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.
“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.
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.’