Balkans Day 4 – Tirana
14th September 2018
I have been looking forward to today; we are going to Albania. Most of what I know about Albania comes from a project I did at university in 1986, so I’m not really sure what to expect.
First, the slightly surreal experience of breakfast in a wine cellar. The lack of natural light causes me to mistake jam for chutney and smother it all over my cheese and sausage. It tastes surprisingly good. A last wander along Lake Ohrid, then it’s time to check out and depart with a lung busting hike to the car, which is parked at the top of the old city by Car Samoil’s Fortress. Built in the 10th Century, this huge fortress sits overlooking the lake. You can walk along the ramparts and admire the ancient fortifications and the lake glistening down below.
Today’s journey takes us along the north shore of Lake Ohrid to the Albanian border and on the Tirana.
When I was planning this trip, it was hard to find information about taking a hire car across seven borders. However, Hertz have made it very easy. The ‘green card’ was included in the price and we have a wallet full of documents verifying the vehicle’s credentials and permission to take it abroad. The border crossing is easy and we are soon in Albania, zigzagging down the mountains witnessing a combination of spectacular scenery and insane driving.
We stop on the outskirts of Tirana at Bunk’Art. Former president Hoxha was obsessed with building bunkers to defend his population from an attack from the West. In Tirana, his personal bunker is now a museum.
Google Maps excels itself en route. First it takes us along what is allegedly a road, into a gated compound where we are promptly surrounded by security guards. Next we are sent down a narrow gravel path the width of the car. By the time we reach Bunk’Art, nerves are somewhat frazzled, not helped by the fact that the temperature has reached 31 degrees.
It is a relief to be in the cool of a nuclear bunker. Bunk’Art is part museum, telling the Story of Albania’s communist past, and part art gallery, with a range of topical installations. One exhibit (I’m not sure if it is museum or art) depicting a child going to school to combat illiteracy, is so scary it looks like a scene from Bride of Chucky. The old man swears it moved while I photographed it.
Before continuing to Tirana, we take a ride on the Dajti Express; an 18 minute cable car ride over a lake and a valley and finally up the side of a cliff to a park in Mount Dajti. The views are stunning but it’s not a ride for the faint hearted.
We continue to Tirana, check into our hotel; Dinasty, which has taken the dynastic theme and run with it. I can enjoy pre dinner drinks sitting on my own throne.
Then we go in search of dinner and the obligatory local beer. We end up at Era, where the food is amazing, although the size of the starter floors me before the main course even arrives.
We round off the evening with a wander round Blloku; a block once only accessible to senior party officials. Among the trendy bars and restaurants stands Hoxha’s former villa, which lies empty as if no one really knows what to do with it.
On the corner where the checkpoint once stood is Postbllok; a collection of the relics of communism comprising a bunker, part of a labour camp and a chunk of The Berlin Wall. After a quick bunker reccie, we head back through the park to our hotel. It has been an interesting first day in Albania.
Balkans Day 5 – Tirana
15th September 2018
We get up and have breakfast. The food’s not great but at least the chef has gone to the effort of writing the hotel’s name in HP sauce on my plate.
The old man is usually the master of the all-you-can-eat buffet, but today he meets his match. An elderly lady at our table manages six plates to his three. He says this is an unfair comparison as she poured the entire first plateful into her handbag. I am keen to stay and see if she can manage a 7th, but beat a hasty retreat when she starts stirring Nutella into her tea.
We depart for a day sightseeing in Tirana. Most points of interest are on Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombit; a wide, tree lined street which runs between two squares, Mother Teresa and Skanderbeg.
Our first stop is the Pyramid. This hideous carbuncle was designed by Hoxha’s daughter as a memorial to his legacy. It now lies derelict and decaying while its future is debated. My guide book says that children enjoy climbing and sliding down its sides. The old man is determined to give it a try. It’s not a pretty sight but at least he doesn’t get stuck.
Next, we visit the National Gallery. It has some great socialist realist art. Photography is prohibited but the guard, like most Albanians, is a smoker. So I manage to photograph almost the entire collection during his cigarette breaks. There’s also an interesting collection of old communist statues out the back.
We continue to the National History Museum, which documents Albania’s history from the Stone Age onwards. Unfortunately, shortly after the Roman invasion, the English subtitles cease. From here, if (like us) you can’t read Albanian, it’s just a random collection of stuff, until we reach the post-war era and the subtitles reappear.
We add to our run of scary doll encounters with a collection of costume dolls.
Back outside, we find ourselves in the enormous Skanderbeg Square, which isn’t sure if it’s a pedestrian plaza or a fountain, with water pouring out of vents between the marble tiles onto the feet of passers-by.
We return along the boulevard, taking in the usual city sights; a cathedral, a mosque, theatre, opera, the city’s name in big letters. Finally, we are defeated by the heat and retire to our hotel room.
We stop en route to buy ‘vegetarian’ sandwiches, which turn out to be a combination of feta, roast courgette and aubergine. This backs up my new theory that aubergine is tasty as long as it is heavily outnumbered by cheese.
Balkans Day 6 – Shkodër
16th September 2018
I start the day with a run round Tirana lake; an artificial lake in the heart of the city with a footpath round it. The receptionist explains it is easy to reach, just over the hill at the end of the road. The hill isn’t very big but it’s steep and there doesn’t appear to be a path so I scrabble up the bank into the park.
It’s a lovely scenic run with the lake in the foreground and a backdrop of mountains. The lake looks like the designer used a paint splatter as a template, so even though it isn’t that big, a run round the edges is 6 km (it would make a great parkrun). Just before I finish my loop, I find the exit, which has steps and a ramp. My undignified clamber up the hillside was unnecessary. Just time for a breakfast of fluorescent fruit juice, and we are on our way.
Today, we start by heading west to the port of Durrës. It’s an easy 40 minute drive along the motorway, complicated only by the fact that we mistake the port entry for the road into town and have to either reverse onto a roundabout or catch a ferry to Italy. Luckily, Albanian drivers are crazy and reversing onto a roundabout is a perfectly acceptable manoeuvre.
Durrës is a fascinating place. Walk for a kilometre and you will find a Roman amphitheatre, a Byzantine chapel, an Illyrian city wall, a Venetian tower and a Soviet war memorial.
We choose to start in the archaeological museum. The entry costs 600 Leke. The old man hands over a 1000 note. The cashier says she can’t change it. We think she means she has no change. It’s not until he attempts to use the same note in a shop, that the shop assistant points out it is 1000 Macedonian denar.
After a second attempt to visit the archaeological museum, with the correct currency, we visit the Roman amphitheatre with its Byzantine temple.
Just time to see the Venetian Tower, which contains a fancy restaurant. We’re cheapskates, so opt instead to pick up a few supplies at the supermarket before setting off along the motorway to Shkodër.
After a couple of miles, there is an exclamation mark sign and suddenly the road ceases to exist. We end up picking our way over what looks like the surface of the moon littered with tarmac hills. It’s only just wide enough for one vehicle but there are cars in both directions plus cars trying to overtake. It’s chaos. Eventually, we reach a ramp, which contains a small lake, and the road is back.
Once in Shkodër, we check into our hotel; Red Bricks Hotel, which is a very nice hotel within walking distance of downtown. After a little time to regroup, we set forth for Rozafa Fortress, a huge Illyrian castle on the hillside overlooking Lake Shkodër.
The climb up the hill in 33 degree heat is brutal but the view across the lake and mountains is worth it.
We round the day off with a walk through Shkodër’s pedestrian precinct and a really delicious dinner in a local restaurant; San Francisco, with Albanian wine and lamb baked in yogurt. All enjoyed on a balcony overlooking the town and mosque. We have really enjoyed our time in Albania. Next stop Montenegro…
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