The Scamp in Albania

Those are words I honestly thought I would never say, write, or be able to explain to people. I always thought of Albania has the setting for crazy horror movies, or a place that was so buried under a communist wall that people couldn’t get in, or out.  If Anthony Bourdain was to visit, he’d call it a snapshot of a time people would like to forget, and add that the leftover communist charm in a part of the world that is just waiting to be discovered.

We spent two days in Albania. The first night was in the capital city of Tirana. According to Lonely Planet:

Lively, colourful Tirana is the beating heart of Albania, where this tiny nation’s hopes and dreams coalesce into a vibrant whirl of traffic, brash consumerism and unfettered fun. Having undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions since awaking from its communist slumber in the early 1990s, Tirana’s centre is now unrecognisable, with buildings painted in primary colours, and public squares and pedestrianised streets that are a pleasure to wander.

I wish I could say that I had the same warm and fuzzy feeling for Tirana. The first thing I noticed was the traffic. People have only been driving since about 1990 or so, and let me tell you, it shows. There is no semblance of order, people do what they want, and the streets are clearly made for carriages, not cars.

The hotel we stayed at had photos on the wall of people they claimed are of Albanian descent, and let me tell you, all of the options were highly unlikely (I’m not sure that I believe that the Belushi brothers are Albanian, but I could be wrong). For a hotel in country that is not really known as a tourist destination, it was clean and comfy. A few of us girls went to exchange money, and the first thing that I noticed was that every man in three mile radius came out and felt free to leer at us.

and by us, I mean me. Tattoos are not a big thing on women, and neither is wearing a tank top or a skirt that shows some calves. It was creepy. I felt like I was on display. Men made no secret of starring, even getting up and moving closer to us, and women often did a double take. It was not a good day to be a tattooed California girl.

IMG_1835IMG_1839IMG_1854  We saw the world’s ugliest building, some signs of Communism, and the Mosque of Ethem Bey that first opened in 1823. The cheeky little dog in the photo took a shine to our group and did most of the walking tour with us (something that would become a regular thing as we did more and more walking tours). I really wanted that dog. I named him Zog after a king of Albania. This dog hated men. It is why I needed him.

After the walking tour the guide took a few of us to Dajti Ekspres. Located just outside the city, the Austrian built cable car goes to the top of Dajti Mountain on the longest cableway in the Balkans. I rode a public bus to get there….well, more like tried not to have a panic attack inside a sardine can on wheels. There were probably 60 people crammed into the bus. At one point a little old woman held on to my arm because there was nowhere else for her to hold. It was hot, it smelled funky fresh, and I was pushed up against strangers….it was not a good time. The cable car was great fun though.

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We then went on the most sketchy cab ride of our lives (don’t worry mom, I’m clearly okay) and Kels and I got to have dinner with the coolest couple of the tour group. She was basically me in Australian form and he loved Sushi Go, a game I just so happened to bring on the trip with me. Tirana did have a really great bar that looked like a backyard though, and they made a killer mojito.

The second stop on our Albanian adventure was the town of Gjirokastra. According to Lonely Planet:

Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is a magical hillside town described beautifully by Albania‘s most famous author, Ismail Kadare (b 1936), in Chronicle in Stone. There has been a settlement here for 2500 years, though these days it’s the 600 ‘monumental’ Ottoman-era houses in town that attract visitors. The town is also synonymous for Albanians with former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was born here and ensured the town was relatively well preserved under his rule; though he is not memorialised in any way here today.

This was more of what I had in mind when I was thinking of Albania. There was an old world charm to it, and it seemed more friendly and welcoming then the capital. We ate Byrek, which is a tasty pita dish with cheese, veggies and meat, and enjoyed some really tasty Fanta that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

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People still stared at me here, but it was less creepy. Of all the places that we visited on this trip, this was the one place that I felt unsafe. I made sure I didn’t go anywhere alone, and for the most part tried to keep a low profile and nothing bad happened to me, but it is not really a place I am eager to return to.

In a strange way, I really like that about Albania. This country pushed me way out of my comfort zone, and allowed me to experience things I’ve never really had to face before. I’m lucky that I came out of it unscathed, and it definitely gave me a better appreciation for how lucky I am in Scotland. I’m also glad that I got to see Albania before it becomes westernized and just another tourist destination.

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