Articles tagged with "albania"

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra

I felt pretty sure I was the only traveller in Gjirokastra. I didn’t see anyone else foreign-looking, and I seemed to be the only person in the place that I stayed. I headed for the castle, and on the way got into a strange conversation with an old man. He spoke Italian, and the best I could do was reply in Spanish. But we chatted for a little while. He said he was 70 years old, and lived in one of the very highest houses in the city. He sparked up a cigarette and set off up the hill.

I went on to the castle. It was supposed to be closed, but the two ticket sellers were just relaxing outside enjoying the views, and waved me in. And it was awesome. The castle was huge and crumbling and a lot of it was totally unrestored. I picked my way down corridors with walls that had fallen in, and at one point a bat flew past.

Eventually I found my way to the roof, and watched the sun set over the mountains. A warm wind was blowing down the valley. On the roof was a captured US fighter plane from the 1950s, once the pride of the Communist regime’s anti-Western military museum. I stood up there in the warm wind until it got dark.


Bus to Gjirokastra

Bus to Gjirokastra

I got a bus to Gjirokastra. This first involved finding my way to the right bus station. My first guess was wrong, and I had to take a taxi to the right one. The driver was very friendly and told me long rambling anecdotes in Albanian. I didn’t understand a word but laughed with him as he seemed to be enjoying the stories. On his radio, incredible atmospheric Albanian electro-folk music was playing. Just as his story ended, with him saying “(something in Albanian)…Deutschland….(something else in Albanian)… Holland!!” and roaring with laughter, we pulled up at the bus station.

It was a hot morning and nothing much was happening. The bus was supposed to leave at 10, and at 9.30am I was the only person on it. I had visions of Zambia, and wondered if the bus would leave before noon, but it left at five past ten. Before long, we were in hilly bunker-strewn countryside.

At a rest stop somewhere in rural Albania, one of the other passengers said to me “You’re not from around here, are you?” He spoke excellent English, having lived in London for many years. We chatted for a while and he said that if I needed anything at all I should just ask him. He, meanwhile, had just been bitten by a spider on the bus, and his hand was starting to swell up. I’d been worried by a giant wasp which was buzzing around during the journey but I hadn’t seen any spiders. I kept an eye out for the rest of the way.

We arrived at Gjirokastra in the mid-afternoon. The new city was nestled in a steep-sided valley; the old town climbed the hillsides, and a huge atmospheric crumbling castle loomed over it all. I headed up there.


Tirana

Tirana

I tried to get a bus to Struga but it was too full, so I grabbed a taxi. The driver was very friendly and spoke some German, so we had some broken conversation. He was an Albanian Macedonian, and had spent some time working in Munich. He feigned disgust when I told him I’d only been in the country a few days and I was leaving already. He told me all the places I should go if I came back.

At Struga I got a bus to Tirana. On board were an Australian family, the children born in Australia but the parents born in Albania, and returning for a family wedding. I chatted to them on the way. They’d brought a mountain of home-made food with them for the journey, and insisted that I share it. I was very well fed.

We crossed the border. It turned out there was a one euro fee for any non-local to enter Albania. I didn’t have any Euros with me, but the Australians saved me, telling me what the border guard was saying to me and giving me a Euro so I could get in.

As soon as we crossed the border, it was clear we were somewhere a little bit different. There were bunkers everywhere, on every hill and in every valley – a relic of the not very distant past when Albania was as closed to the outside world and as militaristic and paranoid as North Korea is now.

It was hot and stuffy on the bus. I fell asleep for a while, and when I woke I found that one of the Australians, sat next to me, had also fallen asleep, and was slumping into my lap. It was a very awkward situation. I avoided dealing with it by sleeping most of the way to Tirana.

We got to the capital in the late evening. My map didn’t show me where I was, but I navigated by the sun to find my way into town. All the buildings were colourful. A fantastic urban regeneration project had seen all the old Eastern Bloc style concrete boxes repainted in all sorts of pastel shades. The city felt like no other I’d been to on this trip.