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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.

 

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“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!

WHY I’M GOING TO ALBANIA.

14 Mar

I’m going to Albania this April. When I tell people this, their reactions range from surprise to incredulity. Maybe that’s the first reason  I’m going — I like to be unpredictable. Most people want to know “why?” The fact is that I’ve wanted to go there for ages but for most of my lifetime Albania was cut off from the rest of the world. I wasn’t allowed to visit it. Up until 1990 it was difficult to freely visit any of the communist countries on the other side of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” However Albania was probably the most sealed- off country of all, because it’s rulers not only opposed the capitalist countries of the west, but also eventually fell out with their Communist allies — firstly Yugoslavia which was next door, then the USSR (Russia) and finally, it’s last major friend: China, after the death of Mao. Albania became one of the main “Billy No Mates” of the world. It had many similarities with the mysterious, cut-off country of North Korea, except that Albania is not some remote country at the far end of Asia but a European nation, sharing a border with Greece and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. So now that Albania has at last opened itself up to visitors from outside, I am desperately curious to go. What will it be like to visit a country that has been completely separated from the rest of the continent ( and the world) for most of my lifetime? Will it be like some modern-day Pompeii — trapped in time, its past preserved? In some ways, I imagine it’s going to be like travelling back in time. I’m surprised that there’s not been a stampede to  visit this “strange” country on our doorstep. Yet the truth is,  most people seem to have only barely heard of it and have probably never dreamt of visiting it. Most seem to have little idea where it is located. Even my travel buddy, Eric, who has travelled extensively round the world, only had a vague idea about Albania, at first tentatively suggesting that it might be close to Russia. OK, I’ll come clean — I’m an ex Geography teacher and what’s more: an ex-stamp-collector, so I’m pedantically hot about where places are in the world. For most of my life, I have never been far from my atlas. As a child looking at all those exotic sounding places on map after map was the stuff of dreams. Now, in my adult life, I am resolved to visit as many of them as possible, and that includes Albania.

People go on holiday for many different reasons. Some want a change of scene, some seek the sun, some want a rest from the hurly-burly of everyday life. I have empathy for all these tourists and over the years, have joined their ranks for the very same reasons.  I have done my share of lying on a beach or sitting by a pool, reading a book and having the occasional refreshing dip. Others like to stay in expensive spas and hotels in order to be petted and pampered and be waited on hand and foot. I must admit that that sounds pretty tempting too but I’ve never done it because I haven’t had enough money. My main aim when I travel is to experience a different culture. I’m a cultural tourist. They say a change is as good as a rest and one cannot get more of a change than visiting a foreign country. I find it very stimulating to be in a country where everyday life is very different from what I’m used to. Bill Bryson compared arriving in a far-away, foreign country as being like a 5 year old again because everything is new, surprising and exciting. It gives me a buzz to be in a strange environment where everything is potentially interesting and a fascinating novelty. Whether its the language, the food and drink, the architecture, the dress, the religion, the traditions — all is different from life at home and constitutes a big adventure. For instance, have you eaten any “ajvar” with a glass of “salep” lately?  Of course it can all be a bit frightening and nerve-wracking as well, but that’s what gives this type of travel its edge. I think it’s boring to play safe all the time. To me Albania will be a wonderful adventure precisely because I don’t know what will happen and what to expect. Australia is much further away on the other side of the world, is a spectacular place to visit and a fantastic holiday destination. However, to me Australia is nowhere near as exciting as Albania because I already know Australians speak familiar, comforting English, watch TV channels that I can understand, drive on the left and have an easily recognisable western life-style. Going there is largely playing safe inmy opinion. Unless I decide to go swimming with sharks or try to survive in the heat of the bush, Australia doesn’t really represent as much of a challenge as going to an obscure country in a forgotten corner of my own continent. I’m taking a risk going to Albania but it’s that very risk that makes the destination so appealing.

So Eric and I are going to a country where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod represents “no.”  We are travelling to a country that is part Muslim and part orthodox Christian but which also officially embraced atheism in its recent past. We are visiting a place which has 17,000 round concrete bunkers which it doesn’t know how to get rid of. In Albania every town and village has 2 names for some unknown reason and the buses don’t have their destinations displayed. We will have to take a torch in order to avoid falling into large potholes during one of the regular power-cuts. We will have to steer well clear of packs of mangy dogs while trying to locate undecipherable addresses. But we are also going to drive through spectacular mountains and perhaps glimpse shepherds in traditional dress. We will walk on empty but beautiful Adriatic beaches and visit Ancient Greek/Roman/ Venetian/Ottoman archaeological sites that nobody’s ever heard of. We will be visiting medieval mosques and churches and hope to see some strikingly beautiful icons. We will also be surprisingly following in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who described it as like being in paradise. ( Mind you — that’s probably something to do with the fact that he was a guest of the famously debauched ottoman prince, Ali pasha, whose court was notorious for its sexual license.)  Strangest of all, we may encounter a ” sworn virgin.” I know Eric is particularly excited about this! Apparently in the north there is a big shortage of males, so some women or their families make this decision to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage or keep a “male” heir in the family. Once the decision has been made the “sworn virgin” becomes a man and is treated as such in all aspects of life — from clothes, job, hairstyle, eating, drinking to smoking. It sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Don’t think you’d get much of that in: London New York or Sydney. Maybe that’s why Byron was so keen to include it in his itinerary?

This is not meant to be a tourist advert for Albania so I won’t list all the attractions I’ve researched. Anyway, I’m sure there are many sights and experiences that I don’t know about. There’s not even a Rough Guide for Albania as far as I know. But to be honest, this very lack of information is the main attraction of the place. It creates an aura of mystery about Albania and makes it a fertile place for exploration. When Eric and I fly off from Gatwick to Tirana it will be a case of: into the unknown. Inspired by Captain James T Kirk, if you’ll excuse me comparing the Balkans with Outer Space, we will be pushing back our personal frontiers of knowledge and experience. We are absolutely determined to boldly go where neither of us has gone before! That’s why we’re flying to Albania this April.