Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Saranda Part II: A Road Trip in the Sky, Following the Sea

On the edge of the world

Two roads diverge in the area of Vlore, and it is here you choose your own adventure to get to Saranda:

1) The winding, switchbacking, rickety guardrailed old coastal road with sweeping, majestic views of the sea

OR

2) The new inland route that is described as "safer and faster"

Everyone knows that a good road trip isn't just about getting there, so despite such tempting adjectives as "safer and faster" the coastal road won out for the trip down. We figured that on the way back we'd be tired and just want to get home, whereas on the way down we'd still find 90 degree mountain turns and a lack of shoulder charming instead of terrifying. The coastal road turned out to be truly amazing. I think we passed only two or three cars during the two hours we criss crossed the road wrapped along the edge of the mountains. I've rarely felt that alone while driving on a highway, but it was peaceful instead of disconcerting. The sea ran along below us, and when we would make a switchback there was nothing between us and the far below valley but misty air- the world just dropped off. Cows would appear around corners, placidly chewing their cud despite the death drop behind them. When we would descend in a winding spiral into a rocky and grass covered canyon the goats and chickens would be found roaming freely. Bomb shelters crouched in the grass and bulged out of the foot hills. The weather was almost too perfect, the sun was shining, and we stopped often to take in the view. It felt like we were exploring a new planet, it was so empty and quiet. We started referring to ourselves as "the only people left in the world" or describing the scene as peacefully post-apocalyptic, a feeling that would only heighten once we reached a sleepy, off-season Saranda. The coastal road drive was dizzying, and it seemed we were in the mountains switchbacking our way through for a very long time due to how diligently we had to pay attention to the road. I would still highly recommend doing it, at least once.

Scott, posing like the cloud in the background


Up in the clouds

That long and winding road

Let's just hope it continues around that curve...



Behind those cows? The yawning abyss.

Here's a video I shot during one of the calmer portions, when I felt more comfortable hanging out the window. You can turn off the sound, since it's just whistling wind. I suppose I could have edited out the sound, added in an introspective road trip jam, and applied a hipster filter, but I'm far too lazy for all of that. Also, I don't know how to do any of that anyway.




We passed through a few small villages built into the side of the mountains, but it wasn't until we zig-zagged in descent to sea level that we came to a proper town, Himare. After catching glimpses of the sea while winding through the mountains we were finally able to stop right on the coast and get to the water.

This ain't no Durres, that's for sure

I find that a predominant emotion during these road trips through the countryside is joy at being in nature. Tirana has its positives but it is, in the end, a concrete jungle. Much like the giddy joy I felt upon first seeing Lake Ohrid, this stretch of Himare's coast turned me into a puppy. It was so beautiful that I was moved to curse about it and insult an as yet unseen Saranda, which really wasn't fair.

After Himare, the road arched up again. It was more hilly and forested than mountainous and coastal, and thus a little more laid back to drive. The towns we passed through started popping up closer and closer together, and as it was now late morning we saw more people and their livestock on the roads. Old women ambled down the highway with little concern for the fact that highways often have cars, donkeys and cows were prodded along as they took up half the lane, and this mama pig nonchalantly nursed on the shoulder, not even flinching at the cars rolling past her.

I'm appalled. She didn't even bother to use a cover-up.
As we closed in on Saranda we stopped just outside of town for a bathroom break at a cafe on clearing overlooking the valley. At first glance, it seemed to be closed for the season, but another traveling motto I have is "I just want to see if...", so we stopped. Tiara had, smartly so, crouched discreetly behind an old wooden staircase in Himare. I missed this golden opportunity, but my poor bladder decisions proved fortuitous in the end. The owner was on site and showed me to a bathroom providing not just a toilet seat, but toilet paper, and not just soap, but water, AND a towel with which to dry my hands. While I was Snoopy dancing over unexpected bathroom blessings, Tiara and the boys were buying breakfast beer. This would continue to happen during our off-season trip: random establishments that looked completely closed up for the season would be open and they would happily serve us, their only customers.

Taverne Filipas, we love you. We honestly do.

Breakfast beer was served at the edge of the clearing on a picnic table. A pomegranate tree loaded with fruit was within reach, so we picked one to snack on. The resident dog wriggled around our feet, probably disappointed that we weren't eating something more meaty. I can't say if it was the fresh air, the bright blue table, the view, or the superb company, but it was the best pomegranate I've ever had.


Life is hard.



I was profoundly happy and grateful to be on a hilltop clearing, eating a pomegranate with super traveling partners and petting a dusty, strange dog. At barely 11 a.m. Saranda was within our sights, we hadn't gotten lost or slipped off the side of the highway, and we were enjoying an unexpected picnic. Thinking to yourself "This has been a great day" before noon even rolls around is a successful road trip, as far as I'm counting.







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