Albania

Beethoven the Albanian builder

Four and a half months of travel and I think I’ve seen the lot when it comes to accommodation. From rooms in exquisite settings to others where $10 a night was about $5 over the odds. But, hey, it’s all part of this NONY backpacking idea. Rough with the smooth and all that.
However, my arrival at the apartment in the Albanian coastal town of Vlore topped the lot. My host generously picked me up and drove me to the digs. The main picture above is the sight that greeted me. My Albanian language skills didn’t include “where are the walls, the roof, the rooms, the……” You get the drift.
Fortunately one level of apartments had been completed. The owner explained that his family had run out of money so the rest of the building was a shell. I sympathised.

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Untouched in five years

Then I noticed the building next door. A hotel was under construction. Except, I’m informed, nothing had happened for five years. The owner had run out of money without even one level completed. There was a theme developing here.
Vlore is unfortunately a bit of a concrete jungle. Lots of new apartment blocks. Many finished but short on residents, dozens incomplete. The same goes for private houses. Shell after shell after shell. It’s like Beethoven had given up music, was working on a thousand different building projects then……..poof. Dead. Gone. Leaving behind an Unfinished Sea City.

The reason for Vlore’s mess? After decades of dictatorship the country had slowly opened up. Then the people really got the taste for capitalism. Investment opportunities sprang up offering astronomical returns. Anything from 19% a year to 100% PER MONTH. You and I know these ‘opportunities’ as pyramid schemes. Their inevitable collapse cost people their life savings and led to widespread civil unrest.
Ten years on the country had recovered pretty well. Banks were privatised, the economy grew rapidly and money from Albanian émigré poured in.

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Beautiful views but abandoned

In Vlore the newly confident people borrowed money to invest in buildings they thought would soon be full of tourists. Others began building dream homes as bad times turned to good. Unfortunately the GFC hit and the shrinking world economy meant money dried up.

I wandered around the foothills of Vlore. There were some lovely homes with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. Sadly there were also more shells in the hills than on the beach.

Tirana, the capital, has a different building issue. It has a worldwide reputation for being utterly drab and grey. The city was undeniably full of ugly, decaying, communist era apartment blocks.
That was until 2000 when along came the new mayor Edi Rama, a former artist. He launched a programme to subsidise paint so buildings could be given a cheap facelift. There were no limits on design but monotony was definitely off the agenda. Many apartment blocks are now riots of vibrant colours in amazing styles. The result is mind-blowing.
Admittedly some of the work is a little frenzied but compared to the previous drab, grey, it is a cheap way of doing up the place. Critics point out that the decay is still there and that it has simply been painted over. But there’s no denying the amazing impact. Many areas are a frenzy of vivid colours and designs.

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Edi now has a bigger stage. A few months ago he was elected Albania’s prime minister. Unfortunately, he’s just discovered a huge hole in the country’s finances. The outgoing government was corrupt and closely tied in with the mafia. According to documents published by Wikileaks, the US saw them as “Law breakers turned law makers.” The artist formerly known as the Mayor of Tirana won’t be able to just paint over the cracks this time.

A collage by Tal Bright, Flickr

A collage by Tal Bright, Flickr

Categories: Albania, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Hitchhiking in gangster land

“I think we’re being kidnapped.”
“What?”
“They’ve locked the doors, closed our windows and they did just pick us up off the street.”
This is not an ideal start to the morning.
My travelling companion for the day is Gloria, a well-travelled, thirty something, spunky American. This morning, however, she is a little spooked.
It was probably my fault. I’d filled her in on Albania’s reputation for rampant crime and gangsterism. I said it was a crazy stereotype and invited her to join me in a scheme to prove this is a safe tourist destination. The plan was to hitchhike back to Shkodra after a ferry ride along Lake Koman.
We’d be starting from a remote area. If all went well it would take about four hours. If it didn’t go to plan…….who knew, especially if the damn stereotype turned out to be true.

I convince Gloria we’re not being snatched. Our would-be kidnappers politely drive us 90 minutes along rough roads to our destination at the foothills of the Albanian Alps.
Lake Koman was created in the 1980s when the Drini Valley was dammed. It stretches for 30 kilometres from Fierze in the north-east to Vau i Dejes, in the south.
Almost anywhere else in Europe and the area would be crowded with tourists. This being Albania there are only 16 of us on the small boat and probably only a handful more visitors in the whole country.
The area is untouched, pristine. Every so often a sparse track leads into the trees to an isolated home. Otherwise this is wilderness.
The landscape at first is pretty. Soon it is almost overpowering. Hills give way to sheer, limestone cliffs. They tower over our small vessel and crowd in on us. At times it looks like we are heading towards solid, impenetrable walls of rock. The gorges are tight and magnificent.
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It is a magical two and a half hour ride to Fierze. Normally the ferry won’t return until the next morning but today only a hardy Dutch family plan to overnight. A one hour lunch stop is announced. As we eat I keep an eye on the road I’d planned to thumb a ride along. Only two vehicles head down there in 45 minutes. Common sense gets the better of me and we hastily ditch the hitch idea and scramble back to the ferry.
The appeal is not quite the same on the return journey as backsides get a little sore. At the other end we have to wait 45 minutes for the ‘taxi’ home. It turns out to be a ride in an old UTE. Five of us are in the cabin and three locals are perched on the back. The journey is endless. We stop for every conceivable reason, including picking up bits of scrap metal lying along the road.
Hitchhiking would have been easier and I’m sorry to have missed out, if only for the reason that I’d already come up with the headline for this blog.
However, fate came to my aid a week later.
I had travelled on to the Albanian capital Tirana and then to Berat. It’s known as the town of a thousand windows, full of preserved, classical, Ottoman architecture.

Berat

Berat

As I sat drinking coffee one afternoon I spotted Gloria. She was on a day trip from Tirana, was running out of time and hadn’t yet made it to Berat’s star attraction. Kala is a huge castle complex perched on the top of a steep hill. Very impressive.
We raced around the site but the walk back down was treacherous. The cobblestones were worn and slippery. Both of us were wearing thongs (flip flops if you are in the northern hemisphere). And then I heard it. An old Mercedes was inching slowly down the hill. I stuck out my thumb and the slightly startled elderly driver stopped and motioned us to get in.
Finally, I was hitchhiking in gangster land. It’s not quite what I had in mind when I wrote the headline, especially as 400 metres later we reached the bottom of the hill and our ride was over. But I can now tell you 100% of my hitchhikes in Albania were crime free and perfectly safe. It all goes to prove you shouldn’t go listening to stereotypes……nor statistics!

Categories: Albania, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

On the buses – Albania style

The 1.30pm bus to Albania leaves right on time…….at 1.15pm.
Confused? It gets worse.
A week later I am stranded when the daily bus from Vlore to Sarande never leaves at all.
The same day I stumble across a second bus which nobody knows exists, leaves from a bus stop that isn’t really there and is only a minute or two behind schedule……not that there is one.
Welcome to life on the buses Albania style.

For forty one years the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha had total control of his country and absolutely no control of his senses. He turned Albania into a nightmare state, isolated, fearful and paranoid.
It’s currently the third poorest country in Europe. It was routinely at the bottom until the break up of the Soviet Union created pauper states. Moldova now has the “honour”.
Albania’s buses epitomise the country’s mess. There are no published timetables, no bus stations, many of the buses or minibuses, known as furgons, are ancient and the roads are regularly rough as all hell.
On the plus side they are dirt cheap, kind of work when you understand the “system” and travel through some mesmerizing scenery, admittedly sometimes at a pace slightly slower than an asthmatic donkey with a limp.

I’d used buses in Bosnia and Montenegro and both worked fine. But the Albanian bus taking me into the country began the slide into chaos. At the Montenegro terminal there was a printed timetable and even a TV screen, both confirmed the bus was scheduled for 1.30.
However, my ticket stated 1.15. I checked with an inspector. He looked and he shrugged.
The bus did actually pull out at about 1.15. We reversed ten metres until a passenger screamed that the luggage door was wide open.

It looks like a spider's  web but it is actually the front windscreen

It looks like a spider’s web but it is actually the front windscreen

We started again but after two revolutions of the wheels there’s a yelp. Somebody was on the wrong bus.
Third time lucky? Sadly not. Before the driver can start moving again another passenger asks to get off to go to the toilet. We inch back to where we started.
As Mr Bladder returns four flushed Scandinavian backpackers scramble on board cursing and mumbling something about a 1.30 scheduled departure time. We give sympathetic shrugs.
Finally at 1.27 we pull out, 12 minutes late or three minutes early. I really haven’t got a clue which.

The bus is ancient. Steam powered, I think. Its windscreen is a spiderweb of cracks.
As it chugs through the hillsides the ravines to either side increase in severity. Two weeks earlier 18 tourists were killed nearby when their bus careered off the road and crashed 40 metres down a hill. The government pledged road safety as a national priority. Somebody forgot to tell our driver.

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Eyes left, phone in hand, the driver hasn’t a care in the world

Twenty minutes into the journey his mobile rings.
“Please don’t,” I say to myself.
“Let it ring, ignore it. Pleaseeee.”
My prayers go unanswered, the phone doesn’t. He picks up and drives with one hand on the wheel. For gear changes he has the phone in his left hand, the gear stick in the right and he balances his left elbow on the wheel to steer. This is Albania’s version of hands free.
On severe bends his safety training finally kicks in. He jams the mobile between his hunched up shoulder and his ear freeing the left hand to guide us.

Albania’s buses and furgons park on various streets in the towns and cities. The locals mostly know where they are. Tourists don’t.
They have approximate departure times but only leave when full or overflowing. This can be an hour or two behind “schedule”.

My most spectacular furgon trip was through the Llogara Pass. The old minibus wheezed and spluttered up over 1000 spectacular metres. From the top the Albanian Riviera looked poetic, all dreamy blue sea at the foot of a vertical mountain.
However, the poetry died with the descent. The narrow road down twists and clings to the mountain and constantly doubles back on itself. Safety barriers are almost entirely absent. Last year 13 people were killed and two dozen were injured when their bus crashed down a cliff further along this road. The region has more than its fair share of these accidents. It’s not difficult to see why.
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Our driver fights like a bull rider as the battered old furgon bucks and kicks underneath him. The brakes go into overdrive. There is squealing and what sounds like air brakes but it may actually have been bowel movements from the increasingly nervous passengers.

I begin silently praying to the gods of every mainstream religion.
A few turns take us close to the precipice and I broaden my prayers to include every nutcase, lunatic fringe religion on the planet, just in case they know something I don’t
We finally make it safely down and stop for a break and a clean up.
I begin to wonder if my prayers were a factor in our safe arrival. If so which religion or cult did the trick? I hope it’s not the bizarre “Prince Philip Movement”, whose members seriously believe the queen’s husband is a divine being.
I quickly dismiss the idea. I suspect there’s more chance of an Albanian bus leaving on time than Phil the Greek being a god.

**Main picture courtesy of Bairo

Categories: Albania, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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