Thursday, July 13, 2006

Slipping Through Shqipërisë

Ah Albania, what a cool country .. well not weather wise at least .. bloody hot .. anyway, so I slipped into the country last week and have been making my way around what the locals call Shqipërisë. And it has been a genuinally pleasant surprise.

So far the week has been filled with wandering through UNESCO listed condensed hill top towns full of cobbled streets and brooding castles; being at English like (but with better weather) sea side towns, complete with pebbly beaches, promenades, cafes and the strollers walking past to fill it all; seeing an amazing village inside in a castle, perched on high overlooking valleys below; and the best bit all doing it all with no bloody tourists .. and didn't I need that after the package tourist heaven .. or my hell .. of Corfu. Here you can count the other travellers on your fingers, back then it was by the number on the back to the tour bus.

No tourists doesn't mean it is bad, just undiscovered. The rest of the world is sadly missing out. But who cares, let them follow their umbrella waving tour guide, I don't mind. This place is opening up and throwing off its recent decades of neglect and having a mini boom. It has one of the fastest growing economies of Europe at the moment, but that is really just because it started from not much to begin with. Far removed from the visions being instilled in my mind before I came; of genuine poverty, beggars in cardboard houses, thieves lurking behind every tree, knives in hand, this place is one of warmest I have discovered for a long time. Sorry to say, much more hospitable than the gloomy, grumpy Greeks, and they were the ones instilling my previous visions .. "watch yourself there" or "stay safe and alert" .. ahh how wrong. Why is it that countries so closely linked geographically, but dissociated culturally, always have that fear and mistrust .. England and France, Greece and Turkey, Australia and Indonesia ?? I don't know.

Anyway enough social commentary, as to what I have been up. Firstly I caught a fast hydrofoil from Corfu town into Saranda. It only took half an hour .. or with the time change I gained half an hour .. but they were two different worlds. Like I said I went from tour bus congestion into, sea side town.

Mr Immigration man met the boat as it docked, and with a smile we all .. the 6 of us .. headed with him to the passport stamp office. After the formalities of getting entry into the country I was out on the town proper and heading off to find accommodation. Down the town promenade I headed. Past little black head scarves clad women selling tomatos and bananas from Panama. Past Internet gaming dens. Past Caesars Palace casinos. And past all the cafes and bars already busy in the morning hour.

The first hotel I had a look in was a nice one right overlooking the water. The room would rate with any nice hotel around the world. I was hesitant to ask the price, but then she said €20. Wow, cheaper than my hostel on Corfu. I took it.

I spent two nights in Saranda. I liked the town. It did have a construction zone feel about it as buildings half completed were everywhere, some being worked on others sitting idle. The second night was the world cup final night. I selected an open air cafe with a large TV down by the beach. Just before the game a bunch of older town locals joined my table as chair real estate in the place became scarce, in fact the place was chock-a-block. They had no English between them, but all the same it was amusing to just watch and listen to whole event. Italy were the local favourites it seemed but a few were genuinely supporting France .. well to the extent that chairs were knocked over and arms flying about in disgust or delight. It was a grand old night in the end and I heard the Italian supporters long into it, still happy with the result.

Seaside Albania

World Heritage town of Gjirokastra came next. I caught a bus from Saranda up over some mountains and down the valley, seeing for the first time the infamous bunkers, read below. I stayed here in an ancient house overlooking the valley below and got to wander around the ancient medieval streets. The town was great and the castle brilliant .. in fact it was a tad scary .. wandered in from the bright sun and into a musty smelly dark great hall, lined with artillery canons in alcoves along either side of the passage .. the sound of my shoes echoing down past them. It is hard to imagine, but it was eerie at the time, and the sound of bats helped.

Rooftop grey

The most amusing thing so far for all of the Albania, is seeing the bunkers everywhere. A legacy from the lunatic ideas of former communist party and paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha. He somehow had this idea that because his country was now isolated in the world, not unlike North Korea today, he could defend the country from both external attack and internal revolution by building one-man little bunkers, not much bigger than a car, and placing them in all corners of the country. And they are still hanging around in the weirdest places. To start with I was searching everywhere to see some, and then once I realised how small they were it was like spotting grey hairs, you see them everywhere .. up on the hillsides .. dotted like mushrooms in a row along valley floors .. very bizarre.

I went on from there to Berat. If Gjirokastra was the first "museum town", Berat is the second. And it was well worth it. Another castle, or this time a citadel, perched up on the hill top overlooking the town and valley below. I have seen a few castles around Europe, but this one ranks up there with the best. The best thing was it is actually a small town complete with used whitewashed red tiled houses and small little lane ways between them all. Then there were the ancient churches scattered around the "town". Some of these were really ancient, Byzantine times. I gained a little Albanian friend who took me on a tour around the place. He couldn't speak more than 2 words of English, but it was cool to have him point at things and make hand gestures. I gave him a few coins at the end and told him to go and learn English and then wait for the tourists to come in the future.

Saint Tirade church

And so now I am in the smallish capital of Tirana. I have spent a few days here wandering around the hot streets. This place is, like I said, taking off. Flash cars whizz by. Trendy looking girls dolled up totter past on their high heels. And bars and cafes are full and popular. There is even a bush park to make an Australian feel homesick .. a hot day and gum trees surrounded me with that familiar scent .. and this is after I just walked past a bar swamped with Fosters umbrellas.

Albania Australiana

So I will probably spend a couple of other nights here before continuing up north into Europe's newest state, Montenegro, formally part of Serbia. Not sure how long there before a bit of Croatia will follow and who knows after that. It is all good .. apart from the tour buses .. I am keen to avoid them.

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