Boris’s Garden

Currently in London, and moored almost at the bottom of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson’s garden in Islington. I am on my brother’s narrow boat, which allows us to sail around central London and stay for up to 2 weeks at a time, in some of the better postcodes the capital has to offer. So in a way you feel both connected to the capital but also, and this is the best bit, quite separate from all of the overheated expense and commuting necessary to live so centrally.

I always look forward to my times in London to catch up with old friends and also to enjoy various bursts of culture and entertainment, that are seldom available where I live. This summer has been no exception and I have done a number of galleries, exhibitions and also watched a couple of art-house films, which if they ever reach Turkey tend to be either in French with Turkish subtitles or worse still dubbed into Turkish.

boats

After a fairly unsettled spring and summer period in Turkey this year, it had actually began to cross my mind that it was getting close to the time, when I should perhaps consider spending more time in the UK. Living in Turkey is never straightforward and their knee jerk love of any excuse to complicate even the most simple process with unnecessary red-tape is legendary. Ataturk may have got rid of the Ottoman Empire but some of the mentality, systems, ideas and petty bureaucracy that was such a suffocating part of those years, still lives on in far too many corners of today’s Republic. There is also a sense that under the AK Party Turkey is experiencing a period of increasing Islamisation, which some commentators have described as creeping into far too many aspects of our life there, a process that has worried many people in recent years, mainly because no one knows how far this process will go. That said, I tend to live a quite simple but comfortable life there, so I can’t complain too much. Also, despite leaving my house for the hottest 7 weeks of the year, simply to escape the the chaos of the holiday season, it is easy to forget that for the other 45 weeks of the year, I live a quite happy and pretty much undisturbed, life with often my only conversation, being throw away comments to my cat.

baz

So while I miss London, and other cosmopolitan places, before too long I always seem to want to get back to my simple life in Turkey. I lived in London, on and off, for the best part of 20 years and in that time I have seen many changes, particularly after spending big chunks of time away, that most residents may barely notice. But if I had to pick just one change compared to last year; it would undoubtedly be the fact that on 2 separate occasions, just this week, in different places, I have heard people discussing the rising value of their property, which was a fashion that I had hoped had died out back in the early 90′s. But no, London, or at least Central London is apparently going through a mini property boom, all fired up by foreign buyers eager to get a foothold in the capital. However, before you all book flights to get in on the act, I should also warn you that there is also a tandem belief, that the bubble is just about to burst. This mainly because the vast majority of these buyers are Russians, who are about to become awash with Government restrictions, regulations and extra taxes etc. in the wake of Mr Putin’s clear involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and the recent shooting down of the Malaysian airliner.

Anyway, enough of this travelogue on London – it is now 6pm and so high time for me to again share a bottle of red wine with some friends at the bottom of the Mayor’s garden – something which would be quite unthinkable now if I was anywhere near the homes of the ever more Islamist leaning Mayors of Istanbul or Ankara… so Cheers Boris!


Albania… for a holiday?!

When I first told my fiends I was considering Albania as a holiday destination I was thinking more about escaping the searing heat that is currently making life uncomfortable in southern Turkey. On the whole most people were surprised and some even suggested there was a good reason it was the only country in Europe that I had never visited. So by the time I flew there at the start of this month I was beginning to be a little wary of what I might find.

As I stepped off the plane at the capital Tirana’s airport, I was surprised to be hit by a blast of hot air that felt almost as hot as the blast that had seen me off from Bodrum airport just a few hours earlier.
So I was glad to reach the air-conned sanctuary of my hotel in the centre of town. The heat took no time to convince me that I must head for the cooler mountains, but of course I needed to explore the city sights before I left.

pyramid

“We don’t really have any, or well not too many”, was a quite surprising response from the girl on reception to my enquiry as to where was the best place to find things of interest in Tirana. Normally I would have done more research before I got there, but because my life had been a blur of deadlines and tinged with a difficult period in my personal life, I knew little beyond the sobering fact that the only half decent margarita in the whole city, where at the Shereton hotel, which is exactly where the receptionist directed me as a final destination for my brief city walk.

At the centre of Tirana is an oval one way system, which is surrounded by several thick set government buildings and topped and tailed by the cities opera house and its art gallery. On one half there stood a very old mosque lit up by twinkly lights because it was Ramadan, which stood adjacent to an old English clock tower, which had been restored in 2010. That was pretty much it for the sights. However, as I walked down towards the Shereton and my parsimonious and overpriced cocktail, I discovered two sights that she had forgotten to mention. They were both grotesque in there own way. The first was the heavily graffiti’d pyramid mausoleum of the countries late, communist period dictator Enver Hoxha, a leader now so out of favour I was told a right of passage for many of the young men of the city was to climb to the top and urinate over the side of it.

The second ‘sight’ or should I say eyesore, was the odd collection of broken concrete and defunct fountains in front of the university, which called itself Mother Teresa square. Mother Teresa although born in Greece, was long ago claimed by Albania as one of its own. Before I visited I had not heard of a single famous person from there, beyond the infamous Hoxha.

motherteresa

I had allowed 2 days to explore Tirana, when less than 2 hours served just as well. So on the 3rd day I headed for the cooler mountains and eventually ended up at a place called Lake Prespa, where I recovered for a day before pressing on south to a place called Berat, which has Unesco world heritage status…

I have just noticed that I have drifted into travelogue style, which I will stop immediately; if you want to know about the country or the sights ask Mr Google. However, I still feel that I really must warn you, dear Reader, of some of the hazards you will face if you decide to hire a car. If you can avoid driving, please do so. Although I did drive mainly because the bus services are so notoriously unreliable, a whole service route is often cancelled for a day or two, rather than just an individual bus being struck off. The other reason I did so was because I drive for much of the year in Turkey, a country with only a fractionally better road safety record than Albania, so I thought I would be fine. However, nothing could have prepared me for the significant problems I encountered on the roads, which if nothing else you should bare in mind if you are ever brave enough to hire a car there.

When communism fell in 1992 there were only 800 cars in the whole country, the drivers of which, I was told had rarely been bothered to take any kind of formal driving test at all. Twenty years on the roads seem awash with vehicles, old and new, but few people seem to understand the basic rules let alone the courtesies of driving. When I asked a man, staying at my hotel, who drove a huge black SUV, if the country’s driving test was difficult, he gave me an intriguing answer: “Sometimes but only if you actually take the test.”

My final bit of travel advice still concerns Albania’s roads, or should I say their maps? I had a quite detailed map of the country’s road system that showed everything from motorways down to small dirt tracks. However, I should have thrown it away for all the use it was once I discovered that the only roads almost guaranteed to have a layer of tarmac on them are the motorways and some busy A roads. The rest, and by that I mean the vast majority have at best some decent stretches of tar or cobbles, which all too frequently disintegrate into nothing but heavily pot holed dirt tracks, and that is the A roads, forget the B or smaller roads. You can also forget map gradients, which show you the climb and fall of a road. I made the mistake of assuming the lack of gradients on my map meant that the road on my map between the west coast cities of Vlore and Himare meant it was a simple coast hugging road…WRONG! This was one of the most scary roads I have ever driven on, even without the presence of Albanian drivers, many who display little proof that they posses the skills not to force you over one of the many 1 kilometre drops, either side of Loggia pass. Indeed, I was so frazzled after my first encounter with this pass, that I ended up staying in a hotel for the night at the top rather than contemplate driving its entire length in one go the second time I had to cross on my way home.

So would I recommend Albania as a holiday destination? Well, yes, eventually, when they get a bit more infrastructure together, but at the moment although it is an interesting country in many ways, and the people are friendly, it will inevitably continue to be absent from many peoples ‘wish lists.’