Day 9

Friday, 2 April 2010
Start: Elbasan (ALB) 08:15
Arrival: Tirana (ALB) 10.00 AM
Total: 56 km

The night in the Albanian hotel was endless. Even though it was blissfully quiet and the bed comfortable enough, I kept waking up. I couldn't shake off the nagging thought that we were sleeping on the fourth floor of a building which lacked a large part of an outer wall, with electricity cables hanging loosely from windows and balconies. And that this region had a history of devastating earthquakes. Then there was this muezzin, who considered it his duty to make himself heard every few hours or so. Just as annoying as the church bells telling you the hour of the night back home in Luxembourg. The next morning, I awoke groggy and feeling like I had barely slept at all. What a way to brave the infamous mountain-road to Tirana! But how hard can 50 kilometers really be?
Pretty hard, as we were about to find out. The way out of Elbasan was easy to find and our spirits lifted with every kilometre that we put between ourselves and our nigthly resting place. On the outskirts of the town, the road rapidly climbed up into the mountains. Curves upon curves of a newly asphalted, albeit very narrow street. To the left a dark, craggy wall loomed over our car, to the right an all-too-close and steep abyss offered a stunning view over the valley. I would have loved the scenery, if it hadn't been for my overwhelming fear of heights. The other drivers didn't seem to have that problem. They happily sped along the road and true to the motto "when in doubt, do as the locals do", I followed their example. The morning sun appeared pale but friendly over the foggy hills, and I started to enjoy the mountain ride. Until the first oncoming car appeared in my lane, right before a sharp bend in the road. He passed the car behind him a nanometer in front of my left bumper and disappeared from view, leaving the smell of dust and accelerating rubber, and two completely shell-shocked Luxembourgish tourists behind. Next bend – next challenge. Willing my eyes to develop neutrino-like mountain-piercing supervision, I stared straight ahead, always on the lookout for yet another suicidal Shqiptar.
Who didn't materialize. Instead, we found ourselves behind a truck loaded with long, unwieldy wooden planks. To keep the planks from gliding down, two men stood in the back and held onto the things. I slowed down, grateful for a sturdy bumper-vehicle between me and the oncoming traffic. Also, the truck didn't drive that slowly, about 40 km/hour. A fitting speed for such a curvy street. The drivers behind me begged to differ. They passed both me and the truck with screeching tyres. I tried to keep a safety-distance between our two vehicles, in case a passing car had to veer back in because of oncoming traffic. Thus we drove along for a few minutes. But for some reason, the woodplank-retainers didn't like the fact that I stayed behind them. They made angry gestures that I should pass them. What's it to them, whether I pass or not? I tried to ignore their ever more insistent shouts and moves. These guys were getting on my nerves. At last, I gave in to their bullying and, as soon as there was a few meters of free road in front of me, I passed them. What a manoeuvre.
I felt like back in Northern Spain, a couple of years ago, on the road to the Basque city of Victoria-Gasteiz. There the drivers were just as reckless. Again and again, cars passed us. What a slight for a usually enthusiastic left-lane driver like me! I had to face up to the bitter fact that I'm simply no match for these fearless mountain people and their breakneck courage.
Again, we noticed plenty of Italian, German and British cars around us. Strange. Why would so many people visit Albania in their own cars? We would find the solution to this mystery a few hours later in Tirana. It took us more than an hour to make the sixty kilometres between Elbasan and Tirana on the winding mountain road. When we approached Tirana, the traffic became treacle-like. There were cops trying to regulate the traffic, and as always, they just added to the jam and confusion. But this gave us time to study the street names and look for our hotel, which was located in the new business and shopping area of Tirana, the Blokku.



We finally located it in a quiet side street. The parking lot in front of the hotel was a simple back alley, but to our pleasant surprise, two of employees came out, guided us into a parking space and took care of our luggage. They didn't mind at all that we showed up so early. Our room was ready, and what a room it was! Clean, spacious and friendly. The bathroom was top-notch, we even had a whirlpool! This would be our home for the next three days, and we congratulated ourselves to our choice. First, we had coffee in the hotel lobby. Like all other employees of Hotel Theranda, our young waiter, Gazi, spoke excellent English. He recommended some places to visit in Tirana and finally explained to us, why there were so many foreign cars on the street: apparently, Albanian car-traders buy used cars in Western Europe and sell them to their customers here. The Albanians often don't bother to register their cars, and continue to drive with the foreign licence plates. Mystery solved! Seeing as we would be in Tirana over the Easter holidays, we asked Gazi whether most of the shops would be closed on Saturday and Sunday. He said no. Albania had always been a Catholic country, but during the rule of Enver Hoxha, the country had become very secular and religion was only now making a comeback. So as in all Eastern European countries after the fall of Communism, religious proselytizers are trying to back in, we thought. Well, I hope the Albanians will manage to keep religion out of state affairs. Be that as it may, religion did not seem to get in the way of our exploring Tirana on Easter.
After an excellent latte macchiato, and although we were very tired, we set out to visit Tirana on foot. The hotel was close to the centre and we had a good map. Traffic was terrible and as a pedestrian you are not very high up on the food chain. We walked past beautifully restored government buildings, brandnew banks and through small shopping streets. The people around us were young and busy, they looked energetic and enterprising, much like the bank and government employees back in Luxembourg.
Only the residential houses looked less well-to-do. Many facades were in need of a paint-job and the air conditioning boxes in front of every window added to the rundown impression. Albania is still a poor country, but never once did we feel unwelcome, threatened or unsafe there, not during daytime, and not after nightfall either. And some facades were actually painted in very bright, gay colours.
On Skanderbeg Square, we visited the National History Museum. Outside, it was very hot, and we were glad to escape into the quiet cool of this large mid-century building. We had the place almost to ourselves and learned a lot about the history of Albania. They had books and traditional clothes on display and the time passed quickly.
Back on the street, we were hungry. We walked through a very pleasant city park, where children played on the grass. Unfortunately, here we had another unpleasant encounter with a group of beggars. A very dirty girl of about 10 years ran among the park visitors, begging for money. She was obviously very good at this, and immediately had us pegged as easy victims. With her family sitting under some trees and watching, she bumped again and again into us, trying to grab our hand or purse. We didn't seem to be able to shake her off. Suddenly, a well-dressed man came up to us, told her off and even gave her a not-so-light slap on the head. She ran off, and he walked on. We were nonplussed. He had hit the kid! She didn't seem traumatized by it and we were rid of her. Still, we felt like we should have been able to handle the situation by ourselves. 
Besides, we were still hungry and there, right next to the park, was a huge restaurant-café-complex, where people enjoyed an espresso or had a bite to eat. There, we found an excellent pizzeria. Somehow, we often end up eating in pizzerias on our holidays. In any case, the food was great and the waitress spoke English. What more can you ask. After dinner, we explored the town centre some more. We found a little kiosk where we bought postcards. We still had some stamps from Elbasan, so we were all set.
In front of Enver Hoxha's mausoleum, which was in a desolate state, we found the peace bell. This bell commemorates the 1999 riots. Albania had just opened itself to foreign commerce, and most Albanians were unused to the dark side of capitalism. After a lot of people lost all their savings in pyramid scam schemes, riots broke out and the military weapons depot was raided. Soon everyone calmed down and the people returned the weapons. The unspend casings were melted down and formed into a peace bell. Very beautiful and symbolic.
Then we passed in front of the large Catholic cathedral. For Easter mass, an enormous throng of people crowded inside and outside the church. TV cameras even filmed the event. I've never seen so many people in front of a church. Many Albanians really do seem to be practicing Catholics. We also noticed some vestiges of the Tirana of centuries past, like Tanners' Bridge, a small old bridge, standing forlorn among the newer buildings. Before heading back to our hotel, we wanted to see a supposedly famous teqe. A teqe is a religious building, where members of an ascetic Muslim community, the Dervishes, gather. We didn't find it, but we found a street named after George Bush. The US had motivated the Albanian Kosovans to rebell against the Serbs, so I suppose a lot of Albanians like Bush. Well, no comment.
Scrambling through the back alleys of Tirana in search of that teqe, we came across a beautiful new movie theatre. The theatre played mostly the same European and US films as the ones in Luxembourg, but with Albanian subtitles. We had a drink in the wonderful garden in front of the theatre and then made our way home to the hotel. It had been a very long day, we'd seen a lot of new things and we were bone tired. At night, we heard the fireworks celebrating the tenth anniversary of Albania's accession to NATO. They lulled us into a deep and happy sleep.


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