Monday, November 28, 2005

Happy Independence Day, Albania!

Dita e Pavarësisë

Albania is a small country (about the size of Maryland or Wales, depending on your preferred reference) on the Balkan Peninsula bordering Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. To the west is the sea -- the Adriatic in the north and the Ionian in the south. Albania was the most extremely isolationist of all communist countries and previously the poorest nation in Europe. (I believe Moldova currently has that distinction.) 28 November was declared Independence Day by Ismail Qemali in 1912 to mark the end of 500 years of Ottoman rule over Albania.

I went to Albania in July 2003: DL and I flew from Prague to Tirana to visit our mate Tanya for the weekend. We spent time in Tirana, but also hired a car and driver to visit the mountaintop castle at Kruja and a beach near Durrës. In honour of Albania’s independence, below are a few memories from my trip that still make me giggle.


We paid our 10-euro entry fees and then had to go through security to get out of the airport. As our bags went through the x-ray machine we wondered what the penalty would be for getting caught with the 800 Davidoff cigarettes we had brought for Tanya and tried not to think about what the inside of an Albanian prison might look like.

On crossing the road

From Tirana in Your Pocket:

Before the collapse of communism, only high Party officials were allowed to own cars. In 1991, when the restriction was lifted, Albanians brought thousands of cars into the country from Italy and Greece. At the time, there were no traffic regulations, no driver's licence requirements, no traffic enforcement and no traffic lights. Fortunately, all this has changed. Driving is still erratic, however, and the country's roads are narrow, treacherous and full of potholes. Visitors should hire local drivers rather than brave the roads themselves.

DL and I walked to the main square of Tirana, Skanderbeg Square. There was a very busy street that ran around the edge of the square and we had to cross that to get properly into the square. There was a marked crossing painted on the street but we soon realised that Albanian drivers were completely blind to white stripes on the ground. There was no real break in the traffic but we had to cross. DL described it quite aptly as being like the video game Frogger.

On sending postcards

The shop assistant asked us for 350 lek for the stamps, but I had noticed that the face value of the stamps was only 220 lek. The woman patiently explained that the extra charge was for the service because (1) we would not be able to find a post office ourselves and (2) we could sit in the hotel and write our cards in a pleasant air-conditioned environment and leave the cards there for them to post. I could not really accept her reasoning but DL told me to just shut up and pay for the damn stamps.

On Tepelena

Best quote of the weekend, from the English language label on a local bottled water: “Suffled how it gush from the source of the woods of Tepelena.” I drank a lot of this water while trying to choke down a particularly poor quality Albanian raki.

On paying the bill

DL and I had wanted to treat Tanya to a night out. It was rare in Tirana to see a sign posted for Mastercard/Visa, but there it was, right in front of us. At the end of the evening DL sneakily took my card to the bar to pay, but to her disappointment, she was told that no, they did not in fact accept credit cards at all, that the signs were there merely for decoration.

1 comment:

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