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ALBANIA | Monday, 18 July 2011 | Views [295]

We weren’t too sure what to expect from Albania. Lonely Planet said it was one of the top ten places to visit this year but they also said that about Tunisia. Albania was cut off from the rest of the world for almost 50 years under the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha and then basically run by organised crime for the following 10 years till some relative normality arrived in the early 2000’s. Our first real taste of Albania was sitting on the edge of a roundabout in Shrokdra fresh off the bus from Montenegro. While most of the cars were going round the roundabout in the right direction, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians all took the shortest route across. It was rather chaotic but it all worked. Organised chaos – a fairly good description for Albania as a whole.

Arriving in the capital Tirana we were dumped on a street corner with no idea of where we were. We tried looking at the map in our guide book but with no street signs or landmarks around this proved difficult. Next off we tried asking passersby but speaking no Albanian this proved difficult too. We finally found someone who spoke some English but actually wasn’t much help as he was baffled by our map (I don’t think Albanians have seen many maps). He did ask a taxi driver if he could take us to our hostel but the taxi driver had no idea where the hostels street was so no help either. Finally we just asked what direction the centre of town was and started walking in the hope we would find ourselves. It ended up being quite a long walk, in the heat, with heavy packs, across ripped up streets, in chaotic traffic, but we eventually made it.

We spent a day wandering around Tirana. The centre of the city is quite a mess as Skanderberg square and surrounding streets are being rejuvenated. All the pavements have been dug up so pedestrians had to walk on the street in amongst the traffic. We managed to navigate our way around the construction and traffic into the National Museum. Possibly the quietest museum I’ve ever been to, apart from a couple of other tourists and several chain smoking ladies supervising each floor we were by ourselves. We wandered our way up through the floors progressing through Albania history only to find it end in 1945. All displays and references to the Enver Hoxha years have been removed which is a little disappointing for curious tourists but fairly understandable given the general publics’ embarrassment of the period. We continued to wander the city finding discarded communist statues in a carpark, a flash cafe where we sat out a thunderstorm and the revolving restaurant which had seen better days but still offered fine views and was a good escape from the chaos several falls below.

The next morning we were off to the train station to catch the train to Vlora. Taking the train was not the fastest or nicest way to travel to our intended destination. In fact the taxi driver tried to tell us that the bus to Vlora didn’t leave from the train station – obviously not considering we might actually want to take a train, but I had heard a lot about Albanian trains being an experience in themselves and was keen to take at least one while in Albania. At first sight the Tirana train station didn’t inspire much confidence. Hand written departure board, Grass growing between the cracks, and a couple of smashed up carriages. We bought our tickets ($3 for a 7 hour trip) and headed down the platform to the train that looked like it might actually work and boarded the better looking of the two carriages (ie only half its windows were smashed). We found an empty cabin but were almost immediately joined by the curious locals all wanting to know where we were from and why we were visiting Albania and where we were going. Soon after we were adopted and looked after for the rest of the train trip by Tomor who as far as we could work out was a travelling salesman. Although he spoke no English and us no Albanian through pictionary and sign language we managed to learn a lot about each other. He found it hard to comprehend we were from the other side of the world but was extremely happy and proud when we got him to teach us a few basic Albanian words (he preceded to test us on them for the remainder of the trip). At Rrogozhine we had to switch trains to the one going down a branch line to Vlora. We were aware of this beforehand but as Rrogozhine approached it seemed half the train came to make sure we knew, got off and got on the correct train. The branch line train to Vlora was much quieter and we were secretly relieved to be free of all the attention as we waved goodbye to our friends from the other train.

There were plenty of interesting sights from the train. At one point while leaning out the window with Tomor taking in the view we past some people walking a large dog, but then I realised it wasn’t a dog but a bear being walked on a chain and with no muzzle! At another point we rounded a bend to find a flock of sheep on the line, luckily the train didn’t travel very fast at the best of times and the shepherd got them out of way in time. Once we passed through a thunderstorm which wouldn’t normally be a problem for a train but as there was a lack of windows and the roof was by no means water proof the carriage flooded, but this wasn’t a problem as the water soon poured out through the holes in the floor.

From Vlora we were heading down to the Ionian coast. We had been told about a place by the backpackers in Tirana where you camp in gardens by the beach with all the equipment etc provided by the owners.  It was about a 5 km walk from Dhermi (the nearest bus stop) but it sounded really good so we decided to go for it. After getting off the bus we set off with our big packs in the hot sun and got there about an hour later only to find that the place wasn’t open yet and was nothing more than an overgrown garden with a couple of shacks. Neither of us were thrilled about having to walk back to Dhermi (especially Dusk who was already suffering from a cold) so we decided to hitch. After a couple of cars had gone by we got picked up by an older couple doing a food delivery run in their van. We piled in the back in amongst crates of tomatoes, milk cartons, loaves of bread and various other food items that were handed out as they made their deliveries along the road. It wasn’t very comfortable but pretty unique and we weren’t complaining.

We managed to find a basic but good hotel right on the beach in Dhermi and the hotel manager even spoke perfect English from his time working with Americans in Afganistan.  Dhermi is still a fairly small village but has become popular with Albania’s rich so is changing very quickly. There were only a few other tourists and holiday makers around while we were there but judging by the number of beach bars and beach chairs being set up for the summer season it can obviously get rather busy.  We spent a couple of relaxing days just sitting around and swimming. The beach has perfectly rounded white pebbles and a nice clear water  but just beyond the beach are the ever present concrete bunkers (generally filled with rubbish) and the shell of the old communist leaders resort which is now just a big eyesore.

Travelling anywhere in Albania is never really straight forward and generally involves a couple of furgon (minivan) rides, a bus and a taxi transfer for even relatively short distances. However the great thing about travelling in Albania is that if you want to get anywhere you only have to tell someone (eg the hotel manager but sometimes even (as we did) just someone having a coffee in cafe) your desired destination then he will take you a taxi and tell the taxi driver who will take you to the furgon and tell the furgon driver who will then take you to the bus and tell the bus driver and so on till you reach your destination all without further input from you. Simple!

Berat was our next destination. It is a UNESCO world heritage town. The old part of the town is made up of narrow streets and white plaster buildings rising up a hillside so it almost looks like one large building with many windows. On top of the hill sits the remains of an old castle and people still live within the confines of the walls. The backpackers we stayed at ran a day tour from Berat to the surrounding area. It was a pretty interesting day out. We started by visiting an ancient monastery which was virtually the only religious building not damaged or destroyed in communist times as it was the place where Skanderberg (Albania’s national hero – note Skanderberg square referred to earlier) was married.  Next stop was one of the 700,000 concrete bunkers dotting the Albanian landscape but this one was Mums bunker. Mum turned out to be a crazy old lady who along with her husband spent most of her time sitting in the bunker tending to a few chickens and a cow. She was pretty happy to see us but that may have had something to do with the raki (grape liquor) that the tour guides gave her. At one point her husband accidentally split some raki and received a fair old roasting from her for it. She tried to get the boys to cut her field using a blunt old sickle but got frustrated by our poor technique and decided to teach us how to dance Albanian style instead. We then moved on from the bunker to an ancient roman city that was one of the most important of the time till an earthquake diverted the river and cut the city off from sea access.

After a very sandy lunch by the beach we headed inland to check out more bunkers. Along with thousands of bunkers Albania has plenty of other unused military installations. Most of the hillsides around this area are littered with old tunnels, gun placements and tank shelters. We headed off to explore some of these but as it was a new tour the guides were exploring just as much as us. We basically just drove around on the lookout for promising looking concrete structures and when found went in exploring them. We found one very extensive system with hundreds of metres of tunnels running right through an entire hill. It was good fun wandering around seeing what we came to and at one point we came out into a room occupied by an old Albanian man who started yelling at us so we made a hasty retreat. Final stop was a winery which we weren’t really expecting much from as Albania is not exactly known for its wine but it turned out to be a really nice place, have some half decent wine and a cute little kitten so probably the highlight of the trip for the girls.

It was time to leave Albania and head to Macedonia. Again it wasn’t a straight forward trip. The bus we thought we could catch no longer ran so we had to wait around for a later bus and just hope that would get us to the next point in time to catch a furgon to the border. When the bus did turn up it was a beat up old minivan that travelled about 40 km/h and stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off people. It was possibly one of the worst bus trips we have ever had. It took over 3 hours to travel less than 100 km, was hot and stuffy, crammed full of people (at one point there were 17 people plus luggage squeezed into the 12 seater bus) and when the radio worked it played bad Albanian folk music. We were actually pretty happy to leave Albania after that trip.

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