Sunday, November 29, 2015

3 Days in Kotor

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are no bus stations or designated bus stops in Albania. You pretty much just have to ask a local and hope that their information is up-to-date.

Fortunately, my hostelkeeper Florian knows the area very well, and he was able to get me a taxi to take me to the right roundabout in downtown Shkoder.

So I hopped aboard the furgon, we waited a while for the vehicle to fill up, and then we were headed northwest—passed giant Lake Shkoder and across the Albanian border into…

(drumroll please)

Montenegro! (Yay!) (Hooray!)

First stop: The coastal town of Ulcinj (which, according to some Germans I ran into, is quite a nice place—too bad I didn’t have any time to look around.) The bus drops us off at a somewhat bleak bus station, where—rather than waiting several hours for a bus, I decide to join up with two Ukrainians (?) and take a taxi to my destination city.

My first impression of Montenegro is a positive one: The minute you cross the border the landscape becomes very green. You drive through some small mountains, and then arrive at the Adriatic Coast. We then spend most of the rest of the journey riding along green coastal cliffs and through beautiful towns and cities.

Soon enough we’re traveling along a very pleasant fjord, and then here we are: the city of Kotor.

(“Kotor? What? Never heard of it.”)

[Clears throat. Puts on tweed jacket.] “Ahem. Kotor is an ancient city and World Heritage site founded in Roman times along the Gulf of Kotor. Surrounded by picturesque cliffs and a defensive wall, it’s one of the principal tourist attractions of the nation of Montenegro. Over the centuries, the town has been occupied by Romans, Bulgarians (never underestimate the Bulgarians), Serbians, Italy, and Ragu Sauce. …No, wait. [squints] Ragusa, not Ragu Sauce. The Kingdom of Ragusa—aka, Dubrovnik. Kotor flourished in the Venetian period when merchants…”

According to Wikipedia, someone named Constantine Porphyrogenitus had something to do with the place - which is completely irrelevant, except I think Constantine Porphyrogenitus is an awesome name and I wanted an excuse to write it. Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

Carry on.


Side note: You may notice fewer selfies from this point on (at least until I get back to Germany) - that's because I joined up with my friend, Chris, in Kotor and traveled with him through the rest of the Balkan countries.

Ok, I’m dragging this out because there’s not really much to say about Kotor. It’s in a beautiful setting. It’s a fun place to wander. Three days was probably just a bit too much time to spend there.

It’s like Dubrovnik’s cheaper, quieter, pleasanter little brother. The tradeoff is that there isn’t quite as much to do—but there’s a lot of fun to be had just walking through the narrow, winding, labyrinthine alleys and getting lost.

The hostel we stayed at - Old Town Kotor Hostel - was excellent, and clean, and cheap.

In fact, everything was cheap—the food, the hostel, the museum and church admission prices.

If you do go, be sure to visit all the accessible churches and to hike up the defensive walls—though be warned since the walls are built into the mountainside, the path can get quite steep. The view from the top is well worth the somewhat strenuous hike, however.

("Just show us some pictures, dammit!")

Ok, fine. Pictures. Here you go.

It’s really an immensely photogenic city, even if I inexplicably only ended up with a few dozen photos from here.

We spent three days here, sleeping in late and then wandering among the medieval buildings.

We even had the opportunity to do a photo shoot inside an old abandoned defensive structure built along the wall.

I got a chance to practice my nighttime photography skills:

And then there's the modern part of Kotor, which isn't quite as nice. But that's all right.

It was fun. You should go.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

The End.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Lake Koman Ferry

When a guidebook for a country you're planning to visit describes something as "one of the world's great boat trips," how can you skip that opportunity?

So it was because of a little blurb in a guidebook that I found myself riding in a van up into the Albanian Alps at 6 o'clock in the morning.

My hostel keeper, Florian, arranged this part of the trip for me - which was a big relief, because everything I read beforehand about managing transportation in the region made me not-at-all-excited about having to figure it out for myself. (Compared to the rest of Europe, there's a dearth of information on the web about Albania - and due to ever-shifting ferry schedules much of the information I was able to find about riding across Koman Lake was contradictory.)

...After about two-and-a-half hours of driving up bumpy and sometimes precarious mountain roads, we drove through a tunnel and found ourselves at the end of the road - literally. The lake started and the road just stopped.

The end of the road...
Anyways, I hope you like pictures of lakes and mountains, because there's going to be a lot of those in this post.

On board the Lake Koman ferry...

The Ferry Ride

Our home for the next 6.5+ hours

Lake Koman is a reservoir located high up in the Albanian Alps. The ferry was originally intender for locals who live and work along the slopes of the mountains (primarily farming or herding goats), but it slowly caught the attention of the wider world - in no small part thanks to that blurb in that guidebook. There used to be only one ferry - now there are several, and some of them specifically cater to tourists. 

What makes it so distinctive? The tall, steep mountains that plunge directly into the lake. It's long, narrow, and as gorgeous as I had heard. 

The scenery of Lake Koman
The ship wasn't very full - there was a group of Slovakian (?) bikers (who must have been having the time of their lives riding through the Balkans), a few Germans, and one or two Americans. 

But you know what? There's really not much for me to say about a ferry ride. So I'll just let the pictures do the talking. 

A small waterfall running into the lake

Ok, I will say this: Every once in a while we'd pass a house or spot someone tending animals along the shores of the lake - and I had a really hard time imagining what life must be like in a place so remote.

Some of the houses along Lake Koman

Now back to more mountain pictures:

Sometimes the landscape is green and rolling

...Other times it's stony and sheer

We finally reached the other end of the lake, where we were greeted with a rather dismal little town where we stopped and ate some snacks before turning back.

An unappealing ferry in the port of Fierze

It was a wonderful ride. If anything, it was a little bit too much of a good thing - you take 2+ hours to get there, and then 3+ hours to get across the lake - and then you turn around and do it all over again in reverse. It adds up to more than ten hours of riding in vans and boats. 

Ideally, the ferry would be used as a part of a longer journey further into the apparently gorgeous (and remote) Valbona Valley. Go on some hikes, visit an old communist ski resort, and then take a bus into Kosovo.

But ain't nobody got time for that.

So I headed back to Shkoder (I made it in time for one more delicious dinner at Florian's!), and then on towards Montenegro the next morning.