Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Brighton to Albania by Train, Days 1-5 Dijon - Geneva - Turin - Bologna - Bari

Day 1 Eurostar - Paris - Dijon

Weds 3rd June

You can’t beat train travel. Sure, it’s slower and waaay more expensive than flying, but the stress levels are lower, there’s no hanging around at carousels when your bag is invariably the last to be spat out onto the conveyor belt, it’s friendlier and you have the experience of the shifts in landscape, architecture and people.

Another part of train travel that I love is the planning involved: how long it will take to reach a destination in time to camp down in the hotel then go out to explore, changing trains and planning an arrival over days rather than hours.

I planned to travel to Albania over six days, stopping in France, Switzerland and Italy, followed by a ferry to Albania, then a week in the capital, Tirana and on by bus to Montenegro and Croatia, flying back from Dubrovnik (OK, I cheated in that last bit by flying back).

Cinema, Dijon
And it was farewell to the miserable English summer with the joys of the Eurostar to Paris. An efficient Metro change from Gare Du Nord to Gare de Lyon in 20 minutes then two and a half hours down to Dijon, with a curious arrangement of allocating seating for all the people with reservations next to each other, while the rest of the carriage was empty. Maybe they thought we'd all become jolly good travelling companions, rather than juggling elbow room and being careful not to encroach further than your "own" quarter of the table.

To see more pictures go to my Flickr site.

Creepy in Dijon
Hotel le Jacquemart is proper old-school French: a 17th-century building with rickety wooden stairs, threadbare carpets and a room in the garret up three flights with a shared loo and shower, but it was great - location and price both perfect, in the heart of the old town with a view over the rooftops.

The Beaux-Arts Museum in the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy dominates the Place de a Liberation, a semi-circular open space in front of the town hall, and I found a great people-watching eaterie just off the beaten track where a carafe of red wine went down a treat and I bonded with the righteously stroppy waitress over the rude behaviour of two Italian diners.

Day 2 Dijon - Geneva

Thursday 4th

Up early and out to the market to stock up on lunch, and parked down at the market coffee stall with an espresso admiring the lush array of produce on offer. Why are British markets so poor quality? The strawberries were carefully individually arranged, there were huge tasty beef toms, fantastic fresh veg, the sweetest cherries, seafood and cheeses, and all at a good price.


I had plenty of time for a visit to the Beaux-Arts although it took me about 15 minutes to find the right entrance. Although it’s free, you can’t just go in any old where as you will be shooed back, but finding the correct door proved a bit of a challenge. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of starting  on the ground floor which is largely 17th and 18th-century monstrosities of flabby cherubs, naked musclemen adorned by wisps of gauze, the endless rape of Sabine women in overwrought gilded frames, the saving graces being the medieval works including fascinating portraits of the Dukes of Burgundy. It wasn’t til I got to the top floor that I found the far more interesting 20th century works but bizarrely it was chucking out time at 11.37am which was a little mysterious.

Train delays meant I missed my connection in Lausanne on the way to Geneva though I only arrived 45 minutes later than intended. I must remember never to trust Google maps (I always seem to forget this) as I fannied around for ages outside Geneva station trying to find the street of the hotel, only to find Google maps had the name wrong.

“Hotel” Gervais is actually more like a hostel than a hotel: very basic, cheaply furnished small room with shared loo and shower (that’s fine) but plagued by the sound of air conditioning units across the street and the rattle and clang of trams at the nearby main road, but as it was so hot the windows had to stay open.

Geneva station

Strolled up Lake Geneva in the 33 degree heat to the water spout and up the jetty where you are finely sprayed when the light wind changes direction, which was welcome in the heat. The one bonus of the hotel was a free transport ticket so I hopped on a bus up to the gardens which were cool, tranquil and beautiful with tall pines, water features and shaded pathways.

Checked out some eating places which were wildly expensive and was beginning to despair of finding anything other than bars where the entire clientele looked like they'd walked out the pages of American Psycho, all shiny suits, shoulder pads and designer handbags.
Water spout

However, experience dictates that backs of stations are often a good bet to explore for the more rough-and-ready end of life, and I struck lucky. Place Des Grottes is a rowdy crowded square where everyone was enthusiastically drinking and eating local cheese and meats from huge sharing platters, happily sitting in the road and being served wine from barrels. You could never imagine such a scene in Britain other than it being accompanied by the watchful eyes of police and moaning neighbours. I had a glass of wine, paid in Euros, received change back in Swiss Francs and thought I was being ripped off for not getting Euros. Whoops. I felt such a berk not to be aware that Switzerland’s not in the Euro!

After the food and drink vendors packed up and the square cleared, 
I followed my nose and came upon my holy grail of drinking: 
La Galerie is the perfect old men's bar where geezers argued loudly with wild gesticulations and knocked each other's drinks over, one appeared in army fatigues and bellowed 'vive la revolution!' at every lull in the conversation, and another shirtless man bore a Kalashnikov tattooed diagonally across his back. It was like a more extreme version of Brighton's Evening Star, except with biere Blanche and an evening hot enough to sit outside.

Day 3 Geneva - Turin

Friday 5th

Hopped on a tram and spent the morning exploring Geneva old town, then took a lunchtime train to Turin. I’d chosen to stop in Geneva for the spectacular views on the train line down to Italy and they didn’t disappoint. Past lakes, through snow-capped mountains and lush green valleys with a great collapsing warehouse on the riverside at Bellegarde, on a slightly more convoluted journey than I’d originally planned, changing via Chambery and Oulx, arriving at Turin Porta Nueva late afternoon.

Walked the bank of the Po in Turin which lives up to its name aromatically. And is there any city in Italy which doesn't have swathes of town planning and architecture designed to glorify Mussolini? The restaurants along the Piazza Vittorio Veneto are touristically priced so I cut into a side street and came upon a quiet square with tables sheltered under broad trees and enjoyed a triple shot of Campari with a prosecco top up which set me up rather nicely. Feeling very smug about speaking pidgin Italian, which I'd picked up from three weeks reading a teach yourself book, but the basics seemed to work well enough.
For a full picture set, go to my Flickr site

Candle lit demo
Needless to say there followed an evening of bar hopping, taking in Bar Blah, a lively rock bar, then in a darkened back street chancing upon a semi-derelict warehouse with a dance floor and a group of Angolan capoeira performers, encountering a loud and lively street demo of candle-holding marchers protesting about what appeared to be education cuts and ending at a likely-looking bar with an array of dozens of beers in the fridge where you simply helped yourself and paid at the counter. Most of the clientele were students, all drinking out in the street, but nobody pinched any drinks, nobody acted like an arse, and nobody called the police to complain about the noise. Yet another refreshing change to the drinking environment we’re used to. Guess our lack of tradition of street culture means nobody knows how to do it properly. That and the curse of Fosters and vodka with Red Bull.

Bologna by night

Day 4 Turin - Bologna

Saturday 6th

Breakfast of double espresso and freshly squeezed orange juice at a pavement cafe then hopped on a tram (trams are so civilised!) to Piazza San Giovanni with a terrific exhibition of Tamara de Lempicka at the Palazzo Chiablese, contextualised by extensive photos and film.

Quick beer - a molto piccolo of 2cl with a somewhat “generous” head hence very quick indeed - then failed in my plan to pick up the No.7 historic tram which trundles through the gardens and down to Porta Susa station. I waited almost an hour getting irritable at the tram stop just to find it was re-routed so I huffily walked instead. A temperature sign informed me it was 40 degrees so that called for another beer by the station.

Dull train ride through semi-industrial hinterlands of sheds and suburbs, but arriving in Bologna was a delight. I was welcomed effusively by the host at the place I was staying, AB Studios, which I was delighted to find  was decorated like a tart’s boudoir and just two minutes’ walk to the Old Town.

Le Stanze
Colonnade, Bologna
I loved Bologna - definitely a must to come back and spend more time exploring its twisty back streets, historic colonnades, tiny bars and very lively atmosphere. Thanks to a tip from a friend I went to Le Stanze, a church-like bar with walls painted to look like frescoes. The aperitivo buffet is a staple feature of early evening life, where you pay a Euro and help yourself, though to my eyes there wasn’t a Euro's worth of anything veggie there anyway. Next stop a lively pizzeria in a buzzing square where I had a most curious “white pizza” - essentially a pizza base with salad chucked on it. The added “piquante” sauce I liberally splashed around was a bit of an error though, as combined with the heat of the evening, it left my head sweating profusely. 

Backstreet Bologna

What are the chances of bumping into people from Hurstpierpoint and also finding you have a mutual acquaintance though? After a very pleasant conversation and exchange of Facebook contacts I went for a wander to see the leaning tower of Bologna and found half a bottle of Bacardi special reserve in the street (who mentioned hepatitis? Fie!) So that was nice.

Street life in Bologna is lively, to say the least: hundreds of people gathered in the square, chatting, drinking, playing music, a couple of cops hanging around nonchalantly but nobody causing trouble, being moved on or complaining about the noise. The old town is car-free at weekends too apparently, so I must return as there’s definitely much more to experience.

Day 5 Bologna - Bari

Sunday 7th

Sunday was a leisurely morning spent wandering down to the station for  a seven hour journey to Bari on the east coast and an overnight ferry to Albania. The carriage was almost unbearably sweltering. I fell into conversation with another passenger, Terezia, and when the guard announced that there were actually some air-conditioned carriages, we ensconced ourselves in a cool compartment for the remainder of the journey, managing to make myself understood reasonably well in Italian, combined with plentiful hand gestures.

Terrific journey trundling down the Adriatic coast, and one of the real pleasures of train travel as the scenery and architecture changes. Bari is on the “heel” of Italy, and consists of little more than the port and a bus depot, though actually getting to the ferry seems an unnecessarily complicated process.

Bari port

You have to take the 20/ bus - the “/” is important as the plain old No.20 goes somewhere altogether different - then I made the mistake of getting off somewhere looking remarkably port-like with a couple of other people, just to find it closed (OK, I should have asked) and then had to walk fifteen minutes to the pedestrian terminal, the wheels on my suitcase now decidedly wonky after the beating of the past few days on hot cobbles.

Once at the terminal a minibus appears to take you to yet another terminal, where you convert your paper ticket into a proper one. I asked the woman in the kiosk where to go next and she waved a vague hand toward the road. I waited thirty minutes not knowing exactly what I should be looking for, asked again where I should go, and this time she directed me back to the minibuses which then take you back to the place they initially picked you up, which turned out to be the actual ferry terminal. Quite why it involves so much to-ing and fro-ing is a bit of a mystery.

Ferry 'cross the Adriatic
Anyway, I was finally ensconced on the ferry and had a “luxury” room with a loo and shower, which was very welcome after the long train journey.

I appeared to be the only non-Albanian on board, with families camped down on blankets in the stairways, truck drivers snoozing in chairs in the bar and men smoking furiously on deck while the women stayed inside guarding bags and children. 

Next post: Albania

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Monday, October 19, 2015


Brighton to Albania by Train - Days 6-12 Tirana, Albania

Day 6 - Albania
Monday 7th June

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

The first question everyone asked me was Why are you going to Albania?" That's simple - as a child I used to love listening to Radio Tirana's propaganda broadcasts after they'd fallen out with the Eastern Bloc, proclaiming in a screechy voice that "The tractor production has risen by 150%!" or denouncing "the capitalist lackeys of the Soviet Union" so it seemed like an interesting place to go. The second question was "Where is Albania?" That's easy too - it's over the Adriatic from Italy, and nestled between Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

So here I was finally in Albania. Very smooth overnight ferry trip from Italy, then a crammed and stinky bus ride from Durres ferry terminal, a terrifying taxi ride through Tirana, and finally ensconced myself in an apartment on the 8th floor with a balcony view over the rooftops out to Mount Dajti, taking coffee to the sound of honking car horns and wailing sirens. The apartment was actually a two-bedroom one, and it was good to be able finally to unpack, spread out a bit and finally get my whiffy clothes washed.

My first step was to get some Lek to buy food and beer so I strolled the few minutes down to Skanderbeg Square, a broad plaza flanked by the National Museum and Opera House, a mosque in one corner and  a statue of national hero Skanderbeg atop his horse in the centre. It’s a challenge to see if you can spot the difference between the Mussolini era architecture and the Communist period: both favoured wide straight boulevards and brutalist monumental architecture so characteristic of the Eastern Bloc. What the earthquakes didn't manage to destroy of Albania's Ottoman heritage, Mussolini and Hoxha did.

I quickly learned to cross the road Albanian style (head down and hope for the best; traffic may or may not stop) and spotted a poster for a dance performance at the Albanian National Theatre so picked up a ticket for £2.50.

Albanian feast
Back to the apartment and stocked up on huge tomatoes, bulbs of wet garlic, fresh basil and amazing cherries from the market just a few minutes down the road, a real feast for £6 including a bottle of Albanian wine and some local beers. I stopped for a beer at the market and got chatting with a guy in German, who’d worked in the GDR during the communist era. He was the first of many people to express curiosity about why I’d chosen to visit Albania on holiday, and on my own as well.

The dance performance was quite an experience, in a building apparently constructed in 1940 to honour Mussolini. The spoken narrative of the performance was of course lost on me, something about a relationship between a woman and a man and their good and evil sides, with occasional descent into cliche, such as the man "playing" the woman like a cello, but the dance performance was powerfully physical,  and the audience thought nothing of clapping throughout and taking flash photos. There was an amusing episode at the end when an unfortunate young woman tasked with handing flowers to the performers ran frantically on and offstage as the performers moved back and forth to take their curtain calls, attempting to fling their bouquets at them then hurriedly retreating, at one point having to duck quickly to avoid the swinging boom of a TV camera.

Day 7
Tuesday 8th

Another trip to the market to stock up on more veg, and picked up lovely fresh bread from a hole-in-the-wall bakery near the apartment, where the young woman who spoke excellent English, translated while the other staff insisted I marry their son and take him to England.
Had breakfast in a cafe nearby and I fell into conversation with a young man with excellent English, again baffled by why I was visiting Albania. He was an engineer at the waterworks, but sadly could see no future for himself in his country. This was a theme I was to hear repeatedly: lack of opportunities, a country barely out of decades of being closed off from the outside world and an economy just chugging along. Of course all the things that I loved about the country: fantastic scenery, warm friendly people, great food, fascinating history and so on, count for nothing if you want to make your way in life.

The day’s plan was to do the rounds of Tirana, taking in Enver Hoxha's pyramid, the Martyr's Cemetery and other communist-era sites. I started by strolling down the River Lana to the Youth Park, then past the heavily-fortified Russian Embassy to the pyramid.

Enver Hoxha's pyramid

Memorial to Communist Isolation 
Enver's pyramid is an incredible display of arrogance, but what a thing it is! It’s totally dilapidated now, covered in graffiti and smashed up with broken paving stones and creeping weeds. Intended as Hoxha’s mausoleum, it was at one point a TV studio, and it'd make a great gig venue, though the city is apparently deciding what to do with it.

Enver Hoxha's house

Hoxha’s house is nearby, an anonymous 1950s block, as well as a park commemorating that era with a section of the Berlin wall, Hoxha's bunker lid and part of a prison camp. There feels like an ambivalent attitude toward buildings and artefacts of the Communist era, which of course as a tourist are fascinating, but for many constitute a painful reminder of a dark era.

Mother Albania, National Martyrs Cemetery 

The Martyr's Cemetery is a couple of miles out of town via a wide boulevard leading to Mother Teresa Square, past the sports stadium and up a hill with a horrible dual carriageway, but once you get there it's amazing: up crumbling steps to find sweeping views over the city, surmounted by a huge statue of Mother Albania. The cemetery  commemorates the partizans who died fighting the Nazis when they invaded Albania, most of whom lost their lives in their twenties. It’s a quiet peaceful place for contemplation away from the noise and bustle of Tirana, and a reminder of Albania’s complex and often bloody history. 

National Martyrs Cemetery 

On the way back I found a brewery, Lilishte 1 Maji, which produces just one beer, brewed in the Czech pilsner style, and best of all it's £1 a pint.

Hotel Dajti

I returned home via Hotel Dajti, which was the main Communist hotel, forbidden to ordinary Albanians and only foreigners allowed to stay there, now falling into dilapidation. Peering through the fence, I spotted a statue of Stalin, and going round the block, found it along with others of Lenin and a partizan tucked around the back of the National Art Gallery, hidden from view.

To see more photos, go to my Flickr photoset.
Communist statues

Day 8

Wednesday 9th

Mount Dajti cable car
Covering an awful lot of mileage in ol' Tirana town. From my balcony, apart from the higgledy-piggledy blocks, ramshackle roofs, satellite dishes and water barrels, I had a view directly over to the Dajti Mountain a few miles out of town. It's often cloud-shrouded, not at the top but below the summit, and is frequently hazy which is probably due to the pollution.

Revolving bar and cable car stop, Mt Dajti

But there is a cable car running up it so today seemed like as good a day as any to go. I spent at least an hour trying to work out how to get to it on foot. The guide book said it was at the end of a particular street, which it clearly wasn't but all other info advised to get a bus or taxi. Sod that. The bus is only 15p but it's the principle, and walking is part of exploring a strange place.

Abandoned building, Mount Dajti
After two hours of getting lost, hiking in searing heat up mountain roads with pavements that were just rubble, having to head back down again, asking questions in pidgin Italian with lots of hand gestures and finally making a completely different turning, I realised the advice about getting a taxi was probably sound. But hey - I got there in the end and it was worth it.

It's twenty minute almost noiseless glide over lush green mountainsides, farmland and water where you can hear the birds singing, ducks quacking and gunshots (not shooting people, but birds and ducks, and probably anything else that is furred or feathered). There are parts where it runs almost vertically and it's definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights. At the top there's a hotel with a revolving bar where I was the only customer and the waitress spent the entire time vigorously polishing anything with a vaguely hard surface (it was all extremely shiny) then I ventured out onto the mountain where the cloud had now descended. To my delight a bit further up I came upon yet another abandoned Communist hotel, with bas-reliefs of uniformed children, again falling to dereliction, but quite fascinating and definitely not mentioned in the guide book.

National Art Gallery

Partizan statue
Back down in the cable car and to town on foot (an hour when you know the way) and to the Albanian National Gallery. This housed an exhibition by artist Seli Shijaku, mainly portraits from the 50s to the 80s of partizans and people in traditional Albanian dress, and the gallery of Socialist Realism, with stirring images of heroic factory workers, more partizans and including pictures which had been officially blacklisted for being too "formalistic" or "pessimistic" or because the subject matter or person had fallen out of favour with the regime. Just £1 to get in, and I was the only person there. 

Day 9

Thursday 10th

With a heatwave of around 34 degrees forecast, it seemed an ideal day to get out of the city and maybe have a swim. I returned to Durres on the coast where the ferry arrives, an hour's bus ride (65p!) from Tirana. The man sitting next to me started up a conversation and told me how he'd fled from Albania with his brother thirty years ago, walking three nights, hiding by day and finally cutting the barbed wire to get into Yugoslavia. Both his father and grandfather, who were Montenegran, were imprisoned regularly by the Hoxha regime and his grandfather died in prison.

Partizan Memorial, Durres
Partizan, Durres

After being held in a Yugoslav jail for a while, they were granted asylum in Canada, where he now lives, but he is trying to wrest back his family's property which was siezed by the state. He returns to Albania periodically with his family but each time has to prove that the house he visits (where his cousin normally lives) is legally his, so he'd travelled to Tirana to get all the paperwork, which he showed me. He said he'd never come back to live as the regime is still too corrupt and a lot of it moves along on bribes.

Durres is rather attractive, with long beaches and warm sea, plenty of Roman remains including one of the biggest amphitheatres in the Balkans, and plenty of statues of partisans and, bizarrely, one of Tina Turner too.

Yep, it's Tina Turner

Radio bar

That evening back in Tirana I tried to hunt down the Hemingway Bar which was a recommended hangout, only to scour the backstreets and finally come upon it with a sign unhelpfully saying “Closed for a few days”. I wandered on and came to Birra te Kori, a basement bar with a blaring TV and a squat toilet (there are still quite a few of these to be found) which forced your face into a worrying proximity with a filthy mop and bucket, but at least the beer was good, Kosovan Peja at 60p a pint.

And then onwards to the Radio Bar on Ismael Qumali in the trendy Blokku area, once the sole preserve of the Communist elite and now thriving with bars. Radio is decked up with vintage radio sets, Hollywood portraits and, oddly, a picture of my chum ThomasTruax with his Hornicator. A large mojito was £2.50 with complimentary peanuts and mini focaccia, and I sat out in the back area for a couple of drinks, a very chilled and friendly place.

Albanian people continued to amaze me - everyone was so friendly and helpful, even when we were communicating in sign language or fractured Italian. People will always help where they can, and I didn’t encounter a single person being rude to anyone, or acting like an arse.

Day 10

Friday 11th

Friday was history day. I went to the National Historical Museum of Albania, situated in the wide boulevard in the city centre created by Mussolini when the Italians were ostensibly 'helping' Albania economically, but in reality gearing up for invasion.

National Museum of Albania

It starts off with fragments of Roman pots, figurines etc (though I was rather thrilled by the 'urn of tears' where you had to make a big show of crying for a deceased luminary, and gather tears as part of the funerary rite) then lots of reproductions of maps, dolls in national costume, Mother Teresa (yes she was part Albanian), a roomful of stamps and so on. And then you hit upon a most chilling room.

It's a space dedicated to the people imprisoned, tortured and killed under the Communist dictatorship, with bloodstained bullet-pocked shirts of those gunned down trying to cross the border, films of show trials and execution by firing squad, paltry artefacts owned by people imprisoned and executed such as spectacles, tobacco cases or locks of hair.

There are manacles, torture devices, items found in mass graves and pictures of many of those killed, including elderly women and Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic religious leaders. As you move on you reach the section on resistance to fascism - first the Italian invasion, then after their capitulation, German occupation. Again, bullet-holed clothes, descriptions of how each 'People's Hero' fought and died, though interestingly when you come to Enver Hoxha's coat and rifle, they refrain from describing him in that glowing way.

Reading the history of Albania, you see how it's been a political football for millennia, occupied by Rome, Greece, Byzantia, Serbia, the Ottomans, Italy, Germany and latterly under Soviet influence until they fell out, and how fluid the borders in the Balkans have been, with territorial disputes around Kosovo and Macedonia still fermenting, though Greece probably has other thoughts on its mind right now.

The  Museum did amaze me though, with its untapped opportunities to attract tourism. I wasn’t aware these exhibitions were there, and although on this occasion I wasn’t the only person there, it was very sparsely attended, which was a real pity.

Bunker in the cemetery

After that I took a hot, slow and pongy 15p bus ride out to the cemetery Varreza e Sharres since cemetery visits are de rigueur on holiday. The guide book says the graves are arranged chronologically and once you get in the right area, Enver Hoxha's brown grave is easy to spot, but they're crammed shoulder-to-shoulder and a) I'm buggered if I could make sense of the chronology as 2006 was next to 1965 and then 1991 and 2003 and b) half the graves are brown anyway. So I was just about to give up and escape the baking relentless sun on the hilltop when I came upon a bunker. In a graveyard! That wasn’t in the guide book. So that made it worth the trip as the bunkers are gradually being removed, apparently.

Tirana from the Sky Bar

As evening fell I visited the Sky Bar, a revolving bar which served the pokiest cocktails and offered amazing views over Tirana as the sun set.

Day 11

Saturday 12th

Shkodra mosque

First and last weekend in Albania - this time around, anyway. On Saturday I went to Shkodra, 120km north of Tirana, a £1.50 bus ride away on a rickety, creaking, plastic-seated 1980s German coach, partly to get out of town on a sweltering day, partly to check out the onward bus to Montenegro as that's the changing point for Monday's trip.

Abandoned, Shkodra

It's a pretty town if you ignore the high rise blocks that dominate the centre, overlooked by a Venetian and Ottoman castle, sat alongside a lake which shares a border with Montenegro, and a shiny new mosque glittering in the sunshine.

Saturday night back in Tirana, and as I was preparing for an evening bar-hopping, there was a knock at the apartment door. I opened it to find a family of three there. “We’re coming to stay,” they said. “Umm… No, I’m staying here…” I said, bemused, and went to fetch the booking paper to check I hadn’t screwed the dates up. “No, we are staying in the spare room,” they insisted. I got the landlord on the phone, and he breezily said “Oh yes, you’re not using it, so they can stay.” Ah well, the other room was an ensuite so they’d just be in there, I still had the run of the rest of it, and everyone had been so lovely to me that I let them in with a shrug and got on with it. It was all a bit odd though!

I found a bar where customers snorted Sambuca through strawers from a saucer. Classy. I got talking to two British tourists who'd just come in from Kososvo and were bemused by the Albanian bus service, which is a law unto itself, but I'd got used to that by now and took them to the Radio bar which was very buzzy now, for more cocktails. During the week there were no obvious tourists in evidence, but at the weekend it livened up, though people I talked with only seemed to be passing through Tirana for a day or so from Greece or Kosovo to get to Montenegro and Croatia, and they seemed surprised when I said I was there for a week and finding more than plenty to do.

Day 12

Sunday 13th

Sunday was scorching again so I took a chilled stroll up to Parku I Madh - literally "Big Park" - with its memorials to the German and Commonwealth forces who died in Albania in WW2. Coming down the hill though, I spotted something else not mentioned in the guide book. It was a large concrete structure, which at first I thought was an abandoned swimming pool and then turned out to be a huge amphitheatre, with crumbling concrete seats, graffiti and encroaching weeds. These Communist follies are fascinating - what do you do with such things when that era has passed and you want to move on? The huge mural on the National Museum and the many monuments remain, but I found these abandoned buildings and structures endlessly intriguing, and I guess the forces of time and nature are the ones that will decide their fate.

Communist amphitheatre, Parku I Madh

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Brighton to Albania by Train - Days 13 - 14 Ulcinj & Dubrovnik

Day 13 

Monday 14th June Albania - Ulcinj

Ulcinj bay from Dulcinea restaurant

What a glorious journey from Tirana into Montenegro. As there aren’t any trains, I took the bus from Tirana two-and-a-half hours north to Shkodra near the border (£1.50) on a road flanked by lush green mountains to the east and farmland all around, with dozens of empty newly-built houses and showrooms, or half-built then abandoned buildings along the way - not sure if it's a result of speculative construction which ran out of cash, or some kind of tax relief scam. Anyway, there's a lot of them about everywhere.

Time for a beer in Shkodra, then on a minibus to Ulcinj in Montenegro (€5). I couldn't figure out why a 35km trip should take an hour and a half until we got to the border where we sat boiling our heads in the bus for forty minutes listening to shockingly bad Albanian pop on the radio while the driver hung around having fags and kicking his heels waiting for the border guards to look at our passports.

Ulcinj bay
We snaked around the foot of the Albanian mountains then climbed into them as we reached Montenegro, through tunnels and rocky ravines, and along twisting vertiginous passes, all quite stunning.

I had one night in Ulcinj, in a room overlooking the bay in the old town, drinking Montenegran beer and wine in the Dulcinea restaurant attached to the apartment and being chewed by mosquitoes. 
Brutalist monument, Ulcinj

Ulcinj is basically three-quarters of a basin, with a beach at the bottom, and if you want to go anywhere you have to go up.... And up... Then up a bit more... Then down a bit... And more up. But it's very beautiful and hot and humid, and the Montenegran wine seemed to improve after breathing a bit, although the local brandy may be an acquired taste.

To see more photos, go to my Flickr photoset.

Day 14

Tuesday 15th Ulcinj - Dubrovnik 


And so the last two days of the Grand Tour were in Dubrovnik, somewhere I've not been since the 70s but Rather A Lot has happened there in the intervening years.

A five and a half hour bus journey up from Ulcinj in Montenegro with quite the stroppiest driver and his sidekick you'd (n)ever wish to meet: overtaking on blind bends as we thundered round rocky mountain passes, shouting at passengers at every opportunity, and generally offering service with a snarl.

Our trip was spectacular though, via cloud-shrouded verdant mountains, over bridges crossing deep ravines, and snaking around the twisting coastline with views down to rocky bays and the almost luminous blue waters of the Adriatic.


As we approached Dubrovnik, roofless and partially destroyed buildings became apparent. The war of '91-95 is ever-present, and I went to not one but three photographic exhibitions dealing with it.

It's in contrast to Albania, where their past seems to be put in a box labelled "The Past" until they decide what to do with it, while the attack on Dubrovnik appears very much to be part of the contemporary consciousness.

Dubrovnik harbour

Display, Fort Srd
I took a cable car up to the steep hillside overlooking Dubrovnik and visited the Napoleonic fort Srd where the defenders of the old city (a UNESCO heritage site at the time, so they thought it would be safe) fought the attacks coming from sea, land and air. It houses an exhibition of photographs, documents, weaponry and other artefacts from the siege. The plight of the civilians caught up in it was very moving, and it felt shocking that such a conflict could occur in the late 20th century in Europe.

The place I stayed in was lovely, with views up to the hillside and fort, and after doing the touristy rounds I felt almost ready to head back to Blighty now. Lots of lovely places and people, and Albania was brilliant - I really want to go back and I'd really recommend it as an untouristy place with fantastically friendly people and a fascinating history, and - I'd hope - a good future.

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