From Gjirokaster the bus was about two hours to Sarande. Sarande is on the Southern Albanian coast and is one of the country’s more touristy destinations for its location on the sea and nice beaches, its close proximity to both the border with Greece as well as being right across from Corfu. Once again, I got off the bus and wondered where I should go to find a bed for the night. I got off the bus and saw backpackers and they asked me if I was searching for the Hairy Lemon Hostel. I responded no, but that I needed a place to sleep so I might as well be.
The hostel was about a fifteen minute walk from the bus station along the coast. The sea is lovely but the city itself is not such a pretty sight. I took note of the dumpsters on the street with garbage scattered about like an electron cloud. What with the heat, any street with dumpsters on it had an accompanying aroma. The street the hostel was on a dirt road that eventually led to a spectacularly cratered paved road.
The hostel was on the eighth floor of one of the many concrete apartment blocks in the area. I had arrived to the hostel just as most of the hostel dwellers were emerging from their stupors from the night before, in various stages of being hung over. I learned from the woman who owned the hostel that they were fully booked but that I could sleep on the balcony that night and the next night could have a bed. I agreed and sat around, getting a feel for the place. It was a typical hostel: a bunch of Italians who had gone clubbing until 7am, a pair of Aussies, an Irish guy, a bunch of Brits, a few Canadians and a couple Americans, all on similar trips through the Balkans like I had done two years before.
View from hostel # 1
View from hostel # 2
View from hostel # 3
I spent the day with a group of hostel people and went to Ksamil beach, which is about a twenty minute bus ride south of the city center. Ksamil is a lovely beach that has three small islands that you can swim to from the shore. The water is really clean and it’s quite a lovely beach but since it was a Sunday the place was completely packed with people on holiday and it was almost impossible to find a spot on the beach.
The bus between Sarande and Ksamil winds its way down the coast, and as we headed back up to Sarande in the evening I took note of the various concrete structures along the way. Almost all of the buildings are the exact same concrete structure: two floors with a concrete staircase on the outside. Outside of the center there are lots of buildings scattered about but almost all of them are abandoned and half finished, with some of them in various stages of collapse.
One of many bunkers
A strange sight, to say the least
Back at the hostel I had a shower (another one of not quite cold water dripping out of the shower head) and joined one of the crowds going to dinner. At this hostel the owner and workers take the guests to some restaurant as a group and then to various bars after. I went with the group with the hostel owner, the Irish guy and a German couple. The five of us went to a restaurant that was part of a hotel just down the road. It was a lovely place and the dinner tables surrounded the hotel swimming pool.
I’ve had my suspicions for some time, but it was at this dinner that I settled on it: if you own a hostel, you’re most likely a crazy person. There’s something about willfully putting yourself in that transient state of a hostel with ever changing groups of drunken twenty-somethings for a long period of time. The wheels must have come off at some point if this is the community you want to permanently live in. The woman who owned the hostel could never remember any of our names so kept calling us by things that sounded similar to our names. Asking the same question a few times but never listening to the answer, etc. Trying to tell the waiter what all of us wanted but getting it all wrong, confusing the poor guy, who barely spoke English and had been working since 7am, but she was convinced, wasn’t very good at his job because she worked long hours in the hostel too. Then she wondered if any of us wanted to go swimming and got undressed because she was wearing her suit underneath her clothes and took a dip in the hotel swimming pool, splashing around and calling out weird noises to our table, while at about five tables around the pool, at 9pm, families were enjoying their meals. While she was swimming we hurriedly paid our bill and made our way back to the hostel.
As I was sleeping on the balcony that night I decided to have some of my duty free whiskey to assist me in what would most likely be unpleasant slumbers. I stayed up discussing melancholy literature with Colman the Irishman from Cork, and I wished that the hostel guitar had six strings, because none of the songs I know sounded very good on a guitar that’s missing an E string.
The next day Colman and I restored ourselves walking around in the sun at Butrint, an archaeological site further south from the Ksamil beaches. Butrint makes an appearance in the Aeneid: Aeneas passes through briefly. It originated as a sanctuary for Asclepius, the god of medicine, in the 4th century B.C. Butrint changed hands from many different empires from the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and the Ottomans for a short time. It is now a National park and on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The castle and accompanying view
6th century basilica
6th century baptistry, the second largest after Hagia Sofia
We walked around the park for a few hours and eventually headed back to the hotel. This evening we decided to skip the hostel outing and just find a place on our own, exchanging another German girl for the hostel owner. We settled on a nice restaurant right on the sea, with the table on the rock beach. The food was okay, the wine bad, but after the sun went down and you could see the lights of the town and not the skyline of crumbling, empty apartment buildings, it was a very nice setting. At one point, two tables down from us, a man drunkenly stood up from his table, waded knee deep in the water, fumbled around with his pants, and took a leak right in the water. He then went back to his table.
This was my one stop in Albania where I spent two nights in the same place. I had originally intended to do more places with more than one night, but as my trip developed I realized how much I wanted to see and how little time I had. Back at the hostel after dinner I started planning the rest of my trip, as the hostel had a collection of guidebooks and prior to that point I just had a loose idea of where I was going and in what order.
I had originally intended to make my way up the coast, along the Albanian Riviera, eventually turning inwards to see Tirana. But after my time on the coast in Sarande I decided that I’d had enough time on the sea. There was too much in Albania that I wanted to see and sitting on beaches with backpackers wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time.
Sarande was my first time staying in hostels like this since I did my trip through the Balkans two years ago, when I made such great friends and had such great times wandering from hostel to hostel. I feel, though, that the time in my life when I can enjoy being in hostels is finished, however. With some exceptions when you meet really interesting people, I’ve found that most of the people you meet in hostels are the same. People on a gap year, people between jobs, people going abroad for the first time, etc. People all for whom this experience is new. And they’re always eager to talk about their stories but after a while they’re all the same story. A friend of mine described it to me like a high school kid hanging out with a preschooler who’s excitedly talking about learning about colors. And the high school kid, who’s learned about colors and moved on to learning other things, would respond: I don’t want to talk about green, it’s just green!
I like hostels because it’s the closest thing to the old Caravanserays, the old traveling inns where travelers stopped with their animals, bound with goods to trade in the cities. Hostels are random collections of travelers who are at various points in their journeys, meeting briefly before parting ways, never to meet again. Some are good people, most are fools, but all have the common element of travel.
Unfortunately, though, I’ve realized that I can’t deal with hostel people and backpackers anymore. Meeting a collection of temporary friends to hang out with for a day or two doesn’t excite me. I’d rather spend my time alone to explore the city and do the things that I want to do on my own time, able to think my thoughts coherently. Nor do their stories interest me because, at least in this part of the world, I’ve probably been there and done that, possibly a few times. They’ll most likely go home to work a job and will never do a trip like this again, so this is their big life experience – which is great and all – but for me I’ve been doing things like this for a while now and will continue to do them. It’s sad for me, because my hostel experiences were so great before, but now in most cases I’d prefer a budget hotel where I can just get a cheap room where I can read and scribble in my journal by myself.Now this isn’t to say I won’t stay in hostels anymore. It’s often necessary for me to stay in hostels because it’s the cheapest option most of the time. My hostel experiences will just be of a different sort from now on, I imagine.
Anyway. I decided to skip the rest of the Albanian coast and make my next stop Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage city, famous for its old Ottoman style houses. I had also heard that there’s a Bektashi shrine at the top of a mountain not too far away, but a pain to try to get to, that I might be able to manage from Berat. There are only two buses from Sarande to Berat, though, one at 8am and one at 2pm. I didn’t feel like sticking around the hostel doing nothing, so opted for the early departure. I was out the door before anyone else was up, on my way once again.