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Even within the brutal communist-era concrete neighbourhoods of Belgrade and Zagreb, I found nostalgic wonderment. Stunning scenery, welcoming people, impossibly cheap beer. But this week I crossed the border into the little explored country of Albania.
In some ways, it felt like I had entered hell. Lake Ohrid, my millions-of-years-old-impossible-to-leave temporary home, is shared between the nations of Macedonia and Albania. The Macedonian locals offered up encouragement when I suggested I would rent a car, circumnavigate Lake Ohrid, and take a day trip into Albania.
At the border, the sight of the Albanian flag made me smile. Within a few minutes I was welcomed to Albania by the efficient and smartly dressed border guards. I pulled over to see if I still had four wheels, then continued on to the center of Pogradec. Other cars creep along, and oncoming traffic weaves from one side of the road to the other, avoiding potholes. Vision was limited at this point, due to the huge number of roadside fires that were burning.
People were staring. I parked the car, and Phillipa and I went for a stroll along the Pogradec waterfront. Unlike the more glitzy side of Lake Ohrid, Pogradec remains a town at the beginning of a revival. Pogradec is right on the lake, and the snow capped mountains make for an amazing natural backdrop. Locals were friendly. But beyond this, Albanian people of Pogradec were genuinely, and outwardly, friendly.
Two young men introduced themselves, and outstretched their hands for a handshake. A group of older men playing dominoes on the lake front laughed and insisted that I take photos of them. A pretty lady walking her baby waved and said hello from quite some distance away. Smiles all round, all day. Looking up, the towering mountains really are beautiful.