I’ve been avoiding this fact, but I can no longer ignore that summer is over. Autumn is here and winter is creeping closer and closer. Nights are chilly and I’ve worn my jeans and hoodie more often these last days than my shorts and slops.
If I was in any doubt that the summer holiday season is over, my visit to Drymades beach on the south coast of Albania cleared it up. I arrived here on the suggestion from Vanja and Robyn, the lovely ladies I visited with on Santorini. They were full of stories of a great campsite (and cute barman) here. I knew the campsite would no longer be open, but I was not prepared for what I found when I arrived.
The bus from the resort city of Saranda left me at the turn from Dhërmi to Drymades and I walked a few kilometres down the winding road towards the sea. I saw a shepard on my way and one small mini market. Things were looking to be quiet, but down at the seaside there was not a single place left open. Not a single place. No hotel, no restaurant, no beach umbrella.
I was just contemplating which part of the beach I could sleep on when a man hailed me from his balcony. Turns out the balcony belongs to a beach front hotel, and the hotel belongs to this guy. The hotel was closed, but he saw my predicament and offered me a room for the night, at no charge. Remember those small kindnesses I mentioned?
And to add more twists to the story, the hotel owner was Greek but spoke French as he had lived in the Congo for years, accepted conversation in my schoolgirl French (which is better than my Greek at any rate), had visited Johannesburg once and shopped at Eastgate, a shopping centre right up the road from my home. I mean, come on!
So I had a swim in the now quite fresh sea, walked along the beach and gazed in awe at the massive mountains rising above the coast. The clouds performed rolling magic down the slopes, the sun sank red and orange into the sea and the full moon shone brightly over the deserted beach.
The next morning I caught a ride back up the steep road with a local taking some kids to school, and then a bus bound for Vlorë, a city further north along the coast. I do love bus trips and this one had me glued to the window. The bus crawled up the long, steep curves of Llogara Pass, climbing higher and higher until we were on top on the mountain where lush forest replaced the rocky ground. From there the bus wound its way through countryside and past small farming communities, along the coast and then veered inland to Albania’s capital Tirana.
Being back in a city was mind-boggling. I couchsurfed with a Canadian guy living and working there, as well as three other travellers. I was the granny in the group and happily waved them off to the bar.
My visit to the Balkans is a drive by to see some places I didn’t get to on my last trip. From Tirana I headed to Shkodra, close to the border with Montenegro. The city is surrounded by incredible mountains which rise up blue and majestic in the distance. They add power and mystery to the ancient city protected by a walled castle on the hill and the river winding though the valley.
Shkodra with its mix of mosques and churches, walled castle on the hill above the city, stone bridge and river running into the lake that forms the border with Montenegro.
Many people get around Shkodra by bicycle, and these wheels are old school: mud guards, springs in the seats, baskets and racks. Hipsters in Cape Town would kill for one of these!