22nd NOVEMBER 2018
I’ve ridden a bike once in the two months since I flew back from Corfu. And that was only a four mile round trip from my sister’s place to a shopping centre in Clydebank. I was reasonably fit when I finished the first leg of my trip in September, but since then I’ve been an inactive lump of laziness. All the stamina and fitness I gained in the summer will have to be built up almost from scratch again. I’ve already accepted that the first week of cycling is going to be painful.
It’s 7.00am when I leave my sister’s place by taxi, my bike already packaged up the day before and ready for the journey. The girl at the British Airways desk at Glasgow Airport gets me all worried by saying I won’t be able to fly without a return ticket or a visa for Albania. I point to the large package beside me, tell her it’s a bike and that I’ll be leaving the country overland, which causes some raised eyebrows on her part. Plus, although I can stay in Albania for ninety days without a visa, the very nature of my journey means I cant give her a definite date for departing. This isn’t going well. I’ve not even left Glasgow and the trip could be in jeopardy. Our discussion goes back and forth for a while, before she phones her boss, who tells her within thirty seconds that I’m OK to fly. Thank Goodness. That was a blooming stressful drama over nothing.
After my morning tensions, the one hour flight to Gatwick is uneventful. Then it’s a three hour wait for my flight to Albania’s capital, Tirana. This is a new route for British Airways, so the flight is only half full and I have two seats all to myself. We approach Albania down the Mediterranean coast, just as it’s getting dark. For some reason I have an uneasy feeling of foreboding, which I hope is just down to nerves before starting a new trip. I know once I get going I’ll be fine, but that doesn’t stop me feeling anxious beforehand.
When we touch down I see that Tirana Airport is tiny, looking to be not much bigger than Southampton’s. I didn’t realise that it’s the only airport in the whole country, so every single flight is an international one. Customs is an absolute formality, which is a bit of a relief after this morning’s British Airways desk melodrama. I lift and drag my bike outside to the taxi rank, because I’m not about to unpack it and cycle into a strange city in the dark. The cabbie puts the back seat down to fit my bike and, like a fool, I instinctively walk round the left-hand side of the cab to get in the passenger door. The guys asks ‘You like to drive ?’ because over here the left side is the driver’s side. I couldn’t have looked more like a bumbling UK tourist if I’d tried.
I’m being hosted for my first two nights in Tirana by an American couchsurfer called Joe, who lives above a restaurant near the city centre. He comes downstairs to meet me and, along with an Argentinean bloke called Ariel, we carry all my gear upstairs. Joe is the deputy head of an international school in Tirana and rents a huge, modern three bedroomed apartment all by himself. He hosts people continuously as he’s still a traveller during school holidays, plus I think he just likes the company. He has pizza delivered from the downstairs restaurant and we all dig in. Joe is working tomorrow so heads off to bed early and I sit and chat to Ariel for about another hour. He’s probably in his mid-twenties and has just hitch-hiked through Mongolia and Russia to reach Europe ! Then tiredness overcomes me, I shower, climb into bed and am asleep in an instant.
By the time I wake up the following morning, Joe has gone to work and Argentinean Ariel has left to catch a bus to his next destination. He feels guilty and thinks he’s cheating by not hitching, but I don’t blame him as hitching or cycling out of a city can be a nightmare. Joe recommended the Tirana free walking tour so I head into the main square to join that. About ten of us meet on the opera house steps and are led by a guy called Gazi, who turns out to be mates with Joe. He gives us a potted history of Albania – from being ruled by Illyrians, Romans, Ottomans, Nazis, Communists, until finally opening up to the rest of the world. He takes us on a wander to show us the square, mosques, churches, parliament and other buildings. It’s quite interesting, but I’m just plodding around half-heartedly due to a thumping headache.
There is a road called George W Bush Street, named because he is the only American president to have ever visited Albania. We are told about a little cafe near the airport where George Dubya went for a coffee while on his way to catch his flight home. To this day the cafe owner won’t let anybody sit in the chair that Bush used. Throughout history Americans have been mostly good to Albania, and they are very well thought of here, thus explaining the amount of US flags you see flying around the country.
Gazi tells us what it was like during communist times. He says he was only eight when communism ended in Albania, but can still remember how poor his family were before that. The country was ruled over by a dictator named Hoxha, who even severed ties with former communist allies Yugoslavia, Russia and China during his rule. This left Albania with no friends and in a similar position to where North Korea finds itself nowadays. Travel and communication with the outside world were almost impossible, while all media was in the form of state-run propaganda. If someone did manage to escape the country then the authorities would punish the family members that remained. People would think twice about running if they knew that one of their siblings could be killed as a result. The country was ruled by fear, and you couldn’t trust anyone in case they were a communist party informer. It’s difficult to imagine that all this was happening a mere thirty years ago.
Hoxha died in 1985, and this allowed his more liberal replacement to reach out and connect with the world again. By 1991 communism was finished, and Albania has gone from a basket-case country in isolation to being a full NATO member and waiting on its European Union approval. The changes in those twenty-seven years have been both rapid and enormous. One detail I find extraordinary is that during communism hardly anyone outside the ruling party was allowed to own a car. Then in 1991, suddenly everyone became a driver on the same day. Maybe this could go some way to explaining the dodgy Albanian driving standards I have witnessed.
When the tour is over I go shopping for some road food, before heading back to Joe’s flat. My head is still banging so I lie down and end up crashing out for an hour. On waking I remove my bike from its bin bag packaging and set it up for tomorrow’s ride. Joe gets back from work in the late afternoon and asks if I want to join him and his mates at a basketball game tonight. As I’ve never been to a basketball game before I take him up on the offer.
We meet all his American teaching buddies at a bar next to the school for a pre match beer. Strangely this seems to cure my headache. They all tell me that I’ve arrived late as the city was bouncing with Scotland football fans a week ago. Apparently they don’t get many away supporters at Albania matches and the locals said they had never seen so many fans from another country. I think it will go down in Tirana folklore, and even the taxi driver from yesterday called it ‘Scotland Night’. Then it’s off to the match via a takeaway shop where I have some kind of chicken wrap with salad.
The basketball takes place in front of maybe 150 people, in a cold cavernous concrete stadium that looks like it’s a relic from communist times. There are only six teams in the Albanian Super League and both the sides playing tonight are from Tirana. We are supporting Partizani as one of their players knows the teachers, and they also seem to have a couple of ‘guest’ Americans on show too. They win fairly convincingly, something like 82-60, but I wasn’t paying that much attention to the score. For me the standard looked pretty good, but then I’m not exactly an expert on basketball. The Americans kept laughing at how bad the players were.
We head back to Joe’s flat afterwards where we sit and chat for a while. I’ve been feeling better as the day has worn on, but I hit the sack about 11.00pm as I’m still not quite myself. I’m off to Durrës tomorrow which, at only 40km distance, will be a nice gentle way to break back in to this cycling malarkey.