Albania is the sort of place that gives shitholes a bad name but it is at least a little bit interesting.
I was staying in Ulcinje on part of my Easter European not-so-grand tour. Ulcinje is just inside Montenegro. I stayed in an unremarkable one star hotel on the edge of this small town. I strolled into the town centre and had a gawp at the fishing harbour. It was pleasant enough but I cannot dub it pictureseque which one often can with harbours. The main street was inordinately wide for such a modest town and a slope rose up abruptly on either side. Buildings only a couple of storeys high lined it.
I saw a roadside memorial in English and Albanian. I cannot read Albanian but I can recognise it. Montenegrin is practically the same language as Serb to the point that people ask if Montenegrins are a different ethnic or cultural group at all – are they not just a type of Serb? What was a town in Montenegro sporting a sign in Albanian and not in the local language. Sadly there is bitter blood between many Serbians and many Albanians. The English text spoke of the mass killings of Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 and the fact that many refugees had fled here. I later looked it up. This little town belonged to Albania but was wrested from it decades before. Nonetheless the populations was mostly Albanian.
I found it deeply frustrating that though they were part of Serbia at the time they would not accept Serb dinars. The fact that the currency is called dinars was a matter of puzzlement to me. Is dinar not a Middle Eastern word? Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries and many Serbs will tell you that they were treated horrendously under Ottoman rule. Why keep the word dinar for their currency? Surely they should cast off this antique relic of foreign oppression and substitute for it a Slavonic word like rouble or call their currency crown or dollar or pound or anything else. In this town they only took Euros.
I dined in a tastelessly furnished lowish class restaurant in the middle of town. The sun was beginning to set and the tidy waiter came out to me. As he was pouring my water I studied him. He was tall and slim – he wore a wine coloured waistcoat to match his dicky bow – he had a white shirt and black trousers. There was a reddish hue to his skin and his mid brown hair had a side parting. He had small intense, intelligent eyes. I asked him why they would not take Serb dinars. He spoke astonishing good English with a mild accent. He told me that they had had great trouble with hyper inflation and before they Euro they had used the deutschmark. A few years after I left Montenegro broke away from Serbia.
It is hackneyed to say it was a sleepy town but it was. There was a lot of empty land about and it was oddly pale and dun in hue almost desert-like. The houses were dull colours and higgledy piggledy. It was not at all your exquisite Adriatic seaside spot. It could have been but this luckless little town had not made much of the hand dealt it.
Back in my hosteliery I slept well in my room. I arose not long after the sun set out on her diurnal round. I chatted to the rambunctious receptionist who had arranged my pickup by a minibus going to Albania.
After having scoffed my comestibles I bade the receptionist a hearty farewell and stood outside the hotel. I stood on pebbles by the dusty road. Little hillocks tapered away dotted with tufts of drooping off-green bushes. Beside me stood a boy of about my own age. His dark blue jeans and matching denim jacket topped off a grey T shirt. His brown hair was geled back. He must have thought himself very handsome. He had a touch of the Tartar tar brush. He spoke to me in German – I do not recall his opening gambit. He was an Albanian who had been working in Switzerland. We two separated brethren got into an ecumenical dialogue which is quite an undertaking minutes after the morning repast. I told him I spoke French better than German (for some reason English never arose). ”Tu ne crois pas en dieu?” / ”Non” I confirmed my earlier viewpoint.
”Mais qui a fait tout ca? Les collines, les champs, le ciel et la mer?”
”Je ne c’est pas mais ca ne preuver pas qu’il y a un dieu.”
I listened a while longer to his Muslim sermon. Like I say, these Albanians are at least not boring.
Minutes later a white minibus that had patently taken a pounding down the years came to a screeching halt. I would swear he wore a cream coloured thobe. He had a beard like Osama – that bit I am not misremembering. The curly hairs of his beards were acquiring the grey patina of a sage. Was one eye clearly sightless or is my imagination running away with me? (Note to self: Put it in for effect). The chubby faced driver nodded in salutation. We slung our bags in the back and climbed aboard the half full minibus.
Away we roared. The bockety road curved this way and that over the raggedy countryside. I saw a few little lakes and untidy hills rumpling the landscape. The minibus bounced along at rather too high a speed for safety’s sake. It was an exciting journey.
20 minutes later we pulled up at a grim one roomed building that served as the border post. I was stamped out of Montenegro. The Albanian border guard wore his shabby black uniform with evident pride. This swarthy little chap saw my Irish passport and went down a list on a piece of paper that was wrinkled from usage. There it was printed the entry fee for Irish citizens. I cannot remember how many. I did not have the money, maybe it was the currency. I refused flat out. Looking back in it seems exceedingly dim of me.
The kindly Osama who was our driver was surprised that I professed to be penniless, ”Wie kanst du essen in Albania?” he did an eating gesture with his right hand, mimicking flicking a ball of rice into his hairy chops.
”Ich kann geld in Bankomat finden.” German was obviously his foreign language unless of course he thought that Ireland was a German-speaking country. This might be the case – not that many people in western Europe would be sure that the language of Albania is Albanian. Honest Osama offered to pay for me and I said I would pay him back when we reached Shkoder. I recall saying something about the exchange rate being 5 to 1 – as in 5 leke to 1 Euro. Leke is the currency of Albania but you probably knew that.
The needfuls being completed we all piled back into that pummeled old white minibus and the jalopy drove off. The countryside was as scrappy as the country itself. I notice a largish lake and an ancient tower in a very poor state of repair. I had spotted on the map a lake near this town of Shkodra. I thought back to about 1990 when Communism came to an end in Albania. I remember seeing an orphanage in Shkodra on the news and it was as horrid as can be.
About 20 minutes later we entered this unprepossessing city of mid grey ferro concrete towers. The fact that they chose to build everything in block shapes said it all about the country. The Communists had demanded uniformity and decried individuality. The streets were tatty and often unpaved. The country was liberal only in its scattering of litter. A few shops displayed bargain basement wares behind stained windows. Aptly it was raining when we pulled into Shkodra. It was like a cloudy Purgatory.
Osama dropped us off at a street corner. I went to a cash point and withdrew some dosh. I paid him back and he said farewell in German.
There were furgons marauding the plashy streets. A furgon is a minibus. I had never heard the word before. Soon I was to discover that this word means the same in French, Romanian and Russian. It is originally French for wagon – as in horse drawn wagon, not a train wagon, that would be a wagon. Anyhow, these minibuses had seen better days as had this down in the mouth town. The Albaninians did not seems as glum as this sorrowful city. Albania suffers from a terrible image abroad – which is hugely flattering in comparison to the reality.
I hailed a furgon headed to Tirana. The men waved at me as if to indicate they could not stop for me at that moment. Then the did a U turn and came back for me and pulled up on the far side of the grimey road. They explained that the police would fine them if they had stopped on that side of the road. They were short men of a sunny disposition. They wore faded jumpers full of holes. I spoke to people in a mixture of German and Italian.
The furgon headed out of town – south to Tirana. I re-read my guide book again. I was astonished by Lonely Planet’s account of a ‘sworn virgin’. This is a woman – whose maidenhood is believed – who has no menfolk left in her family. She can become and honorary man. She will dress as a man and act as one. She will be accepted as a man in every sense except she will not be able to wed. She will fulfill the functions of a man since it is impossible for a family to function without a man. Seven years later in Azerbaijan I saw some women who seemed to be performing the same role but I never found out if this concept of an honorary man also exists in Azeri culture.
I slept fitfully and awoke regularly AS WE SHUNTEd down the pike to Tirana. The road was narrow and packed. This was the main road in the whole country. The land was flattish and not quite verdant. It rained sporadically.
At last we approached the grim outskirts of Tirana – or as they call it in Albanian ‘Tirane’. The city was never more than a handful of storeys high. The streets were almost clogged and this abundance of vehicles indicated that the country was not as poor as you might think. The cars were mostly in a parlous condition and very old though. I spoke to an Albanian in his fifties who boasted a distinguished grey beard and a receding hairline. We spoke in Italian. I told him where I wanted to go and showed him the hotel I had selected from the guidebook.
The furgon deposted us and this kindly gent offered to help me. I put my trust in him and he repaid it. We got in a taxi together and he spoke to the driver. I was eager to find out the price lest I be given a demand for an extorionate sum. The bearded chap who was assisting me said we would find out later. We twisted through some narrow streets lined with decaying and seeping buildings. It was only a five minute drive and the fare was well within a reasonable range.
I thanked both the driver and this oldish man who had taken me under his wing. I strode up the the hotel that looked more like a block of flats. A little middle aged man was the receptionist and quite possibly the manager. This chubby sort greeted me warmly in something approximating English. Soon I was signed in. He showed me to my room which was across the seedy street in another building! The room was capacious but not commodious. There was one tiny window too high up to admit much illumination. Soon I forked over the leke and took the chance to have a shower and lie down for a real sleep.
After a couple of hours I awoke as a new man. I headed out and into the city. I used the man in Lonely Planet to navigate the short distance from this uninspiring hotel to the main drag. This boulevard had a museum of sorts at one end of it. There was a grass verge in the middle of this boulevard. I did not doubt that this street was used for military parades at times – the sort of thing where tanks drive far too fast. That is what thrills Communists. I passed a high walled government complex on my left. Some black uniformed, bum fluffed youths stood around listlessly cradling AK 47s. There is always something amiss with organisations that dress all in black: the UVF, the SS, the Black Panthers, the All Blacks…
I saw a few buildings I could almost call handsome. I had a bit to eat. There was a small square where several men stood on the edge of the road with calculators on strings around their necks. They had bundles of banknotes. I took the opportunity t try to exhange my dinars. They were having none of it. They wanted dollars or Euros. That was it. I went into the national museum and I learnt about Ancient Illyria. I saw some smart hotels as I walked by.
There was a large concert hall sort of thing. It looked like a failed attempt at a space age building. I entered this large domed edifice. I had some question to ask. I asked a suave looking young man there. He could not comprehend English so I tried him in Italian and he was able to help.
I went to the Blloku. This was an area of a few streets that was the exclusive purview of the party elite in the Communist days. There was the house of Enver Hoxha. This waxwork of a tyrant was the man who held the country i subjugation for 40 years. In a pleasing irony his not very luxurious house is now the American Cultural Centre. He must be spinning in his mausoleum – which I did not visit in the end.
I got to the end of the main street. I turned a little bit off to the right. There was the main railway station in the whole land. It had only four platforms. I am a train geek so gawping at these gaves me a passing pleasure. These locomotives were wan. They were French and German ones that seemed to have passed their service lives.
I walked by on a street to the right of the main drag – to the right in relation to the direction I had originally walked which was north. I bought some shaving foam in a corner shop.
I got back to my hotel soon enough.
I headed out later to buy a ticket to Macedonia. This land held no allure. I headed out at midnight to the bus. I boarded. I had not checked out just left the key in the door of the room.
I soon fell into a conversation with an Albanian of about my age. I shall call him Freezy for the double reason that I do not recall his real name and I knew a Freezy at my college. In fact this boy on the bus was from Kosovo. He spoke excellent Englosh and was studying to be a dentist like his father. He apologised to me for the London Tube bombings which had not occurred long before. I assured him there was no need to do so. He said he was a Muslim but could not understand how people could commit such a vicious crime and say it was in the name of Islam. He had fulsome praise for Tony Blair – a man who by then was detested in his own country. Those of the Albanian ethnicity will never forget how he saved them from being massacred by Milosevic’s men. Freezy wanted to go to the United Kingdom but said the problem was it was difficult to get a visa. ”It’s not the money” he said and instantly rubbed his nose vigorously turning his face away. Lie. The poor boy was too ashamed to say that the UK was very expensive for him. We chatted most of the way. Bizarrely we started heading in the wrong direction – we went to the port city nearest Tirana. Then we turned east again and bypassed Tirana and headed for the frontier.
We crossed the border in Macedonia around midnight.
There are attractive towns in Albania apparently. I know a chum who has been to the coast. It is like Greece 40 years ago in both the good and bad senses. Unspoiled is another way of saying underdeveloped. I may yet return to Albania. It is seen as very unsavoury. Many people traffickers are Albanians but most Albanians are of course good people like in any other country. Sadly kelptocrats and thugs seem to get to the top in Albania.