Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Albania - part 2

Apollonia. An important Roman centre in Illyria where Octavius ( who became Emperor Augustus) was sent for an education.

As I left Apollonia I stopped to take a photo of a 'typical' Albanian road. Paved and OK but rather bumpy.

You can't see it in the photo but just at the end is one of the famous Albanian bunkers. Thousands of these were built all over the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Albania had fallen out with Russia, Yugoslavia and China and Hoxha was paranoid that someone might invade. Quite what these bunkers would do, I wasn't sure. Surely it just tells your enemies when you are and they can either ignore you and go another way or lay siege for a couple of days. 

They look a little like sunken Daleks.

As I was taking these photos the local farmer came over to show me around his bunker. He spoke no English but insisted in talking to me in Italian and was very enthusiastic about his bunker. 

After a while he left me to it and went off to pick some figs.

Then, just as I was packing up, the farmer came back and insisted that I take a big bag of figs with me. He wouldn't take no for an answer! 

This sort of generosity was very common in Albania and one of the reasons it was rapidly become one of my favourite countries. 

So off we set with some figs tied to the front right indicator. ( I don't actually like figs!)

My next stop was Gjiroskata. Famous as a pretty hillside town with a huge castle on top and also birthplace of the Communist dictator Hoxa and Albania's most famous writer, Ismail Kadare. 

One of the Balkan's largest castles sits atop Gijistraka

With lots of WWII hard wear

Including a rare Italian FIAT tank

And a US spy plane shot down during the Cold War

Much of the castle is a rambling mess - great for exploring. 

But inside there are huge ceilings and thick walls. Very impressive. 

As I headed towards the coast I stopped at a major tourist attraction. Visited by Albanians and foreigners - and as I was now near the coast, day trippers from Corfu.

The Blue eye waters. Spring water bubbles out from the Rock and the colour of the water and rocks give it the appearance of a huge blue eye


It was very beautiful but there were so many other people there it rather spoilt it. My misfortune to go on a Sunday morning I guess.

Perhaps it says more about me that I thought this constitutes a'lot of tourists'. Having been travelling for a month in the Balkans I've got used to small numbers. This doesn't bode well for Italy does it!

I got a similar sensation to the one I felt at the Grand Canyon. A lovely natural phenomenon somewhat spoilt by the number of people there trying to experience the lovely natural phenomenon. (Graham Field knows what I mean!) 

But it was pretty

And then the coast!!!

I know this isn't a good photo but it was an excellent campsite. Run by an Albanian couple, who were teachers, and equipped with hot water, clean toilets, wifi and a 2 minute walk to the beach, this place cost me £3 a night and they welcomed me with a tray of coffee, water and their own grapes.

You don't get that in a UK campsite!

I had a chat with Linda and Alexander about life in Albania and the education system. Albania and the UK are the only two countries in Europe where students can drop History aged 14! They were a little surprised that I was a teacher as teachers in Albania aren't allowed to grow beards. 

When I mentioned this to a German cyclist I was sharing the campsite with he actually said that this was true in Bavaria as well. And no tattoos either!, AND you have to go where the Bavarain Governament want you to go to teach. Also, get this. In Bavaria they have a sort of 11 plus and students are selected to go to one of four different grades of schools. The cyclist taught in one of these and seemingly ages 11-14 are taught all (or most) subjects by the class teacher, like in Primary in the UK.

 I didn't know this and need to some research on it when I get home. It all sounds very interesting. 

But I digress. It was really interesting to talk, even briefly, to two Albanians who grow up during the Cold War. Linda learned Russian at school because she was educated in a village and Alexander went to school in a town so was taught English. Interesting eh?

I also leaned that the coast road was only paved in the 1970s but then again there were only 2000 cars in the country for Communist officials. With Corfu just a few kilometers across the Ionian sea this part of Albania was off limits to most Albanians as it was feared people might try to swim to Corfu and thus Greece.

This is what I was finding so amazing about my time in Albania. When I was growing up Albania was an unknown, forbidden land and here I was riding around it on my bike and talking to people, who thirty years ago I would never have dreamed of being able to meet. And they were so friendly. 


I've said it before, as have others, but travel really does broaden the mind. I would love for Farage, Cameron, the Daily Mail, Amanda Hopkins and anyone who has ever said or thought anything negative about migrants et al. to actually travel. I have been met with nothing but kindness in Albania and indeed in all of the Balkans and last year in Romania. 

It is no surprise to me, or anyone who travels. 

But the narrow minded don't travel. Or rather those who travel don't remain narrow minded.

If David Cameron had spent August riding a motorcycle around the Balkans we would all be living in a fairer, happier and, importantly, safer world. 

But he didn't, so we aren't. 

I know, I know. I've been on my own too long and if I don't go home soon I'll just go mad.

Well, there was one last site to see in Albania. 

Butrint. An amazing, confusing, important and intriguing mismatch of prehistoric, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Mediaval buildings near the Greek border. 

Back at the campsite I went for a sunset walk along a promenade built in the 1970s for Communist Party officials. The only people they could trust to be this close to Corfu which you can see in the sunset photo below.

And that was that. Albania. - everything I hoped for and more. 

I'm typing this up on the (very delayed!!!) ferry as I cross the Aegean Sea to Brindisi. Around me people are playing cards and Dominios and Italian is very much the language in the air. The ferry food is charged in Euros and I have to  admit to myself that I have left the Balkans and am on my way home. 

On my way back to Western Europe; expensive petrol; expensive food; expensive accommodation; crowds and noise and rampant consumerism. 

And I can't say I'm happy about it. I know my trip still isn't over. I've got 1,500 miles to ride before I get home. I want to stop off in Matero and San Marino and it'll be a week before I'm home. But as I watch the mountains that have been my company for the last 35 days and define the Balkans slip over the horizon I cannot help but feel a little sad. 

Goodbye Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro. 

I'm not sure I'm ready for what's coming next but there is only one way to find out... "Deep breathe and go to your happy place" 

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