Saturday, October 3, 2015

Busing About the Balkans!

Busabout and bus tours are great. I can’t believe that I’ve never done a bus tour before! And Busabout is an inexpensive and fun tour company that delivers a lot of value for your dollar…or Euro…or lev. First of all, the bus is large and very comfortable. Since there is only 12 people (including the driver and tour guide) on a 48 passenger bus, we have tons of room to spread out. Note: I don’t think this always happens. Sometimes there are way more people. There’s good music playing all the time, and Anjellko our driver even flashes the interior bus lights and makes the bus dance to the music. Our tour guide Jen delivers just the right amount of information and historical details to make it interesting and relevant without boring us. Plus there are fun activities on the bus too! Yesterday English L and I won the trivia contest which earns us free cocktails in Split when we arrive. And each of us had to make a playlist to play on the bus: first song about us, second song describing our guilty pleasure, third song about love, fourth song a party song, and a wildcard for the fifth song.

Here’s my playlist:
About Me: Canadian Girls by Dean Brody. I would have used Small Town by John Mellencamp but it wasn’t downloaded to my iPhone.
Guilty Pleasure: Drink in My Hand by Eric Church
Love Song: Dancing in My Head by Eric Turner/Avicii
Party Song: Party Like Charlie Sheen by Scuzz Twittly (Mom, Chantal, Brin, and Britta….Vegas memories!!)
Wildcard: Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show

I also find riding on the bus really relaxing. We visit, read our books, eat snacks, sleep, and look at the amazing scenery. My tour is called the Balkan Trek, and here is where we’ve been so far.

First Stop: Parga, Greece
We arrived in Parga around 3 pm on our first day. It’s in northern Greece and this beautiful beach town attracts mainly Greeks with a handful of Brits and Italians. It has a lovely little beach, clear warm water, and some interesting rock formations along the harbour. We checked into our hotel, Hotel Gallini, and I shared a room with Canadian A and International A (she’s lived in too many places to assign her a country—born in Nepal, lived in New Zealand, and now from London). We grabbed gyros and beer and spent the afternoon on the beach, then Canadian A and I visited the little shops and picked up wine and A got some great fake Ray Bans. At 6:30 pm, the entire group met and Jen led us up a steep trail to an old fortress. We had drinks (Canadian A and I drank some fantastic Greek wine I’d had in Athens) and watched the sun go down. 
Waterfront in Parga with lots of cute shops and restaurants
Beautiful views of Parga from the old fortress

Drinks on the wall with the Busabout crew
Another amazing sunset
Next up was dinner at Baccho’s along the waterfront. This traditional Greek taverna had great food (I had moussaka), yummy red wine, and ouzo. But the most exciting part was the entertainment. The staff got everyone up dancing to traditional Greek music. And before I knew it, my waiter pulled out my chair and insisted I dance on my chair along with the other girls at my table. Well little did he know that this Kenton girl had tons of coffee table dancing experience. I busted out my chutney soca moves from Trinidad (thanks Danielle and Kimberly) and twisted that light bulb like nobody’s business (thank you red wine and ouzo). This earned me a round of applause from a large table of Brits!
Our tour guide Jen and Aussie S get into it! Opa!
Next we moved on to Spice Bar. Its claim to fame is 5 euro cocktails all night, every night. I decided to order a whisky sour. They didn’t have actual bourbon so they made it with Jack Daniels and free poured about 5 ounces into a cocktail shaker along with the lemon and simple syrup. It tasted great, but I just knew that if I drank 5 ounces of Jack on top of red wine and ouzo I would be one sick girl. In a surprising display of good judgment, I pushed the drink to the side and switched to water. I know, everyone is probably wondering if this is actually Devon writing this blog post, but I assure you it is. They say travel changes you! Point made. However, Canadian J has a real thing for shots and I felt it would be rude to refuse to participate in the three rounds of shots that came my way. So not completely reformed yet….
Canadian girls on tour!
We were up early to get on the bus for 8 am. I stocked up on fruit at a nearby fruit stand (good snacks for the bus) and grabbed a latte and we were off. It was an exciting morning as we said goodbye to Greece and crossed into Albania. I was very apprehensive about entering Albania as I’ve heard so many negative things and it’s been depicted really badly in movies and the media. With cries of “white slavery” and “kidnapping” echoing in my ears, we crossed the border with no problems and soon we were rolling along nicely paved roads enjoying beautiful mountain scenery.

Our first stop was an Albanian bunker. These were built by a paranoid Albanian dictator during the Cold War era. There are thousands of these concrete igloos all over Albania, and they can withstand tank fire. I’d read about them in my guide book and I was really eager to see one. We hiked up a hill to one where we learned about the history. In my excitement, I ran over to pose for a picture standing in the door way…then whack! Those door ways are MUCH MUCH lower than they look, and next thing I knew I’d cracked my head against the concrete and metal top of the door arch, knocking my sunglasses off. My immediate concern was for my Prada sunglasses, but they survived with some minor scratches to one of the legs. I did not fare as well—although I shook it off and said I was fine, I now have a bruised temple and seriously wounded dignity. Albanian bunker=1, Devon=0
I see why these bunkers withstand tank fire. Thank goodness my Pradas were okay.
I recovered on the bus (I really needed some ice for that temple, but thank goodness I had bangs to hide the worst of the damage) as we made our way to Gjirokastra. This is a medieval Albanian village that is designated a Unesco world heritage sight. This charming town has white buildings and cobbled streets. We visited a money exchange as they don’t accept euros in Albania, and Jen advised us to exchange no more than 20 euros into Albanian lev. 20 euros netted me almost 3000 lev and the experience was like a scene from the movie Eurotrip. 3000 lev (worth approximately $30 Canadian) paid for the following:
-entrance fee to historical fortress and house in Gjirokastra
-pastry for lunch
-dinner in a nice restaurant (yummy pizza that would have fed two and glass of red)
-two big bottles of water, two Milka chocolate bars, a little bottle of wine, and a can of Albanian beer (to try later)
-taxi fare split four ways from downtown Tirana to our hotel
-a glass of wine in the hotel lounge
-a caramel latte
-a generous tip to the barista as I threw my lev around like a millionaire. They ran out and bought a new house with it…kidding!
Main street in Gjirokastra
And wait for it... the yoga pose I'm compelled to do everywhere. Stunning scenic view from the old fortress though!
Ottoman house from the 1700s
I have never visited anywhere as cheap as Albania. Gjirokastra was absolutely charming, and Tirana (capital city) is really modern and working hard to catch up with the rest of Europe. A few interesting facts about Albania:
-Albania’s communist dictator, Hoxha, closed the borders of Albania for 40 years. No one could leave or enter the country. The benefit to this was that Albania developed a really strong infrastructure and became self-sufficient. The down side? They fell completely behind the rest of the world and are now trying to play catch up.
-Albania had one of the most brutal communist regimes in history. The Albanian secret police interrogated 1/3 Albanians citizens, offering a reward of $1.50 Canadian to anyone who informed on those not following the strict communist rules. Since people were so desperately poor, friends and family members turned on each other to earn the money. Many people were transported to labour camps and interred for long periods of time. Some simply vanished.
-the Communist dictator banned religion. When the dictator died, his replacement still did not allow religion. 5000 students staged a huge protest, and the new leader had no choice but to allow Albanians freedom of religion. This was in the early 90s.
-Albanians were occupied by the Ottomans for hundreds of years. As a result there is a strong Muslim influence and many mosques.
-Albanian red wine is delicious and cheap! Excited to try my can of beer later!
-most people still grow their own vegetables and exchange them with their friends and family members. Farming methods are still really basic (we saw cards being pulled by donkeys), contrasting sharply with Hummers and Mercedes speeding down modern highways.
-Albanian gas/service stations are the nicest I have ever seen. They are bright and new, with lounges and bars in them! There’s nice furniture (couches, love seats, cool chairs) and some even have trampolines out back to jump on. I found it hilarious that they have bars in them when people are just there to fill up with gas…drinking and driving anyone?? Also you can get really good coffee at these service stations. They have proper espresso and milk frothing machines and I got a great latte for 200 lev.
 This is a service station. Can you believe it? Take note Canada!
Also my day began my favourite way with yoga! I taught a yoga class in the conference room of our Albanian hotel to some of the Busabout girls. They were really receptive to everything, and we did breathing exercises, joint mobility exercises, standing series, and some of the ab series, ending with savasana and mantra. And they cranked out wheel in their first class! 
Our hotel was really nice!

We’re now sitting at the Albania-Montenegro border, and the most pressing question is will they put stamps in our passports? When everyone on the bus is travel-obsessed, filling your passport with cool stamps is a real badge of honour and documents your journey. Sometimes if you ask nicely they’ll stamp your passport for you, but so often they don’t. Today’s adventures include beaching it at Budva, exploring the medieval town there, then Bay of Kotor!

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