Thursday, 19 September 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 1)

Here's everything I knew about Albania before I went: I knew the capital was Tirana and that the roads were a nightmare. I knew they had a communist dictator in power for much of the 20th century and I knew they had a famously eccentric king in the 1920's called King Zog (as if I could forget a name like that!). I also knew draught beer was cheaper than bottled water. I couldn't wait to go.

I arrived overland from Macedonia on a bus from another era and was held up for two hours at the border. It took the border guards about 5 minutes to collect everyone's passport and perhaps 10 minutes to carry out the relevant checks. As far as I could tell, the rest of the time was spent having a jolly good catch up over coffee, reading the paper, finishing the crossword puzzle, and walking the dog.

Finally, our ancient bus was permitted to continue on its way along the winding mountain roads, grunting up steep inclines as it went, and negotiating the twists and turns like an old master. Twenty minutes down the road, the driver stopped for dinner at a road-side cafe. A dinner consisting of three courses, with a coffee chaser. This was my first experience of the phenomena known as Albania Time. Four hours in to the journey and we had traveled about 35 miles. Needless to say, after a long, bumpy afternoon, just as the sun was setting, I was pleased to see the urban sprawl of Tirana.

Dull communist-era buildings given technicolour makeovers in Tirana © Ryan Chapman

Tirana has the friendliness and warmth of a village contrasted by the chaotic vibrancy you'd expect from a capital city. The streets are dangerous, but not in a don't-carry-too-much-cash-in-case-you-get-mugged way, more in a watch-your-step way. You're far more likely to trip on the disastrous pavements or fall down a cover-less manhole than be a victim of violent crime. 

There are hazards and holes everywhere. The city is being modernised at an exponential rate, but there are still families living in heart-wrenching poverty right on the edge of the centre. In rows of simple tarpaulin shelters squeezed together alongside busy roads. Just a stone's throw away, in complete juxtaposition, those with money frequent the hip cafes and bars of the Blloku area of town. An entire area that, until 1991, was exclusively reserved for the dictator at the time, Enver Hoxha. No ordinary folk allowed. 

Hoxha was a devout Stalinist and ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941 until his death in 1985. He was so communist in fact that he fell out with the Russians in the 1960's because they were too liberal. He then buddied up with Chairman Mao's China until they, much to his horror, invited President Nixon to visit Beijing. So he cut all ties and settled on being ally-less. Paranoid of over-land invasion he had hundreds of thousands of (some say as many as 700,000) igloo shaped concrete bunkers built around the country, preparing the land for a war that never came.

They are virtually impossible to destruct and litter the countryside to this day. Most have found new purposes as rubbish dumps, but some as small coffee shops or blank canvases for artists to decorate. They are Hoxha's concrete legacy and a reminder of a time when being caught listening to a foreign radio station would land you a 10 year sentence working in the chrome mines. Reminders are everywhere.

The biggest reminder of all, and the most expensive construction in communist times, is located smack-bang in the centre of Tirana: the now dilapidated concrete pyramid that was designed by Hoxha's daughter in memory of her father. 

Looking at it now, it's easy to imagine she was five years-old at the time, armed with a box of crayons and boundless scribbly enthusiasm. Perhaps surprisingly, the government's recent plans to demolish the eyesore have been met by fierce opposition from people who consider it a part of their history, rather than merely a symbol of the former regime.

What it is, actually, is Tirana's only interesting building. If there's another one, I missed it.

Tirana's controversial Pyramid © Ryan Chapman

The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule in Albania and sparked a new era for the country: the era of the Mercedes-Benz. Permitted to own cars for the first time, it seems all Albanians got together and collectively opted to buy second-hand Mercs. Hoxha had liked them, and this had clearly rubbed off on the population. Not only are they a status symbol, they are also reliable and able to handle the atrocious pothole-riddled roads.

Perhaps also, maybe, there's a huge Mafia-run stolen car ring that targets Mercs in Western Europe which are then brought back to Albania and re-registered in Tirana on a 'no questions asked' basis. Like I said: maybe, just maybe

However it happened, the sheer number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles on the road struck me immediately. Every bus, every van and almost every car. Everything from robust 1970's war-horses to the more slick models of this century. According to one source, as many as 80% of all cars registered in Albania are Mercs. It's an incredible statistic. 

While foreign cars are welcomed with open arms, fast-food outlets certainly are not. It's refreshing to walk around a city and not be confronted by the same old American chains on every corner. Actually though, they're all there in spirit, just in Albanian imitation form. A restaurant called Kolonet has a McDonalds inspired yellow and red logo and offers an almost identical array of burgers and greasy fries, with just one key difference: there is table service. People in this part of the world do not like to be rushed at dinner time and the American interpretation of acceptable restaurant etiquette (eat quick, then get the hell out) does not go down well here.

My favourite clone of all is the KFC rip-off. The logo is almost identical to that of their Kentucky-fried counterparts, except they've changed the 'K' to an 'A' and called themselves Albanian Fried Chicken. It's genius! And that's not even the laziest or most blatant rip-off. Instead of Burger King and Pizza Hut Tirana is home to both Burger Hut and Pizza King. What a crazy topsy-turvy world Albanians are living in.

Albanian Fried Chicken © Ryan Chapman

Albania is full of delightful little culture shocks like this. Just little things that make you smile, or incidents that make you do a double take. Whilst enjoying some drinks with a group from the hostel in one of Blloku's bars, a young boy approached selling something that looked like it could be chewing gum from a small cardboard tray. 

After politely declining a purchase a guy I was with offered him some nuts from the bowl on our table. The boy looked at them longingly, smiled a wry smile, but then shook his head. Maybe he doesn't like nuts, we thought. Maybe he's been told not to take food from strangers, we doubted. The boy shook his head again, this time a little more enthusiastically, with his gaze still fixed upon the bowl and that's when we remembered: Albanians shake their heads to mean 'yes', and nod their heads to mean 'no'. 

Of course the boy wanted some nuts, he just considered it too impolite to help himself. "Thank you" said the boy, as we placed some nuts in his open hand, "It's ok" we replied, whilst nodding our heads, thus probably confusing him just as much as he'd initially confused us.

I liked Tirana, but I was keen to move on. I had heard on the traveler's grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe. True hidden gems just a handful of hours away by bus. But first I headed to the mountain town of Berat. A place where everyone's favourite hobby is officially listed as 'strolling around aimlessly'. And not even AFC have infiltrated...

To be continued.