Posted by on 28, May 2010 in 2010 - The Caucasus, Albania, Balkans, Europe


We arrived at the border a little apprehensive. We’d heard horror stories of Albania and our expectations were low. These were immediately reinforced when we came to a single lane wooden bridge and found ourselves covered in kids. It was like a scene from a zombie film with them banging on the windscreen and hanging from the mirrors! I’ve seen Shaun of the Dead so out came the cricket bat…. We are always prepared for the throngs of kids who stick to Taffy like limpits in poorer countries and have a large selection of English sweets to pass out to try to get them off! We shook most of them free with the sweet Manoeuvre but one determined kid was still hanging on to our wing mirror as we got halfway across the bridge flapping like a flag on a windy day. A quick squirt of the windscreen wipers and he went flying over the railings and into the river below busy opening his wine gums on the way down! I expect he was used to it.

Albania camping was our first night stop. Run by a lovely Dutch family it was the best campsite we’ve stayed on all summer. It even had a pool which the resident duck loved! We made this our base for a couple of days and went cycling in the area- much to the amusement of the locals. The area was flat and had a lot of brightly painted new villas as well as some ramshackle houses. The Dutch family came here to provide help to the locals with health care and even accommodation in the winter so the area is by no means well off but there were numerous villas that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Florida and the school children looked well dressed and happy though that may have just been them laughing at us on the tandem! We really enjoyed our time there but eventually decided we had to at least look as though we were serious about heading to azerbaijan so moved on to Tirana.

Our camp here was Hotel Baron just south of the city and meant we had to fight our way through the bedlam that is Albanian driving. People just drive for themselves and consequently everything just crawls along constantly pushing and shoving to gain an extra inch. Linda navigated is through perfectly and we squeezed into the hotel car park after the owner had brought us a ladder and a saw to trim the trees back! They taxied is into the city and we got our next surprise. We had expected a delapidated city in true ex communist traditions but we found streets full of cafés and restaurants decorated to standards St Tropez would be envious of. There were chandeliers, courtyards with trendy sofas under a canopy of trees and some of the most fantastically furnished interiors we have ever seen. These cafés were not isolated one offs but the norm, and there were dozens of them. You would be hard pushed to find anything to match these in London and certainly Norwich has nothing in the same league (though being Norwich it’s used to that). We sat in a park and had a drink beside some wonderful fountains and whilst the sites to see can be as the guide says, on one finger, you could spend a month going from cafe to cafe! The city itself is full of new high rise offices and flats many of which look very modern and very expensive too. There are numerous old Soviet style flats though they appeared to be in much better condition and looked after than blocks we have seen in Romania Bulgaria etc. We had a really nice day wandering around.

Berat is 3 UNESCO sites in one! That was our next stop about 150km drive from Tirana most of the way on good dual carriageway but the last 30 on a road in desperate need of replacement and we spent a long time going at 20mph. But the trip was well worth it. The old town is a well preserved Ottoman town nestled on the side of a hill overlooked by a castle which in turn has another inhabited Ottoman town inside it almost perfectly preserved. From the castle you overlook the river below and yet another Ottoman town on the far river bank. One day this site will be one of the most visited in Europe. We had the place to ourselves and in the evening went promenading up and down the main street with what seemed like the whole town.

The drive to Macedonia was easy and as we entered the mountains very picturesque with the road snaking its way up the side of one mountain for what we think must be Taffys highest border crossing yet. Our last view of the country was of numerous enormous Albanian mushrooms flanking the road, not of the Yuck I don’t like mushroom variety, but concrete pillboxes. These litter the country and there is 1 for every 4 people apparently. A monument to a past that Albania is rapidly leaving behind.

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