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Albania - country with the coolest flag

Written on: Thursday June 5th, 2008

A journal entry from: Trails in 2008

5 days in Albania.  We found Albania not so much beautiful or historical but more an interesting place to travel where the people are friendly and happy to talk about the past.  We really liked the albanian food, red wine and never had a bad coffee!

The ferry from Corfu to Saranda in Albania takes only 40 minutes on a hydrofoil.  Its a bit of a gateway for illegal workers to get into Greece, so we didnīt get too concerned about the guy in handcuffs on our boat!  It was full of surprises - its 80% muslim, they have oil fields, and produced Mother Teresa.

We decided to take the inland route up the country, as we heard that the beach towns are pretty polluted to the point where its not advisable to swim.  First stop was a small pretty town called Gijokastre.  Itīs perched on a mountainside and we enjoyed looking through the old Communist HQ and Prison which is now a museum with some great socialist art - women in folk costumes waving guns, that kind of thing.  Then to another old walled town called Berat which is a bit more touristy and even has a street cleaner. As usual, the men are sitting in cafes and the popular thing to do is play dominoes.  Met an australian woman being paid by Lonely Planet to update the Albania guidebook, tough job! 

There are buses but the best way to get around is to jump into a mini van in the main town square.  When it is full, it leaves.  Most Albanians have only been able to drive for the past 10 years - during socialist rule only members of the communist party could drive so the roads have become much busier with a lot of crazy drivers!  The roads are full of early 90īs model mercedes - mostly stolen from other european countries with a blind eye from the new Government.  We noticed some random dolls and teddies dangling from the roof of some houses and buildings.  They act as protection from the "evil eye" where it apparently distracts nosy parkers to look at the hanging object and not the building. It works I suppose, but looks quite sinister.

Their environmental awareness is pretty shocking.  The rubbish strewn about the country is pretty depressing, lots of plastic bags and bottles.  It is really difficult to convince shop keepers not to give you one.  The grassy fields where they extract oil are more black than green, complete with a scenic black pond and dirty oily stench in the air.  At least some of the coke bottles get reused by the locals in this part of the country who stand on the side of the road selling bottles of dirty black oil, straight from the fields! 

The national snack dish is a filo pastry triangle with either spinach, cheese, or meat - which are for sale in pie warmers everywhere.  Theyīre pretty good but we couldnīt convince them that putting the spinach and cheese in the same pie would be nicer!  The Albanians are noticably thinner than their big greek neighbours.  There is still a lot of manual labour in the fields which could explain it.

The capital city of Tirana was not what we expected at all - a cosmopolitan city, a big cafe culture with lots of comfy seats alongside the pavement, great for people watching.  We noted yellow is the fashionable colour in Albania this season.  They even have a revolving restaurant, where we enjoyed a civilised few beers but its slightly jerky so a 3 course meal probably wouldnīt be enjoyable.  The nicest district and the best place to eat and drink is the old communist HQ area which was out of bounds to most Albanians until the fall of socialism but they have definitely claimed it as their own now.  There are a lot of stray dogs around, especially in Tirana.  I want to take every single one of them home and give them a good shampoo and steak, but unfortunately all they get is shot - about twice a year the police go out in the night and kill as many as possible.  Depressing but understandable in this poor country.   

Most young people learn english at school so it was interesting to speak with them.  People are always happy to have a yarn, we got a mixed bag of opinions as to whether they are better or worse off out of socialist rule.  A lot of the older people have struggled with paying for health care and their kids education and with the introduction of democracy, the younger generation have jumped ship to other countries where they donīt have to tend the fields and can earn more money.