Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
43Trip End Ongoing
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Our 3 days in Albania has been sandwiched between our time in Montenegro but we felt we needed to write an entry about this warm, welcoming, slightly crazy, but widely misrepresented country. I asked a man in a Montenegrin travel agency how far it was to Albania. In return he asked me whether I was Albanian...no...then why do you want to go to Albania? Similarly, the people we were staying with in Montenegro were worried about our safety traveling over the border. With the highly publicised problems in Kosovo and negative media commentary on Albanian organised crime and illegal immigration its easy to understand why the country is not the highest on most peoples wish list to visit.
However, our experiences completely contradicted what we had previously heard. Soon after crossing the border from Montenegro we were befriended by an Albanian couple who taught English and loved England and its people. After taking a minivan to the capital Tirane with them they offered us in for a coffee. Their hospitality was amazing; this coffee was actually a banquet with fresh ham, cheese, peppers, fruit, and the offer of a free room in their sisters apartment in central Tirane. Throughout our stay they cooked wonderful meals and we sat drinking raki for hours, them telling us about life in Albania before and after communism, and us helping their nostalgia for England.
It was perhaps unfortunate that we entered Albania through its poorest areas in the North. The city of Shkodur looked incredibly neglected and the minivan towards Tirane past through deserted villages and hundreds of unfinished or dilapidated building. During communism, land was considered an evil of capitalism and was confiscated by the state. When they moved into democracy in 1992 a lot of the land lay unclaimed as confusion reigned as to who were the original owners. Seizing this opportunity many people moved from the villages and towns into Tirane, hastily building homes haphazardly in order to lay claim to the land, and creating the ultimate urban sprawl. Houses sit in blocks more than 10 wide and 10 deep without any roads going between them; in their hastiness infrastructure was completely ignored, no thoughts of electricity or water connections or where they might put their car when their house is 60m to the nearest road.
In the center of the city apartments built during communism remain. They look old and tatty from the outside but inside they are modernly decorated and would make most people in England jealous. A huge step forward from during communism when the couple had saved for 10 years in order to buy a semi-automatic washing machine and a black and white television. Wandering around the city was fascinating; old apartment blocks randomly painted every colour of the rainbow, small backstreet's full of old men playing chess, cafes and bars that wouldn't look out of place in central London. The people were happy, welcoming, laid back, and carried an aura of a country that is on its way up, they were always smiling. They acknowledge that the country has its problems but the situation is far better than the years of communism when they were never allowed to leave their own country.
There are two electricity blackouts per day (totaling 5 hours) and the roads are definitely the most dangerous I've ever seen. Our apartment balcony overlooked the main square and we sat entertained for 3 hours watching people have near death experiences. During the blackouts the traffic lights are turned off which has obvious consequences. Local policeman direct the traffic but no one really respects them and it was easy to see why. When the lights return the policeman stay and direct traffic with complete disregard to the red and green signals, sending cars veering into each other every few seconds. However the strangest aspect of the roads was the cars the Albanians drove - about 50% of vehicles were relatively new Mercedes Benz. Slightly strange for a country where 400 pounds a month is considered a very good salary.
On the Friday night the couples son Andi took us out on the piss around Tirane, which was a lot like going around the center of Leeds - the bars were well decorated and friendly but the people looked like they were trying to hard with their appearance. After our trip through the north of Albania this was not what we had expected. The final bar, the Living Room, was a grand Victorian style house with the second floor converted into a club with a clientele that looked like they belonged in Pacha in Ibiza. Whereas Leeds costs 3 pound a drink, we got wasted in Tirane for about a tenner and had enough change for about 12 kebabs. We ate 2.
Still with me, nearly finished now. We feel indebted to our hosts, without meeting them our experiences may not have been the same, but even so we would like to suggest people seriously consider Albania as a summer holiday destination. The people are friendly, genuine, and love the English. The capital is a fascinating place, far more interesting than the tourist driven cities of Croatia. Its incredibly cheap, coffee 25p, beer 50p, a 110km journey costs 1.75, a meal for 2 with drinks at a top restaurant about 7 pound, and a late night kebab about 80p. Furthermore if the country continues to grow soon easyjet will be flying here so a whole holiday will be cheaper than a Premiership football ticket.
So that was Albania, see you there next year.