Turkeys Don't Vote For Christmas

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Europe » Albania » West » Durrës
December 16th 2018
Published: December 19th 2018
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A few days’ previously, we had watched the chaos ensue near the Dogara roundabout as the road system struggled to cope with the volume. Pedestrians weaved precariously between the cars, as they attempted to cross the road to reach the Bus Station on the far side. It was our turn to join them this morning, as we had decided for our final full day on Albanian soil to take a trip to the seaside. Durres was the destination. We alighted opposite the Bus Station and decided the safest tactic to cross the road was to effectively use others as a form of human shield. If we let them take the initial plunge into the carriageway, they would get hit first. It worked. We made it the other side and the Bus Station. I say Bus Station, but it is a very loose description. The reality is it is just a random selection of buses parked up in a car park. No orderly bay system here or real time destination boards on electronic signs – just a haphazard selection of vehicles squeezed into the space. The hawkers were busy shouting out destinations, though none seemed to be actively trying to sell you a ticket. It was just a method of encouragement to get on the bus to which they were affiliated. We avoided Berat and a number of other destinations and were directed to the Durres section. It seemed scheduled to leave at 9 am, but pulled off towards the exit shortly after we sat down. It was nearly full, but the doors stayed open until the last minute to ensure every seat was filled. WE slowly filtered out on to chaos roundabout and headed towards Durres. A conductor filtered up and down the bus, taking the 130 LEK single fares. Bargain. It costs just over the price of a pint for the 50 kilometre journey. The road initially followed the same course as that to the airport and was a fairly reasonable 2 lane dual carriageway. The road was lined with corporate headquarters either side, motor dealerships and the new out of town retail shopping centres. A few random casino developments were also noted, should one feel the need for a spot of gambling on the way. The journey took about 45 minutes, although 10 minutes of that had been wasted circumnavigating the initial roundabout. We knew we were nearing Durres, when a few abandoned boats started to appear in the business yards adjacent to the main road.

The Bus Station at Durres was surprisingly orderly. There was none of the commotion back in Tirana. In Albanian terms, this was a transport hub. The railway station was next door, although it looked as though it had seen better days. The edge of the area was bordered by ticket agencies, who were mainly in the market for selling ferry tickets to Italy. In ocean terms, the Adriatic is small. However, the stretch across to Bari is about 150 miles, so it is an overnight crossing. A ramp disappeared up from behind the railway station for easy access for pedestrians in possession of a ticket. It was here that Mussolini’s forces landed in 1939, but I doubt they had the courtesy of a ramp. We had circles on the approach, so my first mission on arrival was to take a photo of the “Durres” sign just outside on the main road. The grey 8 foot letters were in contrast to the brightly coloured and vibrant “I Love Tirana” sign back in the capital and possibly summed up the contrasting mood between the 2 cities. Tirana was vibrant. Durres on first glance, seemed to be just struggling on. We would see after our full wander round. We decided to head inland first of all and do what we normally do – go and look for a football ground. The Stadiumi Niko Dovani was about a 10 minute brisk walk directly inland from the Bus Station – turn right by the Sports Hall. The Durres Basketball Club were playing in the Balkan League that evening, but for once that seemed like too much trouble to ensure we got back to Tirana afterwards. The road towards the Stadium was a contrast – a posh coffee bar on one side and a makeshift retail space on the footway on the other side. Piles of shoes laid out were a common sight – a sort of 2nd hand shoe emporium. Christmas had come early in more ways than one, as we crossed towards the floodlights. The grassed areas by one of the training pitches that flanked the ground were occupied by a local turkey farmer. He herded them from side to side, so they could get whatever goodness they could muster from the fairly barren ground. It had proved a successful ploy, as they were well fattened. A very fresh Christmas lunch, if plucking was not beyond you. He didn’t seem to be actively selling, so was perhaps just advertising his wares. The spacious surrounds of the football club were devoid of activity. The training pitches were empty, although a coach with full club livery revved up on the forecourt. The domino school was in full swing under a section of the Main Stand, but all else was locked up. I tried a door. Locked. We had obviously been seen on camera and another door opened up further along. I gestured towards the camera and we were invited inside. Photographs. No problems. The guy sweeping the seated areas indicated that they were keen for investment in the club, but they had clearly mistaken our standing in the world. We might have been in the padded seats at KF Tirana, but our pockets were not Director deep. The stadium itself was quite pristine and certainly a step up from the others we had seen on the trip. We headed into the club bar next door for a coffee. It was investment of a sort.

The backstreets of Durres as we headed back to the city centre were a bit rough round the edges, but not in any way menacing. The roads contained some serious potholes, which were bizarrely marked with lumps of concrete to hit to stop you descending into the crater. A road gang were busy painting a zebra crossing on the road, although this attempted to improve pedestrian safety seemed to be a life threatening occupation. The irony of course is that would any drivers even recognise it when complete? The shops were full of Christmas decorations and a whole lot more choice of fake of Italian clothes. The Man in the Middle kept his hands in his pocket and didn’t purchase. One of the most striking buildings in central Durres is that with an equally striking title. The Desmoreve Museum of Glary & Hall of Relics of War is a brutalist building of the communist era, which stares down a wide boulevard from an elevated position. A mosaic with figures from the socialist era adorns the front. Despite the grand title, the building appeared closed. We moved on towards the central square. We were now entering the ancient part of the city. The 6th century AD Byzantine Market Square lies almost ignored just off the main street before what is now the centre. A huge Albanian flag hung from one building opposite the 1929 City Hall. The mosque was next door and a section of the old city walls snaked up the hill just past it. We walked through to the Roman Amphitheatre. All the tourist sites and Tripadvisor will direct you to this, as the premier attraction in Durres. It is the largest built in the Balkans and held an estimated 15,000+. It is quite difficult to see how it apparently remained undiscovered until the mid 1960s, after which it was excavated. The entry is 200 LEK, although you can quite easily just walk all the way round the top perimiter and see the structure. Today, it is hemmed in by house that overlook it and in many ways, it seems just as ignored as the Byzantine Market Square.

The city walls are quite well preserved in this section of the city and just when I had commented on finding no statues of former Communist fighters, there was a glut down by the Albanian College. A very grand building, it was another of those that you would see in Skopje - designed to look old, probably not and about as sturdy as a film set. We were almost at the seafront, which as you would expect was all quiet on a December morning. The old Venitian Tower guarded the corner. Two Police motorcycle cops waited on the opposite side to pull over any unsuspecting motorists. In summer, I guess it was full of folk promenading. The sun was shining, but the stalls and businesses were not exactly doing brisk trade. The traders waited patiently. At least, it wasn't cold. A few youths climbed on the base of an enormous statue and the domino schools were in full flow, as elsewhere in Albania. We walked out on to a pier. A fancy looking restaurant on the end looked devoid of custom. A giant Christmas tree decorated the central section of the pier. We gazed over to the port in the distance. A statue of a fisherman balances on the rocks by the Point. He keeps an eye on a statue of the body of a nude woman close by. The Point has been developed into a modern piece of architecture - the Sphinx Stairs. The white stine glistened in the sun. We settled opposite in the bar of the same name and sat on the terrace. the port of durres strectched on forever, so we gave up on our walk to the other side and retreated to the Bus Station for a return to Tirana. The next scheduled departure was 3 pm, which gave us enough time to walk through the semi-deserted Durres Railway Station. It was difficult to tell whether it was actually active. A current timetable was displayed outside with a few limited destinations, but whether it is correct is another story. The ticket office at the far end of the waiting hall was deserted, but perhaps it is only staffed around when a train might depart? The Main in Seat 61 would have his work cut out keeping up to date. A group waited on the platform, but they soon wandered off and seemed to have just been having a chat. An abandoned carriage or two had seen the hand of the local graffiti tag experts. we ventured back outside to catch our bus. Deflation had occurred. We paid 125 LEK to get back to Tirana and 33 minutes later we arrived at the Bus Station. We took a taxi to the airport the following morning. A bit of an extravagance by our usual standards, but it was a way of making sure that we had used up all our remaining Albanian LEK currency. We arrived back in Luton to another round of Brexit chaos being discussed down the road in Downing Street. The electronic passport gates steadfastly refused to open for both of us. It was perhaps a sign of the times ahead, as we turn our backs on Europe!

You will recall in my first Albania blog that the Other Half decided against the trip. I have just re-watched the BBC series entitled the Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan. He basically does a Palin and heads off to holiday destinations most would consider off the radar, except that Palin already did the programme on the obvious choices. Romesh is relegated to a mini-series on Ethiopia, Haiti and Albania! He starts with the pre-conceptions we hold. The Other Half was in this camp. Albania. The two words we associate with it. Bleak. Communist. He adds thoughtfully, if it is sh** I will tell you. I can tell you too. It isn’t bleak or Communist. It certainly wasn’t sh** and full of the friendliest, helpful locals that you could hope to meet anywhere on your travels. Go and have a look for yourself.

Additional photos below
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23rd December 2018

Great pics of an Albanian odyssey...yet this one captures my imagination the most. Great pic.

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