Bunkers, jokers colour Albanian road trip

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      "Bandits!" my Czech friend told me.

      "Robbers!" the Canadian Foreign Affairs Web site warned.

      "Why can't you go to a normal place like Disneyland?" my mother sighed, for the umpteenth time.

      I was more than a little concerned about my plan to embark on a road trip across the little-known nation of Albania. But what I experienced there completely changed my preconceived notions of this Balkan country.

      Albania is tucked away in southeastern Europe, along the Adriatic Sea. Three-and-a-half-million people live in a country that is roughly the size of Vancouver Island.

      The country has had its fair share of political troubles. At the end of the Second World War, the communists took power. Over the years, alliances with the Soviets and Chinese crumbled, and dictator Enver Hoxha decided to go it alone, creating a hermit kingdom. He outlawed religion, banned foreign influences, and closed the country off from the rest of the world.

      Like those of other eastern-bloc countries, Albania's communist system collapsed more than a decade ago. An even worse economic disaster followed when nationwide pyramid schemes fell apart, leaving many people with nothing. At the same time, the horrors were going on next door in Kosovo, leading to a refugee crisis in already desperately poor Albania.

      It was a cloudless day as I prepared to enter Albania, the warm Mediterranean sun somewhat easing my worries. Travelling with some friends in a rented van, we approached the country from the Macedonian town of Sveti Naum. An outdated border marker signalled the official crossing at Qafíƒ « Thana; according to the marker, we were leaving Socialist Yugoslavia and entering Socialist Albania-neither of which exists.

      Rounding a bend, a barrier across the road stopped us. To the right there was a worrisome pit of liquid marked "Disinfection", and a truck scale. A watchtower loomed overhead. A large Albanian flag fluttered ominously with its black, double-headed eagle on a blood-red background.

      A border official indicated that I should exit the vehicle. This is when the first surprise occurred. Everyone was friendly. One official offered to take my group's picture with my camera. Another laughed as he suggested that I could hop on the truck scale and check my weight. I wasn't sure if I should be offended. Perhaps Albanians have a time-honoured tradition of guessing a visitor's weight.

      The officials stamped our passports, and we went on our way, driving north along Lake Ohrid toward the capital, Tirana (pronounced much like Canadians pronounce that big Ontario city, Tee-rannah).

      The state of the roads was my second surprise-they weren't goat tracks. Indeed, the main highway leading to the capital has been recently rebuilt. (Thank you, European Union!)

      A few kilometres from the border, we stopped at the Tirana Bank to change some euros to lek. This is where I learned that Albanians don't like to stand in line. More than once, a local jumped ahead of me in the queue. Finally, the bank manager came over, apologized, and chastised the last woman who had dared to sneak in front of me. Don't take it personally, he seemed to indicate; it's a Balkan thing.

      We continued our drive, spotting something we had expected to see dotting the landscape. One thing you hear about Albania is the bunkers. During the Hoxha era, the country suffered from a severe bunker mentality. More than 750,000 concrete pillboxes were built across the land to defend the increasingly paranoid regime. Today they serve as forts for children or storage sheds for farmers.

      On the way to Tirana, the highway snakes over the Krraba Mountains. On the other side, we had a chuckle as we passed through the small town of Mullet. I had always thought hockey hair was a product of Abbotsford.

      Once in Tirana, we needed to make our way to our hotel, located about 12 kilometres from the centre on Mount Dajti. To reach it, we had to drive across the city of half a million at the height of rush hour. I was struck by the number of Mercedeses on the road. Later, when I returned to the city on the hotel shuttle, I met a chatty Albanian fellow named Tommy. I asked him about all the Benzes. He explained that many Albanians work abroad and send money home to their families. Older Mercedeses are relatively inexpensive, and everyone wants a car that can take the punishment dished out by the brutal side roads that will never see a euro for needed repairs.

      I set off to explore the heart of Tirana, and of Albania, Skanderbeg Square. It's named after the great Albanian hero who defended the country's freedom in the 15th century. The giant plaza is a mishmash of cars and pedestrians, and even has a Ferris wheel. It is framed by the 18th- century Et'hem Bey Mosque, a 35-metre-high clock tower, and a commanding statue of Skanderbeg himself. The gigantic National History Museum sits at one end of the square, covered in a mural depicting Albanians triumphing over historical foes.

      Wandering about, I had to be careful not to step in the open manholes. Across the city, many covers have been pilfered for their scrap-metal value-creating a hazard for ped?estrians and cars alike. More than once, I saw a group of people help out a motorist who had driven over and gotten a wheel stuck in an open manhole. I did discover that the open holes in Skanderbeg Square provide a nice view into the complexities of the Albanian waterworks.

      The hot spot in Tirana is an area known as the Block. It's where communist apparatchiks lived in the bad old days. Ol' Enver had his house in the centre of the block, surrounded by the opulent homes of all his ass-kissing cronies. Today, this is where the nightlife happens.

      Tirana has a great vibe. Part of the credit goes to its forward-thinking mayor, Edi Rama, who is also an artist. He had a brilliant idea to improve the city by painting its ugly Stalinist structures with bright colours. Everywhere you look, buildings are splashed with bright greens, oranges, blues, and yellows. Despite the despotism, the financial collapse, the high crime rate-everything-Tirana remains a place full of wonder and hope.

      It is a unique experience to visit a country that has gone from being a hermit kingdom to one embracing capitalism. The rest of Europe may look down its collective nose at what it regards as a backward nation, but the Albanians will have the last laugh. Those I met were warm, friendly, and only too happy to welcome visitors. The nation definitely has a long road ahead, but there is little doubt that it will become a stable and vibrant partner in the New Europe.

      The time to visit is now. If you feel you missed the boat on Prague and the Baltic nations before they became stops on the Lonely Planet trail, Albania should move to the top of your must-see list. -

      ACCESS: Most information about Albania contains warnings about personal safety. No matter where you travel, you should always keep your guard up-but not to the point of being afraid of everyone you meet. Albania is a poor country and there are desperate people who will take advantage of the unaware tourist. However, this can also happen in Canada. If you're considering visiting Albania, you are likely an experienced traveller.

      The latest country report is available through the Canadian Foreign Affairs Web site at www.voyage .gc.ca/. Canadians can obtain a 90-day tourist permit upon arrival for í¢”š ¬10.

      Tirana is served by air by a number of international airlines including Austrian, Turkish, Olympic, and Alitalia. Albania's main roads are in good to excellent condition. Secondary roads vary greatly. Visit the National Tourist Board Web site at www .albaniantourism.com/.