Albanian adventure part 2: Out of my depth

In my last post, I got myself up a waterfall facing a tricky climb down, and a fear of heights to conquer. Getting up the waterfall was easier than I expected – getting down proved difficult. With the help of Miri and some rope I was able to shimmy sideways to reach a safe spot, then headed down playing out the rope as I went. In an attempt to take an easier route, I got stuck in a bush and ended up dangling with the rope caught around my waist. After a bit of work and swivelling 360 degrees, I was able to get a foothold and slide down to a point where I could get down without the rope. Of course, Miri just slid down effortlessly. But then, he does this every day.

With that, it was a long trek and bus ride back to Berat and the hostel. The following day, I caught a bus, due south. Alighting in the city of Vlora, I had no idea how to get to my next destination, but some locals invited me to join them outside a bar. After buying me a beer and chatting in limited English and sign language, they were able to direct me to where I could catch my next bus. Albanians are definitely the friendliest people I’ve met.

After my exploits around Berat, I was looking forward to a tranquil retreat, and I found much more than I was looking for in the little village of Vuno, on the south coast. The route from Vlora was scenic, but I wasn’t much able to appreciate it as I was squashed standing in the aisle at the front of the bus. During a stopover at the entrance to a national park a fellow traveller, Tim, picked me out from the locals, and we sat together for the ride down to Vuno. From my seat the views of the coast were breathtaking.

I was to stay at a tiny old school that lives out the summer months as a backpacker’s hostel. Sadly, it is a school no longer, but the domicile still welcomes travellers. Shkolla hostel is one of the highlights of my trip. Inflatable mattresses occupy the two classroom dorms. An outside area with benches and loungers is a chilled out place to spend a day in the sun with a cup of fresh mountain tea, and in the evenings becomes a communal area around a campfire.

Daily ablutions are provided by the outdoor shower and toilets, and a tap for the rest. The village of Vuno has a small shop for the essentials and a cheerful restaurant with good food and a screen for watching the Euro games. There are multiple quiet beaches a short drive away from the hostel, and olive groves on the doorstep demand wandering. I was in paradise.

During an evening watching the football in town, I got a shock: a text from someone I had met a month ago in Split, telling me he was staying in town and had just passed me in a car. It was great to see him again. Small world.

I didn’t spend my whole time relaxing here, though. Annette, an Irish lady who runs a hostel in Saranda, was staying at Shkolla and drove a few of us down a canyon to a remote rocky cove, popular with campers. Rumour had it that a cave lay a short distance up the shore, and Annette, Tim and I decided to try and find it.

I’m not much of a swimmer. I can’t remember the last time I was in the water, apart from the thermal baths in Budapest. So the prospect of a long swim with no easy alighting points was daunting, but I thought ‘what the heck’. Turns out my lack of swimming finesse was not much of a problem: all three of us were about the same level.

This is the beach from where we set off.

A heroic adventure ensued, the three of us pressing in into the unknown to find this legendary cave. For obvious reasons, I didn’t take my camera, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Early on, we passed a fisherman sitting on a remote rock jutting into the sea. I’ve no idea how he got down there: the rocks behind him were quite sheer. We exchanged pleasantries and swam on.

We weren’t in the water the whole time. Several places allowed us to climb out to have a break, and sometimes we pushed forward by clambering over the rocks, which was probably a mistake. The rocks were very sharp in places, and were painful to walk on, except for Annette, who had cleverly brought beach shoes.

It was slow progress moving across the rocks, as I proved when I took the watery route and stormed ahead. Eventually, after much stopping and starting, we reached a couple of shallow caves and had a rest. We had no idea if these were the caves we were looking for, but exhaustion had set in and I for one wasn’t about to go still further along the shore. We still had to get back…

I mentioned I wasn’t a great swimmer. I also don’t have a lot of stamina. I was really starting to tire on the return journey. We must have come at least a kilometre. I made my way slowly back, and stopped on the rocks for a while. The sea was choppier and the rocks sharper for the first stretch, so the worst was over, but the sun was dipping ever closer to the high horizon. I continued. Annette had long since disappeared, and Tim was faster than me. My confident breaststroke from earlier had become a lame doggy paddle, coupled with bouts of back stroke. I was starting to wonder how I would make it back.

Finally, we rounded a corner and saw the beach from where we had set off. We still had a long way to go, but at least the end was in sight. Then I got cramp…

I turned and swam towards the rocks to find a place to grab hold of, one leg dangling stiffly. Fortunately, the pain subsided quickly and I was able to move my leg again and carry on. Tim reached the beach first, to cheers from the finish line. I arrived several minutes later, almost collapsed, and croaked, ‘water’! We had been away for some hours, and I had swallowed a lot of salt water. Relaxing on the beach, drinking fresh water and eating biscuits felt great.

So I recovered from my ordeal, and it was a great trip! Whether or not we reached the actual cave doesn’t matter, I’m proud of what I achieved. Sure, an advanced swimmer could probably have done that in half an hour without breaking a sweat, but for me it was an achievement.

I didn’t think I’d be taking to the water again so soon but the very next day we went boating and swimming in the beach near town. After a great stay in Vuno, I tried hitchhiking for the first time in my life. I never would have imagined, at the beginning of this year, that I’d be hitchhiking through Albania in a few short months. It’s actually a good country to try it, people are generally friendly and will stop for you. I had no trouble getting three separate rides to Saranda, and met some interesting people.

From Saranda, I was planning to head straight to Greece, but the sun was baking me from directly overhead, it was too hot travel, but fortunately I knew someone in the area. I rocked up at fellow adventurer Annette’s hostel, the Hairy Lemon, and spent an awesome afternoon and night hanging out with cool people, where I drank homemade Baileys and made pancakes before getting up early to catch the bus to Athens.

Albania: probably the most awesome country I’ve visited so far.

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2 Responses to Albanian adventure part 2: Out of my depth

  1. Steve says:

    Thought it would be! And who wouldn’t want to stay at a place called the Hairy Lemon!

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