To set the scene, my book chronicles my travels around Eastern Europe with my regular travel buddy called Hamish. This chapter sees us in a mysterious land………
Albania had always been a mystical place to us, Europe’s outcast being neither east nor west.
During our teenage years we used to try and get information about the place, but in those Internet free days this was hard to come by.
We knew that beards were banned, we knew it was Communist, we knew of the former royal ruler, the wonderfully named King Zog, we knew the country loved British comic legend Norman Wisdom, but very little else.
In those days there were no flights in from the west and no international train connections, although it might have been possible to sail there from Greece or Italy as long as none of the crew had more than a whisker of facial hair. Captain Birdseye would have been a real no no!
It was not part of the inter-rail network for obvious reasons, so an enigma it was to remain in every way to our curious minds.
We were determined to get there one day though and finally managed it in 2007.
By that time Enver Hoxha, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for forty-one years had died. Hoxha had purposely kept Albania isolated for much of his autocratic reign, in a very similar way to the modern day leaders of equally enigmatic North Korea.
Initially his regime was allied to the USSR, but fell out with the Kremlin and so sought friendly relations with China. Once these ties were also cut, Albania went it alone, staying self-sufficient and largely undeveloped.
Albania shot to European infamy once more in the late ‘90s when its national savings scheme collapsed leaving millions of its citizens flat broke. This led to riots, demonstrations and eventually reform.
The subsequent comparative stability persuaded British Airways to introduce a direct flight to Tirana in 2006, so the dream was on.
Arriving at Tirana Airport was like a date with destiny. Alighting the plane I looked up to see the Tirana sign illuminated in large red letters above the arrival hall. My heart jumped for joy, we were finally actually here.
We arrived in our small hotel just off the main square and immediately headed off in search of dark beer (DB).
We had no local beans and neither of us had the foresight to check the exchange rate so we had absolutely no idea how many Albanian Lek there were to the Pound.
Hamish took the plunge at the ATM, not sure whether he had withdrawn £3 or £300.*
On the basis that the beers came to 50% of what he had drawn, we sincerely hoped that it was a lot closer to the former number.
The DB was called Korça, and what a splendid brew it was too. So much so, that we invested the rest of the beans on a second.
*It transpired that Hamish had drawn the equivalent of £2.73 and been charged £3.80 for the privilege. We figured that to be a fair price for four Korças!
Big Cat Diary
Next morning we took breakfast in the sunny garden courtyard of the hotel. They had a menagerie of birds in cages and bizarrely two chipmunks. Their pen was far too small we thought as we munched our bread and jam.
“We are in Albania!” I exclaimed, still not quite believing we had made it to this land of mystique. “We bloody well are!” came Hamish’s enthusiastic response.
We were to be in Tirana for four nights before heading for Shkodra in the North of the country and from there into Montenegro. We hatched our plans.
Today we would discover the capital; tomorrow would feature a train trip to the coastal city of Durres. Day three would see us off down South to Butrint and we would also fit in Skanderbeg’s Castle somewhere along the way.
Plans subsequently got juggled somewhat and we ended up staying an extra night for a special reason that will be revealed – such is the flexibility of independent travel.
It was t-shirt weather and I proudly wore my Norman Wisdom number, freshly procured for the trip. I thought it might be a handy icebreaker.
Skanderbeg Square was the central hub of Tirana, surrounded by a wide traffic strewn roundabout and home to the central mosque, clock tower, national museum, the opera house and a domineering statue of Albanian hero Skanderbeg on horseback.
It was also the site of several government buildings, Tirana’s only ‘international’ business hotel and some water free fountains, probably remaining dry as they would just have been used as a bathroom facility.
The square was a real social hub. Old men played chess or just hung out, children rode toy vehicles that you could hire on site and the youth crowd shared topical information. Nobody seemed to notice my t-shirt though.
Perhaps I should have worn a George W Bush one (also an Albanian hero for his support for Albanian majority Kosovo in their efforts to gain independence from Serbia). In retrospect there was no way I could bring myself to sport Dubya on my chest. (Norman was later recognised twice – once as Benny Hill and once as Jim Carey!).
Just as we contemplated what to do with our day, we simultaneously clocked a spectacle that had us chuckling merrily and still raises a smile whenever mentioned to this day.
An old and battered silver estate car pulled up and parked right in front of us. A grey-haired man in a scruffy blue jacket got out and went to his boot from which he pulled a huge replica stuffed toy tiger, complete with fixed menacing growl.
Balancing the replica feline on his shoulders, he then took his Polaroid from the front seat and promptly marched to his position in the heart of the square.
For a few beans you could have your photo taken with the big cat look alike. Amazingly many people did. We are still kicking ourselves that we did not.
We speculated how the guy had been left a few quid in his parent’s will and had pondered for days about how he could invest the money to secure his future.
Wisely he hadn’t gone for one of the doomed ponzi saving schemes and had instead ploughed his good fortune into an instant camera and a less than lifelike toy.
It seemed to be working for him, so you had to admire his acumen!
To be honest, the square was pretty much it for Tirana sightseeing. Once we had toured the mosque, there was not a lot else to do but stroll and watch the locals go about their daily lives. We were not really there to see heritage anyway – just being there was enough for us.
As we crossed Skanderbeg Square, I was the victim of a hit and run!
A kid of about four was going like the clappers in his pedal car, but was not exactly in control of the steering. The youngster rode straight over my foot, painfully clipping my ankle at the same time.
As the brat rode off without a care in the world, I yelped half in surprise and half in pain.
The audibility of my cry seemed to stop the square dead. The tiger man put down his giant toy, pedalling kids braked (apart from my ignorant assailant that is), old men silenced their conversations & delayed their next chess move, mums quit gossiping and the small handful of tourists let their cameras rest.
Everybody seemed to be staring at the foreign nutter now crouched down nursing his battered foot.
Hamish went from initial (apparent) concern to laughter in what seemed a nano second, whilst I checked that no bones were broken. Luckily they were not, but below my sock I could see that my ankle was already turning red.
The crowd continued to gawp as I limped across to an empty bench to gingerly remove my shoe and sock. No serious damage except to my ego. Why was I the one that was embarrassed, the hapless victim?
I glowered towards the little shit that had caused my pain and ignominy. He was now badgering his forlorn looking mother for some sweets or an ice cream. The post Hoxha generation!
The square had returned to its usual busy self as I applied half a tube of antiseptic cream to my injury.
It was high time for a DB to get over my ordeal. I did consider an accidental arm to the ear of the careless driver as I limped past, but wisely figured that this may end in tears for us both, so avoided the temptation.
If you enjoyed these few paragraphs, you can download the 500 page colour e-book or purchase a paperback copy from Amazon. For UK the link is here – ON THE BEATEN TRACK