Archive | May, 2012

Is It Good That Manchester City Have Won The Premier League?

26 May

1. Wiping the Smile off Ferguson’s Face.  — On May 13th, 2012, Manchester City FC scored two injury time goals in their last match to clinch their first top flight championship in 44 years. It was a thrilling finish to the season as they snatched the coveted title from their city rivals Manchester United. on goal difference. Veteran players from the last title winning team in 1968 such as Tony Book, Mike Summerbe and Francis Lee, brought out the trophy, bedecked with light blue ribbons. They presented it to the current team, an international collection of all-stars, in front of their adoring fans. Everyone was happy, except for the red half of Manchester, which just for once got to sample the bitter taste of defeat. The City fans were ecstatic. Many were crying tears of joy after at last witneesing their team triumph after many years of disappointment.

  The pundits were happy too. Afterall, wasn’t it good for football that the Premiership had been won by a new team? The Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal monopoly had at last been broken. Surely this is good for English football as it shares the spoils more widely and increases competition at the top end of the league. Many football commentaters were also pleased for the long-suffering City fans who had endured many more downs than ups and were almost resigned to seeing defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. It nearly happened again, until those magical moments in last match injury time.

  So City’s triumph is a good thing isn’t it? Anything that can wipe the smile off Sir Alex Ferguson’s face must be good, in my eyes. Anything that can banish Wayne Rooney’s arrogant smirk ( at least for a while) has to be welcomed. The United players, who in recent years have taken success for granted, must have been ” gutted” and “as sick as parrots” to quote two of football’s corniest cliches.

  However, Manchester City’s great victory left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Here are some reasons why I have experienced  feelings of unease.

2. Buying Success. ——- The secret of success in life is: hard work sustained over a long period in order to develop one’s talents to the full. When I was a teacher I often told my pupils this in order to increase their motivation and effort. “If you don’t work hard, you won’t pass your exams. If you don’t pass your exams, you won’t have any qualifications to get a good job” etc. You know the argument. Teachers and parents have used it, quite rightly, for centuries. Until recently, the same argument applied to the running of a successful football club. The hard work consisted of: scouting for young players, grooming and preparing them through youth development schemes, spotting and buying more experienced players and blending them into the team, meticulous planning and preparation with regards to fitness, diet, strategy , tactics and motivation, lots and lots of training, the generation of team spirit and discipline, and so on and so forth. It is often said that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. In other words there are no short cuts to genuine success.  Recent developments in the entertainment world however have started to undermine this sensible approach to life. Now reality TV combined with tabloid and glossy magazine coverage, can provide instant fame and fortune for people with little or no talent and who have not really worked very hard or for very long to gain their riches.

  The other way that the long road to success can be circumvented is to spend a lot of money. Everything and everyone has a price it seems.This is the route that Manchester City have taken once they were taken-over by mega-rich new owners. In 2008, City were purchased by the Abu Dhabi United group for Development and Investment. Abu Dhabi is a vastly rich Persian Gulf state owning about 10% of the world’s oil reserves. The company which has bought Manchester City Football Club consists of super wealthy sheiks from the Royal Family that controls Abu Dhabi and its immense fortune. City have therefore become a “Petro-Dollar plaything.” Thanks to television, Premiership football has become a global phenomenon. By buying a Premier League club, the super-rich sheiks have bought into the glitz, the glamour and the action. They will also get much publicity and prestige. So Manchester City, a proud club, with a long, rich history, has been reduced to becoming a brand name in the international world of marketing.

  City no longer has to bother to balance its books, to make sure that expenditure doesn’t exceed income. Now the norm is to spend, spend, spend. This would be business suicide in any normal club, but when you are backed up by one of the world’s richest countries, then there is no worry. City have just announced the largest operating loss in the entire history of the high spending Premier league. That’s taken some doing. But do they care? Not a bit of of it it seems. In fact they have already announced their intention to buy one of Spain’s most talented and expensive players to strengthen the team for next season. They no longer have to raise revenue before purchasing players and do not have to worry about the patient, long-term development of young players. They can now break all the rules and acquire success the quick way by buying ( some would say “stealing”) other club’s best players. Patience and delayed gratification have now gone out of fashion. If one has enough money one can go straight for instant gratification. City’s new owners seem to be saying -” We want  success and we want it now!”

  Manchester City have achieved their dazzling ” success” by complete chance. The super-rich Arab Royals could have chosen: Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Scunthorpe United or even Accrington Stanley. The result would have been just the same except that with the lower league clubs, it would have taken a bit longer. City just happened to be available, as their previous owner, a dodgy Thai politician and businessmen, had got into trouble with the courts, being accused of fraudalent practices. He had to get rid quickly so was pleased to sell to the Sheiks when they came knocking. They were happy to acquire a Premier league club that would increase their prestige and profile. It could have been any club, but it just happened to be Manchester City!

  So how does a club craving instant success go about buying it, if it has limitless resources? Well, it uses it’s money to attract the top managers and coaches. It uses its money to create the best facilities. Finally it uses its money to buy other clubs’ best players. First of all it pays ridiculously high transfer fees that only a fool would refuse. Then it pays obscenely high salaries to make the top players want to come. If a player is already legally contracted to another club that is still no obstacle. The rich club ( in this case- City) lets it be known that it is interested in the player; the player becomes unsettled and unhappy because the grass now appears to be a lot greener on the other side; if the player’s club points out he is under contract and refuses to sell, the player is then encouraged to request a transfer and state that he is no longer happy to stay at the club he has signed to play for; no club wishes to retain an unhappy player who is no longer motivated to play his best; therefore the club reluctantly accepts the vastly inflated transfer fee and the player disappers to collect his riches. This scenario played out in the cases of Gareth Barry ( lured away from Aston Villa), Joleon Lescott ( lured away from Everton), and Samir Nasri.( lured away from Arsenal), to name just three cases. All three ripped up their contracts and walked away from the clubs that had nurtured and developed them into top internationals. All three are now playing for Manchester City and reaping in vast amounts of money. ( more than most ordinary people can imagine.) In all three cases their former clubs were left with major problems in trying to replace them at short notice.

  City’s management team led by Roberto Mancini refused to take “no” for an answer. In the case of Nasri, a player contracted to Arsenal, Mancini spoke quite openly to the press about his intention to sign him, saying that his team was not yet complete.After that, money did the talking. It seems that limitless resources can enable one to ride roughshod over normal manners, business etiquette and professional conduct.

  City are not the only rich club to do this of course. When Chelsea FC became the plaything of Russian billionairre, Roman Abramovich, they too went down the “instant success” road, buying other club’s best players and sacking a whole string of hard-working managers who failed to deliver fast enough. Players under contract, such as Ashley Cole at Arsenal, were approached undercover and acquired anyway, probably by unprofessional means. Big money doesn’t worry about professional niceties or rules. It will try to buy success at any cost. Chelsea have just won the coveted Champion’s League. Abramovich was there in Munich to see what his plaything had achieved. Is this good for football? I don’t think so.

3. Is Manchester City’s Success Good For Abu Dhabi and the World in General? —- One could argue that Manchester City have not really achieved any success. This achievement belongs to Abu Dhabi, a state that by a complete fluke, is sitting on top of one of the World’s richest oil fields. Maybe it would be more acceptable if they changed their name to Abu Dhabi United, if they trained in the desert and travelled to matched by camel. But would this be suitable and appropriate for one of the oldest, proudest football clubs in the country that invented the game? I don’t suppose all those elated City fans would be very thrilled if they had to fly to the Persian Gulf to watch every “home” match. Is there a long and strong footballing tradition in the United Arab Emirates? I don’t think so! Is the UAE’s football pedigree the reason why Qatar has been awarded a future World Cup Tournemant, or is it because the Qatari’s are awash with oil money as well and FIFA wants to grab as much of the wealth as it can?

  I would argue that Manchester City’s 44 year wait is not really over. The real football club has not won anything because it is really just a front  for an Arab business venture. In achieving the title, the heart and soul, tradition and history of the club has been ripped out and destroyed. All that is left is a travesty. A once proud club has been hijacked by an obscure Arab elite who know very little about grass-roots football and are just using it as a vanity-project and business venture.The chief Sheik — Mansoud — is so interested in Manchester City and football that he only came to one game in the entire season and didn’t even bother to turn up to see them clinch the title! Can you imagine a real football fan not attending what is potentially the greatest day in the history of the club?

  So what about the people  of Abu Dhabi? Are they proud of their great achievement? Were they dancing in the streets when the news came through from Manchester? When I was watching Sky Sports’ coverage of the great day I expected the cameras to cut from celebration in the blue half of Manchester to jubilation amongst the soaring skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi. Afterall, their team, bought with their country’s money, had just won and beaton off the challenge of their greatest rivals: Manchester United. But there was no celebration. The ordinary citizens of Abu Dhabi have no connection with the football club that their country’s revenue has purchased.

  Abu Dhabi is not a democracy. Its people have no say in what happens to the country’s vast amounts of oil money. Power and control has been commandered by a small hereditary clique and used as their own private income. Some would argue that the people of Abu Dhabi have been mugged by their own rulers. They have been robbed of their country’s God-given inheritance by their own despotic Royal family. These undemocratic Sheiks have acquired a football club which is totally alien to the culture of the people of the Persian Gulf. They have done this in order to gain prestige and status in the World’s eyes. The ruling elite of Abu Dhabi has been in competition with the equally unrepresentative ruling elite of Dubai, another formerly oil rich Gulf state, for World attention. The two of them have competed to build the highest skyscrapers and turn their capitals into mini New Yorks. The two of them have competed to host prestigious sports events with top players attracted by the immense prize money.

  Both states have undemocratic ruling cliques, intent on creating capitals of glitz and bling, more in common with Las Vegas than the  traditional, simple bedouin lifestyle of their people. These ordinary citizens have not been consulted about any of this and have no choice but to acquiese in the purchase of expensive, irrelevant vanity projects such as a football club in a cold, damp far-away city.

 The Abu Dhabi United group have thrown almost £1 billion at the Manchester City project. With that money they could have provided clean water for every person in Africa. With that money they could have done a tremendous amount to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in their own continent of Asia. But these charitable actions would not have garnered much prestige or glamour. Poor people do not attract glamour and do not generate constant drama and excitement for the world’s TV audiences. That’s because poor people live in the harsh conditions of real life, not the fake, frothy world of entertainment which football is part of.

4. The End of Integrity, Trust and Loyalty.  — It used to be the case that football players largely honoured their contracts. Now they cannot be trusted to stick to their word if a rich suitor comes knocking. It used to be the case that clubs respected each other’s integrity. Now clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea treat others with contempt by openly poaching their players even if they are still under contract. These super rich clubs have no compunction about ripping up their own employee’s contracts either. If a manager or a coach doesn’t deliver, he is summarily sacked. As with everything else, money is used to achieve this aim, in the form of the sweetener of compensation for the dismissed employee. Mark Hughes was sacked by City because he was trying to build up a long-term project and was not able to conjure up instant success. Ranieri, Grant, Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas, all managers employed by Chelsea and poached from other clubs, were all sacked when they they failed to win the league or the Champions’ League in their first seasons. Would Mancini, City’s current manger, have survived if his side had not hit those two late goals to win the league by a whisker?

Patience and trust are not qualities exhibited by billionairre football owners.

  Then we come to the players. In recent memory, quite a few top footballers remained loyal to one club and developed a very special relationship with its fans. Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup winning captain in 1966, played for West Ham United for his entire career. Bobby Charlton always played for Manchester United. In an earlier era, another top England international, Johnny Haynes, always played for unfashionable Fulham and Nat Lofthouse was Bolton Wanderers through and through. Such long term loyalty is very rare in the top leagues these days. Most Premier League clubs consist of stars from across Europe, Africa and Latin America, rather than lads spotted in the local area.  These players are little more than mercenaries attracted by the big wages. The history and the tradition of the club mean little if anything to them. Carlos Tevez has travelled from Argentina to Manchester City, not because he wants to be part of a glorious footballing tradition or because he has a special affinity with the ordinary people of North-West England. The big attraction for Carlos is the £250,00 he is paid every single week to wear the chalky blue shirt. Only two of his team-mates, Hart and Richards, played for the team before the Arab billionairres moved in. The rest — from Spain, Italy, Bosnia, Ivory Coast, Argentina and Belgium ( plus other places I don’t know about)– are there  primarily for the dosh. If the Sheiks pulled the plug tomorrow, most of this mercenary team would have probably disappeared within a few months. This is because City would have to return to the reality of being a normal football club that has to try to make ends meet or go bankrupt.

It’s good that Manchester United, another club with lots of money, has been knocked off its perch. However, this is looking at the situation from a very narrow football point of view. From most other viewpoints, City’s success is not so good. Too many precious principles and time honoured traditions have been sacrificed in the ruthless rush for success. The price of City’s triumph has been unacceptably high in my opinion. Patience, prudence, integrity and decency have been sacrificed to impatience, greed and ruthlessness. The people of Manchester have had their club stolen from them, just as the disenfranchised people of Abu Dhabi have been robbed of their natural inheritance. Which ever angle one looks at it from, Manchesters City’s so-called triumph is far from a good thing.

ALBANIA POSTSCRIPT.

14 May

It was our last road trip in Albania.The near 3 hour public bus journey from Berat to Tirana cost just 300 leks ( about £1.80.) As we travelled through the countryside, I gazed out of the window and noted what I saw — market gardens growing tomatoes, vegetables and poppies; vines and olive trees; flocks of sheep guided by shepherds with sticks; tethered donkeys, mules and horses; a scrawny horse pulling a cart with a cow tied by its horns to the back; a sprinkling of churches and mosques; groups of men drinking and smoking in little cafes, idling the day away ( there is high unemployment in Albania). At one point I was shocked to see two men slaughtering a cow on a concrete slab out in the open! There was blood everywhere. It was horrible but made me pleased that I have chosen to be a vegetarian. Then suddenly the buildings got taller, the traffic got a lot busier and we were back in Tirana, being surrounded by a posse of taxi men as soon as we disembarked.

On our very last day we got two contrasting pictures of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatership which has now thankfully faded away. In the National History Museum we learnt about how he gained power after a reign of terror in the 1940’s. We also learnt a little about what it was like to live in fear, in an isolated, tyrannical regime. Then in the National Art Gallery we stared in amazement at the massive “lies” perpetrated by the large, colourful Socialist-Realist paintings on display. They showed happy people working side by side in the fields and the factories, men and women together in a contended, ” equal” society. Equally happy soldiers worked alongside them, giving the impression that they were helping the people rather than suppressing them which is what actually happened in real life. These pictures were part of a propaganda campaign that created the sick delusion that everyone was deleriously happy, whilst in reality they had had their human rights stripped away and had been cut off from the rest of the world. The many concrete bunkers that still litter the country are proof of the delusioned, paranoid state the country had been in, up to only 2 decades ago.

In our brief travels Eric and I encountered many open, friendly, happy Albanians. They seemed to be embracing their new-found liberty with both arms. After centuries of subjugation, war and terror, Albania deserves a bit of peace and contentment. As we sat in a sunny Tirana park on our final afternoon, we remembered just a few of the people we had come across on our travels.

There were the kids in Korca who abandoned their football match to help us find a museum. There was the elderly hotel receptionist who proudly told us that she had translated Charles Dickens into Albanian and produced the published book to prove it. Then there were the two taxi drivers, both kind and valient in their different ways. One – Artu- had undertook a tricky 10 hour round trip to get us through the spectacular White ( Gramoz) Mountains. The other, whose name we never learnt, had a car that was low on fuel and seemed to be stuck in second gear! Despite this he still drove us 26 kms along rough roads to a remote village that harboured an old frescoed gem of a church, found a woman to unlock it for us, then drove us back again, all with a broken gear box! There was the man who opened up Albania’s first school ( now the Education Museum in Korca) when we rattled the gates and proceeded to give us a running commentary on it in Italian. Finally we thought of the men in the smoky football bars of the capital, who all gladly moved along so that we could get a better view of the screen.

It was the people who, in the end, gave us our most vivid memories of the no longer so mysterious country of Albania. They were kind, thoughtful and generous , and helped to make this such a fantastic trip. At the moment Albania is relatively uncommercialised and unspoilt. Go before the Coca Cola and McDonalds signs start to appear!

BERAT, the Town of a Thousand Windows — Albania, Part 4.

13 May

Journey through central and south Albania in April/May, 2012. Part 4.

SARANDA to BERAT. —  We finally reached Berat, one of Albania’s most picturesque towns, after another epic road journey. For 5 hours the public bus ground through hills, mountains, and small market towns, passing fields full of crops, oil fields full of quaint “nodding donkeys” and miles of rough, badly surfaced roads. I was not surprised when the driver stopped for a rest after 3 hours of bumping along. As well as negotiating difficult roads and coping with the constant coming and going of passengers, he had also had an explosive, expletive- laced argument with someone on his mobile. The whole crowded bus had hushed to listen in. Eric and I couldn’t understand a word, but we got the message loud and clear. The tone of his voice told us that he’d sent the other guy packing with a flea in his ear! All the passengers nearly burst out into a round of applause when he finally slammed the phone down in triumph!

During the stop at a hillside cafe, the driver gulped down a big bowl of soup and demolished a hunk of bread, while I encountered my only Turkish toilet of the whole Albania trip. I survived! When we finally pulled into Berat bus station, Eric, myself and the driver were the only 3 left from those who had set off from the south coast early that morning. He was an unsung hero that bus driver, and he still had a smile on his face as he passed us our cases.

DRAMATIC ” MUSEUM CITY.”  —  Along with Gjirokastra, Berat has been preserved as a “Museum city” since 1961. In 2008 it joined the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The fast flowing River Osuni has cut a deep gorge through the limestone rock of the valley, creating precipitous crags on either side. This is the picturesque setting of Berat. Striking, white Ottoman houses climb the hill to a massive castle perched on the very top. Berat means ” white city” and it has also been evocatively named “The Town of a Thousand Windows.” Soldiers from many countries have been magnetically drawn to Berat because of its strategic site and almost impregnable position. They were followed centuries later by artists and poets, mesmerised by its wild, romantic beauty. It was this sort of location that caused Byron to praise Albania as paradise on earth. The accomplished artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, also visited the country in 1848 as part of a painting tour of the Balkans. Copies of 3 of his lovely pictures of Berat hung in our hotel room and the original are in the Lear Gallery in the lower town. Apparently he was a note-worthy and successful artist before inventing the Owl and the Pussy Cat and The Jumblies.

Attractive ensembles of white-washed houses, tiled roofs and old stone walls are laced together by steep cobbled lanes. Above the town, pine forsts cling to the higher slopes whilst down below there is a lovely mix of olive groves and cherry trees. We were just in time to see the blossom. A dramatic back-cloth is provided by the stupendous, snow covered Tomorr Mountains. It’s a memorable sight especially when viewed from the castle grounds at the very top of the main crag.

CASTLE, CHURCHES and ICONS.  —  Eric and I climbed to the citadel via one of the straightest, steepest cobbled streets we had ever encountered. It took us a full 15 minutes to get up there. It was especiaaly difficult for my friend Eric, because the slippery smoothness of the worn cobbles matched the smoothness of his shoes’ soles. He had to perform a sort of soft-shoe shuffle in order to get a grip. Inside the castle walls sprawls a whole village known as Kala. It contains the remains of one mosque ( for the former Turkish garrison) and 8 Churches ( for the local people). There used to be 20 churches. The 13th century Church of the Holy Trinity is particularly beautiful. Built in the shape of a cross, it clings to a grassy slope just below the castle’s inner walls. It is a lovely mix of warm red, decorative brickwork, arched windows and curving, rust coloured tiles. Inside it lurk Byzantine murals but it is locked up, awaiting money for restoration.

The only church that is open is the gorgeous, late 18th century Church of the Dormition of St Mary. It only holds one service per year but houses the lovely Onufri Museum of Icons and religious artefacts. We were too late to visit that first evening but returned the next day after hauling ourselves up the steep hill again.

Onufri was Albania’s most celebrated icon painter. He worked in the 16th century and was noted for his technique, realism and vivid colours. He actually invented a colour that was subsequently named after him — shiny, “Onufri Red.” In the church itself is a spectacular, intricately carved wooden iconastasis. It is made from walnut covered in gold-leaf. It featured 2 lines of ravishing icons, including two paintings by the master himself.

THE BEST RESTAURANT IN ALBANIA?  —-  Whilst exploring the labrinthyne town inside the castle walls on our first visit, we suddenly got hungry and needed somewhere to eat. We thought we would have to struggle down the long, cobbled hill to the new town far below, but then inadvertently discovered an eating place inside the castle. At first it looked just like a refreshment bar, but when we mentioned food and did a bit of sign language we were shown into what seemed a room inside an ordinary house. In one corner an old guy was sipping a desultary raki. There was little evidence that this was a restaurant ( “resterant” in Albanian)  — no menus, no prices, no set tables, no food on display. When we signalled for the menu the woman disappeared and returned with her husband. He appeared to be acting as a human menu. Someone who knew him , later told us that he knew about 17 languages, but only spoke a few words of each! His attempts at English seemed to boil down to :resterant traditionale, speciality barak ( or burek). I knew the latter was a Greek or Turkish style dish consisting of flaky, filo pastry layered with spinach and cheese or meat. I had had it in Greece and Cyprus. Luckily the guy understood the word “vegetarian” when I mentioned it and he got the message about Eric after he had performed his now infamous clucking chicken act. I just hoped he wouldn’t get the two of us mixed up!

Thus it was that we were served a veritable feast washed down with beer, mineral water and raki. It was a traditional Meze with new dishes appearing roughly every 5 minutes, until we finally held up our hands in surrender and Eric shouted “finito!” ( He has recently been learning Spanish just to confuse everybody!)  It was all delicious but in danger of becoming overwhelming. While his wife slaved away preparing the food, which then appeared as if by magic, the man showed off about his place being the best traditional restaurant in Berat, if not the whole of Albania. He showed us a framed photograph of himself with the President of Albania who had come to dine there. The owner’s wife, who actually cooked all the food, was nowhere to be seen on the picture. She was probably preparing the next course or washing up the pots while her husband hobnobbed with the VIPs in front of the camera, taking all the credit! We ate: stuffed peppers, stuffed vine leaves, butter beans in a tomato sauce, generous Greek salads, a whole plateful of burek, poached egges set in spinach, spicy chicken chunks in spinach, homemade bread. Even after we said “stop” we still got 2 pieces each of dark, sticky honey cake. All this for just under £8 each!

STRANGE LIGHTS — When we left the castle restaurant it was dark and we nervously navigated the long, slippery slope to our hotel down in the town below. About halfway down I saw a tiny, luminous, flashing light. It briefly flashed on and off by the side of the dark road. The next second it had moved to somewhere else and then it moved again. I wondered what it was. I couldn’t remember any lights by the road when we had climbed up. I thought back to those Edward Lear prints. Was this a rare sighting of the luminous nose of the mythical Dong? Then suddenly I realized what I was witnessing — FIREFLIES! I had never seen them before and neither had Eric. That’s the thing about travel: it always has a surprise up its sleeve when you least expect it. Now, as we stopped and looked, the whole bank was full of flashing, briefly glowing, constantly moving lights. According to the dictionary  a firefly is a “beetle emitting phosphorescent light.” We stood in amazement.

ALBANIA’S ANNE ROBINSON. — On our last night in Berat we sat on the rooftop terrace of a restaurant overlooking the river as it curves between two bridges, one modern and the other 18th century. In front of us was the gorge, and the white Ottoman buildings nestled on the hillside, punctuated by churches and mosques. In the distance were the magnificant, white-topped mountains.

In the background 3 chain-smoking men watched with rapt attention the Albanian TV version of “The Weakest Link.” It must have been compulsive stuff for a people who had once idolised Norman Wisdom, because his silly slapstick offerings were the only Western films they had been allowed to see. The male Albanian version of Anne Robinson seemed to be kindlier and didn’t have her wicked wink but the 3 smokers were engrossed. As our pizzas cooked in the wood fired oven, Eric and I savoured the moment. It was typical of many we had had in Albania —- beautiful but bizarre!

 

 

COLD WAR PILOTS and ROMAN GENERALS – Adventures in Albania, Part 3.

12 May

Intro — In the early summer of 2012, my friend Eric Wise and I visited the previously cut-off country of Albania in south-east Europe. This is the third post about our experiences and encounters.

GJIROKASTRA — Dictator’s Birthplace and Relics of War.  —  We arrived at the “Museum City” of Gjirokastra after a mammoth near 5 hour taxi ride through the awe-inspiring White Mountains. ( See previous blog– “Don’t Gulp Your Raki.”) The busy new town sits on the main road through the Drinos Valley, but it’s the lovely early 19th century, Ottoman dwellings climbing a steep hill to a medieval castle that catch the eye. It’s an austere and beautiful old town given protection by the Albanian government as early as 1961 and then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. It’s traditional architecture has been preserved and new building has been kept out of the historic quarter. Maybe this special treatment came about because it was the birthplace of the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha back in 1908. Whatever the reason, the result is now a charming, atmospheric place, with a maze of steep, cobbled streets and steps, white-washed antique buildings ( all unique) and stunning views of the mountains beyond.

Gjirokastra is known as “the city of a thousand steps” and if your knees can take the strain, it’s a lovely place to explore. Apart from the odd craft shop and a few bars and cafes, it is largely uncommercialised. The occasional tour group briefly passes through but it is mostly quiet ( ie in April.) We almost had the place to ourselves. The annual invasion of Albanian ex-pats had yet to begin. ( there are many more Albanians living abroad than the 3.6 million actually in Albania.)

We climbed up to the castle on top of a very high crag.Not surprisingly, we were the only visiters. The 13th century citadel is rambling and semi-ruined. After its days as a fortress were over, it served as a grim prison in the days of King Zog ( 1920’s and 30’s) and then when the Nazis came to town. After paying  our usual 200 Leks ( just over £1), we entered, expecting the usual ruined- castle experience. However as we turned a corner into a dimmed gallery we were met by a strange and surprising sight. Out of the gloom emerged the eerie silouettes of cannon and artillery pieces captured from the Italians and Germans during the Second World War. At the bottom, there was even a small Italian tank — an unintended gift from Mussolini to the nation he had tried to subjugate. Outside , on the sunny, grassy terrace were more ordnance from an earlier era but at the far end we then spotted the shining shell of a modern fighter plane. It turned out to be the wreck of an American Lockheed jet fighter that had been supposedly forced down in 1957 after trespassing into Albanian air-space at the height of the Cold War. We had unexpectedly stepped back into the era of Eisenhower and Kruschev. Actually Hoxha didn’t care for either of them. He’d broken away from the Soviets after the death of his mate Stalin and taken the first steps towards Albania’s almost complete isolation. The silver fighter was called “The Shooting Star” ( 1949) and had probably developed mechanical problems after setting off from a NATO base in Italy. The pilot is supposed to have been released after the Communist party had paraded him as an example of Capitalist aggression. However, disturbingly, some reports say that he was never seen again! Whatever happened to him,the poor man’s plane has become the centre piece of the bizarre military museum in Gjirokastra’s castle.

Eric and I were again the only visiters when we went to the Ethnographic Museum, down the hill from the castle. This is Hoxha’s birthplace and is supposed to be a classic, traditional house, except that we found out that it’s a  replica of the original, following a fire in the early 90’s. The place is fascinating but we were rushed through it by a bossy guide, who seemed to be angry that we had disturbed her peace. She was the only unpleasant person we encountered in the whole of Albania. Much better was the Zekate House, a genuine traditional dwelling ( 18th century) that used to be the museum up to 1992. Here a delightful male resident, proud of his home, showed us round, giving us English language information cards and adding extra facts in Albanian and broken French. The traditional houses in Gjirokastra and in Berat which we later visited, are 3 stories high with towers and chimneys. The ground floor is for storage and the upper floors are the living quarters and elaborately decorated guest rooms. In one we saw a graceful fireplace painted in a pattern featuring pomegranates.The house gave a hint of what life was like in Albania up to just a few decades ago. People sat on cushions or low sofas close to the floor and ate from communal bowls on round tables. Men and women ate separately. While the men had their meal, the women would watch from a hidden upper gallery through delicate, discreet grills in the wall. They would then be on hand to top up a jug or a glass, and bring in the next course. As in much of the Islamic world today, there seemed to be an almost complete separation of the sexes both in public and private. It was a reminder that for 500 years up to 1912 Albania was very much part of the Ottoman Empire. A similar house, equally beautiful, serves as the Ethnographic Museum in Berat, except the attendant there was much nicer than the rude, impatient woman in Hoxha’s birthplace.

SARANDA and BUTRINT — Modern Resort and Ancient Ruin.   —- We travelled from Gjirokastra to Saranda by public bus through more dramatic hill and mountain scenary. When we asked the bus driver where the taxi rank was in order to get to our hotel, he told us to get back on the bus and he took us himself! It was yet another example of Albanian kindness.

Saranda sits on a beautiful bay, half-circled by hills. Opposite, across a short stretch of the lovely azure Adriatic Sea, sits the Greek island of Corfu. It should have been an idyllic place, but unfortunately the entire bay has been plastered with unsightly modern high-rise. Maybe in their self-imposed isolation, the Albanians never got to hear about the desecration of the Costa del Sol or the ugly over-development of the  Bay of Naples. The whole town and the scenic coast to the south of it, resembles one big construction site, with new hotels and apartments being started all the time. Many of them lie unfinished with multiple prongs of steel sticking out of the concrete towards the floor above that has yet to be built. Some cowboy-built structures have already collapsed and the government has had to move in to demolish the worst offenders.

Still, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Our hotel was nice and from the balcony we had a great view of the ferries and cruise ships coming in from Greece. The promenade was quite jolly with children’s amusements, ice-cream parlours and cafes. Bunting and fairy lights had been put up for the forthcoming”Mussels Festival” ( there are several mussel farms on a nearby lake.)  Eric and I strolled along in the sunshine, half hoping to be able to buy a pair of “Kiss me quick” hats. There were more tourists in Saranda than any other place we visited. Nevertheless, in the evening, we ate alone in the grounds of an empty pizzeria on the sea-front, beneath a bright Adriatic moon, enjoying the view of  Corfu’s dark silhouette just across the water.

The real reason for going to Saranda was to visit the ancient, evocative Greco-Roman remains at Butrint just down the coast. The historical ruins are set in a beautiful National Park with wonderful views in all directions. The site is on an acropolis, bordered on three sides by azure-blue water — a lake, the sea and a wide channel connecting them. The Ancient Greeks came there from Corfu in the 6th century BC and were followed by the Romans four centuries later. The ancient metropolis developed and apparently it was none other than Julius Caesar who had the idea to make Butrint into a Roman colony because of its strategic position at the mouth of the Adriatic. His nephew Augustus  further developed the town. Later still, Byzantines and Venetians added their six-penny-worths for the same strategic reasons.

The site today is an attractive mix of: temple ruins, remains of bath-houses, villas, defensive walls, towers, churches and a semi-circular theatre, all set in rich, partly submerged woodland. Lagoons have partly flooded the site because of earth movements in the past, such that some rich Romans, who had had palaces built, had to suddenly make a sharp exit! The water has covered the stage of the ancient theatre so that any actor delivering a speech today would do so largely to an audience of basking terrapins. They lazily plopped into the dappled water as Eric did his “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”.

Apart from a coach party just leaving as we arrived and another group arriving as we were about to leave, we had the place to ourselves for the best part of 5 hours. Lovely swallow-tailed butterflies fluttered about whilst jays and wagtails provided a splash of colour amongst the trees. Green lizards basked in the warm sun, then scurried away as we approached. The only things to disturb our serenity  were frighteningly large bumble bees that buzzed alarmingly close to us from time to time.

We unfortunately were unable to see the exquisite animal and bird mosaic at the 6th century Baptistry as it had been covered with sand to protect it from the elements. However we did see the classical statues, busts, pots, jewellery and other artefacts unearthed by the Italian archaeologists in the 1920’s and 30’s, and now housed in a restored Venetian tower which serves as a museum.

At one time the Romans built a bridge and an aquaduct across the wide channel that links Lake Butrint with the sea. However, people can now only cross the water by using a cable ferry.

Butrint, the ancient Greek settlement developed by the Caesars into an idyllic Roman city, is not surprisingly a World Heritage Site. Like Pompeii, its more famous Italian equivalent, it was forgotten for many centuries, but unlike Pompeii, it is still largely off the Western tourist’s radar. We had the enchanting place to ourselves. ( apart from the “killer bees”)

After a long, lazy sunny afternoon of peace, history and beauty, we returned to modern Saranda on the local, ramshackle bus — after the driver had finished his fag that is.

LAKES, ICONS and CRUMBLING MONOLITHS – Adventures in Albania, part 2.

10 May

INTRO — In April/May, 2012, my travel buddy, Eric Wise and I travelled to the previously mysterious country of Albania. ( See previous post — “Don’t Gulp Your Raki.”) We explored the centre and south of the country using public transport. We had a few adventures. Here are 3 more of them.

ALBANIA’S LOCH NESS  —  We are travelling by minibus ( furgon) from the capital Tirana towards the Macedonian border to the east. We drive through hilly countryside, grinding up long, steep slopes, then swooping down to the towns in the valleys below. The road is a mixture of smooth tarmac and rough rubble, pock-marked with ruts and holes. Our teeth grit and our bodies sway from side to side as the driver undertakes risky overtaking manouvres. Balkan folk music blares out of the radio, all plinky-plonky strings, percussion and snake-charmer’s pipes. In my imagination it sounds a bit like a bad Bollywood soundtrack.( just exaggerating — I quite liked it actually!)

Then, as we crest another hill, a large, shining lake appears below us. It is backed by a majestic wall of high, dark mountains, their gullies streaked with snow. This is Lake Ohrid, and those mountains are in Macedonia! The international border goes down the middle of the lake. Eric and I try to take pictures of the impressive scene but everytime we are about to press the shutter, the bus swerves round another hairpin and the view disappears. At last we are driving along the lake shoreline and the water is frequently fringed by delicately swaying reeds. Little rowing boats push out into the lake as people set out on fishing expeditions. The catches of previous trips are displayed at regular intervals by the side of the road to tempt passing motorists. A whole array of fish are displyed, including some really strange ones. Some are short and round whilst others are very long and thin, looking almost like eels.

Ohrid is very large, very deep and very old. It is fed by karstic springs in its banks and on its bed. It was created by the movements of tectonic plates before the last Ice Age. It is just as mysterious as Scotland’s Loch Lomond, another tectonic lake. The deepest parts of Ohrid are over 300 metres down and below 100 metres the temperature remains at a constant 6 degrees centigrade. These cold, mysterious depths may not harbour a “Nessy” type monster, but do contain several unique species of fish, including 2 types of trout found nowhere else in the World. Unfortunately these trout are thought by some to be very tasty and have been over-fished to the extent that they are endangered species. Protective measures have been put into place, but plenty of illegal catches are featured on the menus of local, lakeside restaurants.

Eventually we enter the busy border town of Pogradeci, leave the water behind, and speed on to the big town of Korca. But the images of the deep lake, the towering dark mountains and the strange fish, linger on in our minds.

LOOKING FOR THE HIDDEN ICONS. —  Eric and I had trecked to the provincial capital of Korca to hunt down some of the country’s most prized icons. To a worshipper in the Eastern Orthodox Church, an icon is a painted incarnation of Christ. Kissing an icon of Jesus, Mary or a Saint is like connecting with the Divine. The icon is almost like a portal to heaven.

Many of the icons of Albania were rescued from their doomed Orthodox churches during the Atheism campaign of the late 1960’s and secreted away to await the day when religious toleration returned. That day finally came in 1991 when Europe’s last Communist government finally fell. However, by then, countless churches and mosques had been lost or were in a very sorry state of neglect. In many cases, the only items to survive were the precious hidden icons. Devout Christians had taken great risks to hide them, for if the Communist authorities found one in your home, you were likely to be given a long, prison sentence. Many of the most valuable icons in the Korca region have now been gathered together into what is grandly titled ” The Museum of Albanian Medieval Art.”

However, when Eric and I went to visit it, the museum was nowhere to be seen. It was supposed to be located in a crumbling area of old Ottoman houses behind the new Cathedral. I had it on the street map but when we got there, it didn’t seem to exist. Either the map was inaccurate, I had read it wrongly or the museum had closed. As we were walking disconsolately away, I spotted a group of about a dozen lads playing football in the cobbled street. On the spur of the moment I decided to ask for their help. Being young, I thought they might have a few words of English. The kids gathered round the map and suddenly one of them confidently announced: “follow me.” So off we went through the maze of back-streets — Eric at the back, me at the front, and swirling around us: a gaggle of excited Albanian teenagers. Eric promptly christened me: ” The Pied Piper of Korca.” In 5 minutes we were there — ” The Museum of Albanian Medieval Art.” The kids alerted the security guard and after a lot of banging and rattling, he in turn managed to arouse the attendant who unlocked the religious treasure-trove just for us. No other tourist was in sight.

After multiple thank-yous ( faleminderits), hand-shakes, photographs and good-byes ( mirupafshims), we entered the dark, empty building. The single attendant turned on the lights, section by section and the shining icons emerged out of the darkness. It was like a miracle. We gazed at richly-coloured, glowing paintings of Christ, Mary and the Saints ( 13th to 19th centuries), silver Bible covers, Holy grails, crucifixes and two complete carved iconostases, all rescued from the clutches of the atheistic vandals. I stood and stared at a striking image of John the Baptist, now promoted to a saint, and sporting the dark wings of an angel. He cradled his human head, that had been demanded by a vengeful Salome, in a basket in his arms. I am not particularly religious, but I couldn’t fail to be moved by the beauty and spirituality of the place, and I kept reminding myself that this was some sort of miracle because all of these precious relics had been rescued from the hammers and explosives of the iconoclasts. Only a solitary attendant guarded them, no glass protected them and hardly anyone was coming to see them ( at least in April), but at least they had been saved.

HOXHA’S MOULDERING MAUSOLEUM.  —  In the middle of Tirana, just south of the river, is a large, white marble and glass structure called The Pyramid. It was built in 1988 as a mausoleum for the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, following his death in 1985. Perhaps he imagined long lines of dutiful citizens queing up to view his eternally preserved body as in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi. Perhaps he saw himself as Albania’s answer to Lenin, Mao Tse Tung or Ho Chi Minh. The pyramid was designed by his daughter and son-in-law and was a brazen attempt to preserve the memory of the man who had ruled Albania with a rod of iron for over 50 years. Like the Ancient Eygyptian Pharoahs before him, this was Hoxha’s bid for immortality.

However, Hoxha’s body never arrived there. It was eventually put to rest in an obscure corner of an ordinary cemetery in Tirana. The Pyramid was briefly a museum dedicated to the dictator’s life and works but was then converted into a conference centre and even a disco! Once hardline Communism started to lose its grip on the nation and began to crumble away, so did the building that was erected in its leader’s honour. Hoxha’s statue in the main square was dragged down by crowds in 1991, without the help of US Marines.

Today ( 2012) the Pyramid presents an extraordinary, even pathetic sight. Abandoned, vandalised, neglected, its windows are shattered and its walls graffitied. It is probably a graphic illustration of what the Albanian people really feel about their former dictator. Kids climb all over it and slide down its long, sloping walls. After all the massacres of opponents, show-trials, executions, concentration camps, church and mosque sackings and electrified, barbed border fences, Hoxha has seemingly lost every ounce of respect from the people he had ruled. ( He had once been revered as a brave leader of the Partizans, fighting the Italian and German fascists in the Second World War, but then he adopted many of the terror tactics of his former enemies.)

Hoxha’s crumbling, vandalised mausoleum/museum is his true legacy. His bid to be Albania’s National hero has well and truly failed. Soon the Pyramid will be demolished to make way for a new, democratic Parliament building. That is the ultimate irony for one of the greatest Balkan despots of the 20th century.

 

“DON’T GULP YOUR RAKI” — ADVENTURES IN ALBANIA, Part 1.

7 May

I was sitting on a hotel terrace soaking in the sun and a stunning mountain panorama. It could have been Austria or Switzerland, but I was actually in Albania, close to the Greek border. In front of me was a bowl of pistachios and a generous glass of raki, a clear spirit distilled from grape-juice. It’s Albania’s favourite drink, and even edges out coffee as the nation’s main, morning pick-me-up. My travel companion Eric and I were feeling very pleased with ourselves, having survived an epic, near 5 hour white-knuckle ride through the spectacular Gramoz mountains, with Artu, our valiant taxi driver.

I took big, celebratory gulps of the spirit, and felt it burn its way down my throat and into my chest, like strong whiskey. It felt good. Having been brought up as a Methodist tee-totaller, I’ve never been a particularly sophisticated drinker. Suddenly however, Artu lost his smile and tapped my arm in concern. He couldn’t explain in words what he wanted to communicate, so he held up his thumb and forefinger instead. He held them very close together, with only a minute gap inbetween. The message was instantly clear.— “Small sips please!” I took a tiny, dainty mouthful and the smile returned. I had learnt Albanian Rule Number 1 — ” Don’t gulp your raki!”

EXPECTATION and REALITY ( plus a little HISTORY.)  —  Eric and I decided to go to Albania in April, 2012, because for most of our lives it was a country as remote as a far-away planet. As I have previously written ( cf “Why I Am Going to Albania”), it was Europe’s North Korea, cut off by it’s communist rulers from the rest of the continent, even though it was a close neighbour of such familier holiday destinations as Greece and Italy. It’s problematic politics have conspired to keep it isolated from the outside world. As a taxi driver succinctly explained in his limited English: ” Albanian people — alright. Albanian politics — not alright.” A young owner of a photographic shop was almost apologetic as he explained to me that:” after only 20 years of freedom, the Albanian people have a lot of catching up to do.” The fact that he was speaking to us in decent English and produced our prints in about 5 minutes, showed that they have made a good start. It was just one of many surprises that defied our expectations.

In the early years of last century ( 1912 to be precise) Albania had finally cast of the yoke of 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule and 500 years of not being able to use its own language. Following attacks from all it’s neighbours Albania somehow emerged from the First World War as an independent nation although much shrunk by loss of territory and having to accept a German Prince imposed by the “Great Powers” as its ruler. Soon, the freedoms and rights of the population disappeared again with the undemocratic takeover of a clan chief, the strangely titled King Zog, who had no “Royal blood” but ruled as a dictator in the later 1920’s and 30’s.  Zog was then driven out by the invasion of Mussolini’s Italian fascist forces in 1939, so once more “freedom” was not on the agenda for the long suffering Albanians. During the Second World War, Partizan fighters defeated the Italians and eventually the Nazi Germans with the help of British secret forces and American bombing raids. (Are you still following this? Quiet at the back! Face the front!)  However as soon as freedom was at last glimpsed, it was swiftly snatched away when the country fell into the lethal clutches of the Stalinist/ Communist dictator: Enver Hoxha, after a brief but appalling reign of terror, now well documented in Tirana’s National Historical Museum. The poor Albanians merely swapped one form of totalitarianism for another!

Much publicity has been devoted to the Berlin Wall, the most famous and concrete embodiment of Churchill’s metaphorical ” Iron Curtain.” However, there has hardly been any awareness of the 2.6m high, electrified barbed-wire fence which caged in the citizens of Communist Albania. As recently as 1990, people were being shot dead as they tried to escape to freedom.

My friend Eric and I were on the other side of that impenetrable fence for the best part of 5 decades, so Albania had developed a great air of mystery in our minds. It was like a huge question-mark tucked into the south-west corner of our continent. What would we find when we finally got to a country that had had a mere 22 years of democratic freedom and still hardly figured in the consciousness of most people in the west? The Americans had landed on the moon in 1969 but they had never made it to Albania. Would we find poverty and squalor? Would we be walking into chaos? Would the people be depressed and downhearted by their horrific history? ( as many seemed to be in Russia when I visited) Would ordinary Albanians be shy, suspicious or even hostile to foreigners after their years of isolation? ( as I had found in remote villages of Yorkshire.) We were fully prepared to have a strange, alien, even uncomfortable experience.

But actually we got just the opposite. OK, we saw poor people and got shaken and jostled about on some pretty bumpy, pot-holed roads, but we also met lots of cheerful, friendly and welcoming people. There was not a hint of awkwardness in our encounters with people of all ages. Albanians seemed to be glad that the outside world was at long last coming to see them and seemed determined to ensure that foreign visiters felt comfortable and at home. Despite the language barrier, we were always able to communicate with the locals, using a handful of words we had learnt from a London-based Albanian lady on the plane, a simple phrase-book, their bits of broken English, smatterings of Italian and some simple sign language. Albanian waiters’ shocked reactions to Eric’s imitations of chickens, pigs and cows when ordering his food provided some of the highlights of the holiday. I know it sounds like a holiday brochure cliche, but one of the best features of Albania in my opinion is the friendliness of its people. I expected a certains degree of coolness and suspicion but in fact we experienced warmth and acceptance. Thus is the difference between anticipation and reality.

Being relatively new to tourism and having so few visitors compared to neighbouring countries, the Albanians seemed to retain  some degree of child-like innocence and openess. We came across no hustlers in the street, little or no commercialisation, no cynicism, no ” give us your money.” Prices were just as cheap for us as for the locals, unlike say in China or Cuba which fully exploit foreign visiters through much higher “tourist prices.” In fact Albanian prices were very cheap indeed. We had difficulty getting rid of our cash ( ie Leks.)

THE WELCOMING MOSQUE  —  One early example of the friendliness of the locals came on our first day in Tirana. We had heard the haunting Muslim call to prayer drifting across the city and had been magnetically drawn to the beautiful, 18th century Mosque of Et’ham Bay standing on the edge of busy Skanderbeg Square. In other Islamic countries I had visited, such as Morocco and Jordan, I had been used to just glimpsing into a mosque’s courtyard because, as a non-Muslim, I was not allowed to go in. However, this time, as we hovered at the entrance, we were given warm, welcoming smiles, encouraged to take our shoes off and put them on the rack, and then enter the exquisitely painted inner sanctum. When I asked someone who understood a little English if it was really alright to go in, he replied: ” Yes of course. It is an honour.” We quietly sat down on the carpet with a dozen worshippers and listened to a hypnotic and surprisingly soothing rendition of part of the Qu’ran. When the Iman had finished his mesmeric song, we were actively encouraged to take photographs and were given a guided tour of some of the treasured pictures and calligraphy displayed on the wall.

Later we were accepted without fuss into Albaninan Orthodox Churches and Cathedrals. Part of the reason for such a welcoming attitude may have derived from the days when religion was banned. The hard-line Communist authorities led by Hoxha, had declared Albania as the World’s first Athiest State in 1968, taking their cue from Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. Churches and mosques of all shapes and sizes were torn down, blown up or turned into humble warehouses. Priests and Imans were imprisoned or even shot. Maybe the warm welcome we received in all places of worship was because we had come to admire them rather than destroy them. The welcome was part of the celebration of their survival against all the odds through the dark times of the recent past. The orthodox cathedral in Korca, a provincial city in the south-east, is a striking modern confection of pink and cream domes and towers. Its old and venerable predecessor was dynamited in 1968!

Another example of the lovely welcome we invariably received was in the football bars of Tirana. All along the main boulevards were bars and cafes with big screens showing live football matches from around Europe’s top leagues. These establishments were invariably crowded with men drinking, smoking and watching the game. There was not a woman in sight, a phenomenum we found across Albania, although to be fair the same situation probably occurs in Greece, Turkey and many other countries who have yet to fully experience ” women’s lib.” Many Albanian men are quite fierce looking with thick eye-brows and seemingly scowling expressions. However as soon as we plucked up courage and walked through the door it was all smiles and instant acceptance. People would move along so we could sit down and get a good view of the screen, the waiter would serve us our lager type beers where we sat and we just blended into the crowd as if we had lived there all our lives. It was funny watching Barcelona v Real Madrid or Manchester City v Manchester Utd with Albanian commentary. Much of it was indecipherable but every now came a smattering of English such a “free-kick” or “half time”. When someone scored the commentator went berserk, screaming the word “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL” for at least 10 seconds. I had previously thought they only did that in Brazil.

INDEPENDENT TRAVELLERS — We travelled around central and south Albania as independent travellers using the local buses, minibuses ( Furgons) and taxis. We had a tiny bit of help from a small travel firm I discovered on the Internet — Derek Crane Travel Ltd, who helped with accommodation and general advice to enhance and refine my “tailor-made” itinerary, devised after hours of poring over guide books. Derek arranged for his Albanian representative, Jimmy Lama, to meet us at Tirana’s Mother Theresa airport and give us emergency back-up, which we thankfully never had to call upon but was a comforting insurance.

Being independent travellers often raised eye-brows both from local Albanians who were mainly used to seeing people travelling in groups, and from other tourists being chaperoned round by guides and having their own  private transport laid on. So Eric and I strutted around with a certain air of pride, pleased with our achievement of fending for ourselves in a strange, foreign environment. I’ve been on these group tours myself whether it be with “Explore”, “Exodus” or “Voyages Jules Verne” and they are usually very good.  It’s a great opportunity to meet people to share the experience with. It’s also more relaxing letting someone else do all the organising and the worrying. However, there is a real buzz in organising things for oneself and a real sense of achievement when everything works out ( if it does!) At the end of our ” Albanian Adventure” ( alternatively dubbed:” Balls-up in the Balkans” by the incorrigible Eric!) we could both sing along with Frank Sinatra ( or Sid Vicious) and rightly say ” We did it our way.” So we found out: where and when to get the bus, how to pay, where to eat, where our hotels were where the sights were, how to communicate with local people, what to see etc —  mostly on our own. When we did make a mistake it added tension and uncertainty into our trip, but this strangely enhanced the whole experience. The leaving of Korca was an excellent example.

We had been in the provincial town of Korca for 2 days living in palatial but faded splendour at the Hotal Grand. We had travelled very cheaply to Korca from Tirana in a minibus — 700 Leks ( slightly over £6), for a journey of over 3 hours. We now planned to travel south-west along a spectacular mountain road to Gjirokastra, a beautiful “Museum Town” which was Enver Hoxha’s birthplace. This was to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. The Lonely Planet describes the road from Korca to Gjirokastra as “awe- inspiring”, taking in alpine plains, pine forests, soaring, snow-capped mountains, wild rivers and plunging ravines. The road is steep and twisty with many hair-pins. The first thing the bus conductor does at the start of the epic, 6 to 7 hour trip, is to hand out sick bags! Jimmy Lama had commented that not many people had included this route on their itineraries, but Eric and I were determined to enjoy the experience, albeit a little nervously. However, the experience began before we even got out of Korca.

The only bus was at 6am and being a bit lazy we let it go, assuming there would be minibuses following the same route at a more civilised hour. The whole area around the bus station and the old market was crowded with minibus and taxi drivers all keenly looking for a fare. As Eric and I tramped down the hot, dusty road, carrying our rucksacks and dragging our cases, we obviously stuck out like a sore thumb. (We hardly saw any other tourists in Korca.) Soon we were besieged by a small army of swarthy men all offering us rides. When they realised we were English they magically produced their friend who had lived in Canada or Australia to explain the deal and conduct the negotiations. The trouble was they all wanted to take us back to Tirana or to other places we didn’t want to go to. As soon as we mentioned Gjirokastra, and indicated on a map that we wished to take the mountain road, there was a shocked silence. The drive was obviously long and difficult and not on their usual list of routes. They eventually explained that we would have to wait for the early morning bus next day and at that news we became very downhearted. We would have to lose a day of our holiday and spend an extra day hanging around Korca, which wasn’t exactly the most exciting town in the world. We would also have to spend money on an extra night at the Grand and forfeit the money we had already paid for our hotel in Gjirokastra. It was a bit of a blow and we were paying for our complacency.

Then a taxi driver offered to take us for 100 Euros. This seemed an astronomical fare compared to the one we had paid for the minibus ride from Tirana. We thought he was just trying it on and we refused and walked away to gather ourselves and take stock. We decided to return to the Grand and get help there. However as we turned the corner of the street leading back to the hotel, we were waylaid by another posse of taxi-drivers but as soon as we uttered the dreaded word: “Gjirokastra”, they too shrank back in horror and amazement. Nevertheless, one persisted in his overtures and produced a young English speaker from the taxi office nearby. He was willing to drive us despite the long distance and the difficulty of the mountain road, and again the fare was 100 Euros. So the first guy wasn’t trying it on afterall! He even threw in a small discount to tempt us in and in the end the deal was 14000 leks for the two of us. It still sounded high by Albanian standards but when we converted it into sterling and found it was about £43 each, we saw it was a very reasonable offer. So we took it and shook hands on the deal. By 9-50am we were setting off on what was to prove an epic and stunning journey of nearly 5 hours, one of the highlights of our holiday.

Yes, we could have done the mountain drive with a tour group, stepping out of the hotel after a relaxed breakfast and settling into our private coach. But that would have missed out all the drama, tension, highs and lows , crazy translations and interactions with  local people that our prolonged negotiations with Korca’s taxi and minibus drivers had led to. It was the essence of the appeal of going independent, especially as in this case there was a happy ending. Here we were, munching nuts and sipping raki on the mountain- view terrace of Hotel Capuji in Gjirokastra, along with Artu our excellent taxi driver, who had negotiated us safely through the hair-raising Gramoz Mountains on the Albanian/Greek border. I enjoyed that raki, especially when I started to sip it!

To be continued—– Watch this space!