09 July 2010
That morning we departed Preveza at 7.45am, we were heading into the Albanian unknown; into the Eastern Block. To think that it was only as recent as 1991 that Albania started letting foreigners into the country, we were about to fulfil the ‘Adventurer’ part of our European Adventurer Contiki tour.
When we reached the boarder Ray warned us that border crossings were about to get a little more difficult and less predictable than the open borders of the EU that we had become accustomed. We managed to get permission to leave Greece and successfully drove through no-man’s land to the Albanian border where we all needed to disembark from the coach and have our passport checked.
Once successfully through the boarder stop it was immediately apparent we were in a different country. In Albania the highway we had drove in on disappeared and was replaced with a lumpy bumpy dirt road.
Now that we were officially in the Eastern Block I expected to see some ‘different’ sights and I certainly did. I saw manual hoeing of fields, horse and carts, concrete bunkers, fresh chicken and numerous petrol station brands, it was different.
Bunkers – Between 1950 and 1985 under the communist rule of Enver Hoxha approximately 700,000 concrete bunkers were constructed all over Albania. Designed to repel an invasion each bunker is made up of over five tonnes of iron and concrete and apparently can withstand a direct tank assault. Unfortunately the cost of this bizarre investment along with other dubious Hoxha initiatives left the country financially crippled.
Our first food stop in Albania was interesting. It looked awfully promising when we disembarked from the coach onto a street with two shops labelled ‘market’ and about four shops with plastic tables and umbrellas, but on closer inspection all the ‘cafe’ looking things only sold alcohol and the ‘market’ shops were practically empty of any food other than dubious looking crackers. Part of our tour did however find a ‘cafe’ which would serve food, they had no menu but managed to communicate “chicken, potato and salad”. It would have to be one of the freshest chickens I have ever experienced, while everyone waited a chickens were slaughtered out back, plucked, deep fried and then broken up into pieces. Everyone who ordered food got half a chicken, a basic bowl of salad, some homemade chips and some stale bread; it took forever but was the authentic Albanian experience.
Petrol Stations – I have never before seen so many different petrol station brands in one country, it may have something to do with the country being car-free up until 1991. I got photos of fourteen different brands and would have missed many more; brands included Elvis Oil, Jet Oil, B Petrol and Delta Petrol to name a few.
We arrived in Tirana in time to have a quick look around the city before heading up to our hotel. Did I mention Albania use to be communist, and is the second poorest country in Europe? It didn’t take us long to realise our hotel was located in a poor country, it certainly had the potential to be grand but the reality appeared to be very low occupancy and in a deteriorating state.
Later that night after dinner a group of us headed into town to check out the night life. Apparently Tirana is supposed to have an excellent night culture, accredited to the youth finally having a chance to express themselves after so many years of communist control. It certainly looked like it had the potential to be fantastic but at around 12pm after we had chilled at a relaxing outside bar for long enough we found (to my devastation) that the authorities had recently enacted a noise curfew restriction at midnight in the inner city. How could they? I was outraged and really felt for the poor youth of Albania who now had to leave the city centre to party after midnight. We did find out the name of a club from some locals which was supposedly popular but it was now around 1am and none of us could muster the energy for another taxi ride into the unknown so we simply taxied back to our hotel dejected.