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Friday, July 17, 2015

The Art of Travelling & Nero in Albania

I pick up my bags and look at the hostel garden for the last time. The owner’s wife, she must be in her fifties, is smiling at me. It was a nice place, the Berat Backpackers Hostel. It’s traditional, large and a beautiful old Ottoman house now converted into a hostel. The interiors still have some of the family portraits.

I touch the fortifying wall and walk out. I used to sit near the railings and watch the river and the town across it, in the evenings. In two days, I became fond of this house. But the 250 year old abode has seen a lot of backpackers like me. 

I walk down the street, typically Albanian old town, no tar, just white stone. It is the best part of town, the UNESCO protected old quarter called Gorica. 

All the houses are old, almost two three hundred years, white in colour, with large windows. There are winding footpaths and narrow alleyways, and you can spend an entire evening just walking around Gorica. Pretty and quaint, it’s a fairytale-like place. A girl watches me from her balcony as I take in my surroundings. Whatever the news, the media, regular blogs say about Albania is silly. It is a beautiful country and has such friendly people.

As on July 10, its been over a month since I came to Europe. The group I was leading in Turkey and Greece left a few days back, and after a couple of relaxed days, I am ready to travel hardcore. 

The most significant part of travelling alone is that it makes you think a lot. In those long moments when you are just by yourself, maybe on a bus, or just walking alone, there are a thousand things going on in your head. Most of your head is cluttered by thoughts about where you can have your next meal, or where the hell’s that bus stop the hostel guy was talking about, or when you should leave for the next town. 

And there is a part of your head that is learning and processing so much. I can now figure out if a person is from Scandinavian Europe or not. I have learnt to differentiate between some of the accents. Then, there's the history. Every place I go to in the Balkans, there has been war in the past, bloodshed, empires being built and shattered, of which I mostly knew nothing before I came here. As I headed from Turkey to Greece and now to Albania and continue on my northward journey, I trace the path that the Ottomans took. I am reading the history of the Ottoman empire and seeing the cultural and architectural influence in the lands they ruled.

As I walk on, I wonder if I am progressing ahead, or going back in time. Maybe the two go hand in hand.

I cross the bridge that divides Gorica from the rest of Berat. In the evenings, when the town is lighted up, the bridge looks very pretty. There is not much water in the Osumi river now. July’s the hottest month of the year. But the water is very clear and green. Next to the bridge is probably the best part of the town. It is like a postcard - an old bridge over a river, the two oldest and most historic parts of town – Gorica and Mangalem, sitting on the mountain slopes – on either side of the bridge. As the river curves ahead, it will pass through towering canyons as high as a hundred metres.

The houses in the Mangalem quarter too are old, white, and have large windows. It is exactly why Berat is known as the “town of a thousand windows.” This well preserved Ottoman town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and along with Gjirokastra is one of the most beautiful towns in Albania.

On top of the hill above the Mangalem quarter is the fortress. The castle has seen Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman conquerors, and has been continuously inhabited ever since the fourth century. The path from the town to the castle is beautiful, it’s a sea of white on cobblestone streets, and there are trees lined on the sides as you climb higher.  

There are some fantastic views from the castle walls, of the entire region. I would have loved it more but there is a hotel and a few cafes inside the castle walls. It made it less authentic for me.

A man asks me if he can click a photograph with me. I smile. He has never met an Indian before. Albania is still very untouched, unlike Croatia which receives a lot more tourists. After being in Santorini and Muykonos, two stunning Greek islands that are overrun by tourists, I am liking it here, where there are no tourists at all.

Travelling should also make you try out things, test your newly acquired comfort zones and make you stretch those too. The first evening at the Berat Backpackers Hostel, I meet a traveler from France. On the road for six weeks, he’s carrying a tent with him. He goes to a town, finds a hill or a lake or a shaded area and pitches his tent. When he has finished seeing the town, he hitchhikes to his next destination. Only when he is exhausted, he takes a short break and stays in a hostel. He left yesterday, and as I saw him fold his tent into the bag, I can’t help but wish him all the best in his travels.

And I love it. One of the key things about the life of a traveller is that he/she must constantly try to evolve, push their comfort zones. I never really made a bucketlist but if I had a couple of years back, I guess it would have focussed around places. Now however, it is in trying out things that are more challenging.  

Next year onwards, I want to carry a tent too.

I want to do busking  - perform on the street for a couple of hours every day and collect money in a hat. Heh, I don’t think I have a talent for street performance and it will take a lot of luck for my Bollywood dancing to get me a few pennies. I need a hot partner, I think.

I want to do a four person (all strangers to each other) road trip through a series of countries. Also try a two person trip for three four weeks.

I want to figure out all the countries in South America that give Indians visa on arrival. Plot a route map through them, and bike my way across the countries.

 I want to Visit Antarctica, and sit in between a colony of Emperor Penguins.

As I walk ahead, there are a few souvenir shops. Lost in my thoughts, I forget to buy a magnet.

Berat has been a good experience. It is time to move on to a new country now. I am headed to Kosovo – the second newest country in the world. From there, I will probably go to Montenegro, then Bosnia, Serbia and Romania.
To reach Kosovo, I must first take the bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania. And then take the evening bus from Tirana to Prizren, the Kosovo town I want to visit.

I pass the bus station and walk a hundred metres ahead. I put out my hand as the first car approaches. He does not stop. Neither does the second.
I look up at the sun. It is about forty degrees celcius. So many people only see the glamour that comes with a traveller’s image. Nice photos, overwhelming locales, the jump shots. Nobody sees the sun, the heat, the tons of patience, the queues, the waiting.
I walk a little more and wait for the next car to come. Another hitchhiker joins me. We smile as five, six cars zip past us and pay our thumbs or us no attention whatsoever.

I can easily take the bus. But a traveler must push his comfort zones. I have decided. I will hitchhike my way to Tirana, come what may.
----------------------  The End  --------------------

Have you read  "Nero's in Albania"

Or if you want to read something else,

1) Love in the Times of the Jaipur Literature Festival
2) How I met Lisa