Saturday, 25 April 2015

Albania April 205

Albania April 2015

I had intended to report on my Easter weekend in Albania at a much earlier date, but was rudely interrupted by my hospitalisation with Clostridium Difficile. Now on the road to recovery I recall my 3 nights in Tirana, capital city of this country once out of bounds and even forgotten by the rest of the world, thanks to its communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

During its time in isolation I once considered joining a guided trip to it, which was formidably restrictive and very expensive in the 1980s. I think I was too intimidated to take the plunge, as nobody else fancied joining me on this endeavour.

Today Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, but is in the queue to join the European Union within the forthcoming years. It is doing much to overcome the corruption which beset it in the intervening years following the great communist downfall. I had read that the capital Tirana, is looking up and outward and joining the rest of Europe in pursuing a modern way of life. The language is Albanian, an Indo-European language in a class of its own in the same way that Greek is.

My route to Tirana was with likeable Turkish Airlines via their hub at Istanbul. On Good Friday a four hour flight took me to the Turkish capital, with plenty of feeding and watering along the way, maybe not quite of the gourmet kind, but enough to make the time pass well. A one and a half hour connection took me to Mother Teresa Airport at Tirana. The weather had been perishing in Istanbul and my hand almost froze to the stair rail up to my connecting flight, as the rain poured down. During the flight the captain came through the first class curtains to use the bathroom at the rear, and my immediate thoughts reflected upon the recent Germanwings atrocity. Fortunately this captain got back up front very quickly.

By about 9pm I was travelling by taxi from the airport to my ethnic style accommodation, Hotel & Restaurant Bujtina e Gjelit, or translated into English, the Rooster Inn. I had been expecting massive potholes along the road, as depicted in an interesting Albanian trip by the Top Gear team, but the road from the airport to the city centre was smooth enough. The driver spoke no English, except for “no problem”, but was of cheerful disposition. He didn’t quite know where we was going, and stopped the car with engine running, and me still in it, to run into another hotel to ask directions. I worried slightly about being hi-jacked, but thankfully no such thing happened and I soon arrived to my hotel.

Greeting me at the attractive entrance patio were a pair of geese who honked to alert the staff to the new arrival. The premises were as atmospheric and ethnic as it appeared on the website, built in relatively modern times in vernacular Albanian style. My bedroom was traditional, with a comfortable bed, albeit that it was mounted on a wide wooden box which allowed little space at the sides for manoeuvring oneself to and from it. Switching on the TV I was amazed to find Albania has 4 television channels, with its own seemingly competent take on Sky News. The hotel bedrooms are arranged around a leafy quadrangle which has a swimming pool at its centre.

In the morning after breakfast I set out on my walk of Tirana. Located on Don Bosko Street, a spanking new Roman Catholic church of same name is located close to the hotel, and I wandered through the great big gleaming campus into it. Close by a man was searching through the rubbish bins outside on the crumbling pavement. It was quite clear where the wealth say here. Inside the church was of the highest architectural standards with very attractive modern stained glass windows.

On my 20 minute walk into the heart of the city I passed a host of modern gleaming pharmacies with white-coated staff-they seemed to sell medicinal drugs only rather than cosmetic products. Many fruit stalls lined the streets, selling the likes of oranges with their leaves still attached. Fruit and vegetables are by default organic as the cost of pesticides is prohibitive. I also saw that plant and flower shops are popular with the locals.

The appalling crumbling pavements and missing manhole covers require constant vigilance lest one come a cropper. It really is the worst suchlike I have ever seen anywhere, and adds a real third world flavour to the city.

In the city centre I came across some interesting buildings, which I learned are of Italian design construction, Italy being on the far side of the Adriatic Sea. I dropped into one of the lovely coffee shops and was shown great hospitality by the English speaking waiter. A top rate American was served in my lovely surroundings, accompanied by a delicious little complimentary cake. It cost less than a third of what it would at home.

Very close by I came across a fine crowing rooster with its leg attached to the pole of a bus stop. It drew quite a lot of attention, so I presume it’s not an everyday sight, even here. It was the property of one of the street traders and presumably was for purchase.

I wandered into a warren of alleyways behind, where a major city clothes and craft market was taking place. It reminded me of the old Dandelion Market in the Dublin of my teenage years. There was a nice laid back atmosphere, without hawkers pestering you to buy their wares, and a few worthwhile items for sale.

Aside from some real poverty evident in the city, most of the citizens appeared to me to portray a sense of being middle class, and I saw a distinct number of extremely well dressed, mainly middle-aged people. Dog ownership is in its infancy, but a number of pure bred specimens were on leads, and indeed I saw a young Pomeranian puppy which wasn’t on a lead, but with his owner walking with two hands over him ready to grasp him to safety. I guess leads are probably more difficult to get than the animals on which to put them.

I wandered into the most sophisticated part of the city, the Blloku area where all the fancy retail outlets, restaurants and apartments are located. This is the part of the city where Enver hoxha and all his ruling compatriots lived, and where the rest of the citizens were once kept out. The city’s most attractive boulevard borders this locale and two lanes of traffic run either side of the city’s small river which here runs in a straight channel. On one of the bridges over the river are an array of outdoor bookshops, reminiscent of those by the Seine in Paris.

Just before Blloku is the magnificent modern Orthodox Cathedral, a symbol of wealth in the city, and to the side of it is the main city centre Rinia Park, full of statues of literary and other fugures in history.

Beyond Blloku, and at the limit of the city I took a stroll through the city’s largest, the Grand Park, which covers a few hills bordering on a reservoir. It was full of families with children, all queueing up at the various candyfloss stands and pouring into and out of the various cafes and restaurants on its perimeter.

Coming from the park I made my way to the nearby communist style Mother Teresa Square, which is effectively a quiet coach park. Close by stands the Sheraton Hotel, and on the city’s main boulevard which stretches north from the square is the sophisticated 5 star Austrian-run Rogner Hotel which is reputed to be the most luxurious in the city and lies in a setting of parkland.

On the boulevard by the river I came upon St. Paul’s Roman Catholic cathedral, another ultra-modern church of sophisticated design and with fine stained glass windows featuring Albanian favourite, Mother Teresa. A painting of her stands to one side of the interior. Most religious buildings are modern as they were not allowed to exist during communist rule.

Close by the cathedral stands, Tanner’s Bridge, one of the few remaining Ottoman structures in the city, and a beautiful site indeed. A pedestrian walkway, funded by the European Union, links the old bridge area to the centre of the city, and passes by the remains of the old castle of the city, the Justinian Fort. Even this walkway is a bit hazardous, as there are no funds for maintaining it.

Crossing the road in Tirana requires a deal of courage, although there are some pedestrian lights. I tended to cross “with the crowd” and always waited until at least one other pedestrian took to the road.

Skenderbeg Square is the dead centre of Tirana, and a monument of national hero Kastrati (Skenderbeg) riding a horse stands in the centre of the large oval grass area. To one side is the city’s most glorious building, Et’hem Bey Mosque with its beautiful murals both inside and out. This was allowed to stand by Hoxha, due to its cultural historic importance. Just behind it is the city’s iconic old clock tower.  Surrounding the square are communist buildings, including the Opera House and National History Museum, which is noted for its communist realist mural over the door.

In spite of some streets displaying considerable poverty, well dressed people wander all over the city, and it is not a place of no-go areas. I felt very safe in the city, and apart from looking out for potholes it was an easy experience. If people want money they beg outside the churches or else set up a stall selling something.

Evening dinner at my hotel was a rewarding experience. In the centre of the dining room is an open oven with chimney, and a delicious spit roast of tender young pig was on the go. First I took some delicious items from the salad bar, including plump juicy olives and little home-baked savoury tartlets. The most delicious imaginable herby hot flatbread was delivered to my table from the oven and I devoured a whole basketful. The starters and hog were washed down with a carafe of good dry white Albanian wine, and I finished off with a herby sweet woodruff sorbet and coffee. All the produce comes from the hotel’s own organic Gjeli farm, located in the countryside outside Tirana. A video of the animals and farm production plays in the corner of the dining room, and all the animals are of rare breed variety, such as Gloucester Old Spot pig.

I had intended to visit the interior of some of the museums on Easter Sunday, but God had other plans. The morning had started out on a nice note when the staff presented me with a red coloured hot boiled “Catholic egg”. The weather had turned atrocious, with constant thunder and lightning flashing all over the place. Dressed in my toughest raincoat, I set out in hope, but was saturated to the core by the time I reached Skanderbeg Square. I had my sights set on the National history Museum, but to my disappointment it was closed to the general public and only opened to pre-booked groups. This was after dodging huge flashes of lightning across the square!

I retreated into a nice coffee shop for warmth, and it was crowded with people all trying to escape the elements. Being so badly soaked, and starting to shiver, I retreated back to the hotel for a hot shower and to listen to the rain and thunder outside. That evening I enjoyed an equally delicious meal of glorious vegetable soup, a different hot bread, and roast lamb.

On Monday morning I flew from Tirana to Istanbul and onwards to Dublin and arrived home in great form altogether. Next day was a busy one as not alone was it a work day, but I brought my cousin’s cat to and from a post-op vet visit. That evening I suddenly started to shiver and shake with a high temperature, and was unwell in the stomach all night, with a deal of internal bleeding. I knew it was time to make my way to the Beacon Hospital which has my medical record. I ended up 9 days in the hospital on the edge of surgery. A simple antibiotic taken 2 weeks earlier for a moderate chest infection had set up a severe case of Clostridium Difficile superinfection.

At the moment I look forward to my next trip on 5th May, 2 weeks in South Africa.

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