Motorcycles, Mountain Springs, and Magical Albania

Sarande, Albania is only a 30 minute high-speed ferry ride from the coast of Corfu, Greece. It’s close enough that some people actually do day trips to this country and go back to Corfu in the evening. I know when planning this trip, I wasn’t entirely sure about Albania, but knew I’d need to make a few stops there in order to make my way up the Balkans. Come to think of it… I’m not sure why I decided to go all the way up the Balkans- I knew I wanted to see Croatia, but all the others just kind of fell into place while I was researching. I digress.

When Emily and I stepped onto the ferry boat I almost started laughing because it was laughably so gross. This ferry boat had clearly not been updated in years, and the upholstery was full of stains of god knows what and it reeked like cigarette smoke. The weathered men who were taking our big bags and stacking them haphazardly on one side of the boat had cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips and would shout incoherently in Greek sometimes if we weren’t getting our shit together fast enough. Emily and I held our breath and hoped for the best.

Arriving to the port of Sarande was just like any other port in any other town, but stepping into the street to make my way to the hostel, things were pretty residential mixed with some commercial properties. It felt like I was walking down the street in a suburb rather than walking in a port town. The hostel I stayed at called “The Hairy Lemon”was on the 8th floor of an apartment building with the most amazing views of the Sea! It was like staying in your crazy uncle’s apartment building that he threw some bunk beds into and hung a hammock on the wrap around balcony. There were two bathrooms/showers to share among all of us and a free pancake breakfast greeted us every morning. It was a little slice of chilled out heaven that I needed from the “in your face” feeling of the Pink Palace. We spent the day and the beach and after Emily left to go back to Corfu, I returned to the hostel and immediately made some new friends and we went to dinner. Eleine, Stein, and Luke and I made plans to go to The Blue Eye Spring tomorrow out in the Albanian Countryside. It’s a natural spring that is constantly flowing and the water is ice cold. People jump into it to see if they can brave the icy cold water, which sounded amazing to me! There was one catch- Stein and Eline were planning on renting a scooter and Luke was traveling Europe on a motorcycle…. which left me. I have never driven a scooter in my life, and I wasn’t sure that Albania was the place that this would be the best idea. So, Luke offered for me to ride on his motorcycle. I have been on a scooter once in my life, in Tuscany as a passenger and I was so unstable on it that I leaned the wrong way when he was turning and we fell over. Whoops. Did I tell Luke this? Nope. And I have been on a motorcycle once in my life, for a distance of approximately 4 blocks. The whole idea terrified me, but, vacation, amiright? The only thing I’d have to do is find a helmet… how hard could that be? Famous last words.

After a great communal breakfast, I ran into town to find a motorcycle helmet to rent. There were about 1000 shops offering to rent scooters, but not a single one wanted to rent me just a helmet. I offered to pay the cost of a scooter rental like $20 just to have it. But they said no. Except for one place- the owner had lived in Cleveland for years and was so excited to see an American in Albania that he just gave me the display helmet they had. I insisted on giving him some money, so he rented it to me for all of about $5. The Albanian people were so extraordinarily kind to me and went out of their way sometimes to help. I had wandered frantically into a store looking for a helmet, and although the woman didn’t speak Albanian, she went and got her daughter and they helped me. A little old man who owned a bakery gave Emily and I some free sweets when we were ogling all of the goodies. A man helped us find our hostel with a huge, toothless smile and the 14 year old waitress we had talked a mile a minute. I was easily falling in love with the people of this beautiful country.

The 4 of us headed out to the countryside. I was determined to not be a big old baby and just relax on the motorcycle. (Luke didn’t complain all day, so I think I did ok) It was a lot of fun zipping through the countryside, seeing the mountains all around us and eventually we got to the Blue Eye Spring. This place was tucked away down a dusty dirty road. Fortunately when we got there, it wasn’t too busy (read: no big tour busses… yet). And, it was really, really hot… which made the prospect of jumping into the spring very appealing. I’m not entirely certain I would have done it otherwise. The Spring is roughly 165 feet deep (maybe deeper, this is just the deepest people have explored) and gushes at a crisp temperature of 50 degrees. All. Year. Round. Now, back in 2010 after a fun birthday party drinking beers, eating Betty’s Pies and sitting around a little fire on a little peninsula in northern Minnesota… we got the really great idea to jump into Lake Superior at night. When I jumped in, i felt like razor blades were stabbing my body and I got an instant headache. So. I had that background information running through my head as I stared at this incredibly gorgeous bluer-than-blue water gushing up through the earth. But, I was here and… when in Rome…. so I counted, 1-2-3 and jumped into the water. It instantly took my breath away, and the current was SO strong! When I surfaced I’m certain I flashed the crowd, but I was more concerned with getting out and stopping shaking, so- it’s either “You’re welcome” or “I’m sorry” to everyone who was watching.

One thing that just doesn’t interest me is jumping off cliffs into water. I fully admit that it’s a fear of mine to slip and fall and hit my head on a giant rock- but it’s also just not one thing that I enjoy doing. I’ve done it- several times and I’m happy to just sit back and take the pictures now :). So, I sat back and took some fun video of Luke, Eline, and Stein jumping off the platform into the Blue Eye (I jumped just off the ground into the Blue Eye). After we had our fill of our bodies being covered in goose bumps, and wondering, “Do I still have feet? Are they still attached?” We decided to walk around the area and have lunch at this little restaurant next to the rushing river. Our ride back to Sarande was dusty and much windier than when we came- but I was hooked on the motorcycle experience!! Don’t worry mom, I’m not going to get a motorcycle.

After getting changed at the hostel, we said good bye to Luke and Stein and I decided to take the scooter out to Butrint- the beautiful ruins south of the Ksmail beaches. Let me just publicly apologize to Stein right now, because that poor girl had me riding on the back of the scooter which was SO different than the motorcycle! It was definitely shakier and I was a terrible passenger. But we made it. Butrint is a Venetian Palace that is in ruins and is amazing. Imagine Greek ruins- but you can walk all over them! And the complex was amazing- we went at the very end of the day, and there were very few tourists, which made us feel like we were explorers finding this place for the first time. It’s hard to describe in words this place check out the pictures.

That night we went out to dinner with a new crew from the hostel- and this is the best part of traveling- a guy from the Pink Palace in Corfu was staying at the hostel in Sarande! It’s amazing how paths cross! Time to head inland to Tirana as I make my way to start the trip up the Balkans. Updates coming!

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