Gelato flavour of the day - Blueberry (quality has gone downhill in Albania,this one not true to colour or flavour)
We had read there were train services between Durres and Tirana, 38km away and although they could be unreliable for being on time they would at least take us to a point in the city that we could get ourselves back to when it was time to head home after some sightseeing.
The buses we had read were another thing and although there was likely to be one bus station in Durres, the departure points in Tirana changed often, or so said the guide books. This was because there was a long ongoing dispute for business between the buses which we think are ‘Johnny come lately’ compared to the furgons who were probably as close to free enterprise during the Hoxha regime when the only practical way most people could get around was by the minibus.
We met the manager of the hotel at breakfast. A nice young chap called Aidi who worked at two jobs, managing the hotel which had just opened for the season(the reason we now realise that we are the only guests in this
40 or 50 room hotel)and also as the fresh produce manager at a supermarket in Tirana.This also probably explained why there was no hot water this morning and we both endured a barely lukewarm shower.When we mentioned this to him he said he would look into it for us and apologised profusely.
We hadn’t signed up for breakfast in the reservation we made but he offered us what he could rustle together and wouldn’t charge us. What a deal! How could the BBA V2 turn this down?
And the breakfast turned out to be quite adequate with a firmly boiled egg, toast and jam, croissant, juice and coffee. Served graciously by ‘Dolores’ who after several attempts to explain the types of coffee got it right with Americano for Gretchen and a cappuccino for me.
Aidi offered to drive us down to the station but explained that we would have to take the bus as ‘there were problems with the train and it wasn’t currently running to Tirana’.
We weren’t too keen on this idea as although he might see us safely onto the bus in Durres what if the departure point home from Tirana was different
from where we got off?
We decided to take the chance, after all it wasn’t like the risk we took going down the ‘Worlds Deadliest Road ‘near Kotor and at worst we would just have to trudge the streets of Tirana to find a bus to take us home.
Aidi drove us to the station in the hotel van, down the track and onto the bypass we had driven in on yesterday. His speed down the track rarely got above 5 or 10 kph such is the rutted condition of the surface. He joked and laughed when we commented about the state of the road.
This is one of the enigma’s of Albania. The new houses are well presented with fresh paint and some even have gardens. On the hillside where the hotel is they are dotted along ‘tracks ‘that for us in NZ would be short streets in a suburb. They all have services laid on such as power, water and presumably there are sewer mains too but that is where the infrastructure ends. The ‘street ‘has been ‘formed’ but there is no kerb or channelling and certainly no tar seal. They don’t even appear to
get a grader over them like we would in NZ with a farm road. The houses just look out of place.
At the station Aidi found the next bus to Tirana for us and said for us to get on and someone would collect the fares on board.
Buses were going to various towns in Albania but there are no timetables. Each bus has a guy who walks around in proximity to the bus and shouts out its destination to attract passengers until the bus is full.
Within 10 minutes or so of getting on the 44 seats were full and we were on our way. The driver looked like he wasn’t going to try and hoon it on the highway once we cleared the town limits and anyway we spotted numerous police on the side of the road as we travelled who might have loved to stop him for a speeding indiscretion and collect a ‘fine’. He did however, like so many drivers in Europe we have seen, use his cell phone while he drove!
The guy who had been yelling out the destination back at Durres station was the ticket collector. We handed over
a Leke1000 (€7.70 or NZ$12.40) as we had no idea of the fare for the 38km to Tirana. We got back Leke600 in change so the fare worked out at €1.50 or NZ$2.50.We wouldn’t have been able to run the car and find parking in Tirana for that price for the 2 of us, what a bargain! And had we dared take a furgon, the price would apparently have been even less!
The main road into Tirana is a slight but steady climb from the coastal plain where Durres is located. All along both sides of the main road about15km out from Tirana itself the road is lined with new buildings housing small industries and businesses. You sense that since democracy just over 20 years ago and even more so in the last 3 to 5 years that investment money has poured into the country perhaps to make the most of the low wage economy. Even Coca-Cola had a brand new building although whether it was just a warehouse or contained a bottling plant was unclear from what we saw as we drove past.
About 5km short of the city itself was a large shopping mall with all
the glitz and mirror glass you would see in any similar situation in a Western Europe city. Except here the huge car park was almost empty. Perhaps it was because it was Monday, a working day for the locals, or perhaps it had been built out from the city in readiness for the future expansion of suburbs away from the city.
The ticket collector tapped me on the shoulder when it was time to ready ourselves to get off opposite the train station in Tirana city at the end of a wide, tree lined boulevard.
Our plan was to walk around for a couple of hours, see the few sights recommended in the guide book and then head home. It looked clear that the return bus to Durres would leave from the station so perhaps the guide book needs updating to say that the buses now have a permanent departure point.
Often around railway stations you find heaps of street vendors and Tirana was no different. Fruit is coming into very good supply and cherries were priced at Leke130 (or €1) Whether that was for a kilo or whatever weight, for although we were tempted to buy,
the day was warm in the mid to high 20’s and we would have had to eat them all before we got home so they didn’t spoil.Similariy there were strawberries in great volumes along with just about every vegetable imaginable.
We strolled off down the boulevard towards the Skanderbeg square in the middle of this tight ,compact city of about 700,000 people.Skanderberg(an unusual name for an Albanian sounding almost Scandinavian)is a national hero who tried to rid the country in the mid 1400’s of Ottoman rule without sucess.
Also around the square were the National History Museum and The Palace of Culture (still sounds too communist to us) where the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet are housed. At the furtherest end was the main city mosque, closed during communist rule and from where thousands gathered and marched in 1991 when religion was again allowed in the country.
Tirana was founded in 1614 although Albania only gained its independence in 1912.Within 27 years it was annexed by Mussolini and then in 1946 Hoxha came to power and as we have said ‘closed the borders ‘for the next 46 years years. No wonder the Albanians are trying hard
to catch up with the rest of the world.
The day was certainly warm and after spending some time taking in the monument to the national hero and watching two men mowing the grass in the vast green area in the centre of the square while a couple of women in green jackets held hoses watering the grass, we found a cafe opposite Children’s Park and enjoyed a cold Pepsi.
As we continued our stroll the distinctive Pyramid building was the next we passed. The building in the shape of a pyramid perhaps 4 stories high was designed by Hoxha’s daughter and was first a museum and then a conference centre. Today it is a defunct, eyesore with graffiti and broken glass. Perhaps the locals have left it standing in such a prominent place so as to remind themselves of what they do not want to go back to.
While we didn’t see any statues or monuments to the late dictator, Hoxha, the locals have erected. Just this year, a memorial which is a slab of the Berlin Wall which sits alongside the concrete bunker which was one of the many that guarded Hoxha’s home. This perhaps
is all the reminding Albanians need of the regime which will always be part of the history of the country.
We then strolled down through the part of the city that during communist times was off limits to all but party members. It is now a lively cafe scene, colourful, with umbrellas that ‘joined ‘to each other to provide protection from the hot sun where the numerous leafy trees didn’t quite provide enough shade.Here we enjoyed lunch of crepes with another Pepsi.
Walking along the streets in this part of town gave us a feeling of being amongst the locals as just off from the main street through the area were side streets with type of plain, rather unattractive apartment buildings that have been evident in all the states of the former Yugoslavia we have visited. The only slight difference here was that some had been painted in what at sometime in the recent past bright colours but were now dulled by dirt and the strong sunlight. Apparently the mayor of the city (not sure if he is still in charge) decided the city needed to up its image from the dour communist shades of grey and splashed
out on gay colours.
Eventually we came to Grand Park, a forested park at the edge of the downtown, where office workers strolled along in their lunch break and old men sat on sawn tree stumps playing dominos.
We returned to the main boulevard but not before stopping in at Goody’s for a round of fries and a drink. We asked the young woman who served us whether this was Albania’s equivalent of McDonalds to which she replied in very good English that it was. This was our first meal of fries since Lido di Jesolo when Gretchen craved for McDonalds, so we have done well as that was about 3 weeks ago!
We took a circuitous route close to the US embassy for the meander back to the station and the return trip to Durres. We were looking for Mother Teresa (probably the most well known Albanian of modern times) Park but we didn’t find anything that had a statue to her as we might have expected. As we walked along a large car bearing the American flag with local plain police escort drove by at a speed higher than the locals were driving. There is
no sign of any protest in the country but perhaps this is the way embassy staffs drive to ensure no problems.
We found our way back successfully, such is the easily understood plan of the streets, and waiting for us was a bus marked Durres. It was very warm outside and we had hoped that the air conditioning of the bus might cool us down but clearly although the a/c was working it must have run out of gas or needed some sort of maintenance as the only way to keep out the heat further was to pull the curtains over the windows.
The bus loaded up with people quickly and we were soon on our way home. For some reason the fare home was much cheaper at Leke130 rather than the Leke200 we paid going to Tirana. Perhaps the collector thought we had ‘the gold card ‘and charged us the pensioners fare!
We contemplated catching a local bus back to where we turned off the main street to walk up the hill to the hotel. We thought we reckoned what the destination of the clapped out orange bus would read but as we weren’t sure we
opted to walk and anyway we had spotted a Conad supermarket and needed to get supplies for dinner as we had decided to eat in rather than get home and then have to walk back down to the promenade and back again.
We made it home in less than 40 minutes, not bad for at least a 4km long stretch of the legs along pavements where you need to duck and dodge to get a clear path.
Back in the room we found that by some miracle that hot water was available and showers were the order of the day to revive oneself after a day in the heat. Gretchen had hers after a dip in the infinity pool.
We finished the day off what had been a most interesting day getting amongst the culture of Albania with some relaxation, a beer or two, dinner from the microwave and then fell asleep half through the movie ‘Titanic’, the rest we will watch tomorrow night.
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