Befriended

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
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Trip End May 23, 2008


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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Durres, Albania
GMT +1:00 hour

In the grand scheme of things
Three countries down, with 4 to go until we get to Korea on September 22nd. It's no secret that certain aspects of this trip, namely an itinerary for post-Italy travel, have always been, for want of a better word, changeable. Admittedly, that has been a source of mild consternation for some, even Meg, who from day one wanted a plan, a definitive itinerary, right down to dates, locations and bus timetables. Trying to get her, little Miss Resort, to comprehend that independent travel, generally, doesn't work like that was a chore. I commented at the start of this Travelogue how, at the very least, you'll be treated to 'Dave and Meg do France, Switzerland and Italy'. Well, you have (we hope?) and now that we're in Albania the trip as moved into a different phase. We're not quite sure what phase of the trip leaving Italy ends; for sure the 'expensive' phase, because we're almost certain things will get cheaper from here on out. It should also end the "I've seen this on TV before and it all looks familiar" phase of the trip. Why? Well, because were now in Eastern Europe, and while it may only be a 7 hour slow-ferry ride from the Italian east coast it could be a million miles away. This area of the continent, unlike the tourism giants of France & Italy, is still developing; developing everything from its infrastructure to its tourism industry. It's also still recovering from 50 years of Communism and, unfortunately, some parts of it are still recovering from recent (early 90's) civil wars. Finally, what getting to this part of the world will also mean is, I would imagine, a different type of Travelpod entry. Yep, due to the sacristy of actual 'sights' between here and Istanbul, we'd imagine the entries are going to be slightly different to the ones you've become accustomed to. Just a heads up.

Without wanting to sound like Mr. Travel, I had few preconceptions about Albania before getting here; I've seen, firsthand, developing nations (mainly in South East Asia, Mongolia and India), the effects of years of Communism (China, Vietnam and, of course, Russia) and even parts of Eastern Europe itself (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland). So although I was keen to get here I certainly didn't come here wondering what it was going to be like. I kind of expected it fit into a mould I had based on previous travel experiences. The fact that it fit that mould perfectly was kind of comforting, as familiarity breeds comfort when travelling. Of course, the aim of travel is to experience the new, so in Albania at least, I felt sort of short-changed. Poor me.

Albania - An overview (and a bit of history)
It's a weird sort of country, one that has been classified as an emerging democracy since the 1990's, a classification it has received despite its troubled history of internal conflict and foreign rule (for the longest periods by the Romans and Turkish Ottomans, the latter responsible for the popularity of the Muslim religion in the country). But it wasn't an easy path to get there. It was staunchly communist from 1946 to 1992, years in which it was the most backward corner of Europe, having successfully managed to ossify itself from the rest of the world by dirtying it's bid with its closest alleys - first Yugoslavia (in 1948), then the USSR (1961) and finally China (1978). With isolation assured, its oh-so paranoid (and clearly insane) leader, Enver Hoxha, then embarked on a nationwide bunker-building spree, building 700,000 reinforced defensive bunkers to protect from attack from so-called 'hostile neighbours' (these indestructible bunkers still litter the countryside today). When Hoxha died in 1985 his (not so sane) successor realised how ossified the country was and began a liberalisation programme that broadened Albania's ties with its neighbours and the international community. This led to the relative stability the country enjoys today, a stability that has helped to attract foreign companies and is helping Albania work toward NATO and, more importantly, EU membership.

Befriended
So now that I've colossally bored you all with history on Albania, not to mention my own prophesying as to why Albania should, and did, feel familiar, it's time to tell you all about what we got up to here in Durres. And this is where I run into issues... not because we didn't do anything... well, being honest, that's exactly why. Making Durres sound interesting is going to be a task beyond even my abilities, no matter how many adjectives I throw at it. We arrived off the overnight ferry from Bari in Italy, a nice town btw (seemingly it's of no great interest to anyone other than those who live there but to us, coming from Naples, it looked liked Beverly Hills). Anyway, we disembarked the ferry this morning only to run the gauntlet of Durres taxi drivers who wanted nothing more than to rip us off to transport us the few hundred meters from the ferry port to the down town area (a sure sign of an underdeveloped country). It was raining. And cold, something Meg reminded me of every few minutes. I kept telling her that the weather is "abnormal" for this time of year, but considering the few days of colder weather we'd had in Naples I don't think she believed me. Shortly after I gave up trying to make sense of the map we had of Durres (I'm normally money in the bank given a map and required destination but Durres stumped me) and we stood looking lost on the street. Enter David, our best new friend in Albania. A local with impeccable English, his first comments to us were "do you need help?. Of course my initial reaction was "no, we're fine, thank you very much", but even my pigheadedness could see the benefits playing the 'lost-tourist-in-need-of-assistance' card. He escorted us to our plan B choice of accommodation and shortly after we were being shown the best of Albania hospitality (and on an international scale it measures up quite well) in the Mediterranean Hotel, overlooking the sea. We're still not quite sure if David had/has an agreement with the owner of the hotel but we doubt it... we doubt Durres gets enough tourists for that to be a profitable pastime. Anyway, due to the less than ideal accommodations we enjoyed on the overnight ferry we were quite tired and slept for some of the afternoon before having a look around what was a nice but decidedly uninteresting town (see the pictures). We decided not to take David up on an invite to visit his home for Turkish coffee (something I'm regretting) this evening (something better came up, namely the opening game of the Rugby World Cup) and instead spent the night in our hotel room getting organised and ready for the bus in the morning for the short trip inland to the Albanian capital, Tirana.

So as you can see, not too much to report from Durres. I realised that before starting this entry but looking at what I've just typed I see it's a sizeable piece of text, and with observations still to come. So without wanting to amateurise (that's not even a word) this travelogue I'm just going to say goodbye, see you in Tirana and enjoy the pictures.

Day 25 Observations (September 7th 2007)

No Normandy
Make no mistake; the ferry from Bari to Durres was no Normandy (the ferry we took from Ireland to France some weeks ago). A misunderstanding buying the tickets meant we found ourselves with deck passage tickets, meaning we had no assigned bedding. Hey, we didn't even have a seat, which would have been ours for a few €'s extra. But that's okay...... even I slept on the plastic benches we called home for the night, meaning Meg did too. Just not very well, of course. The ferry was a transport ferry (cars, trucks) so we doubt the accommodation would have been up to much anyway.

€2
We had to give up our passports getting on the ferry and we collected them upon departure the following morning. But only on payment of €1 per passport... seemingly it's a local tax but to us it looked like pocket change to the very unofficial 'officials' doing the officiating. We're just lucky we had €2 as we'd spent most of our remaining €'s on cappuccinos in the ferry bar minutes before leaving the ferry.

No Italy
Speaking of cappuccinos, the cappuccinos we were treated to in our hotel just after checking in were okay, but nothing like the ones across the water in Italy. Upon sampling the Albanian kind I commented to our hosts (the hotel owner and David, who translated our conversations for the not-a-word-of-English owner) that "Albanian cappuccinos were nicer that Italian ones". Of course they are not, but that white lie was a welcome complement to our hosts. Even Meg picked up on that lie. I just hope they didn't.

Cold
What's with this weather? We're on the Adriatic coast in early September and its 12 degrees. And it was raining leaving the ferry this morning. Meg thinks I'm doing this on purpose. I only wish I had that sort of power.

Consistency
If there is one thing that can be said for communism it's that created countries that are somewhat visibly consistent. Overbearingly sterile, but at least visibly consistent. Albania, even the bit we've seen, shares the communist traits I've seen in any ex-communist country I've visited - sterile downtowns with large squares (most of which are decorated with a statues of some national hero on horseback and various 'for-the-people, us-against-them' military statues), poor infrastructure, boring, straight-edged pastel coloured buildings, unfinished construction projects, beat up busses, roads full of old East German Mercedes and an unnecessarily large presence of visibly underfunded law enforcement.

All David's are gents
We've already mentioned David, the Albanian who helped us. Meg, the doubter that she is, questioned his motives but I found him genuine and helpful enough that I reckoned he deserved an observation all to himself.

Hotel Mediterranean
I was surprised to see that the rooms in Hotel Mediterranean are very Asian-esque - spacious, all tile, cold looking and with a huge bathroom dominated by the open-concept shower.

The Call
There are quite a few mosques here, something I noticed straight off the bat (you would too, coming from Italy). When I questioned David about this he informed us that 70% of the population are Muslim, making sure to point out that religious tolerance is an important part of the Albanian psyche. I never expected Albania to be predominately Muslim, something you'd never know being here (the regular, 5 times a day call to prayer aside).

The not so mighty greenback
There are three accepted currencies here - the local lek (about 120 to the €), the Euro and the US dollar. For everyday transactions, payment is normally required in lek but hotels and bus tickets are quoted and expected to be paid for in Euro. If all else fails they will change US$ for you, but only to make payment in Euro (preferably) or lek. A few times I requested to make payment in the all conquering US$ only to get a shake of the head and the reply or "No, euro or lek". It's kind of refreshing that, in this part of the world at least, the almighty dollar is lower down on the pecking order. I doubt that will ever be the case in Asia.

RWC
The Rugby World Cup began today. I've had this day in my calendar for months and it's going to be tough to miss what for me is the best sporting competition of them all. Even though it was in grainy colour and with no sound I feel so lucky to have seen the opening game tonight in our hotel room, and even luckier still to have seen Argentina beat France (keeping in mind both teams are in Irelands group). I'll be trying my best to keep abreast of the tournament over the coming 6 weeks but I doubt I'll see much, if any, of the action. If anyone could record Ireland getting taught a thing or two by the All Blacks in the quarters for me it would be much appreciated (assuming Ireland get that far, of course).

Tooth ache?
Have a tooth ache? Head to Durres. Every second (okay, maybe every third) establishment is a dentist. Separating the dentists are hotels, legions of them. With so many hotels one can only assume this place is busy other times of the year because right now there is no one here, aside from us of course.

Megs Ailment of the Day
This was Megs idea; I think she's getting a sense of humour regarding the last few weeks. She's come up with the idea of beginning a regular 'Megs Ailment of the Day' slot here on the site. Planning is already at an advanced stage and we're presently in negotiations with Pfizer Pharmaceutical to be the slot sponsor. Today she reckoned she had a problem with her eye. This follows sharply on the heals of an issue yesterday with her right foot. Seemingly it hurt when she walked... "you know, the bit that bends on top when you walk?", is all I got. We'll keep you posted as to what issue crops up tomorrow. Btw, we both seem to have fully recovered from the head colds we picked up within a day of each other back in France (17-18 days ago now). About time too.
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Where I stayed
Hotel Mediterranean

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