Street musicians in Elbasan,
Last bus to
Two weeks amid the
post-communist shambles and spectacular scenery of Albania
Its true, in a way, what
they say about Albania - that its a mad, dangerous place - though not for
the reasons travel books usually harp on about.
The danger lurking around street corners in Albania is not a desperate,
moustachioed bandit, but something rather more pedestrian: Someone has
nicked all the manhole covers. Every last one of them.
And in the towns where thieves have been especially bold and made off with
the lampposts as well, it takes a brave - or reckless - traveller to venture
out after dark.
The gaping manholes and a
few discomforts aside, however, Albania is a land of unexpected pleasures.
And in an ever more homogeneous McWorld, Albania remains uniquely ... well,
That Bible of the independent traveller, Lonely Planet, makes Albania more
irresistible still by complementing its list of highlights (the usual
museums and Roman ruins) with a summary of the countrys "lowlights":
abandoned factories that litter the countryside. Abysmal roads and chaotic
driving conditions. The one million Kalashnikov rifles that have been taken
by one in four residents of Albania. Former state-run hotels. The Steel of
the Party factory in Elbasan..."
Needless to say, that
clinched it. I had to take a holiday in Albania, or as the locals more
evocatively call it, Shqipėria - The Land of the Eagle.
The border town of Kukės
made world headlines in 1999 when it was the first stop for thousands of
refugees fleeing Kosovo. Usually a town of 25,000 people, for a few months
it was home to as many as 350,000.
"People were everywhere," said local writer Petrit Palushi.
"Every house was full, and they were sleeping three to a table in the
But when I stumbled off
the bus, apart from the odd aid convoy rumbling through, Kukės was
slumbering again. Life might be slow in Kukės, but the location - sandwiched
between the 70 square kilometre Light of the Party hydroelectric reservoir
and the 2000-metre-high Mt Gjalica - is spectacular.
One of the novelties of
travelling in Kukės, or almost anywhere in Albania, is the lack of street
names or numbers. Nor do the Albanians have much use for the signs that
usually identify banks, shops, hotels, railway stations and the like.
Finding things can be interesting.
Fortunately, I had a guidebook to direct me to Kukės cheapest hotel:
three-storey building on the nameless main street in the centre of town,
opposite a place with the large yellow sign, Fruta Perime."
Sure enough, a few
hundred metres down the nameless main street from an unnamed square that
serves as the bus station, and opposite a yellow sign advertising fruit and
vegetables, stood an unmarked and fairly nondescript building, the Hotel
The receptionist was terse. "$US35 for one night," she said.
"Er... will you take ten?" I asked timidly.
"Po," she said, shaking her head, which means yes in Albania. I should have
gone for five.
By the next morning, I was moved to complain about the lack from the hotels
taps to complain.
"Ujė," I whined at the receptionist, "water".
The receptionist said something that may have translated as "bloody
tourist", and flicked a switch on the wall behind her. A pump spluttered
into life and water gurgled noisily through the pipes.
"Ujė," she said.
Another thing about
Albania is the intense curiosity and hospitality of its people. They just
kept giving me stuff. In my first two days in Kukės, I kept a list of the
things they gave me:
One pack of NATO-brand chewing gum (with a free sticker showing a Serb
atrocity in Kosovo, number 14 of a set).
Five cups of coffee, as thick and dark as crude oil.
A bicycle for an afternoon.
A book, signed by the author and entitled Kukėsi nė 79 ditė, which,
alas, I cannot read.
There was also a large amount of the local cognac on my second evening,
which, oddly enough, is when I lost count.
The capital, Tirana, is a
scenic but terrifying 200km or seven hours away over the mountains. Like
most bus journeys in Albania, it begins ominously with the driver handing
out plastic sickie bags.
The drivers have also devised a strategy for helping passengers forget their
nausea. This typically involves taking a hairpin bend above a precipice on
an unsealed road half blocked by a rusting truck chassis, just as a dozen
overloaded cars are driving excitedly to a village wedding from the other
Better to forget the road too, and concentrate on the scenery - mountains
like rows of sharks teeth; broad valleys and braided, shingle-bedded
rivers; olive groves clinging to hills of bare orange earth; and all of it
sprinkled liberally with the wreckage of too many five year industrial
Little wonder that some aid workers, en route to Kosovo, assume the Yugoslav
army must have overrun Albania as well.
Tirana itself is a
surprisingly pleasant and normal place. Several times a day, passers-by
stopped me to point out that the 11-storey Tirana International Hotel is the
tallest building in the country.
It also has its own electricity substation occupying a corner of Skėnderbeg
Square, to spare its visiting dignitaries and missionaries the discomforts
of everyday Albanian life.
In Tirana, everyone who owns an upturned cardboard box is a stallholder.
Marlboros, bananas, sanitary pads and the other trappings of Western
prosperity are popular, but the stalls selling photocopied US green card
lottery forms pull the biggest crowds. The more professional stalls throw in
envelopes and postage and fill in the form for you, selling hope at 100 lekė
($2) a time.
But the citys real business takes place on a dusty square in front of the
central post office, where a hundred or so men mill about in Italian suits,
armed with calculators and inch-thick wads of banknotes. There are no
queues, no fees, and they are always open. Banks everywhere could learn from
Tiranas black market.
One morning they quoted me a mere 128 lekė to the US dollar, four lekė less
than the day before. A money changer was explaining how the dollar had
fallen overnight when his cell phone bleeped urgently. He listened for a
moment and called out something that sparked a flurry of calculating among
"The dollar has slipped another half a point in New York," he explained.
frightening bus ride away, boasts as its main distinguishing feature a
mammoth Chinese-built steel mill.
Twenty-year-old Albert Bojaxhui works in the citys only hotel.
Inexplicably, his English is flawless and tinged with a British Midlands
accent. He is also a fully paid up member of the Manchester United fan club.
Albert, like every other
young man in Albania, wants to get out, but the only country that will grant
him a visa is Macedonia.
He has savings stashed away somewhere, but wont start up a business, "in
case people go crazy again like in 1997 and destroy everything."
The events of 1997 also
offer a clue as to disappearance of the manhole covers. In 1991 Albania
lurched to a market economy from a society that had been closed to the
outside world for 40 years and in which even owning a private car was
illegal. The transformation was enormous, and it's hardly surprising that
things did not go smoothly.
Many Albanians, naļve about the ways of capitalism, sank their life savings
into pyramid schemes. When those collapsed in 1996-97, the government copped
the blame. The country plunged into chaos and near civil war, soldiers and
police deserted, a million guns were looted from state armouries and much of
the countrys infrastructure was destroyed.
"No one here is against
democracy and the changes since 1991," said Albert, "but the changes came
too fast. We could not adapt."
And in the meantime, until he gets a visa to anywhere, Albert waits.
Albert is not alone.
Squatting on their heels in a peculiarly Albanian way, along every roadside
and at every street corner, young Albanian men endlessly chew sunflower
seeds and wait for things to get better.
Perched on a hilltop
above the port city of Durrės, with its Roman amphitheatre and pretty
seaside promenade, is the former palace of King Zog I.
Today, ringed by sandbags and bristling with antennae, it is an Italian
military base. Ostensibly the Italians are in town to protect aid shipments,
but everyone knows the real reason: To stop young men seeking their fortunes
abroad by highjacking the first passing ship to Italy, just 100km across the
In the cafés the old men mutter that nowadays the country is a puppet of the
Italians. Or the Greeks, the Americans, the Serbs or the IMF, depending on
who you talk to.
But there was a time, as the old men will tell you, when the ancient
Illyrians - ancestors of todays Albanians - ruled half the Balkans. When
the Italians were still running about naked in the woods.
Two weeks of
extraordinary hospitality, scenery and squalor later, and with a head full
of new friends and half fogged by konjak, my holiday was over.
I hitched a ride out to the Greek border with Gunther, a German aid worker
driving one of the Balkans ubiquitous white UN Landrovers.
At an insanely potholed
blind corner, two young men in leather jackets tore past helmetless on a
"Yeeeeha!" they hollered as they tore past. Gunther stuck his head out the
window and bellowed back. Laughing, he shouted to me above the racket: "They
are policemen. Albania is a crazy country."
He meant it, of course,
in the best possible way. And he was right.
Published in The New Zealand Listener, February 2002.
Where in the world?
Albania is a country of
just over three million people across the Adriatic Sea from Italy,
bordering Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece.
It packs a lot of rugged scenery into a small area - at 28,000
square kilometres it's just a tenth the size of New Zealand.
Until 1990 it was all but closed to outsiders, aligned with China
and as paranoid of the Soviet Bloc as it was of the West. The
countryside is still littered with millions of mushroom-shaped
concrete bunkers, built in the 1960s amid fear of an invasion from
Albania was also one of the last countries in Eastern Europe to
dismantle its one-party system after the wave of revolutions that
swept Europe in 1989.
Since then it hasn't exactly had a smooth path to democracy. In
1996-97 the collapse of a popular pyramid investment scheme saw most
Albanians lose their life savings and the county plunge into
Some progress has been made, however, in rebuilding the country. It
is, for example, no longer Europe's poorest country (that dubious
honour now belongs to Moldova).
Until the 1990s it was the world's only officially atheist state;
now churches and mosques are springing up in a country which is part
Catholic, part Eastern Orthodox and part Muslim.
This story was written after an extraordinary trip through Albania in 1999,
only months after the war in next-door Kosovo and
a few weeks after Nato forces and refugees had packed up and gone home.
abandoned factories litter the countryside" - Lonely Planet's guide
Bustling Kukės, with
2000-metre-high Mt Gjalica in the distance
Writer Petrit Palushi, left,
Mosaic on Tirana's
A break on the
journey across the mountains to Tirana
Albert Bojaxhui and sister Genta
Jaw-dropping scenery in southern Albania