I entered Albania with no idea about the country, no clue where to go and what to do, and not a word of language. Since then this country has provided one surprise after another.
On the flight in I sat next to a lovely woman from Tirana who works for the Ministry of Agriculture and was on her way back from a work trip to Israel. She gave me her card and insisted I call her if I have any problem while in the country. How kind! Below us, the Albanian countryside was a sea of beautiful snow-capped peaks poking through the clouds, a series of spectacular white erosion gullies dotted with bright blue lakes, and plenty of lush green fields. Even the view from the airport was incredible, boasting a stunning row of craggy granite peaks which form the backdrop to the city of Tirana. I started to get the feeling this was a place I was going to like.
Luckily I didn’t make a snap judgement on the basis of my journey from the airport on the public bus. I was deep in conversation with two Turkish university professors who lecture in tourism (and invited me to be a guest lecturer for them the next time I am in Turkey!) however while we were talking I noticed the bus driver – a man who had seemed like a pleasant smiley old codger when he came around selling the tickets – was rapidly turning into a homicidal maniac. First there came shouting sessions with other passengers who dared ask to disembark when it didn’t suit the driver, then an exchange with another bus driver over correct use of the bus lane, then an altercation with two women who were cleaning windscreens and collecting money at the traffic lights. They had the audacity to delay the bus for a whole 10 seconds while they collected their payment and our driver retaliated with loud honking and yelling. One of the women turned around, eyes blazing, and directed a few well chosen words in his direction. In reply, he stood up – WHILE THE BUS WAS IN MOTION, put his head out the window, and SPAT a huge gob of saliva on her!! Normally I would go off my chops at someone who did something so disgusting and demeaning to a woman but I was so gobsmacked that I just sat there speechless (and frankly I didn’t want to be spat on myself!). Since then I have realised that it was nothing personal – spitting is just a national pastime for the male sector of the population…that and sitting around in bars smoking and drinking beer and/or coffee. And/or playing pool. Mind you this is a nation famed for its culture of “blood debts” where if you kill someone his brother quite literally HAS to kill you in revenge even if it means prison for the rest of his life as a consequence. So good call on not remonstrating with the bus driver I think.
Since that less-than-optimal introduction I have been absolutely bowled over by the friendliness and hospitality of the Albanian people (And dogs for that matter. When I arrived at my first hostel the “welcoming committee” came straight out to meet me as I walked through the gate. Her name is Yoga and she is some sort of black and white spotty spaniel with super-soft fur. I very soon realised I had wasted my money getting a private room as doors are no match for Yoga’s desire to be with her people and if I shut my door she would open it in a flash and then lie next to my bed guarding me from intruders!). Second day in the country I went on the cable car that runs up the side of the mountain behind Tirana to a national park – meeting a local lady who showed me where to get off the bus and how to find the cable car – and was most apologetic for not being able to escort me personally… but once again I was offered her phone number and email in case I had any problems while in Albania. I also thought it was very generous of the Albanian army not to shoot me when I accidentally wandered into a military zone while hiking up in the park. Whoops!
Spending a week on the Albanian Riviera while getting over a cold, I rented an apartment with a lovely sea view. Even better than the view was the family who owned the place. Daily I was plied with coffee, byrek, raki and even a roast lamb dinner with the whole family (during which they apologised most profusely for not having wine to hand…to go with the copious quantities of raki presumably.) None of this appeared on my bill of course, likewise the clothes that were washed for me or the bunch of flowers that turned up on my balcony one day. The guy even offered for me to use his car whenever I wanted! Better still was the company as, even though we didn’t really have a 100% common language, we had a great laugh together – mostly at what google translate came up with when our mixture of Albanian, English, Italian, Spanish and Greek failed us. I have no idea what they were trying to say when Google passed on the message ‘so sleepy cat this to them up to you’ but judging by the hysterical laughter my entries elicited, the translations were just as nonsensical in the other direction. Oh and the beach was lovely too! Crystal clear water of emerald, aquamarine, turquoise and every colour in between. Sadly, way too much rubbish, which is the story across all of Albania unfortunately. Apparently rubbish was virtually unknown during the Communist era but now they are making up for lost time. While at one of the better known tourist sites – the pretty but decidedly chilly Blue Eye Spring – I was interviewed for Albanian TV on my thoughts on the country. I praised it to the hilt, but took the opportunity to mention that I hope they manage to fix their litter problem very soon!
Even the incredibly dangerous road down from the castle at Sarande, (which I was warned by the hostel owner not to attempt too late in the day due to the profusion of savage dogs and dodgy people), proved to be a rich source of human kindness, even as the sun was setting. An old lady tending her garden called me over to her fence to present me with one of her most beautiful roses. A group of young boys invited me to play football with them – whooping and cheering at every save I made while in goal. Then at one point the rose fell out of my ‘buttonhole” and one of the boys said ‘wait wait wait’, held up his hand to stop the game, bent down and handed me back the rose. My heart just melted!!
Every day in Albania has been filed with surprises. One day I was waiting for a ‘furgon’ (a shared taxi/van which leaves when full) to fill up and was rather taken aback to be suddenly presented with a baby rabbit by one of the other passengers. Super cute but I have no idea why. I was equally as surprised when she suddenly grabbed the rabbit and ran off down the street with the single other passenger. With both of them gone and the driver nowhere to be found I decided to give up on that vehicle and stand by the side of the road waiting for another one to turn up. I must have looked a bit glum because almost immediately a guy driving a van for an egg/poultry/organic food company pulled up and offered me a ride. Not one to look a gift chicken in the mouth I gladly hopped in and had a pleasant journey to my destination. Only one buttock clenching moment when he indicated he just had to pull off down this dirt road for one moment. After a brief vision of Ivan Milat, during which I reminded myself of the location of my knife should I be forced to stab him through the eye at some point, I noticed the line of similarly marked vans pulled up at the depot ahead of us, and allowed myself to breathe again.
And breathing can really be an issue. People smoke A LOT. It is a bit of a shock coming from a country like Australia where it is banned almost everywhere. Hotel rooms often reek of smoke and I have been warned off the trains as apparently they are full of the evil substance. Buses are better but people will often take a last big drag outside and then exhale once they are on the bus…to share it with all the nicotine starved addicts on board I expect. And the driver usually smokes. It is virtually impossible to find an eatery which is 100% smoke free. Then again it is 90% impossible to find an eatery full stop! There are about a million cafes (or cafe/bars more accurately) but they don’t serve food. I decided the people here must live on air, before I realised they actually live on cigarette smoke and coffee – with an odd shot of raki thrown in for good measure. Luckily food is very cheap here so I have been consoling myself with strawberries for $1.50 a kg. And at least I did manage to find an eatery in Tirana so I could try their local speciality stew – made of tomato, egg and offal and all cooked in a clay pot in the oven. Yum!
- I’ve seen more 80’s/90’s model Mercedes Benz cars here than I have seen since I lived in Germany in the early 90s. At first I thought everyone must have been loaded back then – but it turns out they were all stolen from Germany and smuggled over the border!
- The countryside is littered with concrete mushrooms (See slideshow below). Built as bunkers for when the capitalist west invaded, the engineer who built them was so sure they could withstand attack that he agreed to sit in one while it was bombed by the Albanian airforce. He survived but emerged with shell-shock for his troubles.
- Big Brother Albania (yes this idiocy extends even to Albania) has a catholic priest in the house. I am not sure if he is a contestant or there for moral supervision but he appeared to be trying to stop one girl (such a princess she was even wearing a tiara) from committing a mortal sin with one of the other contestants in the episode I saw. For once I would have been quite interested to know what was going on but I suspect I would be disappointed, and yet sadly unsurprised, by the depths of stupidity it was bound to be plumbing.
- I expected staring when I lived in India, I expected it in Latin America. I have been amazed by the amount I am stared at here. Literally someone will sit and stare at you for an hour or so if you stay in one place. And I no longer make eye contact with men. Lecherous doesn’t even begin to describe those stares!! Worse was the pinch on the backside I received during the crush to get on a bus at one point – however I was stoked to hear the suspect male berated by his wife for the next 30 minutes on our bus ride. He looked suitably chastised by the time he got off anyway!
Beautiful landscapes, fascinating historical sites, gorgeous coastline, immaculately restored Ottoman villages and incredibly friendly locals; Albania has been an incredible introduction to the Balkan region. Now if they can just do something about that rubbish….