“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!

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

  1. Orieta May 8, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    http://www.go-albania.com or http://www.visit-korca.com You can find here more information and ideas for holidays and visits in Albania

  2. jarvisandbeetle May 10, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    looking forward to the next installment. Don’t think i could have done a 5 hour drive through the mountains! Albania sounds an amazing country.

  3. a wedding event part July 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    I will right away snatch your rss as I can not in finding your email subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service.

    Do you have any? Please allow me know so that I may subscribe.
    Thanks.

    • scrapstu1949 July 5, 2013 at 7:45 am #

      I think you just choose to follow me on wordpress — scrapheapstuart2

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