Archive for the ‘Albania’ Category

Back in Tirana

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

(Emily) We were really excited to be getting back to Tirana and, as most of our stuff plus the bikes was still at the hostel, it felt  a little like coming home! (I even got the same bed back!) That evening we actually went to the cinema – something that hadn’t even occurred to us but Thomas and Anne had mentioned that they’d been when they flew into Tirana and we did really want to see Robin Hood. Like so many things in the Tirana, the ‘Millenium Kinema’ was an ultra modern building with popcorn counter and comfy bucket seats… tickets were still written out by hand though – nice touch! It was fun to do something so normal (like a date night, Martha!) and the film was awesome (James was mighty relieved to have missed the release of Sex and the City 2 by two days!!!)

The next morning we nipped back to the bazaar to find me some flip-flops (mine had broken when out the night before, cue some difficulty walking home and piggybacks from James) and this proved to be quite challenge. Women in Tirana like to dress up to the nines, even during the day, and heels are de rigueur, thus it took a while to seek out some basic flipflops amid all the stilettos and even then they’ve got diamante on! James also got his haircut at ‘Berber Special’ as the bouffant was getting rather large – they did a great job and it was only 250 lek (less than two euros). The main priority for the day was to make sure the bikes were fully ready to hit the road following our synchronised tumble; the mechanic had magically sorted my twisted steering but we still needed to fix James’ pannier mechanism and do some general servicing. It was a hot day but we moved the bikes into the shade of the trees and it was quite satisfying to tighten up all the loose bolts (quite a few, rather alarmingly!) and sort a few other bits out (can you tell I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to the technical stuff?!!) We asked Lira from the hostel, who is Albanian/German, if she could come and translate when we took the pannier for repair – it’s quite a delicate system and James didn’t want to tackle it himself without a vice. Unfortunately the main place round the corner was closed so we lugged the boxes (stupidly had only unpacked the broken one) down to somewhere else she knew. A rather gruff guy hammered at it here and there (er, we could have done that…) but to be fair, although it’s still not perfect, he did improve it rather than make it worse!

That evening we went for dinner with Thomas and Anne (a lovely couple from Munich who we had met at the hostel in Sarande) who were back in Tirana to get their flight home, and we finally got round to sampling some traditional Albanian fare; James’s ‘piglet in oven’ was a tasty stew covered with pastry all around the whole bowl! It was a fun evening with good company and finished off perfectly with a crepe for dessert at a place our friends had found previously – the biggest pancakes ever, with every filling you could wish for (including Amaretto liqueur – hello!) and made by what must have been a robot, he was so fast! All good for our last night in Tirana, or was it…..?

Rain (well, drizzle) the next morning was all the excuse we needed to stay another day!! To be fair, after the horrendous journey in, we were not going to risk a repeat performance; torrential rain and Albanian roads just don’t mix. And it gave us the opportunity to do a little day trip to the town of Kruja, which lots of Albanians had been asking us if we’d visited so we thought it must be worth a look.

(James) After walking across town to the area where the ‘furgons’ leave from (semi-legal vans; no buses to Kruja), we negotiated a price with the driver – his opening gambit of 1000 lek was met a suitable level of contempt as we reminded him that that would have got us to Sarande in the south of the country. Realising that we hadn’t just arrived in town, he lowered it to 200 lek, which although significantly better, we weren’t entirely sure about as firstly we didn’t know what the actual price should be and secondly, we didn’t trust him. We decided to board and monitor what others were paying. The journey when the furgon eventually left (there’s no timetable, they only leave when full) was one that seemed to lurch from one near death experience to another and even the locals on the bus seemed to be in agreement that the driver was completely incompetent, even by Albanian standards! An hour later, we arrived in the hilltop town of Kruja and as everybody got off the van, we noticed they were paying 150 lek each. So I questioned the driver who pleaded ignorance… by pure chance, Em had got talking to a girl who had been on the bus with us and it turned out that whilst she – Kathryn – was English, her husband, Florjan, was Albanian. Having confirmed with his that the true price was 150 lek, I continued to demand he correct change at which point Florjan got involved and after some fairly curt words in Albanian, we had our change. Florjan was unnecessarily apologetic to us but clearly didn’t like to see the few tourists that came to Albania being ripped off (even if it was only a small amount). We ended up spending the rest of the day with them, and Florjan’s cousin, which was great as they were able to fill us in on a lot of the history and translate when necessary!

Kruja itself is small and for the most part unremarkable bar the fact that it was the site where Skanderbeg, national hero, united Albania’s tribes and successfully defended Albania from several Ottoman campaigns to conquer the country. The town now consists of a cute little bazaar selling tourist trinkets and a museum dedicated to Skanderbeg up by the castle. The highlight of the day though, was the ‘Ethnographic Museum’ (you haven’t heard of one? Me neither!) which Emily had been desperate to go to (don’t ask me why!) ever since she first heard about it. In essence, the museum was simply an original Ottoman/Albanian house that had been preserved to allow visitors to see how life was in a traditional Albanian home. (Emily: I love stuff like this!!!) The house itself was all very interesting but it was our ‘tour guide’ that stole the show; he must have been in his seventies and spoke limited broken English in a voice that was both hushed and exuberant for dramatic effect. He had the whole group in absolute hysterics throughout the tour as we walked from room to room and he explained what everything was and how it would have worked – his demonstration of how raki (the local spirit, akin to ouzo or grappa) was produced involved him swigging from his own bottle as if it wasn’t clear what one would do with it! Given that he must do the tour a dozen times a day, it was a wonder that he was still standing, but it was clearly doing him no harm!

Exploring Albania

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

(Emily) Having no prior knowledge about Albania, and as usual lacking a guide book, we generally went by recommendations from other travellers or hostel owners. The town of Berat, to the south of Tirana, had been mentioned several times as a pretty place to visit so on Sunday 23rd we packed the essentials into one of our roll bags and walked across town to catch a bus down to the town (Lira and Claas had very kindly let us leave the bikes at their hostel, along with our bags and kit – it was quite the novelty to be travelling light sans bikes). Albania’s long distance bus service works remarkably well – destinations are clearly indicated by a sign in the window and they always seem to leave and arrive as timetabled. The ‘buses’ are invariably ancient Mercedes coaches – the one we got that day to Berat had certainly seen better days, and air-con was but a distant memory; we had blissful moments when the side door remained open for a while and we got gusts of air up our shorts but apart from that it was pretty sticky! The distance between Tirana and Berat is only about 60 miles but the journey took a good three hours due to the poor road surface, mountain passes and general incompetence of the vehicle. It was a good trip though, and gave us the chance to see some of Albania’s beautiful countryside and the innumerable bunkers that litter the landscape (another legacy from the Communist era – Hoxha ordered over 700,000 pill boxes and heavy artillery bunkers to be built such was his paranoia of invasion. The chief designer and engineer was required to prove that the bunkers were able withstand full on tank assault by standing in one of his prototypes while it was attacked by tanks! He emerged unscathed, though probably more than a little bit shell shocked! Albanians today have to live with them but try to hide them with plants or decorate them with bright paints. It said that today, though entirely redundant in a military sense, the bunkers are a common place for Albanians to lose their virginity!

Berat was indeed a very pretty town with white Ottoman houses climbing the hillside above a wide river. The Backpackers Hostel was in itself worth the trip – more like a boutique B&B than a hostel, it’s in a UNESCO building with shady terraces under the cherry trees and grape vines and beautiful mosaic tiled floors in each room. That evening we had a relaxed stroll down on the main boulevard, trying to blend in with the locals all dressed up in their finery for the giro. We clearly stuck out like a sore thumb – where were my heels and skinny jeans when I needed them?! – and had many friendly hellos from those we passed, clearly pleased that we were visiting their town of which they are very proud. One teenage boy stopped to chat with us in his excellent English, introducing his family and translating for them. Back at the hostel, we lucked out with some left-over soup from a lovely Danish family (mum, dad and three children under 14 – pretty cool taking your kids travelling round the Balkans for a holiday!) and went to bed feeling very chilled.

After climbing the steep cobbled streets up to the old castle and fortifications of Berat the next morning, we got to the bus station in good time and nabbed a front seat for the long ride down to Sarande. It was a decent journey, despite lack of leg room and an unscheduled stop when we came upon an accident on a hairpin between a van and a lorry (much debate ensued between the driver and the male passengers, including James, who had got off to judge the gap between the crashed vehicles – after 15 minutes he decided to go for it and we just squeezed through, slightly unnerving for those of us left on the bus!) Again, we were wide-eyed at the stunning views and constant stream of contradictions – a loaded up donkey passing a brand new villa-style house; ice clear rivers with garbage piled up along the banks; beautiful poppies surrounding indestructible concrete bunkers. Sarande itself was not up to much – a half-finished resort of high-rises which, in the darkness, revealed that only a fraction of the buildings were occupied – and we were somewhat bemused when our ‘hostel’ turned out to be on the 8th floor of a block of flats. It was rather lacking in atmosphere, with no real communal area, but we did have a nice chat with two retired couples from New Zealand who were taking a couple of months to travel in Europe, old school backpacker style – cool!

Our main reason for coming down south was to see the ancient ruins of Butrint (a UNESCO site), a short bus ride from Berat. Seeing as we weren’t going to be going to into Greece, we hoped to get our fix of ancient history here. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed strolling round the extensive excavations… admittedly they were not quite as spectacular as anticipated but then we had recently visited Rome so were probably a bit spoilt in that respect! Later on, we hopped on another bus bound for Syri i kaltër or ‘Blue Eye’ – a recommended spot of natural beauty. (Trying to ascertain quite which bus to get on was trickier than usual; it wasn’t written in the window as it wasn’t a final destination. Cue five locals all trying to help us via an exchange of English, Italian and Albania!) After being dropped off in pretty much the middle of nowhere, it was then a 3km trek to reach the pool but it was well worth it – the ‘Blue Eye’ refers to the pool formed by the underwater spring source of a crystal clear river; resembling the iris of an blue eye with green edges. Quite stunning, and even more beautiful as we were able to enjoy it in complete solitude, with just one other group arriving as we left (comedy Greek guy who stopped to chat with us in his loud booming voice, extolling the virtues of the UK!) Bit stuck for getting back to Sarande so stood by the side of the road hoping for a bus to pass… our inadvertent hitchhiking soon came up trumps and a mini-van of middle-aged Norwegian women stopped to offer us a lift (well, their taxi driver did – don’t think they had any say in it!)

On Wednesday, we got up early(ish), planning to catch the 9.30 am back to Tirana but pancakes for breakfast and chatting with fellow hostellers, Thomas and Anne from Munich, put us back a bit… such is the luxury of being flexible! It was a long journey but this time we actually had air-con that worked, and we managed to get the seat with the most leg room – bonus! More fantastic scenery on all sides, though we were the only ones enjoying it; everyone else had their curtains drawn to block out the sun. Unfortunately, perhaps due to their lack of experience with motorised vehicles in the past, Albanians don’t equate not seeing the horizon with travel sickness. Cue most of our fellow passengers spewing up at least once along the way, nice!!! (At least they were well prepared with plastic bags and newspapers at the ready – reminded me of school trips!)


Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

(Emily) The hostel was an oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos of the city of Tirana. With a garden full of lemon and cherry trees and grape vines, it was the perfect place to chill and recover from our eventful ride in. On that first evening, there were only three of us staying at the hostel – James and I, plus Greg from the UK who was very friendly, and worldly-wise beyond his years. It was Greg’s birthday (only 19!) so an impromptu bbq had been arranged with everyone contributing something (James made burgers, yum!) The owners, Claas and Lira (German and Albanian/German) had invited a couple of friends living in Tirana and it was a lovely evening sitting out on the balcony, despite the rain lashing down a few feet away.

On Friday, we told ourselves we should see to getting the bikes sorted before we went off exploring the city. Amazingly enough, the internet revealed there was a Yamaha dealer only a few blocks away (called Moto Tirana – reminded us of the lovely Moto Varese in Italy) so we went off together on my bike to see if they could sort the steering (needless to say, James was riding with me pillion rather than the other way round!) Despite going all the way along the road that google maps had indicated, we still hadn’t spotted the bike shop, so when a friendly local on a damaged bike (that incidentally was being towed along by his mate in the car!) said he was going that way and to follow him, we didn’t hesitate. Trying not to choke in the fumes or get cut off by the constant barrage of cars pulling out this way and that, we had to explain to the guys whenever we stopped that no, we didn’t want to sell the bike to them! Once at Moto Tirana, it seemed there wasn’t much they could do (I was able to ascertain this through my broken Italian – a language that many Albanians speak better than English) but luckily for us, their courier was about to go to another place that might be able to help… cue hairy ride through Tirana number two! (James: trying to keep up with a local on a scooter that obeys no traffic rules, ignores red lights, goes the wrong way up one way streets and makes sudden and unpredictable turns is not for the faint hearted!) The mechanic at the next place promptly took my bike off for a spin around the block (er, ok bye then…) and when he returned, the steering had magically realigned itself!! He wouldn’t (couldn’t?!) explain how and wouldn’t take any money so that was that. We were beginning to like Albania, a lot!

It was a beautiful day on Saturday so we sat eating breakfast in the glorious sunshine (well, for five minutes before it got too hot and I had to go in the shade – typical English!) chatting with Sacha and Anna from Russia, who were travelling with their gorgeous two and a half year old, Sergei. It was the perfect day for talking a leisurely walk around the city to discover what it had to offer. Claas had recommended a few places to see, so we started with the bazaar; a colourful market located in the back streets which seemed to sell anything and everything. It was all very calm and peaceful, with no one hassling us as tourists to buy their wares; indeed, we’ve noticed that Albanians generally seem to communicate in very soft tones, with few words. From there, we headed to the Blloku district which is the area of Tirana once used exclusively by the Communist Party officials.

(James) Albania is an incredibly interesting country to visit and is unlike almost any other; until very recently, it was a member of a rare group of states (N Korea & Burma being the most obvious others) whose regimes were internationally isolated and whose people lived an enforced backward lifestyle in a cultural void in complete ignorance of the outside world. Under the Hoxha regime, listening to foreign radio was punishable by 10 years in prison, there were only 1000 cars in the entire country all of which were reserved for senior party officials (during the 45 year regime only 2 driving licenses were ever issued to non-party members) making bicycles and the horse and cart the main form of private transport for Albanians, although the public transport throughout the country was free. The last 17 years has seen the introduction of cars to those that can afford them but they are generally old wrecks (mostly 1970’s & 80’s Mercedes!) and cars palmed off to Albania by European countries who recognised that it was cheaper to do this then scrap them. The result is a dangerous combination of dodgy old cars and drivers with very limited driving experience, often without licences and no understanding of any sort of highway code or rules of the road so cue red lights being completely ignored, double parking being the norm and one way streets are a joke (I’d estimate that up to 40% of traffic in our local streets was going the wrong way up the one way streets!)

In the last decade or so Albanians have also had to catch up culturally with the west as during the regime they were denied access to and had no knowledge of anything outside the country. So whilst you hear modern music in bars, there’s no knowledge of all music that went before and influenced it, unsurprisingly then, there’s little appreciation of the  evolution of music in the 20th Century, of the Beatles, Elvis, Blues or Jazz and the effect they had on modern culture. Nor can they be expected to grasp the impact that some of what we would call major cultural events and landmark moments had on the world as they happened.

Whilst we in the west were experiencing these events and changes, life in Albania continued just as it had since the 1940’s except that as Hoxha’s iron fisted grip on power grew  so did his paranoia – and many of his enemies, rivals and allies whom he considered threats were dispatched either via charges of treason or more sinister means. Hoxha was a great admirer of Stalin, but following his death, felt that the Soviet Union ‘softened’ and so in the mid-60’s Albania broke away leaving the Soviet Union and aligned themselves with Maoist China under Mao Zedong leading to the country’s own sort of cultural revolution. However, once again in the years after Mao’s death as China looked to develop its own not-quite free market economy, Hoxha felt that China too had softened and eventually Albania’s relationship with China ended leaving the country internationally isolated. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 (Albania still held on a tad longer) that communist Albania, it’s economy utterly broken, finally ended. Hoxha never had to face the music: he died in 1985. It was only following the collapse of the regime that Albanians were allowed to leave their drab grey blocks of flats in Tirana and enter the Blloku district of the city that had been the residential homes of the communist party elite and utterly off limits to ordinary citizens. Even now, with Tirana trying to develop, the difference between Blloku and the rest of the city is stark and walking into the district with its smooth roads and pavements and tree lined avenues that shade quality expensively built houses, apartments and, of course, Hoxha’s own mansion, is like walking out of Albania and into another country. One can only imagine the sense of awe and rage that regular Albanians must have felt as they entered the district for the first time, although the fact that the mobs went straight to Skenderbeg square and tore down Hoxha’s statue might provide an indication of their feelings (national hero, Skenderbeg’s still stands proudly!). Today, the Blloku district has been reclaimed by students and the young and the area is filled with bars, cafes and restaurants and has an utterly cosmopolitan, bohemian feel to it.

Entering the unknown…

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

(James) It’s very easy to form an opinion on Albania – let’s face it everyone seems to have one – and as we had ridden down the Balkan coast over the last week we’d had a constant stream of people telling us not to go, saying the country was dangerous (bandits in the north; terrible driving; awful roads etc) to the extent that we had considered alternative routes. For every person who told us the country was worth seeing, there were a dozen advising us to avoid it altogether. So it was admittedly with some trepidation that we set off from Ulcinj the next morning towards the Albanian border. The road to the border itself was bizarre – given it was the main road south from Montenegro, it got smaller and more rural the further we went. After 40 minutes, just as we were starting to worry we’d taken a wrong turn – the ‘road’ had become little more than a track – we rounded a corner to see a large modern border checkpoint.  We pulled up behind the last car in the queue but were ushered down to the front and then up on to a kerb where we were told to ride along a pavement and down a corridor to a window where our passports were taken off us for our ‘exit’ stamp and we were told to roll the bikes to the next window (2 metres away) which it turned was Albanian passport control where we were quickly stamped and told to enjoy Albania (presumably the Montenegro official simply passes passports over his shoulder to his Albanian counterpart!)

Normally as we ride I make a point of alerting Em to any hazards or oncoming vehicles so she doesn’t have any nasty surprises and our first few miles in Albania certainly kept us busy with Em getting a constant stream of warnings as I listed the obstacles on the road – “donkey on the left, goats crossing the road,  stray dog ahead,  tortoise in the road (no, really!)”, and even “ football about to hit the road” – it did, landing on the front of the scooter ahead of us smashing his screen and almost wiping him out! But as we passed through our first villages the one thing we noticed, other than the fact that the main form of transport seemed to be donkey, was the warmth of the people who waved and called to us as we passed to the point that Em said she was starting to feel like a bit of a celebrity!

After about 20 miles we arrived at our first ‘junction’ (a choice of tracks) and opted to turn right – the compass said it was south) and soon arrived at a rickety looking wooden bridge over a wide and fast flowing river. We started across (you could feel the bridge dipping as you crossed!) and when half way we suddenly saw an old truck unbelievably overloaded with hay coming towards us from the other side. As it got nearer I moved over as far as I could to let it past, and then was forced to lean the bike on to the side of the bridge to give it every possible inch. Judging by Em’s laughter in my earpiece it was an hilarious sight as I was forced to duck by head down onto my tank to avoid the hay that was piling over the edge of the truck! Sadly I had the camera so that moment is lost forever to all bar Em but it was certainly an entertaining an event filled first hour.

Our instinct to turn south across the river was proved correct when finally we came upon our road sign for Tirana and the main road south. The next couple of hours proved to be something of a learning curve as we came face to face with the reality of Albanian driving. What became clear was that pretty much anything goes, with overtakes happening on either side, and as we approached our first of several major road works on the road – there was no diversion and we were expected to drive ‘through’ the work site, round the diggers that were operating, and across sodden muddy ground more suited to tracked vehicles – we saw that the art of queuing is still unknown in Albania as once in the roadworks it became a complete free for all with everyone taking a different path a trying to pass everyone else! It was mayhem!

Our one relief throughout the day had been that the weather had been perfect but as we rode further south we could see grey skies ahead that only seemed to be getting darker and heavier. We didn’t think we had a chance of making it to Tirana without getting wet and true enough when just 40 kms away the heavens opened turned the driving  conditions from bad to worse (and the road work sections into quagmires!)

As we hit the outskirts of Tirana at rush hour the level of traffic increased significantly and we had to ensure that we rode increasingly close to each other to prevent people from coming between us (the road was about four lanes  wide but nobody was ‘using’ the lanes). All was going relatively well and we had survived the many obstacles that we’d come across (foot deep pot holes etc!)  and then the traffic slowed for another obstacle. We couldn’t tell what was ahead as our view was blocked by a couple of large vans but when we got to the front, we were at a level crossing with  15cm deep ruts in front of the rails with no chance of avoiding them. Metal when wet is like ice and this, combined with the trenches before the rails, caused Em to lose the front wheel and down she went.  I then tried to get out of my trench to help her but it was no good and I soon joined her on the ground!! Between us we’d managed to block the entire road but rather than continue beeping (Albanians seem to drive with one hand constantly on the horn – my dad would fit right in!) we were inundated with people desperate to help us. Em couldn’t move as her lower leg was under the bike but she quickly had half a dozen or so people helping to get her and the bike upright. Once we’d managed to get the bikes to the side of the road people couldn’t help us enough, offering local mechanics if needed and calling people they knew from nearby workshops. The important thing was that we were both ok – the bikes had some minor damage with Em’s steering being a little bent and me having lost a pannier (the mechanism that attaches it to the frame had bent – an intentional design weakness to ensure the frame of the bike doesn’t get damaged). After a quick assessment we thanked those who had helped and the bikes ‘limped’ into central Tirana as we tried to find our hostel. The rest of the journey proved no less eventful and an hour later we rocked up at the hostel wet, muddy and exhausted (we must have looked quite a sight). We were welcomed in by Claas, the owner, who was more than happy to let us park our bikes inside the grounds and immediately invited us to the evening BBQ before we went off for a much needed shower. What a day!