4th March 2017
My alarm woke me early in the morning. I was leaving Budva today, heading south to Tirana in Albania. Only one bus per day connected the two cities, and it departed shortly after dawn. I hadn’t yet paid fully for my stay in Freedom Hostel, and none of the staff were about when I passed the reception. I left my key and a €10 note behind the desk, and set off on the half hour walk across town to the bus station.
The bus to Albania brought me away from the pristine tourist hotspots I’d been visiting over the past month, into much poorer territory. The contrast between coastal Montenegro and inland Albania exceeded that between any other part of my journey so far. After crossing the border the buildings became blockier, bleaker, more practical than aesthetic. The trees along the roads were strewn with white plastic bags. Men sat by the kerb, selling large cardboard boxes of cigarettes to passers by in horse-drawn carts. The towns we passed through were wide, scattered sets of houses; the clean and homely sat next to unfinished concrete shells. I spent the five hour journey staring out the bus window, captivated by what I saw. This, I reckoned, was the beginning of the new for me: I’d passed through Western Europe, and the wealthier, touristic regions of the Balkans; now I was finally diving into the unfamiliar.
The bus arrived in Tirana shortly after noon. I loaded my backpack onto my shoulders, and set off on the half-hour walk from the west side of the city, through the centre, to my hostel on the east. Tirana is a city of extreme variation. Shiny car dealerships sit across the street from derelict buildings filled with rubbish. Sharply dressed businessmen share the footpath with limping beggars in tattered rags. For every brightly polished smartphone shop, there exists an improvised marketplace, where men sell household appliances from cardboard mats. Tall, concrete apartment blocks soared above the city; each brightly painted in a different pastel. I walked quickly through the city, eager to ditch my backpack: Tirana didn’t seem intimidating, just the kind of place you’d be better off not standing out as a newly-arrived tourist.
I was staying in Milingona hostel, which was hidden down an alley off a side-street, surrounded by modest houses. The hostel reminded me of several I’d visited in Vietnam last year. A path flanked by small gardens and outdoor tables led to a bright terrace, decorated with pot plants and old photographs. Hand-painted murals covered every available wall space. The kitchen, outdoor lounge, ground floor dorms, and first floor dorms were all separated; guests had to pass through a paved courtyard to get from one to the other. The small compound was a hippie-haven in the middle of a more sombre city.
Cathy, the Northern Irish girl I met in Bled, was volunteering for a few weeks in Trip’n hostel nearby. After checking in to my hostel and dropping my bag, I walked over to her’s. Trip’n was cosier than Milingona; the common area was tight, and filled with antique furniture; the small bar behind which Cathy worked was the epicentre of the hostel. All the beds were currently taken by a Norwegian university class trip. The Norwegians sat in the cramped sofas, speaking to each other in their own language, while myself, Cathy, and the other hostel volunteers sat up at the bar, drinking and talking late into the night.