Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
20Trip End Ongoing
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If I was to write down everything I knew about Albania prior to my arrival, I'm not joking, it would have literally fit on the back of a postage stamp. I knew that up until the 1990's Albania had been somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe due to its hard-line communist politics. It was through Michael Palin's "Europe" TV series that I also knew Enver Hoxha, founder of the communist party and Albania's first president, spent colossal amounts of the countries financial resources building close to 700,000 concrete bunkers up and down the country in order to repel any invasion. I also knew that these bunkers were so strong they could withstand a full tank assault, a fact put to the test when the chief designer and engineer was forced to stand inside a bunker while it was being bombarded by a tank. Interesting facts I think you will agree but all rather useless in the grand scheme of things
Walking off the ferry I was stepping into a glorious hot day. My first port of call (pardon the pun) was immigration and not knowing where it was I figured the easiest way to find it was to follow the stamped of other passengers. The immigration office was housed in a small building close to the entrance of the port and stepping inside was like what Id imagine stepping into the New York stock exchange on a working afternoon would be like
Durres is the second largest city of Albania and is one of the most economically important. Due to its proximity to Italian port cities, most notably Bari, it is a vital link to Western Europe and for this reason Durres has become the commercial hub of the manufacturing industry, producing leather, plastic and tobacco products along with being Albania's communications centre
Train travel in Albania is nothing short of an adventure, it really has to be experienced to be believed. In the decrepit carriages every window is either smashed or missing, they have no toilets, the doors don't close properly, and they are incredibly slow, yet they wind their way through some quite scenic countryside. It took just over an hour for the train to reach Tirana and for the entire length of the journey I was entertained by my new young and amusing friends. They had saved me a seat beside them, in the completely empty train carriage full of empty seats. The six of them must have had ages between 7 and 14 and little or no English but we didn't let a minor problem like that stop the opportunity for some deep and meaningful conversation the length of the journey. It began with them making the shape of a gun with their fingers and saying "Tony Montana" and me duly responding with the same finger motion and "say hello to my little friend". They were suitably impressed with themselves, holding court with a foreigner from a strange land. It was not long before the repetition of the same phrase was starting to bore them and the scene went quiet for a little while. With their eyes fixed on me I couldn't help but wonder what they might have been thinking, what must they have been making of me? The silence was then broken when the eldest, out of nowhere, shouted "Batista"
Immediately after exiting the train station I was walking down Bulevardi Zogu I, a wide boulevard and one of the main streets in the centre of Tirana, in search of my hostel. I was staying in one of Tirana's only hostels, the 'Tirana backpacker hostel' on Rr Elbasanit. I had printed a map of its location so I was confident it would not be long before I was getting out of these now sticky clothes and into a nice shower. Walking down the street I was garnering quite a lot of attention. It might have been the big backpack strapped to my shoulders or maybe I just looked obviously un-Albanian as even cars were stopping in the streets with people leaning out the window staring at me as I passed, never mind the people on the streets. They were so obvious and open about it, I'm thinking that staring must be a national pastime or something. If it was an Olympic sport then for certain Albania would win gold every time. Crossing the Lana River that traverses the city, when I say river I actually mean more of a drainage ditch, I was expecting to find the turn-off to the hostel. When it wasn't there I knew the ease and confidence with which I had expected to find the hostel had completely evaporated and in the space of only a few minutes. Why oh why must I always fail this battle of wits in search of my bed?? Like most men I persisted with trying to find it without asking for any kind of help, however unlike most men I was at least consulting a map, but this only adds to my frustration at not being able to navigate way around. Standing in an alleyway I concluded that it was time to admit my failings and seek the help of the most foreign looking person I could find, hoping for the best that it wasn't a local, but that if it did happen to be a local that they would be to speak English
When you are staying in hostel dorms it's always a bit of a lottery was to the type of people you will be bunking down with, it can be hit or miss
The next morning I woke to a glorious sunny day and immediately designated it a sightseeing day. Tirana is quite a small city and the few tourist attractions can easily be accessed on foot. Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderberg Square) is at Tirana's centre and is the bustling heart of the city, the perfect starting point for any sightseeing discovery. A statue of Albanian hero Skanderberg sitting atop a horse adorns one end of the square. In the 1400's he led the Albanian resistance against Ottoman attack but in the 2000's he sits atop his perch deafened by the constant beeping of car horns while overlooking the traffic chaos below. The manic traffic of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris is like child's play when compared to the Skanderberg Square. During the communist-era of Hoxha, practising organised religion was outlawed however the 18th century Et'hem Bey Mosque managed to survive not only this period but it also escaped destruction during World War II. It took almost 28yrs to build and its survival is a testament to all things righteous and true, with the beautifully painted dome and the interesting art works that adorn the walls, its loss to the world would have been nothing short of a tragedy. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in Albania. The elegant minaret of the mosque is overshadowed slightly by the Kulla e Sahatit or clock tower. This tower has become a symbol of Tirana and is one of the cities oldest constructions. One of the most memorable buildings in Tirana is also situated off the square, the National History Museum, made striking due to a wonderfully impressive socialist mosaic that stands on top of its front fašade. It's a beautiful piece of artwork! Running north of the square is Bulevardi Zogu I, the road which leads to the bus and train station. Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit, a wide tree lined boulevard, runs south of the square and houses most of the government buildings. You cant miss them due to the heavily armed guards menacingly eyeballing the passing public. Standing at the end of the boulevard is Tirana University with a statue of Mother Teresa with arms outstretched to give you a big hug. I was standing in the forecourt of the university and I didn't actually know that the statue was there at all until some inquisitive students came over for a chat and to enquire where I was from. With the mention of Ireland, Roy Keane was their delighted response. It's good to know that the youth of Albania are being taught the important lessons about Ireland. Beyond the university is the former palace of King Zogu, Ahmet Zogu an opportunistic warlord who declared himself leader of Albania after World War I. Situated across the road from the palace is the Martyrs' Cemetery where the remains of soldiers that fought a resistance to the Italians and the Germans are buried. Also situated within the cemetery is the immense Statue of Mother Albania. In 1972 the former president, Enver Hoxha, was buried here under his own decree but in 1992 his body was exhumed and he was interred in an ordinary graveyard somewhere outside the city. I think that one act sums up the attitude of the people of Albania, I love them for it. If you liked that little fact then I think you will definitely like this one too. My favorite building in Tirana is called the 'Piramida', a strange yet striking building reminiscent of an Aztec structure that you would see in Chizen-itza in Mexico. It was designed by the daughter of Enver Hoxha, at his request in 1987 and its original purpose was to be a museum dedicated to her father. Since his death it has deteriorated somewhat and now houses a nightclub. Its like a two fingered salute to the oppressive dictator, you just couldn't make this stuff up. Situated in the courtyard at the front of the Piramida is the 'Bell of Peace'. In 1997 a private pyramid investment scheme collapsed and over 70% of ordinary Albanians lost all their savings resulting in nationwide violence. Forged from bullet cases collected by children after the anarchy of 1997, the Bell of Peace stands as touching memorial to the countries often difficult post communist years. Following the drainage ditch that is the Lana River in the direction of Mount Dajti you eventually come across the Friendship Bridge. I've got to say the bridge itself is not worth the walk, it's just a stone bridge but the interesting thing, actually I rephrase that because interesting doesn't quite say enough, the thought provoking thing is the facades on all the buildings and apartment blocks lining the lover end of the river. They are all painted in the most unusual of designs and patchwork of colours, from horizontal orange and red stripes on one building to pink and purple circles on another. Their origins stem from a guy who was either elected president of Albania or mayor of Tirana, I'm not sure which, when there was no money in the country and everybody was struggling. He was an artist and to keep the people from depression and to bring a bit of joy and light into their lives he commissioned the painting of all the grey and ugly tower blocks into these patchworks of vibrant colours and designs. They are seriously eye catching, and a piece of genius thinking. The last area of interest is the Ish-Blloku (the block) where prior to the fall of communism this area was reserved solely for government officials. What was once a totally forbidden area has now become the number one spot for Tirana's youth where you will find the best cafes, shops and restaurants. You can also visit the former villa of Enver Hoxha, but with it being just a three story pastel coloured house there is not much to see. After all the sight seeing was done I was in this shop buying stuff for my dinner. When I carried all the food to the till I also had a 2ltr bottle of water under my arm. As the girl was ringing through my purchases on the till I paid and left the shop. Getting halfway down the road I realised that I hadn't actually paid for the water as I kept it under my arm the whole time. I didn't know what to do, if I turned back the girl might not speak English and id have a nightmare trying to explain what had happened or I could keep going but id know I was robbing the water. I decided to keep going but at speed so as to try and put as much distance between me and the shop as possible. I felt terrible doing it but id would have felt a lot worse if id got caught for robbing and ended up in an Albanian prison. Unfortunately in my haste to get away I got completely lost and didn't have a clue where I was going. Struggling to find a familiar reference point I stopped a guy to try and get directions but when I showed him the map he started turning it around and looking at it upside down, I don't actually think he had ever seen a map before. He had no English but thankfully he was able to recognise my pronunciation of the street where the hostel was and with that he grabbed me by the arm and without saying a word dropped me right outside the door. It was such a surreal experience yet it was one of the warmest acts of kindness from anyone I've encountered since I left Galway. All I could do was bow my head in thanks and give him one of my biggest smiles, and with that he was gone. Getting back to the hostel that evening Patrick had left for Montenegro and his bed had been taken up by an Australian guy, Stuart. He was an interesting guy and had what I think could be a great job. He works for an Australian travel company in London and they run organised adventure tours throughout Europe. Normally he would be one of the drivers on these tours but this time they were devising a new itinerary and sent him out for a few weeks to work out the logistics. With traveling being something that I love to do I'm always keeping my eye out for careers that can help me earn money while doing something that I love. Now I think the running of a tour would be more suitable for somebody younger but having the job of laying the foundations for these tours would quite attractive to me. After Albania he would be heading for Montenegro and then the Croatian coast before heading back to London with his report. I invited him out for a few beers that night with myself and Lisa and Gregg. We went to this bar that was showing the Portugal vs. Germany football match and it was packed. Every Albanian that was in the place had put money on Germany to win and when they won 3-2 the whole place went crazy and partied long into the night. Not long after the final whistle Lisa got a call with news that her uncle had just died after a long illness. The poor girl was so upset; my heart went out to her. All I could think to do was just give her a hug. It is a situation I contemplate every time I go away for long periods of time. When things like that happen you find out just how far you are away, from home and the people you love. All we could do was raise a toast in his honor. I know drink isn't the answer but sometimes it's good to forget for awhile.
I had an afternoon departure for the bus to Greece. By the time I had packed away my stuff I had just enough time to write and post a few postcards, and then wonder how long it will take them to get to where they are supposed to go. On the way to the bus I bought 200 cigs, for next to nothing, and that would be my last ever box. Tirana is a charming city and despite the pollution from the rapid increase in cars the city it's actually quite beautiful in a strange way. It reminds me more of an Asian city as opposed one that's European. Its manic, its traffic chaos, its dusty and dirty and sweltering hot, I absolutely love it. The people are very friendly even if very little English is spoken. As the bus pulled out I was looking out the window telling Tirana I would see it again. Before long we were passing the rubbish filled suburbs of the city that themselves even have a certain charm to them. We were 30Min's of out Tirana when we arrived in Durres, a journey that took over an hour by train. If I was doing the journey again I would still take the train, the experience is too good to miss. Before long I relaxed and must have slept for awhile because I was woken by a guy telling me that we were having a break. While standing outside having a smoke he introduced himself as Jimmy. He was telling me that I was the talk of the bus being a foreigner. The driver had even asked him to keep an eye on me and make sure I was comfortable and didnt get lost as he was the only English speaker on board. I was actually quite flattered with all this attention; I wondered if this was how celebrities must feel. He invited me to join him and his buddy for a coffee and I duly accepted. As we sat chatting over a coffee, tea for me, he explained that he was going to Greece to visit his brother who works in a bar on the island of Rhodes. Jimmy himself is living and working in Helsinki and was just back on holidays to visit family. Having been to Helsinki I was interested to get his thoughts on the place but I could have guessed his response before I asked the questions, cold! He was fairly interested in my trip to Australia and unique in that he is one of the few people that didn't ask me how much money I had or what it would cost. He was genuinely interested in the experience. It was a good chat, one of those conversations where you actually think afterward 'wow, that was a good talk'. He began telling me all about the fall of communism and how things have changed in the proceeding years. For the young people it has brought lots of new freedoms, education, travel and a chance to lead better lives. On the flip side its been difficult for the older generation because most had jobs, not good jobs mind but at least some sort of an income. Now all these government supported jobs are gone and lots of people are struggling to make ends meet. Albania is booming in comparison to what it was but there is still alot of corruption with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I explained that corruption in this day and age is not unique to Albania as we have had similar problems of late in Ireland too. Power corrupts we concluded, no matter what type of society you live in. As we sat a football match began on the TV, Turkey Vs. Croatia. As one might expect the conversation drifted from the topic of politics and came to rest on which team we would all be supporting. I advised that I would be shouting for Croatia while he explained that he would be cheering Turkey on. His friend couldn't speak English so he just nodded and laughed, I took that to mean he was supporting Turkey. According to Jimmy the Albanians and the Turks get on well together as they are united in their dislike for Greece. Apparently because the Greeks believe they are the superior race they hate everyone, I hope that isn't a sign of things to come. Jimmy was a good looking guy but he was committing the fashion fau-pa of wearing socks with sandals, and white socks at that. I couldn't resist telling him and slagging him off over it. I hope i'm not turning into Trinny and Suzanna!! He took it in good spirits though. As we climbed back on the bus we were entertained by Albanian variety shows being played on the TV, I don't know what was being said but the Albanians were nearly wetting themselves from laughing so much. Approaching the Albanian-Greek border the coach was stopped by the Albanian customs and we were all ushered off the bus, along with our luggage, so the officers could do their random checks. It's safe to say that I look distinctly un-Albanian and with the inquisitive eyes of the entire bus load of passengers fixed on me the officers were immediately drawn towards me and my bags. As the officer ran his hands up and down the outside of my bags he was saying something in a rather forceful tone, something that I didn't comprehend. As his frustration grew with my non-response Jimmy gallantly stepped forward to translate that the officer was asking me what was in my bag. When I pointed to my attire and said clothes, the translation was made bringing an end to their rigorous search. When everything was loaded back onto the bus we drove the short distance to the Albanian gate. Again we had to get off the bus and queue at the checkpoint with our passports at the ready. To my right I noticed an office that had a TV in the window showing the culmination of the match we had begun to watch earlier in the evening. Sitting outside watching the game were a few off duty guards, cheering and laughing loudly. With plenty of time to spare before it would be our turn to approach the immigration booth a few of the guys, me included, went over to watch the game. The match had gone into extra time and penalties were looming by the time our turn eventually came to be checked out of Albania. Up at the booth I was due to pay Eur10 as a departure tax but maybe because Jimmy was escorting me the officer didn't charge me a penny. When my passport was stamped we began to walk towards Greece only for one of the off duty officers to shout that the penalties were about to start. Not wanting to miss any of the action we all ran back across the no-mans land and into Albania again to watch the shootout, much to the annoyance of the immigration office but we just ignored his shouts of protest. After watching Turkey win the penalty shoot-out we all defiantly sauntered back across the border again and towards Greece. I would imagine that there are not many other countries in the world were you would get away with such behavior, id say you would be in danger of being shot anywhere else, not in Albania though...anything goes. When it came to the Greek side of the border my obvious non-Albanian look was of a distinct advantage because I was called forth first and with my European Union passport was through immigration with a wink and a smile while the Albanian contingent faced much greater scrutiny. As I stood waiting for everyone else I saw the most unusual sight. It began with a skinny sick looking dog sneakily making his way across from Albania into Greece. As I stood there I was thinking that he was probably making a break for a better life, when all of a sudden he was joined one after another by a line of puppies. I was dumbfounded when in total 20 puppies made the crossing. When I still hadn't been joined by any of the Albanians from the bus I contemplated the fact that it was easier to get through if you were a dog as opposed to being Albanian. When eventually everybody made it through we got back on the road leaving Albania to fade into the background, it would fade from sight but never from mind or memory.