The 4 month winter European loop: West to East & back again! PART 4

Cheap eats in Albania

04/03/2017 – 07/03/2017

NOTE: The following prices are in Euros, however the official currency is the Lek.

For some time Albania seems to have laid out of sight and out of mind for tourists visiting Europe. Certainly it had evaded most of our attentions back in Australia, with Bonny’s first thought of Albania being that Voldemort had hidden out here in a forest for a couple of years. For us, arriving in its capital, Tirane, almost felt like stepping out of Europe, finding ourselves surrounded by an odd jumble of concrete cubic blocks swathed in lurid murals breathing life back into otherwise grey streetscapes.

Firstly we checked in to our accommodation (€7.5pp/night we like to use booking.com) however lacking any eftpos/card facilities we had to excuse ourselves and make the first errand of the day withdrawing some cash!

This task took us all the way to the newly opened shopping center/mall, apparently only the second in the entire country. It was the grand opening of the shopping centre and for some eager Albanians, also their debut riding escalators. We happily played voyeurs entranced by the growing queue for this unlikely attraction and enjoying the occasional chicken politely awaiting their turn, then chickening out at the last moment.

Due to a general scarcity of wifi in Albania, most businesses remain offline, including those of travel agencies. In order to book an onward bus we had to hit the pavement approaching each agency in the “bus street” we’d been directed to. Eventually we found two agencies offering the service we sought. The experience of booking a single bus ride reassured our decision to avoid additional travel within Albania to its more remote, though scenic destinations. After all in Albania it is not unusual to find your booked bus doesn’t eventuate on your scheduled date if lacking ticket sales, leaving you waiting a night or three for its eventual departure. For routes prone to wintery weather interruptions the likelihood of buses adhering to our travel itinerary was not in our favour. For now the gorgeous national park of Butrint would have to wait for a summertime visit.

Regardless, limiting ourselves to the capital alone did not disappoint. Our eagerness for learning its recent history and simply exploring the fascinating mixture of new cultures juxtaposed with tradition was enough to keep us busy during our brief stay. A free (tips based) walking tour will leave you at the “pyramid”, once a key government building under the Dictator regime. Now a little shambolic-looking, it’s a popular slippery dip from the top. Also check out the hillside graveyard and underground bunker museum to learn the full extent to which paranoia can run its course on a nation.

One of our true highlights from Albania was the affordable dining options. Here we could enjoy multi course meals with beverages, and still wash it all down with a tasty icecream each without blowing our budget to smithereens. Served in tapas-style sharing dishes we were able to sample a variety of lamb stew, grilled meats, eggplant, baked yoghurt and bean dishes, polished off with the local lager. Without doubt, we recommend popping aside some pennies for a Balkan feast while in Albania.

Keiran was so taken by the stylish haircuts sported by the young macho male population that he even braved one (€2) with a barber using little more than charades, an old licence and an offline Google translator to illustrate his wishes.

Ancient wonders of Greece

07/03/2017 – 12/03/2017

An eventful international border crossing bus ride (€25pp) from Albania saw us almost miss our first Greek destination. It was fortunate Keiran had quickly realised we’d passed through tiny Kalambaka or we’d have had to back track even further on foot. As it was, being dumped a km or two out of town in the dark in slight drizzle wasn’t ideal, but we’d witnessed other passengers dropped in more peculiar circumstances.

Kalambaka is a tiny little town on the outskirts of the Meteora mountains. In an otherwise flat plain, the collection of mountains appear to jut out of nowhere and perched precariously atop some peaks are little monasteries and a nunnery of the Greek Orthodox faith.

Identifying as wannabe hermits ourselves, the stories of runaway monks escaping civilisation, falling in love with the mystical landscape and building themselves a home at the top of a clifftop appealed in its mad way. Rather than a day tour where you’re herded on and off buses winding along the road, we chose a DIY walking tour so we could appreciate not only the monasteries but also the gorgeous scenery between them including some of the hermit caves that remain. Taking full advantage of Greek cuisine we packed some fresh souvlakis (€1.50) for lunch and were on our way.

Not every monastery/nunnery is open to visitors daily, so it’s vital you research in advance each one’s opening hours. Entry fee was €3 per person and to meet dress standards, ladies will need to borrow a visitor skirt if they’re wearing trousers. Men need knees and shoulders covered. We visited 2 monasteries and the sole nunnery all in one day. Each has their own flair, from the more humble and intimate to those more grandiose and impressive. Inside each is a chapel with intricate frescoes embellishing the walls and ceilings. There’s a no-photo policy in the chapels, so you’ll just have to see a photo I took of a postcard to get the idea.

Despite experiencing almost continual drizzle all day, we felt Meteora was an excellent on-off experience combining nature, art, history/religion and wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Our next Greek destination was a little known city named Athens. We were hoping to visit a series of ancient Greek structures including the Pantheon on the Acropolis. It wasn’t without some struggle that we navigated to our innercity hostel. Given streets of Athens are somewhat windy interlaced things and signs displayed in Greek alphabet, we had no chance of typing street names into maps.me, but eventually arrived at our lodgings (€10pp/night).

With the wet weather of Meteora following our footsteps, we were glad to have umbrellas as we traipsed through shin-high rivers coursing through Athen’s pleasantly empty streets. Almost every location included on our tourist ticket was equally as quiet (€15pp). Note for those visiting Athens, a student ID is worth its weight in gold for substantially discounted admission. If a clerk tells you its only EU students for whom the discount applies, pop into another ticket booth and try your luck.

Our Athens accommodation was particularly memorable owing to a host of volunteers determined to create a jam packed calendar of social events and the fact there were not enough blankets to accommodate the number of guests so a fun game of blankey-snatchy began. Our stay coincided with a butterfly themed piss up and Bonny made a new instant friendship with a Bulgarian girl named Nelly who currently worked as a games tester living in Spain when she wasn’t holidaying in Greece.

We also met a solo female traveller from China who had set herself the challenge of making her way through Europe in winter entirely on foot. The details were a bit hairy due to her limited English and our nonexistant Mandarin, but we also learned she really liked eating Octopus soup and could do it for hours at a time. She even kept her excess in a jar on the bedroom windowsill for any midnight cravings. Fascinating stuff.

Eating like Kings in Italy

12/03/2017 – 20/03/2017

Between Greece and Italy we had planned a crossing that differed from the bus services we’d so heavily relied on throughout Europe. Rather, we were to take a ferry (€30pp) from the little port town of Patras that would cross the Ionian Sea heading to Brindisi, Italy. For anybody following our footsteps, let it be known there is exactly one minimarket shop in Patras that is open on Sundays. Here we perused the limited array, however happily walked away with a picnic consisting of taramolata dip, tinned marinated seafood, olives, yoghurt, bread, and grapes to sustain us through our overnight ferry.

As it turned out, we made up half of the total number of passengers boarding the ferry. Everybody else were truck drivers transporting freight. We made ourselves acquainted with the two other passengers, both young backpackers like ourselves, one from Japan and the other German. The German guy was a little dismayed to realise he’d unnecessarily paid top dollar for rights to a special chair, when in fact we had our pick from any remotely clean surface on the whole boat as there was absolutely nobody onboard to tell us otherwise. We were pleasantly surprised at our luck in finding a corner decked out with four massive plush benches which we fancied as our beds for the night. We all tucked into our assorted picnics and enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep.

Arriving into Brindisi we were to take a bus before we reached Naples (€19pp). Once in Naples we had a nice AirBnB room (€10.50pp/night) in an apartment with a pair of young Italians. Sign up here for $40 off your first adventure. Naples felt to us like the real deal. Sure there’s the mafia history and seedy reputation of crime that lingers in its streets, but by day there’s petite women trotting down pavements in snakeskin stilettos towing designer handbags, lines of laundry dangling from window to window, and then there’s the food!

Surely anybody could get fat in Italy given enough time. For anybody who doesn’t like pizza or pasta, there’s gelato, espresso, delicate pastries, wine, gosh, what else? Our resounding favourite that we were sad to leave behind was the pizza frita. If anybody thinks this is merely a fancy version of a pizza rounder from the school canteen, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s also not an empanada, or a calzone. It’s just a pizza frita and it is perfection in a mouth burny way and at about €3.5, it’s a delightful pathway toward high cholesterol.

One of the other incentives for visiting Naples was its proximity to the ancient Roman site of Pompeii (& Herculaneum) (€16pp audio guide is not necessary). Bonny had picked up a thing or two about Ancient Roman society from HSC History and was keen to test her memory with a visit to the site she’d heard so much about. This is without doubt a day trip you need to start early, as the sight is massive, hot, tiring and filled with tour groups. We rearranged our route numerous times simply so we could avoid hordes of school kids. It still amazed us to find scumbags who left their cigarette butts amid the fragile ancient ruins they’d travelled such distances to see.

We spent the entire day onsight before closing time when hunger pangs drew us to the nearby town. Here we indulged in a massive margherita pizza each (€3) from a local pizzeria, having successfully avoided the hawkers working the restaurants surrounding the entry gates.

After a few days enjoying Naples our road led us to Rome. Another memorable hostel (€13pp/night) but for all the wrong reasons, it drew guests together through the simplicity of gravity and poorly manufactured bunk beds. The Pakistani and Indian staff were deeply apologetic every time a bed collapsed and then would rush for the roll of duct tape to amend the fault. Outside of the hostel, Rome was a fascinating mix of litter strewn parks, awe-inspiring structures like the Coliseum, checking boxes with “must-see” monuments like the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon. We also squeezed in time to join the audience of the Pope in Vatican City.

Cursed with large appetites, we skipped the tradition of indulging in aperetifs. Our time in Rome coincided with St Patrick’s Day, so we sought out a raucous street party hosted by a top tiered hostel, Yellow Hostel, which offered copious whisky, merchandise and live music. As part of the celebrations even the Coliseum was illuminated in Irish colours.

Among our favourite parks in the world was undoubtedly the sprawling, excessively romantic Villa Borghese park. Unlike most parks found in Rome, this was free from litter, with endless patches of grass to laze about watching rowboats and listening to classical music played by nearby buskers.

Almost summer in Spain

20/03/2017 – 29/03/2017

From Italy we took an arduous 26 hour bus (€52.50pp) journey through the south of France with a brief stop in Nice and a solid 12hrs of transit time with no toilet facilities available. Thanks for nothing Flixbus!

Eventually we reached Barcelona, the glimmering beachside city filled with expats and entrepreneurs. Again we were blessed with more interesting room mates including charismatic yogi Cristopher Cung who was set on addressing the problem of Barcelona’s food waste.

Barcelona’s beach was still lively in the midst of winter with foreign salesmen and women prowling the stretch of sand seeking tourists interested in sarongs, massages, bracelets, mojitos, temporary tattoos and more. We observed unwary tourists fall asleep while sunbaking on the beach and wake to find a masseuse providing an undesired massage service. By this stage of our travels in Europe we were very excited simply to be at a beach regardless of the water temperature.

Aside from a shortage of accommodation for locals, Barcelona seems to have almost anything available for any demand, especially when it comes to cuisines. Rather than splurging on tapas eats at the surrounding bars, we stocked up at the supermarket and prepared our own sample platter of all the plates we’d drooled over on chalkboard menus. Albondigas, empanadas, smoked mussels, dumplings, smashed avo all washed down with a carafe of sangria. To balance out our gluttony we sought out a yoga class which was funnily enough presented in English for our benefit.

Our next stop was Madrid, the city of museums and art galleries. Here we visited three art galleries Nacional Del Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, where we spent as much time focusing on works by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali as we did focusing on the plaques, hoping to immerse ourselves in spanish language in any way possible. Neither of us had any interest in bull fighting, however hoped to see the other perspective and learn the history at the museum attached to the Las Ventas stadium. We still struggled to comprehend this as a sport, let alone an artistic performance, but certainly came out with some new found knowledge.

Madrid also offers a variety of manicured parks with golden statues, large lakes and water fountains including the magic fountain with a free night time light show. The parks are full of free entertainment as circus performers practice their routines. The olympic stadium is also close to the city and worth a quick walk through.

Getting sick in Portugal

29/03/2017 – 07/04/2017

From Madrid we made our way to Porto, Portugal where we were warmly welcomed into one of the most inclusive, clean hostels we’ve ever visited (€10pp/night). This hostel was well populated by a team of international WorkAway volunteers, to a ratio of almost one volunteer for every three guests. This was where we first heard about WorkAway as an alternative to well known “WOOFing”. It was a very relaxing place to call home for a few days and simply wander the streets of tiled buildings while munching down pasteles de nata.

Here we continued our new sangria habit adopted in Spain and learned the secret surrounding Nando’s Portuguese chicken… it’s all a lie! For many visitors to Porto who enjoy perusing the architecture, it’s worth noting the train station, however aesthetic is plagued by a team of drug dealers. Their boldness suggests their baggies contain little more than lawn clippings, but their presence does lend an air of seediness to an otherwise lovely city. If you arrive by rail, please don’t let this first impression ruin your view of Porto.

Just a short way from Porto we next arrived in Lisbon and no sooner had we arrived before Bonny developed a dreaded flu which Keiran may have contributed to. This was the bane of our stay as it meant movement was limited to a 3km radius from our accommodation lest either of us died drowning in our own feverish sweat. Matters were not improved by the city’s steep hills which seemed like slow torture for the weak.

Aside from a few more Portuguese tarts, some warm sunny spots and the lovely architecture of the waterfront plaza, we didn’t have much energy left. Our last reserves of energy were spent devising a way of making our good mate, Brydie Hilton pick up her damn phone and respond to our messages she’d ignored for 3 or more months. Our strategy involved an April Fool’s mock marriage proposal which we hoped would attract her interest. It turns out that many of our social media contacts were tricked, and some so pleased for us that we couldn’t bring ourselves to reveal the scandalous truth.

Despite our optimistic hopes, there remains no ferry services between Portugal and the Emerald Isle, meaning our next stop could only be reached by air, Ryanair (€45.60pp).

Continue on our European road trip in the next post: “A fortnight roadtrippin’ around fiddly-dee Ireland”.

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