Central Europe - Montenegro and Albania

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  • Getting from Croatia to Patra, in the northern Peleponnese, appeared to be difficult. My research on the net suggested that if you wanted to travel by bus the best way was to go to Ulcini in Montenegro, then cross into Albania and look for on-going transport from Tirana. We decided to follow this route, with a stop-off in Kotor, because it sounded like a great place to see.

    The Bay of Kotor is simply amazing. The road winds along inlets, coves, bays...the coast just gets more and more beautiful, with steep mountains on the inland side. By the time we got to Kotor we could see why this waterway is sometimes described as the Mediterranean's only fjord.

    We had been using private accommodation, and once again accepted a room offered at the bus station, following the woman home like two lost puppies. However, this time it was very different. We were shown into a two-bedroom flat in an old soviet-styled apartment block, one of a whole group of them. The kid's clothes and toys were hurriedly scooped off the two single beds, we were shown where the family bathroom was, and given a handful of keys to get us into the apartment block and then into the flat. For the first time the 'room' was just that - sharing the place with the family.

    Montenegro is poorer than Croatia, and this was reflected in the town of Kotor - similar to the walled cities we'd just come from, but slightly seedier and less flash. We were only staying one night, so we walked into the old city, admiring the amazing walls running up the hillside behind the town - at this stage we were unaware that we were going to climb up there! As we wandered around the town we saw an entrance to the fortress - just 3€ - so we bought tickets, but still hadn't linked the word 'fortress' to the fortifications high above us. It was only when we started up the steps that the penny dropped.

    Kotor offered the highest and, at times, steepest climb we did during our travels on this trip. There were lots of people doing the climb, and the view from the top was fantastic!

    From Kotor we took the bus to Ulcini - not anything special, but it was a pleasant-enough port town, with a little 'Stari Grad' (Old City) high on a bluff overlooking the sea.

    It was always going to be a bit akward getting through Albania, but all the notes I'd made from the net came in handy, and we took the bus from Ulcini to Shkoder, then picked up a mini-bus to Tirana. The minibus dumped us in an area I couldn't recognise from my rather restricted map, on a very busy road. However, it did have one saving grace - there, right at the point where we got off, was a travel agent advertising direct buses to Patra, exactly where we wanted to go in Greece. Before we headed off we went and booked ticket; it was as we had been warned - we had to go back to the travel agency, not to a bus station, to catch the bus south.

    We rather liked Tirana. We found a hotel within easy walking distance of the centre of town, and walked all around the downtown area. There was a festival or celebration taking place, and many of the roads were turned into pedestrian malls for the day. There was an extensive 'beer and sausage' carnival, providing lunch, and we stumbled over the National Puppet Theatre, where we poked our noses in and were welcomed by the staff, who introduced us to the puppet-maker and showed us around backstage.

    Leaving Tirana was every bit as odd as we anticipated. We returned to the travel agency a half an hour before our bus was due to leave, expecting to be taken to a departure point, but instead sat there, growing ever more confused. About one minute before our designated departure time the woman from the agency indicated that we should suicidally cross the six-lane chaotic roadway and wave down a bus with "this name" on it - and she wrote down the name of the bus company.

    So we braved the road crossing, stood on the edge of the hightway, and waited....and waited... and waited. From time to time the travel agent appeared in the doorway of her office and made ambiguous gestures. After half-an-hour I decided to go back to the office to find out what was happening. The answer was that this was normal - the bus would be here in two minutes. Another life-threatening crossing through the traffic, and more waiting. Nearly an hour after the time shown on our ticket a bus did, indeed, come along, pulled up when we waved, and took us off towards Greece.

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