Today we left Tirana for my visit to the southern part of Albania with our first stop in Korça. Because it was Saturday, the traffic was pretty light leaving the city and we reached the freeway in short order. Now there are not a lot of freeways in Albania so I was pleasantly surprised when we jumped on a modern four lane freeway. Most roads are only two lane country roads. As a result, it takes far longer to get from A to B than you would expect because of the lack of freeway infrastructure. Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived. After we passed through a long tunnel and reached the little town of Elbasan, the lovely freeway ended and we were back to the windy, narrow country roads.
Now the 160 km trip took us through rolling farmland and village after village before we finally started climbing through the Pindus Mountains heading east. And while the little country roads are picturesque, the downside is that traffic tends to get rather backed up with few opportunities to pass. We had been stuck behind a particularly slow driver when we reached an open stretch and Gasie and the two drivers in front of us decided to make a move to pass Mr. Slowpoke. Unfortunately, despite the open stretch, there was a single white line (meaning no passing). Just as Gasie and the other two cars pulled out, we spotted the cops who immediately waived all three cars over. Poof Gasie was beside himself.
Anyway, after a brief exchange back and forth and some further conversions out of the car, the cop gave Gasie a ticket. Apparently Gasie will have to appear at traffic court, but because he has no other tickets he will “only” have to pay a 100 euro fine. Now here’s the lost in translation part. Gasie was furious that the cop had not let him off with a warning because, as he told it to me, his dad is a cop and once he told the ticket officer that he should have let him off. HUH??? Apparently there is an unwritten rule in Albania that cops give “courtesies” to other cops and their families. But as Gasie tells it, these “new, young” cops have no respect for the traditions or the fact that his father is a cop. I kept my mouth shut, but really wanted to remind him he did, in fact, break the law.
So after the “ticket break”, we continued the drive up and round through the mountains driving past little hillside farms, farmers hauling products and the periodic river. Eventually we reached the apex of the mountain road and started our decent. About half way down the mountain, we turned a corner and caught a glimpse of beautiful Ohrid Lake, which splits Macedonia and Albania.
About five minutes later we pulled over at a view point and stopped to take some pictures. As with the last time I saw Lake Ohrid (a couple weeks ago) the water was a gorgeous azure colour and the sky was cloudless. And bonus … I could even saw across the lake to the wonderful little town of Ohrid. (Damn I loved that place.)
After our “view” break, we continued on leaving the mountains behind and entering the lowlands. We passed a number of farms and more little villages before finally arriving at Korça, overs three hours after we left Tirana.
Now Korça is in the far eastern portion of Albania near the Greek border. As soon as we entered Korça it was clear the little town was far different than other places I had visited in Albania. Korça had beautiful wide, tree lined boulevards and low rise buildings, which is vastly different from the ugly concrete high rise buildings that communists built throughout Albania. There were lovely cobblestone streets and elegant villas dating to the 1920s and modern sculptures.
Once we reached my hotel just off the lovely Bulevardi Republika, Gasie left me for the day and I was free to wander around the little town. I started my tour by walking down tree lined Bulevardi Republika past too many to count restaurants and cafes, clothing shops and upscale buildings. Clearly, this was the wealthy are of Korça. I passed a throwback to Albania’s dark period, a monument to communism and continued on to the Ngjallja e Krishtit Cathedral, which had been rebuilt after the communists destroyed the Orthodox Church.
I reached the main thoroughfare through Korça, took a right onto the lovely boulevard and eventually reached the recently renovated Old Bazaar. Now like most of the other bazaars I had visited in Albania, this one was primarily a mix of boutique shops, traditional and modern restaurants, and a couple bakers and some cafes. Nothing like the traditional bazaars of the Middle East or even Turkey.
I wandered along the little cobblestone streets and once I had completed a circle of the Old Bazaar, I crossed the street and took a shortcut back to my hotel through a pedestrian only street that started with a little water park and ended with a statute of the National Warrior Monument, which was across the street from the rebuilt Cathedral.
I stopped along the way back to my hotel for an ice cream cone (banana) before arriving back at my hotel. I was no sooner settling in for a nice late afternoon nap when … what the heck? My bed starting shaking a lot and the light was swinging. Earthquake! It didn’t last more than 5 to 10 seconds, but it was a significant jolt. It turns out that the earthquake was centered east of Tirana near Durrës, but was only 10 km deep. Apparently there is some significant damage in the area and a number of injuries. Hopefully everyone is OK, but am thankful I was not in Tirana or Durrës. (Ironically, when I was in Durrës I was looking behind the Roman columns in the museum to make sure that the columns were fastened to the building in case of earthquakes. What are the odds?)
Anyway, it was a “shaky” end to a pretty relaxing day.