity! 

Wednesday 6th November, Pogradec

After a lot of stress and managing to get the cars blocking the alleyway out of the way, we managed to extract the van and get on our way. Initially we had planned to follow the coast, but with news of heavy rains and flooding down the coastal towns, we decided to go via the inland mountains  road instead. 

The road up the mountains was nice. We passed many villages. Pogradec is built on the edge of a very touristic ( with Albanians) lake. The lake forms the border with Macedonia. We saw many of the famous bunkers. 

In the 40s, Albania broke relationships with Russia and got close with China. Russia then was very suspicious of China and Stalin hated Mao ( read The court of “the Red Tsar” for details, it is a master piece!). 

Anyway, after the cultural revolution, China dropped Albania like a stone. Albania regime, totally isolated from the world,  became obsessed with an invasion and built, as a result, nearly 200,000 bunkers. No, I did not mistype. Every full able body man in Albania was instructed, in case of invasion, to pick up a gun and to take his position in his bunker. Most are now being destroyed by farmers to sell the valuable metal embedded in the concrete as scrap metal. But many still remain. The cost to Albania, of diverting resources for building so many bunkers, was enormous. 

We arrived at Pogradec mid afternoon and although it looked like rain we went for a walk. The place was ok, some parts really like a developing country, with garbage everywhere, some more touristic and nice. As it was low season most places were closed. 

Our camping was new and the facilities were fine. The only criticism was that the toilets and showers did smell awfully of humidity. Really bad! 

Rain finally caught with us. So we took refuge in the van for the night. It lashed it down all night. 

some bunkers have been decorated like this one

Thursday 7th of November,  Meteora, Greece

On paper, we had not that far to go, about 4 hours drive. We left soon after 9:30 and drove through the mountains. That part of Albania was very poor and we saw the occasional horse cart, horse riders ( not for leisure) and donkeys. We stopped at a small supermarket to get rid of our last Leks. We had about 10 euros equivalent left. 

Eventually we arrived at the border and got in the queue. There were many men hanging around. It reminded me of border crossings in some parts of Africa or Central America! It took forever to get to passport control. Then Customs asked to have a look inside the van and send us on our way. 

Then we had another long wait to passport control on the Greek side. Still many men loitering around, illegal money changers and who know what else! All in all we spent a good 2 or 3 hours to cross that border! No custom officer anywhere paid any attention to the dog or asked for his documents. 

After that we drove to Meteora. 

On the way, we stopped at a Lidl. Civilisation! We had not seen one since Croatia. We were once again shocked at how expensive everything is in the euro zone. The bread was more expensive than in the UK. Lidl soluble coffee and jam was twice the price, Lidl diet cola brand was nearly 3 time the price! Bread in Albania was about 30p, cross the border into Greece and pay 5 times that! Not sure how the Greeks survive with such high prices! 

After that we got to Meteora. The place is famous for its stunning rock formation and some monastery up one of those rocks. As we arrived at the selected ( and only open) camping at dust, a massive storm was on its way. The rain was insane! It was so intense I was not keen on parking in a camping spot on the grass. Most spots were turning into lakes. After a walk around under heavy rain we parked near the bins in some solid tarmac. 

The camping was ok, the toilets were a bit dirty and the bins overflowing with toilet paper, but still usable. 

With the massive storm turning into a monsoon we did not do much. It was late, dark and we did not leave the van. 

Friday 8th of November, About 20kms from Thessaloniki, parking spot in a village.

In the morning the rain finally stopped. We had a quick walk around the village and got on our way. We had booked, few days earlier, a studio flat in Plovdiv, for 3 nights, from Sunday night. So we had to get there quickly. 

Most campings were closed. Getting to Thessaloniki was out of question with the van. I found a camping in Park4night. It did not have great reviews though. 

We arrived around 2:30 pm. There was no one at reception. Eventually an old unfriendly guy came out. From the noise he was watching some soap opera and he was not happy we interrupted his viewing.  He told us that without electricy it was 15 euros. 

We parked the van and had a look around. The camping had few free spots. Most were used by permanent campers in caravans. They had built fences and barracks all around their spots. 

I visited the facilities. The toilets were disgusting ( I spare you the description, it was that bad!) and the sinks full of dirt and grime. As for  the showers they were not usable by a normal human being. I returned to reception to ask about WiFi. The guy came out all rude. No WiFi. 

For 15 euros we were paying for the pleasure of using disgusting filthy toilets and parking. We decided to leave and find a parking spot. We figured that for that money we could park in a village, get a nice meal and use clean toilets in a nice Taverna. 

Park4night was showing various spots about a mile away, so we drove there to investigate. We found various spots. We picked one near the village, in front of the sea. 

Camping wild is illegal in Greece, but in low season there is hardly anyone around. We had a walk and went to investigate the nearby taverna. We had a beer. The menu was dirt cheap and the toilet very clean, with paper, soap, paper towels…. heaven! We decided to come back later for a  meal and to use the facilities again! Result. Our first night camping wild! 

And yes we do have a toilet in the van, but better use others facilities when we can! 

Anyway, by 7pm we went back to the taverna and the son’s owner looked after us really well. He was very welcoming. The grandma’ took a look at the dog as we went inside into the enclosed terrace ( it was too cold to eat out) and just made  a very small nod. We had her seal fo approval to come and eat inside! The father did not speak English but recognised us from earlier and gave us a big smile. 

The son spoke very good English. We ordered what we though, by the low prices, three or four tapas… the portions were enormous, the son also brought us some fish he had prepared earlier for us to try as well as olives made by grandma’. We ate so much. Then they brought us some free dessert: an amazing cake and some ice cream! We could not believe our eyes. For all that and wine, we paid less than 20 euros. They were so nice with us! 

We asked the son if they were opening early, but they opened at 10:30. But then he said his grandma would be in early and could let us in if we wanted breakfast! They could not do enough four us! 

We meet back to the van to see another one parked next to us. It was a young couple for  Germany ( obviously!). We had a small chat and went to bed. All in all an excellent day! 

Camping wild in front of the sea!

Next chapter: stunning Bulgaria!