Thursday 22 September 2016

To Durrës and beyond

Some travel posts are harder to write than others. Words flow when you relive incredible experiences because they have enriched your view of the world. But sometimes when you've been challenged it takes longer to process what has happened and perhaps you just want to forget some stuff! I started this from the comfort of Trenitalia's regionale service Bari to Lecce - without back pain - a comfortable train which departed at a time convenient to me. And I'm finishing it lying in bed after a restful time in Puglia. 

So Durrës. Despite being unable to hobble more than a few kilometres, thankfully I managed to see some of the town. My first afternoon I got as far as the port to check out where I'd be going the following day, and more importantly obtained some money. Again - same in Macedonia - I failed to check the exchange rate so stood at the machine looking blankly at the numbers. 3000 seemed low-mid range. Pizza and a coke turned out to be 200 lek, so I felt quite rich. I shuffled back to the apartment to eat on my balcony and enjoy the warmth. Sadly, that afternoon and evening I did nothing more interesting than read, have a very hot shower, and retreat into sleep. What can I say, I had been invited out by my hostess but my back had defeated me. 

The next day I tentatively tried again. There was a little improvement but I remained cautious as I was already anxious about the 10 hour ferry journey later that evening. It was a glorious day and remembering the bakery I saw the previous day, I was suddenly famished. Once again, I ventured out of the apartment block, which was having serious amounts of noisy building work done, and slowly went down the hill towards the main street. This time I was happy to admire the impressive remains of the Roman forum, and then get distracted by a coffee shop with a beautiful sunny garden. 

I joined the locals enjoying their leisurely Saturday morning, and ordered a coffee, it was a perfect hour or so. Finally hunger drove me across the road and I got drinking yogurt, cheese burek, a small cake and some focaccia for later on. With my picnic I meandered down to the sea front so I could take in the air. 


Another distraction before consuming breakfast with the discovery a huge amphitheatre. Although bigger than the one in Ohrid, it wasn't in quite the same state of repair. As it happens, and purely by accident, this trip could have been billed as a Roman entertainment odyssey, as there was another incredible theatre in Lecce. Like Ohrid's, Lecce's was also set up for events. These elegant buildings are extraordinary and I really hope that Durrës gets around to making use of the space there. 

Finally reaching the large expanse of concrete which constitutes the parade, I perched on a wall. Not because there were no seats, just I didn't want to aggravate my already complaining nerve. I munched my salty pastry and pulled faces at the yogurt. Fruit or plain are the only acceptable options, and this one was salty. My breakfast was like a bucket of sea water. Still, at least the architecture was something to behold. The ugly rawness of this place has to be seen to be believed and I'm actually keen to go back there and relive it. The beach was covered in evil smelling brown residue, and the abandoned dismantled summer attractions provided a suitably macabre colour. 

Frankly it suited exactly how I felt. 

I watched the men hauling in their fishing nets, thigh deep in the murky water. The comparison to my other Adriatic fishermen was profound. How can this even be the same sea? What the hell are they thinking, why is this place in such a state? The islanders spend so much time protecting and worrying about their environment, and yet a few hundred miles south, they are dragging nets through filth, catching plastic and unidentifiable detritus. 

I turned sadly away from these workers, via a surreal square containing bronze statues of Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. What!? There was also a real man in too much denim sat there but I don't think he was a rock great. I continued on and went in search of non-salt based snacks for later.  Peaches and bananas were perfect antidotes, and I spent an afternoon resting and dozing on the sofa with the radio. Pain is such a helpless feeling, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. 

Four hours or so before ferry check in - yes, my confirmation said I had to be there - my lovely hostess came to consult me about a lift to the port. She was so disbelieving of this timing, she called and spoke with her friend who also scoffed at it. We decided to wait another couple of hours. Excellent, I had time to go sample food at the nearest restaurant. After all I'd not eaten properly since Macedonia - the pain from my back had kindly referred itself to my stomach. 

The weather had other ideas. By the time I had got myself ready to set out, the storm had arrived. And the rain was lashing down; for the next two hours I had prime amphitheatre style seats for a gladiatorial tussle between thunder and lightning. It was terrifying and awesome in equal parts, terrifying mainly because 1. I had to go out in it later and 2. Was it going to be a repeat of the Šipan no-electricity-for-12-hours drama? Would the port shut? When my hostess turned up she looked concerned. The traffic was spectacular, she said, and the main roads had turned into rivers. 

Why me?

Heroically she got me to the port, the town square was now essentially a water feature. Security on the port gate weren't interested in us, and we drove straight in and immediately we joined the hellish queue of traffic. Everyone was trying to get to the terminal building to avoid the rain and it was chaotic. She abandoned the car with all the others and came into the building with me. The check in had been affected by a power cut and we were on emergency generators. If I'd thought to panic, I might have started... 

With a hug from my last friend on the planet, I went through security and passport control. I didn't think to get a stamp for my passport, sadly. So there I was, painfully stood with a mass of people, some just clutching small bags, others with what looked like entire households. Actually including their carpets...this is surely what Armageddon feels like. I had no idea what was next, as people were heading in random dribs and drabs through the rain to the ferry. I wasn't even sure I had a ticket at this point, let alone which of the two ships it was. 

After about an hour, no one around me had moved. Drastic action was needed. I weaved through the crowd, out of the shelter, avoided the articulated lorries, and braved the ferry ramp. When I was finally noticed, I was told I was on the wrong metal tub. Biting back tears, I went back out into the rain and over to the other one. I was waved up the steps and up into the dry safety of the passenger decks. 

It turns out that people had already boarded and there were no banks of seats on which to lie down. No, I hadn't booked a cabin because I'm stupid. To my horror, more people continued to pour on, and every available piece of floor space was filing. Not giving a damn now, I collapsed between some chairs, and claimed my 5 foot spot. I lay there and drifted in and out of sleep until about 4am, exhausting my comforting stash of podcasts. The bright lights, wooden floor and hubbub made for an interesting night. 

I gave up, staggered upright  and went to get a drink. I forgot the word for coffee in every language. A kind gentleman at the bar who was clearly a more seasoned traveller than I ordered a caffe latte for me, which baffled the barman. I think he was only used to doing espressos for Albanians. I headed out on deck with my perfect coffee to join the chain smokers, to watch the sun come up. 

The beauty of which made the entire exhausting trip worthwhile. It was a new day 

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