In the spring of 2015, just before the European refugee crisis had forced Europe, and the world, to look inwards and take positions in the tussle of humanity versus governance, my partner and I were floating through Eastern Europe, light-headed from the might of the Schengen visa, even enjoying hospitality from unexpected quarters. In Romania, we decided to explore the country by day and travel by train at night to save on accommodation while exposing ourselves to the continuity of journey. Starting off at Brasov—nestled amidst the Carpathian Mountains, and the closest town to the spine-tingling Bran Castle that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula—we had travelled through dark and snowy Transylvania, heads full of stories of the Wallachian prince, Vlad the Impaler, and colours from the brightly painted frescos of the late 15th-century Moldavian monasteries in Suceava County. By the time we reached Bucharest, we had been without a proper bed or a bath for a few days. Even though the last leg was in an affordable wood-panelled, first-class coupe, it must have shown. At one point, tired from walking around the capital city we found a convenient place by the road opposite the National Museum of Romanian History to rest awhile. As I was taking out an apple from my cloth bag I noticed a woman observing us from some distance. Soon she asked, “Where are you from?” and continued as if having missed our response, “Can I buy you some food?” It took us only a second to realise she had mistaken us for homeless people, from another country. We refused the free meal but noted her kindness.
A backpacking trip on a shoestring budget and a fluid itinerary often throw up some unconventional routes and means of travel. We had been on the road for a couple of weeks around Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and, of course, Romania, and weary of cramped spaces in buses and trains, we decided to stretch our legs and walk to Bulgaria. We reached Giurgiu Nord, the railhead on the Romanian side, late afternoon, from where we would start the 13-kilometre walk to the bordering Bulgarian town of Ruse, also called Little Vienna for its stately 19th- and 20th-century neo-baroque and neo-rococo architecture. We stepped out of Giurgiu station to siesta silence on a tiny stretch of pitched road with grass on both sides, which led to the highway from where we were to pick our way to the border. With a middle-of-nowhere familiarity that confuses a travel-addled brain, we walked towards the gate of the Romanian immigration office and in the absence of a pedestrian queue lined up with trucks, buses and other vehicles to get our exit stamp. The most romantic stretch of the walk was on the three-kilometre-long Friendship Bridge over the Danube. Built in 1954, it was the only bridge connecting Romania and Bulgaria at that time. The romance was heightened by the presence of the sprawling river with bristly green banks, diesel fumes from passing traffic and, most importantly, the absence of any other pedestrians. Around the middle of the bridge, we paused to stare at the brightly painted blue-and-yellow sign announcing we were entering Bulgaria. We walked on.
Serendipitously stumbling into Albania, a country which did not figure in our itinerary at all, was the biggest adventure on this month-long trip.
To cut a long story short, we were terribly sleep deprived when we landed in the historical city of Thessaloniki in Greece on a bright spring morning, having spent the previous two nights at the Athens airport. The one day in between was spent exploring the many wonders of the Cradle of Western Civilisation, including the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion for a glorious sunset in the Aegean Sea. By the time the airport shuttle dropped us at the inter-city bus station, it was clear that we were in no state to explore Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, before moving on to Montenegro at night, as originally planned. Thinking on our tired feet, we checked the electronic display board—the next bus was leaving for Tirana in 10 minutes. A quick scan of the map confirmed that Tirana, Albania’s capital, was on the route to our next destination, the medieval Montenegrin town of Kotor by the Adriatic Sea. We would catch up on sleep on the bus before finding a connection in Tirana to Kotor. It took us 10 minutes to find the ticket booth and we had only boarded when the bus started moving. As the rush of excitement from an impromptu act subsided, a niggling doubt crept in about the power of the Schengen visa to tide us across the border since Albania was not a part of the EU.
Our plan failed dramatically. On the bus, there was no getting any shut eye. We were greeted with the most astounding scenery of the unrestrained beauty of northern Greece—miles upon miles of open road with horizons flanked by snow-peaked mountains. On the Albanian side, at the Qafë Botë checkpoint, the friendliest immigration officers greeted us with “Bravo, bravo!” when they discovered we were from India. They were so chatty that they forgot to stamp our passports and we had to alight the bus again to remind them while our co-passengers waited on patiently; we were the only non-locals. By the time the azure waters of Small Prespa Lake and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Lake Ohrid came into view—and with them the resort towns with orange-tiled roofs—following us in our serpentine mountain route, we felt like we were a part of a dream world.
When the bus stopped at Tirana eight hours later, we felt alive at chancing upon a stunningly beautiful country. We knew Montenegro would have to wait awhile.
It is all very well to be spontaneous, but not so practical to land up in a country with little to no knowledge of its people, practices or currency, even. Once in Tirana, our immediate requirement was to find a bed for the night. Without the Internet and only a sketchy offline map, we decided to go old school and hunt around our immediate neighbourhood. We were quite relieved to see a ‘Hotel 50m ’ sign painted on a wall that indeed led into the courtyard of a hotel. However, more exasperation followed when we discovered no one spoke English. They finally put me on the phone with a man who immediately asked, “How many hours?” I responded we needed a room for the night. He repeated his original question, I patiently responded with the same answer giving him the benefit of language barrier. This would have gone on for a while had my partner not indicated, having gauged the situation and surroundings by then, that we needed to make a quick getaway. It still took me a few minutes after we walked out of the dim reception into the courtyard and out of the gate to realise we were at a love hotel.
Back on the streets again, with a helplessness that comes from extreme fatigue, we pored over our map to see if it showed up any accommodations. Just then, a young woman in athletic wear who had initially jogged past, stopped, turned back and approached us. “Not many people speak English here. So please let me know if I can help you,” she said. We couldn’t thank her enough when she directed us to Milingona Hostel, a short walk from where we were and very close to Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in the centre of Tirana. Tirana, as we would discover, is a beautiful and vibrant city with quirky and colourful Ottoman- and Soviet-era architecture, including a pyramid-shaped convention centre that was a monument to communism. But a stranger’s intuition to extend help to a couple of travel-weary foreigners is my lasting impression of the city.
Trying to soak ourselves in as much of Albania without completely upturning our itinerary, from Tirana, we travelled further north to the neighbouring town of Shkoder to visit Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula, from where we would finally leave Albania. A fleeting statue of Mother Teresa from the bus window in the middle of a farmland was disorienting but suddenly brought home her Albanian connection. We made it to Shkoder but without the knowledge of local language and a detailed map, we followed the flight path of crows and got horribly lost turning up at a dusty little village on the outskirts of town where instead of a lake, we were the objects of much curiosity and interest. Lake Skadar evaded us on this trip. We were getting late to catch the bus to Kotor so we quickly retraced our steps with a hope-mingled certainty that we would revisit Albania and find our way to the lake next time. We missed our bus. But like in India, we realised there is always a way to get around, even across international borders. Soon an elderly man approached us saying he could ferry us to the Montenegrin border town of Ulcinj. We could leave our luggage in his car, go for lunch and by the time we were back he would find more passengers. Even with the shady underlining to the plan we found ourselves hard-pressed to refuse. We travelled from Shkoder in Albania to Ulcinj in Montenegro in a shared cab.
Our experience with kindness and trust through our time on the road emboldened us; when we did not have enough local currency to board a bus to Dubrovnik from Kotor, we emptied our pockets to show the driver the €8 we had in loose change. He agreed to take us across in good faith and waited while we withdrew money from an ATM in Dubrovnik. Earlier, in Ulcinj, another unknown part of the world to us, we had made our way to Old Town, a pirate capital, we later found out, of the Adriatic Sea in the pre-medieval period. There, at an edge-of-the-world restaurant called Fisherman Hari, looking at a brilliantly purple sky forming the backdrop for a glorious orange ball leisurely slipping into the Adriatic, we pondered over the gathering of all the uncertain moments that brought us to this sunset. And, of Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński’s observation on travellers, “The one certainty is that they would like to be back on the road, going somewhere. To be on their way again—that is the dream.”
Paloma Dutta works as an editor in a publishing house for her bread, butter and bus ticket (more often than not to the mountains). Travel makes her believe in serendipity, essential kindness of the human heart and the power of Bollywood to build instant friendships anywhere in the world.