(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!