When I got to the bus station at 10am the next bus from Skopje to Tirana in Albania was at 7pm and would travel overnight. Incredibly there was only one bus a day to the capital of a neighbouring country - and in a country that had a significant population of Albanians. I couldn’t figure it out but plan B was to get the next bus to Kosovo and then hope for a connecting bus south to Tirana, it would also give me a few hours in Kosovo, the world’s newest country.
The next bus was in 20 minutes so I bought a ticket and quickly got myself some byrek
- a filo pastry thing with meat or cheese or veg - which is everywhere in the Balkans and Turkey. The woman behind the counter had a cold and sneezed all over the counter; only after eating the byrek did I think that I was going to get ill or even worse get ill and food poisoned as well.
The border with Kosovo was simple enough and I just had the routine of showing my passport to a Kosovo border guard. I knew I was in a
strange land because immediately upon crossing the border American, Albanian and NATO flags were flying from buildings. A quick reminder: Kosovo was saved from another Serb dose of ‘ethnic cleansing’
back in 1999 by a 2 month long bombing campaign
of Yugoslavia by NATO forces (code-name Operation Allied Force or, by the United States, Operation Noble Anvil as 95 % of bombing sorties were carried out the US Air Force - much to the awkwardness of European nations of which this was their own backyard).
At the time I supported the military action and I felt at home here with plenty of ‘Stars and Stripes’ flying and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) flags. Finally, a place where being a self-loathing Westerner and indeed a loathed ‘American imperialist’ ‘was not the norm. Makes a change.
and Albanians in Kosovo were clearly appreciative.
Sadly I was only in the capital Pristina for a few hours; j
ust enough time to see the Statue of Liberty stuck on top of a hotel and businesses named after Bill Clinton and its main thoroughfare called George W Bush Street. I’d like to have stayed longer but there
was a connecting bus at 3pm and so I only had time to write and send a post card. By leaving Pristina so quickly I don’t think I was missing that much; it’s pretty much a new city; the American bombers did such a good job back in ’99. The fella at the post office asked where I was from and in reply to ‘England’ - smiled and uttered ‘Tony Blair’ - yes Tony Blair, our former Prime Minister forced out by a less successful military adventure than Kosovo -and loved here. In fact, on a recent visit this year Tony Blair received a hero’s welcome
and presented with bouquets by kids all named “Tonibler” in his honour - a one word name I might add.
So I got on bus southwards through Kosovo - pretty hills, lots of new car sale franchises on the main road and all those flags again. The border with Albania, unsurprisingly, was simple what with Kosovo (spelt Kosova
by Albanians) being a rather strange Albanian state that wasn’t Albania; the routine of a border guard boarding our bus and us passing over of passports was quick. It was a couple more hours drive through
some dramatic mountain roads before we hit the outskirts of Tirana - it was night by this time.
I walked through central Tirana to the youth hostel - which was in fact a villa that was once owned by Mother Teresa’s family. A Japanese bloke who was staying there answered the front gate because the reception was closed after 8pm. So there was nothing else for me to do but to get myself a room, dump my bag on it and to take a shower. I got talking to an American chick from Seattle who was in the same room. We decided to go get something to eat and went for a wander around the streets of Tirana. We couldn’t help notice that there were lots of young men in cafe’s and bars not really doing anything and a severe shortage of women. Kelsey remarked that she’d been getting some interesting stares from the local men; maybe there was a woman shortage because there was clearly there was an excess of men-sitting-in-cafe’s-drinking-espressos.
If anything, Albania is cheap; when we finally found a restaurant ehad a pizza and I had Italian ravioli with wine and it mustn’t
have cost us more than 2 GBP each. Kelsey was ex-Peace corps - having been stationed in Ukraine and picked up the language too, I was impressed. I was also impressed by the fact that she would be up early the next morning for a 6.30am jog around the city.
The next day I did some tourist sights of Tirana - which was still suffering from the ugliness of 45 years of isolation as a communist hermit state - where even motorcars were banned - this would explain the condition of the roads here.
The capital was neither beautiful nor hideously communist - awful drab tower blocks had been given multi-coloured paint jobs and Skanderbeg Square
was being dug up and overhauled which meant having to negotiate a massive pedestrian round about.
The National Art Gallery
was an unexpected treat - chock full of communistic propaganda art and sculptures from the communist dictatorship of Hoxha’s. However, photographs were banned and the gift shop seemed to only stock three postcards of an unknown city from the 1980s - clearly the Albanians haven’t realised the potential of propaganda - in contrast to Vietnam.
Kelsey had made a sudden decision and left
Tirana, heading south to Berat. Her bed replacement was a young German student called Mattheus from the Rhineland. He was chatty, an enthusiastic cigarette smoker and asked me where he could meet some Albanian chicks. So we went in search and found a bar that had a covers band playing songs by U2 and Nirvana; we stayed and watched whilst supping on Paulaner beer from Munich - a beer he dismissed as far too mainstream - I should try some real German beers!
We got bored of the play acting band so we moved onto another bar which was much busier and sat at a table above the dancing crowds. Matteus was one of those young Germans who I have frequently come into contact who surprise you by how un-stereotypical and amiable they are. We had similar interests, after his trip Matteus was going to be moving to Berlin to study for a master's degree in international relations. We were both interested in history and talked about the war, usually something to be avoided when you meet a German. But we kept on safe ground, hearing him describe the Desert War in North Africa as conducted by gentlemen -
a view largely based on the reputation of the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel "....regarded as a chivalrous and humane officer because his Afrikakorps was never accused of any war crimes. Soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely; furthermore, he ignored orders to kill captured commandos, Jewish soldiers and civilians in all theaters of his command."
...and of course his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. We also talked passionately about football and his tiny local club being one of the oldest in the country. I learnt a lot about Germany that night and we decided to travel south together.
Ah, Berat - the only reason I can remember your name is because it sounds like Borat - sad but true.
It had been a while since I’d had a travel companion - and for whatever reason it distracted both of us or maybe it was the drizzle which meant I was walking in flip flops that clicked black rain water onto my calves. We got to the Tirana bus station - which looked like a scene from the Battle of Stalingrad - and three hours later we were in Berat. But I quickly realised that I’d left my wrist watch in the bathroom at the cafe at the station and Matteus had left his sweater on the bus.
No matter, in Berat the rain had ceased and walking through the town to the hostel, crossing the river,
it was quite unlike anything I’d seen before. We climbed up steep, cobbled lanes between old Ottoman houses until we reached the hostel which was also in an old house. We quickly dumped our bags and headed for the fortress overlooking the town. The views from the top was pretty incredible and so was the 14th Century fortress itself - which is still inhabited - and as tourists we had the whole place to ourselves.
There were a few Ottoman-era mosques around the town but none of them seemed to be open; besides I’m tired of the endless austerity of mosques - at least churches have images and frescoes to liven up proceedings.
The hostel was really great, wood floors, a nice garden, a small bar and free wi-fi, I think it’s one of the best hostels I’ve been to - oh, and run by a Geordie. Oddly, he ran the place during the summer months and then well, worked in a bar back in Newcastle. Strange existence really.
Mattheus didn’t stay beyond a day, he was on a three and half week tour of the Balkans and had to be back in time for his move
to Berlin where he was about to begin a post graduate degree in Berlin. He was a good lad - interested in football and international relations and was keen to talk about the ‘gentlemanly’ conduct of the British and Germans when they were fighting in North Africa. I seem to have come across quite a few Germans on my travel who not only speak excellent English, but also have a good sense of humour, are liberal and more interesting to talk to then say, the average Aussie. Incredible.
I stayed another day - just to chill out and walk around the town’s beautiful houses that climbed up to the fortress. Next stop was further southwards.
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