Day 10

Saturday, 3 April 2010
Start: Tirana (ALB) 10:30
Arrival: Kruja – Durrës – Tirana: 17:30
Total: 124 km

Today was Saturday, the day before Easter, but luckily, everything seemed to be open. We wanted to visit two places not far from Tirana, the fortress of Kruja, about 30 kilometers north of Tirana, and the seaside town of Durrës. But for this, we first had to face the Albanian-capital-traffic-gridlock again. The journey out of the city seemed to take forever. There were far too many cars on the streets and as the first lane had been converted into an impromptu parking lane, the traffic tried to improvise a new lane. It was a build one - get one free situation, with cars inching into every millimeter of road space that opened up right, left or in front of them. As everyone crept along very slowly, it was actually a lot of fun testing my wriggling-skills. I just pity the commuters who have to face this every day. The roundabout leading to the Albanian highway was total gridlock. This was certainly good practice for driving in larger Eastern metropoles. I was getting the hang of it, and all the other drivers were very efficient too. In the four days that we spent in Albania, we didn't witness a single road accident.
Finally, we reached the highway-like main road from Tirana to the North. I say highway-like, because even though it's large and new, with three or four lanes in each direction, you are not allowed to drive more than 90 km/h on it. That's probably because, again, the first lane is used as a parking lane and pedestrians cross the road at leisure. Street vendors are seen everywhere, and no-one seems to feel the need to speed.



Without incident, we found the exit for Kruja. A dusty road leads towards the mountains, when all of a sudden, a policeman appears out of nowhere and motions for me to stop. What now? I had been so careful to respect the speed limit, I didn't burn any red lights, didn't run over any kids playing in the street, so why am I being pulled over? My heart sinks. So finally we meet them: the corrupt Albanian policeforce, out to harass and milk innocent tourists, of which I have read so much on the internet. And here was I thinking that these had been just braggard stories of immature offroad bloggers who overplayed the dangers to their friends back home.
I push down the window and give the policeman my most charming I'm-innocent smile. Unimpressed, he mumbles something in Albanian. I enquire politely, whether he speaks any English. "No" is the curt answer, followed by yet another order in Albanian. For good measure, he adds a universally understood stern look. I'm at a loss. He must have thought me very thick, because finally he adds, a bit more forcefully, "Documenti". Ah, he wants my papers. Who would have thought. Sonia scrambles for every legal document in the car, and I hand them over to the law and order. He barely glances at my passport, when a man ambles over and starts a conversation with our policeman. The latter seems to give him some driving directions and they discuss back and forth for a while. I look on in amazement. What about me? I venture a polite "ehmm". This makes the cop remember me. Without interrupting his conversation, he hands back the stack of papers and waves me off. I can go on?
Driving off in the direction of Kruja, we wonder what that was all about. In retrospect, he didn't at all act like a con. We remember what Gazi, our hotel employee, told us about the imported cars that are never registered in Albania. Maybe the cop thought that we were Albanians driving such a car? So he wasn't out to grab our cash, but only did his job. Feeling yet again guilty for being so mistrusting, we reach our destination.
Kruja is the most important Albanian tourist site, a pilgrimage spot for patriotic Albanians. Here, the medieval National hero Skanderbeg fought against the Turks to preserve the Catholic country from the Muslim invasors. The fortress lies high up on the mountain, a small road winding its way past souvenir shops and small houses. The town has a serious parking problem. There was a great number of tourists there that day, maybe because it was Easter, and the mountain restricts the space available for parking lots. Finally, we locate a makeshift parking garage, where some young men offer to wash your car while you visit the castle.
The castle is not at all a Medieval ruin, but a huge Neo-Romantic affair, designed by Enver Hoxha's daughter, who is an architect. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures inside. But the museum was very interesting, we learned about Skanderbeg and the fight for Albanian independence. Afterwards, we wandered yet higher up the mountain. There we found some true Medieval fortress foundations, which to us was even more interesting than the museum. Strangely enough, we were the only tourists up there.
On our way back down, we marvelled at the innumerable kitschy souvenirs on offer. It felt like in any other European tourist trap. An elderly gentleman was selling a book about the history of Kruja. He explained that he was the author of the book, and we bought a copy from him. We also bought some more souvenirs before returning to our car.
There we treated ourselves to a famous Albanian car wash, a lavazh. The young men did a wonderful job. Four of them took care of our car inside and out. They washed, scrubbed, polished, dusted, hoovered, and in no time, our car looked as spick and span as on the day we bought it. They even took loving care of small details like the tyres and tiny nooks between the seats. In Luxembourg, you pay fifty times as much for a car wash, and the result is nowhere near as impressive. Again, we felt that Albania was a poor country, but rich in services and diligence. We became fans of the Lavazh system, which everyone seems to use in Albania, as, even though the roads are dusty, the cars looked all new and shiny.



Our next stop for the day was the seaside port Durrës on the Adriatic Sea. After bumbling behind a bus for a while, we reached the highway, where again people were selling fruit and furniture in the first lane. Sometimes, a driver who wants to buy something, simply stops in the second lane and starts talking to the vendors. Amazing.
Traffic in Durrës was a very laid-back affair. We found a large car park right next to the promenade and went for a walk. This could have been in Brighton or Ostende. There weren't a lot of people around, it was very windy, but the view out on the ocean was amazing. We enjoyed the sea breeze and again marvelled at how lucky we were that it hadn't rained once during this trip. Durrës is an old Roman town, and there are still some ancient city walls and an amphitheater to be seen. Eating our inescapable icecream, we explored the ruins. Here, we were the only tourists around. Only us and a sheep. Neat.
We started to get hungry and found a nice fish restaurant on the promenade. The waiter directed us towards the glassed-in veranda. Unfortunately, the glass roof had transformed the veranda into a hothouse. It was unbearably hot and full of cigarette-smoking tourists munching their fish. Sonia gagged. We asked the waiter if we could sit inside. He seemed to find that odd, but allowed us the choose a wonderful corner table, smoke-free, cool, quiet. Perfect. We enjoyed an excellent and again dirt-cheap fish course, and they even threw in a delicious icecream and fruit dessert for free. Thus fortified, we braved the journey back to our hotel. Quite exhausted, we retierd to our room and zapped through the television programmes on offer. There are quite a lot of Albanian channels, mostly music or shows of some kind, but also the odd English movie. All in all, they seem to cater for a hip, young audience.


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