“I think we’re being kidnapped.”
“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.
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.
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!