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Published: December 15th 2018
"Travelling is living", wrote Hans Christian Andersen according to the WIzzair magazine. It all sounds so glamorous. I can assure you the M1 at 3:30 in the morning didn't feel glamorous. The rain lashed down, as we sped south. The overhead warning signs flashed. M1 Closed. Junction 15 to 14. A quick check on the web showed long red line between the 2 junctions, indicating a serious queue of traffic. In the absence of additional information, we assumed an accident in the roadworks. We cut off on a diversion to avoid missing our flight. The alternative route worked well, so we arrived our 2nd home - also known as the Mid Term Parking at Luton Airport - shortly after 4:30. I suspect others would not be so lucky, as the morning traffic rush built up. Airport security was negotiated with ease - the Man in the Middle was largely untroubled for some reason today. They settled for giving him a quick spin in a body scanner and left the thorough search of his beanie hat collection for another day. The focus of attention was a lippy lady, who gave a bit of verbal to the security guy and was subsequently delayed
whilst he went off to report the matter to the Supervisor. The humble apology line didn't seem to be in her vocabulary. A few expat Argentines with their River Plate colours were on the way to Madrid for the Copa Libertadores match with Boca Juniors. I queried whether they had tickets. Yes, they did. I looked on jealously. Alas the 6:50 Tirana flight was late - delayed by a lack of cabin crew. The crew had obviously been late in previous evening and needed to clock up so many rest hours before they could fly again. The estimated departure was 8:30. Tempers were flaring at Gate 15. The Wizzair baggage police were on duty and were in no mood to compromise on their cabin baggage policy. The words "pay extra" and "bag too big" hadn't translated well into Albanian. The victims were singled out. One guy had a tantrum, paid his excess, slammed his trolley case down and demand all others were fined too. His wish was their command within reason, although this only served to delay the flight still further. Steam was still blowing out Mr Angry's ears, as he sat down in the aisle seat opposite me. His
mood was possibly worsened by the weather. It was still raining cats and dogs, as we crossed the puddles on the tarmac to the aircraft's steps. The excess water was ruining those box fresh all white canvas trainers being sported to show the relations back home that life was prosperous in foreign lands. We eventually took off 2 hours 10 minutes late. The original plan was to take in a bonus football match I had located that was being played in a neutral - but fairly convenient for us - venue. The delay meant even with a taxi we were unlikely to make kick off. It would be the airport bus for us after all.
The Other Half will usually follow me to the end of the earth - well she made it to Slope Point in New Zealand, which is close as we may get. However, she drew the line at Tirana. The suggestion of a visit brought back the same look that an announcement that I had secured her a midweek ticket away at West Ham would have done yesteryear. I spoke with the attractive Albanian lady sitting next to me on the plane, who
was going home to visit family with her son. She taught me please and thank you in the local lingo and translated what fellow passengers were moaning about in the rows in front. It seemed that resentment was still brewing about the Wizzair baggage allowance and how some folk had managed to escape the fine. Tirana was described by my seat companion as a "untidy". "The coast was better". Funnily enough, her family home was by the coast. Perhaps the Other Half had been right to give it a miss? We touched down at 12:30. A strong tail wind had allowed us to make back a bit of time. Mr Angry had calmed down a bit by this stage, although his son had annoyed him by using up the remaining battery life on his iPad. He had even condescended to give Wizzair even more of his hard earned by purchasing a drink and a sandwich. The trainers had probably dried out, but weren't quite pristine white anymore. Shame!
The plane taxied across the runway towards the terminal of the Nene Theresa Tirana International Airport. The word 'International" is a given on basis that there are no other
airports in Albania, so there cannot be any domestic flights! A group of derelict MIG fighter jets laid stripped down in an adjacent compound. We were unloaded from the airplane on to the waiting buses for a journey that lasted no more than 30 seconds. It seemed to be a question of the airport showing off that they actually had the buses and were determined to use them. Border formalities were brief. In the old days, visitors not suitably attired for their visit were invited to reinvent their wardrobe at a special state shop where more appropriate wares were available for a price. Mini skirts were viewed as symbols of the decadent west. The service extended to a barbers shop, where beards and sideburns of an inappropriate length could be adjusted to fit the communist requirement for entry so as not to lead the locals astray. I opted to change a couple of £10 notes at the currency place to the side of the 2 ATM machines, both of which had a queue. The rate was only marginally down on what I was expecting, so it was worth it for the speed and allowed us to get the next bus
to central Tirana. The small Rinas coach was sparsely populated. The driver collected the 250 Lek after we had boarded and set off on the 30 minutes journey. The first part of the journey was quite calm. Construction was ongoing everywhere. It had the feel of the journey entering Pristina in Kosovo. We passed a neo classical town hall like structure, that was similar to those buildings in Skopje - all designed to look like they were established and old, but had probably been there less than 10 years. It apparently had never opened and nobody quite seemed to know what purpose it had anyway. A taxi driver told us later that “it was a mystery”. The huge very corporate looking Mercedes dealer to our left was specialising in all models, "as long as you want a black one, sir". The Harley Davidson dealer was a bit more homespun. The corporate demand to have a presence in Albania had meant no requirement for full dealership livery. A glimpse at the general driving, indicated only the brave would venture out on an expensive American imported motorcycle. A Hummer was the safer bet. The easy traffic descended into chaos near the Dogara
roundabout. An artist's impression picture adorned a billboard. The reality suggested a lot of work still to do. The police struggled to contain the flow from all directions. Meanwhile, pedestrians weaved precariously through the traffic with a death wish. In a few days’ time on our mission to Durres, we would be forced to join them. Thereafter the traffic was nose to tail and a scene of constant lane changes and the blaring of car horns. The original plan was to take in a football match in the afternoon. If you are a regular reader, that won't surprise you. Alas, the plane delay and heavy traffic put paid to us realistically dropping bags at the hotel and relocating to the north west Tirana suburb of Kamza. We alighted from the bus just behind Skanderbeg Square. The nearest landmark was the Clock Tower for reference. The stop was opposite the "blue" buses bound for Porcelan. We headed towards "the man on a horse', the Albanian national hero gazing across square. There wasn't a cloud in the blue sky and it was a pleasant temperature. This was our latest "wildcard" destination in pursuit of football unaffected by frozen pitches. It was a
shame that we couldn't predict Wizzair delays!!
We checked in. The hotel room had a balcony with a view of a floodlight of the nearby KF Tirana Stadium, which was about 2 minutes’ walk away. We settled for a relaxing afternoon and had a couple of pints in the bar next to the hotel. The bar owners queried if we were from Scotland. They had recently visited in the weird and wonderful tournament that is the Nations Cup. We pointed to the lack of a skirt. They laughed. "Scottish people they drink a lot", we were advised so the question was probably to ascertain whether he needed to get extra supplies in for the duration of our visit. At 80 pence a pint, we instantly decided that this was our "local". After a couple of refreshments, we headed out towards the adjacent football ground. There was no requirement to even try a gate handle - we marched straight through an open entrance. The simplicity of this access and the close proximity of the hotel, prompted the Man in the Middle to return for his Forest shirt and the obligatory "Reds Around The World" could commence. KF Tirana
had 2 stars on their club badge, so there was an instant affinity. They too were "waiting for the 3rd star", but the first 2 stars were not European Cup winning merits. We wandered unmolested for 20 minutes - inside the main stand, through to the press conference area and out on to the perimeter of the pitch. The pause for the customary photographs in the dugout was not a problem. The end product was duly dispatched into the world wide web courtesy of the nearby hotel Wi-Fi. The sun was disappearing fast, so after a long day we stayed within close quarter of the hotel area. We settled in a restaurant a few minutes away and had a strange encounter with 2 locals, the purpose of which still remains a mystery. As finished our drinks, 2 small beers arrived. We hadn't ordered. The waiter gestured towards another table. "Respect" uttered the older man, as he raised a glass. We thought it only right to buy them a beer back and they duly arrived at our table. The younger man spoke English - his companion did not apparently. He knew the word "respect" and his command of the language was
clearly better than they would have us believe. The younger one was brandishing a Rank Xerox certificate, which they showed us. There was no demand for money or anything and they then announced they were leaving. 10 minutes later they returned with another guy. He too was shown the Rank Xerox certificate. There was no indication that they knew us and blanked us throughout their new encounter. The new guy left shortly after. We remain bewildered what the purpose of the scam was or indeed if it was an attempt to deceive. We ordered a meal - a plate of barbecue lamb. The Man in the Middle wasn't keen. We had been through an eventful day - a plane delay and a missed football match and a weird and pointless encounter with 2 locals. They say bad things come in threes. I chipped a tooth on the lamb shortly after. The trip to the dentist back home would probably cost more than this whole trip. It had been a long day and we called it a night.
We were up bright and early in the morning. A couple of weeks ago in Gdansk, the Man in the
Middle was detailed with coffee duty from one of the slowest machines in the world. He would return after what seemed like an age with the lattes. There were no such issues here in Tirana. He was made redundant from the role by the guy from hotel reception, who was in charge of all such duties. Fed and watered, we headed out to explore Albania's past. Albania as an independent nation didn't exist until 1912 and it got off to a shaky start, as the First World War engulfed its territory. The mid 1920s saw the arrival into power of Zog. He was Prime Minister, President and to claim the hat trick, appointed himself King in 1928. He was probably chief cook and bottle washer too, but that rarely gets a mention. The world was looking good for Zog, but the rise of fascism across the Adriatic put paid to his reign. The Italian Foreign Minister was best man at Zog's wedding in 1938, but instead of planning a decent stag do he was actually laying plans for Mussolini's forces to invade. Two days after Zog and his bride introduced their heir into the world, the Italians landed in Durres.
Zog escaped to London. The Second World War saw Albania under the heel of Italy and then the Germans. However once Tirana became the first European capital to be liberated by local partisans, events took a turn for the worse. The communist leader, Enver Hoxha, closed off Albania from the world for the best part of 50 years. He was initially close to Tito and his Yugoslavian neighbours, but became more hardline and imposed a Stalinist model on country. Hoxha became paranoid that the world - both the East and the West - was out to get him, so after falling out with Russia he courted China. You know that you are running out of options when the only friends you can muster are the North Koreans. As preparation for the attack that never came, Hoxha set about a programme to build fortified defence bunkers across Albania. He planned over 200,000, but only managed to complete 168,000. The purpose of our morning was to visit his own bunker - Bunk Art 1, set in the foothills outside Tirana. First, we had to get there. It proved simple. We caught the "blue" bus towards the Dajti Ekspres cable car from the
terminus adjacent to the Clock Tower. In order to be on the safe side we asked the conductor (who more often than not will be wearing a high viz waistcoat), who then took us under his wing. The bus fare in Tirana is 40 LEK, regardless of whether you travel 2 stops or 5 miles - pay the conductor not the driver. The bus stopped at the terminus and we were ushered on to the waiting service back towards the city centre with instructions being passed from one conductor to the new one, as to our intended destination. The bus pulled up directly by the tunnel entrance to Bunk Art 1 and we set off under the mountain towards the ticket offices at the far end. The entrance was 500 LEK. We followed the arrows up the ravine towards the entrance. A couple of artillery pieces under camouflage netting were dug in on the hillside. The majority of bunkers scattered across Albania are just fortified machine gun nests big enough for a few soldiers, but Hoxha's headquarters is immense. He got his inspiration to build it from his new North Korean mates, which makes you wonder exactly what the current
Bunk Art 1
Little Rocket Man has buried in the hills outside Pyongyang. This bunker housed a control room for the top brass, living quarters, decontamination chambers for use in a chemical weapons attack and in the depths there was even an assembly hall or theatre with probably seats for about 150 people. The ultimate gig space - low roof and good acoustics. The Man in the Middle made a mental note of the possibilities for the Colliders first European tour. The daft thing is despite all the effort, the complex was never used for the intended purpose and the closest Hoxha got was to inspect the radio room in a demonstration. The bunker is set up as a museum. The rooms detailed Albanian history and life under the communist regime, all translated into English by the way. We spent a couple of hours reading the displays and wandering the complex of tunnels, before emerging into the daylight. In a world of mass tourism, we appeared to be the only paying punters on a chilly December morning. Words cannot really express how good a visitor attraction Bunk Art 1 is - if you do nothing else in Tirana, visit this place. We arrived
back at the main road just as a bus rolled up. There is no apparent timetable, but they seem very frequent.
We were back near Skanderbeg Square in about 25 minutes. The weather was looking pretty ominous - clouds loomed overheard. I would get some blue sky photos another time. We headed across the Square, which was cluttered with a combination of a fun fair and a Christmas Market. Is there no escape from Christmas Markets in any European city? Santa and his helper waved a wandered by, heading to the National Museum of Albania. The Museum flanks one side of the Square. A huge mosaic showing the happy image of the Socialist dream the former leaders wanted to portray looks down. Despite fraying at the edges, it is still a pretty impressive sight. The entrance to the Museum was 200 LEK. The first sections were as the Man in the Middle would say, "pots and pans". We moved on to the mainstream modern Albanian history - Zog, the Italian invasion and the rise and fall of Hoxha's version of a socialist utopia. The man’s coat and personal firearms were on display. Whilst we studied the various
exhibits, the clouds unleashed their content and the umbrellas went up outside. It seemed with rain in the air, no Tirana resident would leave home without their brollies. We walked back to the Stadiumi Selman Stermassi near the hotel for our afternoon entertainment. The streets were worryingly devoid of football fans or Police, despite kick off being only an hour away. We had a coffee in a nearby bar, before walking over to the main Stadium entrance. We could see warm up cones on the pitch through a gate, but no sign of any active turnstiles. This wasn't looking good. We found an English speaker in the group of well-dressed guys hovering by the entrance. "No public", he advised. KF Tirana had been naughty boys and were being punished by the Albanian FA. As veterans of the “behind closed doors due to previous crowd troubles” scenario, even I know not to panic. We only have one failure to access on our record and I have never forgiven Partizan Belgrade for that, even though something much more interesting cropped up to amuse us. As a lifelong follower on Trentside, the Man in the Middle would always advise caution of teams swear
the black and white stripes. A big Mercedes drew up with important looking occupants. It transpired to be Mr President of KF Tirana and his entourage. The Man in the Middle went on the "don't you know who we are - Nottingham Forest - European Cup Winners" charm offensive. A right hand man of Mr President looked on impassively and quietly replied "For you, we make exception. You will be our guests". Mr Octopus Security...... "legs everywhere" .... stepped aside and we went through the open door before anyone changed their minds. "Forest opens doors again", chuckled the Man in the Middle. We settled into the padded seats of the Directors Box with the other "invited guests". As we were not wearing our flash Italian Moncler or Colmar ski jackets, we looked slightly out of place. We were also the only ones not chain smoking. We concluded after a joint lifetime and a collective total of 1000s of matches attended, it was first time for both of us watching a game from the padded seats. The game itself was a relegation 3 pointer at the basement of the Albanian Superiore Liga. Both teams looked nervy and were unable to penetrate
in the attacking areas. Step up, Mr Referee. Penalty. It would have been a fair bet that had VAR been in use, the decision would not have been given. The spot kick was duly dispatched into the opposite corner from the diving goalie to a ripple of applause from the 50 or so "guests". The result was never in doubt from then on. The lead was doubled on stroke of half time and we ventured into the executive VIP entertaining area to see if we qualified for any free prawn sandwiches as part of our guest experience. Alas, we were not! The second half was a stroll for KF Tirana. The light faded rapidly and the floodlights were called into action. Tirana doubled their lead with the aid of a huge centre forward substitute, who seemed to scare the opposition defenders into submission. We shook the hands of Mr President and his Number 2 at the end - "We hope that you enjoyed the game" - and disappeared into the gloom to celebrate our good fortune with a couple of those 80 pence refreshments. After "Toothgate" on the previous evening, pizza was the preferred dining choice. We settled for Pizza
Saporita across from the stadium. The heavens had truly opened, so we waited for a break before venturing. The Man in the Middle had no confidence in his moody Stone Island jacket to repel this level of water falling from the sky. The better class of diner was in residence, although the excellent pizzas were a mere 600 LEK. We normally stick to competitively priced local beer, but a lot of the posher bars and restaurants only serve premium German beers. It therefore was not a surprise to be paying 400 LEK for a large Veltins Pils, which is ridiculous compared to the quality and price of the food offering. We headed off for another early night. Albania Superiore Liga KF Tirana 4 KS Kastrioti Kruje 0 Date :
Saturday 8th December 2018 @ 1400 Hours Venue :
Stadiumi Selman Stermassi, Tirana, Albania Attendance
: Nil (Match played behind closed doors, after punishment by Albanian Football Association - estimated Attendance of Guests 50) Scorers
: 1-0 Hasini (KF Tirana) Penalty 11 Mins, 2-0 Greca (KF Tirana) 40 Mins, 3-0 Ngoo (KF Tirana) 77 Mins, 4-0 Sentamu (KF Tirana) 90 Mins KF TIrana
: Abibi, Hoxhallari, Attinghah (Replaced by Turtilli 75 Mins), Doka, Karabeci, Daja, Hasini, Imani, Grca (Replaced by Mawejje 68 Mins), Sentamu, Halili (Replaced by Ngoo 67 Mins) KS Kastroiti
: Kuka (Replaced by Puja 10 Mins), Cela, Stijepovic, Domgjoni, Shehi (Replaced by Marku 66 Mins), Hussein (Replaced by Bardhi 27 Mins), Marku, Ymeraj, Okebugwu, Roger, Shehu
Tot: 2.107s; Tpl: 0.038s; cc: 11; qc: 29; dbt: 0.0194s; 2; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb