So onto Albania and I must say I have been massively and completely unexpectedly bowled over by this oft forgotten corner of Europe. As soon as I crossed the border, the road surface got shitter (obvs) but I loved the fact that people were driving around on motorised three wheelers, going from house to house carrying rubbish like the old rag and bone men, or driving horse drawn carts with a mega ton of hay on the back (completely smoked this guy – look at his sad little face).
This was also the first Muslim country I’ve visited. Hearing the call to prayer for the first time is not something I’ll forget in a while and the stunning mosques mixed in with a Roman Catholic Churches has made for an interesting religious landscape.
The other aspect I’ve loved about this country is the people’s friendliness and willingness to approach me and offer assistance whenever I stop or look lost. One particular guy called Andi drove alongside me on a busy dual carriageway on my approach to Albania’s capital, Tirana. Casual place to have a chat he thought (me less so). Finally after fulfilling the obligatory responses he asked if I’d like a coffee. I turned him down since I was close to arriving at my hostel after a long day in the saddle. And so he left. I was therefore quite surprised a few minutes later to see Andi coming the wrong way down the dual carriageway, stop on my lane blocking the bus behind me, and say, ‘seriously, do you want to come for a coffee. Nothing bad.’ For fear of what he’d resort to if I turned him down again I agreed and we went and sat at a cafe by the roadside while Andi told me about his life, dreams to ride a motorbike around the world one day and then refused to accept any money for my coffee.
Tirana was a great city with a real hodgepodge of activity, great food and one tourist attraction that I won’t forget in a hurry – namely a historical museum (BunkArt) set in a nuclear bunker that the communist leader of almost 50 years, Enver Hoxha had installed in the nearby mountains. Again this was a part of European history that I had little knowledge of, as Hoxha ruled a totalitarian Communist regime, in the end managing to completely isolate himself from all the other countries of the world while performing all kinds of atrocities to his people, who naturally were not allowed to leave the country during his rule. The museum was unnerving to say the least. You have to walk alone through an eerie 200m long dark tunnel with scary-movie suspense music playing in the background – usually reserved for the scene right before the black guy gets killed. Once inside the bunker you hear white noise, and dogs barking being played throughout the place, and being the only visitor that particular afternoon, I kept thinking his death was a hoax, and friendly old Enver would be waiting in the final room for me. Evidence of the regime can also be seen littered throughout the countryside, as the ex communist leader set up a program for the installation of some 200,000 pill boxes. The spectre of Enver Hoxha is understandably a hard one to shake off for the locals I spoke with.
After my time in Tirana I made my way to Elbasan up and over the biggest climb of my trip so far, rising for about 800m with a few ups and downs along the way. As I reached the highest point of the climb, all I could see were thunderclouds and veils of rain strewn across the landscape all around me. Thankfully the road I was on seemed to be miraculously missing most of them, but eventually the inevitable happened as I careered right for the heart of a black storm. Fear was running through my veins as I was hiding under some insufficient bough when the first cracks of thunder erupted right next to me, blinding me with the light. After a series of dash and hide attempts to make it off the mountain I somehow managed to locate a storm drain under the road that I could take salvation in for a few minutes. However finally the cold got the better of me so I decided to brave it and crunch out my lowest gear all the way to the bottom and relative safety on the valley floor.
Although the experience was obviously rather intimidating being that close to a force of nature, its certainly turned that climb into an unforgettable experience for me and coupled with the views and quiet road, one that will go down on my top ten of all time I reckon. Finally making it to an airbnb at Elbasan in a couple’s beautiful stone cottage, I was immediately ushered down to the basement, still sodden from the days misadventures, and had the husband show off his distillation machine producing Albania’s finest Raki. He handed my a shot while his wife slipped away (to fetch the sick bucket?) and with him smiling at me I promptly shotted the bad boy. I turn round to see the wife has returned with two more shot glasses for her and hubby – which she promptly filled up. She then looked shocked as she tried to cheers me and saw I’d already skolled the hateful liquid. Like a good sport I asked for a second shot, we toast and I neck it again, trying my best to reduce the facial spasm. I then look at my hosts who have merely sipped on their drinks in preparation of a good old fashioned natter with yours truely. Again wifey looks shocked as she stares at my empty glass. For fear of being poured a third glass of firewater, I continue to speak to them without pause, in French (oh that’s right, they didn’t speak the mother tongue) until finally I was relieved and presumably having failed all tests put before me, allowed to get out my wet clothes and enjoy a hard earned shower.
Anyway Albania has been a country of real character and passion, and though I had low expectations coming in, I’ve slightly fallen for the wonderful people and landscapes. Next up Macedonia and Greece en route to my final resting place in Europe, namely Istanbul.