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Albania, Do It: Getting there from here

Posted: Thu Sep 10, 2009 12:16 pm
by Arta
By Hilda Hoy | Prague Daily Monitor |
10 September 2009

The adventure began on the flight there, before I had even set foot in Albania.
"You are going to visit Albania?" came the voice from beside me. My seatmate, a distinguished-looking man in his 60s, was peering over my shoulder at the Albanian language phrasebook on my tray table. "I am from Albania. If you like, I can help you."
By the end of the short flight to Tirana, the capital, he had not only coached me in proper Albanian pronunciation, he had also offered me and my friend a ride from the airport. Here already was a taste of the Albanian hospitality that I'd read so much about. He would make sure we got to our hotel, he said, because getting around in Albania is not very easy.

Was he ever right. This auspicious beginning to a two-week trip around Albania was just the start of an unending stream of transportation snags and adventures. During four decades of iron-fist rule under Enver Hoxha, such a hard line Stalinist that he cut ties with both China and the USSR for being too revisionist, ordinary citizens were banned from owning cars, and the state concentrated its efforts on laying national railway lines, not building roads. After Hoxha's death in 1985, the country's fragile economy grew weaker, finally collapsing in the 90s. Many of the nation's best and brightest emigrated, and, even today, an estimated one-third of Albanians work abroad.
After years of instability, Albania is now moving forward and working hard to modernise and align itself with the European Union and the west. But it's still something of a black sheep in the western Balkan region, and countries to the north and south – Croatia, Montenegro and Greece – all have far more developed tourism infrastructures.

These days, Albania can still be a little rough around the edges, which luckily is also a large part of its charm. Roads and transport networks are still shoddy, however, requiring a little patience on the part of travellers. Our ride from the airport turned into a major expedition. First came the pothole-riddled streets and chaotic traffic. Then our host insisted on parking and treating us to a beverage on a shady patio. In the baking 40C August sun, many others were doing the same. It was also an opportunity to ask for directions.

Albania defies conventional navigation. Many streets are unnamed, and those that are rarely have street signs. Buildings aren't numbered. I began to understand why our hotel's website gave such kooky directions for finding the place ("follow this road for 198 steps …") and why Google Maps shows Tirana as nothing more than an intersection of two highways. Our host, clearly used to this kind of thing, refused to give up. After asking a cabbie, a bus driver, our cafe waiter, several passersby and a police officer for directions, each of whom consulted someone else nearby, he phoned a friend, who advised him to phone another. Nobody knew our hotel or the street it was on, even though it turned out to be right around the corner.
Eventually, almost three hours after leaving the airport, we made it to our hotel. Our flight from Budapest had only taken one hour.

Hit the road

Albania can be the most trying of travel destinations or the most rewarding, depending on your attitude and degree of flexibility. I learned quickly that it is also directly related to whether you try to go it alone or ask for help.
The Albanian people are renowned for their warmth and helpfulness, and will go to great lengths to assist a lost traveller, including walking or driving you to your destination themselves. A simple navigational question can turn into a lengthy experience, with passersby stopping to give their input or invite you for an espresso. Our adventure continued the day after arriving in Tirana. We had planned to move on to Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage town famous for its Ottoman-era houses and hilltop citadel.

There is no centralised bus network, so intercity transport in Albania generally means hailing a private furgon minivan or bus from the side of the road. Getting where you need to go requires both pluck and luck. Vehicles are often in various stages of shabbiness and run on their own schedules, starting at the crack of dawn and finishing by early afternoon. Like the roads, drivers' skills can be rudimentary at best. We soon learned why they keep a supply of carsick bags on the dashboard.
Road travel runs on Albania time, meaning that the 120km journey to Berat took a sweltering three and a half hours. As our tin can bus lumbered its way along the narrow road, the sun climbed higher in the sky and the outside temperature soared into the high 30s. The bus windows didn't open. The other passengers didn't seem to notice the heat, snoozing in their seats despite the techno music blaring from the speakers. In comparison to the road chaos, Berat seemed calm, especially the hilltop citadel and the old town housed within its walls, still a fully functional residential neighbourhood. These homes, dating back to the 13th century, are interspersed with the ruins of some 20 churches and one mosque, homage to Albania's former Ottoman rulers. The white stone lanes, lined with wild flowers and shaded by drooping grapevines, are quiet. It's easy to imagine life here as it was centuries ago, especially as the muezzin's call to prayer drifted up the hill to us on an evening breeze.

Growing pains

Albania is a country of incredible raw beauty, scarred by past and ongoing struggles. The coastline is nearly ruined in parts, so polluted by poorly planned industrialisation that swimming is risky. Other parts, particularly on the southern coast near Greece, are breathtaking and can rival the best European beaches. Craggy mountains frame the country to the north and south, concealing remote villages where life still revolves around sheep and farming, and where people wear traditional clothing.
There is evidence of Albania's growing pains everywhere. Even the most stunning landscapes are often marred by a stinking mound of litter or a half-finished abandoned concrete building. The countryside and beaches are still pocked with many of the 700,000 bunkers Hoxha had built as part of his military defences.

For over two weeks, we took one rickety furgon after another, crisscrossing these landscapes. First the port city of Vlora, a rough-and-tumble place once a major hub in Albania's notorious smuggling and human trafficking rackets. Then across a treacherous mountain pass to the Ionian Coast and the town of Dhermi, where white pebble beaches edge against a stark backdrop of bare, scrubby mountains. Then east, where the deep, calm, aquamarine Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest in the world, straddles the border with Macedonia.
This mode of travel also provides a unique look into the lives of everyday Albanians and their roadside commerce. Everywhere are lavazh signs advertising rudimentary car washes, where boys and men set up shop with little more than a water tank, a hose, some rags and an umbrella for shade. Vendors nail bags stuffed with plums to the trees lining the road and build huge mounds of watermelons. When we stopped to pick up more passengers, boys jumped onto the bus to sell ears of freshly barbecued corn.

Into the wild

We ended the trip with the biggest transportation challenge yet. Up north, near the borders with Montenegro and Kosovo, the terrain grows more rugged and the road travel more treacherous. We caught a 6am furgon leaving the city of Shkodra for Lake Koman, the starting point of a ferry ride through dizzying gorges and stunning scenery. The two-hour, terrifying mountain drive culminated with us passing through a long, impossibly narrow, unlit tunnel on the side of a dam. At the end was the ferry dock, already occupied by a group of bleating goats on their way to market. Three hours later, at the other end of the ferry ride, we found ourselves dropped off at the lonely, desolate side of a mountain, unsure of what to do next. But it wasn't long before a furgon turned up out of nowhere.
A fellow passenger from the ferry turned to me, shaking his head in disbelief. "This is what I love about Albania," he said. "It doesn't matter what you do, your plans fall apart, and then something falls out of the sky and you're on your way again."
I agreed wholeheartedly. And then the 19 of us crammed into the eight-seat van for another stomach-turning journey through the twisting mountain roads.

Re: Albania, Do It: Getting there from here

Posted: Thu Sep 10, 2009 2:30 pm
by Hymniarber
"This is what I love about Albania," he said. "It doesn't matter what you do, your plans fall apart, and then something falls out of the sky and you're on your way again."
-lol- -hahaha- -bravo-
I was laughing to this comment, for my entire morning, and that's so realistic.

Re: Albania, Do It: Getting there from here

Posted: Thu Sep 10, 2009 6:37 pm
by Arta
Hymniarber wrote:
"This is what I love about Albania," he said. "It doesn't matter what you do, your plans fall apart, and then something falls out of the sky and you're on your way again."
-lol- -hahaha- -bravo-
I was laughing to this comment, for my entire morning, and that's so realistic.
Can't beat originality..... :D