the home stretch.

“good things happen when you meet strangers.”

– yo-yo ma –

it is often said that when you travel you meet the most interesting people along the way. i can fully attest to this because through my travels i have met some really amazing people that i can happily say are forever friends. we talk about travel, politics, and sports. we laugh, and we joke, we drink beer together, we stay out late together, we experience new things together and we are always making plans to meet up again in the future. my final trip to europe on this quest was no different. as per usual, i was at the airport in boston, snacking on french fries and drinking a cold beer when i struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me.

me: “where are you off to?”
him: “munich, and you?”
me: “munich also, but i’m just passing through.”
him: “me too, i’m going to sarajevo to visit family.”
me: “ha, that’s funny, i’ll be in sarajevo on friday.”
him: “what?!? why?”

i’ll get back to this guy a little later because first we must pay a quick visit to my european country #48, albania.  it took me a few days to get there from germany because i made a few brief stops to visit some friends around europe before i flew into tirana from frankfurt. as this was to be my last trip to europe for the year, i needed to maximize my time and pop in to say some quick hellos before i was off again, on the home stretch.

my time in tirana was somewhat uneventful. there isn’t too much to see and i was still recovering from a cologne carnival hangover so i decided to do a low-key sightseeing day, which of course included a trip to a local grocery store. i wandered around skanderbeg square (a ginormous 430,000 sqft. plaza that puts the size of russian plazas to shame) and through the new market located in pazari i ri, where you can buy everything from local wine, olives, nuts, and dried fruit to handmade souvenirs, all sold on wooden stands covered by a modern looking glass roof. the area is surrounded by trendy cafes, bars and restaurants, all of which i tried out during my stay. it was a standout in tirana and i would highly recommend anyone visiting the city to stop by and check it out.

my last night in the capital consisted of having dinner at my hotel (hotel boutique gloria – great location, super nice staff, and modern rooms – mine even had an awesome balcony) which consisted of a bottle of sparkling water, two local beers (delicious!), a huge greek salad, pasta, dessert and an espresso all for $14. talk about an amazing exchange rate!! i ended my relaxing last night in tirana with a local beer on my balcony unaware of the adventure the albanian bus company would have in store for me the next day. from enjoying a beer on my balcony at night to wanting to jump off a moving bus the next morning, all in the blink of an eye.

now i’m going to skip around a tiny bit because country #49 was montenegro, but because that was one of my absolute favorites countries i have visited on this epic adventure, it will be getting it’s own post….so i am going to leave albania and you with this little tale from the road. i ended up deciding to take the bus from tirana to podgorica because it was suppose to only be four hours and would definitely be a lot quicker than taking a flight, or so i thought (these countries proved to be a logistical nightmare for me because there are very few direct flights, if any, between these countries, and trains don’t really exist here so a time consuming bus was really the only option, unless you have a car). i booked the early bus, departing at 8am, so i could see a little bit of podgorica before i was whisked away to sveti stefan (my next post is all about magnificent montenegro, so stay tuned, it’s going to be a good one!!!). i arranged for a taxi to pick me up early in the morning at my hotel, explaining to the woman at the desk where i was going and why, feeling the need to defend my decision to take a bus in this part of the world. clearly sensing i had no idea what i was in store for, this wonderful woman forced me to eat breakfast even though the kitchen was closed and i politely declined. she insisted, and brought me freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, which i happily ate while i waited. i said my thank-yous as my taxi approached and set off to the tirana bus terminal.

we’re driving through the traffic-less city when we approach a defunct-looking parking lot located behind a shopping center which was blocked off by a half-closed rusty gate. my taxi driver spoke very little english but assured me this was indeed the location i pointed to on my printed bus ticket. i’ve been in some pretty shady places but this definitely did not look anything like a bus terminal. i got out and he sped away leaving me clutching my bus ticket in one hand and my bag in the other. unsure and confused, i walked around to the little” stalls” where “workers” were just chilling having their morning coffee and cigarettes. a small blonde girl looking confused in a parking lot clearly was not something they see every day at the tirana bus terminal, and of course i did not see the bus company i was supposedly riding with listed on any of the signs.

as eyes started following me, panic began to creep in as i looked for a second, then a third time until i finally saw a tiny sign that said “old town travel bus” and approached the stand. well let’s be honest here, the plastic table. cautiously, i produced my ticket and asked where the bus to podgorica was located. there were no fancy electric time tables here, nor were there signs indicating which bus went where or which one was which, so they pointed at a mini-coach and i think i responded with a huh? which one? and they pointed again in the same general area. i approached said bus and asked the driver, or someone that could have been the driver, if this was indeed the bus to podgorica. he looked at me like i was on crack but grunted yes and said something in broken english about having to pay 2 euro for my bag to join me on the bus. i paid and said goodbye to my suitcase thinking i’d never see it again and i would be stuck wearing these same clothes for the rest of the week.  at least i had my good jeans on today.

i got on the bus and only one other soul was on there, thankfully. i picked my single seat by the window (travel tip: always get to the bus terminal early so you can board first and get the seat you want. you definitely do not want to be stuck in the middle seat in the back row with 5 strangers, trust me) and waited for the bus to fill up and take off. an hour later, and already running behind schedule because of some passenger commotion over a seat that was broken (every seat was sold and yes, someone sat in the broken seat the whole way and most definitely was not offered a refund), we were finally off to montenegro.  well maybe we were, i still wasn’t 100% sure i was even on the right bus. what started out as a relatively smooth ride turned into absolute chaos an hour later when we found ourselves on a windy dirt road because the main road was closed. twisting and turning in the middle of nowhere, we were dodging giant potholes, pools of water and other cars and buses forced to take our same path. i had the best view of this madness from my window but was constantly questioning whether i would even survive to see the next few minutes. we finally hit pavement again only to stop minutes later to put air in our tires. umm what?  never seen that before, but off we go again, tires full and still way behind schedule. about 30 minutes later our driver decided to stop again but this time for a group cigarette break. umm what? never seen that before either but, off we go again, lungs full of smoke and still way behind schedule.

an hour later our driver pulls into a gas station in the middle of nowhere and proclaims we will take another break.  no questions asked, no reason given so everyone files off the bus to go outside to smoke again. i decided to get off this time to stretch my legs and question whether i would ever make it to montenegro or not when another bus pulls in. we were told to get our luggage and that we were to transfer onto this new bus, while the passengers of that bus were to transfer onto ours. zero explanation as to why, only that this was what was happening right now so we better hurry it up. umm what?  so now we’re on the new bus and off we go again, now two hours behind schedule. finally we reach the boarder and i have finally made it to montenegro, my european country #49. unfortunately we still had another two hours to go but that should be an uneventful two hours right??

after smooth sailing for a little while our driver decides he and his co-driver/friend/brother/someone next to him were hungry and we pulled off to a pizza shop in a small town in montenegro so they could get a snack. umm what? what planet am i on that we are already waaaay behind schedule and it’s considered normal behavior to continue to stop for breaks because you are hungry?!? no one said a word and at this point it was about 80% funny, 20% annoying AF. we finally did make it to podgorica, 2.5 hours late, and my one regret of this bus ride was not that i took it in the first place but that i documented this journey on snapchat and only saved a few of the pictures on my phone, because i can say with 100% certainty that that was one of the more interesting bus rides i have ever been on in my life. the glamorous life of a traveller…..

skipping over my time in montenegro for now, i arrived in sarajevo on friday, as expected. my first impression of the city was that it was a complete shitshow due to the fact that i sat in traffic for over 90 minutes trying to get to my hotel from the airport. the upside, of course, was that because we literally were not moving i was able to see a decent amount of the city when i wasn’t sighing heavily and shaking my head at the traffic mayhem. a delayed flight and massive gridlock meant that i checked into my hotel, literally threw my bag in the door and left as quickly as i came, trying desperately to see as much as i could before the sun started to set. i walked past sobering cemeteries with glowing white pillars, beautiful churches and historical mosques before i found myself in the old part of the city, where i was going to meet my boston airport friend, elvis.

while i was waiting, i wandered the cobbled streets of old town passing the famous sebilj fountain, before buying some handmade stockings just in time for christmas. tis’ the season and all that. after meeting up with elvis, we decided on a quick snack of cevapi with onions in a somun – which is basically local street food consisting of sausage links in a pita smothered with something inside that tastes about 10,000 times better than american sour cream. i was obsessed, and full. we took a quick walk through the city, stopping for a few beers with elvis pointing out the historical sights we passed but also making note of the buildings still showing off the scars from the bosnian war in the 90’s. i was in middle school when war erupted in the balkans and i remember seeing pictures of burned out buildings, absolute destruction and uprooted families fleeing their war-torn countries, so to be walking the streets of a city now lined with trendy cafes, restaurants, shops and welcoming bright lights two decades later was an impressive thing to see.

continuing on from the old town, we proceeded over to avaz tower, the highest skyscraper in the balkans, where we took in the impressive views (you can even see the US embassy from there), had a few beers and some local fruit brandy before setting out to elvis’ cousin’s house, where we were invited over for some snacks and drinks around 9pm (which seemed like a good idea at the time because i insisted i be back to my hotel by midnight since i had a 630am flight to croatia the next day.  they assured me if i missed my flight someone would drive me there though, so that was a plus). after a quick stop at the grocery store (not even my idea for once) to pick up a few things, we were on our way, ready for a fun friday night in sarajevo. we spent the night drinking, eating and laughing. i’m pretty sure i drank a whole bottle of white wine, some brandy and something equivalent to moonshine during those hours and i have to say that it was so much fun i didn’t leave until 4am….which meant i went back to my hotel, took a quick shower and left for the airport 30 minutes later. no sleep in country #50, but well worth it.

like so many trips before me, this one was a very special first leg of my final push through europe.  i was able to spend a few days with some best friends, i had an unforgettable ride to montenegro, met a really nice new friend who took me under his wing in sarajevo and finally crossed off two more countries from my european list.  travel is all about expecting the unexpected and rolling with the punches because you never know who you’ll meet, where you’ll end up and the funny stories you can tell after you return home.  epic adventures await those brave enough to take them.

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