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Chapter 26 - Albania: Don't Knock It Until You've Tried It
We know so little about Albania, the quirky, unusual country that has only rejoined the world relatively recently. For the large part, it has been totally overlooked and ignored. I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. Albania is a place of untapped intrigue. It was a country that Europe long neglected. The bright glare of the world’s attention, which has illuminated all sorts of other countries for various reasons over the years, was never more than a dimly fading hand-held torch light here, shining weakly on this rough and rugged country.
REPUBLIKA SQHIPERISE - A blue sign with bullet holes in betrayed the change of country. For a moment, I wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong country. Indeed this was Albania, a man assured me.
And the Albanian border post was unique for me, in one respect at least. The border policeman offered me his cigarettes, while I waited for a connection. At plenty of border posts in other countries, it might have been the other way around. For once I wished that I smoked. He strummed through my passport and plucked out my middle name....
He was another customs person to get my name wrong, but I could easily forgive him because, as well as offering me cigarettes, he was going out of his way to ensure I didn’t get ripped off by the taxi drivers hovering nearby.
The unglamorous banality of crossing a border was for once not being fully inflicted on me. There was a time when Albanian border guards took issue with men who had long hair and beards. Once, they insisted on cutting them before they could be allowed into Albania. Times had changed, but there weren’t too many transport options. Finally, with the assistance of the border guard soldier, I negotiated a vehicle to get me to the town of Pogradec, right on the southern shore of Lake Ohrid.
My slow progress around Lake Ohrid into Albania was not altogether disastrous. It permitted me to sample at leisure, if not in comfort, the delightful surroundings as the sun gradually warmed up the majestic blue water of the lake. True to form, I needed to change some new currency to pay my driver. Being Saturday morning, few places were open, but I still found somewhere and paid him.
Pogradec was a town pervaded by chaos. Shouts, waves, engine revs and hoots, all competed on the main street. Some of them didn’t compete for my money. I sensed that eyes and ears everywhere were open to opportunity. Someone insisted I go to the town of Elbasan, so I did.
A woman next to me on the minibus kept feeling the need to religiously cross herself. It was understandable, because the mountain road was very rough and hair-raising, even for someone as follicly challenged and non God-fearing as myself. It twisted and turned a path around the steepening shores of Lake Ohrid. The water had turned. Now it was Macedonia, the country I had left behind me, across the watery horizon. At one point, I did wonder if we might just continue travelling all the way around Lake Ohrid back to where I had come from.
From the border, I was aiming to make it across to the Adriatic coast and the exotic sounding Strait of Otranto, but it was starting to seem a long way off. Still, I settled back down next to the woman, and the vigorous resumption of her religious crossing signified the bus’s imminent departure.
Inland, the bumpy journey was broken after an hour or so for a lunch stop. A couple of Albanian guys sitting behind summoned for me to come with them. Neither of them spoke one syllable of English and they chain smoked non stop. But their intentions were admirable. They bought me coffee, which straightened my mind out somewhat, and offered me food, which settled my stomach. Such were the small acts of kindness to foreigners that embedded themselves in my memory.
Heading back towards the bus, one of the men pointed at me, while touching his nose. After thinking that pointing at your nose was some sort of strange Albanian ritual, I gently laughed him off twice, before realising what he was trying to tell me. I still had some coffee froth on my nose.
The road was still rough and bumpily rugged, but it wasn’t too long before I arrived in Elbasan. Here, one of the friendly men adopted me even more intimately, doing everything but holding my hand to take me across to the correct vehicle for the next stage of my journey, which was towards a place called Rrogozhina.
Just before my latest minibus, or fugon as it was called in Albania, pulled away, two very young, fresh faced looking men in suits jumped onboard. They took off their jackets to reveal crisp white shirts and name lapels on their chests. One of them took the seat next to me. On closer inspection, I could read something about the Mormon Church. I didn’t need to guess that they hailed from Utah.
Instinctively, I feared the worst, and trod with verbal caution to begin with. However, both young men were good natured, well informed and very knowledgeable about Albania, a country I wasn’t yet very knowledgeable about. They had spent nearly two years in the country, including quite a lot of time in some of the poorer areas, which they insisted were very safe and friendly.
‘Albania is basically divided into three religious zones.’ Jake calmly explained to me.
‘It is something like 70 per cent Muslim and 30 per cent Christian.’ he added.
Jake told me how he had spent a month away from Tirana, the capital, and when he returned, there had been many changes. Albania’s largest city was booming, he told me, as we bounced along more deteriorating roads. Albania may have been moving fast in the right direction, but it still had a very long way to come, I thought, as I watched two peasant ladies chasing a turkey along the roadside.
All these mini journeys through Albania’s interior were essential to reach the coast before dark. Citrus trees had started to populate large chunks of the landscape. People were more expressive in their body language for daily interactions, in a way that maybe just hinted at the relative close proximity of Italy. Then again, it was not uncommon to see people selling petrol from plastic bottles at makeshift, roadside stalls. Butchers did drive-by roadside business in lumps of manky looking meat, which openly dangled from a succession of large metal hooks.
The interior of Albania was strangely captivating. The roads followed the rivers through the mountains and were sprinkled with many large potholes. And every now and again, I began to notice odd looking round concrete bunkers with slits in them. These ugly mushroom-shaped blobs, half a million of them across Albania, were built to protect the country from the paranoid threat of a capitalist invasion. They probably also explained why the roads seemed to have more potholes than road.
Well, capitalism certainly seemed to be well and truly invading now. I did wonder if the absence of holes in the road and the similar sized mounds just off the roads might be related. Albania might once have been described as a tin pot dictatorship. Really, they should have called it a concrete-bunker dictatorship.
Enver Hoxha, Albania’s long time communist dictator, wanted to make these bunkers super-strong and resistant. So the man he hired to design them was ordered to test out his own creations by standing inside the bunker while it was bombarded by a tank. The man emerged unscathed and another 700,000 bunkers were built all over Albania. You might say they were the best made, most reliable things in Albania.
I was advised to get off at a dusty roundabout junction of two main roads, where I would be able to find another connecting vehicle to head further south.
‘Head towards Fier.’ Jake exclaimed from the other side of the fugon window as it took off again.
Vehicles whizzed past me and my luggage. As I looked around, gathering up roadside dust, I noticed all sorts of shifty looking people were hanging around, probably with the sole purpose of waiting for someone like me to show up.
A blacked out Mercedes screeched to a halt, showering me in more dust. A large man leapt out. He flipped the boot open and shouted at me to jump in. Not instinctively warming to him, I deliberated. The man in the driver’s seat was wearing dark sunglasses, had a big moustache and a deep gravelly voice. Two other heavy-set men, also dressed in black leather jackets and wearing shades, were sitting very calmly in the back seat. I was beginning to think I had encountered the Albanian Kray family of gangsters.
Before I had properly made up my mind, after some more shouting, my bag was launched into in the boot for me. I didn’t have time to see if there might be anyone else bound and gagged in there, and we were accelerating off. The driver took off his sunglasses to reveal some dark, intense eyes. Having established where I wanted to go, we could only really speak in German. The German word for hit-man escaped me. Der Hitt Mann probably.
‘I am driver.’ he smiled broadly at me.
‘I am tourist.’ I replied, in a voice several octaves higher than his.
‘This is my car. Mercedes. Very good car. The best.’
‘Yes. Mercedes. Very good car.’
Mostly we had to converse in German.
‘Hier ist Fier?’
‘Here is Fear?’
‘No fear, but Fier. Fier is here.’
Really, I had no idea, or control over, where I was being taken to, but Fier, or Fear, was a recurring word. Every now and again, the men would converse animatedly, to the point of shouting, in Albanian. I tried to guess what they might have been saying:
‘How much money do you think this foreigner has?’
‘Oh plenty. He is from England. Everyone in England is rich. He must have thousands of pounds on him.’
‘It was so easy to convince him to get in our car. We could take him anywhere now.’
‘Where shall we take him to be knee-capped?’
But they did nothing of the sort.
‘You? Fier!’ the driver roared.
Abruptly, in the middle of another dusty town, he pulled over. We had reached Fier and there happened to be a fugon waiting to leave for Vlora. In the end there was nothing much to Fier or fear. He refused to accept any money at all from me and merrily waved me, and my belated gratitude, on my way.
Greatly relieved to have caught the fugon, I left Fier behind me. As I got my breath back and turned around, I couldn’t believe my luck. Next to me were three gorgeous, dark-eyed girls, who all wanted to speak English with me. They were three sisters and their mother was sat behind them.
‘We have house on hill next to beach.’
It sounded wonderful. I hadn’t a clue where I was going to stay in Vlora, and time was pressing on. A house on a hill next to a beach, in their company, suggested something close to paradise.
‘Can I sleep with you? I mean, can I sleep in your nice house on the hill next to the beach?’ I wanted to say in mid-drooling, but didn’t quite have the balls to ask. But in the end, they were helpful enough to point me in the right direction of some hotels in the town centre.
I arrived in Vlora at the Flag Square, the place where Albanian independence was first declared back in 1912, and set about finding somewhere to stay, eventually managing to narrow it down to a couple of options. Down a dusty side street littered with rotting rubbish, I came across the very inappropriately named Hotel Riviera.
Further down, across the main street was the Hotel Martini. Well, there was a sign for the Hotel Martini, but all I could find was a large pile of muddy earth, which didn’t look too appealing for sleeping and washing myself in. The Europa Hotel was reasonably priced, but like so many hotel foyers that I set foot into, they seemed to regard it as an immediate invitation to waterlog the floor around me at reception. This was done under the guise of cleaning, but I felt they were trying to trap me there by cleaning in a circle around my feet, so I moved back to the Riviera Hotel.
The man on reception was very friendly, after I had woken him up, that is. And I enjoyed the hotel’s boast that,
‘Although Riviera Hotel is rated only as a 2 star hotel, in actuality we believe it is standard of a 3 star.’ Nothing like talking yourself up.
In spite of this, we had to communicate mostly in sign language, with me waving my hands around and making sound effect noises, trying to enquire about things like breakfast and showers, while he did lots of head nodding. The hotel was pretty good value though. I had a huge, decently furnished room, which would almost certainly have set me back three times as much money in plenty of other European cities.
Then the hotel owner himself, who spoke some English, arrived to ask,
‘Is your room OK?’
‘Yes, apart form the power cuts, everything is fine.’
‘It is Albania. We are just beginning.’ he said with a knowing smile, before adding,
‘A step forward is to not go backwards. Just standing still, is not to go backwards.’ Tourism had never really existed in Albania. Soon, I sensed, that would change.
Outside my hotel, I sorely needed to locate a working cash machine to extract some Albanian currency, by no means a straightforward process in this country. Up and down I walked, before finding somewhere that worked. Rather uneasily, I took a lump of money out. Then I turned around to find armies of young men and boys swaggering towards me in their hundreds down the main street. It was the size of a large crowd on a way to a football match.
Part of me wondered if this thundering herd was the sort of reception a rich foreigner could expect to get every time he withdrew a couple of hundred euros out of the bank. But some ten minutes later, I realised that one of the large ferries from Italy had just docked in the harbour and was disgorging its passengers.
At last I had a sense of having made it to a meaningful sea, or a warm one at least. The Strait of Otranto was where, not just one, but two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, converged. That wonderfully salty smell of the sea wafted over the town. The climate had, for the first time in all of my journey in Eastern Europe, a comfortable Mediterranean feel to it, and the temperature was a good five degrees warmer than where I had come from.
The influences from Turkey were unmistakeable. Strong black coffee, so dense and sludgy it nearly sent my mind through the roof, and left me chewing on it towards the bottom of the cup, was commonly served with a much-needed glass of water. Shop owners religiously washed their pavements in front of their shops, in the same manner that I remembered traders all over the Middle East did.
Old men sat playing chess in the parks, shrugging and pointing at what the next moves should be. There were also the influxes from Italy, like the pizza places and some of the café culture. But if you stopped to talk to an Albanian, the chances were that they would tell you how very little regard they had for the Greeks and the Serbs. As well as being occupied by these countries, Albania also had to put up with the French and the Italians.
Albania was a country where the word for no was ‘Yo’, and the word for yes was ‘Po’. Po and Yo, easy to remember, as long as you got them the right way around. I was talking Tosk. Tosk was the wonderfully precise term for the southern version of the Albanian language. The northern dialect was known as Gheg.
To my ears, the language of Albania came roughly halfway between Italian and Turkish, which was appropriate considering its respective European geography. Following on from the Romans and various other invaders, the Ottomans ruled Albania for over four hundred years until 1912.
King Zog sound like the name of a make-believe monarch, but a man named Ahmet Zogu once gave up being president, and declared himself king of the newly independent Albania after the Italians had been forced to withdraw. But Mussolini sent the Italians back in 1939 and King Zog took flight to Britain. Here, he used suitcases of gold he had helped himself to from the Albanian treasury to settle himself into the Ritz Hotel in London. Appropriately enough, the name ‘Zogu’ means ‘bird’ in Albanian.
Resistance against the Italians, and the German Nazis, was taken up by the communists. After the second world war, Enver Hoxha became president. Albania was firmly communist, falling into line with the USSR. But Hoxha fell out with Soviets in the 1960’s, and fell in with the Chinese. Hence the self-reliant defence policy and all the concrete bunkers. As China started to embrace capitalism, Albania became more and more isolated.
In the modern day, it seemed that Albania was a country with internet cafes, but many of them didn’t have so much as a computer and keyboard inside them. I found a wonderfully named place to drink, the ‘Bar Shitet’, but it was closed. ‘Shitet’, I came to learn, meant ‘For Sale’.
Vlora had plenty of fast food bars, which doubled as football watching bars in the evening for young men who would come to smoke, but not always to drink. The sort of places where you could absorb a decade’s worth of lung-staining passive smoke in one evening stint.
Albanian women tended to walk around together in big groups. It was quite rare to find a woman on her own. Still, I found some Albanian beer to sample, Birra Norga, which wasn’t at all bad.
At the harbour end of town, Vlora had a few large casinos, outside which were parked several dust-covered Mercedes cars, quite plausibly fresh off the ship from Italy. Stolen Mercedes had been one of Albania’s few economic success stories in recent years.
The bay further along the coast was faintly lit up in a very relaxed way, and the sea was beautifully calm. The Hotel Bologna, perched right over the harbour’s edge, seemed an appropriately scenic watering hole to toast the furthest reaches of my continental crossing of sorts. So I raised a glass to the Strait of Otranto, mildly enjoying the sensation of bisecting two seas, the Ionian and the Adriatic.
There wasn’t a tremendous amount of late evening revelry taking place on the streets of Vlora, so I retired to my hotel, hoping the power black-out had now been rectified. You would imagine that Albania television would be atrocious, and you would not be far wrong in thinking that. Yet seemingly, its purpose was to combine the ‘best’, or worst, of Eastern Europe’s regional programming.
So there was the choice of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in Romanian, a Stars In Your Eyes Hungarian special, or what looked like a Bulgarian version of Ant ‘n’ Dec, only much less irritating. In the end, torn between the Serbian version of Big Brother, some handball on EuroSport, and an episode of Midsummer Murders clumsily dubbed into Italian, I settled for the Greek weather forecast to send me to sleep.
Early on a quiet Sunday morning, I’d found the right bus. The engine was running, there were passengers on, it was mostly full. But there was no driver. A gluttonous driver did eventually emerge, still chomping on his breakfast, and he set about making the bus even fuller. I was compressed into the far right hand corner. Wedged in next to me was an old man who had a cigarette in his ear and stank of body odour.
The driver attempted to overcharge me for my ticket, until another younger man graciously intervened. He had saved me the equivalent of thirty pence, but the principle was admirable. After covering great distances across Europe, I was now seemingly hemmed in on the wrong side to admire the rich views of the coast I had longed to see. The only thing dominating my immediate vision was the swarthy old lady in front of me, who had a moustache that Des Lynam would have been proud of and a throaty cough like the bark of a fierce Alsation guard dog.
A Mercedes over-loaded with what looked like tree branches passed in the opposite direction. We ascended sharply away from the coastal bay of Vlora, soon exchanging it for some cool mountain air and scrubby bare slopes. The road was more akin to a mountain bike track than a major thoroughfare for motor vehicles. With random stubbornness, mountain goats stubbornly intercepted the narrow path of our vehicle. Gravestones lined the very edge of a bumpy, jumpy road, which had the same smooth contours as a spotty teenager’s face.
They still haven’t really got around to building any proper roads in Albania. The infrastructure was virtually non-existent, but the landscape was magically rugged, perhaps as I imagined parts of Greece to have been forty years ago. From the higher reaches of the mountain passes, which climbed up to a kilometre in height from sea level, the views below were stupendously vertigo inducing. Tiny villages perched precariously. The land plunged downwards more rapidly than the upper half attire of a topless page three model.
Dhermi was not a place I could pronounce correctly in Albanian, so I opted to travel to the next settlement along the coast, named Himara, instead. But I was never entirely sure where I should tell the driver I wanted to get off. Another old lady in front of me was getting to grips with her daughter’s mobile phone.
The Albanian Des Lynam next to me grasped my thigh tightly and rubbed it with strong succour. With deliberately slow nervousness, I swivelled my wide eyes around to meet her own eyes. She had a glint in her eye, but fortunately for me, it was a ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you!’ glint. She would tell me where I needed to get off, she indicated reassuringly, with another rub of my tensed thigh.
Sure enough, I got off in the right place, and thanked her profusely, managing to avoid any further unexpected bodily contact. A parting wink sent me on my way.
This was Himara, supposedly a town, but it looked more like a sleepy coastal village. Old men were sat around a table on the waterfront drinking black coffee and playing dominoes. They looked like they had done the same thing every morning for the last fifty years. Being able to suck in the relaxed vibe of the place was just what I required after such a lively journey.
There was only one place to stay in Himara, the Hotel Joni, something to almost match my border name once more perhaps. The room rates were usually forty euros in summer. But for just fifteen euros, I had my own room with private balcony. It overlooked a quiet beach, which was being lapped by the lusciously clear water of the Ionian Sea. The very friendly woman in charge even offered me a free chocolate bar as well for good measure to make me feel welcome.
The television in my room wasn’t working, so she also went to great lengths to exchange it for her own from her house next door. Hard as I pleaded that I really had no appetite at all to put myself in danger of watching any more repeats of Romanian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Hungarian Stars In Your Eyes, she insisted on installing a new television for me.
‘Purrr Fect!’ she kept repeating to me, with an outrageously cheerful and charming smile, every time our paths crossed. It was by no means the most unsuitably apt word to describe my surroundings.
Being able to take my shoes off and put my feet up here really was quite glorious. I felt slightly guilty for having it all to myself, but then I remembered all the transport endurance challenges which had brought me here.
Just as I had managed to manoeuvre my chair out into prime position on the balcony to enjoy the idyllic views and attempt my first moments of sunbathing in months, I became aware of voices from the balcony next door. The voices were definitely not Albanian.
One of them belonged to a Dutch man. In that very matter-of-fact, nothing-is-taboo Dutch way of speaking in English, he was explaining to a girl about why she would not have caught AIDS after having sex with him. How pleasant. It was not a conversation I wanted to hear, but I had little choice.
As you might expect, someone talking about intimately sexual things in a Dutch accent slightly detracted from the tranquillity of my surroundings. So I stole away for a dip in the cool blue Ionian Sea, which sparkled, full of suggestive promise and allure. There really is nothing quite like a swim in the sea to make you feel good. The last one I had was several thousand miles ago back in Denmark. And the laid back warmth of Himara certainly felt a mighty long way from the dark chill of Hammerfest at the top of Norway, the battering elements of Ukraine, and the confused wariness of Moscow.
When I tentatively returned to my balcony, all was silence. Just listening to the rhythmic overtures of the sea with a kind, warm sun on your face must rank as one of nature’s most simple and therapeutic gifts. It erodes the meaningfulness of time, relaxes the body, rests the mind, soothes the soul. It diminishes any sense of urgency, and just about eradicates the will to do anything at all for a long while.
I think that the locals were mildly shocked to find me walking around in my swimming trunks and contentedly immersing myself in the sea for long periods of time, when winter was approaching. Everything was relative. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it became dark and cool before 5 pm.
I felt justified in properly unfolding my unmanageable European reference map, which had been buried and creased away in the inner depths of my backpack for too many lengthy stretches at a time. Out it came in its full entirety, for me to meaningfully survey my peculiar continental meanderings.
There was something neatly appropriate about concluding a journey at the edge of a large mass of water, because there was the primitive sense of not physically being able to continue any further over land. Albania wasn't quite up to the standards you might expect from a Greek island, but Corfu was just across the water and most of nature’s raw materials for an enjoyable stay were little different.
On investigating some other parts of Himara, away from the beach, I found a whole street of crumpled ruins, of collapsed houses, which I guessed might have been caused by a devastating earthquake. In fact, they had simply been built illegally, and the government had come along and destroyed them all. An adage there for Albania perhaps, about putting in place firm foundations first and making sure they stayed up, before building too high.
At the far end of the town, I was startled to find a car which wasn’t a Mercedes. It was a BMW. The boot was open. Sensing that some sort of shady deal was taking place, I turned on my heels swiftly, not wanting to ask if it was ‘Shitet’ or not.
Albania was just a very different country, and different sometimes comes in the form of challenging, but it also makes for refreshing. It was also strangely heartening to affirm that, a bit like a neglected corner of your garden, there still remain corners of a much tramped-on continent that felt like they still had things to reveal.
Just before sunset was a delightfully enjoyable time of day, the best time to take a swim. After that, I sometimes walked along the waterfront to the handful of coffee shops. Except these were coffee shops, not in the sense of a sleek Starbucks, but a cavern where local fishermen and other workers came to chew the fat. I walked into one place and everyone paused what they were talking about, and turned around to collectively stare at me. Then a couple of men verbally jousted with each other for having the pleasure of me joining them on their respective tables. At least I think that's what they were doing.
Before long, a succession of small glasses of raki made their way to me. These men, with their sea and sun-weathered faces, were more than happy to jollily embrace the presence of a foreigner at their table. A group of six of us crowded around one small table. One of them spoke enough English for jokes to be shared. Before long, I was volunteering my age, and we went around the table guessing the others’ ages. The eldest, but by no means the least sprightly, man possessed especially sun-baked and craggy features, so I estimated his age to be 74. He was 58.
‘Raki and fish - the secrets to a long life!’ he roared with masculine vigour, before everyone erupted into hearty laughter.
As I was about to ask them about Norman Wisdom, a man who remarkably even eclipsed David Beckham for popularity when the two were once in Albania together, the lights went out. A power black out had struck the town.
So the owner of the bar, who had been enthusiastically consuming raki on the table with us, felt obliged to do something. He fumbled his way outside in the darkness to start up his car, which was a Mercedes, of course. Then he roared it into reverse, slammed up the headlights, and pointed them across the street straight into the middle of the bar, where his merry customers remained unmoved.
‘Let there be light!’ we all cried out in Albanian.
Somewhere in the distance, a couple of gunshot noises broke the calm. I jumped up, but no one reacted as if this was something to even flinch about. When the lights finally came back on, I reverted to drinking beer and keeping an eye on the football. A half-decent knowledge of European club football always goes down well conversationally in towns, cities and villages everywhere.
The man next to me, who had the build of someone who had just come out of the sea after wrestling with a bull shark, kept insisting on paying for my glasses of raki, in spite of my protests. We had some more serious conversations about things like fishing, tourism and government. I added them all to the numbers of people all across the continent who had told me how totally fed up and cynical they were of all politicians.
On my way back to my hotel, I had to pick a path through the dusty debris of some builders. A substantial team of men were working purposefully as if it was the middle of the day. No doubt they were constructing something illegal for the government to knock down again.
Hiding behind the dark glasses of Albania, you will find an interesting and friendly face. If this emerging country takes its dark glasses off, it might surprise itself, and indeed the world. I decided to create a slogan for the Albanian Tourist Board, if such a thing existed. It was:
Albania - Don’t Knock It Until You’ve Tried It!